WHERE VACATIONS START!
For Newcomers To Boquete Panama
Written & Video By Boquete Ning & Boquete Guide Founder Lee Zeltzer
Welcome to anyone who followed the link the Wall Street Journal to to BoqueteGuide.com. I was referred to the Wall Street Journal by a reader of this blog, and if you came here to read the blog that motivated the article, you have done a complete circle. This blog motivated the article and the article is motivating this post.
As the article explains I have been in Boquete Panama for more than eight years. I am a happy transplant and have a full, rich lifestyle. Some of the magic here is for those of us who want or need to retire, but do not know how to stop working. As I wrote, retirement to me is continuing to work, but at my own pace. What I did not say for reasons of brevity is that I am doing things that I never dreamed I would or could do. I did not take my job and transplant it so much as I took my work acquired skills and do things I never envisioned.
Although I have been drinking coffee since my days at CCNY in New York City, growing and selling coffee never appeared on my to do list. I am not Juan Valdez, although I am sure some of his distant relative do indeed pick my coffee.When you move to a place that grows some of the best coffee in the world and you buy property with coffee, you are in the coffee business. The city boy, born in Brooklyn, now grows coffee.
Through most of my career I wrote proposals, bid contracts and other technical documents. Now, released from the bondage of a desk, I can sit and write whatever and whenever I want. Writing and reading have become pleasure, not work.
The thought of retiring in Tucson Arizona, a popular retirement community, never occurred to me. I lived there too long. I wandered the desert for thirty-eight years, only two years fewer than Moses. When I had the opportunity to turn a page in my book of life and move to someplace different with new challenges I did it.
If you are contemplating retirement, I recommend you define the concept. If you are adventurous, a life long learner and want to experience some marvelous contrasts from your domestic life consider retirement out of the USA or Canada. You can become a reverse wetback, by moving south to Central or South America. There is civilization here in the developing world. As the infrastructure in the US crumbles these nations are building new modern infrastructure. As the politics of the US falls into chaos, no need to fret. Politics is always chaos here, but you don’t need to be involved, so it becomes entertainment.
Panama is a unique environment. The US was a dominant presence here for one hundred years. The Panama Canal was turned over to Panama by the Carter Torrijos Treaty in 1974 and the US invaded Panama in 1989 under the direction of George Bush, the elder. The military killed many in an effort to find and arrest one alleged drug deal, Manuel Noriega. Panamanians forgive the invasion and embrace the people who move here and build the economy. The word Gringo is not a pejorative in Panama, just a description.
The President of Panama and the Alcalde of Boquete at the Independence day parade in Boquete
The current President of the Republic of Panama, Juan Carlos Varela is a graduate of Georgia Tech and his family runs a distillery making some very good rum. Panama has a very large jewish community, a very large Arab community, a very large Chinese community, a very large Afro-caribbean community and the same for Hindus as differentiated from the indigenous, North Americans call both groups Indians. Although the constitution of Panama says it is a Catholic country, it also guarantees freedom of religion and we have them all here. Panama is a melting pot of diversity, in some ways like New York City. In fact Panama City is so much like Miami Florida, what once NYC south, that I moved rural to the western part of the country to escape the city lifestyle.
Our infrastructure in Western Panama keeps improving. On 15 January Copa Airlines begins flights from all over the Americas to David Panama. David effectively becomes a national spoke in Copa’s growing international network. This will trim a day off the travel time to Boquete from most of the world. We will lose some of our remoteness in 2015.
Boquete is forty kilometers up hill from David and with our new four lane highway to David I expect a new influx of visitors and then as many discover this is the real Shangri-La of James Hiltons Lost Horizon, some will stay and further enrich the community.
People here can live long healthy lives because of the climate, the food and fact that the only stress here is what baggage you bring with you or make for yourself. Boquete Panama is magical. Some people come for a vacation and spend a life here. Others come to spend a life and leave in six months or less. You need to be a person who embraces change, change of language, change of culture, change of diet and be open to new horizons. If you are then come join our community and eat fresh food and drink the best coffee in the world.
Below are some photos from various places in Panama. If after this monologue you want to know more about Boquete Panama you can use this site and more importantly read the community site at Boquete.ning.com it is a dynamic interactive community forum.
Haliconias Nogbe children dancing
This last group of photos was shot at the Independence day parade in Boquete Panama Nov 30 2014.
The President of Panama and the Alcalde of Boquete at the parade
Living in Boquete Panama, a 6.5 year perspective and some advice
I started writing this blog of my life experience in Boquete Panama about six years ago. Not long after that I started a series called Panamania, a theme I revisit regularly as I have have time to assess my life in Boquete. Today as the sun is shining, the temperature like spring in New York and the winds gone it seems like another day perfect for reflection.
Sitting with my view of Volcan Baru and listening to Mozart with a cup of coffee makes a perfect theme to stimulate thoughts of life gone by, and life in the future. I have spent about ten percent of my life living on this mountain top and have no regrets.
As I watch the clouds rest on the volcano, I realize I am perched in a perfect place in a perfect time. After returning from my recent trip to Chile and Argentina several people have asked if I am considering a move south. Boquete is a transient community for expats, many come, many go and then more come to fill the vacancies. I have not seen any reason to leave for more than a vacation.
In my time here I have made two trips to the US, one to Canada, one to Ecuador, one to Guatemala, two to Argentina and two to Chile. I have cruised the Caribbean twice, the south Atlantic once and always return to Boquete, happy to be home. The question others may ask is, why. In the great debate on retirement overseas why do I choose to remain in Boquete?
The reasons are many, some of what attracted me keeps me here. I came because of the low cost of living, the large English speaking community, the tranquility, the weather and the desire for a change of pace. I wanted off the treadmill of work and even though I owned my own business, it was still a wage slave treadmill. Work to pay the bills, I had little time for more than work.
After traveling to many places I have seen lower costs of living, I can just drive to David and pay less to live, but there are other costs like enduring the heat. There are more English speakers, I think, in Mississippi and it probably would be easier to live there, but I don’t want too. I also came to learn, learn a new language and immerse into a new culture. In my time here I have almost mastered preschool Spanish and now spend much of my time immersed in the local culture.
People are the same everyplace, people want a better life for themselves and their children. Here in Panama the government gives little except jobs and they are usually political payoffs. People still need to survive on their own sweat and most do. People rely on family and friends more than government, I like that.
One commentator I enjoy reading is Fred Reed, he has a refreshing and often caustic view of the world from his perch in Mexico. I think this column of his reflects my view of the United States, one I do not wish to live in any more.
Perhaps it is the fact that I live in the wild west of Panama, not the urban center which is hours away by car, bus and culture. Cities are cities, many have flavor like San Francisco, Montreal or Buenos Aires some are just urban jungles like Panama City, but I did cities for ninety percent of my life. I relish the change of living in a small town in the boondocks.
Boquete is a point of transition for people who want to learn a language and a culture. Some of those who leave achieved that and move on to other parts of Latin America, others never can make the mental changes necessary and return to their point of origin. Each to their own, I like living here.
There is a lot of discussion in various online communities about retirement, there are companies like International Living and Live and Invest Overseas that earn their revenue convincing people to expatriate. I actually think they sell the wrong thing, they try to sell a lower cost of living as a primary justification. The real reason to move to a new country is different. The best reason to retire overseas is to take the opportunity to grow, to grow mentally, grow emotionally and grow culturally. If you just want to kick back and watch television and be a couch potato, Mississippi is a better and probably cheaper option. If you stretch your mind and your body to make real change in your life you might just find a happier person living in your body.
Carpe Diem, Seize the moment and use your third life as a chance to enhance your total life.
Panamania 24: Some obvious observations
A couple of years ago I started to do some writing about Panama for Live and Invest Overseas. Although I was given editorial prerogative, I was encouraged to tell the truth and to make Panama and encouraged to make the locations I visited attractive. When I actually wrote a very negative piece, on Taboga Island, to the credit of the publisher, it was published and I continued to write for several more months. Later I was replaced by someone younger with a less jaded perspective. I am not criticizing Live and Invest Overseas, I think they provide a useful service to people exploring the possibilities of moving to various locations. The statement I wish to make is the obvious observation, Panama is not for everyone; no place on earth is perfect.
Over the last six years living here I have made many friends. Of the expats I met, many have come and gone in that time. I can compare that to my thirty eight years in Tucson Arizona where many friends came and left as jobs and opportunities moved. But this is “paradise” why would you leave paradise when you are no longer following a job.
For several months I have been asking readers questions in the poll on this site. The number of responses is low and not statistically relevant to anything except this subjective post.
The Face of Boquete, Where did you come from?
USA (71%, 87 Votes)
Canada (12%, 15 Votes)
Other (7%, 8 Votes)
United Kingdom (5%, 6 Votes)
Netherlands (2%, 2 Votes)
Native of Panama (2%, 2 Votes)
Germany (1%, 1 Votes)
Sweden (1%, 1 Votes)
Switzerland (1%, 1 Votes)
Costa Rica (0%, 0 Votes)
South America (0%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 123
Of those who responded most, 83%, came from the US and Canada, both of which have a very different culture, language and legal system than Panama.
If you live here in Panama, how long have you lived here?
more than 5 years (34%, 46 Votes)
Less than a year (24%, 33 Votes)
between two and three years (17%, 23 Votes)
between one and two years (11%, 15 Votes)
more than 10 years (9%, 12 Votes)
my whole life (5%, 8 Votes)
Total Voters: 137
About half of the respondents to the second question have been here five years or more, about half less.A pretty good spread of people who have been here both long and short term.
Do you own or do you rent? If you answer rent please read RENTERS ONLY, If you own a home please read OWNERS ONLY. You can answer the second question.
I have lived in Panama for more than 5 years and own my home (34%, 40 Votes)
I have lived in Panama for less than 5 years and own my home (25%, 30 Votes)
I have lived in Panama for less than 5 years and rent my home (20%, 24 Votes)
OWNERS ONLY: If you own, if you could sell your property would you leave Panama? (15%, 18 Votes)
RENTERS ONLY: would you buy here if you could sell property in another country? (9%, 11 Votes)
I have lived in Panama for more than 5 years and rent my home (8%, 9 Votes)
Total Voters: 119
The last group of questions was the one I want to ask, it was designed to elicit an idea of how many people who have been here past that five year pivot point would leave if they could sell their property. Eighteen of the the forty people who indicated they have been here more than five years and own their own homes responded that if they could sell they would move on. Eleven of the twenty four who rent said they would buy if they could sell their homes in the home country.
When I arrived here in 2006 most of the expats in Boquete had grey hair and were either retired or trying to turn a hobby into a new career. The exceptions were the real estate developers, they were here to make a killing, most of them left with their tails between their legs and a lot less than they had when they arrived.
As the economy up north began imploding I observed an increasing number of younger families with children arriving. They made the community richer and multidimensional. Recently most of those I know in that age group have left Panama. In addition several of the retirees have also pulled up stakes and left. I have no statistics but I do have anecdotal stories.
For the younger people, the common thread is either the inability to provide good secondary educational opportunities for their children, the inability to earn sufficient income to stay or a combination of both. I have also heard of the pressures of distance from families. Some people I spoke to have discussed the difficulty of maintaining a marriage in an environment with so many “attractive latinas”; divorce is a big issue for new immigrants.
Those retirees I have spoke to who have left and are willing to discuss it ,almost always say the same thing, family and health. They miss their families and worry about receiving good healthcare in Boquete. Some more recently have added another dimension, they have said the people arriving from north now are different. Different in political views, different in economic means, just different.
Many of those who left the US during the Bush years left with some money and bought homes here, they made an investment in the community. Now in the Obama years, we are seeing people leave despite the fact they cannot sell a home and need to rent when they arrive. Real estate is now more expensive here than in much of the USA, Panama is in an economic boom. Many of these people are forced into doing what is always suggested, rent six months before buying. From the responses made about half would buy if they could.
This re-enforces my observations attending many seminars for expats in Panama City. The people who came and spoke to me in the years I attended, the Obama years, were scared. They felt they needed to leave the US before they lost all their assets. Perception is a reality, people believe what they find believable and these people are coming to Panama for the wrong reason, fear.
The obvious observation is that Panama or any other alien culture is not right for everyone. To be successful in a new society you need to be a pioneer, regardless of your age. You need to be open to new ideas, open to starting again in a new system, with a new language and in an economic system that wants your money but not your involvement in decision making.
I want to reiterate that I like it here, but just like in Tucson I have witnessed the churn. My intent is not to discourage people from moving to Boquete, my intent is that you not be blinded by the people selling Boquete as paradise. To many it is a wonderful place to live, to some it is not. You need to come and stay a while and see if the experience is for you before leaping from the frying pan into the fire; pretty obvious?
Panamania 23: Do not flee to Panama, come for the positive
This is a message to the many people who have written me on a collective theme. Chicken Little and the falling sky. If the sky falls, the pieces will land on your head where ever you are, including Panama.
The theme I keep hearing is that Barak Obama is destroying the US. That there will be hyper inflation, that the government is going to take everything I own, that Obamacare is evil, that fiat currencies are worthless only gold and silver have value and on and on. This fear is being reinforced by several companies that profit from selling seminars and real estate tours of Panama.
I confess as always up front I am not an economist, I do not and never have worked for the US Federal Government. I was a instructor in an Arizona Community College and at times for the University of Arizona, but since the topics were not related to politics or economics, that bit of history is irrelevant. What I do is observe, read and try to stay educated.
About the decline and fall of the US dollar, a fiat currency. According to Wikipedia the term fiat money has been defined variously as:
People say the presses are wearing out because they are printing dollars so fast, probably true; but the real money is inside the computers not on paper. There is little question the amount of currency and inflation are increasing. Inflation is planned, it is deflation and hyper inflation that are feared. Inflation is important to you and to banks. If anyone lends money for anything and it is soon worth less than the loan made the borrower might not pay. This happened as housing prices fell in the US and people walked away from debt, not good for lenders and therefore not good for the economy.
Hyper inflation makes the asset more valuable and the currency less so. Hyper inflation also hurts the same lenders, they lend money and it becomes worth less over time. With hyperinflation the notes and interest become less than profitable in real terms. Good planners try to balance lending and inflation with interest rates ahead of the rate of inflation. Consumers with money try to place it where it will grow faster than the rate of inflation.
“During the Revolutionary War, when the Continental Congress authorized the printing of paper currency called continental currency, the monthly inflation rate reached a peak of 47 percent in November 1779 (Bernholz 2003: 48). These notes depreciated rapidly, giving rise to the expression “not worth a continental.”
A second close encounter with hyper inflation occurred during the U.S. Civil War, between January 1861 and April 1865, the Lerner Commodity Price Index of leading cities in the eastern Confederacy states increased from 100 to over 9,000. As the Civil War dragged on, the Confederate dollar had less and less value, until it was almost worthless by the last few months of the war. Similarly, the Union government inflated its greenbacks, with the monthly rate peaking at 40 percent in March 1864 (Bernholz 2003: 107). ”
When I moved to Panama my lawyer said if you are coming to Panama to run away from anything in the US, find another country. To quote him, Panama is a tail wagged by the big dog up north. I will add that the world banking industry is the tail wagging the world economy. They wag the US government, they run the Federal Reserve, but sometimes, somethings happen they cannot control.
Wars and panic mess with the best laid plans of governments and bankers. Those who control the economy want a balance, inflation, but slow and easy. The Federal Reserve which is run by bankers makes every effort to control inflation. It is true that a dollar today buys far less than a dollar in 1900 but then again earnings today are far higher than in 1900; part of the plan.
If your paycheck or retirement is in US dollars then any increase in inflation adversely effects your buying power. It is so in the US, in Panama where the Balboa is the dollar, or anyplace else where you will need to exchange your dollars for the local fiat currency.
What then is an alternative? Some people say gold, silver or other metals are a hedge on inflation. There is certainly some truth to the fact that precious metals have increased in value relative to fiat currencies, surprisingly the rapid increase has only been in the past ten years.
This is a long term graph or the value of gold in US dollars since 1973, source http://www.goldprice.org/spot-gold.html.
Note the cost of gold in dollars started its current ascent, 2002. This phenomenon has not just affected US currency. This chart is the Euro from 1999.
Many people view gold as a good long term investment, it was a low return investment until 2001-2002 and is not looking so good this month either.
Oil, black gold has an interesting parallel chart.
Compare it to gold and note the date September 11, 2001. Gold and black gold started there current ascent in the same time frame. What started the rise: fear, uncertainty, and doubt. The legacy of 9/11 has been to change everything about the world.
The current world economy is tied to a consumable product, oil, not gold. The economy can survive without gold. The dependency on oil is world wide with those countries that import it going through inflation caused by the cost of the commodity.
Panama imports all its oil. Our economy consumes it at world market rates and when oil goes up so does everything in the economy except wages.
Wages are the one thing lower in Panama than the US. Everything produced locally is less expensive because the current minimum wages paid in Panama start at $1.43 an hour for agricultural workers, higher for others. If the cost of labor in Panama was equal to the US most everything would be more expensive here. In my six years here I have seen two government mandated increases in minimum wages and each time the prices of everything, including healthcare has increased.
If you are too young for Medicare, Obamacare mandates that US insurance companies need to sell you insurance regardless of preexisting conditions; not so in Panama. If you are not covered by Panama’s Social Security system, and have a preexisting condition, you cannot purchase medical insurance in Panama. You can buy into some limited programs offered by some hospitals, but in this system you are on your own. Medicare does not work in Panama. Tricare provides civilian health benefits for military personnel, military retirees, and their dependents and it does work in Panama.
My message is that if you are fleeing the US because of the the dollar, we have it here. If you are fleeing because of the cost of living, it might not be that much lower here for the same lifestyle you have. If you are fleeing because of inflation, it’s here too. If you cannot stand government in your life, this is just another government and they make changes much faster with less thought to the long term consequences.
If however, you want to have a whole new life experience, learn a new culture, learn a new language, live on a tropical beach or in temperate mountains close to a tropical beach, this might be a good place to consider. Just do it as an affirmative action, not in fear. Many of those who fled to Panama came, saw and left. Those who elected to be here for positive reason have reasons to be positive.
I love it here, I enjoy the mountains where I live. I reluctantly confess to enjoying the beaches, as long there is shade and no expat targeted development. I love the people, the culture and I am and suspect I will always be learning the language. I haven’t mastered English yet so why should I think I could ever master Spanish. I also confess I cannot stand Panama City, I rather be in Buenos Aires, Argentina or Valparaiso, Chile for urban life. Latin America is a delightful contrast in living from my native North America.
Panamanian 22: Retirement in a new culture, a new adventure
Now in the middle of indigenous protests and road blockages which are not being reported outside of Panama is a perfect time to respond to people who are considering retirement in Panama or any other developing country. Here when the pressure boils over and people want to get the attention of their government they take to the streets.
I have a local reader who cannot understand why I appear to discourage people from moving to Panama; I don’t. I just try to discourage those who are moving here for the wrong reasons. Do not believe the various companies who sell moving overseas as a must do to flee tyranny or taxes and describe the transition as a piece of cake. You do not need to do leave the perceived security of the world you know to change your life and making the transition is not necessarily easy. These businesses often mislead on the costs of living, yes you can live in Panama for less than the US, but not perhaps with the same lifestyle you have. There are many other reasons to consider a move to Boquete, to Panama or to anyplace new and alien.
When my father retired he shriveled up and died. He spent his days watching television and waiting for something, neither he nor I ever knew what. I never considered retirement, I have never retired and doubt I will. I do collect Social Security and I no longer work an 8- 7 job. Instead I play, I write and above all I learn. Playing and writing are new for me, learning has been life long. I made the decision to move from Arizona to Panama for many reasons, I never considered it retirement, just a new horizon.
In relocating to Panama I needed to stretch my mind. The only class I came close to failing in University was Spanish, I knew I could never learn a new language. I even took a Bachelor of Science instead of Arts to avoid a second year of language. Although I had a tourists views of Mexican culture, I certainly never was part of the culture. Here in Panama I had a new adventure. When my wife left I decided to immerse myself in the whole enchilada.
If it is true that learning fights dementia then I am immune. I have struggled with Spanish and can carry on a conversation now. I have learned the cuisine, bits of the culture and even some of the politics. I have discovered Panama to be an engrossing opportunity. The natives here are warm friendly people and yes, opportunistic too. They have learned that many new immigrants have money and they of course want as much of it as they can get. That is not any different than anyplace else. The difference here is that many new immigrants make no effort to learn the language or immerse into the culture; they are missing a lot and they wear targets on their backs.
Living in Panama you can find a large expat population, in Boquete in particular there is no need to learn language or culture, many expats do not. Many Panamanians speak passable and sometimes perfect English, they cater and occasionally pander to the community. If you make an effort with Spanish many people will respond in English to demonstrate or just practice their ability. Some bilingual people both native and imported, use their skills with language to exploit others more ignorant; most are just helpful but it is important to know the difference.
Panama is not never never land, it is a real place. For me a bit more like James Hilton’s Shangri-La, a place I stopped aging but kept on growing. In my time here I have seen many people come and many leave. Those who leave give similar reasons, family issues at home or health fears, I not yet met a person who has honestly said, I made a mistake, Boquete is not like Kansas, or California, or wherever. These people if they were honest with themselves would admit they did not do their cultural homework. Panama is a different country not a different State or Provence.
The recent political disturbances with the indigenous will probably spark some people to start packing their suitcases in fear, Panamanians just take it in stride. There is nothing new with protests in the street, they are the loudest statement of people without a voice. Panamanians survived Noriega and they will survive Martinelli and whom ever comes after him. They understand their culture and they understand the evening news, they have weathered times more disruptive than this demonstration.
For me this has all been a lesson in reality, the last time I was in a street demonstration was protesting against the Vietnam war. Once I became immersed in the reality of family and the need to earn to pay the bills my days of political awareness became limited to the daily newspaper. In my version of US culture work was first, then play or family. In Panama I have learned it is almost always family first and then other things second. The most educated and successful Panamanians I know take time off for family and holidays. I had to learn that from a book written by Lee Iacocca. Here in Panama it is part of the culture and it took me some time to adjust despite the fact I am technically retired.
Instead of me writing, Don’t move to Boquete, let me lay out the red carpet. If you want to share Shangri-la I welcome you. I do want to make a few suggestions to make your life better. Please try to learn some basic Spanish before you come here, please do not check your brains at the airport. There are thieves and con men here who will gladly lighten your wallet and the local legal system will not help too much. Come with a lust to learn and experience the culture, the environment and the people. Please leave any perspective that you might be from a superior culture at the airport because you do not, you just come from a different culture.
Panamanians have a title for retirees, third life. Make this a third life, a break from what was breaking you into something that can mend the soul and enhance your life tremendously.
Join us for some fun in a culture that many people, including me, miss until you make the effort.
This an unedited driving tour through the town of Boquete Panama, come visit.
Panamanian 21 – Cambio equals Change
The word is Spanish, cambio; change. It has been nearly four years since I moved to Boquete Panama and more than a year since I added to the Panamanian Series I started shortly after I started this blog. I am writing this without reviewing my original writings, I want this note to be how I feel today without my retrospection altered by what I wrote before.
Change is the operative word. Panama has changed, but far more relevant to me is that I have changed. I came to Boquete with my wife to start a new life when our last of four children moved onto University. Within eighteen months my wife left and for many reasons has not returned; change. We purchased a small property with a marginally livable house above Boquete, compared to our suburban life in a larger home in Tucson AZ this was a massive change. The move from dry heat to wet temperate; change. The move from suburban to rural; change. From 33 years of marriage to effectively alone; change. The only course in which I ever earned a “D” in college was Spanish, now I am learning it to survive; change. Without the need for discovering religion I have been reborn, what a nice change.
During my University days I was considered a student activist, very political and aware. During my years of work raising a family I was totally focused on earning and surviving, now I have changed again. I am interested in what is going on in Panama, but I have learned to accept that I cannot change any of it. On a micro level I have had some influence but in the real world, nothing that will make a long-term impact. The change in Panama is driven by greed like change everyplace in the world. The change in me is driven by opportunity and exposure to new realities.
Years ago I shook off the illusion that any of us in the polity, the masses, shaven or not, can alter the grand scheme of things on this planet. Only if you reach a position of great power and influence whether through birth right or earned, can you even nudge the direction of international greed. Stripped of the need to change the world and largely free of the rewarding shackles of raising four children, Panama has been my opportunity for personal change. It is not that I, or you, could not change elsewhere, it is just easier when everything around you is different and you must change or leave.
In doing the transition from first person to third person, from me to you, I can come to the point of this Panamania. Unless you are willing to undergo a grand transformation this is not the place for immigrants from the US or Canada. It is different here in Panama. If you intend to come here and can make the change you will not be comfortable returning to where you started, you will have morphed. If you are set in your ways, have a driven type A personality and cannot float with nothing working as you anticipate, visit for a holiday and go home.
Emigration from the US is becoming something considered by many people for economic reasons. I can live here on Social Security, that check might have covered my utility bills in Tucson. I had a significant gain in selling my house in Tucson, if I was still there and could find a buyer, that gain would be reduced. I was burned in multiple stock market cycles that cut into my retirement, I was not alone. Reality is making many people my age look at an option they never considered before, leaving the US to retire. The land of streets paved with gold is really a land of hard work and for many people, a treadmill to an early grave. In migrating to Panama or other places with a lower cost of living, people who are capable of change can live a lifestyle they cannot afford in the US; but they need to change!
If you are considering retirement in Latin America, the first and best advice I can give you to place you on the road to happiness is learn Spanish. You can never really integrate into the culture without the language, without that change you are limited to a small English speaking community. With the change, the culture and wonderful people living here are open to you.
Sell your car, sell your stuff, come here to start a new life and be ready to live longer and happier. Learn a new culture, learn a new language, learn to cook with seasonal ingredients, learn to dance Salsa, learn Merengue, try some good local rum, eat Sancocho and you will also change. Dr. Andrew Weil has written about how as we age we need to keep our brains growing to avoid dementia. Here, you can try to do something new. Panama lets retirees create businesses, do a business for fun, something you always wanted to do, a change.
My life changed in Panama, my children and friends in the US say I look and act younger today than I did four years ago when I left. I like the change, I feel the change, I plan to keep changing and growing, perhaps if you can make the change it will be good for you also. If you cannot change, do yourself a big favor, try Green Valley or Sun City, don’t come to Panama, you will hate it here.
Live and invest in Panama
Much of my last week was spent in the Capital, Panama City. I was invited to a conference entitled, Live and Invest in Panama. The conference was three days long and had more paid attendees then the last conference I attended. My role was to be on a round table of expat residents in the country. People mostly from the US and Canada seeking more information about a possible move or investment in Panama. In speaking to several people I discovered that they, for various reasons, are ready for a change. I planned to voice the reality of living here, not a fantasy. After talking to people and listening to why they want to change their lives, I am once again sold on how lucky those of us who live here are.
The conference was very well done and if the sponsors, Live and Invest Overseas, do it again it recommends it to anyone considering a move. There were presentations about the law, real estate, visa options, banking, insurance, health care and more. Literally, anything you might want to know before making a move, including the very real warning Panama is not for everyone.
One notable presenter was Rinalda Mata-Kelly a well respected lawyer who has spoken multiple times in Boquete. She announced that the very day of the presentation, 24 Feb, the immigration ministry made an important change. Because they are still choking on the number of applications for visas they have changed the temporary interim card for Pensionado visas in the queue from 90 days to one year. This means if you have a Pensionado visa pending, the next time you go to immigration for a temporary visa it will issued be for one year, not 90 days.
In addition Rainalda discussed property taxes, with a reminder that there is a window until the end of June 2010 to have your property reappraised, raise the value and reduce the tax rate to 1% permanently. The current rate for land and non-exempt improvements varies from zero for the first $30,000 up to 2.1%. This voluntary reappraisal will lock the rate at 1%; I am in the middle of this process now.
My new appraisal was done last week by Luis Caballero, of CETSA in David ( If you want contact info email me). The cost of appraisal was $200 plus tax. I picked it up today and handed it off to my lawyer. I am not sure how they can do valuations here, there are no comps from past sales. Still due to some amazing reality of Panama and it’s continued growth the appraised value of my land increased 25% in three and a half years. Even with that increase in appraised value I will see a reduction in my land taxes. My house value more than doubled but after investing in improvements that was not a surprise, but due to the exemption on the taxes for improvements that increase in value does no damage to my tax bill. This is a win, win if you have dirt currently valued at more than $30,000.00.
Scotia Bank was at the conference and to my surprise, they told me they will lend money to Pensionados for new house purchases and even home equity loans.
One more exciting thing, good or bad is that the government is going to spend about $800,000,000 dollars on improvements in the interior of the country. This list includes making the airport in David 737 friendly for COPA and others, a possible echo of the Liberia airport in Costa Rica. When the Liberia airport was built the entire region exploded economically.
In addition I heard talk of the four-lane expansion from David to Boquete and worse, talk of a road from Boquete to someplace in Bocas del Toro. Worse because if they create such a road it might be an environmental disaster as well as an annual washout. It will also encourage more people to visit Boquete, encourage more people to move to Boquete and turn Boquete in the dreaded Aspen of Panama, we have everything but the snow already.
Panamanian 20 – Musings from the beach
This 20th Panamanian was motivated by this comment on a post I made about a brush fire in Boquete Panama.
That is a total shame, It’s just down right pitiful that people continue to put up with those conditions. No police, No firefighters, No medical support, crooked real estate transactions, etc.. What’s the point in living there (Boquete Panama)?”
Rather than just respond to Bob in a flippant manner I wanted to stop and reflect over the past two years and eight months since I arrived in Boquete Panama. The question “What’s the point of living there?” is simple but evokes a good self-exploration for a meaningful response.
The answer might be different for anyone else answering, but in part, if might be the same. The reasons why I first came to Boquete Panama are a good starting point.
I had reached a turning point in my life, perhaps better said, an opportunity to evolve to a new level. My youngest child graduated high school and decided she did not want to live at home and go to University. She wanted the adventure of living out of her childhood space. My income was portable, my house was salable and I desired a change of life. In fact, I had spent several years exploring options of places to live. Forty years in the desert was enough, even in the bible.
My decision on Panama was based on many things. I considered a lower cost of living, lower taxes, easy visa requirements, common currency, rapid appreciation of real estate values and the English speaking community and climate in Boquete. I wanted a change culture and I wanted to learn a new language. Growing emotionally, socially and intellectually were high on my list. After living in cities all my life, rural life would be new an experience. These reasons are not for everyone but the common theme is leaving the treadmill of the past; change. I thrive on change.
Panama is a land for the opportunist. A land of opportunity for anyone who wishes to create something new. It is also a place to retire and be reborn into a new being, one you wished you could have become before. If you are reading these prose you have seen me become what some now refer to as a journalist. That was not even something on my mind before I was pruned back and reborn in Panama.
Why Panama today?
Despite the lack of some services, despite the wild west attitude of lawlessness and in some cases disorder, Panama is great. The lack of structure provides opportunity. The warmth of the common person provides sustenance for the soul.
As my language skills have grown so has my ability to make friends who speak little or no English. I can now have a rudimentary conversation with a Taxi driver or clerk in a store. This slow migration across a cultural divide has added depth to my experience and future here. There is no question in my mind that learning Spanish is critical to happiness here, it is also good exercise for the brain.
I am writing this from the beach, watching the sun rise slowly over the Pacific at Playa Blanca. Here the Pacific can be to your east also. Less than two hours from downtown Panama City there is a long expanse of the Pacific. It is rapidly developing into condos and hotels. Beautiful beach, opportunistic developers and an opportunity for affordable retirement for many people from the northlands. There are new condos here for under $100,000. A person of modest income can afford a home in the mountains, the city and on the beach in Panama.
Less than thirty minutes closer to Panama City is the town of Coronado. Coronado has long been a beach town for weekend migration for city dwellers. There are two large shopping centers sprouting in Coronado. The beaches of Panama are blooming.
The Panama of twenty years ago is a distant memory and hopefully, those days of darkness can not return once light and opportunity shine upon a people. There is still poverty in Panama, there is also great wealth but what is striking is the emerging middle class. A growing middle class and a cultural fusion from around the world is moving this country. In time it will effect the legal system, government as it is already changing businesses.
In less than three years I can see a domestication of this country. The change starts in Panama, jumps to Chiriqui and then is filling in the country between. This pattern of change is in part what drove me out of Arizona. Here I am watching with some degree of joy and equal trepidation. If Panama can reduce corruption and enforce its own laws there will be order to the growth; if not chaos.
Why do I like Panama?
Bob, I love Panama, I love the difference, I love the opportunity, I love the people, I love the geography. Despite all the flaws we can recognize from our life experience the shear pleasures of life here counterbalance and outweigh the negatives.
Panamanian 19 – Frauds, thieves, and lying liars
The freedom to write freely in Panama is tempered by law. Similar laws are present in most of Latin American. These laws are similar to Slander and Liable in English Common law, but they have some significant differences. In Panama the Laws are called Calumnia e Injuria, Denuncia Contra Faltas al Honor (Offenses against honor) and that is the rub. You can be hauled into a court on a criminal charge, not just civil, if you insult someone’s honor. Here, in addition to buyer beware is is also speaker beware I do not practice law in Panama and will not interpret this law except to state, be very careful what you say or print about anyone in this or other Latin American Countries. If you are interested in more information Freedomhouse.org is a good place to start.
With that stated I want to do some nameless warning. There are thieves, frauds and liars in copious quantity in Panama as well as all other places. Here they often continue to slither along unmolested by the law or the press. The press can be disinterested or intimidated, the authorities can too often be assuaged in other ways.
Many of these scammers are traditional carpet baggers, people who speak perfect English, come from outside of Panama, have learned the language and made the contacts to allow them to defraud newer immigrants.
The dilemma is how to sort the frauds from those who are honest and sincere in helping with your transition. Both are in business, one to steal your money the other provide fair value for it.
The counsel I can give here is generic and although I wish I could list some names the laws cited above make it impossible to do so even when the facts are clear and truthful.
So here are some suggestions to the new residents looking for homes, land or businesses and who are not culturally inoculated yet.
1. Move slowly. Do not jump into any “great” deals.
(Great deals, buy now or you will lose it are PT Barnum deals; fools deals)
2. Trust no one until you understand their motivations.
(This is a land of kickbacks and finders fees)
3. Do NOT purchase land or a home without YOUR OWN Lawyer.
(Don’t share a lawyer, the profession is not bound by the same ethical rules found in many countries)
4. Find a lawyer who is recommended by someone you trust and who has worked with them recently. (There are lawyers great and bad here like anyplace else. Some are great until they have too many clients and then become not so great.)
5. Verbal contracts are worth NOTHIING, if it is not in writing it did not happen. Do NOT sign anything unless it has been explained to you by a disinterested translator in your native language and written in both your language and Spanish, then reviewed by your lawyer. (All legal documents in Panama are in Spanish. Many Notaries ask if you understand the content and then will certify it was translated for you. If a notary stamps that it was read to you in English whether it was or not you have little to argue about in a court room.)
6. If you invest or acquire a business or property, research the tax implications here and your home country before, not after the acquisition.
(Not all houses and not all properties are tax exempt despite what you might have been told. There are many taxes including Capital gains and income taxes in Panama)
7. Avoid slick sales people who can do it all, find you land, contractors and supervise construction; they never seem to finish the jobs. ( Ask around about people who have worked with these guys before falling into their webs)
8. Work with a licensed Real Estate person, if you do not you have less legal recourse if you are defrauded. (Licensed Real Estate Salespeople are bonded and are regulated by a government agency.)
9. If you build, research your builder before contracting. Pay incrementally on completion of pre-agreed stages. Have penalty clauses for late completion. Most important plan on living on the job site from start to end to ensure you are getting what you expected. ( Expect things to take much longer than promised so be sure your penalty clauses have teeth)
10. Finally back to the first item, move slowly, research everything and verify everything twice with different sources before you jump. Expect no help from the law, you are on your own here in the wild west of Panama.
Panamanian 18- Economic reality
It has been twenty-seven months since I moved to Boquete Panama and five months since I took the time for a real status update on how the move has changed my life. The operative phrase is a complete transition. Panamanian 17 was a semi-humorous attempt to point out some of the realities of a move, this one is more focused, especially in light of the economic meltdown in most of the world.
Nothing has changed about the challenges of changing the culture, language and in geographic transition; this is not for everyone. If you really like the US, Canada or Western Europe and thrive on being a consumer this is still not the place for you. Panama City might suffice but it is a city, not one I particularly enjoy but certainly a city with all the same virtues or lack of such as any other in the world.
My focus is on the third leg of moving to rural Panama, the rural part. My life experience prior to Panama was that of an urban dweller in a marriage to a woman with impeccable taste and the need for the stimulation of a population center. I now live on a mountain top 15-20 minutes by 4×4 or horse from town; a major transition. It did not work for my wife, she did not like it here, she is back in the US. I however have decided to stay because I love it here. It might be that I would have enjoyed a rural life in the US also but I also wanted the challenges of a new culture and language. I needed to not only leap off the treadmill but to grow intellectually also.
Moving to Panama was probably the best decision I have ever made in my life, many reasons are too personal for this blog but there are several open for discussion.
As I watch my 401k become less than what I invested in it I am not concerned about my ability to survive here. I have no mortgage to pay, my taxes are limited to paying on a portion of my land that is not considered a farm, a 5% sales tax and a small annual auto registration fee. I have one four day a week farm worker and a one day housekeeper. Together including the farm worker’s social security taxes I payout about $300 a month. Unlike many ex-pats I did not build a large house, I bought a small existing residence, nothing fancy but livable on an existing farm. My cost of living is not much more than $1,500 a month, less than just my utility bills in Arizona. My neighbors are wonderful, a mixture of Americans, Europeans, Canadians and Panamanians some of whom have lived on this mountain for generations.
Last night a neighbor stopped over for dinner and we discussed the economic meltdown in the US and much of the world. I observed that aside from seeing a decrease in real estate sales nothing much seems to have changed. No banks have closed their doors, the price of gasoline and Diesel has plummeted, inflation rates have reduced and life is continuing.
Rural Panama has become a very attractive place to be right now. We reside in a culture in which many people use a horse for primary transportation. We buy a months worth of propane for $5.35 and see many people walking their cylinders for miles to get a refill. Local people raise their own food and look at the decline of the US economy with curiosity, it has not affected them at all.
If you are considering a transition and have considered all the issues this is a great time to seize the moment. I would suggest you do a few things differently than I did. Move here, rent for six months or more and be sure it is correct for you before you buy anything and learn at least some Spanish before you come. Panamanians are wonderful people and very accustomed to people from all over the globe but a little Spanish goes a long way in showing you understand it is their country not yours. The ugly American is here too, screaming in English and wondering why people ignore him; if that is your attitude don’t come.
It has been said before but I want to add emphasis, if your primary goal in moving to Panama is to save money and live as you do in the US DO NOT DO IT. This is a different country, a different culture and the cost of duplicating what you are leaving is higher than staying there. You must be attuned to and desire the experience of a new culture, an opportunity to become part of something different. Boquete is a unique synthesis of rural Panama and a thriving anglophone culture supported by many locals who benefit from us being here. It however is not a rural town in the US or Canada.
There is no unemployment in Boquete but that does not mean you can get a job here. You can start a business but you cannot get a job unless you are a Panamanian citizen or can obtain a work permit, which is unlikely. Even if you could get a job you might be disappointed in your paycheck, labor is not expensive here, $10 -$12 a day is a decent wage.
What you can do here is live well, stretch your savings and survive on Social Security, unfortunately, Medicare does not work here. Do consider that although visiting a doctor for a consultation is less than your insurance copay, about $7 in Boquete, a major illness and hospitalization is still not pocket change. There are insurance options available but none are free.
You can live here including rent for about $2,000 a month, living well above the local norm. You can find food that is overall higher quality and fresher than what you can find in the US. You will find a active anglophone and Spanish speaking community and all the social constructs each has created. If your fantasy is to be farmer want to give it a try this is a land in which virtually anything will grow. If you want to start a business you can. You can be like so many who have proceeded in the past few hundred years and reinvent yourself in a land of reduced pressure. Sit back and watch the world go by and create your own microcosm but only if you have an external income.
Also consider by my anecdotal observations about half the people who arrive here from the US leave within two years. This type of life change is not for everyone. Not every couple that comes here leaves together; moving here is unlikely to heal a broken marriage. If drinking is an issue for either member of a couple it will get worse here. Rural Panama may be paradise to many, including me but it is not paradise to everyone so think deeply before leaping.