Retirement Detectives

  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Helping you find your ideal place in the sun!

Authoritative, unbiased information about current and emerging retirement destinations.
First hand knowledge and experience.
The good. The bad. The bizarre.
Read more about us or contact us with questions!

Home Panama First Impressions Who do you believe? Conflicting opinions about Panama

Who do you believe? Conflicting opinions about Panama

E-mail Print PDF

This came in from a reader who is getting mixed messages about Panama. When you get conflicting reports, who do you believe? Roberto

I got this response from a friend of a friend who moved to Panama for a while. I am wondering what you think about these comments; particularly what she says about having to leave the country  for 2 weeks and the drug cartel.  Thanks, Gretchen

Also, does my Husband need to have a coat and tie with him during our visit?  Do some restaurants require this?
 Dear Vic,
We in fact bought a home in Boquete, Panama.  It was a gated beautiful community. At the time the issues were:
1.  Not seeing family as often.
2.  Could not speak the language (which although you can get by--I feel is a must when you are outside your "community".)
3.  At the time they had changed the visa rules---they changed it so that every three months you had to go back to your place of origin for 2 weeks before coming back in. This was a big problem for the older people that lived there.  Used to be you could just spend a weekend in Costa Rica and come back in.
The one thing I HIGHLY recommend is to NOT buy right away--just rent for a year to see how you like it.  Everyone told us to do that---but did we listen?  Hell No!  We were overcome with the beauty and bought right away.  It is beautiful in places but the poor are really poor and live in squaller.  We bought three years ago so many things might have changed.  The drug cartells are still running rampant and that can be very scary for an American.
Panama City itself is very "American" but very very congested.  Yes, you can live very cheaply there and medical is also cheap.  They just built a new state of the art hospital right in Panama City.
Anyway, they should try it out and at least check out the country.  I think I got chicken one day when we were out in the country and the police pulled us over and we could not speak enough Spanish to understand them.  I told Jack they could have been saying anything to us and throw us into jail!
Let me know what they decide.  If I can answer or help in any way, just ask!


The fable of the blind men describing an elephant comes to mind; one blind man suggests it is like a flat leaf (the ear), another says it is like a wall (side), a tree (a leg), and a snake (the trunk). None of them were lying; they were just limited in their perspective.

Someone living in a gated mountain community for three years (and surprisingly still speaking no Spanish) will have a very limited perspective on life outside the town. 

Boquete is beautiful, which is why over 500 gringo families moved there. It is more "American" that many parts of the USA.

But - and this is a BIG but - is that why you are considering moving to another country? To duplicate the USA? If so - stay home. Save yourself a lot of grief. 

If however you are seeking a new culture, a new adventure, a different way of life - and you are prepared to learn their language, learn their cultures and experience new and exciting things (new can be scary until you do it) -  then Panama has much to offer, and in very comfortable circumstances.

Many parts of Panama will seem familiar. It was influenced for 100 years by Americans. Much of the infrastructure was developed by the Americans. There are US fast food chains and US-style malls, but there is still a unique Panamanian culture present everywhere you look.


If you want to know what a Panamanian is thinking, you must be able to communicate - which means you must make an attempts to learn basic Spanish. Unlike some countries, if you try - even a little bit, Panamanians will help you. You do not have to be fluent - all you have to do is communicate - using Spanglish, charades and body language - it can be very funny. I am known for my sound effects. When ordering lamb, I can bring the entire butcher's counter to tears. Some items, like tolet paper - require you to actually learn the right words, or face embarrasment.

Learn the phrase: "mas dispacio, por favor" (More slowly, please)

There is a joke about expats: "If they can speak two languages, they are referred to as bilingual. If they can speak three languages, they are trilingual. If they can only speak one, they are American".


Your friends agree about learning Spanish. I know many Americans in Panama who have mastered Spanish and have many Panamanian friends; they can read the local newspapers, listen to the news and communicate with their workers. They enjoy Panama much more fully than someone who is trapped inside their English-speaking enclave, afraid to go outside their gates.

Try introducing yourself to the local police, asking their names and saying hello when you pass. Who knows, the police your friends spoke to may have been warning them that the road ahead was washed out! (It happens in Panama, especially in the mountains)

Your friends do not seem to be experienced travelers. Yes, there are poor in Panama. However not nearly as severe as Jamaica, Haiti, China, most of Africa or most third-world countries which truly have squaller. Panama has 44% below the poverty line, but it is a relatively wealthy country - the Panama Canal (13,000 - 14,000 ships per year at an average of $250,000 per ship), 80 International banks, and the second largest Free Trade Zone in the world, plus a booming construction, tourism and fruit exports industries keeps the economy growing. 

Desperate poverty and squaller exists everywhere - take a take a tour of the southern section of any major US city (why is the south of a city always the poor area?) In northern cities the homeless can freeze to death - and few cities have inexpensive bananas, mango's, papaya and abundant fishing available. I am not suggesting the poor in Panama are well off, but it is not as crippling as many, many areas of the world - that was one of the aspects of Panama that appealed to me.

I will never go back to Jamaica for that reason -- the abject poverty, the open drug scene, and the hostility and anger directed to wealthy tourists is palatable - and I don't know about you, but I feel guilty eating my garlic shrimp when all around me are starving. 

I have never been offered drugs in Panama, nor have I ever felt I was accidentally walking into a covert drug deal. 

My first day in Costa Rica I was accosted by a cop in San Jose, demanding identification. I pulled out my passport and $800 fell out. The cops boot stomped on it and I was slammed up against a police vehicle. He shoved a gun against my temple. Fortunately another group of cops showed up and demanded we be let go. They said my wife and I had stumbled into a drug sting operation - a sting operation held at noon into the public market? I left town as quickly as I could.

Like the blind men, everything must be put in perspective. Most importantly - and here is where I agree with your friends - see it for yourself and take the time to explore the whole country. Rent First.

A lot of people who jumped in and bought in Boquete now find it too wet or too cold and have moved to the beaches. The crime in Boquete has risen dramatically in recent years - and there is no police station there - the closest is in David, a half-hour away - and there are a lot of elderly, wealthy gringos who do not lock their doors - and the crooks know it.

Get a dog - preferably black or dark-haired. Lock your doors and windows, or put up security bars - and have door and window alarms - advice for Panama? No - advice for ANY major US or Canadian city.


PS: Not even the President of Panama wears a tie. Dress lacks and shirt are always fine - a sports jacket and open shirt is dressed-up. I have one suit - wore it once to meet President Martinelli - he did not have a jacket or tie - LOL

PPS: The Immigration rules do change often. It appears they have not obtained a legal resident status in Panama - they are doing the (what we jokingly refer to as "snow-back" thing) - entering Panama as a tourist (30 days, which can be extended to 90 days max) then they must leave for 72 hours and re-enter. (NOTE: Canadians may now enter on a tourist visa for 6 months - see my new article: )

Far better to get one of the twelve immigration visa's to obtain permanent residency in Panama - some leading to a second passport!

Panama is one of the easiest countries to Immigrate to - do it before they change the rules again and make it harder to enter.

Contact your lawyer for details. The government is cracking down on these permanent "tourist's" - what will your friends do with their home in Boquete if they are refused re-entry to Panama?

The key is - listen to everyone, but do your own research. Keep in mind there are hidden agenda's - both well-meaning (your friends want you to join them) to bogus real estate deals. Get your own lawyer and see it for yourself!!!

As they say: Life is a journey - not a destination. Roberto

PPPS: Yes, drugs are an issue - Panama is stuck between the largest drug-producing country int he world (Colombia) and the largest drug-consuming country (USA).

Panama is a conduit - and the lure of fast cash is a growing problem. While Mexico, Nicaragua and Honduras are far worse - it is a concern, especially in the  drug-gang areas in Panama City. Stay out of those areas and you will not likely see any of it. RC



Last Updated on Sunday, 22 August 2010 18:49  

The Retirement Detectives
Email Image
Articles Delivered

Enter your email address:

Visitor Statistics

Content View Hits : 2746119


Currency Converter

Currency Converter
This converter obtains up to the minute exchange rates from Yahoo Finance
You do not need to include a currency symbol such as $ or £
You can include the cents decimal , such as 1345.89 if you like

Related Sites