Panama’s major draw is its Pensionado (pensioner) visa, where qualified retirees achieve residence status fairly quickly. The program entitles visa holders to discounts on medical treatment, dining, movies, and more. Most expats in Panama regret they didn’t come sooner, as many say they chose Panama for the friendly people…its rainforest…plentiful beaches and the choice of secluded or city living lifestyles.
Panama is definitely the hidden gem of Central America. It has coastlines on both the Caribbean Sea and the North Pacific Ocean and is one of the most attractive emerging tourism destinations in the world. It is 30% cheaper to spend a vacation in Panama than in Costa Rica.
Bocas de Toro is a town and beach resort located on the southern tip of Colón Island, small enough to be tackled on foot. Aside from the high end hotels, you can also find cheap accommodation for $20-$40 per night. Another option is Balboa. But you can also stay in Panama City – where rooms are slightly more expensive – and explore the beaches on day trips. It’s also easy to find cheap meals, with set meals at Panamanian restaurants going for about $2-$4US.
English is a second language-most Panamanians speak some English and many speak it fluently, especially those that cater to tourists. Panama is an international business crossroads where English is a necessity.
SOUTH & THE PACIFIC COAST
Is a tiny town in what’s known as the “interior” or rural Panama, and is the capital of the province of Los Santos. It is best known as one of Latin America’s best Carnaval spots… Surprisingly, very few foreigners realize that Las Tablas is worth a visit outside the Carnaval season. The fact that Las Tablas is near plenty of virtually undiscovered beaches is also a well-kept secret. A 3,000 square feet home on Uverito Beach (just 10 minutes by car from the Las Tablas) is for sale for US$65,000.
Further south, along the coast, is lovely little Pedasi…a town worthy of consideration, be it for a visit or to stay. Pedasi is about 28 miles south of Las Tablas. It is best described as a sleepy little fishing town that is very well known for its expansive beaches, regarded by many Panamanians to be among the most pristine in the country.
The San Blas islands, or Kuna Yala, comprise of 365 (one for everyday of the year they say) islands located along the Caribbean coats of Panama. Picture a tropical island from a bounty commercial, and you’ll now know what to expect at San Blas.
In Panama City, El Cangrejo is one of the top choices right now for enjoying a comfortable expat lifestyle. And the realistic cost for that lifestyle is going to be just about US$2,000 per month.
NORTH & THE CARIBBEAN COAST
Bocas del Toro
Translated as the “mouth of the bull” this archipelago of islands sit just south of the Costa Rican town of Puerto Viejo where the mighty rivers flow from the mountains in Northern Panama’s rugged interior cordillera. This place has a lot to other offer travellers. The laid back Caribbean atmosphere in the main town of Bocas Del Toro is seductive and not surprisingly it has attracted its far share of adventurous digital nomads and expats.
This is a great place to bear down and work hard with lots of time to play in the local surf, explore the nearby mountains, relax on the white sand beaches and explore the amazing coral reefs on scuba diving tours.
Budget: $600-$900 a month
Wi-Fi: Some places have great wi-fi. Most islands have no connectivity.
Best Time of Year: November to April
While Panama enjoys the same low cost of living and extraordinary weather as most of Latin America, it has one benefit that overshadows most of the perks of its nearby competitors: The Pensionado visa program for expats.
Introduced in 1987, this attractive package provides an array of discounts, including 50% off entertainment, 25 to 30% off travel, 30 to 50% off hotels and even 10 to 20% off health care. (To qualify, you must have monthly income of at least $1,000 for life from a guaranteed source, such as a pension or annuity, or income of at least $750 per month and a $100,000 minimum investment in Panamanian real estate.)
Speaking of health care, the options available in Panama are surprisingly good, particularly in Panama City. The hospitals are new and modern; many doctors are English-speaking and U.S.-trained.
The secret is to understand that Panama is not one market, but many. Panama City, for example, is over-priced, over-hyped, and over-played. Boquete, too, is too well known and too pricey for our tastes. The best buys in the country today are the Pacific beachfront well away from Panama City; In particular, look along both the east and (thinking longer term) the west coast of the country’s Azuero Peninsula. Boquete is one of the few places in Panama where you can live without knowing Spanish.
Bocas del Toro
Is a province on the Caribbean side of Panama. The Bocas del Toro Archipelago is a group of six islands that are popular with tourists, but also great for expat retirees. “Our housing costs are about a third of what we spend in the US. You can get a nice simple apartment for US$300 per month and up or a home for US$500 and up. We live on an island so you are never far from the ocean”. Bocas del Toro has quickly become one of Panama’s biggest travel destinations. With so many new hostels, beach bungalows, surf camps and other accommodations opening on the many Bocas del Toro islands its no wonder that Bocas is THE backpacking destination in the Caribbean Central American coast. Bocas del Toro, being so remote from the rest of Panama makes it more expensive than other places to visit. But with the right advice you can travel and explore this incredible archipelago on a backpackers budget.
Isla Colon is the largest of the islands; its Bocas Town is the region’s main hub with a smattering of rustic inns, a laid-back vibe, and a strong panama-local flavour.
Is the capital city you can have all the US comforts of a big city, including outstanding healthcare, restaurants, and daily activities. On a monthly budget of US$1,700 to US$2,500 a month you could eat out regularly, have a housekeeper come in a few times a week, and enjoy movie dates a few times a month. However, be warned, some parts of Panama City are a bit “rough” and “unsafe”.
My Initial Thoughts…
- Anywhere on the Caribbean Coast
- Bocas del Toro
- Anywhere on the Pacific Coast
- Anywhere in the Gulf de Panama
- Las Tablas
- Panama City
- Archipelago las Perlas (dreaming)
- Isla de Taboga
- San Blas Islands (dreaming)
I think that I’m going to find the Islands out of my league. But, I like the English speaking element.
This tells me to have a good look at Bocas del Toro and the area around Las Tablas.
The next stop in my journey will (probably) be Colombia.