My husband Joel and I were living in Sarasota, Florida, and had never been to Panama. Honestly, knew nothing about the place.
What we did know was that we needed to find somewhere affordable to live in retirement. We’re in our mid-60s. It was time to get serious about making a plan for how we’d be able to enjoy this next stage of life without constant money worries. If we didn’t, we were looking at another decade of working, and we really didn’t want to have to do that.
We were also increasingly focused on the thought that we were ready for a big change. “There has to be something better out there somewhere,” we’d say to each other.
So we began researching. We started with Costa Rica but became concerned about stories we were finding to do with crime, infrastructure, and the increased cost of living.
When we decided that Costa Rica wasn’t going to meet our needs, we turned our attention to its next-door neighbor, Panama.
We’d made a list of our ideal retirement destination. We wanted somewhere warm, peaceful, and politically stable, as well as somewhere not overly far from the United States. Panama ticked all those boxes. It just kind of floated to the top of the list.
Our first stop was Panama City. We loved the country and the people right away, but the city was too much for us at our age. We didn’t want to deal with the traffic and freneticism every day.
That said, we’re city people. So, when we crossed Panama City off our list, we moved on to Panama’s next biggest city, David. This fast-growing place is still off the radar of most of the world, meaning, while it offers all the amenities of a city, it’s relatively quiet and peaceful.
We knew within a short time of our arrival that David was the place for us. “Yep, this will work,” we thought.
And we were right. Life in David works for us. We couldn’t be happier with our choice. Life feels much more calm, relaxed, and free. The people are friendly and welcoming. Our life here is affordable so we are able to travel and do more things we enjoy. Panama is really beautiful, and there is much to explore.
Upon our arrival, I contacted a real estate agent who had been recommended by other expats and told him what I was looking for. The first house he showed me was perfect. It is in a friendly Panamanian neighborhood with professional and working-class people. Our house is next to woods and a beautiful river, so there are many birds and other interesting wildlife. We love being so close to nature yet only a few minutes from shopping and everything we need.
We have a car for shopping, errands, and local excursions. We have bicycles for exercise and exploring the area. For longer trips, such as to Panama City, we take the bus.
We brought virtually nothing with us. Literally, we arrived with our suitcases. My husband is a musician so he brought his guitars and some of his tools—things he might not be able to replace down here.
I was a nurse back in the United States, but I do not intend to work in Panama (even if I legally could). My husband has his musical equipment set up in one of our rooms for his own enjoyment. He is open to playing with others on occasion but has no plans to have a band or the responsibilities of playing gigs again. It is a privilege to do what we want on our own terms.
We did not live close to our families in Florida, so for us this has not been as difficult an adjustment as it might be for someone used to seeing family every day. We actually see more of our family now because we’re scheduling video chats rather than phone calls. We do, of course, plan on visiting our family in the States periodically.
We have found it very easy to make friends here. People are welcoming and helpful. We have many friends in our Panamanian neighborhood and around town and have been literally made to feel like family.
People here are hard-working, but they also love to have fun. Family and friends are more important than anything else, and there is a strong sense of community and working together. People are non-judgmental and are not concerned with race, religion, profession, or other things we seem to find so important in the United States.
We’ve also found that there is a lot of respect for the older generation. We both are very happy with the idea of growing old here. Back in the United States the older generation often has to fight for respect and decent health care. That’s not the case here.
David does not have as big an expat community as you can find in other parts of this country. We have some expat friends who we enjoy, but most of our friends are Panamanian. I am glad for my Panamanian friends because they help me improve my Spanish and teach me more about the area and culture.
I am from New York City. Believe it or not, moving from there to Arkansas was more challenging than moving from Florida to Panama. You expect challenges when making an international move, but this one was easier than I expected.
I had studied some Spanish in the past, and then more intensively for six months before I arrived with Habla Ya (online) in Boquete. My Spanish still wasn’t great when I arrived. I could ask questions but I didn’t always understand the answers. It took me a week to figure out where to buy a tank of cooking gas for the kitchen. And it was months before I could have a successful phone conversation.
I don’t regret what we left behind. Thanks to the internet, I can easily keep up with friends and family in the States. My husband misses the quick and efficient mail service that makes shopping online so easy. I find clothes and shoe shopping easier in the United States, where people are more my size, but I’m not much of a shopper. I can easily pick up a few things I need on trips back.
And, yes, there have been other challenges. Some things are done differently or take longer than you would expect. Maybe the water is off this afternoon and nobody knows why. But, if you go with the flow and keep your sense of humor, it all works itself out and you’ll be fine.
My biggest tip would be to watch for the mold. It grows everywhere, on everything, and can take over before you even realize it’s there!
But what we have gained here is worth so much more than anything we have lost.
My best advice is to remember that this is a different country, climate, and culture. Spend time here before making any decisions and don’t buy a place to live until you have lived here for at least a year. Rent first.
Think carefully about what you really need and what you cannot tolerate.
Daily life is different from being a tourist. Learn as much Spanish as you can. Treat the locals with kindness and respect, and they will respond in kind.
Remember that you are an ambassador.
Above all, enjoy the experience.