Betsy Czark and her husband Reyn Vayda came to Panama when their daughter was 5. That was 11 years ago.
What inspired this couple to pack up their 5-year-old and move their little family from Seattle to Panama?
“We decided,” Betsy explained to the group assembled in the meeting rooms of the Hotel Central in Panama’s Casco Viejo for this week’s Live and Invest in Panama Conference, “that we wanted a big change in our lives.
“We wanted to walk away from the stress of our life in the States. We wanted our daughter to learn Spanish. And we wanted to explore new investment and business opportunities.
“But mostly,” Betsy continued, “we wanted a simpler life.”
Once they’d made the decision to explore options for transplanting themselves and their daughter to a new country, Betsy and Reyn made a list of what mattered to them most.
At the top of the list was: The beach.
“The beach is important,” Betsy told the crowd. “We knew that we wanted the beach in our lives.”
Safety was also a concern. Again, the couple was moving with a 5-year-old.
Betsy and Reyn wanted a place that was affordable, and they wanted good health care… that was also affordable.
“In 2005,” Reyn explained, “I broke a toe in Seattle. For the five-minute doctor visit and X-rays, I was in for US$650.
“After we made our move to Panama,” he continued, “I broke another toe surfing. I went to the local doctor and paid US$5 for the same diagnosis and prescription that I’d gotten in Seattle (that is, tape your broken toe to the neighbor toe).”
But we’re getting ahead of Betsy and Reyn’s story…
The next step, they realized, was to spend time in each country to see where they felt most at home. They began their boots-on-the-ground scouting in Panama.
“We made a list of specific places in the country we wanted to visit,” Betsy explained. “We identified 15 places altogether.
“But no place was connecting with us… not El Valle, not Pedasí, not Chitré, not Boquete…
“Then we made our way to Cerro Punta. This is 2,000 feet above Boquete… and really cold. During our four-day stay in Cerro Punta, the three of us—Reyn, me, and our 5-year-old daughter—slept in long pants and jackets all huddled together in one bed.
“Cerro Punta taught us,” Betsy continued, “that the Panama highlands were not for us.”
So the couple took out a map of Panama and looked for more choices down at sea level.
Not too far away from where they were in Cerro Punta, Betsy noticed a spot on the coast.
“There,” she said, pointing at the map, “let’s go there.”
The spot on the map Betsy had identified was Puerto Armuelles.
“We knew this was the place for us right away,” she told the group. “We knew we didn’t need to look anywhere else in Panama… and that we didn’t need to make the trips to Costa Rica or Mexico.
“On the surface, Puerto Armuelles at the time was very down-at-the-heels,” Betsy continued. “This was the town that bananas built… a Chiquita base. Then, when Chiquita pulled out, the local economy disappeared overnight… and the town collapsed.
“When we saw it for the first time, houses were abandoned, and doors and windows were boarded up. It was a ghost town. But, beneath that sad veneer, we perceived an interesting and charming place full of history and soul.”
Reyn was a builder in Seattle… and now the couple is focused on building what they call “The Panama Living House,” the house that they think is ideal for living in Panama’s coastal climate.
“When I asked expats about their experience living at the beach here in Panama,” Reyn told us, “they all made the point that they spend 80% or 90% of their time on their porches… so I thought why not make a lot more porch?
“Our Panama Living House is about 60% ‘porch’—that is, more than half of it is open to the fresh air and the sea breeze. The bedrooms, bathrooms, and media room are indoors… everything else, including the kitchen, dining room, and living room, could be considered outdoors. They are under roof but not completely enclosed.
“We find it perfect for making the most of the tropical beach lifestyle we’re so enjoying here in Puerto Armuelles.”
Today, 11 years after they made their leap, what do Betsy and Reyn love about Panama? In their own words…
- Time. We have time… we take time… we enjoyed our time together…
- We live very close to nature…
- We live outdoors much of the time all year round… temperatures are 70 to 85 degrees 12 months a year…
- We eat healthy… buying fish off the boat from the fishermen and produce direct from the local farmers…
- The relaxed pace of life. Really, this is the main reason we made the move…
Of course, nothing and nowhere is perfect. What don’t Betsy and Reyn like about Panama? Again, here’s their downsides list, in their own words…
- Mañana… mañana… mañana… everything takes forever…
- Your time isn’t respected. No one is ever on time for anything and nothing is done on schedule…
- The “One More Thing Syndrome”… no matter how prepared you think you are, you’ll find that you always need one more thing… one more document, one more stamp, one more signature, to pay one more fee, and on and on…
- Lack of discretion. Privacy is not an expectation…
- Complete lack of customer service. It’s not that customer service is bad… it’s that there is absolutely no tradition of or value placed on customer service… not in any industry or under any circumstances…
P.S. Betsy and Reyn are among more than three-dozen Panama expats sharing their stories, adventures, discoveries, recommendations, successes, failures, and personal referrals with all those in attendance at this week’s Live and Invest in Panama Conference.
Here was one more from an attendee:
“On Nov. 4, I retired.
“On Nov. 5, I was in my truck with a friend headed south to Panama.
“We drove down from the States. It took 11 days. Really, the drive takes eight days. But we spent three days crossing the borders.
“I made a mistake when showing my paperwork to the customs guy. Long story short… he impounded my truck!
“And he made me deliver it to the impound lot. I was assigned a customs agent to drive along with my friend and me from the border to the lot.
“However, we arrived in Panama City after the lot had closed for the day, so the customs guy had to spend the night with us. The next morning, the three of us drove back to the impound lot and left the truck.
“Then the customs guy got into a taxi and headed back to the border for his next ride-along, I guess.
“Now, three months later, I’m still trying to get all my paperwork in order to get my truck released. Finally, I’m realizing that I need some professional help. That’s really why I’m here at the event this week. I need a recommendation for a Panama attorney who knows what he’s doing!
“But it’s all good. This is turning out to be the adventure of my lifetime… just as I hoped it would be… and I’m only just getting started…”
–Attendee at this week’s Live and Invest in Panama Conference