Summary: Panama City, Panama
Retirement Without Borders calls it “Miami – with more English”. That’s a common summary and in my limited experience it fits, save one other significant difference: I like Panama City. But there is simply no way for two people to form a comprehensive impression of Panama City in 30 days with US$1,100. What follows is what we were able to gather.
Pros- Large diverse expat communities, many first world amenities, true metropolitan setting, relatively safe when compared to other Central American cities of it’s size.
Cons- Expensive for the region, not especially walkable, loud, dirty (air pollution and litter).
Distortions- Our budget and schedule did not allow a comprehensive survey, our month occurred around April of 2011, medical and dental services were not counted in our budget as they are unlikely to recur monthly.
Panama City is a rarity in Central America: a livable capital city. Normally I avoid the capitals to the extent that my travels allow, but I’ve always enjoyed this modern international banking capital. Unfortunately this city of nearly 1 million is way too much urbanity for anyone to form informed impressions of in 30 days (and for around US$1,100). We did learn that we could exist comfortably and safely within that budget, but it left almost no money for entertainment or indulgence.
The girlfriend reached out to the art community in Panama City by volunteering with an art therapy program. I went along to a gallery opening, but beyond that we didn’t do much socializing outside of the guest house. Perhaps the house’s constant introduction of new faces and the ongoing presence of some new friends kept us placated. Here, again, budget was a limiting factor. I do know there to be a large and well connected expat community in the city with a lot of planned activities on offer.
Urbanity has fewer insects,which I’ve always appreciated, and Panama City was no exception. But this is Central America, so even in a metropolis of 880,000 people you see a surprising diversity of birds, lizards and other wildlife. We even saw a sloth at the mall, crossing the parking lot, being escorted, slowly, by security.
I can sum up grocery shopping in 3 words: First World Supermarkets. El Rey is similar to whatever regional supermarket chain dominates your developed world locality. For pricing info, check the sheet. Also, buying in bulk actually works here. In The States we’re used to paying less (say, per pound) the more we buy. In fact, being cheap, this is one of the pillars of my grocery shopping. But prior to Panama City, I had not found this to be the case in Central America. Elsewhere, the 5 pound bag is almost exactly 2.5X the cost of the 2 pound bag. Finally, in Panama City, buying in bulk offers you a modest discount. We still almost never see items on sale though.
We only ate 1 dinner, 1 breakfast and 2 lunches out; additionally we ordered take-out pizza on 3 occasions. Upscale options abound but we found budget options harder to come by. This will vary greatly with location, but the cost of a taxi from our neighborhood erased any possible financial gains offered by cheap food in other spots. The few budget options near us were lackluster.
We had our laundry done near our guest house. It was expensive and they usually didn’t fold it; they just crammed it into a bag hot, pressing persistent wrinkles into clothing that I didn’t think could be wrinkled. We realized just before we left town that you have the option of doing it yourself, coin op style, more cheaply (The Girlfriend estimates that it was US$0.75 to wash and US$2 to dry).
Check-out computer systems are everywhere (groceries, restaurants, etc) and they accept credit cards with no fee (though your bank may charge you one for “currency conversion,” a blatant lie of a descriptor given that Panama used the US Dollar). Elsewhere in Central America transactions were processed purely with calculators and ledgers. The change is almost always correct here, unlike elsewhere where it was usually wrong and just as often in our favor as not.
Public transportation is in a state of transition. A metro train line is in development and modern city buses are being phased in. But for now the situation is chaotic, cheap and not particularly gringo friendly. Most city buses are “Diablo Rojos”, the local name for old, brightly painted US school buses. The seating is still in the same configuration as when the bus transported 8 year olds; this is somewhat tolerable if you’re a Panamanian. But trying to cram a pair of long gringo legs into these seats is a chore; best get a seat in the isle. Figuring out where a bus is going will take some conversation. An ultimate destination is painted clearly on the bus, but figuring out if it will be passing your stop along the way is often less clear. It gets better with practice. On the plus side, the buses are cheap (US$0.25) and so numerous that riders pick and choose the one that’s least crowded. A bus from the airport (Tocumen, PTY) to the heart of town is still just US$0.25, while a taxi will start at US$20.
Speaking of taxis, drivers here are fickle and dishonest. This is a near universal truth, but the cabbies in Panama City are a breed onto their own. It took The Girlfriend and I weeks to figure out how to hail a cab; you wave somewhat more subtly than you would in The States. The cab driver will slow down slightly and drive by you. He will not roll down his window. At this point, yell (or just mouth, I’m still not sure) to him where you want to go. He’ll decide, still in motion, if he wants to go there. If so, he’ll stop. Usually he doesn’t.
Now, if he does and if you are Panamanian, you just get in the cab and go, well aware of what it should cost. But as a newcomer, you have to haggle before getting in. We usually had to let 6 or 7 cabs go before we found one that wasn’t tripling the fare. If you can decipher them, perhaps this zone map and fare schedule will be of use. They look simple until you try to find a location on them. Personally, I just refused to pay more than US$3 for most trips in the city. I was probably still overpaying somewhat.
Panama is a driving city, with traffic jams, air pollution, residential and commercial parking garages, valets and long commutes. The first time I came to this city they were still allowing non-motorized traffic (everything you can think of, from bicycles to mule carts) on the highways. Things are much more orderly now, but you are almost entirely precluded from exploring on foot; sidewalks disappear and drop you into traffic, distances are considerable and coarse airborne road grit will coat you promptly and thoroughly.
I took the opportunity to visit a doctor and a dentist while in the city. The Girlfriend and I received 2 checkups and a filling at Eisenmann and Eisenmann Dental and have only positive things to say. My visit to Dr Jorge Paz Rodriguez at Wellmed Clinic was more of a mixed bag. Everything was nice, clean, modern and friendly, but his primary focus seems to be more with aging and possibly anti-aging techniques (hormone replacement, etc). I’m not at an age where this is much of a concern, so this wasn’t quite the right fit. Still, I would encourage anymore in their mid 40s or later who’s looking for a doctor in Panama City to give him a try. English was spoken in both of these offices and both came recommended on the Americans In Panama Yahoo Group.
It’s also worth pointing out that Panama has a nation wide indoor smoking ban as well as a public open container law. In Nicaragua (and, for that matter, Indiana) I could leave a bar with my beer and enjoy it on the walk home; not here.
Panama City offers multiple large, modern malls, from discount to luxury. We were not able to browse all of Albrook, one of the cheaper malls and a major transportation hub, in a single day. Even on multiple trips we had to be pretty selective about which stores to browse if we wanted to finish before exhaustion set in and mealtime loomed. Americans will recognize many of the brands, including outdoor gear by Columbia and similar, but there are plenty of locally branded goods available too. Bargain hunters take heart; initially the prices will seem high, but if you keep looking you usually find a deal worth bragging about, especially on clothing. There are also plenty of department stores and small shopping centers throughout the city. Via Espana near El Cangrej0 is an especially fertile area.
We priced out a few gyms and the small, private ones ran about US$30/month with a US$5 fee to join. Couples could pay about US$50/month. This got you a reasonable selection of free weights, air conditioning and a few cardio options. Powerclub is a local chain of huge gyms, but we didn’t get pricing information. There are also a handful of cinemas around town, ranging from luxury recliners with food and drink service to second run discount shows.
There are a few large public parks in the city, including Parque National Metropolitano where we conducted a futile survey for sloths. We were misinformed about the operating hours and arrived too late to see them.
There are two major nightlife districts in Panama City; Calle Uruguay and Amador Causeway. We investigated the first and blew through more than US$50 on an off night. It’s about what you’d expect, blocks of upscale clubs competing for your cover charge with a variety of music on offer. We never investigated Amador Causeway properly and I’d love to hear from people who have.
We spent about a week searching for a place to stay and everyone, locals and transplants alike, pointed us to http://www.encuentra24.com/ as the one and only place to look. Normally we walk into a town and just start asking everyone we speak to (hotel staff, waitresses, taxi drivers, etc) if they know of an apartment, so a well organized website was a strong indicator that we weren’t in Kansas anymore. There’s no value in listing what we found since you can do your own search in real-time online, but Bella Vista, El Cangrejo and San Francisco were all neighborhoods recommended by local gringos. Prices on the site can be deceiving, sometimes referring to week or night rather than month, and gringo pricing is in full effect so get your best Panamanian friend to do your dealing if possible. We also had plenty of luck hunting apartments on good ‘ol Craig’s list. The site is available in and many of the listings are by gringos for gringos.
One unlisted lead was near the edge of Casco Viejo, which puts it in the “don’t walk around at night” category for now. The price is right and the landlord was recommended by a highly reputable source, but we never made it over to see the furnished, 2 bedroom unit. Contact Ricardo or drop into his hostel, which was also recommended to us.
Our second choice was this (stale, but currently functioning link), a small room for rent in a large apartment living with the landlord and other renters. This seems to be a common arrangement for businessmen visiting the city, which is understandable since furnished short term rentals for under US$1,000/month are almost non-existent. This place rented for US$490/month including internet, laundry, power and cable. The room was small but the common areas were large and the balcony was a serious draw. Contact Rey Haughton for more information. Ultimately we were skittish about sharing one kitchen with multiple inhabitants and rented a room at Villa Michelle, which has an abundance of kitchen space.
Overall we have a positive opinion of Villa Michelle, but that can be a controversial stance. Ivonne, the owner/operator likes to party on the weekends and the loud, pounding music can go on until 5am (even if there are only a few people around). Our room was on the far end of the house so we spent 2 months without being disturbed. Other guests weren’t so lucky. The price was US$600/month for The Girlfriend and I to share a room (the price would be the same for 1 person) with a shared bath (inexhaustible hot water), internet, 2 kitchens with a wide range of appliances and 24 hour pool access. Ivonne can be downright pushy and this put a lot of guests off, but if you don’t get intimidated, then her actions fall more into the “feisty” category and were easy to write off as mere eccentricity. The guest house is in a safe neighborhood a short walk from Parque Recreativo OMAR, which was a nice amenity in its self. Aside from the park, there’s not much to do in the immediate area, so you’ll find yourself taking buses and taxi’s often, though there is a large supermarket within walking distance.
On the purchase side, PC abounds with beautiful high-rises that have very low occupancy rates. These buildings are always rumored to be part of money laundering schemes, elaborate shell games where you rent your own condo to yourself via intermediaries in order to show the rent as legitimate income. Opinions are mixed as to whether Panama City is experiencing a housing bubble; The Economist doesn’t seem to think so, but I’m hesitant to accept their reassurance because of the super low purchase and occupancy rates that I hear about. In that scene more than most, do your homework.
All told, we brought the month in at US$1,102.08. That bought us a place to stay and kept us well fed while cooking in, but it didn’t leave much money for anything else. We spent over half of that (54%) on rent, which might decrease by US$100 or US$200 per month if we rented an apartment long term (though that ignores the cost of furnishing it). We spent US$93 on alcohol (8.5% of our budget), though more than half of that was a single night out on Calle Uruguay. We spent US$219 on groceries and sundries (19.96%) and the rest on a few meals out, transportation and the occasional cup of coffee or scoop of ice cream. The full breakdown is here, do with it what you will. In the end, US$1,000/month would allow you to have a safe place to stay and food to eat in Panama City while you look for employment or try to get on your feet, but don’t expect to live perpetually at that level. In a town like Esteli, Nicaragua, things ceiling out pretty quickly; there’s only so much money you could casually spend. In Panama City, we could easily have burned through 3 times our budget if we had chosen to. It’s also worth mentioning that Panama City has experienced serious, double digit inflation over the last 3 or 4 years.