48 Hours In Panama

48 Hours In Panama

We’re 48 hours into our new life in Panama. What are our initial impressions?

The shortage of hotel rooms continues. A poster in the arrivals area of the international airport asks, “Did you have trouble finding a place to stay in Panama City?”

The poster’s recommendation is to turn the city’s short-term accommodation woes into your profit opportunity by investing in a hotel rental. It’s the current trendy play. You buy what amounts to a hotel room in a highrise condo tower. Yes, it’s a way to position yourself in the city’s frothy rentals market, but I’m not convinced it makes long-term (or even mid-term) sense. More below.

Avenida Balboa, the main drag along the capital city’s waterfront, is a series of construction zones, all blown apart and muddy. Panama City is working feverishly to expand and augment its infrastructure to better support its surging population. I’m watching the chaotic morning rush-hour traffic from the window of my Bayfront apartment, thankful that, for now, my daily commute involves walking across the landing from my bedroom to my “office.”

It’s hard not to draw comparisons between Panama City and Paris, from whence we came last week.

A few months ago, when we were preparing and planning for this move, I wrote to report that, according to Lief’s calculations, life in Panama would likely be more costly for us than life in Paris. (See “Panama More Expensive Than Paris?“)

Eventually, when we’re ramped up, it will be. Once we’ve engaged a nanny for Jackson…and a housekeeper…once we’ve purchased a car…and hired a driver…then our cost of living here will exceed the cost of our low-key lifestyle in Paris.

But right now? Right now, we’re savoring the fact that Panama uses the U.S. dollar for its currency. In other words, everyday things are not only priced lower in Panama than in Paris…but they’re priced in dollars.

We’ve spent many of the past 48 hours shopping–at the Do It Center for a toolkit…at the sundries store down the street for clothes hangers…at the electronics store a block away for a printer/fax machine and a portable phone…at the pharmacy for cell phone credit…at the MultiPlaza mall for a bookcase…at the grocery store for 18 bags of getting-established foodstuffs…

Note first that we were able to accomplish all this shopping within walking distance of our apartment.

Note second that everything we purchased was priced less in real numbers than it would have been in Paris… plus, the real number was a representation not of euro, but of Greenbacks.

We were dizzy with the liberating effect of this. The $500 bookcase…the $20 telephone…the $3.60 gallon of milk…the $1.40 two-liter bottle of Coke…these things all seemed like such bargains when we reminded ourselves (as we had to do continually) that we don’t need to add 50% to the price to understand the real cost to us. The number on the price tag is the real cost to us.

On the other hand, while we were able to walk to the hardware store, the pharmacy, the mega-grocery store, etc., and to track down everything on our shopping lists…I can’t say we enjoyed the experience.

In Paris, a three-block walk to the dry cleaner’s, say, or to the barber shop is a pleasure. Along the way, you pass shop windows with pretty displays, you admire the architecture all around, you catch a whiff of fresh baguette, maybe you can’t resist stopping for a pastry or a coffee on the corner…

Here in Panama City, you dare not look up or around. You stare down at the cracked and muddy sidewalk, focusing your efforts on keeping your footing. Here in Panama City, you don’t wait politely at the crosswalks for the pedestrian indicator to turn green, as we trained Jack to do in Paris. Here, you weave among the continuous and unbroken flow of traffic watching for a chance to race from one side of the street to the other (clutching Jack’s hand all the while).

And you certainly don’t chat with your companions as you amble along. As a rule, Latin America is noisier than Europe. But right now the noise in Panama City is deafening. There’s so much sound all around all the time that it doesn’t matter what language you speak. You won’t be able to decipher what’s being said even by the person six inches to your right or left.

To be fair, a little ruckus is to be expected…and forgiven. Panama City, the bigger, better Panama City of the 21st century, is a work in progress. From every vantage point, from the condo tower rooftops and down at street level where the jackhammers play nearly around the clock, the sense is that this place is retooling itself right before your eyes.

Paris is polished and pretty. Panama City is jagged around all its edges and dripping with potential.

As international moves go, this one has been remarkably straightforward (so far). We’ve been able to settle in quickly at our little rental apartment on Avenida Balboa, where we plan to remain for six or eight weeks. Our goal is to find a bigger place, with guest quarters and maybe a home office, before Jackson begins school early September. Meantime, here at Bayfront, we’ve got wireless, local phone service, regular maid service, a concierge at the front door…

On the other hand, as long as we’re installed here, our Bayfront apartment is off the short-term rental market, which continues hot, hot, hot. Again, more on this below.

Kathleen Peddicord


P.S. Jack says he misses his friends in Paris but likes Panama for “all the nature everywhere.” He wants us to take him to see a crocodile.

Lief says he’ll like Panama City a whole lot better once we buy a car and don’t have to brave the city’s streets on foot anymore.

I’ve promised myself that I will learn Spanish quicker than I learned French. After four years in Paris, I finally reached a respectable conversation level in French in the final few months. That had a lot to do with the immersion study course I took at the Accord language school near Opera (www.accord-langues.com) this past January. This time, in Panama, I’ve resolved, I won’t wait more than three years to get serious about mastering the local lingo. I’m thinking of signing on for immersion Spanish study in Ecuador later this summer.

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