My First Year as a Panama Expat

Here’s another selection from the archives. Enjoy!

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.


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!


  1. A great article, as always. I find your accounts to be more “real” than most of the slick narratives I come across. The emotions ring true and help me know what to expect when we take our leap to Panama in the first part of next year.

  2. Linda Garber says:

    Hey there
    What is the cooling thingy for the computer?

    • SusPerkins says:

      Haha, Linda. It’s a separate device that the laptop sits on. It provides airflow, and even has fans that blow cooler air into the bottom of the laptop to keep it cooler. Weighs about another pound. 🙂

  3. Yes……the stresses and anxiety’s of maintaining a lifestyle here in the us, are convincer enough to GET OUT when you feasibly can,

  4. Hello,

    My wife and I are about 4-1/2 years from retiring (early at 60) and are seriously considering Panama. In fact, I tell everyone it’s a done deal.

    Retirement to us is having time to help others, the less fortunate. We have done mission work and would like to do something similar in Panama. Are there opportunities for us?

    Also – What type of churches are available?


  5. Hello, Can anyone recommend up-to-date websites to read about various areas of Panama (topography, cost of living, climate, etc.)? I realize there are many factors to consider. Love to hear from those on a modest retirement income & recommendations for a 65-year-old, single retired teacher to settle in. Also, can anyone recommend the best websites/airlines to find a good bargain for flights from VA to main airport(s) of Panama? Thanks for any advice you may have and Happy Holidays to all.

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