I don’t consider myself an investment-savvy person… Or at least I didn’t when I moved to Panama in 2005, at only 28 years old.
My reasons for leaving the States at the time were about having less, not more. I wanted to escape the consumerist culture of North America and live a simpler lifestyle.
Most of us have been seduced by a place while vacationing there, myself included. Adventure is around every corner when you have absolutely no responsibilities. It’s a reminder of what life should be like—relaxed and easy, with opportunities serendipitously presenting themselves.
Once at home, you may feel a gentle pull to return to the state of being on vacation. That dream—to quit your day job, sell it all, and relocate somewhere off the grid with hammocks, friendly neighbors, and dollar beers—silently persists…
You could open a bed-and-breakfast, a dive shop, a yoga studio… the possibilities seem endless as you start to review your skills and interests. You’ve noticed many expats “living the dream,” so you know it’s possible.
My Experience As An Entrepreneur In Panama
As an American who owned and operated a small hotel, healthy garden café, and wellness center in Santa Catalina, Panama, for over 13 years, I’m writing to tell you this: Yes, it is possible. I’m a hopeless optimist (and that’s probably what it takes) who believes that anything you set your mind to is possible!
Of course, you know it’ll be a lot of work, but what does that really mean? How do you know that living abroad and doing business in another country is right for you? Just how far will the experience stretch you out of your comfort zone? What does a career in the tourism industry really entail? How do we come to terms with the relaxed mañana mentality when we’re trying to offer first-world services?
I learned a lot jumping through many Panamanian hoops in the years my husband and I owned and operated La Buena Vida. We built everything from the ground up, with no real background in tourism or the restaurant business. We did many things on our own, including applying for residency after living in Panama for nine years as tourists.
We recently sold our small hotel and have made it to the other side, reaping the benefits of our inadvertent investment. Here are the answers to the questions above, as well as a bit of insight about what I would’ve done differently…
Is Owning A Business Abroad For You?
The only way you can know if living abroad and doing business as a foreigner is right for you is experiencing it. That doesn’t mean you have to jump right in, though. There are many ways to dip your toes in the water…
For example, volunteering within a tourism business, hotel or bed-and-breakfast, house-sitting for someone, or renting a house for an extended period of time (three months is a good start) are all ways to get your feet wet.
If you have the money, I highly suggest taking your time, living on the cheap, or finding a paid position somewhere. This gives you great insight as to what tourism is like and firsthand experience working in a team setting within another culture.
Where your comfort zone ends, growth begins. If you find yourself growing impatient or intolerant of cultural differences, the heat, insect bites, etc., that particular location may not be the place for you to flourish.
Tourism can be rewarding: You’ll meet people from all over the world, helping them navigate new territory and make lasting memories on their vacation. It also takes lots of energy. You always have to be “on” and friendly while answering the same questions day after day.
Depending on where you choose to relocate, the tourism market most likely has a high and a low season. This means working long hours or more intensely with larger volumes of people during part of the year, and then learning to budget, closing, or down-staffing during the off-season.
What’s the best way to deal with island time or mañana mentality to not get frustrated when people, especially employees, don’t meet your expectations? Our business required five to six employees in the low season and seven to eight in the high season.
I’ve personally run the gamut of coping skills in this area, from doing it myself to offering pay raises according to performance… Towards the end, right before we sold, I even adopted the “look away” mantra. Sadly, for my own mental health, I just needed to look away.
Ultimately, the way I cope is much like my perspective on life itself: We do best if we can count our blessings and acknowledge the positive attributes of others, accepting and letting go of what we can’t control. It comes down to choosing to focus on the positive and work with what you’ve got.
If you’re adaptable, you’ll do well, because let’s face it, you most likely aren’t the person who’ll single-handedly change an entire culture by example. Nor should you be. Isn’t diversity what drew you to your new exotic lifestyle in the first place?
I’ve learned that tourism can be very demanding, and how challenging it is depends directly on what type of tourist you receive. Working in the hostel industry brings clientele with lower expectations than hotels offering five-star services.
It also depends on your business model. Are you a type-A personality who believes consistency is key and being open six days a week is a must? Or could you adopt the tranquilo model and simply be open when you’re open?
You didn’t move to the beach for an 80-hour work week, did you? Be clear about how many hours you’re willing to spend daily or weekly on your venture, and then research your business ideas. This could be a good start to finding the right fit for you.
I personally was willing to oversee our restaurant, manage full-time, and waitress or cook when necessary for three to five years to get it off the ground. Before I knew it, 10 years had gone by, and I could no longer find the pleasure in doing the same tasks. Instead, I felt they were limiting my growth in other areas.
Would I Do It All Again?
I’m grateful for the experience and feel a sense of accomplishment for what my husband and I were able to create together, but no, probably not… at least not to the same degree.
I loved the social aspect of our restaurant, which only served breakfast and lunch. But combined with the hotel, massage, gift shop, yoga classes, and other property management endeavors, it became too much for me.
We lived on-site for the first 12 years, so we were generally at work 12 to 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, with short breaks for walks, surf, or swim. If you can afford to live away from your business, it’ll help moderate your schedule immensely.
Long-term rentals or managing property for other people who are seasonal expats is a great business that’s much less demanding. It offers the chance to work in the tourism industry on a smaller scale, renting your investment property or other people’s homes to an international clientele without being married to a regular schedule.
Guiding seasonally, offering city, coffee, or wilderness tours is another business that requires fewer employees. You could potentially close in the slower season, focusing your energy elsewhere. We’ve seen many expats do well with a weekend bar or specialty restaurant that offers a more attractive work schedule.
There are many opportunities in less developed areas, but I believe the key to longevity is choosing one or two ideas (not five or six like we did), doing them well, and being sure you leave enough free time in your schedule to enjoy the beauty of the new environment you have chosen to live in.