Panama City, Panama Report of what it's like to live there - 04/30/10

Personal Experiences from Panama City, Panama

Panama City, Panama 04/30/10

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

3rd expat experience

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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, DC, about 4-hour direct flight.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Year and a half.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

US Embassy employee.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Housing has been difficult in the US Embassy community, but is getting better. Housing near the embassy is OK, but that limits your options for getting around. I live on Avenida Balboa and would recommend it as a nice mid-point. Avoid Punta Paitilla (horrible traffic) and Costa Del Este (too far out, unless you are part of US Agriculture´s bug project).

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Good prices overall.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Everything you want.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

In the city it's OK. The fight against yellow fever eliminated most of the mosquitoes.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Most people avoid hiring the Panamanians, who are not known for their stellar work ethic. Fortunately (or unfortunately), there is a ready supply of other Central American workers ready for hire. Nicaraguans are particularly capable.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

The embassy has a great and underutilized gym. Not sure of the open market.

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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?

I use AMEX, which doesn't charge me the foreign transaction fee (Panama is dollar-based). Check your cards, most will hit you with a 3% fee.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Surprisingly, given the time the US spent here, Spanish is very much required. Maybe it´s because we dont live in an embassy enclave.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Taxis are OK. Call Taxi America. Take the local busses ¨Los diablos rojos¨(red devils) only if you have a death wish.

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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?

Go 4x4, given the bad roads and torrential rain. Most models are supported.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Cable Onda is good; Cable and Wireless.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

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Pets:

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?

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

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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?

If you are a banking professional or money launderer, it looks OK.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Wearing a suit in this heat is fairly ridiculous. A dress code is not really enforced in the embassy -- though the bankers go in costume.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Insecurity is an increasingly difficult problem, as more drugs come through. Normally, it is still safe, but it is becoming increasingly more difficult.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

World-class health care.

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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 good, but the humidity is high.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Hot, full-on-air-conditioning-hot. Or hot with rain.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

Balboa Academy for the tweens.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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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?

My 2-year-old goes to a pre-school called PlayTime, and we´re very pleased. If you are comfortable varying off the embassy route, there are good options.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Large. There are lots of retirees out by Volcan, in the west by Costa Rica.

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2. Morale among expats:

Good. Better since we´ve gotten some better options for housing.

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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?

Lots of bars, some nightclubs and gambling for the young set.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Good for families, particularly if you stay close to the embassy community. Of course it is OK for the single guys, but the gals might be challenged.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

There are strong jewish and islamic communities.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Running on the Cinta Costera (bay-front walkway), Panama Canal locks, all-inclusive beach resorts.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

The canal: it is fascinating in operation and history. There is good adventure up the canal, where the Smithsonian has a reserve. There is also some good fishing. For the families, some all-inclusive beach resorts are reasonable and great for a weekend getaway.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Good transport routes, cheap electronics.

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11. Can you save money?

For embassy folks, its a zero-differential post, so not really.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes. If you want to experience Central America, I think this is the best you can get in terms of cities.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

ski boots, mittens, and any belief that Panama has (or wants to have) a cultural heritage.

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3. But don't forget your:

swim suit and defensive-driving habits.

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4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

"Tailor of Panama", a marginal movie, but gives great footage of Panama City.

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

"Pathway between the Seas" tells the story of the US Canal effort back when we could do things no other country could.

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6. Do you have any other comments?

Panama offers an intriguing political/economic situation and world-class amenities with third-world management.

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