My First Year as a Panama Expat

Las Tablas, Panama fireworksI became a Panama expat one year ago.

On March 13, 2012, I landed — along with my mini-mountain of luggage — at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City.

My first few days here were pretty stressful. I’d flown down by myself to find us a place to live. My husband and the dogs would follow once I’d accomplished that mission.

I had no definite plans. I’d reserved a room at the Centrum Tower Hotel in Panama City for the first night, but everything after that was a mystery.

My loose plan was to catch a bus from Panama City to Penonome, look around there for a few days, then work my way down the Azuero Peninsula with stops in a couple of places including Las Tablas.

Instead, I ended up bypassing Penonome and the other towns we were thinking about and heading straight to Las Tablas.

It was a purely pragmatic change. I don’t know what was going on, but there wasn’t a hotel room to be had in Penonome. Rather than trying to wander around a town I’d never been in (with all that luggage!) looking for a place to stay, I decided to skip it.

So I got on the Las Tablas bus from the Albrook Bus Terminal. Even that wasn’t without some drama and frustration.

Remember the small mountain of luggage I brought down with me? I flew on Copa, which has very generous baggage policies. So I had:

  1. a 25″ bag weighing over 50 pounds (weight allowance on the flight was 70)
  2. a 23″ bag weighing over 40 pounds
  3. a rolling duffel weighing about 25 pounds
  4. a laptop messenger bag weighing about a ton and a half. And I’m only exaggerating a teeny bit. . . I had my large, heavy laptop, Kindle, camera, iPod, phone, chargers for all the above, plus the cooling thingy for the computer. Plus my little purse, headset with microphone, iPod earbuds, phone earbuds, computer glasses, and a few other things I’m probably not remembering.

When I was getting ready to check out of my hotel I looked at that pile and thought, “there is no way I can manage all that on a bus. No way. . .”

I talked to the woman behind the desk at the hotel. She spoke no English, and my Spanish was very poor (sadly, it’s not much better even now). Fortunately, she had a translation program on her computer, so we limped along that way.

The upshot was, she was willing to store one of my bags for a few weeks.

I went back to my room, rearranged and repacked all my stuff, and rolled my biggest bag out to her. I wasn’t entirely comfortable leaving it, but didn’t feel I had much choice at that point.

So when I arrived at the bus terminal, I only — ONLY! — had the 40 pound bag, the 25 pound bag, and the ton-and-a-half laptop bag.

Fortunately the bus was a full-sized coach, so they stowed the larger bags in the luggage compartment underneath.

Arrived in Las Tablas and checked into the hotel here uneventfully.

The next morning — my third day in Panama — I woke up with chills, sweating, nausea. . . in other words, a case of Montezuma’s Revenge, Traveler’s Tummy, whatever you want to call it. It wasn’t pretty.

I’ll tell you, being sick and alone in a strange place where you don’t speak the language is really the pits.

Fortunately by the fourth day I felt much better. A little weak and wimpy, but ok. Well enough to start hunting for a rental, in any case.

Fortunately it got better after that!

In the year since then, we’ve:

  • made a lot of friends — both expats and local folks
  • navigated many of the hurdles of setting up a new life in a foreign country. We have a bank account, cell phone service, internet (when it works), and I’ve found someone I like to cut my hair
  • bought a used car
  • learned how to shop in the local stores — yes, there is a learning curve
  • had an active social life — in fact, we spend a lot more time with friends here than we did back in the US
  • set foot over the border of Costa Rica
  • spent a night in David
  • been up and down the Azuero Peninsula a few times
  • spent a couple nights in Panama City
  • lost and found one of our dogs
  • learned a tiny bit more Spanish, though not nearly enough

What Haven’t We Done?

We’ve not done much traveling. That’s one of the things I hope to do more of this coming year.

We haven’t learned much Spanish. Yes, it’s better than it was when we arrived, but not by much. I’d like to attend an actual language school this year.

We haven’t seen any doctors or dentists here, although we need to. We did find a vet for our dogs, though.

What Do We Miss?

Of course we miss our friends and family the most. Besides people, though, the thing we miss most is food.

It sounds so petty, but we miss the wide variety of foods we could find — in the grocery stores and in restaurants — back in the US. We’re too far from Panama City to take advantage of their dining choices, and in this area one restaurant is much like another. I shudder to think that what I put in my mouth is so important to me, but it’s a big adjustment.

We miss having lots of entertainment options. Orlando is theme park mecca. We had Disney World, Universal Studios, Sea World. An hour to the west in Tampa is Busch Gardens, and to the east is the Kennedy Space Center.

We had movie theaters galore.

We had several local symphony orchestras and chamber groups, an opera company, a ballet company, and live theater in multiple locations. Plus we were close to several colleges, with all of their cultural offerings.

We had hiking, boating and fishing close by and Atlantic beaches 45 minutes to an hour from the house.

We had roller skating rinks, ice skating rinks, swing and square dance venues.

Here we have beaches and one small movie theater 30 minutes away. It’s a big difference!

Here’s something I don’t miss at all, though.

Stress!

You see, by moving here we accomplished our biggest and most important goal — living within our modest income.

I think our expat experience is off to a good start!

Comments

  1. Researching Panama says:

    Interesting post. It sounds like Las Tablas is a relaxing place, but for more adventure, it may be necessary to visit towns / cities nearby. Is it more lively in Pedasi or Chitre?
    I’ve heard that Las Tablas is a party town, but maybe that’s just during Carnival.

    I’m researching Panama, and enjoy your blog. I came across this article in the Economist, and was wondering what you thought about it?
    It seems like there is social unrest in Panama and I’ve heard that highways are sometimes blocked. Is this something you have seen?

    http://www.economist.com/news/americas/21567091-why-latin-americas-fastest-growing-country-so-furious-earthbound-bite-back

    • FutureExpat says:

      Thanks for sharing the article, I hadn’t seen it before.

      Yes, Panama’s going through some growing pains right now. The growing economy is helping many, but not all. And there’s pressure from the drug trafficking as the stuff is moved from South to North America. Still, here in Las Tablas violent crime is nonexistent, people are friendly and welcoming. We’ve not been directly affected by any of the demonstrations or unrest.

      By the same token I will say that it’s refreshing to be in a country that actually pays attention to its citizens concerns. . .

      • Researching Panama says:

        Thanks for addressing the points the article wrote about. It sounds like Las Tablas hasn’t been directly affected by the issues they mentioned.
        Could you provide some insight into how the towns / cities of Las Tablas, Pedasi, and Chitre compare?
        I’m interested in your viewpoint on each of these places. Thank you.
        🙂
        p.s. I learned a lot reading your VPN post… definitely something to keep in mind.

  2. Linda Beyries says:

    I loved reading this post. It gave a realistic idea of what to expect. We have a daughter the same age, 21, and my biggest concern at this point is leaving her. We were planning to move this spring, but I put it off, because of my concern about leaving her. While an adult 21 is still pretty young, At this point they’re just getting on their feet. Also, the real estate prices are starting to go back up and we would like to gain more equity in our house before we sell it. But mostly, how do you deal with being so far from your daughter.

    • Linda, all our kids have moved away from us over the past few years. By the time we left Florida to come to Panama, all of them were more than 1000 miles away. So when they’re a plane ride away anyway, it doesn’t much matter where it takes off from 🙂 To complicate things even more, right now our youngest daughter is halfway around the world doing a semester abroad in BHUTAN! If you’re interested, you can see her blog about it at http://travelsinbhutan.tumblr.com

  3. I enjoyed this post, thanks for sharing.

    I day dream about moving to Panama. We honeymooned there a few years back and my husband and I often talk of taking a leap and relocating to Panama. It is such a beautiful country. We are not quite retirement age so we would need to figure out how to earn a living.

    Hope your second year in Panama is even better!
    Sally

    • FutureExpat says:

      Thanks, Sally.

      You mention you’d have to earn a living – are you considering some type of portable career?

      • Yes, I am exploring some type of portable career, possibly teaching or freelance writing, though I’m not certain that is what I wish to do.

        You seem to enjoy your portable career!

        Thanks,
        Sally

  4. I enjoyed reading your honest and refreshing post, especially the part about finding chocolate. 🙂 I have to have my chocolate every day. My tiny grocery store orders the giant Hershey bars for me. Gotta love how small towns cater to the expats. Glad to hear you are enjoying your new expat life.

  5. Where would you rank Panama in comparison to the other places you’ve lived?

  6. Thanks for your candid post. My husband and I are bloggers as well and are currently researching different courtiers to retire abroad. Panama is on the list. In fact, I think our next trip will be to Panama City and surrounding areas – we just got back from Costa Rica and loved it but are concerned about the cost of living.
    Can you tell me if living in Las Tablas much cheaper than Florida? And how does it compare to other areas in Panama?
    Thanks!
    Joanna

    • FutureExpat says:

      Hi Joanna, yes, living here in Las Tablas is about one third of what we were spending in Orlando. And we don’t think twice about going out to eat here. Panama’s a beautiful country with improving infrastructure and standard of living. Come on down!

  7. Karen McCann says:

    Hi Susanna,
    Congrats on your first anniversary of the move to Panama! Sounds like you have made some good choices and achieved your main goal of eliminating the stress of money worries and the rush of too much “civilization.” Here’s to continued success as you build your new life in Panama!
    Cheers,
    Karen

  8. Enjoy reading about your adventures.

    We’re moving to Boquete in June. You mentioned your dog. Did you adopt there or did you bring you 4-legged family member from Florida? If so, how accommodating was the airline and did you stay in a pet-friendly hotel in Panama City? What hassles did you encounter with the pet process. Any suggestions for us? We’re bringing our chihuahua.

    Thanks.

    Ed

    • FutureExpat says:

      Thanks, Ed. We brought our 3 dogs with us. It was quite an adventure!! You can read all the gory details at http://futureexpats.com/transporting-the-dogs-bringing-our-pets-to-panama. No, we didn’t stay in a pet-friendly hotel. There is one that I know of. With a single chihuahua you’ll have a much easier time because you’ll be able to bring your canine companion with you in the passenger compartment of the airplane, and you won’t have to deal with the temperature restrictions.

  9. Alex Jones says:

    cool, thanks for sharing your experience….very inspiring

  10. Thanks for your report! Panama started to sound like a good expat option. How are foreign persons seen there in general? By the way I just had to link to post to my latest blog post http://mtnothing.com/one-simple-step-to-start-ruling-your-own-destiny/

    • FutureExpat says:

      Hi Ava, Thanks for including me in your post! 🙂

      Panamanians in general seem to be very tolerant. As gringos we stand out but everyone’s friendly and kind in spite of it.

  11. Really enjoyed this and loved how refreshingly candid it is! I also loved how you pointed out that even with all the things you miss, you don’t have the stress like you had ‘back home’. That’s the holy grail for so many people, trying to find the place where they will be least stressed! You’ve worked hard to find this place, I know, so well done on your success!

  12. Thanks, Michelle. I really appreciate your kind words.

  13. Great post! In fact, I’m due for one myself since we both made the move around the same time.

    As for food, I hear ya. Took a little bit of adjusting at first for me, but now I’m fine. My family used to live in Orlando and constantly decry the lack of entertainment options in their current US city. I don’t have such problems because Antigua is culturally lively and being close to the biggest metropolis in Central America (Guatemala City), I can hit the IMAX theaters and malls if I have withdrawal symptoms (less frequently nowadays 🙂

    Life will be so much easier when you pick up Spanish, I promise you. But you’re already ahead of the game by having lower stress. Can’t put a price on that!

    -Rich Polanco

    • FutureExpat says:

      Thanks, Rich, and happy anniversary to you, too! 🙂

      Food here is VERY bland, with very little variety, and we’re 4 hours away from the nearest metro area. . . I’ve been happy in towns this size before, but they’ve been college towns with more going on.

      We’ll stay in Las Tablas another year, but we’ll be looking for someplace with more amenities after that.

  14. Like your blog. We just returned from a month in Panama and plan to return permanantly in October. We’re in the process of liquidating all our things. Very daunting. Didn’t realize how much we had. We traveled to Las Tablas while there but have decided to settle around the Coronado, San Carlos area. Much more amenities in the area. Lots of expats, good restaurants and the locals are great. One issue i’m having is setting up a post office box at mail boxes etc. I have emailed them multiple times to no avail. We need the service to get our mail from the states. Any ideas?

    • FutureExpat says:

      Thanks, I’m glad you’re finding the site helpful.

      I totally understand when you say it’s very daunting to liquidate your things. That’s the route we took, and it took a lot longer than we expected and was a lot more difficult.

      Do you absolutely need to have your Mailboxes, Etc. account set up in advance? I don’t expect you’ll really be able to. You need to visit the store in person, sign papers and make a payment. I don’t expect they’re set up to take payments online.

      My suggestion would be to forward your US mail to someone you trust — a family member or close friend. If that’s not possible, set up an account at a Mailboxes, Etc. or UPS Store in the US. They can hold your mail until you have a forwarding address and then forward it for a few months while you change addresses at the source.

      Once you’re actually in Panama, go to the Mailboxes, Etc. store to open an account. They’ll give you a forwarding address in Miami, so at that point you can give it to whoever’s handling your US mail for you, and start the process of changing addresses on the US side.

      If you’re like us, there’s a lot of mail you get that you don’t want — catalogs, solicitations for donations, political propaganda, etc. Trust me, you really don’t want all that coming automatically to Panama. You’ll spend a fortune. It’s better to have someone in the US screen it for you.

      We thought we’d give up our US account after a few months, but we’ve kept it because it’s cheaper to keep their service and have them screen out the junk. Every couple of weeks I call them and they tell me what’s in the box. I’ll let them know whether they should shred it, trash it or forward it.

      • Thanks for your response. FYI, I found out yesterday that you can apply for a box on their website and you can do it w/o being there as long as you provide a credit card. However, what you said about screening mail is a good idea to cut down on weight.
        Steve

  15. Gilles st martin says:

    My wife and me are living for Panama in early June we have rented a car for at least two
    weeks.We are traveling there to explore the possibility of spending up to six a year there .
    We are tired of wintering in California And Florida it,s the same old thing all cities and towns look a like ,we wish to experience new things get involved in the community ,we are both in our sixties ,we do not wish to spend our trip as tourists but as future part time residents or maybe full time at one point.We have travelled extensively to Mexico and once for two weeks to Coatarica .Can you suggest places to see were to stay maybe a bed and breakfasts or two, local hotel please no holiday inns we wish to be with the natives ,my wife
    Speaks a little…..Spanish ,any suggestions would be appretiated .

    Thank you,Gilles .

    • FutureExpat says:

      Gilles, in the Las Tablas area I always recommend the Hotel Don Jesus. They have a website. If you’d like to be at the beach there are a couple of options there. La Luna is a well established B&B at Playa Uverito. No worries about Holiday Inns here — there aren’t any 🙂

  16. We are moving to Panama in August. I have so many questions as what to ship and what to leave behind. Is there a host of US people that live in Panama, with a site to visit for answers and ideas? We will be living outside Panama City, and my husband will already have a job.

    • FutureExpat says:

      Lori, what to bring from your home country depends on what you have and where/how you intend to live. Bringing in household goods is expensive. My suggestion would be to rent someplace furnished for your first 6 months. That will give you a very good idea about what you’ll want and need here. I’ve talked with a lot of people who’ve told me, “in retrospect, I wish I hadn’t brought X, Y or Z with me.” Almost everyone agrees that bringing a vehicle in is NOT advisable.

      There’s a very active group on Yahoo called Americans in Panama. You might post your question there and see what kinds of responses you get.

  17. Pollokeeper says:

    I have lived in Las Tablas or the surrounding area for 4 years. I have not had the pleasure to meet FutureXpat yet nor have I seen her around. Nice blog by the way. I just want to reiterate that probably the best thing about Las Tablas is that it is a very safe area to get started in Panama. From here, you can learn about this place and decide where else you might like to move to later. There are a lot of areas in Panama that are not safe. That is one thing you do not have to worry about in Las Tablas. Now, there is nothing to do here, its too dang hot, and the food is not so good. The people are nice though. So you will know, inflation has been a problem here. Prices have skyrocketed during the 4 years I have been in this area. I expect this to continue. Prices for real estate are going thru the roof. Rent as doubled in the 4 years also. It is still cheaper to live here than in Florida where I came from but I do not know for how longer. Have fun!!

    • FutureExpat says:

      So why is it that our paths haven’t crossed in the last year and a half?? Strange. . . it’s a small town. . . Anyway, I agree. People are nice, we’ve seen price increases in everything since we first visited and even more since we moved here. It’s still costing us about a third as much to live comfortably here compared to living uncomfortably in Central Florida. . .

  18. Pollokeeper says:

    So people will know, when I moved to Panama 4 years ago, Panama was one of the “in” places for people to consider for retirement on a small pension. Well, things have changed and Panama is no longer considered such a great place. Panama has experienced a lot of growth in this period of time and we have experienced a lot of inflation. Crime has exploded in the Panama City area also and real estate in that area has become very expensive. When I first came to Las Tablas a very nice, home could be bought for 50 thousand dollars. Now you need 90 thousand. Home lots have exploded in price. Building materials have exploded in price. There is a shortage of low income homes, available now. Food and transportation costs have increased significantly as well as food costs. I use the beer index. When I first came here you could buy a beer in a bar for 50 cents. Now it is 75 cents in the same bar or more. Electricity is very expensive here. Much more than in the US. We use less here though. We give up many of the amenity’s that we are used to in the US like full house airconditioning(we don’t needing heating) and we don’t have hot water in most cases. Like I said, there is much to consider when thinking about moving here. Medical services are not equal to the US either especially in the frontier areas like Las Tablas. Many medicines are not available here and what it is very expensive. So if you have a special medical need than Las Tablas is not a good place for you. Just a few of many details to consider. And, forget about that Mcdonalds urge if you ever get it. We have no US food chains to offer you the taste temptations that you now take for granted. Food here is extremely bland, and special food items are in limited supply. We do have good fish supply. Meats are of low quality though. Rice is inferiour. Veggy’s truly limited. Living in Las Tablas will test your simple living skills

  19. Judith Moy says:

    Appreciate the 2013 update on Panama and Las Tablas living conditions. Does anyone have info on current economic situation in David? Is this even more challenging in terms of a-c, medical care, food, etc.? I have read so many articles, all with very different reports on cost of rentals, etc. I am contemplating a visit to David, Chiriquí area in June to check it out. I also have two cats and worry about using an American airline to transport them as I’ve read so many horror stories, not to mention the cost to transport as “cargo” status (American airlines do not allow one to transport pets as “excess baggage,” which is not even 1/2 the price of cargo). Also, what about availability of cat food? Any advice from ex-pats down there? I suppose inflation has affected most of the world these days. Many thanks for any insights.

  20. Joe Henry says:

    We will be going to the Las Tablas for a couple of months in September. Any info on reasonable local hotels or B&B for a few days until we find a rental for the two months? Any info on rentals?
    All help is greatly appreciated.

    • Hi Joe,

      I recommend the Don Jesus hotel – if you’re staying for a week or more you can negotiate a discount. Rooms aren’t fancy but they’re clean and they have the basics. They also have a swimming pool and are within walking distance of the town square. Or check out the other places listed here.

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