About 25 years ago, made that suggestion. Back then, I didn’t recognize the flaw in the instruction. I was telling North Americans to consider Panama for warm-weather cheap retirement… not realizing that the suggestion was nonsense.
You aren’t retiring to Panama… not then nor now… any more than you’re retiring to the United States. When retiring anywhere in the world, you’ve got to thin-slice your options.
Two-and-a-half decades ago, Panama was underdeveloped. It was enough that my naive suggestion wasn’t as deceptive as it would be today. In the past 25 years, Panama has developed into very different regions… each of which makes more or less sense for today’s retiree looking to reinvent his life abroad.
Let’s consider the specific options one by one…
Retiring in Panama City
Generally, I no longer recommend Panama City for retirement. For sure, this city is not the screaming-bargain retirement option it was 20 years ago.
Panama City has evolved over the past 25 years into a global business hub. The boomtown attracted investors, entrepreneurs, and executives. Opportunity seekers came from around the world. Panama’s capital is a competitive financial services center. It’s also a banking haven. Big businesses from Procter & Gamble to Caterpillar and DHL, have based themselves here. They´ve invested in brick-and-mortar operations, and imported and attracted foreign workforces.
All this global attention and demand has translated into rising the cost of living.
It has also meant continued development of city services. Available standard of living has gone up too. Panama City deserves a place among the world’s brand-name cities. Especially for the bona fide luxury-level lifestyle it hides.
I say hides, because “luxury” isn’t the word to come to mind to describe Panama City. At least not when you see it for the first time. You don’t recognize that luxury’s on the table until you’ve seen this city’s lavish exterior.
In Panama City 2019, you can rent (or own) a Pacific Ocean-view penthouse apartment. This comes with a doorman, a concierge, a gym, a spa, and pools with poolside bar service… all the comforts of penthouse living in any brand-name city.
How comfortable is Retiring in Panama City?
You can have a driver, a maid, and a chef…
Moreover, eating out in five-star restaurants every night of the week. You can spend your days shopping for Hermès, Cartier, and Jimmy Choo. Extend your nights hopping from club to club. Hit the casino for high-stakes poker playoffs.
Each Friday (or Thursday… why not?), you can take off in your SUV for your beach house or hop aboard your yacht for a weekend cruise…
That kind of jet-set lifestyle is increasingly common in Panama City.
If that’s the kind of lifestyle you dream of for your retirement. Put Panama City at the top of your list, because luxury living Panama City-style is a relative bargain. That penthouse, the SUV, all the staff, all the nights out, and all the weekends at the beach comes at a fraction the cost. You could have it all for as little as, say, US$5,000 per month. Though you could also spend many times that on your bright-lights-big-city Panama life.
You can retire in Panama City on much less than US$5,000 per month. But life in this city can become a whole lot less comfortable on a more limited budget… which is why I no longer recommend Panama City as a top retirement haven.
Top luxury lifestyle haven, yes… ideal retirement choice, not so much. You have better city options if it’s a cosmopolitan retirement you seek.
The biggest downside to Panama City living on any budget or with any agenda is the weather. It’s hot and humid year-round. Thus the need for a weekend beach house…
City Beaches Area, An Expat Retirement Favorite In Panama
The nearest beach destination to Panama City has become an extension of the city itself. Every Panama City resident who can afford one has a weekend escape in what’s known as the City Beaches area.
Where, as in Panama City, it’s possible to embrace a luxury-standard lifestyle.
Not everywhere. Coronado, the best known of the points along this stretch of the coast, is not a luxury living option. Coronado is mid-market and overrun with tourists, foreign and domestic. That’s a good thing for the rental property investor… but doesn’t make for an ideal get-away-from-it-all beach escape.
Other City Beaches spots offer both five-star comfort and privacy at a fraction the cost. I can´t think of an appointed coastal good life most anywhere else with this comfort.
Retiring On The East Coast Of The Azuero Peninsula (Chitré, Las Tablas, And Pedasí)
The east coast of the Azuero Peninsula has been attracting retirees for the past 15 years. It remains an appealing option for a more rustic coastal lifestyle. You´ll see more shopping and services all the time. But not a great variety of top-line condo and beach houses. For these you need to be on the City Beaches coast. Pedasi, for instance, makes retiring in Panama easier because of the expat community.
Options For Retiring On The West Coast Of The Azuero Peninsula (Mariato, Torio, And Los Islotes)
I discovered Panama 25 years ago. Back then, I wasn’t turned on to the west coast of its Azuero Peninsula. A decade later, Lief and I began spending time on this coast. No one else had ever heard of it… not foreign investors and not Panamanians either. On this coast, we were pioneers.
The pioneer life isn’t without challenges. Azuero’s western coast is remote and undeveloped; services can be unreliable, roads rutted.
The flip side of remote is private. For us, that was a priority agenda when we targeted this stretch of the Pacific.
Today, services are catching up… as are other investors and tourists, especially fishermen and surfers. This is one of the most beautiful coastlines in Panama. I’ll dare to say of the world. Both the fishing spots and the surf breaks offshore are, likewise, world-class.
Wealthy locals feeling crowded at the City Beaches. For instance, they are beginning to move out to Azuero. Those choosing to make the drive for their beach escapes are rewarded with more elbow room. Lower prices, and, for my money, much more impressive land- and seascapes.
Retiring In The Boquete Mountains, Panama
Say “Retiring in Panama” in a sentence, and most listeners hear “Boquete.”
The tiny mountain village was targeted for development for the foreign retiree market. One gringo developer in particular, named Sam Taliaferro, made most of it happen. Sam introduced me to Boquete on the day that he closed on the piece of land he developed into Valle Escondido. This is one of the best known private expat communities in all Central America.
Besides el Valle Escondido, Sam invested in restaurants, hotels, and a golf course. All intended to attract the foreign retiree buyer to Boquete.
As a result, Boquete, Panama, 2019 is home to one of the biggest communities of foreign retirees in the world. That has its advantages and its downsides.
Furthermore, more English is spoken on the streets and in the cafés of Boquete than Spanish. The foreign retiree never looks far for other foreign retirees to pal around with. The retiree moving to Boquete doesn’t have to learn a new language if he doesn’t want to. There is an instant support network to help with all phases the transition.
That sounds like the kind of place you’re hoping to find for your overseas retirement. Or maybe it sounds like a gringolandia you’d rather avoid. Lots of retirees with lots of time on their hands and not enough to fill all that time can be a formula for discontent. Idle hands and all…
Retiring in Santa Fe, Panama
Santa Fe is Boquete before Sam Taliaferro.
It is a lovely mountain village with a small local population. Moreover, limited infrastructure and services, a beautiful, tranquil, picture-postcard highlands escape.
As in Boquete, the climate is more comfortable than down at sea level.
Life in Santa Fe could be simple, safe, and super-cheap. This is a place where you could live on as little as US$1,000 per month if you’re up for going very local. In truth, you have no choice.
Finally, retiring in Panama gives you many options. In my personal opinion. This place is one of the most tranquil and cheap places to be.
This article was originally published on February 2019 and has been recently updated.
Kathleen Peddicord has covered the live, retire, and do business overseas beat for more than 30 years and is considered the world's foremost authority on these subjects. She has traveled to more than 75 countries, invested in real estate in 21, established businesses in 7, renovated historic properties in 6, and educated her children in 4.
Kathleen has moved children, staff, enterprises, household goods, and pets across three continents, from the East Coast of the United States to Waterford, Ireland... then to Paris, France... next to Panama City, where she has based her Live and Invest Overseas business. Most recently, Kathleen and her husband Lief Simon are dividing their time between Panama and Paris.
Kathleen was a partner with Agora Publishing’s International Living group for 23 years. In that capacity, she opened her first office overseas, in Waterford, Ireland, where she managed a staff of up to 30 employees for more than 10 years. Kathleen also opened, staffed, and operated International Living publishing and real estate marketing offices in Panama City, Panama; Granada, Nicaragua; Roatan, Honduras; San Miguel de Allende, Mexico; Quito, Ecuador; and Paris, France.
Kathleen moved on from her role with Agora in 2007 and launched her Live and Invest Overseas group in 2008. In the years since, she has built Live and Invest Overseas into a successful, recognized, and respected multi-million-dollar business that employs a staff of 35 in Panama City and dozens of writers and other resources around the world.
Kathleen has been quoted by The New York Times, Money magazine, MSNBC, Yahoo Finance, the AARP, and beyond. She has appeared often on radio and television (including Bloomberg and CNBC) and speaks regularly on topics to do with living, retiring, investing, and doing business around the world.
In addition to her own daily e-letter, the Overseas Opportunity Letter, with a circulation of more than 300,000 readers, Kathleen writes regularly for U.S. News & World Report and Forbes.