We are now in our 10th month of living the expat life in Panama. It seems like a good time to reflect on what we’ve learned. Did we prepare enough? Do we have any regrets? And what does the future hold? For our family and friends and especially folks following in our footsteps, we’ll try to answer some of these questions. Here’s some insight into our experience so far as Panama expats.
Home is Where You Hang Your Hat
A few weeks ago, as I drove Susan down to David early to catch a flight back to Austin for some family time, she said to me as she looked out at the beautiful Chiriqui countryside, “Finally, I feel really at home here!” (Boy…was I relieved to hear that!) For me, Panama started to feel like home when we returned from our first border run in July, and especially after returning from the States after this past Thanksgiving. I don’t really miss much about life in the U.S. except for Susan’s great family and our wonderful friends. Well, and maybe Oregon pinot noir and Trader Joe’s! I feel relaxed and at peace here, living the tranquilo life.
Not everyone reaches this comfort zone; in fact, the percentage of expats that don’t last a year in Panama is pretty high. It all depends on what you’re looking for and how you define “home.” Susan and I had an advantage in that we’d already spent three years traveling in Latin America aboard our sailboat, carrying our home with us. We realized how few creature comforts we need to keep us happy, and how experiencing different cultures – the good and the bad – can broaden your outlook. Gringos that come down here expecting to build a life just like the one they had in the “old country” are in for a rude surprise, but isn’t traveling all about new experiences and expanding your horizons?
If home is a place where you feel safe, secure, comfortable, and loved, then we’ve definitely come home to Panama.
90% Preparation, 10% Perspiration
We continue to be amazed when we hear of folks that pack up their 40-foot containers and ship down all of their earthly possessions without a real understanding of what life is like here (and sometimes having never visited here before). We believe we’ve had an easy transition because we did our homework and made several visits here before finally making the move. We also tapped into other blogs and learned from folks that had paved the way for us (thank you The Panama Adventure, Let the Adventure Begin, and Chapter 3.)
As for the move itself, many months of research and planning paid off with a fairly simple process. The things we worried about the most – getting rid of our stuff and moving our dogs down – fell right into place.
Never Say Never
The expat lifestyle is all about flexibility. For instance, we always swore we’d only rent housing and never buy – but we never expected the Boquete rental market to be so tight. On the advice of some of our best friends here, we made the plunge and bought a house in November. Yes, it felt soon, but (see Home is Where You Hang Your Hat) we didn’t need much time to realize that we’d landed in the right spot. For us, the pros far outweighed the cons: no more throwing away money on rent, dealing with landlords, or having to look for the next place when the lease is up. And we’re really enjoying painting and fixing up our new home; we just replaced the front door and soon we’ll have a rebuilt kitchen.
And after we lost our sweet Maggie to a snake bite, we swore we’d not get another dog. But if you’ve been following our blog, you know that we have a new kid, Tango, a sweet, well-trained, and mannerly seven-year-old cocker spaniel. Tango has eased the pain of Maggie’s loss and filled our hearts with joy, and he’s brought our other dog Rosie back to her old mischievous self.
This is Panama
We norteamericanos can learn a lot from the Panamanians – how to chill out and go with the flow, and to never be in a hurry (for anything). Conducting any kind of official business here takes patience, persistence, and understanding. If we think a task will take one or two hours, we build in double the time and expect that everything won’t be completed in one trip. Case in point: because Panama has been trying to overcome its reputation as a tax haven, the banks are anxious to block money launderers; therefore, foreigners looking to open a bank account have to go through a rigorous approval process. We had to supply tax returns, bank statements, and letters of recommendation from two of our U.S. banks. After four separate visits totaling close to 11 hours sitting in the bank office, we finally got our coveted account. You would have thought we were borrowing money, not trying to give it to the bank!
On the flip side, the Panamanians are some of the most kind, generous and resourceful people we’ve ever come across and they’ll go out of their way to be helpful. An example: we were driving around in David trying to find Dekora, a company that makes steel doors and windows. Finally we stopped at a hotel and Susan (who speaks more Spanish then I do) asked for directions. A wonderful Panamanian lady said she had overheard and spoke English, and could she help? This lady not only called Dekora and got directions, but she hopped in the car with us and showed us where to go!
Another time, a big tree branch fell in the road, blocking it (traffic jam, Boquete-style!). No problem – several Panamanians got out of their cars with their machetes and in five minutes the limb was all hacked up and pushed to the side of the road. Back in the states it would have taken… oh, never mind.
Spanish is a Must
Don’t believe what certain expat relocation companies say – most Panamanians speak little or no English. You can probably get by without any Spanish, but your life will be so much easier – and your experience so much richer – if you learn some. We have a long way to go, but we’ve found that it hasn’t been that hard to pick up enough “survival
Spanish” to get by (especially for Susan, who’s a language buff). We’ve both benefited greatly from lessons with our tutor, Lisa Bruña, but lessons will only take you so far – you have to immerse yourself and try to use your Spanish on a daily basis. And it’s really true that if you at least try to speak some Spanish, the Panamanians are super appreciative and encouraging.
You’ll Find Everything You Need – and Then Some
Figuring out where to buy stuff was a daunting task at first. Like a lot of expats, we were relying on PriceSmart and the couple of large supermarkets in David for just about
everything. But soon, finding new sources for food and supplies became a fun voyage of discovery, and we’ve found some real gems that are off the beaten path. There’s the pork store, the beef store selling awesome aged beef (it’s called Su Carne or Your Meat, which cracks Susan up), tons of hardware stores, the Chinese groceries and kitchen supply stores, and of course the WINE SHOP, Felipe Mota – yea baby! Don’t forget the wonderful fresh produce stands galore. And just the other day, a truck driving around in our neighborhood was loud-speakering a bunch of Spanish words, one of which was “camarones” (shrimp). Turns out he was selling fresh-out-of-the-water shrimp at an amazing price!
Don’t Jump to Get Your Visa
Since we don’t qualify for a permanent “pensionado” (retiree) visa until I start collecting social security (in about a year and a half), we’re doing the mandatory border crossings every three months to keep our driver’s license valid and renew our tourist visas. It’s no big deal; in fact, our first two trips (described here and here) were enjoyable because we turned them into mini-vacations by crossing to Costa Rica at Rio Sereno, a gorgeous drive that takes about two hours from Boquete.
Even if we had qualified for pensionados when we first got here, we would have waited. We know newcomers who start the visa process right away, and some who even start it before they leave their home country. Honestly, it’s a time-consuming and expensive process, and our advice is to get your feet on the ground for a bit before you jump into the visa pool.
So…how do we feel? Except for the huge loss of our precious Maggie, we are in a good space and have adjusted well. Many times during the week we say to each other: LOOK Where We Are! We live in a visually stunning country, with incredible weather, warm and wonderful locals, fresh local foods, and many great expat friends. In a month, I’ll pass my one-year mark of retirement and it feels GREAT. We feel very blessed with our home sweet home, our pups and the beautiful nature that surrounds us!
Love ur updates
Thank you Carolyn!
Enjoyed your post John!
Thanks Julie… you and Reginald should come down for a visit!
Wow, hard to believe it has been that many months already, but also look at all you have done in less than a year. I am so happy that it’s working out so well for you 🙂 Like you said though, you have to be well prepared and enjoy the changes it will bring. Great post, and thanks for the mention.
Your very welcome Kris. Your advice and friendship has been invaluable!
A couple of years ago I was doing some research thinking about possibly doing a book about expatriation. One statistic I found extremely interesting from several sources, was that about HALF of everyone who expatriates for whatever reason, work, retirement, you name it, HALF return home within the first year.
I have friends in the States that say, “Oh, I’d like to do what you’re doing,” and I have to tell them, frankly, “You couldn’t. You don’t have the makeup for it.” Not to pat ourselves on the back, but those of us who are living here successfully, like Kris and Joel among others, are DIFFERENT. In general we don’t let things “get” to us. Type A personalities are almost doomed to failure moving to a place like Panama.
But you’re right about the Panamanian people. I’ve been here for over five years now and the ONLY one I’ve had any trouble with is the little twerp that lives next door. Fortunately I rent and will be moving into a new place in March. Still here in Boqueron, though.
Very true Richard. Thanks!
Wonderful update, John! I’m so glad you and Susan have found your happy place.
What a wonderful post, thank you so much for sharing your experience to move to Panama. I can imagine it must be tough at the beginning. It is inspiring story!!
Oh about learning Spanish, I have been trying to master Spanish language and it is hard! I wish I get a miracle and wake up to be able to speak Spanis fluently 😀
I think one of the biggest problems expats have learning a new language, whatever it may be, is that they feel if they aren’t able to speak fluently that somehow they’ve failed. Not true in my opinion. At our age I honestly believe that the goal of “fluency” is unattainable. Instead of aiming for fluency set your goals to becoming “PROFICIENT.”
By that I mean being able to walk into a bank, a business like Union Fenosa, go to Rey and pay your bills and do it in Spanish. It DOESN’T MATTER if you make mistakes. Just bungle on through. Get the job done.
One of the problems I see with so many expats and their battle with the language is that MOST of their time is spent with other English-speaking expats. I understand that. There’s a real comfort level there. And most of the expats have cars which lessens their contact with the natives, so to speak. You’re generally moving from one spot to another in your little box insulated from the Spanish-speaking population around you. I’ve “gone native” sort of. The places I’ve lived the last four years NOBODY ELSE speaks English. In my last neighborhood of about a dozen families only three of them had cars.
Not having a car myself I ride the buses everywhere. I don’t always end up talking to the other passengers (most of whom are busy texting away on their phones and not even talking to each other) but many times I’ve had a Panamanian sit down next to me and ask if they can practice their English with me. I LOVE when that happens.
Oh, one last thing. NEVER, EVER, walk into a store or business here and say “Does anybody here speak English?” At LEAST learn the phrase, “Lo siento, yo no hablo español bien.” (I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish well.) The attitude of the people you have to deal with will be perceptibly friendlier.
Very good points Richard. I am happy with the basics for now. The result of my just trying to speak Spanish with the locals always brings a smile to their faces. Some attempt is much better then no attempt in my mind!
Thank you so much for inspiring and motivating notes! It has never been easy for me to learn European languages – and it always take extra works, from grammar mindset to pronunciation. I enjoyed the learning process so far – its ups and downs.
Thanks Indah. If there was a way to wake up and know Spanish in the morning I will take one of those pills too!
Hahaha, I am in too! 🙂
Great post John. I love it, a fellow TJ’s (Trader Joe’s) junkie. When we became serious about expating, By said to me, “They don’t have a TJ’s in Panama!” True enough. But when we lived on Kauai we embraced the local life. We are firm believers that life is an echo, what you call out returns — most often three-fold.
Absolutely agree with Old Salt about being different. Both By & I have been ‘different’ all our lives and are richer because of it. Words to live by google “Digby Wolfe Kid’s Who Are Different.”
p.s. If you’re craving something non perishable from TJ’s, let me know and I’ll be more than happy to delivery it on March 6th!
Thanks Me Be. We look forward to meeting you both. Susan said you are Facebook messaging so she can let you know.
Are you moving here or checking it out?
Wow – 10 months! We have yet to meet but ironically, it was 4 years today since we passed through security at the Miami airport with 2 cats and have made this our home. We have no regrets although it has been an interesting journey – especially this past year. We did lose Ollie but he is with us – every day we talk to him out of our bathroom window.
Congrats and hope to officially meet you soon – this past year was hard but healing – neither of us can think of anywhere else we would want to live!
Thank you so much for this information. I am seriously thinking of moving there. I did one exploratory trip and liked what I saw in Boquete. I am continuing to do lots of research and your blog is full of invaluable information. Thanks again.
Hi Sherry, Thank you. Glad you are enjoying tour blog. You are doing all the right things should you decide this is the place for you. Good luck.
Well written and very detailed account of things that you have learned, and Boy! have you learned a lot. I really enjoyed this post.
Thanks, Deb. If anyone understands the transition to the expat lifestyle, you do!
Thanks for the great blog! I read every entry and it has kept me motivated. We retire at the end of this year and have so many things on the to-do-list! The drinks are on us when we arrive. ¡Hasta pronto!
Thank you. The time will fly by. We look forward to meeting you both and will take you up on that offer!
Hi John and Susan…nice little blog. Great meeting you in Boquete over Jazz fest (and thx again for the ride home that night!!!)Miss it already and hope to be back soon…Todd
Just started reading your blog, very interesting. Sorry to here about Maggie. Can you provide any information on health insurance in Panama. Is it something within reach of the average person? This seems to be on of the biggest issues moving to Panama. How did you handle it. Thanks Tom
Hi – glad you like the blog!
Health insurance is important here. Healthcare is a lot less expensive but it’s not free, especially for the best-quality care.
Last June we did a blog post describing how we’re handling it, at least for now:
Let us know if you have any questions!