We spent two weeks driving around this lovely country last year, staying at hotels, B&Bs, and even a beachside resort. What we discovered surprised us: both good and bad.
Panama, officially known as The Republic of Panama (“Pa-na-MAH”), is the southernmost country in Central America. Back in the 19th century, it was better known as a swampland of yellow fever, until William Gorgas, with the help of Carlos Finlay and Walter Reed, discovered its cause: mosquitoes. Their treatment helped workers survive the construction of the Panama Canal, from 1904-1914. This architectural wonder returned to Panamanian control in 1999, after the U.S. controlled it for many decades.
The Canal really is wonderful, especially when the ships pass through on a rainy day, wreathed over by fog and blowing their horns a little mournfully. And if you view it from the visitor center at the Miraflores Locks, you’ll be able to not only see the current locks, which are huge — but the newest set of locks under construction — which are gigantic. (Take the top floor observation deck, and plan on a meal stop at the restaurant, if you want a more relaxed view.)
The worst part about visiting the Canal — and the rest of Panama, incidentally — is that inevitably you must travel through Panama City. This jam-packed metropolis is big, dirty and lively. Slums mix with skyscrapers, flashy signs and the worst drivers on the face of the earth. With care and a whole lot of nail-biting, you’ll survive…but it won’t be fun.
Maybe you should take the bus, instead. Either that or a rental car, and only a few days of steady travel will take you the length of the country. (Watch out for the street cops in Divisa — they can and will try to stop you and claim you were making a U-turn, if you were turning left. That means big ticket penalties in this quirky country!)
Once you’re away from the noise and hurry of Panama City, you’ll find a whole lot of rural farmland, with plenty of cattle. Take note of the posts in the fences along these ranches — they’ve often grown into trees!
That’s how fertile this country is. Sure, it’s tropical, but it has a minimum of humidity, compared to other Latin American countries; and a reasonable amount of rain. (The mountain chain that forms the backbone of Panama, especially the coffee area of Boquete, enjoys more of this liquid sunshine, along with cooler temperatures.)
Stay in the valley, and you can drive the length of Panama, along with occasional busses and regular semis. (Make sure you, like everyone else on the road, swerve occasionally to dodge the potholes, which could swallow up small animals. Thanks to no train system, Panama relies on 18-wheelers and other trucks to keep things moving.)
Just an hour’s drive uphill, and you’re in the mountains. Turn the other direction off the main Pan-American Highway, and within an hour, you’ll be sitting on the beach and watching the fishermen. That’s how varied the climates are.
The people are friendly (well, except for the police in Divisa), and the seafood is downright wonderful. Stick with the fresh fish and shrimp, especially if it’s grilled…you can’t go wrong. But don’t expect a ‘tortilla’ when it’s offered: you’ll get a coarse-ground cornmeal cake that resembles polenta or grits. We were told English was spoken throughout the country, but that wasn’t true. We relied a lot on our misshapen Spanish, plus pointing and smiling.
Should you retire to Panama? Not if you enjoy the fast life, or want your world to be ‘American.’ (One possible exception would be living in Boquete, which has many ex-pats.)
But there are many positives to be considered, if you enjoy a slowed-down, rural life. Land prices are low, and it’s possible to grow many of your own vegetables and fruits. Practically everyone has a cellphone, and it’s surprisingly easy to get internet access. The coffee is wonderful, too…
Panama prides itself on being one of the most price-friendly countries for American retirees. The country’s Special Tourism Zones offer exemptions from income and real estate taxes, and retirees can take advantage of everything from discounts on restaurants to lenient rules on leaving and entering the country.
Several websites can give you a better idea of what it’s like to live in Panama, including this one. Beware, though: many want to sell you jazzed-up real estate for big bucks. You’re better off consulting a Panamanian realtor who speaks English, and has worked with Americans before. (There are many.) And definitely plan to spend at least a week or two in the country before you make any big decisions. You might just find yourself falling in love with this peaceful, relaxing place.