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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Eve in Panama!

Hey everybody,

Sorry it's been awhile since my last post. I took a little bit of time off to spend with the family over the holidays. I'm back now and excited to start the New Year off right. This will be a short, and very quickly written post, as I'm about to head out with the family. We're staying at a hotel and partying tonight. But, I didn't want to go out without wishing everyone a Happy New Year, and writing a quick post about the traditions here in Panama. 

We spent last New Year's Eve with extended family

New Year's Eve is such an extraordinary time of the year here. Everyone is in great spirits and ready to party like rock stars (minus the hardcore drugs and naked groupies). It's rare that you'll find anyone just sitting around watching TV when the ball drops. Why is that? It's because Panamanians believe that how you start your new year is how the rest of your year will unwind. 

Last year, my wife asked my mom how she spent New Year's Eve, and my mom replied that she was so exhausted from work that she passed out and didn't wake up until well after midnight. You should have heard my wife's gasp. She turned to me and whispered, "Your mom was sleeping at the start of the New Year?"

To Marlene, and to many other Panamanians, starting the new year off in bed means there's a good change the rest of the year will be lazily wasted away. Now, if you're in bed doing other things, does that mean that's how the rest of your year will be bed...not-so-lazily? Hmm...

We always keep the family together to start the new year

Okay, I was about to go off on a tangent again. So, I'm writing this post, early in the afternoon on New Year's Eve, to push you to get out and do something. It doesn't matter if you're dancing in your living room, sipping champagne, just husband and wife. The point is, you're dancing and having a blast at midnight. Just grab some pots and pans and get ready to bang them together like crazy with your neighbors, or relax in lawn chairs and watch the fireworks go off all around you. 

The kids love New Year's Eve!

Panamanians have a lot of fun, and some odd, traditions for the holiday. My sister-in-law, yes, Dr. Dar, held a toy car in her hand until after midnight because she believes that having a brand new car at midnight means you'll soon be getting a real, brand new car. She did that with a house the year before and guess what...she bought a brand new house in David. So, if you haven't already, head out to your local toy store and buy some new toys. I might pick up the Barbie Mansion and hold it in my lap until 12:05 (maybe the 5 extra minutes will help).

Found this car in my sons' toy box. It's going in my pocket tonight!

Another tradition, and if you're living here in Panama you might have seen this already, is the running around the neighborhood with a suitcase. Panamanians who love to travel, or wish to travel, will sometimes grab their rolling suitcase and take it for a stroll. This is supposed to ensure that you'll spend the year traveling. 

Make sure you have 12 grapes (per person) ready, as it's another tradition that you're supposed to eat a grape for each year of the month. This is supposed to lead to good luck and prosperity.

Happy New Year!!!

I could probably go on all day about the traditions here in Panama. I've been told that you have to have on new underwear, and new clothes, and I've been told that it's good luck to have money (bills) between your toes at midnight, and you have to have some money in your wallet, and I can't remember all the others. 

I'm sure you have some traditions of your own back in your country or ones you've brought here to Panama. Share those traditions. Panamanians love to learn new fun ways to bring in the new year. So wherever your new year finds you, whether with family, friends, or complete strangers, make sure you're receiving it well, with smiles, laughter, dancing, and a good mood to set the pace for the coming year. 

Happy New Year and thanks for reading,


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Taking a bus to Panama's interior

Last week, Thursday afternoon to be exact, I got dropped off at the bus station, ready to take a bus to Penonomé, which I'll be telling you more about in the upcoming PFR Location Report and Video. Because it was the middle of the week and the family needed the car, plus I wanted to update my experience with taking a bus to the interior, I decided to go car-less. So, now I'll tell you all about it.

The Albrook Bus Terminal

First, if you're planning to take a bus, it's always a good idea to get dropped off at the Albrook Bus Terminal, which is connected to the Albrook Mall. Parking at the bus station is ridiculously expensive. The last time I checked, it was 3 cents per minute, which ends up costing about $43 per day. I was told once (by a bus terminal security officer) that I could park in the mall parking lot, but when I returned a couple of days later, I got blocked in by mall security, who claimed that I needed to pay them for watching my car the last couple of days. After a heated argument, mall security backed off, but I'll never again leave my car in the mall parking lot.

Everyone's preparing for the holidays

So, back to my most recent adventure. I got dropped off at the terminal, which actually looks a lot like a mall inside, with its numerous stores, kiosks, and food court. The Christmas tree was up and people were scurrying about, making their way back and forth between the terminal and the attached mall. The fact that it's attached to this huge, major mall, makes this place so convenient.

That little catwalk leads from the terminal to the mall

I always explain to people that if you live in one of the small towns in the interior, you're never more than a bus ride away from major city shopping. At the Albrook Mall you'll find a movie theater, a bowling alley, a casino, a hotel, and tons of stores, both on the lower end of the cost scale and the high-end. A Gap opened up recently, and we just realized during our most recent trip, that there's even a Gymboree. My wife was practically doing cartwheels. She loves that place. 

Inside the terminal

So, if you moved to a place like Penonomé, a short, 2-hour bus ride could see you spending the day at the mall, doing just about everything your heart desires. 

Once you enter the terminal, you'll need to locate the ticket booths, or boleterias, and find the window with your destination listed above it. Sometimes, if you're headed to a small town, you'll have to take a bus that passes it and then just get off at your destination. All of the major towns have ticket windows though.

This way to the ticket counters

I found the window for Penonomé rather quickly, but ran into a little bump in the road once I got there. I try to be positive in all of my blog posts and articles, but every once in awhile, I need to make you aware of a serious issue. The guy at the Penonomé window tried to scam me. I'm telling you this so you don't run into the same kind of problem. I've been to towns all over Panama by bus, and this was the first time that I've run into this problem, so I don't want you to think that everyone is out to get the gringo or anything like that. But you know how it bad apple...

I approached the window and told the guy that I needed one ticket to Penonomé. He wrote down the cost of the ticket as $5 and then started pointing at my bag (which was just the size of a regular suitcase, larger than a normal carry on bag) and then wrote $5 down on a second ticket. He was trying to tell me that I needed to pay $5 for myself and $5 extra for my bag. I got mad, shook my head, and told him that I've traveled all the way to Las Tablas for $9 and to Aguadulce for $6, so there's no way I'm paying $10 to go to Penonomé, which is closer than both of the other towns. He insisted that I needed to pay for my bag.

The scam artist at the Penonomé ticket counter

Some of you reading this, especially when comparing this price to what you'd pay for a Greyhound in the States, are probably thinking that $10 isn't bad for a bus ride. And it's not when you think of it that way. But the problem is, if we allow these scam artists to get away with this, they'll just keep doing it and pocketing the cash. 

I got mad and walked away, telling him, "That's cool because I write everything down and I'll be sure to tell people about it." I got on the phone and called my wife (just to make sure things hadn't changed since my last bus ride), and her coworker, who travels to Penonomé all the time, got angry and said that the cost is $5 and no one has to pay extra for their bag. So, while I was on the phone, I turned and took a photo of the guy at the booth. Suddenly, his buddy in the next window started talking to him (probably warning him that I was taking a photo). The guy at the Penonomé counter called me over. He said, in Spanish, "Ok, $5, but you have to hold your bag in your lap."

I knew he was full of it, but at this point, he wasn't going to admit that he was scamming me, so this was his way out of it. I paid $5 and didn't have to hold my bag in my lap.

Now, let me just make it clear that this isn't a Panama thing. This is a douche bag thing. It could happen in any country. The Panamanians I told about this, were appalled and angry. My wife's friend is dating a Colombian guy, and she said the same thing happened to him. He's not a gringo, but because his Colombian accent immediately alerts people that he's not Panamanian, people have tried to scam him. So just watch out, and please, realize it's not a reflection of the great Panamanian people. It's just a con artist at a ticket counter and I hope someone important reads this and fires his ass.

My $5 ticket ($5.25 actually)

Your ticket should look similar to the one I posted above. Notice that it has $5 written on it and it also states the cost for anyone getting off the bus prior to Penonomé, so for example, if you took this bus and decided to get off in Santa Clara, you'd pay $3.95. Most people getting off prior to Penonomé, already know the cost and don't buy a ticket from the counter. They just get on the bus and pay in cash when the get off at their stop.

Where you buy your $1.10 RapiPass card

After receiving your ticket, you'll need to buy a RapiPass card, if you don't already have one. This card only serves the purpose of getting you through the turnstile that leads out to the buses. The card is rechargeable and costs only $1. So, you'll need to buy the card and then put at least ten cents on it to get you through the turnstile. I paid $1.10 because I knew that I'd only be going through the turnstile once. You only pay when boarding the bus, not when returning later. 

This is what the card looks like

To get through the turnstiles and out to the bus area, you simply place the RapiPass card atop the turnstile. Usually there's an attendant handy to make sure everyone passing through has a card. If you have any issues getting through, they'll help you. 

The turnstiles leading out to the bus boarding area

Now, this is where you definitely want to be careful. Maybe "careful" is a bad word as you're in no danger or anything, but it's typical for someone to walk up and offer to carry your bag to the bus. Or you'll hear people whistling to you and trying to call you over to their bus. The first time we (Marlene and I) traveled by bus, we made the mistake of letting someone take our bags and lead us to our bus. He asked where we were going, we told him Aguadulce, and then he proceeded to carry our bags to one of the old Diablo Rojo-style buses, like you see just beyond the turnstiles in the photo above. 

We didn't know the difference. Marlene is Panamanian, but had been living in the U.S. with me for the 8 years prior to this. So we sat down on the hot bus, with no air conditioner. The worst part was the guy took our bags and placed them in the middle of the aisle, way back in the rear of the bus, and we were seated about halfway down the aisle, so we had no control over who might've been fishing through our bags. Marlene suddenly said, "Hold on a second." She got up and left the bus. When she returned, she told me the big, beautiful, air-conditioned bus parked in the next spot, was also going to Aguadulce. So, we grabbed our bags and switched buses. 

The bus I took to Penonomé

I'm telling you this because there are usually several buses heading to the same destination. Don't let yourself be tricked into sitting on an uncomfortable one. Sometimes you'll have to settle for a small, Coaster van, like the one I took to Penonomé this time around, but at least it will have air conditioning. On this Coaster bus, my bag was put into the bottom compartment of the bus without anyone questioning whether I'd paid $5 extra (didn't have to hold it in my lap). So it had definitely been a scam.

On the way back from Penonomé to Panama City, I rode on a larger, really nice bus, with a TV in the front playing concerts and music videos in Spanish, which brings me to another point. Be prepared to listen to salsa and tipico music, as most buses will have this music playing. If that bothers you, you'll want to bring headphones with your own music. Some buses will play movies (especially the ones going as far as David) but there's a good chance the movie will be in Spanish (sometimes they'll be in English with Spanish subtitles).

The inside of the bus to Penonomé

Something else you should be ready for, is frequent stops all the way to your destination. If someone isn't yelling "Parada!" the word that lets the driver know they want off at the next stop, then the bus will probably stop anyways to see if anyone wants to get on the bus. The driver searches for potential passengers the entire way. The trip to Penonomé in a car should take no longer than 2 hours, probably a little over an hour and a half. It took the bus 2.5 hours. 

To places that are close to Panama City, like Coronado, Penonomé, and Aguadulce, the trip is one straight shot (other than the short stops I just mentioned). When you're headed to farther destinations, like Las Tablas, Santiago, or David, you can expect the driver to stop somewhere along the way. You'll usually be given 15-20 minutes to get a snack, use the bathroom, and purchase souvenirs.

The Penonomé stop

When I arrived at Penonomé, I was dropped off at the area you see in the photo above, which was the final destination. People from Penonomé were smart enough to yell "parada!" at more convenient locations. Since I didn't know where the final stop was, I just rode it until the end, then found myself walking through the busiest part of town (nowhere near where I wanted to be). 

This is the case in many small towns. Places like Aguadulce don't have a terminal. You will literally just be dropped off at a bus stop, just a bench. From there you'll either need to walk, take another bus, or hop in a taxi to your hotel or wherever you're going. Some of the more popular destinations, like David, Las Tablas, and Chitre, will have small terminals full of taxis ready to take you the rest of your way. 

Then, in some small towns, like Pedasi and Portobelo, the bus will take you most of the way, then you'll need to finish your journey in a second bus or a taxi. To get to Pedasi (one of my favorite towns) you take a bus to Las Tablas, then walk (or take a taxi) over to a different bus area, to catch a small Coaster-style bus to Pedasi. To get to Portobelo, the bus will drop you off in a town called Sabanitas, where you'll then have to switch to a local Diablo Rojo bus that will take you to Portobelo.

Also, when departing small towns and heading back to Panama City, it's common to just pay the bus driver or his assistant when you're on the bus (instead of purchasing a ticket at a terminal). This was the case when I returned home from Penonomé. I boarded the bus at a bus gathering spot right on the Pan-American Highway (asked to make sure I was only going to be charged $5) then paid cash on the bus. So don't be alarmed if you can't find someone to pay prior to boarding the bus. 

I hope this article helps a little bit and doesn't confuse you more, haha! Don't worry. Taking buses to Panama's interior is very easy and is usually a very affordable alternative to driving or taking a plane. 

Thanks for reading (and don't forget to go check out,


Monday, December 9, 2013

Q&A Monday - Immigration, garbage collection, and Las Cumbres, Panama

Hey everybody, happy Monday! Yesterday was Mother’s Day here in Panama. It’s celebrated on December 8th in celebration of the Feast of Immaculate Conception, which is honor of the Virgin Mary. We had a great time. I cooked dinner and a lot of mamas came over.

So, I have one day in between Mother’s Day, and Victoria’s (my daughter) birthday tomorrow. I’m gonna use it wisely and answer readers’ questions.

I’m really excited guys. Panama For Real is growing at a great pace. At the time of writing this, we have 104 newsletter subscribers and 432 likes on Facebook. We’ve also found our “go to” attorney, which is awesome. This guy, Edgardo J. Matteo Barsallo (goes by Gary Matteo), seems to really get it. He understands what we’re doing with Panama For Real, that we’re not interested in ripping people off or making a quick buck, and he’s ready to be our wingman for any Immigration related issues, and has even promised a discount for our readers. And his firm handles just about any other issues you can think of.

Please, if you contact him, let him know that Chris at Panama For Real sent you. You can reach him at or If you want to check out his firm’s website, go to

So let's get the Q and A going.

Gunnar asked (via contact us on PFR website), 

"Great site and some of the best write-ups on Panama that I have seen (incl. the various books one can purchase)!

"I have been looking through the various neighborhoods in Panama city for a while now (Internet + spending a few weeks total in the country). We have been looking for homes that provide lots of green-space (somewhat close to nature) and have property-lots that have a decent size. Paired with the requirement of not living in a pre-planned suburban-style cookie-cutter development, the available choices in Panama City become extremely scarce.

"Cerro Azul, as in your video, is nice but a tad far away. Ancon Hill looks nice but virtually no availability and VERY expensive. Same is true with some places in the Reverted Areas. There were some nice places in Veracruz/Majagual but then you have the issue of crossing the bridge to get kids to school etc, plus some of the infrastructure gets slightly more basic.

"One of the few places we discovered that is relatively close to the City and fits the requirements is Las Cumbres. Thus my question - What is your take on Las Cumbres? While there are some expats living there is does not get mentioned that often on the various Panama related sites.

"Thanks a lot!"

I replied:

"Thanks Gunnar for your kind words and for checking out the site. Yes, I'm familiar with Las Cumbres. My wife's uncle lives in Villa Zaita, which is right next to Las Cumbres. I like Las Cumbres a lot, and as you stated, it's a place slightly removed from the city, but not too far away. If you ask most Panamanians, they'll say, "No way, Las Cumbres is too far." But it's really close, actually. It just seems far because it's not right smack dab in the middle of the city. 

"Las Cumbres is an area that's very hilly, most of the homes aren't cookie-cutter, and there's a lot of land, so finding a backyard shouldn't be difficult. My daughters used to go to a school there, an all-Spanish Catholic school, so we drove back and forth quite a bit. 

The new Metro train station at Los Andes, near Las Cumbres

"Las Cumbres is also close to Los Andes, a budget shopping area and they're supposed to be building a mall next to that shopping center too. Plus, you'll have easy access to the Corredor Norte (a major toll highway) as there's an exit right there next to Villa Zaita and Las Cumbres.

"At some point I'll visit Las Cumbres and do a PFR Location Report and Video on the area."

Michael asked (via contact us on the site): 

"Can I get quite a bit of my Pensionado accomplished from David through a lawyer?  We might prefer to live in the interior or highlands; at least site ourselves in that part of the country at first. 

"Is there immigration office, US embassy satellite offices and DMV services in David (or other interior cities) that can handle this business?  Or is occasional trips to only PC simply the inevitable to accomplish the Pensionado."

I replied: 

"Hi Michael and thanks for writing. You can definitely take care of your DMV, driver's license, in David. You'll find those offices all over the place. You might even see some small Immigration offices, but as far as I know, to take care of the paperwork for your pensionado, or any other Immigration paperwork related issues, you'd need to visit Panama City. 

"If you hire a good lawyer, a lot of stuff can be taken care of without you there, then you just show up when your physical presence is required. 

"Contact Gary Matteo, our "go to" Immigration lawyer,  for the specifics. I think the pensionado process is pretty cut and dry. He should be able to hook you up, even if you're living in David. Get in touch with him at

"Hope this helps."

John asked (via comment on the PFR site):

"Chris, I am thinking of visiting there at some point, maybe retire in the near future, I noticed in your monthly budget you stated blood pressure and Diabetic supplies, So im taking it you are a diabetic? well so am I ( type 1 ) my question, how well do you get along over there with it, and how good are the doctors over there, and are you a native or from the U.S. thanks in advance for info."

I replied:

"Hi John, thanks for checking out the site. Yes, I'm beginning stages diabetic, so I just take a pill once per day (Metformina) and one pill (Zestril) for blood pressure. 

"One of the good things about Panama is I can get this medicine without a prescription. Of course, it's good to keep seeing the doctor to make sure you're getting the right dosage, but in the States I'd have to go see the doctor just to get a new prescription, then go to the pharmacy. You can buy both meds here from the pharmacy with no prescription. 

"Plus, you can buy most medicines here by the pill if you want. So if you're running low on cash and you just want to buy 5 pills for blood pressure, you can do that. That's very helpful when a doctor prescribes you just a few days worth of a cold medicine. In the U.S. you'd be forced to buy the entire box. 

"The doctors here, from what I've seen, are excellent and they're not afraid to diagnose a problem. I'm from the U.S., born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but raised all over the place. I moved to Panama so my wife could be closer to her family, and because it seemed like a great adventure. So far I'm lovin' it!"

Michael asked (via email): 

"Hi Chris, I was wondering if you could help me.  My fiancé  told me that I need to bring a document that proves I am far I cant find any such document that exist.  Is this what you had to do when you got married? and if so where do I get such a document?"

I replied:

"Hey Michael, yes, she's correct. Here they just go to the civil registry (Panamanians) to get a certificate proving they've never been married. I'm not sure where you'd get this in the States. I've read about people having it done at the embassy here, but I'd definitely recommend having it done before coming just to make sure you're not caught up in any red tape. I'd check with the office of Vital Statistics (I think that's what it was called in the States...where you get your birth certificates and marriage certificates and stuff like that).

"I'm married to a Panamanian, but since we got married in the U.S., and came to Panama already married, I didn't have to do this. 

The U.S. Embassy in Clayton, Panama

"Here's the web page of the U.S. Citizen Services section of the U.S. Embassy here in Panama. It has their contact info and stuff on there. If you can't figure out how to get the paperwork in your home state, try contacting them to see if you can take care of it here in Panama. That page is:

"Good luck, man!"

Rich wrote (via contact us on the PFR site):

"Just a quick note ... your "About Us" page still links to Amazon for your first book, which is--apparently--no longer available there?  At least, not at the link you provide.  Get that link updated so people can actually buy your book(s)."

I replied: 

"Hey Rich, thanks so much for trying to buy my book. Sorry for the inconvenience. I recently parted ways with my publisher, which led to my book suddenly disappearing from the virtual shelves. 

"So I just need to reformat the book, fix a few minor errors, and then re-publish it. I'll publish it myself this time around. I took it out of the sidebar, but forgot I'd mentioned it in the "About Us" page. 

"Also, I finished the first draft of the second book, so that'll be out soon too. Thanks again for trying to buy my book. I'll let everyone know when it's back up on the shelves."

Michael asked (via contact us): 

"How does Panama deal with trash/garbage collection and landfills?"

I replied: 

"Panama does use landfills and garbage collection is fairly dependable. The bill is combined with your water bill. 

"Garbage collection isn't like you might be used to back in the States or wherever you're from. You don't just put a large plastic container out by the street. Or in the Naperville (suburb of Chicago) area, where you had to buy stickers from the supermarket and they'd only collect bags that had the pre-paid stickers on them. Here, most homes have a metal garbage collection basket out near the street.  

"I've found that it's also a good practice to offer small tips or even sodas or something to your garbage men. If you take care of them, they're more likely to take care of you when you have large items you need to get rid of.

"And, keeping it real, I have to mention that in some areas, especially in the lower income areas, mostly because people don't want to pay for trash collection, people just create their own garbage collection points in the neighborhood and everyone tosses their garbage there. Like in the photo below. This forces the city to pick up the garbage in order to keep the streets clean. 

An unofficial garbage collection point

Also, I've seen in local newspapers that in certain areas (again, mostly the lower income areas), the garbage collection doesn't happen as frequently as it should, or not at all, which angers the residents, and they toss their garbage out by the street. I know the government recently purchased more trucks, and newer ones, to help with the collection process. 

"Some people, especially the older Panamanians, burn a lot of their garbage. You'll see these little smoke pits in the yard. So when you're driving down the street and you see a small fire going, don't be alarmed, it's probably just someone burning their garbage.

Some people still burn their garbage

"In Rio Hato, I met a woman who buried her garbage on her land. She burned what she could burn, and the rest she buried. So some people still stick with the old ways, but most just have their garbage collected (usually once per week)."

Marc asked (via comment on the PFR site):

"Hi Chris,

"I am a French Canadian living in Bali, Indonesia and I am going home on January 12, 2014 to prepare my application for a PENSIONADO VISA. You are quite the ambassador! Panama seems to be the right place for me, the permanent residency option is great and it looks much cleaner than Indonesia. Asia is great to visit but I think Central and South America are probably best to live, anyway this is my impression at the moment.

"Chris, you can help me with the name of a good lawyer and an idea of the cost for the visa application? P.S. Would love to meet you and your family. Thank you so much for your help and take care."

I replied:

"Thanks Marc. Wow, Indonesia. You’re definitely making your way around the world. Yes, I have a great lawyer to get you in touch with. I've mentioned him a few times in this post. Just email him at and he should be able to give you all the help you need with the Immigration process."

Tracee asked (via comment on PFR site): 

"Please tell me more about the Work License. Do you have to get it if you are working privately for someone? Where can I find more information about it? Thank you!"

I replied:

"Hi Tracee. Yes, you’ll need the work license to be employed legally in Panama. You might find companies willing to pay you under the table, and you can work freelance (online jobs and stuff) without the license, but having one will make your life a lot easier here. 

"If you have questions about which visas allow you to obtain the work license, contact, and I'm sure he can get you moving in the right direction. Thanks Tracee."

Well, that's it for this Q and A session. Thanks for reading and I hope some of this helped.   

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