Panama City, Panama Report of what it's like to live there - 03/15/17
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?
Yes. This was my first assignment with the State Department, however I had studied abroad in Spain for a semester during college.
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?
Denver, Colorado. Most direct would be about four hours from Panama City to Houston, and then two hours from Houston to Denver. Very easy getting back to the States.
3. How long have you lived here?
About one year.
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?
BIG apartment downtown with ocean views. We are a kid-less family and have three bedrooms, three bathrooms, plus a maid's quarters w/bathroom. Apartments downtown are a mix of some older buildings and brand new buildings. We are in an older one, but it's still really nice. Our kitchen could use more counter space, but some of the newer additions to the housing pool have really great kitchens.
Downtown living is close to the Cinta Costera - the coastal "boardwalk" with bike/running paths, exercise equipment, shaved ice sellers, etc. Also usually within walking distance of grocery stores or small markets. Commute to the Embassy takes anywhere from 15 minutes with no traffic to an hour plus with major traffic and rain. Average commute is about 30-35 minutes.
Housing near the Embassy is mostly small, older houses in gated communities. Good for families. Usually it's less of a commute, but not always.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Grocery shopping is much more expensive than I thought. You can buy nearly anything that you'd find in the States, from gluten-free, dairy-free, allergy-free products, to cheeses, to meats, etc. Lots of imported items which are reflected in the price. You can save money buy buying local meats and produce, but they're still up-charged quite a bit at the most common grocery stores (Riba Smiths, El Rey, Super 99). The best local produce is at a market called Foodie, though the prices are high. A typical grocery run for our family is almost twice the cost of what we paid in the States. For extremely cheap produce, go to the Mercado de Abastos, which is where all the restaurants buy their produce wholesale. You can buy heaps of pineapples, mangoes, and bananas for extremely low prices. It may be overwhelming at first, so bring a friend. Pricesmart is a Costco-like store which you can go to for cheap groceries as well - $30/year membership.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Not really anything in particular. OTC drugs are a bit harder to get, as you literally have to wait at a counter and ask for them. They're quite expensive.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Panama City is an excellent foodie city, though dining out prices are very high at most places. As a melting pot, there is also many varieties of restaurants and foods from all over the world. Apps like Degusta are a good way of finding restaurants that have been rated by locals. There are many restaurants that deliver or offer takeout, and also a wave of third-party delivery companies who deliver right to your door- such as Apetito24 or Delicentro.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
We live on the 13th floor and have never seen any bug or insect in our apartment.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
DPO or Pouch. Amazon is fairly quick - usually you will get your orders in about a week. There are some local courier and shipping services, but I think they're a little expensive. Panama doesn't really have a well-instituted local postal service.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
We don't have household help, though I think they are around $25 per day. From what I've heard, Panamanians don't iron.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Panamanians are very into working out. There are races or activities nearly every week. They also extend the Cinta Costera on Sunday mornings all the way up to Panama Viejo, by closing off a lane of the road. There are gyms in almost every apartment building, though they can be small. Larger, membership-only gyms exist in nearly every neighborhood, though memberships are $100+ per month. The Embassy has a good gym as well.
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?
Yes they are used nearly everywhere and are safe to use. Panama City is the banking capital of Central America, so there are ATMS everywhere. I don't use them because I usually take my cash out at the Embassy.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Spanish is pretty essential. Many people do speak English, but your day-to-day needs will require Spanish. Many great Spanish schools locally - Habla Ya is highly recommended. Also, classes at the Embassy.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. Sidewalks are poorly maintained and it would be very tough to navigate.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Panama's public transportation system is growing - they have brand new buses and one metro line. They are constructing a second line that should be complete in 2018. The Metro is easy to use and I think less than $1 per trip. It currently isn't super useful for our family since we don't live on the line. Buses are also cheap, but usually quite packed. There are some buses, Diablos Rojos, that are not safe to ride as they are somewhat unlicensed and drive quite recklessly. Taxis are safe, but I recommend using Uber if you can avoid the taxis. Taxis don't have meters, drive poorly, and will charge you more for being Gringo.
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 Rav 4 and are quite happy. While lower-clearance cars are generally fine in the city, once you get out of the city and do any sort of non-highway driving, the higher-clearance is usually needed. Additionally, during the rainy season, the downtown roads flood quite easily and it isn't uncommon for giant potholes to appear or for manhole covers to float away. Lots of dealerships around the city as well as mechanics. Many tire repair shops, too, which you may need!
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes. I get 15 MBps plus cable TV (which I don't use) for $50/month. More reliable than Comcast. I got it a few days after arrival.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
I have a local SIM card with 3 GB per month of data and 300 minutes/100 SMS for about $30/month. I rarely use the minutes or SMS, because we use WhatsApp so often. We use Movistar, which seems to be a common provider.
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 work at the embassy or telecommute to companies back in the States. Some work on the local economy, usually at the international schools.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
We have a People-to-People coordinator at the Embassy who can probably hook you up with any number of volunteering opportunities.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Dress code at work is usually business casual, with a tie and jacket on standby just-in-case. I do see a good number of jeans on Fridays as well as many guayaberas.
As for public places, most Panamanians wear jeans or long-pants. Shorts are pretty rare, though not completely strange. Dress codes at the nicest restaurants are fine to have nice jeans and a collared shirt.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Panama is considered a high-crime post, but we have never felt abnormally unsafe. Even walking around at night downtown or in Casco Viejo has been fine. There are tourist police in Casco Viejo as well as along the Cinta Costera. You may drive through some unsafe neighborhoods, but usually they're not too bad. You should always maintain vigilance though. Especially while driving as the other drivers are bound to do something that they shouldn't.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Health care is top-notch. Zika is probably a concern for some. Dental care is very good. I don't think any medical condition would require a medical evacuation.
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?
Air is usually good. Some burning during the dry season, but not bad.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Food allergies--you can find whatever you need at the grocery store. Environmental allergies for me are somewhat bad. Antihistamines are very expensive here, so stock up before you arrive or have your family and friends restock your supply when they come visit.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Rainy season is long and hot and humid. You have to wake up super-early if you want to exercise outside in weather that is "bearable"
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Hot all year round. Hot and humid for most of the year. Hot and "less-humid" for three months (Jan-March).
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Expatriate community from all over the world is LARGE. Morale is good.
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?
Endless. There are exercise groups, free classes in the parks and Cinta Costera, there are hiking groups, LGBT groups, etc. I recommend Meetup.com or Couchsurfing for locals/expats. Embassy CLO is amazing as well.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It's great for nearly everyone! Families enjoy the family nature of the post and singles are easily able to find any sort of activity they're interested in and can branch out with local friends.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Very good. My husband and I are part of the LGBT community and found a very large group of international LGBT friends. There are a few dance clubs (though we're a bit past that age). There is a pride parade every year, though it's really more of a march than a parade. Attitudes in the country are still a bit traditional, but minds are changing. Many public TV personalities are LGBT, but not necessarily super-open about it. We are asked if we are brothers more often than we like, but oh well.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Panama is a melting pot of cultures - since the construction of the canal it has attracted people from all around the world. However, I'd say there are probably some prejudices, just as in the US. There is growing animosity towards immigrants from Colombia and Venezuela. Religious communities from all stripes are represented here - there's actually quite a large Jewish population, though they are a bit more orthodox than many Jewish communities in the US.
There is still gender inequality but I think it's improving.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Chocolate tour in Bocas del Toro, coffee tasting in Boquete, Canal Jungle tour, evenings on rooftop bars in Casco Viejo, Altos de Campana National Park.
It's a small country, but there is SO MUCH to see. From the jungles, to the mountains, to the white sand beaches, to the coffee country, to the deep sea fishing, to the surfing, to the canal, to the city life, etc. If you are not having fun in Panama, you are not trying.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Cajones de Chame are awesome, and somewhat off the map.
Pedro Mandinga rum bar in Casco Viejo.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Yes. Molas, woven baskets, rum, coffee, chocolate, Panama hats.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Panama City is an American hub - it's easy, though not always cheap, to get to almost anywhere in the hemisphere. Your family and friends will likely bombard you with visits.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
How much I'd sweat.
More about the history.
More about the accent - Panamanian Spanish can be hard to understand.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Expectations of good customer service, winter clothes (though it can be cold inside from A/C!), timid driving .
4. But don't forget your:
Patience, sunscreen, moisture-wicking clothes, sunglasses, umbrella, sense of adventure, bird-books, snorkel gear, defensive driving skills, running shoes, regional travel books, and flat-tire repair kits.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Path Between Two Seas by David McCullough.
Hands of Stone (2016) movie directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz. Not the best movie, but filmed in the city and interesting bit of history on Panama's most famous boxer.
Listen to music by Ruben Blades and Danilo Perez, two of the most famous Panamanian musicians.
6. Do you have any other comments?
Previous post reports had mentioned poor customer service so much that I had built it up to be terrible in my head. Upon arrival, I thought it was much better than it had been described, but after a year here I would concur that customer service is generally bad, with the caveat of you just have to get used to how it works. You will need to clearly ask for what you want and call over servers when you need them, otherwise they generally won't go the extra mile. You will also get cashiers who roll their eyes at you for interrupting their conversation and hardly say a word to you. It's not that you're a gringo, they're like this to locals, too. Just kill 'em with kindness. Occasionally you'll be surprised with some really great service and it makes you appreciate it even more.