The No-Bull Guide to Panama

Posted on March 25, 2011. Filed under: Uncategorized |


International Living Postcards
International Living Postcards—your daily escape

Dear International Living Reader,

Over the past 30 years, we’ve compiled hundreds of charts, lists, and indices (like the Quality of Life Index and the Retirement Index), seeking to rank the world’s best destinations. We’ve dedicated scores of editors, researchers, and statisticians to the task. Probably spent hundreds of thousands of dollars…maybe more…teasing out the secret of the numbers. Each time, without fail, we’re surprised…by a new entry…a surprise winner…or a falling favorite.

But there is one constant—one country which dominates the “retiree benefits” category every time: Panama.

The pensionado program of special benefits for foreign retirees is the best on offer anywhere. Panama has a low cost of living. But when you start taking advantage of the pensionado discounts, that low cost drops even further. Half-price movies and hotels. You get 25% off utility and phone bills. Discounts on visits to the doctor, dentist, and optometrist. Lower airfares.

You don’t even have to wait in line—banks and shops have special pensionado sections so that you get served as soon as you walk in the door.

Here at International Living, we’re committed to giving you the “no bull” guide to Panama. No theoretical mumbo jumbo…just real-life stories from real people living their dream.

Our chief Panama editor, living full-time in Panama City, is Jessica Ramesch. She gets you up to speed on this country, below.

Len Galvin
Managing Editor, IL Postcards

P.S. If you want set yourself up in Panama – or any other destination – there’s no easier or quicker way than with the “No-Savings Retirement Plan.” In short, it’s a little-known way to afford a much higher standard of living without changing your income. International Living recently put together a report that gives you all the details.

In Panama, everything from food to rent costs less than you’re used to paying. You can see a first-run movie for $4… or rent a place near the beach for $450 a month.

“Can I Live in Panama on my $1,059-a-month Social Security Check?”
By Jessica Ramesch

To me $0.69 is a reasonable price for a pound of potatoes, but my dad has a different idea. “They’re half that at the market,” he says, “we’ll get the produce there.” He knows all about Panama’s best markets, where he can buy a rainbow assortment of fresh fruit and vegetables straight from the farmers.

Today the air at the market is heavy with the fragrant scent of mango. At $0.35 cents a pound, the colossal papayos are a steal. Another variety that’s much smaller and great for juicing is being sold in bags of 10 for $1…that’s only $0.10 each! The produce markets aren’t obscure or “secret” by any means…every local knows this is a smart way to save. The growing expat population is learning how inexpensive it is to live like a local, too.

I hear expats practicing Spanish at the city’s many bargain department stores…satiny couch cushions for $0.99 and groovy beaded lamps for $5.99 are hard to turn down. I see expats of all ages taking advantage of the super-inexpensive movies…$4 for regular tickets, half price for pensionados (retirees). And movies aren’t all pensionados pay less for. The retirees you meet here will tell you that they get 25% off their power bills, 20% off medical consults (even at the swankiest of hospitals), and much, much more.

In a recent e-mail, a U.S. reader asked me: “Can I live in Panama on my $1,059 a month social security check? I plan to buy a home so as not to pay rent, and I don’t need anyone to clean for me…I can do that myself.” The answer is yes. And I’m not talking about just eking by. I’m talking about living well, without having to sacrifice the things you love.

Maybe you want to join a gym…the Panama University gym charges $1 for each weight training session and $2 for aerobics classes. You can play 18 holes at Summit Golf & Resort for half what you’d pay in Miami…and here you’re not obligated to pay a membership fee. Swim at the Albrook pool for $2.50 or take a $10 round-trip ferry to Taboga Island (just 12 miles off the coast) for a day of snorkeling. I frequently attend movie festivals for as little as $4 and this week I saw a dance troupe from Moscow perform classical ballet on ice for just $15.

As for the cost of property in Panama, you’ll be impressed with the variety and value available here. I found a two-bedroom apartment in the convenient 12 de Octubre area of Panama City, on offer for just $60,000. It comes with a 14-year property tax exemption. Another two-bedroom apartment is listed for $61,000 on La Transistmica, one of the city’s main arteries.

And these apartments aren’t one-off lucky finds. I can’t guarantee these particular properties will be available when you’re reading this. But the point is that every month I find similar ads in the local papers or through my local contacts and resources.

And it’s not just in Panama City where you can live comfortably for less. If you’re a beach-lover, for instance, you’ve got plenty of options in this country. Coronado, on the Pacific, is the most popular with expats. It’s about an hour and a half by car from Panama City and its beach goes on for miles. You’ll find every convenience here, from supermarkets to restaurants to beach clubs. And there’s a new, state-of-the-art medical clinic as well.

But you can enjoy all those amenities—and pay much less—if you go about 20 minutes along the coast to Gorgona. A $70,000 home is for sale three minutes from the Gorgona beach. The eight-year-old home is just over 1,000 square feet and sits on a lot of about 6,500 square feet. If you’re not interested in buying, you can rent a fancy U.S.-style home with an ocean view for $1,600 a month…but why not go local? A Panamanian-style home—with a large patio that seems custom-made for hammocks—comes furnished for just $450 a month.

Editor’s note: Jessica Ramesch studied international politics and diplomacy with a full academic scholarship at the University of Richmond. She obtained her degree with honors and went on to work as a writer at the Panama Canal Authority while moonlighting as a teacher of English and GMAT/GRE strategy. Before joining International Living as our Panama correspondent, Jessica spent four years touring the world with Carnival Cruise Lines. After attaining the rank of second officer and becoming head of shipboard guest relations training, she decided to abandon ship and live the good life like a landlubber. No stranger to “international living,” she has called the U.S., India, and Panama home, and has visited over 25 countries. She speaks Spanish and French fluently, and gets by in Italian and Portuguese.

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