Panama City, Panama Report of what it's like to live there - 03/29/14
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. Lived in Asia before and did some short stints elsewhere in Latin America.
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?
Washington, D.C. - 5 hour flight if you can get the direct flight. A little more with connections.
3. How long have you lived here?
A year and a half.
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?
There are apartments and single-family homes and townhomes in an area close to the Embassy (Albrook and Clayton) and apartments in the downtown area (Paitilla and along the Cinta Costera) and farther out (Costa del Este). Then there are apartments between the downtown area and the Embassy (El Dorado/Dos Mares). I highly recommend staying away from the El Dorado/Dos Mares apartments, they look like they're in a nice area but they're actually in an area that's very dangerous for driving (at the top of a steep hill with a narrow road and a blind curve), you hear all the road noise from hundreds of feet below, they aren't fire safe (one exit and one stairwell on the 27th floor), they're isolated from the rest of the Embassy community, there are no areas for children to play and it's hard to walk anywhere outside of the complex.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
About the same as DC, although anything imported will be a lot more expensive, so I recommend buying some of those things online if you have access to the DPO. Frozen goods are almost all imported, and most seem to thaw and refreeze at some point during shipping.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
A portable dishwasher. Most of the housing does not come with dishwashers (under the assumption you'll get a maid, which we didn't), but no one informed us of this before we packed out. We were able to buy a portable dishwasher from someone else leaving post, thankfully. There are rumors these are sold at the main Pricesmart store out by Brisas del Golf, but we have not confirmed this.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
All the American staples are down here (McDonald's, Wendy's, Taco Bell, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Papa John's, Dominoes, etc). Some decent Colombian chains are here too (Juan Valdez coffee shops, Crepes y Waffles). Lots of good independent restaurants, too, of all kinds, although SE Asian foods are hard to find. Lots of Chinese restaurants, but generally low quality and bland. Prices are comparable to major cities in the U.S.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
The thing about tropical climates is that bugs don't really die off, it never gets cold enough or dry enough. Mosquitoes are a problem all year (and there are dengue outbreaks often). Termites will spread and infest anywhere possible - they've been living in our kitchen since before we moved in, and we're in a high-rise apartment on the 27th floor, so if they can get up here, they can get anywhere. We had a small ant infestation for a while too but after purchasing some ant traps (which I picked up on a trip to the U.S. since you can't find them in Panama), they seem to have died off.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO and dip pouch.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
We don't have any domestic help, but I've heard that it's hard to find good people. Most of the available domestic helpers will not perform more than one sort of duty (they'll either clean your house OR cook/prepare food OR be a nanny - it's hard to find someone to do all three). Also I've heard that it's hard to find someone who will iron. I don't know the price range, it's not terribly expensive but you do have to pay Social Security and follow the intricate labor code if they work more than 2 days/week.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Embassy has a gym and there are private gyms throughout the city, not sure about cost
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?
No issues. I can use credit cards almost everywhere.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Most major denominations seem to have at least one weekly English service.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Spanish is definitely needed here. Hardly anyone you'd interact with on a daily basis knows even one word of English. Before I came here I was under the impression that Spanish wasn't required and that everyone knows English. That is DEFINITELY NOT the case here. Their dialect is hard to understand, too, so get used to highly-slurred Caribbean Spanish.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yea, lots of construction everywhere, sidewalks aren't well-maintained and are frequently covered with trash.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
We are encouraged not to use the buses. Taxis are usually safe and pretty cheap, but there are no meters so you have to negotiate your price every time. We usually drive our own car to get to and from places. A brand new metro system will open in April 2014, safety TBD.
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?
Definitely a 4WD vehicle. Roads are not well-maintained and sometimes just randomly disappear when you're driving on them. Also bring a car that you don't mind getting dinged up. Panamanians are unobservant aggressive drivers and make up their own traffic rules, so you have to be on alert at all times when you're driving inside the city. Traffic is really bad at all times of the day (except Sundays) and the roads are too narrow for the volume of cars. They treat their cars like bumper cars, and if they run into you they might only stop if they notice they left a dent. Parking lots are cramped and you will get dinged and scratched frequently.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, cost is comparable or a bit cheaper than the U.S. We have 10 mb cable internet for about US$40/month.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
4 major cell phone companies, all have 4G service at rates generally lower than the U.S. No problems here. If your phone works in the U.S., it will have the radios to work here.
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?
Yes - if you are bilingual. Panama is a logistics and financial hub that is pretty plugged into the global economy. Many multinationals have operations here. Panama has a shortage of skilled labor.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Lots of community service opportunities, most dealing with youth in poor neighborhoods, etc. Standard stuff.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Formal at work except on Fridays; seems like anything goes in public.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Unorganized gang violence is common in and around the city among small-scale neighborhood gangs (nothing like further north in Central America/Mexico). Make sure you know where the bad areas are, they tend to be quite close to the nice areas in some cases. House break-ins and burglaries aren't uncommon, so make sure you arm your alarm (no one with the Embassy has had a break-in since we've been here, but there have been some attempted break-ins on Embassy houses, and some non-Embassy neighbors who have been robbed).
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
It's not bad, but for anything serious it's recommended that you medevac. Just stick to private doctors and hospitals and far away from the public hospitals.
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?
Not bad. Not as polluted other places, but not perfect.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It's hot and humid all year. There's a rainy season (roughly April-December) and a dry season (roughly December-April). The temperature hovers around 90F all year, occasionally dipping into the low 80s.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
They do have several international schools here. Schools, however, aren't very important to Panamanians. When there was an energy crisis last year, the first thing they did was shut down the schools (k-12 and universities). The first school my son attended cancelled their 4-year-old program altogether, saying the Ministry of Education provides no curriculum support and they didn't want to develop a program on their own, so we had to find him a new school. I was okay with that, though, because I don't think he was learning anything at that first school, it seemed like the teachers were much more concerned with posting selfies on Facebook than actually teaching anything. There's an enormous gulf between the international schools and the local schools. Bear in mind that the international schools require a ~US$10,000 "capital donation" when your kid enrolls, in addition to all of the enrollment, tuition, and materials fees.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Not sure, although I know that there is a child psychologist at the new school that my son just started attending.
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?
They are available everywhere, and costs per month are what you'd pay per week in the DC area, so not very expensive.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes - baseball, tennis, soccer for sure.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Very large. Medium morale. It's not a terrible place, but you start to get sick of the inconveniences after a while (water and electricity randomly shutting off for days, random road closures with no warning, horrible roads with terrible drivers and constant traffic at all times of the day, poorly constructed housing that is constantly needing repairs, the worst customer service I've ever encountered anywhere, etc).
2. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
If you live in Albrook/Clayton, it's great for families. There are tons of kids around and all the neighbors know each other and can ride bikes out on the street and play on the playgrounds, it's like suburban America in some ways. Don't live in El Dorado/Dos Mares if you have kids - very few Embassy families live there, and there really isn't anywhere for them to play anyway (unless you like sending your kids down to dark warehouses to play, because that's what's available).
Our neighbors' kids tend to run up and down the stairwell for fun, which is loud and annoying for us, and it's not the way I'd want to play as a kid. Paitilla is a good spot for singles and couples without kids because that's where all the bars and restaurants are. Although honestly, the Embassy is mostly families with small children so I don't know if it would be that enjoyable for singles unless you're willing to branch out and extend your social network to include locals and other expats (of which there are many). Costa del Este looks like a nice suburban area too, but with high-rise apartments. I don't know anything about it, though.
3. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Not very gay friendly, although it's probably worse for gay Panamanians than gay expats. There are no legal protections for being gay and homosexuality is specifically cited in the police code of conduct as a serious moral failing.
4. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Panamanians are very misogynistic, but I don't know of any real prejudices against anyone but homosexuals.
5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Being able to get back to the U.S. often.
6. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Check out the Canal and everything related to it. It's easy to go into the jungle and see some cool wildlife (sloths, iguanas, howler monkeys, etc). Beaches are nice, although you do have to drive about 2 hours to get to any usable beaches. Our favorite is Las Veraneras at Playa Santa Clara, where you can drive up and rent a cabana (with table, chairs, and a hammock) for US$20/day.
7. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Not much, most of the souvenirs you see here are available in other countries in Central America as well. Some indigenous handicrafts are different.
8. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The Panama Canal is cool and there are lots of amazing outdoor places within a day's drive or less from Panama City. It's close to the U.S. so it's relatively easy to take short trips up there. Most U.S. products are available and there's a Costco equivalent (Pricesmart). Timezone is easy.
9. Can you save money?
If you don't want to travel too much outside of Panama, sure. Panama is somehow ranked among the cheapest cities to live, but we find the cost of living to be very similar to the U.S. (DC). If you live like an American, it will cost the same. If you live like a Panamanian then it can be pretty cheap but your quality of life is much lower.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
That all 0% posts are not created equal. I came out of a 20% hardship post and my life has been far harder in Panama than it ever was there.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
No way. The housing has really ruined the post for us, but in addition to that, it's a much harder place to live in than we thought it would be. Before this, we spent 2 years in a polluted and overcrowded city, so this post was supposed to be our "nice" post. It hasn't been what we were expecting, and it's made the experience disappointing.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Brand new cars (buy something a few years old, it's going to get hit a few times).
4. But don't forget your:
Sunblock and patience.