Panama City, Panama Report of what it's like to live there - 12/15/21
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?
Not my first expat experience and not the first time being based in Panama. I had lived there from 2010-2012. I have lived in Paris, Santiago de Chile, Rome, and grew up in Bogota, Colombia.
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?
DC. With Copa, there are direct flights daily to Dulles (twice a day, and that frequency may increase as the pandemic slowdown reverses courses). United, American, and Delta all require connecting through large airports which makes the trip much longer.
3. What years did you live here?
Since Feb 2020. As I mentioned before, I lived there from 2010-2012.
4. How long have you lived here?
Two years. Two very long and mentally challenging years, I may add, due to the confinement, which was draconian in my opinion, but has since passed, and the 6-month airport closure.
5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Work with a UN agency in the City of Knowledge, which is the former UA Army Fort Clayton, right across the Panama Canal and the Miraflores Locks.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Apartment downtown. Most of these buildings are high rises, which makes for busy streets filled with cars. Noise-cancelling windows are extremely rare, so even on the 30th floor, you can hear the traffic. Commute times have been altered dramatically since telework and unemployment have reduced the number of cars on the street. Panama City dwellings are dominated by apartments, and closer to the office there are houses in gated communities. Because of the climate, structures and facades seem to deteriorate fast.
The pandemic has altered key drivers for living in buildings. For instance, gyms and swimming pools, along with community centers, have been closed for prolonged periods and capacity limits have been rolled back considerably. This is a key consideration when deciding between a house and a building which at first may seem very promising but may end up offering less than expected.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries are expensive, much more so than in the US. If you are not a brand loyalist and can adjust (not without challenges, mind you) to local offerings to substitute imported brands, the cost of groceries will adjust accordingly.
Veggies from Cerro Punta are great. Fantastic fish, ceviche, and fruit are to be found everywhere. Panama has a long tradition of being close to US traditions and its influence, so you can find just about everything in the groceries. Also, yummy items from Colombia and Venezuela can be found as well.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
None. I go local.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Deliveries were alive and well, and with the pandemic, they became the only means of restaurant survival. Rappi, Pedidos Ya, Uber Eats, etc, will deliver everything. From Peruvian chicken to prosecco to Salvadorean pupusas, all are available.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Tropical insects and small lizards are common, even in the high-rise buildings, especially if you have a balcony.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
I use email and on the rare occasion that I have to send a hard copy, I use DHL or FedEx. There is no official postal service in Panama.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
It's widely available, especially from friendly migrant Colombian and Venezuelans. About $20-30 a day.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Gyms are available but some had to shut down following the lifting of pandemic mobility restrictions since the very nature of their business was not compatible with social distancing. Some of the larger gyms like Smart Fit cost about $20 a month. Cross-fit boxes are also available but the last time I checked they seemed to be incredibly crowded when considering the potential perils of being too close to strangers.
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?
All cc are widely accepted. ATMs are peppered throughout the city, and the baking and digital platforms are much better than in the US. Banking services are never free, unlike some banks in the US. Being a dollar-based market makes it easier to budget.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Spanish is very important. Although many Panamanians speak English (with varying levels of sophistication), Spanish is required for non-work interactions.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
I think this would be very challenging. It is very common for sidewalk continuity to be interrupted several times in any given stretch of road within the city. There tends to be debris in city streets and lots of creative parking which ends up impacting public space. Also, since it rains almost 9 months a year, navigating the city on a wheelchair, cane, or any other device under torrential rains and flooded streets would seem unsuitable.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
The Metro is one of the nicest I have used anywhere in the world. Buses are good, less so than the Metro. With the pandemic, we were dissuaded from using public transport, so I am less aware of how this is working out under COVID. I see that masks and face shields are required, which is good. The trade-off, of course, is the 90-degree muggy weather which can make it very challenging to breathe comfortably.
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?
SUVs are very common, although I bought a small city car and get by just fine. Car jackings are not that common.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
CableOnda (now Tigo) was super fast to install service and is very good. I have teleworked for what seems to be forever and can't recall being offline. Mobile telephony is also widely available and prepaid plans are also easy to procure.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Best to bring your favorite unlocked device from home.
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?
I don't know about entry requirements, but I see lots of pets and there are good vets, from what I hear.
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 employment is a challenge, even more so after the pandemic. Local salaries are very low as well. Unemployment remains very high, of course, and some professions are restricted for nationals only. I have heard about long-distance telework arrangements (perhaps even more common now that we are operating remotely on a global scale), but I would assume that these are more common for established work relationships, prior to the pandemic. Still, because Panama is an air transportation hub, I can see opportunities for remote work increasing.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Plenty, since there are many organizations that could use talent. Spanish and patience are the most important tools you will need. How this works out remotely is anybody's guess, especially since not every community-based organization has laptops or internet connectivity.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business casual. Aim to be comfortable at all times.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Crime has been on the upswing of late. In general, Panama is a peaceful place where you can undertake land travel without a problem. Never leave your street smarts at home.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care is good in the private hospitals affiliated with US institutions.
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?
The constant moisture can exacerbate some allergies (skin and respiratory ones).
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
That they may need to take care of them here as well.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
While a tropical country with sunlight, the number of rainy days can be depressing. It can rain non-stop and kill simple pleasures like running on the Cinta Costera in the morning or late afternoon. This is not a drizzle that I am talking about. I mean full-on monsoon-like rain with plenty of flooding.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Hot and humid. Every. Single. Day. + rain.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
The Metropolitan, St George, International School of Panama and Balboa are international schools with good curricula.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
It is my understanding that the schools mentioned above offer special ed services. Inquire with them directly depending on your son/daughter's specific needs.
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, sports, but the city itself doesn't have many open area/parks and it rains, so many of them will probably take place indoors.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Large. The government response to the pandemic, with lockdowns and strict restrictions on mobility, took a severe toll on the expat morale. Also, the economic recovery is very slow, which translates into even fewer amenities available, and things to do.
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?
Restaurants and bars are a thing here. Trekking groups have been reactivated but the rain can kill many outings. Discovering the treasures of the old colonial city (Casco Antiguo). The beaches are, meh, okay. I would recommend San Blas, an archipelago in the Caribbean, simply because it is so different and non-commercial. Most of the beaches on the Pacific Ocean that are closer to the city are not that appealing. The further west you travel on that coast, such as to Pedasi and Playa Veando, the better the experience. Panama's tourism industry with multiple hotel offerings on both coasts is a work in progress. Please note that Panama City does not have a beach. This comes as a surprise to many who visit for the first time.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Good for all. I would suggest a house if living with kids so they have space to move around. Did I mention the rain? The singles scene is alive and well.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I believe it is.
5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
Panamanians aren't the most extroverted or friendly at first, but there are very nice people to meet here. Get out of your comfort zone and learn about their history so you don't ask silly questions. The US presence (or was it occupation) is a thorny issue, but there is no anti-US sentiment here. The invasion in 1989 was a show of force that left a scar in the lives of many families that still do not know of the whereabouts of their loved ones.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
San Blas, the Gamboa Rainforest, the old city, running, the night life that is slowly coming back.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
San Blas. Watch the whales migrate south in August by traveling to Contadora Island in the Pacific.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
You can find most everything here and the mark-up on imported goods is not that scandalous when compared to other countries in the region. Sales tax is 7%. There are some crafts available from the indigenous groups.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Panama's geographic location and the convenient airport allow you to discover neighboring countries for quick getaways. The relatively safe environment of the city allows you to lower your guard a bit. You can lunch in the Caribbean and dinner on the Pacific Ocean on the same day.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
My prior experience living here taught me plenty of what I would need to live here, how to negotiate the context, and set realistic expectations. Then came the pandemic...
I would recommend that anybody considering Panama City come and visit before committing to a long-term stay here. I say this very respectfully, but Panama is not on everybody's favorite/memorable experience list.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
I have to come to terms with the fact that the industry where I work will be linked to Panama for years to come. The last time around, when I moved to NYC, I could not have imagined moving back to Panama. Never say never. So when I leave, I might have to come back again, depending on where my job will take me. That said, I would not move here if not for work since some of the specifics of Panama, especially the weather, I find too much at times. Also, the cost of living is not low.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Winter clothes. Beach in the city expectations. Any ideas on how customer service should work. Expectations that the cost of living in Latin America is cheap. Anything that will spoil with moisture.
4. But don't forget your:
Your books. Bookstores are not widely available here. Technology gadgets. Beach gear and, if you are into it, your hiking gear as well. If you like to bike, there are places to do so around the city.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
The Panama Deception (movie). Read up on the history of Martin Torrijos. General knowledge of the US-Panama history will explain many things, from the Panamanian views of the US to how Panama City's growth in some areas, away from the Canal Zone, while leaving vast areas underdeveloped.
6. Do you have any other comments?
Panama is a good place with challenges. You need to have the right language and people skills to navigate this city.