Panama City, Panama Report of what it's like to live there - 01/07/13
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?
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?
Chicago - 5 hours non-stop
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
(The contributor is affiliated with the U.S. Government and has been living in Panama City for 15 months, a sixth expat experience.)
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
There are many great areas to live in Panama, but you need to take heavy traffic into consideration. The city has great buildings with terrific views, as does "Costa del Este". But depending on where you work the traffic can be horrendous. Many ex-pats live in Clayton or Albrook where the US Embassy, many NGO's, and many international schools are located. These areas are suburban, but have sidewalks and parks and less traffic.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Grocery stores here carry almost everything you can find in the U.S., including a lot of organic, gluten-free, etc., type products (for a price). I've been disappointed by the vegetable selection here. Unless you're really into starch, it's pretty limited. Tropical fruits are fantastic though.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Pine-nuts. I can't find them anywhere.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
All fast food chains are here with about same prices as the U.S. There are several good restaurants here, usually a bit cheaper or the same as a U.S. equivalent. I haven't been overly impressed by the dining scene here, but there are some decent choices. Look elsewhere for good Thai or Indian though!
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Mosquitoes can be a pain (but not dangerous). Every type of ant imaginable - and then some. Generally not bad.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Domestic help is available and usually runs about $20/day. Getting and keeping good-quality help can be difficult. Also, enrolling a full-time employee in the social security system, as is required by law, is a real headache, which is why many people don't.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes. There are gyms, some housing areas or apartment buildings have facilities, some communities such as Clayton and Albrook have public pools. Clayton has a gym which offers arobics and yoga. There are yoga and pilates studios around. Many people run/walk/bike on the Cinta Costera, Amador Causeway, Parque Omar, or Kiwanis Park as well. There are competitive running events and lots of cycling too.
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?
Credit cards are easy but be careful to use ATM's only inside banks or secure areas. There have been reports of copying cards.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
The more Spanish you know, the happier you will be here. Many people speak English, but many don't, and when you're looking for that one thing at the store, or trying to order a pizza or make an appointment, it can be really difficult without Spanish.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Panama is one of the only countries I've been to that not only has handicapped parking spots, but people who actually respect them. Many buildings also have ramps and sliding doors.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Public transport is safe (avoid diablos rojos but the metro buses are fine) with the usual precautions. However, you will need a car here for flexibility. It's not the kind of city where you can get what you need easily in walking distance.
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?
Any car will do here as the roads are good. Bigger cars can be harder to park.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
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?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
Panamanians are dog lovers, so, yes.
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?
Many people look within their spouse's agency or at the international schools. However Panama has relatively relaxed rules and does grant resident visas to many people who want to invest here and start a business.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Pretty relaxed. I wear flip-flops in public often.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
There have been some house/car break-ins. Most people feel very safe. You have to keep an eye out, like anywhere, but it's pretty safe.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
There is excellent medical here. I know several ex-pats who've given birth here. Most of the good hospitals though are in the city and difficult to reach in heavy traffic.
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 is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Very hot and humid. It rains almost every day from April through December. Having said that, we still manage to get outdoors most days. The rain is especially heavy in October and November, and the dry season goes from January through March, when it almost never rains.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Excellent international schools are one of the many reasons that Panama is a great family post. Balboa Academy, the Metropolitan, Kings College, Christian Crossroads Academy, International School of Panama, the Boston School, and others all have good reputations. You should look at the websites of each to find the best fit for your child. Think about foreign language instruction, (there are also French, Greek, Jewish, and Italian schools...), commute time from where you live, length of school day, extra-curricular activities, religion, etc., which differ between each, but all parents I've met seem happy with their children's school.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Again, each school is different. Reach out to individual schools to find out more.
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?
Most of the above schools offer preschool, but it can be expensive. There are also many Spanish instruction preschools that many ex-pat parents are happy with as well.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Again, too many to list. Ballet, tennis, swimming, soccer, American football, baseball, gymnastics, karate, tae kwan do, horseback riding, to name just a few that I'm familiar with.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Very, very, large. I often feel like I never see Panamanians.
2. Morale among expats:
This varies. I find most people coming from developed countries have a harder time here. Panama is a modern, well-developed country, but it's not the same as the U.S. or Europe, and there are many frustrations from traffic, poor infrastructure, power outages, poor customer service, different adherence to time. Also the more Spanish you speak the better. People who get out more and enjoy the great things Panama has to offer seem to appreciate the country most. The traffic can be excruciating, and some people drive like real jerks, so people with long commutes are pretty unhappy, too.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Depends on what you like to do. There are huge malls, movie theaters, bars, clubs, restaurants. The arts scene is pretty limited, though there is theater and ballet.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It's a great place for families as there is so much to do here with kids. It's also a great place for anyone who is into the outdoors and/or athletics. I can't speak to dating. There is definitely a night scene in Panama but I don't know how easy/hard it is to date.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I think Panamanians are fairly tolerant.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Panama is a diverse society and you will see people of many different backgrounds here, including Asian and South Asian. I haven't heard of any particular stories of outright prejudice, although of course it can happen anywhere.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Hiking, beaches, mountains, seeing the canal, boatrides, enjoying nature. It's also a relaxed, easy place to live overall.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Too many to list. All kinds of outdoor activities from hiking, biking, sport competitions, boating, fishing (lake and deep sea), scuba/snorkeling, surfing, rafting, tourism, some decent dining, a nice outdoor aquarium, a small zoo, forts, Casco Viejo is a wonderful neighborhood.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Tourism. Artisan goods are not that great here.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Tourism and outdoor activities. It is easy to travel here and the tourist infrastructure is good. It is a beautiful country with so much to see.
11. Can you save money?
Not if you're out enjoying the country.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Absolutely. I love living here!
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
expectation to improve your Spanish.
3. But don't forget your:
patience for sitting in heavy traffic, umbrella, outdoor sports equipment and beach wear (although you can get that here).
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Divorcing The Dictator: America's Bungled Affair with Noriega
is about Noriega - that's pretty interesting.
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
The Tailor of Panama
is a lot of fun. There's also a documentary on the building of the canal which is interesting.