Retirement is looming. With it comes the challenge of deciding where to live. I plan to take the next three years to figure that out, living in various locations in Panama for three to six months at a time. But how do I know where I even want to go?
I’m narrowing down my options by reading Live and Invest Overseas’ publications as well as other expat resources. I will follow this up with reconnaissance trips, or short exploratory excursions to locations of interest, as soon as international travel opens back up.
These won’t just be vacations… They’ll be opportunities to learn what it’s like to live in a place. These trips require planning and forethought, but they’re totally worthwhile. I’ve made two exploratory trips to Panama, as well as one to the Dominican Republic and one to Belize, and I’ve learned a ton…
Here are some tips for making the most of your reconnaissance trip to Panama. Even if you already have your retirement spot in mind, it never hurts to explore other options before committing…
What To Check Out On A Reconnaissance Trip
Housing will always be your biggest expense, so make sure to choose wisely. Rules around property and land ownership in other countries aren’t always straightforward…
For example, in Panama, most of the land outside of the capital is untitled. This is tricky, because you increase the risk of disputes when you claim rights of possession on untitled land.
Avoid problems by getting a reputable lawyer and licensed real estate broker no matter where you’re looking.Get in touch with Live and Invest Overseas’ top Panama legal contact here.
Meeting with a reliable real estate agent will give you a feel for the community and insight into prices and availability in the housing market… But don’t let yourself be pressured into buying on your first trip. In fact, avoid any agent that tries to push you into a purchase. Visit different neighborhoods, discuss options, and get to know the community through first-hand experience.
My husband is a car guy, so this one is particularly hard for him. Do you really need a car to live in your chosen destination… or do you just want one? How flexible can you be with local transportation?
How does insurance work? What’s parking like? Traffic? These are all questions you can answer on a reconnaissance trip by talking with locals and experiencing them for yourself.
While on your trip, try out public transport: take a bus… hail a local taxi… The key is to explore all the options. For example, I drove once in Panama City during morning rush hour, and I swore I would never do it again.
3. Food & Dining
Rice and beans are a staple in Panama, as they are across Central America. If you don’t like rice and beans, consider an area that has more variety in local dishes. Americans have access to more cuisine variety than anyone else on Earth, so use your reconnaissance trip to figure out if you can adjust to a reduced selection.
The good news about retiring to Panama is that it has American-style supermarkets (selling American products) in most major commercial zones. Outside of the cities, processed foods, such as canned goods, cereal, and peanut butter, are unexpectedly expensive… even considered luxury items.
As a vegetarian, not every restaurant I go to in Panama meets my needs. I try to be flexible, sometimes ordering meatless side dishes, for example, because I don’t expect every regional Panamanian town to conform to my way of doing things.
If you have dietary restrictions, a reconnaissance trip will help you figure out if the limited selection of local foods is going to cut it for you.
What do you like to do? This seems like an obvious question, but if you’re prone to seasickness or aren’t a fan of the boat life, Bocas del Toro isn’t a good choice. If you love hiking and bird watching, Boquete or Volcán could be perfect for you.
Your hobbies and recreation activities will help you pin down where to retire. Choose a place that offers the things you love… but also explore the new. Potential interests may reveal themselves to you on your trip.
At the last Retire Overseas Conference, every destination-focused speaker encouraged attendees to learn the language of wherever they end up. I second that advice.
Speaking Spanish in Panama, though not mandatory, lets you engage with the local community. It’s a show of respect for the people and culture, indicating that you’re trying to become a part of it (not make it conform to you).
On a reconnaissance trip, you’ll find out what sort of classes are available or what language programs (Rosetta Stone, Babel, etc.) local expats have used. Don’t be shy about asking.
6. Health Care
Health care isn’t just about costs; it’s about availability. If you settle in Santa Fe, for instance, you have to be OK with the fact that the nearest hospital is an hour’s drive away.
That sort of isolation isn’t bad if you’re young and healthy, but if things change, it could be a problem. It’s great to get local residents’ perspectives on things like health care before you make a big move.
Every country has different requirements and different opportunities, depending on age, retirement status, marital status, etc. You can find a lot of information online. You can also use time on a reconnaissance trip to talk to expats or even meet with an immigration attorney to find out what you’ll need to do in advance.
8. Life Philosophy
Take your values and beliefs into consideration and consider how they’ll fit into the place you want to live as you explore. Is sustainability important to you? Recycling isn’t on people’s radar in the interior of Panama… Litter on the side of the roads, on beaches, and in the jungle is the norm.
If you’re a person of faith, you’ll want to find a community where you can freely practice your beliefs. Finding that on an exploratory trip will make your move that much easier.
How To Find Information
Google will only get you so far… there are so many conflicting opinions and ideas that it may not be useful at all. Following Live and Invest Overseas publications or attending a LIOS conferenceis a much better alternative.
Not only will you learn from people who are well-versed in living in different places, you’ll make connections—people you can meet up with when you’re on the ground and exploring. Don’t feel like you have to visit blindly and do everything on your own.
Check Out Local Blogs Or Online News Sources
Many overseas communities, especially those with big expat groups, have online blogs or newspapers. Become a regular reader of the place that interests you. If you read it before a reconnaissance trip, you’ll know more of what to expect, and if you read it after, you’ll be able to determine how realistic it is.
Get Outside Of The Resorts And Tourist Places
If you choose to retire overseas, you’re no longer a tourist. On a reconnaissance trip, you want to get out of the typical tourist spots… OK, the Hard Rock Hotel in Panama City is really cool and worth a visit, but don’t base your retirement move on it.
Check out neighborhood bars, find out which beaches the locals use, eat at restaurants that are family owned and run, and so on…
Talk To Locals
This is the single-most useful activity on a reconnaissance trip. Their perspective helped me understand everything better, from the reliability of utilities to how to bring a car into the country. Talking to other expats is useful and wise, too.