One of the things we love about Panama is the diversity of lifestyle options this little country has to offer. From First World city living and luxury beach communities to off-grid frontiers and simple country life… this country has something to suit everyone.
Casco Viejo, Panama City
While Panama’s hustle-bustle capital city isn’t for everyone, the charm of Casco Viejo is hard to resist. The narrow brick-paved streets, colonial-style plazas, historic churches, and other centuries-old architectural treasures offer a welcome Old World respite alongside 21st-century boomtown Panama City.
Today’s Casco Viejo (Spanish for “old town”) is a more comfortable place to live than ever, thanks to recent infrastructure (especially road and access) improvement projects and the opening in the past few years of many hip and trendy restaurants, cafes, nightclubs, rooftop bars, and shops.
The best way to take it all in is to do as a tourist does. Buy a quintessential Panama hat from a hole-in-the-wall shop, grab a rum cocktail, and settle down in a shady spot to watch this historic heart of Panama go about its business.
Just off-coast from Panama City, Isla Contadora is part of the Pearl Islands, 1 of a string of 200 or so. The archipelago is steeped not only in natural beauty but a rich history, too. Since 1600, it’s been sought out by everyone from wandering islanders in canoes to pirates and Spanish conquistadors. “Contadora” means “counting house” in Spanish… and this is where the Spanish colonizers and corsairs retreated to count their booty.
Contadora today is home to a small community of expats from all over the world. Foreign retirees are attracted by the opportunity for private, secure island living within a quick ferry ride of Panama City… and without the fear of hurricanes.
Life on Contadora, where most residents get around on golf carts, is simple, laid back, and focused on the water and white-sand beaches. The cost of living here is slightly higher than on the mainland, as it typically is on any island, because of the logistics required to import products and services. Generally, what costs US$1 in Panama City costs US$1.50 on Contadora.
Meantime, with major infrastructure upgrades (including a new water- and waste-treatment facility and the construction of a new dock and public ramp) currently in the works, the quality of life on little Contadora is improving in real time.
The so-called City Beaches, just an hour west of Panama City, are the nearest escape from the hustle, bustle, traffic, and congestion of the capital, and, every Friday afternoon, Panama City sees an exodus, as residents hit the highway, cross the Bridge of the Americas, and make their way to this seaside escape.
Thanks to its proximity and accessibility, this stretch of coastline has been aggressively developed over the past two decades and today is home to several big and growing expat communities. This can be a plus and a minus. Settling here, you’d have instant friends and support… but some find this now well-developed coast, lined with gated communities and high-rise ocean-view towers, over-crowded.
If highlands living is what you’re after, take a look at Santa Fe in Veraguas Province. This unassuming, unsung town of about 3,000 people offers the advantages of far better known Boquete (mild climate and clean mountain air) without the established expat community and at a much lesser cost.
Indeed, Santa Fe is one of the most affordable spots in Panama. A couple could retire here on about US$1,000 per month.
The living would be sweet and simple. Much of the activity here centers around the river, which is wide and flows quickly at some points. Tourists navigate it in inner tubes… locals bathe and wash their clothes in it… and children delight in it on hot Saturday afternoons…
On the hillsides all around, bougainvillea, hibiscus, and jasmine bloom in abundance.
Coming infrastructure improvements could mean big opportunity for speculators and investors as well as retirees.
The oblong landmass that dangles from Panama’s southern coast known as the Azuero Peninsula is surrounded on three sides by this country’s finest coastlines, making it an excellent staging point for forays into the Pacific Ocean.
This is the place to base yourself if your idea of the good life includes regular snorkeling, diving, surfing, boating, and deep-sea fishing adventures.
Pedasí, on this eastern Azuero coast, is a charming and wholesome beach town of about 2,500 people. Once a sleepy fishing village, Pedasí is an increasingly recognized destination among tourists, expats, retirees, and investors.
Still, Pedasí is steeped in tradition, its economy and culture centered on cattle ranching, farming, and fishing. Its central plaza stands witness to the town’s Spanish-colonial roots, and its Iglesia de Santa Catalina dates to 1785.
In Pedasí, old men still linger in the plaza wearing traditional straw hats and sandals… women, during festivals, still don polleras (colorful, multilayered folk dresses)… and, at dusk, people all over town still take to their porches to welcome the cool air of the evening…
Chitré, a fast-growing outpost in the center of Panama, offering all the amenities of a major metropolitan area despite its small size, is considered one of the country’s most up-and-coming areas. A few hundred expats call Chitré and environs home… although you might live here for years before you stumble across any.
Most of the foreign retirees who come here integrate well into the local community, making Chitré a top option if you’re seeking a local lifestyle in el interior (i.e., anywhere in Panama that’s not Panama City).
Chitré is located on the east coast of the Azuero Peninsula, which is considered the cradle of Panamanian culture. Its history dates back thousands of years, and traditions are kept very much alive here, with festivities that honor the old ways of life held throughout the year.
The Azuero Peninsula’s western coast is considerably less developed than its eastern counterpart. Of the few towns that dot this side of the peninsula, the one that stands out is Torio—the de-facto social center for the 300-or-so foreign retirees who currently call this part of Panama home year-round.
This side of Azuero is, in many ways, a frontier. Miles of undeveloped shoreline are sandwiched between Pacific waters on one side and raw jungle on the other, with one meandering and badly rutted road connecting the few towns that dot this side of the peninsula.
To find the best beaches in any country with a Pacific coast, follow the surfers. In Panama, they’ll lead you to this stretch of the eastern Azuero Peninsula.
Development in this part of the country is accelerating, and just this month Panama’s new president announced that the road here will be redone. When the two-year project is completed, this glorious stretch of coastline will become far more accessible.