10 Things I Hate About Panama

Don’t get me wrong — there’s more that do I like about Panama than not, and living here has been good for us. But once in a while the differences just rub me the wrong way. So, in the interests of full disclosure, a balanced look at the country, etc., etc., I thought I’d share some of my pet peeves. These are in no particular order. . .

#1: Slash and Burn

Panama is a lush, verdant country. Even in the dry arc, where we live and where rainfall is almost nonexistent for half the year, it’s easy to grow crops, trees, and plants of every variety. As soon as the rains hit, brown turns to a verdant green overnight. Flowers bloom, trees produce fruit and nuts, sugar cane and corn shoot up in the fields, you get the idea.

In fact, just to give you an idea, here’s the view from my office window today, as I write this. (Other than throwing a little water on it during the dry season, we don’t do anything to make it grow.)

flowers outside my office window

After the crops have been harvested, do they till all those wonderful nutrients back into the soil? No. . . they burn it off.

Last year a burn in a sugar-cane field got out of control and caused big problems, including a power grid shutdown. . . but they still do it. Then they spray the fields with chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Wouldn’t it make more sense to recycle all those lovely plant nutrients by digging them in, instead of polluting the air with them??

And trees are being cut at a rapid rate. Without the trees to put moisture into the air, we get even less rain during the dry season. People complain about it, but. . . they chop, chop, chop.

Are they trying to recreate the US/Canadian Dust Bowl of the 1930s?

This happens on a smaller scale, too, like at our house.

A couple of months ago our landlord asked me to take some pictures for him. He was worried that the trees along the bedroom end of the house were getting too tall. Indeed they were, overtopping the roof by several feet.

He had trimmed them back shortly after we moved into the house in 2012, so when he told us he’d be trimming we didn’t pay too much attention.

Yesterday the machete-wielding tree trimmer showed up. To our horror, we went from this. . .

Trees before cutting

to this. . .

tree stubs

before we could believe it was happening. The trees had shaded the bedrooms from the afternoon sun and kept them cooler.

#2. Litter

Litter is everywhere. I keep reminding myself it’s no worse than the litter in the US back in the 50s and 60s, but it’s hard to look at. During a recent drive to a small town near Penonome, my husband and I were amazed at how pretty the drive was — there was absolutely no litter on that road.

My husband appointed himself a one-man environmental cleanup and recycling crew after we arrived. Periodically he takes garbage bags, heavy work gloves and his picker-upper-thingie out to our favorite beach, or along the road between our subdivision and the town and fills bags. Since he started doing it others have pitched it, so it’s better than it was.

School children are learning about the environment and getting the sorts of anti-littering messages the US started teaching 50 years ago, but it will be a long time before the message filters through to all and they start disposing of trash in appropriate places.

#3. No Unsweetened Iced Tea Here

I love iced tea. It’s my beverage of choice for the long, hot days. But in a store or restaurant, it’s all pre-sweetened. If I ask for it sin azucar the server looks at me like I’ve grown two heads. Es imposible.

#4. Noise

We knew before we arrived that Latinos like their music and their fiestas. What we didn’t know until we started living here is how the noise impacts daily life.

Because all doors and windows are open to catch the breezes, and all your neighbors’ doors and windows are open as well, and because a lot of living happens on the porches, you get to hear everything.

TVs, stereos, arguments, parties, crying babies, barking dogs, phone conversations, political hopefuls driving around and broadcasting their messages over loud-speakers mounted on their vehicles, all these impinge on daily life much more frequently than the 4 AM fireworks or the general noise of Carnaval.

#5. Lack of Vegetables on Restaurant Menus

I won’t talk about the food here in general — that’s a topic for another article. But I have yet to find a restaurant menu that includes vegetables. Some might offer a salad, which is usually a few leaves of iceberg lettuce, a slice of tomato and possibly a slice of cucumber as well. An actual vegetable dish, though? Not so much. Maybe in Panama City, but not here.

The one exception is the menu ejecutivo lunch at the Gran Azuero Hotel in Chitre. I was there yesterday, and lunch included a reasonably sized portion of mixed vegetables sauteed in olive oil. A very pleasant surprise!

#6. Potholes

I’m not an engineer or a contractor, so I don’t know how they’re building roads down here. I just know that by the end of the rainy season there are potholes big enough to eat your car on most of them. Here’s a picture of the neighborhood street just three blocks up from our house on the way to the main road. . .


One of the reasons I don’t much enjoy driving in Panama is not because of the crazy drivers (and they are legion!), but because you have to focus your eyes on the road directly in front of the car if you don’t want to lose a wheel, bang up your undercarriage or get swallowed by one of the really big holes.

#7. Parking

Parking here is a real pain. In our busy little town, there are about 30 marked slots on two sides of the downtown park. Most businesses provide no parking areas, instead relying on the very limited on-street parking available. Parking on the street is haphazard. To get the car far enough off the traveled roadway, you often have to park with two wheels in the gutter or ditch. I often tell people, “I don’t have a problem driving here, but I don’t know if I’ll ever learn to park here.

#8. Speed Limits

Speed limits here are just nuts. It’s quite possible to have an 80 kph limit (about 50 mph) on a busy main road through a town full of pedestrians and cyclists on the road, then see the limit drop to 30 kph (about 18 mph) on a four-lane road in the country. Seriously. If there’s a rhyme or reason to it, I haven’t discovered it.

#9. Stray Dogs and Cats

They’re everywhere. Slowly, there’s more education and more of a move toward spaying and neutering, but it’s a long, slow process. In the meantime, dogs hang out on every street corner and behind every restaurant and on every beach, and the loud sounds of cats making either love or war are audible on most nights.

There are active spay and neuter clinics in Boquete, and recently friends of ours held one in our area. I’m sure other regions are holding them as well, but these are the ones I know about.

#10. Gringo Pricing

It’s sad, but pretty common for the price on something to go up — sometimes way up — when the seller sees a non-Hispanic face or hears an accent. If you live or travel here, it behooves you to find out what the price should be for a product or service you want before you ever go to the store. Just because something seems cheap to you, coming from New York or Toronto or wherever, doesn’t mean you’re not paying an inflated price. And when you pay too much, you end up driving prices up for everyone. It’s true with real estate and it’s even true with small things like a bag of tomatoes.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programing. . .


  1. Wow, those potholes bring to mind a moonscape, and what about those trees??? Will they grow back? While this mightn’t be a flattering picture of Panama it’s still very interesting and unquestionably valuable. If we only hold up a mirror to the best bits of a place how will anyone ever have a balanced and informed view? I do however fear I may have sparked this post with my “Say goodbye to salad” comment on your Facebook status…

  2. Well said, Susanna. No matter how perfect a place may be, there will always be irritants. Perhaps that’s a good thing, as irritants are what move us to action. Good news on the stray dog front – Loni & Mike O’Grady have built a rescue shelter at Playa Uverito. They are currently housing and feeding some 20 of the abandoned and starving beach dogs out there. Right now the whole thing is coming out of their own – limited – pockets and they can use all the help they can get. I’m building them a website which should be functional by the first of next week. http://AdoptADogAzuero.com All are welcome to visit.

    • FutureExpat says:

      Thanks for sharing the website link! Let me know when it’s live and I’ll do my part to publicize it. We’re actually going out this afternoon to donate a large kennel we no longer need. . .

      • Hi Susanna,
        I want to bring my little dog with me when I relocate to Panama. I’m quite attached to him. Is it difficult to live in Panama with a dog? I like to travel around Panama with him. What did you do with your dogs when you had to leave the country for three days to comply with the visa requirements?

        • FutureExpat says:

          Anna, there are very few pet-friendly hotels here. When we’ve had to leave, we’ve always arranged for someone to come in to take care of our dogs. We tried boarding them with our local vet, and we weren’t happy with it. So now we don’t go anywhere unless we’ve found a pet sitter.

    • Regina Polo says:

      Hi, I know this discussion is old, but I’m interested in the shelter at playa Uverito. I am moving to Pocri and would like to help out a little. As for the trash….I am Panamanian and when I left Panama 30 years ago; you would only see trash in Panama city, and only in certain areas; from the bridge of the Americas on it was pure clean paradise….I think we have our hands full there. I do pick up trash once in a while and will be doing it on a regular basis once I settle at my place in Pocri. In the meanwhile, I thank all the expatriates that love my country no matter what, and act upon the nuisances that they are able to change.

  3. 11. How slow everything is to get things done in Panama. Mostly because of the bureaucracy but also because of the laid back attitude of the locals.

  4. My wife and I just spent 8 days in Panama deciding where we want to retire (it was our 3rd trip to Panama). We spent 2 days each in Puerto Armuelles (stayed at the Tsunami Inn), Las Tablas (stayed at Posada del Mar) and San Carlos (Manglar Lodge). We have previously been to El Valle de Anton, Santa Clara & Panama City. We will be trying Las Tablas as our first spot (renting for a year). There are many areas in which Panama can improve but it is on the way up instead of the way down like the US seems to be. We love Panama in spite of it’s problems. We look forward to our adventures in Panama. (We used the bus system to travel, so we know it will be an adventure).

    • FutureExpat says:

      Hi Terry, I’ll look forward to welcoming you to Las Tablas when you arrive.

      You’re right that Panama is on its way up, which is a good thing. I also love Panama in spite of its problems. 🙂

      • Hi Susanna,
        Are there hotels or resorts in highlands that are pet friendly? I’ve looking for a place to rent for 6 to 9months that is under $1,000. Do rentals in the price range of $700 to $875 exist? If they do please let me know

        • FutureExpat says:

          Anna, you shouldn’t have any trouble at all finding a furnished apartment or small house to rent in your price range. Here in Las Tablas, which is on the less expensive end of the spectrum, we pay $400 for a furnished 3 BR/2 bath house in a nice subdivision. You’ll spend more in Boquete, El Valle, etc., but you’ll be able to find something. The trick is to come and do it from here, because if you try to arrange it online you’ll pay far too much. Come, plan to spend a couple of weeks in a hotel while you look, and talk to EVERYONE about renting. I’ve written extensively about how to find a rental house here.

  5. Nicole Gilmour says:

    Hi there, Loved reading about Puerto Armuelles and what its like. Just wondering what house prices are like this year and if there are rentals for people who want to come and explore. Thanks,

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