Expat Life In Paitilla: Panama City’s Comfortable Neighborhood

A Year In Paitilla

When we were planning for our move from Paris to Panama City three-and-a-half years ago, Lief and I had to make a choice:

Where in the city should we locate ourselves?

We knew Panama City well enough to understand that, while it may be small, Panama’s capital is eclectic. Different neighborhoods offer very different ways of life.

I wanted Casco Viejo, the old quarter, where, centuries ago, the Spanish and then the French hung their hats when they were in town. I like old buildings the way some women like new shoes, and the Casco, as it’s known today, boasts one of the world’s finest collections of Spanish- and French-colonial structures, plus shaded plazas and parks and ocean views in every direction. It’s one of the few areas of this city made for walking. In most of the rest of Panama City, you have no choice but to brave the chaotic traffic. In Casco Viejo, you can wander from plaza to plaza, from café to café, at your own pace, as you might in a European city. That appeals to me.

Lief, on the other hand, wanted to be based in the center of new Panama City, in or near the banking district, where the infrastructure we knew we’d need to launch our new business would be most easily tapped into.

Living in the heart of the new Panama City, though, meant living in a high-rise apartment tower. The thought of that appealed to me not at all.

In the end, I acquiesced. Lief was right, at least for the short term. Better to be based where the infrastructure would be more developed and most reliable. Otherwise, we’d be creating, perhaps, unnecessary business challenges for ourselves during this getting-started phase.

We found and rented an apartment in a brand-new tower in Punta Paitilla, on Calle Winston Churchill, that became our home for our first year in Panama City.

It was a good first step. In Paitilla, you’re very nearby two of the city’s biggest malls, as well as two of its most expat-friendly grocery stores (Riba Smith and the kosher Deli K) and what has become my favorite furniture store in the country.

A few blocks from our apartment also was a pharmacy, a dry cleaner’s, a hardware store, a pet shop, and a small greengrocer, plus a movie theater, a bowling alley, a budget-level hotel where visiting friends and family could stay, a higher-end hotel, and the Hard Rock Café. All these nearby resources made our adjustment period (including, and importantly, furnishing our new digs) easier to navigate.

As Lief had predicted, life in Paitilla was comfortable and convenient. From this central base, during our year in residence, we were able to explore the city, get our bearings, and figure our next, longer-term move.

This first apartment was rented (rather than acquired), because, while we agreed that Paitilla made good sense as a first step, we were both pretty sure it wasn’t where we wanted to be based in Panama City long term. We were right.

The reasons, though, why we decided that Paitilla didn’t suit us long term, were less to do with Paitilla than to do with high-rise living. Paitilla we liked. This neighborhood is not only convenient and user-friendly, but it’s also one of the greener parts of Panama City, with a large park overlooking the Bay of Panama where Jack could play catch with his dad and ride his skateboard with his friends.

As well, Paitilla is a residential zone. You find the grocery stores and other shops I’ve mentioned, but no office towers or government buildings. While much of the rest of the heart of Panama City is clearly open for business, Paitilla remains an enclave reserved for families. You see children riding their bicycles and nannies pushing their charges around in strollers, not businessmen in suits rushing from meeting to meeting, as you do in Marbella, say.

Paitilla is one of Panama City’s most established neighborhoods, a place where the upper-middle class has been raising its children for generations. Today, 20- and 30-something Panamanians with the resources to afford it prefer Costa del Este. Still, Paitilla has a lot to offer a family with young children.

What it doesn’t have are houses. This peninsula is a jungle of high-rise apartment towers. They all have “Social Areas,” with swimming pools, party rooms, and, sometimes, playgrounds and gyms, but, living in a high-rise, you don’t have a patio or a back yard.

And, while some of Paitilla’s towers are brand-new and fully loaded (in terms of amenities), they couldn’t be described as charming. Built of concrete, glass, and steel, they’re hardly cozy.

Long term, we knew that we wanted both a garden area and a place that felt less like the big city and more like home. Since that first year in Paitilla, we’ve made two subsequent moves, trying other areas of this city on for size. We’re settled now in a house in Marbella with a big back patio bordered by gardens with mature trees and flowers. We even have room for a basketball hoop. Finally, we feel like we’ve found our place in this city.

But that’s us. Depending on your situation and your preferences, Paitilla…or some other neighborhood entirely…could be what you’re looking for in your new home in Panama City.

Here’s my real point: Wherever you’re considering launching your new life overseas, give yourself time to get to know your new city (or town or beach) before committing to long-term digs.

It takes time to peel back the layers of a place…to penetrate beneath the tourist level…to get a feel for what it’d be like to be a resident, rather than a visitor.

Kathleen Peddicord