Retire To Panama City

Panama City Sliced Thin

I remind you regularly that no country (including Panama) is one market. Every city and region within any given country is its own market, with its own supply-and-demand dynamics and its own pricing.

In addition, within any city of any size, again, different markets are at work–as they are in Panama City.

We’ve been living in Panama City for two years. In that time, we’ve lived in three neighborhoods, each of which couldn’t be more different from the others. And these are but three examples of the thin-sliced markets you’ll find in Panama’s capital city.

Not only do the kinds of product available (from high-rise apartments to single-family homes, from suburban development communities to 300-year-old colonial buildings, etc.) and the costs per square meter vary, sometimes dramatically, neighborhood to neighborhood…but so, too, does the lifestyle.

In fact, neighborhood to neighborhood in Panama City, everything about your life could be different. The view from your bedroom window. The noise level (depending how much construction is going on around you). Your neighbors. The amount of English you hear on the street or in the shops nearby. The kinds of shops you’ll find nearby. The opportunity for walking to shops (rather than having to take a taxi), if you prefer. The ease of hailing a taxi (some Panama City taxi drivers don’t like to travel to some neighborhoods). The number and the kinds of restaurants. The opportunity for nightlife. The number of parks. Places to walk your dog if you intend to keep one. Level of disruption during celebrations like Carnaval (which completely disrupts some sections of the city). Etc.

In some Panama City neighborhoods (notably Costa del Este), you’ll feel like you’re living in a Miami suburb. In others (Casco Viejo), you’ll know you’re in the Third World.

In some (some areas of Marbella around Calle Uruguay, where all the nightclubs are congregated), you’ll want for a decent night’s sleep, especially on Friday and Saturday nights.

In others (in fact, many qualify on this score), you’ll be shaken awake every morning to the sounds of jack-hammers all around. Remember, Panama City today is very much a city under construction.

When we relocated from Paris to Panama City two years ago, we settled first in Paitilla, where we rented a brand-new, just-delivered apartment in a high-rise tower. We had a view of the ocean from the living room, a doorman on duty 24 hours a day, a brand-new kitchen, and 3 ½ brand-new bathrooms. Panamanian friends were impressed by our address. I was miserable from the first week we moved in. High-rise living is not my thing.

When our lease in Paitilla was up, we moved across the city to Casco Viejo, where we rented a 150-year-old Spanish-colonial house that had been fully and beautifully renovated. Casco Viejo is my favorite part of Panama City, and I was delighted when we took up residence…but much less happy a few months later.

Our issue in this part of the city wasn’t our digs but our landlord and the property management company. Neither seemed to care about taking care of the house we were occupying, which had some big problems following the renovation work–including a leaking roof, no hot water in the guest room, and termites in the woodwork. We spent a year overseeing the repairs and maintenance of someone else’s house.

When our lease was up, we were tired. And, so, we began looking around, again, for another house to rent. Houses big enough to accommodate our family are hard to come by in Casco Viejo, so we widened our search to include more central downtown neighborhoods. We found, after a few weeks, a 3,500-square-foot, four-bedroom home in Marbella, with a private and shaded back garden, parking for two cars, and a playroom for Jackson. We moved in last month.

Now our daily commute is a three-minute walk (as opposed to a sometimes blood pressure-elevating drive down Avenida Balboa). Jackson has loads of room, indoors and out, for entertaining himself and having friends over to visit. In fact, we’re all more comfortable than we were living in either of our former rentals. We feel like we’ve found our home in this city.

Our Marbella neighborhood is quiet and 100% residential (no shops, no vendors, no marketplace hubbub). Also no construction, meaning no construction noise and no construction dust. On our street are other families with young children, meaning Jack has playmates within walking distance.

All things considered, these new digs suit us great.

Would you be happy living in Marbella? If you’re looking for regular Panama City nightlife, no, you wouldn’t be satisfied in this neighborhood. If you’re not up for a back garden you’d have to tend (or engage a gardener to tend for you), no, you probably don’t want to settle here. If you know you won’t be happy without an ocean view, you should look elsewhere. Likewise, if you want budget, this is not the district for you. Our rent is US$3,000 per month.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that it costs US$3,000 a month to rent a place to live in Panama City. You could rent in other areas right now (rents are softer and landlords are more negotiable in the current market than they’ve been in a long time) for as little as US$600 or US$700. This won’t get you a private back garden or a front-line ocean view, but it could rent you a one- or maybe a two-bedroom apartment in a comfortable, pleasant, and safe neighborhood.

How to choose? You need to spend time on the ground, walking and taxiing around the different parts of Panama City, to get an idea which neighborhood might suit you.

We offer a primer to help you compare and contrast the most expat-friendly Panama City neighborhoods in the current issue of my Panama Letter subscription service, in the final stages of production as I write.

If you’re a Panama Letter subscriber, watch your e-mailbox later today for your issue, which features, in addition to our “Neighborhoods Of Panama City” overview, a full report on expat living in Volcan, where the climate is nothing like that in the capital. If you’re interested in Panama but don’t like the heat and humidity of Panama City, Volcan could be just the ticket.

Kathleen Peddicord

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