By: Sharon Aron Baron
Last June, two Coral Springs teachers and Broward County Politicians, sold everything and started a new life as retirees and expatriates when they moved to Panama.
Former Broward County School Board Member, David Thomas, and his wife Cindy, who sat on the Broward Soil and Water Conservation District, were teachers at J.P. Taravella High School in Coral Springs where David taught AP Psychology and Cindy taught AP American History. David, who stepped down as School Board Member in 2011 after his wife Cindy had health issues, continued teaching until they retired this year.
This is the first installment of life as expats by Cindy Thomas to give others a first-hand realistic look at what life is really like living in another country.
The Price of Living in Boquete Panama
Anyone would find it difficult to find a more beautiful place to live than this small town in western Panama. Fresh air, green, cool temperatures, picturesque mountains and a dormant volcano. It’s about an hour to the beach and less to ‘city’ shopping. In less than two hours by car, you can visit Costa Rica. A 45 minute plane ride brings you to an international airport and the rest of the world.
Panama is safer than most of the US, but if you act like you just fell off the turnip truck, you will be scammed, and the biggest scammer very well may be your tour director who told you that you will live like royalty on your Social Security check.”- Cindy Thomas
In the last two weeks, we have seen two different groups of people coming through Boquete on an organized sales tour. The objective of the tour was to sell the tourists land in Boquete. If we saw two groups, there were probably several more that we did not see. We were at the same restaurant as one of the tour groups so we could overhear what the participants were being told. Long story short: America is going downhill fast, everyone speaks Spanish and Boquete is a cheap place to leave it all behind. What did the tour group organizers leave out?
Housing in Panama
Boquete isn’t the cheap oasis you hear about. Housing is expensive and buying is often more costly than a similar home in my hometown of Coral Springs. People will tell you that you can buy a two bedroom home for $50,000, and you can live very well on Social Security or less. That is, If you want to live in a Panamanian home and live far from an established town.
A low cost typical Panamanian home is small, maybe 500-600 square feet. For $200-300 a month, you won’t get much: No king-sized bed. No couch, love seat, television or tables in the living room. The kitchen will be one four foot counter that includes a two burner stove and dorm size refrigerator.
There will be no hot water in your sinks, or screens on your windows. No cable TV and no internet. If you pay less, you may get a room with a shared toilet area. If you move up to the $400 range, you may get a suicide shower for hot water. A suicide shower is a shower that has a heating element in the head of it. It has exposed wires that come from the back of the shower and are attached directly to your home’s electrical wiring system. When you turn on the water it passes through the heating element and gives you “hot water” on demand.
All of these things are completely dependent on how close you are to town. More people are renting in Boquete so availability of properties and the costs are rising significantly.
Other rental units are available and can run up to the $2000+ range. For this you get a gated community and all the amenities you would expect in an exclusive area in the States. They have golf, great restaurants, club houses and full-time gardeners.
Cars and Food Costs
Cars cost about the same as in the States but gas is more expensive, about $4.17 for regular. Gas prices are determined by the government and currently the cost is $1.08 per liter. Car insurance is about half what we paid in Florida. Many people rely on the bus and taxis. Both are cheap and available unless you live on the outskirts where availability is not reliable.
Food is inexpensive and we are saving about a third on our grocery bill. Thankfully, there are no “fast food” restaurants in town so if you eat at those types of restaurants, your diet will be healthier. Eating out can be cheap or pricey depending where you go.
Activities and Entertainment
There are an enormous selection of activities in Panama for retirees. Visitors to Boquete go rafting, zip lining, kayaking, or rent ATVs. They run about $75 or more for each activity. Eighteen holes of golf run about $80 and less and there are clubs and organizations for every interest. Most are run by expats and the cost is free to very inexpensive and they are very grateful if you’d like to volunteer hours. When we want to see a movie, we must drive to the town of David, and unless you are fluent in Spanish, the selections are limited to the ones that have Spanish subtitles and audio in English. The cost is around $2.50 and first-run movies are shown.
Internet and cable are dicey depending on the provider available in the area you may live. Close to town, it is good and affordable. Further up the mountains it is best to check as those services quickly become expensive and unreliable.
It is good and less expensive than in the U.S. but it is not free. If you wind up in the hospital for a few days, it gets expensive. Medicare is not accepted here and prescriptions are costly. Don Ray Williams has lived in Panama for ten years and recently wrote about this topic. in his blog, Chiriquí Chatter. We are lucky to have Tricare as David is retired from the Navy. That is not the rule.
Change in Lifestyle
Panama reminds me of growing up in South Florida in the 1950s. Children walk in the rain and don’t rely on mom’s mini-van. Most Panamanian kids don’t have cell phones and are not attached to Gameboys or other electronics. People, including children, make eye contact, greet and speak to you.
The for-profit tour companies, which are almost American owned and operated are doing their clients a huge disservice. They pawn themselves as “Explore Panama” groups, but turn into high pressure sales. There are cheaper places to live in the States where services are available and there’s no communication barrier. These same tour companies should be promoting a change in lifestyle. That would be honest, but not as profitable. What they should be saying: Things are slower here – tranquilo. Repairs are seldom perfect but they are “good enough”. Road hazards mean that you must pay attention and change lanes to avoid it or wait, as there won’t be a half a mile of orange warning cones and blinkers. Watch where you are walking. Learn Spanish. This isn’t the US or Canada. Don’t expect water and electricity all the time. Manana doesn’t mean tomorrow, it means ‘maybe sometime in the future’.
Many people only live here a few months a year, not full-time. You can no more change a culture than move a mountain with a teaspoon.
Should You Move or Retire to Another Country?
The most popular advice from people who have lived here is to rent at least six to twelve months before buying. We’ve only lived here permanently for three months and have already seen new permanent residents come, find a place to live and now they have already left.
I’ve also heard more than once “if you need a group tour to escort you to a foreign country, expatriating may not be for you.” I don’t know if that’s true, but the typical expat here is extremely well-traveled. They have been to London, Paris and Rome but have also been to Turkey, China, and India. They are independent and fearless travelers who love to experience different cultures.
Panama is safer than most of the US, but if you act like you just fell off the turnip truck, you will be scammed, and the biggest scammer very well may be your tour director who told you that you will live like royalty on your Social Security check.