Panama City, Panama Report of what it's like to live there - 09/01/18
Personal Experiences from Panama City, Panama
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No. We have also lived in San Jose, Lima, and Baku.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Augusta, GA., USA about six hours flying time. Five hours to Atlanta on a direct flight and one hour to Augusta.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
We love our house. It is the normal size house for the US: three bedrooms but with four and a half bathrooms. We live in Albrook Gardens and there is a real sense of community in the neighborhood. It is safe to walk at night or early morning, it is well lit with 24 hour security. It is the oldest housing area for the embassy pool, with infrastructure problems, but it is close to the embassy, small to medium-sized yards, and bigger spaces than may be available in downtown apartments.
Each house is unique and some are larger or more spacious than others, but all are adequate. If you are a family with one to two people and want a house close to the embassy, some of the houses here are small enough to accommodate that size limitation, but then of course, the rooms are smaller than someone may prefer. The embassy does a good job of meeting the requested area for incoming employees: if you want downtown you will likely get it (with a longer commute) and if you want close to the embassy, you will likely get it (with fewer resources close by).
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries are a bit more expensive than in the US and if you really like something you should buy what you can when you see it, as you can't depend on consistent stocking of shelves. Stocking and cleaning go on while the stores are open so expect some inconvenience. Many US products are available in Panama but you may have to go to specific stores to find it and the availability will be spotty.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Almost everything can be delivered. Sushi, fast food, TGI Friday's, Hooters, and the list goes on. Appetito 24 is available 24/7 and will deliver quite a wide range of food. Local restaurants are varied and tasty, so no real lacking of options.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Ants and roaches. Big ants, small ants, big roaches, and small roaches. The best thing you can do is have boric acid (available locally) and geckos.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Pouch and DPO.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Local help is adequate but usually it is third-country nationals. Panamanians do not seem to want to do domestic work for the most part. We have a full- time Nicaraguan maid for $30 per day and that is considered a high salary, but we believe in a living wage. We also hire a person who speaks English to take care of our house with enthusiasm and cooks daily. Maids are the most common help here.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Gyms are common and the embassy has a decent workout facility.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Lots of crime with credit cards, but we use them in restaurants and grocery stores. I heard a TDYer used their card at a local US hotel and within minutes it had been used in Trinidad for something else fraudulently, so just be aware.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
All of them, I think.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You don't have to have Spanish but it makes like much nicer. Plenty of opportunities exist to learn.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
A little, but I think it is workable.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Yes, there are even party buses that go around the city. We use Uber more than anything so we don't have to negotiate.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
We have a sedan and a 4 WD. If you like to go to the beach, I would bring a 4WD as the Kuna Yala only allow 4WDs to go through their area to San Blas, but if you are staying on the common routes then most everything else would be fine with a sedan.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Easy to install, fast enough for all of our electronics (quite a few). We stream quite a bit without trouble. The two primary providers, Cable & Wireless and Cable Onda, seem to compete for who can provide the worst customer service, but the actual reception is pretty good.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We use a local provider but brought unlocked phones to post. Phones are available here at about a 25% markup.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
Good vets, everybody has animals, just clean up behind your pets. There is a quarantine but you can get the government to let you do that in your home. Easy to bring pets in. Even if you come in during the middle of the night, the pets are sheltered in the airport until the next business day for a fee of maybe US$3 per day so that the government vet can look at them and confirm they look healthy.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Local salary is low compared to the US and the schools are almost always hiring.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Lots of opportunities to volunteer in the city.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Men wear suits and women dress in business attire. Panama City is much like a US city in expectations of appropriate dress.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Like any big city, just be careful.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Hot and humid year round. Seriously, if you have allergies this is likely not the post for you. There is mold in the air conditioners (this is normal) so you can't escape it. Medical care is pretty good though the price may fluctuate based on the perception that you can pay more. Traffic delays in the city (up to two hours) can make getting to a hospital or doctors appointment even more frustrating than the variable costs or expectation to pay in cash.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
There is no FDA here, so cross contamination is a real problem. Some of the schools do not seem to be concerned about peanut allergies, etc, so the parents and children must be extra careful. Panama City is still very close to the jungle and the embassy is across the street from preserved jungle park land. Sloths and monkeys are common in the area. Something exotic is always blooming so meds are a must if you have allergies.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Not really, but it seems that many people think that this will be an easier tour than it actually is and the disappointment in the lack of customer service, apathy among employees, limited things to do, and the lack of a downtown community make people want to curtail from here.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Hot. Year round. Humid. Year round. Rains from April to December almost daily. Usually dry in Jan, Feb, and March. Or at least less rainy. They call this the 'summer' since the kids are out of school, but since we are north of the equator, it is not really summer.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Many schools with different areas of focus. Christian/Secular, IB/AP, large/small, and people seem genuinely happy with the school they choose. I have heard that they are hard to get into, but that does not seem to be an issue since no one is complaining.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
The schools seem to recognize the need for services and do a pretty good job accommodating special needs. There are two big schools, The Met and ISP, that seem to be better than others.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Each school has their own plans and things like scouting and sports groups are available.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
LARGE expat group and mostly happy.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
The same ways as in the US. Work colleagues, bars, exercize groups, hobby groups, etc.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
For any type family, I think you could be happy here, depending on expectations.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I don't know of particular problems, but this is a Catholic country so maybe a problem, maybe not.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
I am not sure; I have not seen much of it but it still may exist.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Chartering a boat in the Caribbean, Gamboa trips to see the sloths and other animals.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
San Blas! Beautiful! Snorkeling, scuba diving, boat trips, exploring ruins, tropical drinks. Dinner on the balcony at the Miraflores Locks.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Not really. There are some local indigenous artworks but once you have a few 'mola's' then there is not much else to buy.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Dollar economy, you can drink the water, and 110 power.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Definitely! It has been a wonderful two years!
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Coats, expectations for customer service, need for perfection.
3. But don't forget your:
Patience, sense of humor and sense of adventure