The Top Ten Questions about Living in Panama

By: Kris Cunningham

Answers to the Top Ten Questions everyone asks about living in Panama

1.    What is the Cost of living?
This topic gets the most traffic on my blog by far. For us, living here is about 1/3 of what it cost us in Florida. Rent / housing is a lot less, and we also save a lot on food and other basics.  Of course costs will vary depending on where you live and what choices you make. But, the more you live like the locals the more you are likely to save. Keep in mind that the average working Panamanian makes $500-700/month, and many live on much less. Our budget for basic living (rent, food, utilities, etc., not travel) is around $1100/month. 

The short answer, YES, you can live on a lot less in Panama and still have a nice, comfortable life.

2.    Is the Health care any good?  
Yes. Many doctors are US trained (with the bonus that they also speak English). We have found the doctors to be very competent, kind, and caring, and willing to spend as much time as needed. We have heard accounts from friends who have had emergencies, surgeries, and other more serious encounters with this health care system with excellent results. An office visit is $25-50 (more for a specialist). Dentists are also excellent. There are very good hospitals, and state of the art hospitals in Panama City for something that can’t be managed elsewhere. Health care and dental care here is much more affordable and is not drowning in the paperwork and red tape of the US.

3.    What is the Housing like?
You can have anything you want (and can afford) There are US style houses here with all the amenities, very simple Panamanian homes, and everything in between. Panamanians are more interested in function over form so the attention to detail may not be the same. Construction is usually concrete block with concrete floors (often tiled) Roofs are usually tin with drop ceilings. There is minimal wood in most houses which makes sense when you consider the humidity in this climate. Hot water is not standard but on demand heaters or “suicide showers” are inexpensive and readily available. Most relaxing and socializing is done outside so you can expect an outside patio and/or carport, the perfect place for your hammock. 

4.    Do you have to learn Spanish?  
Yes!  Well actually no, you don’t have to. You can get by without it, especially in Panama City or areas frequented by expats and tourists. But even in those places, it will be much easier if you know some Spanish. It’s very hard to get things done if you can’t communicate, and you will miss so much when you can’t get to know the people. Panama is teaching English to the school kids, and here in David we are finding more people who speak English, but you can’t count on this when you need someone. It is very difficult to learn another language and it takes a lot of time and commitment, but I think it is so worth it. Even if you only know a bit that helps a lot, and the locals really appreciate your effort.

5.    What is difficult about adjusting to life in Panama?
If you research information about moving to another country, you are likely to find information about culture shock. It is unsettling when many things are different and unfamiliar. For me, I experienced less of this than I expected. My main problem was language. When I need to ask about something I often had trouble expressing myself, and had even more trouble understanding the answer. But, it didn’t take too long to figure things out and to feel more comfortable. I think if you are flexible, expect some problems, and bring your patience and sense of humor, you should be OK. Panama is probably easier than many countries to adjust to since there is a strong American influence here. 

6.    Weather – is it hot?
Hot is relative. We are happy at sea level in David. Many other expats think they are melting here and head for the cooler mountains. We think the mountains are too cold. You can find warm or cool here but not cold, and not dry. It rains a lot and the humidity is high everywhere, especially in the rainy months of the year. 

7.    What is a Push Button and how does it work?
This is a rent by the hour motel, and they seem to be everywhere. You drive behind the privacy wall, select a room, pull into the garage, push the button, and the door closes behind you. Put your money through the slot and then the attendant unlocks the door. When you leave you call the office, go to the garage, and when the room is checked they open the garage door so you can leave. You can buy food and drinks which are left in a compartment in the back door. You never have to see or be seen by anyone for your entire stay. We visited one and found it spotlessly clean and comfortable, not sleazy. Many households have extended family under one roof so it’s hard to find privacy and also, human nature being what it is, people sometimes need  a quiet spot. Occasionally travelers even use it as a hotel because they like having their vehicle secure in the garage. 

8.    Shopping – can you find the things you need there?
Yes, you can. Of course, it depends on where you live. If you live in a rural area you will have to travel to a city for some things. Panama City is a very large, busy city with everything. David, Chitre, Santiago, and Coronado are some other big cities with supermarkets, shopping centers, DoIt Centers (like Home Depot or Lowe’s), and upscale department stores with the best in kitchen ware, clothes, or the latest electronic devices. You may want to get some speciality item in the US like that cool gadget for your bike or a particular spice mix you love. But generally you can find everything you need here. And, what you buy here may be better suited to the warm and humid climate than similar items from the US. 

9.    Do you have mail, internet, and phones?
No, yes, and yes. There is mail here but it’s painfully slow. Most people use Mailboxes Etc or a similar service. This costs money but it is faster (maybe a couple weeks instead of a couple months). There is internet. Depending on where you live it may be slower or occasionally unreliable, but here in David we have had no problems at all. There is also free internet available in many public places like parks, bus terminals, hospitals, and government offices. It seems like everyone has a cell phone, usually a smart phone, and cell phone coverage is very good. There are many phone plans, and you will probably find a plan that meets your needs for much less than you spent in the US. 

10.    Is crime a problem? 
No place in the world is crime free, but we feel that Panama is safer than most places, including our previous home in Sarasota FL. Of course you have to use common sense and there are some areas to avoid, especially at night. At first I was uneasy seeing the security guards in parking lots, two armed guards at the door of every bank, guards at the door of businesses, and armed police riding around town. I have come to appreciate this because it prevents things from happening. You can park your car and it will be safe until you return. Most houses have security door and window covers, and fences around the property. People don’t want their house to look like an easier opportunity than others in the neighborhood. We have come to appreciate our fence because it keeps out the neighborhood dogs and roosters, and visitors call you from the street rather than approach your front door. 

Of course this doesn’t answer every question about life in Panama, and my knowledge is mainly of my area and our experiences. We are very happy with our decision to move here. An international move or a move to Panama specifically isn’t the right thing for everyone, but for us it has worked better than we expected. 

About the author

Expat Blog ListingKris Cunningham is an American expat living in Panama. Blog description: Moving to Panama, The Story of Our Experiences
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Contest Comments » There are 16 comments

Brenda B. wrote 5 years ago:

Kris, thanks for all the great information. I've already learned so much about Panama by following your blog. I love that you post almost daily and describe things exactly as you see them. Keep it up, please!

Karen Achhamer wrote 5 years ago:

This was very interesting to me since I am about 10 years out of retirement and realize I will need to look for another place to live besides the US.

Dan B wrote 5 years ago:

As always,a well thought out post. I've learned a lot and feel like I know you and Joel. Drop me a note because I'm visiting David in late February 2014 and would like to have lunch or dinner with you two. Thanks. Dan B

Jerry Moellenkamp wrote 5 years ago:

Another great post. We may have decided to move to Panama without Kris' accurate and truthful blog -- but, it is doubtful. Now we are preparing to join the exodus from the U.S. and move to Panama. We have come to really appreciate Kris' "no nonsense" (and often humorous) style of putting the cookies on the lower shelf and her willingness to answer all of our seemingly dumb questions without making us feel too dumb :). A wonderful blogger.

Ellie wrote 5 years ago:

I always enjoy reading your blog to get the sense of daily living in Panama. One of the most helpful was your instructions on taking the bus to David from Panama City as we will be doing this in February. It's great that you include small details that will be important to a visitor. Keep up the good work! Also love your photos. EW

John & Susan Pazera wrote 5 years ago:

You nailed it on the Q & A. The most informative blog on Panama. We are coming again to Panama in the middle of February and would like to treat you to lunch and meet you both! Cheers, John & Susan

Kris wrote 5 years ago:

Thank you all for the great comments! Dan B - I can't see your email address on this website, but you can comment on my blog or write to info (at) thePanamaAdventure (dot) com and we'll make plans to get together!

Steve M. wrote 5 years ago:

I have really enjoyed your blog. You have a great way of telling it like it is. Thank you for sharing your adventure with all of us.

Holly Ranker wrote 5 years ago:

I am a student in Kansas and looking to teach abroad in Central America after I graduate. I follow Kris' blog religiously to learn as her and Joel go so I will arrive equipped with more than just my degree. Kris' curiosity and insight is awesome. The descriptions and photos are pretty much a daily joy of mine.

Deanna Masterson wrote 5 years ago:

Chris, I love your travelling adventures within Panama & how fearless you are with ants & scorpions....even snakes. I'm impressed with your fluency in Spanish that you can communicate on the telephone. You have such a lovely nature and it comes through on your blog.

Joel Cunningham wrote 5 years ago:

Kris loves to write about the many neat things we find here in Panama. She tries to pass on good information, and from the feedback we get from folks who visit they find the information quite helpful. Full disclosure, I may be biased, Kris is my wonderful wife!!!

Alicia wrote 5 years ago:

Thank you Kris. I appreciate your honesty and openness. We took the leap of faith and moved in Nov. 2013. Your posts on the expat forum have been helpful. We landed in Chame & we are trying to get use to the water outages. How do you adjust? Anyway please keep posting and painting a true picture for those wanting to come to Panama.

Amy The Daughter wrote 5 years ago:

I LOVE this blog! I think a lot of people are scared to move out of their comfort zone and you guys not only did it, but are inspiring others! Bravo!!!

Barbara Lyle wrote 5 years ago:

I have been following Kris's blog since she and Joel moved to Panama over a year ago. Her observations are honest, thoughtful and fun to read. I'm sure her comments are most helpful to those considering a move to Panama! Her photos are fabulous and it's like opening up a little present each time she has a new post. Keep up the good work, Kris!

Karen wrote 5 years ago:

I really enjoy your blog Kris. I like your honest opinions and creative and adventuresome perspective. I look forward to each new adventure you share with us.

John & Amira wrote 5 years ago:

Hi Krys: Thank you so much for your blog! We feel so much better prepared to make the move to Panama from Canada since we are reading your blogs. You have given us valuable answers to our questions. It's such a blessing to have this knowledge in advance rather than learning the hard way. Please keep up the good work, you are helping so many future expats!

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