Panama is a rapidly modernizing country, with loads of facilities you would consider ‘first world’ like state-of-the-art hospitals, tall flashy apartment complexes, a brand new metro (train) system, modern buses, and large chic shopping malls. But amidst all this, we can’t forget that Panama is really still a developing (or ‘third world’) country and as such, there are many things that are probably a bit different to where you live now. If you’re thinking about a move to Panama City you’ll need to consider a broad range of things.
Weather – it’s hot, hot, hot year ‘round in Panama City! If you’re not used to the heat (and it’s really the humidity that kills you), then it can really screw with your day. I recommend taking it easy when you first get here, so you can try to acclimatize a bit, as the heat can sap your energy. Also, try going out early morning or late afternoon/evening when it’s a bit cooler, and of course wear clothes appropriate for a hot climate (even though it seems many Panamanian’s don’t! See my Panama Peculiarities article for more). Pretty much everywhere indoors is air conditioned, but keep in mind that going in and out of air con all day can make your body temperature regulator freak out a bit and you may get sick, so take care. In the rainy season, it can POUR down unexpectedly – for a few minutes, half an hour, or hours. It’s usually an early afternoon pour down, but you can still get stuck somewhere you hadn’t planned, and with no hope of getting a taxi (the normally plentiful resource, turns into a scarcity when it rains!). Sometimes the streets turn into rivers, as drains get clogged with debris (often trash), or just can’t handle the volume of water. So, I recommend wearing appropriate shoes if you’re out and about in the rainy season, and taking a small umbrella with you.
Trash – most people you speak to about Panama mention the amount of trash they see. Everywhere. Unfortunately, like most developing countries, Panama is still dealing with an increased use of plastic products (previously largely unused for these countries), resulting from strong economic (and changes in consumption patterns), as well as population growth. Whilst recycling bins are slowing popping up more and more in public places, there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to recycle your household recyclables (not like you’re used to at home at least), so sometimes it feels like you’re just perpetuating the trash problem. However, across most neighbourhoods in the City, most days (sometimes twice a day) there is a guy (or a couple of guys) in a beat up old pickup truck with a microphone and loudspeaker offering to buy at least some of your recyclables. The things he mentions buying from you include glass, steel, ovens, stoves, televisions, dishwashers, fridges … you get the impression he’s keen to take pretty much anything off your hands! Oh, and as an added bonus, he likes to try and get the attention of attractive ladies passing by, by saying “oy yoy yoy!” into the microphone.
Electricity – remembering of course that the outlets and voltage in Panama may not be the same as your home country (meaning you should bring converters with you if necessary – see my backpack essentials article), the electricity here can be unreliable. There are often outages without warning; ranging from a few minutes, to several hours (and sometimes days, depending on where you live in the country). In my experience, many buildings in the City have large generators that kick in pretty much instantaneously, so power is usually restored to normal quickly. Bearing this in mind if you’re coming to live here, surge protectors are a good idea for computers and other sensitive electronics.
Water – apparently you can drink the water in Panama City safely, but I personally prefer to first put it through a water filter. For me it’s more to improve the taste than anything else. I have heard of people attributing brief illnesses to drinking the water, but I know plenty of people that drink it without problems (so it’s a personal decision). Water supply is generally reliable, but like electricity, it can get cut off for a few hours, or sometimes days. Usually it’s with warning, but sometimes not. This could be due to a burst pipe or water main in your area, or maintenance being carried out at a plant. You’ll often see water streaming down the street from a burst pipe of some sort. Sometimes they won’t get repaired for days and I imagine millions of litres of water are wasted. I hear there are maintenance companies you can call to fix this, but they’re often slow in actioning jobs.
Internet – the internet service in Panama City is, in general, unreliable and expensive (compared to what you might be used to paying in your home country). What can be working completely fine for days, weeks, and months at a time (where you’re happily surfing the ‘net and watching Netflix), can then turn into slow page downloads, or pages not loading at all – and videos?! Ha! Forget about videos then! So research your provider carefully before committing to any type of plan. Usually the best way is to ask your neighbours what company they use (and what their internet usage and service is like), as some providers seem to have better coverage and service in certain parts of the City compared to others (ie. it’s not a ‘one size fits all’ internet solution).
Banking – there are apparently over 80 international banks in Panama! This means it’s super easy in the City to find an ATM to get cash out from your account back home (just beware of the fees your bank might charge, and the daily withdrawal limits the local banks place on your account, regardless of what your daily limits are at home). BUT, it’s not as easy to open a bank account of your own here. The banks require mountains of paperwork, and as is standard in Panama, the requirements can change from bank to bank, and person to person! So I recommend patience (as with most things in Panama) if you’re trying to open a local account, or try to get by without one.
Cost of living – so maybe you’ve read some of the marketing material from those companies offering to help you retire/relocate here and they’re telling you it’s cheaper here than home. Or you’re thinking “Panama is a developing country so the cost of living must be low, right?”. In some of the rural/country areas (the interior), this is certainly true, but in the City, not so much. In a majority of cases, the price of essentials such as food, rent, utilities and internet services are pretty much on-par, if not more than your home country. Many electronics and appliances can be pretty expensive here too, so it’s wise to bring what you can in that department from home. Overall, I recommend doing a lot of research when planning to live in Panama so you can get a really clear picture of the cost of living, and then make a decision right for your circumstances.
Employment – you might have heard that Panama is experiencing high economic growth (the highest in Latin America in fact), and so you’d think there are plenty of opportunities here for employment. This is definitely true in some respects, but you have to be smart about finding, and then securing that employment. For instance, obtaining a work permit can take a long time (perhaps many months, and you’ll need to make sure you have a reliable lawyer to assist). Also, you’ll need to network a lot (this means finding out about events you might be able to attend, forums you can join, etc) to meet the right contacts in your field of expertise. Overall, remember that things move a lot slower here, so it might take you a while to get the job you had in mind – be patient and perhaps have a little extra reserve cash to draw from in the meantime. Importantly, keep in mind that for the most part, wages are likely a lot lower here than at home, so you’ll need to factor that into your lifestyle choices.
Language – as mentioned in my Panama Peculiarities article, you’ll definitely need to learn at least the basics in Spanish to get by, and learn more advanced Spanish to really enrich your experience in Panama (and not have to completely rely on charades and/or fluent Spanish speaker!). There are plenty of ways you can learn the language depending on your goals, budget, learning style and location. The City has loads of different schools, universities, private tutors and groups offering a range of learning experiences (from business, to conversational, to academic, to language exchanges). So chose an option that right for you, and jump right in!
Road rules – hmmmmm, not really sure there are any in Panama City (well, they’re not obeyed anyway!). People change lanes quickly without indicating, make their own lanes, speed up and slow down unpredictably, don’t obey stop signs (but mostly obey stop lights), stop where ever and whenever they like (often without warning or pulling over) … You get the idea. So if you’re driving in the City, take extra care! I tend to see a car crash most days as I walk through the city. Granted, they’re generally minor ‘dings’, but they’re a very regular occurrence. And if you do happen to get into one, the law here states that you can’t move your car until the Police (Policia) arrive – this often creates even more traffic chaos!
As a pedestrian, no road rules (or perhaps more accurately, people not obeying them) means you have to be super careful walking and crossing the streets. It’s rare that a driver will give way to you when you’re crossing the street, so: keep your eyes and ears open, try to cross on a red light (remembering just because it’s red doesn’t mean there won’t be any cars coming!), and a really good tip is to watch how and when the locals cross, and cross (quickly) with them if you can.
Footpaths (sidewalks for the North Americans) – as with most developing countries, the footpaths in Panama City are mostly uneven, made of all types of different materials, have loads of holes and grates, can be unstable, and sometimes just aren’t there! Make sure you take extra care when walking around so you don’t trip, slip, or worse, fall down a hole! Also, the footpaths are very regularly used as parking space, which sometimes means squeezing in between, and zigzagging around cars, or just walking on the road (but like mom always said, be careful to look both ways! Seriously).
Now, by creating this list I’m not suggesting by any means that you don’t move to Panama City! Quite the contrary! My goal is to highlight that some things here will take you out of your comfort zone, challenge your patience, and hopefully make you view this fabulous world we live in a little bit differently. Oh, and of course Panama will provide you with some great stories! And after all, aren’t these some of the best things about travelling and living abroad?! Let me know what you think ….