Panama City, Panama Report of what it's like to live there - 05/11/15
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, various locations in WHA, EUR, and EAP.
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?
There is a direct COPA flight from DC to Panama City. There are also flights from Miami, Houston, Denver, and Atlanta.
3. How long have you lived here?
2 1/2 years
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 both houses and apartments available, although due to skyrocketing rents, there are now more apartments than houses. If one is housed in the former canal zone located near the Embassy, the commute is between 5-15 minutes, although it can be more due to traffic. The main road is only two lanes and traffic can back up quickly. For those traveling from Costa del Este or Punta Pacifica, the commute is between 45 minutes to an hour and half depending on the time of day.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
One the one hand there is a wide range of products are available but on the other, it will cost you. The cost of living has risen dramatically even in the short time I have been here. This has causes serious morale problems for entry and mid level employees, especially those with families with a stay-at-home parent. For example, a bag of grapes cost US$7, frozen lean cusine meals are US$5.50 each, a small individual sized container of greek yogurt is US$1.85 and a one pound container of greek yogurt is US$7.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Portable dishwasher. The vast majority of homes don't have one assuming you will have a maid but hiring a domestic is so diffciult and expensive that many decide to forgo having one. Many homes lack storage, I wish I would have pruchased shelving units and containers before my arrival.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Chains like McDonald's, Popeye's, Baskin Robbins, Carls, Jr, Taco Bell, Dominos, KFC, Papa Johns are available here but they not cheap. In some cases the prices are similar to DC but higher in other cases. Also, fast food is not fast here at all--it usually takes 30-45 minutes between ordering your food and receicing it. There are nice restaurants available but they are expensive. If you like pork, chicken, rice and fried plaintains then you can find inexpensive food at Panamanian cuisine restaurants. Inexpensive street food of dubious quality is available.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Lots. Everybody has ants in their kitchen and they often invade other parts of the home. Houses often have crickets, roaches, lizards, and other creatures in them.
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?
Cheaper than in the U.S. but way more than one would think for a county in Central America. The average price for a full-time maid is US$600 a month plus social security, one month's vacation, one month's Christmas bonus, plus severance pay. A part time maid is about US$30 a day plus vacation, severance, etc but you don't have to pay social secuirty for someone who works less than twice a week. Most Panamanian maids do not iron and many won't clean or take care of a small child.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes, they are available but not cheap. The Embassy has a small gym. It is very hot to exercise outside--one really must do their outdoor workouts before 7am and after 6:30pm to at least take the edge off the heat. There are CrossFit gyms here but none of themare open on the weekends and it will cost about US$100 a month. You can find zumba classes easily here--they are US$5 a class.
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?
There are generally safe, but you MUST watch the clerk swipe your credit card in front of you othereise you will be scammed. ATM's are ok if you use them inside a bank. There have been cases where embassy employees have been scammed at ATMS and who have had their credit cards scanned.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
I know there are Catholic services in English--I don't know about others.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Education First lists Panama as having one of the lowest rate of English-speakers in the world--very surprising given the U.S. controlled the canal until 20 years ago. I was shocked how few of my interlocuters in the Panamanian government speak even basic English, even in the Minsitry of Foreign Affairs. Not to mention the fact that the accent is very hard to understand. Spanish is essential here and life is very isolating for those who don't speak it.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes--there are not many sidewalks and when you find them, the pavement is uneven.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Taxis are relatively safe but you must insist that the driver does not pick up any additional passengers along the route. They are reasonably priced but be leary of hailing one at the hotels--otherwise the prices quadruple. For example, a taxi from the Hilton Hotel on Balboa avenue to the embassy (a 10 minute cab ride-about 3 miles or so away) will cost US$35 in front of the hotel but US$7 a block aweay. Plane tickets are widely available given that Panama City is a transportation hub but it is pricey. For example, a round trip ticket to Miami which is 3 1/2 hours a way will set you back US$700+ per person. There is a brand new metro that is affordable and safe but there is currently only one line so it is not conveneient.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, it is available but it is very spotty with frequent outages. In addition, the wifi signal in your residence will often not work throughout the house despite the use of extenders.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
A pre-paid plan for 1 GB of data on an iphone 6 will run US$15 for 15 days.
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?
No, decent opportunities. There is a bilateral work agreement but one must have fluent Spanish and the pay is less than one would earn at the Embassy. Unfortunatley, competition for EFM jobs is high and there are many who cannot find a job even after looking for a year.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
There are volunteer opportunities, but it is easier if oen speaks basic panish.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Formal at work, more casual outside although not as casual as in the U.S. (no shorts or workout clohtes to go out and about).
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Panama is rated critical for crime. Although it can happen, violent crime is relatively rare in the neighboorhoods where embassy staff live but residential crime (like burgalries) is not unusual. Embassy staff have had their homes and cars broken into. There are "red" zones identified by the RSO throughout Panama City, including Pacora which houses an annex office of the Embassy, where poeple should exercise extreme caution. There are dozens of different gangs in Panama. The increasingly high cost of living and frequent utility outages have led to civil unrest and frequent demonstrations that close down major streets in the city without notice.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
There is a huge disparity between the perception of the current RMO and the embassy community on the quality of health care here. There are worse places to be, but there have been many horror stories about the level of care of here. Other than the cost of living, the inferior quality of health care is one of the biggest moreale issues of employees and families at post. For example, ambulances are inadquate and despite what the Health Unit says, there is not always an English speaking person on staff at the hospitals. I know of at least 3 people in the embassy community who have contracted dengue recently. Mold is a huge issue here--several people in the community have been hospitalized due to mold in their homes. There are several types of poisonous snakes that have been found in the yards of embassy housing.
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?
Hot and humid and really hot. It is overcast and rainy for much the year (from Mid April to December) when it is also super humid. One will be sweaty just walking from the car to one's place of business. The dry season is sunny and although hotter, it's at least a little more comfortable because of reduced humidity. The downside to the dry season is that the beautiful, lush, green countryside turns brown.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are several options to choose from. About 60% of the embassy kids attend the Metropolitan School and the rest either attend ISP or Balboa. ISP has very nice facilities but they are located on the other side of town with a long commute. The ISP bus picks up students in my neighboorhood in Clayton at 06:15 am for an 8 am start. In contrast, my kids who attend nearby MET get picked up by the bus at 07:40 am for their 8 am start. I only have experience at the MET and I am pleased with the school. I think other parents are overall happy with the schools at Balboa and ISP as well. The only negative thing I've heard about those schools are some stories of bullying because they have more of an upper class Panamanians student body which does not seem to welcome non-Spanish speaking foreigners. One thing to note about Panamanian society in general--girls' sports are not a valued part of the culture here as it is in the U.S. One can find many boys teams playing soccer and baseball in the parks on the weekends but no girls at all. The MET has an active co-ed swim team and a girls volleyball team. They have been able to field a girls basketball team. I heard Balboa has a girls' flag football team among a few others. Boys have many more options.
2. 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?
There are preschools available but I don't know much about them. There are no daycare centers, people hire nannies which are not cheap.
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, but it is much more limited for girls than other countries we've been posted to.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Panama is a medium sized post and growing. Morale is low to medium. It is not that Panama is a terrible place and there are cetainly worse places in the world to be stationed, but Panama is unfairly listed as a zero differential post and it isn't nearly as nice here as real differential posts such as London or Sydney. The weather is hot and humid year round, there are frequent utility outages, internet connectivity is spotty, customer service is one of the worst in the region, traffic is terrible and service is very slow. Panama is a transportation hub but prices are exorbitant causing travel to escape, especially for families, cost prohibitive. Morale is very low for those who don't speak Spanish.
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?
Not much; maybe go to the pool or the movies. Hiking if you don't mind the heat.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I guess it would be fine for all of the above. The cost of living has increased dramatically, however, so many young families where the spouse doesn't work complain about the high cost of living here.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
No, LGBT individuals do not have basic human rights and a recent police study demonstrated extreme bias against this population. There are worse places one can be, however.
5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Travel (7-9 hours by car) to the mountains in the Boquete region. Nice weather there and many outdoor acritivites such as whitewater rafting, ziplining, hiking, and visiting coffee plantations.
6. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
It is interesting to do a tour of the canal and see the beaches. Every year, there is a three-day ocean to ocean cayuco regatta that is fun to either do or observe once. Casco Viejo is a nice area for dining out.
7. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
8. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Beaches (although you'd have to drive about an hour and a half to get to the nicest ones).
9. Can you save money?
Not really, the cost of living is suprisngly high.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I wish I'd known how expensive it was and that despite its appearances, Panama is definitely a third world country. I was unprepared for the frequent water and electricity outages (homes do not have generators) and how spotty internet connectivity would be. Customer service is very slow and almost non-existant here. This was a suprise to me too when I first arrived.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Only if the post allowance was raised and if they got a hardship differential and an R&R to compensate for the hardships endured here.
3. But don't forget your:
Bug spray. Also, sunscreen--it is expesnive here.
4. Do you have any other comments?
Despite is facade of being like Miami, one only has to scratch the surface slighlty to realize that this is a third world country. Power and water outages regularly occur on a weekly basis. Despite the prevalence of high rises, construction standards are below U.S. standards and many cannot be leased for Embassy housing. Maintenance problems are a regular occurence. On the positive side, you can find many types of different restaurants and products in the gorcery stores. There is also interesting flora and fauna to watch. I also enjoy watching vessels pass through the Panama Canal.