How is Living in Panama as an Expat Different?

Last Updated on March 2, 2023 by Retire in Panama

Most of the articles I write on this blog require a lot of research and fact-checking. Not this one. This one is totally from the heart and just from experience. I have lived in Panama for eleven years, originally from Vancouver, Canada, so I will discuss how living in Panama as an expat differs from living in North America. It will be my experience, which may vary from other expats living in Panama.

The reasons people move to Panama are many, and I have heard almost all of them, especially since working in the relocation tour industry. It is one of the first questions I ask my clients when we first connect, whether on the phone or by email, “Why do you want to move to Panama?” This question helps me define their needs, to help give better advice and provide for them if they join us on one of our relocation tours or need expat relocation services once they arrive here.

Let’s get into what it is like for an expat living in Panama and how the differences are why I stay in the country. I was looking for better weather, a more comfortable life, less expensive, and fewer taxes. I did get all those things and much more that I did not discover until living in Panama for a few years.

How is Living in Panama as an Expat Different

More Laid Back and Relaxing

People just are not rushed here, unlike in North America. The go, go, go does not exists, and people are much more laid back. You can see it and actually feel it in places like waiting in line, at a bank, or in line at a cashier check out. Suppose you look around and study the people in that line, as I always do. In that case, you will see the calm Panamanians accepting the fact that there is a line, and dealing with it, by talking to the person next in line, texting on their phone, or just waiting their turn.

Then you will see the new expat in town, in that same line, with tension originating from their entire body, just irritated, as they have not accepted the fact that this country is more laid back than North America. These expats must learn to relax and realize that waiting in line is not the end of the world, or they will just be unhappy here.

I use waiting in a line above as an example, but this laid-back, relaxing culture goes further than that. The guy doing your yard work will never work at the speed you think he should, and he will never arrive when he said he would, but your yard will get done. Applying for permits and government things will talk longer than you want them to. It would help if you learned to chill and take it easy; you came here to retire and being relaxed, laid back, and chilled is part of the culture in this new country you have chosen to live in.

Expat Living in Panama

Flashback to the 1970s

I noticed this as soon as I arrived here. Some may call Panama “backward,” or 2nd world, or not just developed as North America. To me, some of it was just a relief. Panama has so many fewer regulations; I found that to be excellent. If I want to sell my goods on the sidewalk, I can; no one is giving fines to children for setting up their lemonade stands, as we have seen back home. In my first home, where the neighborhood still had gravel streets, I saw kids riding their bikes on the roads in the evening without their helmets; oh my God!

I remember visiting grandma when I was a kid in the 70s and playing in the front yard, and the main street, South Railway, had wooden sidewalks. And my other grandparents, in the small town of Wawota, had gravel streets; who could think of unpaved roads in a city today? Is that the end of the world? Well, you will find some in Panama. It sure keeps traffic speeds down in residential areas.

Walking through town on a Sunday, musicians have set up in the park, playing some great music, and yes, without a permit! I stopped the car along the highway and bought locally grown fruits and vegetables and a refreshing sugar cane drink. This food was not sprayed with chemicals or approved by some government agency.

Watching the kids’ team of soccer players riding in the back of a pickup truck, coming from a game they just won. OK, this one is dangerous, but most of you reading this did this when you were a kid.

These little flashbacks to the 1970s in Panama did not bother me; I liked them, the slowdown I was looking for.

Politics in Panama

No Major Divisions in Politics

Wow, politics in this country is really a relief compared to the mess we have in North America. I don’t care about your political affiliation, but things are just crazy up there now. The division of the right and the left is dividing friends and our families. Let’s go back to the 1970s. As a kid, I was always interested in politics, and I remember the Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, where family and friends could discuss politics. We had all sides at the table. Try doing that now.

Panama has had two elections since I have been here, and the best thing about them is that the parties can only campaign for 60 days before the election dates. Do we need more than 60 days of political ads and debates to decide how we will vote? Do we need two years? We are all more intelligent than that. And in this country, there are four major political parties, and all are center, pro-people, pro-business ideologies, no extreme left, no extreme right.

Elections are held on a Sunday. Families get up, jump in the station wagon with wood-paneled sides (OK, just joking about that), and go for breakfast or attend church. In the afternoon, go vote, then hold backyard barbecues with friends and families in the evening; if that does not sound like the 1970s, not sure what does.

Security in panama

Safety and Security

The minute you arrive in Panama, you will notice a difference here. You will see the closed-off, non-public baggage area with armed security when you pick up your bags at the airport. After exiting customs, there will be more armed security throughout the airport. Not just banks have armed security in Panama, but also retail stores, even McDonald’s. Who will hold up a McDonald’s when an armed security guard protects it? Some people assume this is because of the high crime rate in Panama. It is really more about helping to lower the crime rate.

Many North Americans arrive here and sense this security presence as threatening, instilling fear in them; well, security like this is widespread though out Latin America. You will also see virtually every house with security bars on the windows and doors. “This country must not be safe if you need security bars” is a very North American stigma.

Security bars on homes are there for several reasons; only 33 years ago, Panama was not a very safe country. Run by a dictator, and corrupt police force, having security bars was a good idea. Panamanian people work hard for the things they have and want to protect them, so if your house has security bars, there is little chance you will ever be robbed. Also, the climate here means the temperature seldom goes below 24° C (75° F), so leaving your windows open all night for the breezes is a great idea. Security bars allow you to do that.

There are checkpoints on the highways, where you have to stop and show your ID to pass through; this is controlling immigration and drug trafficking problems in Panama. Looking at the actual stats on NationMaster.com, you will see that Panama ranks 64th on the list of counties with crimes per capita (Crimes per 1000), while the USA ranks 22nd and Canada 10th. If you look at robberies stats, Panama ranks 59th, the United States 18th, and Canada 28th. If you are concerned about the crime in Panama, please get off social media, where the negative is always posted, and the positive is seldom seen, and use official research stat collecting sites.

Embracing the differences

These four examples are my experiences; once you arrive here to check things out. On one of our Retire in Panama Tours, you may see different things that are different in Panama than in your home country. It is then for you to decide if you can live with these differences or not accept them. Panama will stay the same, so Panama may not be the right place for you.

It really bothers me when I see expats spend all that money to move here, some buying homes, and in two years, they move back, saying that Panama was not for them. That is silly, don’t take the plunge unless you know it is for you. Take our relocation tour, if you like, then come back for an extended vacation, for 2 – 6 months renting in an area you liked when you visited. That way, you will know how living in Panama as an expat differs from your home country. It would be best if you only were considering the permanent move and buying property at that time.

Now, remember, these are my thoughts on the differences; for me, they are why I am here; for you, it may be another. But, if you are reading this, you are looking for something different. If you were totally 100% happy with where you live, you would not be looking at Panama, so come check things out and embrace the differences.

 

It’s more than a tour . . it’s an experience.

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11 Comments

  1. Thank you for all of your information. My wife and I are looking at Panama as a part-time retirement location. I’m still about 8 years away, but I’ve been to Panama a few times and love it. I’m a Spanish teacher at a high school in small town Montana and my wife is a native Spanish-speaker whose family is from Mexico. Here, things are pretty stress-free as well. Panama seems like a good fit for us.

  2. I enjoyed this article. I don’t know who wrote it as there doesn’t seem to be a name.

    1. Thank you Barbara, myself, Rod Larrivee, Co-owner of Retire in Panama Tours wrote the article. I am glad you enjoyed it.

  3. I too liked your article. I have not been to Panama as of yet but I have been studying all the information I can find on it and it sounds good. I especially like that no matter what I read from totally different resources, they all seem to agree on what makes living in Panama a great place to retire. I don’t just read the pros but also the cons that people encounter and I have to say that list is similar as well. The things you have listed as to what you like about living there I believe I would like too. I feel like politics and regulations is overwhelming in the USA. And now that I am retired I realized the only changes that is happening is too increase the amount. I also realize I no longer have anything important to do that requires me to be in a hurry for. So living somewhere that the people are laid back is appealing. I for whatever reason, am still mulling it over in my mind but I keep going back to the idea of moving to Panama. As a child of the 50s & 60s the living conditions don’t scare me off, I survived just fine and when everything is said and done it really comes down to my mindset and what is truly important to me.

    1. Hello Nancy, thank you for your comment. Sounds like it is time for you to come and check it out.

  4. That was a great article Rod. Thank you for your honest assessment of what life is like in Panama. Hope to visit soon so I can make a decision on where would the best place for me to retire.

  5. My wife and I love living in Panama and we do so for about half of each year. Much of the information that you provided is correct. However, I would like to emphasize that being upset about standing in a line is the personal choice of the individual and has nothing to do with their country of origin. I have run into impatient people and calm people in lines around the world and this includes both locals and foreigners.

    I also thought that I would pass on some additional information regarding the bars on windows and doors. They are called rejas (grilles)and the practice is found in just about every Spanish speaking country. The rejas are really just an evolution of the ancient Roman grilles. In Spain, examples of bars can be seen on many residences dating back to the 11th century. The practice was exported to Latin America. Bars on windows are both functional and traditional. They do allow for safe ventilation in hot weather and provide a safety measure for children and pets, especially on upper floors. However, their main purpose is to deter crime whether the windows are open or closed. Break ins are not common but they have occurred just as they have occurred in some Canadian, US and European homes. We have bars on most of our windows and doors. And we also have installed special break proof lockable screens over our large sliding doors. A house protected by window and door bars is much less attractive to potential burglars. Less protected homes are easier targets.

    Thank you for providing some good information.

  6. Thank you for your very informative article. We are hoping to visit Panama very soon and are hoping to make it our part time retirement home as I will be retiring next year.

  7. I have a medical marijuana card in the States – having trouble getting status of legal cannabis use in Panama? Are there dispensaries?

    1. Hi there, medical cannabis is not yet available in Panama. The Panama assembly has approved it to move forward, but still not legal in Panama. Possesion of cannabis is still illegal in Panama.

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