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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Keeping in touch in Panama

Leaving home, whether it be the U.S., Canada, somewhere in Europe, or anywhere else in the world, is a scary thing. Especially when you've heard that the place you're considering basing yourself out of is considered a Third World Country. Is Panama a Third World Country? In some ways it still is. Definitely in some of the small towns in Panama's interior. However, it's nothing like you might expect.

Infrastructure is top notch in Panama City, and in many other towns. The ability to connect with the rest of the world is taken very seriously here, especially since Panama is considered the Hub of the Americas, and an important business center for all the world. It is, after all, where the Panama Canal is located.

The question comes up all the time, "Can you keep in touch with the rest of the world?" or "How would I talk to my family without spending a fortune if I moved to Panama?" It's easy. I've been doing it for years now. In fact, it's cheaper to talk to people in the States from here in Panama than it is for people in the U.S. to reach out to other countries.

So what are the top ways to keep in touch in Panama?

1.  Skype - Skype and other VOIP (voice over Internet protocol) services, like Magic Jack, make chatting with family very easy.  Skype is free as long as you're talking with other people who have Skype. I meet with my mom every Sunday at 8 p.m. The kids have gotten to know their grandmother (sadly I know) over the Internet. They talk to her about everything and it's as if she's sitting right in front of them. In the photo below you'll see how we handled my daughter's birthday. We called up my mom, carried two pies (my daughter wanted pie instead of cake) and sang happy birthday with my mom in front of the computer. She loved it and was so glad she could be a part of the celebration from all the way in San Diego, California.

Internet service in Panama is high speed and reliable. I've visited small towns like Aguadulce, where their town center is set up for WiFi. You can literally go to the gazebo at the center of town, open your laptop, and Skype with family in the U.S. I was in El Valle, a mountain town, last weekend. I was in the jungle, climbing a mountain called The Sleeping Indian. My wife was wearing the wrong shoes. In her defense, flip flops were fine for taking a dip in the waterfall. As usual, I say crazy things like, "Hey let's climb that mountain and get photos of the town below." So while she was resting about halfway up the mountain, I climbed to the top, and wrote her on my Blackberry from the top of the mountain. That's how well wired in most of this country is.

2.  Whatsapp - For anyone who has a Smart Phone or Blackberry, a program called Whatsapp allows you to chat with people back home as if they were right here in Panama with you. All you have to do is download the program to your phone (it's free), which can usually be done right from your phone, then tell your family member to download it to their phone. It's like text messaging, except it's unlimited and you don't get charged extra for going over. Here in Panama, I pay only $10 plus tax per month to have unlimited internet and Blackberry chat. I pay for talk time on my phone separately (I just buy the $5 prepaid minutes since I don't talk on the phone very often).

The great thing about cell phone service here, which differs from back in the States, is you only pay for calls you make. So if someone calls me, I don't get charged for the call. I remember having AT&T back home. Most of my bill consisted of charges from people calling me. I rarely call anyone. So if you have your phone set up like I do, you'll only pay that $10 per month and can use Whatsapp all you want. I'm not sure if your friends or family from the States will be charged on their end. They'll have to check into it.

3.  PO Box companies - The Panamanian mail service is unreliable. I've sent things from the States by U.S. mail, and it never showed up here. For that reason, as soon as I moved here, I set up a PO Box. It used to be that Mailbox Etc. was the main choice for expats. I'm sorry, but Mailbox Etc., in my opinion, price gouges the hell out of people. That is, unless they've changed their prices recently. When I first visited one of their branches, they quoted me some sort of twenty something dollar monthly charge, plus a charge if you went over like two pounds. I don't receive mail every month, and if I did, I imagine it would be easy to go over two pounds (I could be wrong about the specifics, so no hate mail please). Maybe there's some sort of insurance they provide that makes it worth it? I don't know. I'm not a visitor here. I live here permanently, so I'm looking for the best deal.

What's great about setting up one of these boxes here in Panama, is you're given a U.S. mailing address, usually somewhere in South Florida. That way, when you're shopping online, you just enter this address and your items are shipped to that Miami address. Then, the company you're using, will bring the items to Panama.

Shopping around I found a few other companies. I use one called Panama Air Facility, which has several branches. I use the newer one in Costa del Este. I pay no monthly fee, but pay around $1.60 per pound for letters and $2.60 per pound for packages. Or something like that. There's also some sort of 5% customs fee which you'll be charged at any of the companies. Panama Air Facility is okay. I've had my complaints. They're supposed to call or email me every time something comes in, but they don't always. I picked up letters that had been in my box for 3 months one time. They'd never called me. So I suppose if you pop your head in frequently you wouldn't have a problem.

Panama Air Facility website is

A couple of other companies you can check out, which I don't personally know much about, but I have friends who've used both companies and have no complaints, are Airbox Express Panama and Miami Express. A friend of mine hates the company I use and swears by Airbox Express. You really have to shop around and see what works best for you. Plus, you probably want to find one of these companies that has a location near where you're living or where you plan to live. For example, out in the beach town of Coronado, there's a Mailbox Etc. That's convenient for the people living out there, many of which can probably afford to pay the monthly charge. It's worth it to them to use that company.

Here are the websites for Airbox Express and Miami Express, both of which are in English.

Airbox Express Panama:

Miami Express:

4. Telechip International - Okay, there are many other phone cards you can use, but this one is easy to purchase and is reliable. If you go into any Super 99 or El Rey supermarket, or maybe even El Machetazo (I'm not sure), you can pick one of these cards up at the cash register. Just tell the cashier: "Dame una tarjeta de Telechip Internacional por favor. De cinco balboas." You just said, "Give me a Telechip International card please. Of 5 dollars." Any Spanish speakers, don't make fun of my gringo Spanish. I'm trying here.

I started off buying the $10 card, but I could never use all the minutes before the expiration date and I'd end up losing minutes, so I started buying the $5 card. For $5 I get something like 3 hours of talk time. I've used this card to call my dad, my mom, and the Department of Veterans Affairs back home. As I said before, I don't talk on the phone all that often, so even using all of the minutes allotted on the $5 card is hard for me. Here's a photo of the Telechip International card:

With the 4 options I've listed above you should have no problem chatting live with your family on the Internet, chatting with people over your Smart Phone or Blackberry, picking up mail and packages, or making phone calls from your home phone. Sending packages is something I haven't mastered. Maybe that's a service Maibox Etc. provides. Panama Air Facility doesn't. If you need to send money you can use Western Union or Moneygram here, but I'm not sure about sending packages. People have told me they use the Panama Mail system to send mail to the U.S. and they've had no problem with that. I suppose that's because they're actually dropping mail off at the post office and from there it's loaded onto a plane and taken straight to the U.S. FedEx and DHL are here, but it's not cheap. The last time I sent an envelope with forms (maybe 10 sheets of paper) I paid somewhere around $55.

A lot of people, both expats and Panamanians, use traveling friends to send and receive packages and mail. Usually, if someone is headed to the States, they'll ask if anyone needs anything while they're there, or if they need them to take something to the States with them.

If anyone knows of an easy and inexpensive way to send packages to the U.S., let me know.

Thanks again for reading,