Panama City, Panama Report of what it's like to live there - 04/25/08
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, I've lived throughout all of Latin America.
2. How long have you lived here?
3. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
I work for the U.S. Embassy.
4. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:
From Miami, 2.5 hours via American Airlines.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing in Costa Del Este is nice but not worth the more than one hour it takes to commute to the Embassy in stop and go traffic; this with paying the toll fare of US$1.25.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Everything is available but everything is also imported with few exceptions of some fruits and some Panamanian coffee.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Remember that most everything is imported in Panama so if you want something expensive, it's best to buy in the U.S. with the exception of electronics which we found to be about the same as in the U.S.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Everything and anything. Prices generally about the same as the U.S. but maybe about 10% less than major U.S. cities. It is expensive compared to other countries we've been in Latin America.
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?
About US$250 for a live-in. Everyone we know has tried Panamanian domestics and in the end ended up hiring a Colombian due to work ethic issues. We didn't believe them initially but after going through two Panamanian maids, I would recommend identifying a good alternative with references.
3. 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 major cards excepted and ATMs are readily avilable although they charge US$2.00 per withdrawal.
4. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Yes, we attended the Catholic service in English.
5. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
Cable is readily available. We pay US$107 for both cable and high speed internet.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You need Spanish. The wealthy all speak English but for anyone else you need to speak Spanish.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
No consideration for people with physical disabilities that we've seen.
1. Do you drive on the right hand side of the road or the left?
2. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Taxis are relatively affordable although they do not use meters and frequently charge different rates for foreigners and if you are going to a richer neighborhood.
3. 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?
For the city a small sedan is more suitable although if you intend to leave the city you soon become aware that Panama is a 3rd world country in every sense, including the roads.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Same as above.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Any of the major carriers are good.
3. What is the best way to make phone calls back home?
We use VOIP with our internet.
1. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
Relatively good for Latin American standards.
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, for teachers but the pay is not comparable to the U.S. Unless you own your own business, expect to be paid much less than you would in the U.S.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business formal for the more formal business community and diplomatic community.
Health & Safety:
1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?
Poor, there seems to be a lot of trash burning and the water is extremely contaminated.
2. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
High security concerns, but mostly petty crime, home break-ins, etc.
3. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
The heat and humidity are concerns. Many medical doctors indicate U.S. training but we have generally been very dissapointed with the quality of health care.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Hot, hot, and hot. Either with rain or not depending on the month.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
We had our children in ISP and are thoroughly dissapointed. The children have not found the school to be stimulating or challenging. The teachers are not responsive to the students' needs. We now regret not having placed them in Balboa Academy. Other families staying longer have pulled their children out of ISP to place them in Balboa. As we are preparing to depart, it was not a choice for us. This said, I have met a parent who likes ISP so you may want to consider them both.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
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?
Preschools are readily available in numerous neighborhood schools. The larger private schools offer preschool programs but they are very expensive.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Large business population. There seems to be a huge push by the Panamanians to attract retirees to move to Panama but I worry about what these people will do when they confront the horrible traffic and difficulty getting anything done in Panama.
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?
Anything you want. Although night clubs and prostitution seem to be main attractions for many foriegnors.
3. Morale among expats:
Seems to vary. The morale at the US Embassy seems to be poor compared to other posts we've been assigned to.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Not for families. Panama is trying to represent themselves as a great place to retire but the non-stop traffic and relatively high cost of living do not support this. They are building an additional highway but this will do nothing to alleviate the inside city traffic.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Generally, the wealthy Panamanians look down on anything other than White. Outwardly they appear very social but we've found it to be a facade.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Boating (expensive) visiting the beaches (although you either have to fly to the nice ones on the islands or travel across land via very poor roads to the nicer beaches on the Carribean side).
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Travel to the islands.
9. Can you save money?
No, not if you want to enjoy yourself.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Your winter items; the rush to get anywhere; the expectation that Panama is anything other than a third world country.
3. But don't forget your:
Patience, lot's of patience.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
7. Do you have any other comments?
I had been to Panama in the 80's and thoroughly enjoyed it. Now it seems different, much more commercialized, with people out to make a buck anyway they can. It gets old very quickly. We will not return and I would never consider it a good place to retire. We've enjoyed our other four tours in Latin America but this stands out as a major disapointment.