As the world continues on collective pause, we’re taking the opportunity to regroup on our top choices for where to think about spending your time and money overseas.
No, you may not want or be able to hop on a plane to explore these destinations in person right now. But our current circumstances are temporary.
Where should you think about taking a firsthand look after the lockdowns have been lifted?
We have long believed that Panama qualifies as the world’s best offshore haven. We’d double down on that position today. Panama is a genuine business center that has been attracting big numbers of foreign investors from across the globe for two decades. This country’s economy is not built on one pool of buyers or end-users, and it is not anything as vulnerable as a typical second-home market.
And underpinning it all is the Panama Canal, which generates 40% of the country’s GDP. That’s a big economic backstop.
Panama uses the U.S. dollar as its currency, meaning no exchange-rate risk, and it is home to more than 90 international banks, making it Latin America’s banking hub.
The government is pro-business and foreigner-friendly, meaning outsized incentives for foreign retirees and investors, and the country offers more than a dozen visa options (including the Friendly Nations visa that grants work permits), making it easy to become a full-time resident if that’s something you’d like to do.
In the current context, Panama stands out perhaps more than ever as a top choice for property investment. Key local developers here have long track records spanning decades, meaning you can feel confident when buying, and, right now they’re more open to flexible and creative financing rates and plans than they have been in a long time.
In addition, Panama is a premier eco-travel destination and a nature-lover’s paradise. This country is home to more than 940 species of birds as well as 250 mammals and 354 reptiles and amphibians… from howler monkeys to caimans, from coati mundi to turtles, from ocelots to crocodiles, and from pelicans and toucans to king crabs and iguanas… plus the Central American tapir, the American crocodile, the scarlet macaw, many species of eagle, humpback whales, dolphins, and hammerhead sharks…
The country is blessed with two long coasts and myriad sand-fringed islands, plus some of the best deep-sea fishing, surfing, snorkeling, and scuba diving anywhere. Around its Coiba Island lies the largest coral reef on the Pacific side of the Americas.
Panama is an established medical tourism destination and home to the Johns Hopkins-affiliated Punta Pacífica Hospital in Panama City.
This country is home to both World Heritage Sites (Casco Viejo, Panama Viejo, and the forts of San Lorenzo and Portobelo) and UNESCO Natural World Heritage Sites (the province of Darién, Coiba National Park, and the La Amistad Reserve)…
Without question, this is the best place anywhere in the world today to start a business (that’s why we moved here from France in 2008)…
Panama is also one of the world’s true tax havens, a place where you can live and do business tax-free.
Of course, no place is perfect, including Panama.
We pride ourselves on being straight shooters. We tell it like it is—the good, the bad, and the maddening.
In that spirit, I’d like to offer five more practical things to understand about this country where we’ve chosen to base ourselves for the past dozen years.
Panama has an awful lot to recommend it.
It also comes with peculiarities and quirks that some days will conspire to send you screaming into your pillow… including:
In Panama City taxis are plentiful but sometimes impossible to hail. When you give the driver your destination, it’s not uncommon for him to reply, “No voy,” or “Nope, not going there.”
It is illegal for taxi drivers to refuse to take you to a destination, but that doesn’t stop most of them from doing just that.
The best way to find a taxi is in front of a hotel or on a corner where cars pass in numerous directions. Avoid enlisting the help of hotel staff, though, to hail a cab… or you’ll pay an inflated “hotel fare.”
When you do find a driver willing to take you where you want to go, don’t pay more than US$5 for a trip within the downtown area. A trip to Casco Viejo should cost about US$5 to US$6, a trip to the Causeway US$10. The fare to or from the airport should be US$30.
Taxis are also easy to come by in Panama’s interior towns. A ride anywhere within a town shouldn’t cost more than US$2.
Panama City taxi fares were formalized in 2008, when a fare chart was published. Officially, fares are now figured on a zone basis. Still, an unscrupulous taxi driver (there’s no shortage of them) will quickly realize when a fare is unfamiliar with the city and try to charge two or three times the going rate. Have an idea of what your ride should cost before you get in.
It is not uncommon for taxi drivers to pick up other fares while you are in the car. It is their way of getting the biggest bang for their miles. This can extend the duration of your drive and could present a safety issue, so if you are not comfortable with having someone else in the taxi, let the driver know before you set off.
Decent road maps of Panama can be hard to come by, and some maps of this country are just plain wrong. Car rental agencies generally offer the most accurate maps of Panama City.
A GPS is a good idea in this country. Digital maps of Panama can be downloaded for car navigation units and handheld GPS devices for as little as US$29.
If you’ve got a smartphone, you can use a local SIM card to access Google Maps and the handy map app called Waze. Both are reliable in Panama.
#3: Entry Visa
The stamp in your passport serves as your tourist visa and is valid for 180 days. You no longer pay for it on arrival. Now the cost is wrapped up in your airline ticket.
It used to be possible to extend your stay as a tourist in Panama by making a border run to, say, Costa Rica. You’d hop the border and then return a day or two later to be granted a new tourist visa.
This was always technically illegal… but now it’s also nearly impossible to pull off. Nowadays, you won’t be allowed to enter the country without showing proof of onward travel within your visa period. Generally, airlines request a plane ticket, but a bus ticket can also work.
Panama has two seasons—rainy and dry… sometimes referred to as green and golden… or winter and summer.
Rainy season runs from May through November, while dry season is generally December through April. In recent years, though, these periods have been shifting. The best idea is to keep an umbrella handy at all times.
The Azuero peninsula is considered one of the driest areas of the country. Even in rainy season, days go by without a sprinkle. The provinces of Bocas del Toro, Colón, and Darién receive the most annual rainfall.
#5: Mail Service
There isn’t any.
That is, Panama does not have door-to-door mail delivery service.
The best option for receiving mail in this country is with the help of a mail-forwarding service. These are typically based in Miami. We’ve had good experiences with Mail Boxes Etc., which has many locations across the country.