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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Real Bargain Shopping in Panama City, Panama

Good morning,

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the real cost of living in Panama and the real supermarket prices. After I published these articles, I got several emails and noticed several Facebook posts talking about how, after reading my articles, people were beginning to think that Panama isn't any less expensive than their hometowns. That was kind of the point of the article. It wasn't my intention to scare anyone, but I think it's important that people realize that Panama, just like anyplace else, is going to take a little bit of work. It's not as cheap as you might have heard. But if you look closely at the supermarket prices I laid out and read the cost of living report, you'll notice that I showed you not only local Panama brand prices, but also prices on things such as Oreos and Corona beer. Because you need to see what you'll spend if you buy imported goods.

How you shop and how you create your budget is completely your business. You might not care about living on a low budget. You might have a seemingly unlimited funds purse. But that's not the case for everyone. A good portion of people planning to escape to Panama, will have limited funds, a monthly allowance, that, if they go over, they'll be in trouble. So, as I've mentioned many times, it's important to abandon your current idea of shopping. You can't buy the brands you're used to if you want to save money here. And you can't simply clip coupons to keep buying what you're used to. You need to adopt a new shopping mentality and learn to shop like the locals.

Buying shoes at the La Onda in Villa Lucre will cost a lot less
than buying from the Jimmy Choo in Multiplaza

That's why, in this article, I'm going to introduce you to 3 bargain shopping playgrounds in and around Panama City. Sure, you could go to one of the malls. Multiplaza, the most upscale mall here, has great shopping. You'll see stores like Tiffany & Company, Cartier, Forever 21, Kenneth Cole, Zara, and Victoria's Secret. At Albrook Mall you'll find Gap, Gymboree, Banana Republic, etc. And even at Metro Mall you'll find Nautica, Claire's, Moose, Izod, and a handful of other stores you're familiar with. But that's not budget shopping. Sure, you might find incredible deals at random times in these stores, but I'm talking about your regular day-to-day shopping. 

Los Andes (Centro Comercial Los Andes) - This is one of my favorite shopping centers, and if you live in Las Cumbres or Villa Zaita, you're probably familiar with this area. It's a hodgepodge of faded colors and busy walkways as you'll find an eclectic mix of shops here. 

You'll find everything here, from clothing stores 
to electronics stores to a supermarket

Los Andes is located on Via Transistmica on the way to Las Cumbres. Getting there, especially if you're not familiar with Panama City streets, can be a bit tricky. Luckily, a Metro train station is being built right at the shopping center entrance, which should make getting there much easier. 

This new train station should make getting here much easier

My favorite store in Los Andes is Dorian's, which to me, is probably Panama's closest thing to a Marshalls or TJ Maxx. In this store you'll find some amazing deals, but be careful. Like Marshalls, you need to check your clothes before buying them. You'll find American brand names you'll recognize, but just check each item carefully. I've found several T-shirts I was interested in, only to have to put them back when I noticed a stain or a rip. 

See? Look at these prices

Marlene loves this place. If there's a Dorian's in the shopping center, she's there. You'll also find one in the Albrook mall, close to the movie theater. At stores like this, it's common to see prices as low as $1.99, $2.99, and $3.99, especially on T-shirts. Just make sure you try everything on first, as some clothes are built weird and fit super tight in the oddest of places. I think I've told you my experience with the jeans that gave me an instant wedgie. 

$6.99, $9.99...oh my!

Dorian's is also great for picking up the small things. If I'm going to the beach for the weekend and don't have flip flops, I'll go buy cheap ones from there, or if I need a new belt and don't want to spend a lot (I rarely dress up), I'll get one from Dorian's for somewhere between $5 and $10.

The first place in Panama where I found (bargain priced) size-12 shoes

Three other large, bargain department stores you'll find in Los Andes are El Titan (one of the best places to buy school supplies), El Costo, and El Campeón. In all of these places, you'll find clothing, shoes, makeup, office supplies, purses, hats, and even some home goods. You'll find fans, dishes, blankets, and other things of that nature. 

Another great bargain shopping store

If you have kids, you're sure to find great deals on children's clothes. I have to keep it real though. Oftentimes, the fabric is not the strongest. You get what you pay for, so the material will not be as good as what you'd get at Gymboree. Still, sometimes, especially with something like pajamas, it's nice to pick up a $5.99 pair rather than a $29.99 pair. Or a pair of $.49 underwear like you see in the photo below. 

Check out these prices on kids' underwear

And if you're artistic and like to sew your own clothes, you'll find a fabric store in Los Andes selling items at super low prices. 

Buy your clothes, or make your own

This place sells fabric that's great for clothes, uniforms, curtains, tablecloths, etc., and look at the prices: $1.49? $2.99? $1.99? You won't find prices like that at Multiplaza. 

No shortage of birthday party supply stores here

If you find yourself getting hungry at Los Andes, don't worry, as there's plenty of little restaurants and even a Wendy's on site. Plus, if you head up the stairs that are right next to Wendy's, there's even a little food court. You have to try one of the smoothies from the kiosk you see at the center of the food court. They're like $1.50 or $2.00. The prices vary depending on the flavor you choose, but you'll see banana, chocolate, strawberry, mango, cornflakes, the list goes on and on. 

Los Pueblos - 

One of my favorite places to shop, when I'm in a super-chill mood and don't mind the swarms of people and concentrated traffic I'll find when going there, is Los Pueblos. I mention this outdoor shopping mall often. Located in the Juan Diaz area, at the far end of Via España (opposite end of downtown Panama City), you'll know you arrived when you see the TGIF on the left hand side (you can also get there by traveling Ave. Domingo Diaz, it's right across the street from Metro Mall). 

You need to understand Los Pueblos for what it is, before you head out there. It's not a high-end mall where people are going to cater to your every need. It's not that at all. In fact, it's a hectic mess at times, especially on the weekends, as hordes of people descend upon the shops, all looking for the best deals. So be ready to rub elbows, shove your way through crowds, and stand in lines to get to the real bargains. 

A police trailer is located right at its center

If you're ready for this, you'll find a ton of stores at Los Pueblos, stores like Saks (no relation to the 5th Avenue store), which is a lot like Dorian's. The Saks in Los Pueblos is another of my favorite stores. I buy Silver Jack brand blue jeans for about $15 a pair (sometimes on sale for $10). Again, just check the clothes before purchasing them, as my wife recently bought a pair of pants that was missing the zipper. 

The best toy store in the city (on the right)

The Felix Outlet at Los Pueblos is one of the best toy stores in Panama. One side of the store is devoted to only toys, while the other has clothes. You'll also find an Estampa, La Onda, Oca Loca, which is the store I always associate with great Halloween shopping, Gran Morrison, Conway, El Campeón. You definitely have your pick of bargain shops.

You'll find clothing stores, household good stores, a Do It Center (do it yourself store), lighting stores, electronics stores, shoe stores, and even a couple of casinos. Los Pueblos is home to a Payless Shoes, a DDP outlet store, Adams, and lots of places to eat lunch.

A small pizza and a soda for only $3.99

Los Pueblos is where I go whenever I need to pick up a cheap charger for my cell phone or to buy covers or any other phone accessories. And it's a great place to get fresh coco water or pipa. This guy in the photo below will grab a coconut from his stash, slam it down onto a spike, then pour the fresh juice into an instant refrigeration machine and out into a brand new bottle. It's delicious.

Fresh pipa!

If you walk the shops of Los Pueblos, you're sure to find a deal. Again, always try on clothes before buying them. I piled up maybe 20 shirts the first time I visited here, all right around $1.99. I went nuts and since they were all XL size, I was fairly sure they'd fit. At the last second, I decided to go ahead and try some on. Out of the 20 shirts, only 3 fit. The rest hugged my body a little too snugly for comfort. When things are on sale at Los Pueblos, it's almost like being on a shopping spree. A hundred dollars seems like it'll last forever in some  stores. 

Lastly, on the subject of Los Pueblos, I have to mention that this is one of the best places to go to buy party supplies and piñatas. Even for bachelor and bachelorette parties. Watch out though. I've written about this before, long ago, in a blog post. 

These were staring my kid right in the face at the cash register

I went with my daughter once to get a piñata and had no idea what was in store. There, hanging from the ceiling, right next to the Disney princess castle piñata, was a group of butt naked piñatas, very well endowed dude piñatas too. These bachelor/bachelorette party piñatas are hung (pun intended) right next to the other kiddy kind of piñatas. 

See? I told you so! Try explaining that to your kid

I was half expecting my daughter to yell out, "Daddy, I want the princess with the black bikini." 

"Umm, that's not a bikini babe."

El Dorado

On Tumba Muerto, near Bethania, is the area called El Dorado. You'll know you're there when you see the big circular cake and smoothie shop at the corner of he parking lot and a casino on the other end. Farther back in the lot is the shopping center itself, and next to it is a KFC and Taco Bell.

You know you're in El Dorado when you see this building

El Dorado seems to be most famous for its electronics shops. No matter where you go to get your phone fixed or your Blu-ray player fixed, or your Playstation fixed, if the technician can't handle the job, he or she will tell you to take it to El Dorado. They can fix just about anything there. 

I got this rubber cell phone cover in El Dorado for $5

It's also a great place to shop. El Dorado is still on the lower end of the shopping scale, but it's rapidly improving. The mall management team is cleaning the mall up nicely and it's actually starting to look like the other malls in Panama City. At El Dorado you'll find a Conway furniture store, which is one of the best furniture stores in Panama. You'll also find a Saks, a Gran Morrison, a Rey supermarket, and many other small shops. 

This mall is starting to clean up nicely

I set out one day to find a suit for a wedding. I used to wear a suit every day back in the U.S., but I never wear one here. Who wants to wear a suit in Panama? Well, I've lost a lot of weight since moving here and none of my suits fit me. I looked ridiculous trying them on. I tried to find a fancy getup in Los Andes, but it's not the best place for that. I tried a few places actually, and I didn't want to spend much, because I knew I'd probably wear the suit once and never put it on again. I decided to check out the mall at El Dorado, and I'm glad I did. I found a suit for only $49.99 at the RM.

Very affordable suits at the RM in El Dorado

Plus, they had great prices on accessories. Shoes were inexpensive, belts, shirts...I got everything I needed in one store, after driving around all over the place. Now, I know this sounds like a commercial for them, lol, but it's not. The quality of the suit I bought was okay. I'm not sure it would've lasted through the long walks and varying temperatures I encountered in Chicago, but it definitely worked well for the wedding. 

Shirts, two for $12.99

If you want to find real bargains, don't just stick to the enclosed mall though. Make sure you check out the shops that surround the mall. You'll find tons of little electronic stores and other cool places. El Dorado even has a bowling alley. Plus, if you're into the kinky stuff, you'll find a couple of sex toy/video stores in El Dorado too. You can see one on the left in the following photo. 

It's on the left, right next to the tree...I know you're looking for it!

Hopefully, after reading this article, you'll realize there are some real finds out there, if you just get out and immerse yourself in real Panama living. Don't be afraid to go out and shop like locals because you're not going to save money shopping in the higher-end malls. 

If you're wondering about Avenida Central (down by Casco Viejo), yes, that's a bargain shopping destination, but I was trying to put shops on this list where you're not likely to have to finagle your way into a good deal. These aren't tourist shops, not really. Avenida Central kind of is. In Los Andes, Los Pueblos, and El Dorado, the price is right there on the object. You don't have to ask what the price is and try to figure out whether you're getting the real deal or the gringo inflated price.

If you live in any of the small towns in Panama's interior, you might not have a choice but to bargain shop, as it's rare to find the bigger chains outside of Panama City (except maybe in Chitre, Santiago, and David). That's a major factor in why it's much cheaper to live outside of Panama City. Sometimes you're forced to shop and live like the local townsfolk (unless you're out there cheating and ordering everything online...come on...we all do it from time to time). 

Oh one more thing. I'm sure some people are going to write to tell me that you have to be careful in the areas I mentioned. That is true. Just like anywhere else, if you shop in Los Andes, Los Pueblos, or El Dorado, don't flash your money around. Know how much cash you have before you set out so you don't have to pull out a wad of bills on the sidewalk. 

Police are everywhere, especially in Los Pueblos and Los Andes, so I wouldn't say these areas are unsafe. But you have to know that if you're shopping where there are true bargains, you're shopping with other people who are shopping on a limited budget. So don't be flashy, and it's probably better to shop during the day than at night in these outdoor shopping centers. 

Thanks so much for reading,


Don't forget to check out and don't forget to "like" us on Facebook here or "like" and "share" our Youtube channel here

Monday, January 27, 2014

A New Video for Expat Kids

Hello again,

This is going to be a really short post. I'm not sure if I've mentioned it here before, but my kids were so excited to be a part of Panama For Real, that Marlene and I were thinking it would be great to give them their own project. As much as we love including the whole family in our videos when we travel, we don't want the location reports to become Powers family vacation videos. So, how could we get them more involved?

Our new video even shows you the words 
to the Spanish version of Happy Birthday

Well, after reading through tons of emails from young families relocating to Panama, we figured out the perfect project for our kids. Oftentimes young business owners, with online companies, are content with being virtually present, meaning it doesn't matter where they are physically. So they plan an early retirement, chillin' out beachside while they conduct business on a laptop. That, or young people are often brought to Panama to assist a Panamanian business. This means, the spouse and sometimes even young children are kind of forced into an overseas move. That can be downright scary. Can you imagine? At a young age being told that you're going to leave your family and friends and go to a country where everyone speaks a different language? 

The kids had a blast making this new video
(Victoria and Nico on the right)

Well, that's the reason we started Kidpats. Estefania (11), Victoria (9), Matteo (5), and Nicolas (5) have been living that reality. They've had it a little bit easier with Marlene's family being here, but the girls didn't even speak Spanish when we moved here (the boys were infants and didn't speak much of anything at all). They've learned to make the best of this new lifestyle and our Kidpats series is aimed at helping other kids do the same. The idea is that you'll be able to sit your kids at the computer and let them see how our kids are handling a life in Panama. 

We just put our second video on the website, yesterday, and I wanted to share it with you guys. This one is all about birthday parties in Panama. You'll find our first video, with the kids hanging out at Parque Omar, on the site as well. We really hope you enjoy these. The kids are bugging me to do another one, so we should have others out soon. 

For some reason blogger is giving me a hard time embedding the video here in this blog, but if you follow the link below, it'll take you right to the page of our site that has the video. You can also see it on Youtube. Here's the link to the new Kidpats video:

Thursday, January 23, 2014

10 Things You Will Hate About Panama (and why you should learn to love 'em)

Good morning everyone,

I hope wherever you are this day, you're staying warm (and for those of you in Panama I hope you're staying cool). Today's post just had to happen. I hear every single day that people are tired of the hype all over the Internet about how perfect Panama is. Most of that is coming from people selling conference tickets and houses in Panama. So, I just had to do it. I had to write about the 10 things you're definitely going to hate if you move to Panama. 

Now, before anyone jumps down my throat, you should know me fairly well by now. This won't be a negative post. I love Panama and for every single not-so-great situation I describe, you'll discover there's something really great going on to counter it. However, there are things that will bother you about Panama. It's a fact. I'm sure there are things bothering you in Kansas City, Quebec, Chicago, Miami, London, Helsinki, Las Vegas, or in Caracas. Wherever you're from, I bet you could put together one hell of a top 10 things you'd hate list. Here's mine on Panama. This is in no specific order. 

1. Motorcycle drivers create their own lanes - 

This blew my mind when I first moved here, mostly because I almost ran a couple of these drivers over. It's crazy. In the U.S., motorcycles have to stay in the appropriate lane, just like any other vehicle. Here (and I thought this was illegal until I noticed many cops on motorcycles doing the same thing) motorcycles swerve in and out of traffic, and drive up the narrow aisle between lanes.

See? Like this!

I sat in traffic one day on a street that was two lanes going in the same direction (one way street). A young couple, walking hand-in-hand, looked both ways before crossing the street. They did everything right. Then, as they crossed, suddenly a guy on a motorcycle came flying up that space between our lanes and screeched to a halt. I mean his back tire came up off the ground as he somehow managed to stop before slamming into this couple. The driver shook his head and threw his hands up in the air as if it were the couple's fault. I didn't even think it was possible to get run over by a motorcycle. Really? That was a close one though. 

Beware, when driving, checking your blind spot in Panama also means making sure there aren't any motorcycles creeping up, like the one you see in the photo below, just chillin' at this person's back bumper.

This guy is just sitting in someone's blind spot

Why should you learn to love it? Well, when you're waiting for your pizza to arrive, you'll be glad your delivery guy is able to get through the traffic quickly. 

Plus, if you happen to own a motorcycle, you'll be able to almost completely avoid traffic. Hmm, maybe I should learn to ride a motorcycle. 

2. Everything shuts down on certain holidays

What does this mean? Panama is full of very religious people, of many different religions. Quite a few of the business, especially in Panama City, are run by Chinese or Jewish business owners. This means that on any Chinese holiday or Jewish holiday, getting things done may be difficult. I set out one day to do some clothes shopping with my family, and my mother-in-law kind of shouted out as we were leaving that it was a Jewish holiday. I heard her, but didn't think much about it. 

A few miles down the road, when we pulled into the Los Pueblos outdoor shopping center, I noticed the gates down and the doors closed on most businesses, so many that it didn't really make sense to walk around and shop. 

And it's the same with the Catholic Holy Week. You might want to run out to the mall to pick something up and find that it's closed down or closed early due to a religious holiday observance. 

So, it's a big deal sometimes when it's a normal day for you, but you can't get anything done. It's like trying to get your favorite chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-A on a Sunday. Ain't gonna happen. 

What's the good side of this? You'll always find something open on your holiday, whether you're Catholic or Jewish or it's the Chinese New Year. Your options may be limited, but you can still get things accomplished. 

3. Snakes and bugs - 

This is the tropics. Not only is it hot and muggy, but you will see lots of bugs, and quite possibly snakes and even scorpions. You might find less of these pesky creatures in Panama City, but they are here in and around the city. And I'm sure you'll find much more out in the interior. 

Found this spider in our bathroom

A friendly writer living high up in one of the mountain communities in Panama's interior, Rhonda, recently wrote about finding a scorpion at her front door one morning, stinger up and ready to attack. Her cats were just messing around, swatting at it, no care in the world. I've never seen a scorpion here, but I've found very large spiders in my house. The spider in the photo above was found in my bathroom.

In our last house, my wife woke up early in the morning to use the bathroom and through her tired, blurred vision, barely noticed a snake slithering around near the toilet. I've written about this before. She screamed, ran out of the bathroom, and slammed the door behind her. I rolled out of bed thinking someone had broken into the house or something. Marlene warned me to stay back because there was a huge snake in the bathroom that might be poisonous. I'm a wimp when it comes to snakes, so I was more than willing to back off. 

This think looks huge close up

When the firefighters and police showed up, they had a big laugh when they found the snake. Looks huge in the photo above, but it was really this big. Look at the photo below.

This is what it looked like to the cops. 
That little thing that looks like a dog turd...that was our snake

What's the good side? It's the tropics! This means wonderfully warm (genuinely hot) weather. Forget the bugs! If you don't like bugs or other pests, get a cat. Or get a dog. Hell, the spiders eat the mosquitos.

4.  There's no MLS (Multiple Listing Service/System) in Panama -

This can be frustrating when you're searching for a home, or when your preferred real estate agent is searching for you. You won't find one-stop shopping when it comes to apartments, condos, or homes in Panama. People have set up websites, some really great ones, to try and roundup some listings, but it's difficult to get a real finger on the pulse of the real estate action going on across the entire country. That's why you'll notice most agents stick to small areas, where they can truly understand what's available.

What's the good side? You're still able to find great deals in the towns you love, as long as you get out on foot and do a little bit of searching. If you visit, for example, Penonomé, absolutely fall in love with the place, and decide you'd like to talk to a local real estate expert or go directly to the owner of a house you see for sale, you can do that. You can do it without having to worry that 20 people are online about to pounce on that home. You might not find such a large audience if trying to sell a home, and as a buyer you won't see all the cards spread out on the table, but when you find a gem, you have much more of a chance of getting your hands on it. 

5. Littering is still a problem in some areas

I've heard from many expats visiting Panama that they were shocked by the amount of garbage on the ground in some areas. This is a problem. It bothers Panamanians just as much as it bothers visitors and the causes vary from people just being careless and tossing their milk carton out of their car window to not enough garbage trucks on the street.

In some neighborhoods, you'll see big unofficial garbage collection points, that are just flat out nasty. You'll see dogs picking at bones and flies buzzing around. Did I paint a gross enough picture for you? I don't want you to be shocked when you get out and visit the non-touristy areas. 

This is nasty!

The good news is this is a problem the Panamanian government is well aware of. More trucks have been purchased, new programs have been put in place, and it seems that they're genuinely trying to clean up the streets. I've seen signs posted reminding residents to not throw their garbage in some of these unofficial collection points.

Recycling bins on the Cinta Costera

I've seen recycling bins in parks and other places that get a lot of foot traffic. I was just at the Cinta Costera the other night, a fun place to hang out along the water, and I noticed the recycling bins in place. Even in the smaller towns in the interior, I've started to see recycling bins. At the town center in Penonomé, the little park there in front of the church had bins in place. That's awesome. 

The Penonomé town center

Many Panamanians have taken it upon themselves to help clean up the issue. Just yesterday morning, I heard on The Breakfast Show with Gerry D (which can be heard Mon-Fri, from 7am-10am, on Cool 89.3 FM or at their website, a fellow named Roba Morena talking about an upcoming recycling fair. He said his group collects nearly 10,000 pounds of recyclables per year. You can read about the upcoming fair, which is actually this Sunday, Jan. 26, at the Banco General parking lot in Villa Lucre from noon until 5pm, at

So, in some areas you might still see trash on the ground, but at least you know people are working on cleaning it up.

6. This place might not be as affordable as you've heard

Let's just say it like it is. A lot of companies are hyping up Panama, telling you that it's the most affordable place to base your retirement. You're being told that you can find super-affordable rentals, you can buy food for half the cost of what you'd spend in the U.S., and utilities are crazy cheap. 

Panama City is definitely not the cheap retirement haven it used to be. It's hard to find a low-cost rental in a desirable location. Like most major cities in the world, Panama City is a popular destination, right on the water, and living downtown can cost a lot. In that same area, electricity will be high, and grocery costs will probably be a lot like what you're used to, even more expensive for some items if they're imported. 

Life in the high-rent district will cost you

However, this doesn't mean you can't retire to Panama on a shoestring budget. You absolutely can. You just have to know how to do it. 

You have to face the facts about Panama City. It's expensive now. Expect to pay at least $1,200 to rent a decent place in the city (and that's on the low end). Out in the interior, it's still very possible to rent a place for under $500 a month. I'm not going to go into this too much, because I just covered it in my article The Real Cost of Living in Panama, which you can find by clicking here

Panama is not like the U.S. You won't walk into a Target or a Walmart and buy everything you need right there in one spot. You will find places like El Machetazo and Discovery Center, where a variety of items are on the shelves, but I'm telling you, warning you, if you rely on one store to get everything you need, you're going to spend a small fortune.

Buy local brands to save money

You have to learn to shop like Panamanians. This means buying your fruit and vegetables at the Saturday market or any other fresh market around town. If you live in one of the small towns where fish is brought out straight from the docks each morning, buy your fish from the street side vendors. With a family of 6, I buy certain things at PriceSmart (member shopping, like Costco) like meat and juice, but I buy toilet paper at the regular supermarket. If you learn what to do and what not to do, you can live in Panama on a fairly low budget. You can read my article about PriceSmart shopping here

Try to shop at the farmer markets

I put a Real Supermarket Prices article together, which you can read here, and afterwards I got a lot of email responses about how Panama didn't seem any less expensive than peoples' home cities. The reason for this is I tried to put items on the list that people would be familiar with, so they could see what those prices are like here. I also tried to put some Panamanian brands on the list. You can buy a $5.39 pack of Chips Ahoy, or you can spend $1.50 on a similar local brand. As I mention in most articles, you can't buy all imported goods if you want to save money. 

Water is usually very inexpensive in Panama and so is trash collection, but It totally varies. I've heard a lot of people tell me their electric bill is well under $100 per month. My sister-in-law is shocked if hers goes over $30, but she's rarely home and never uses an air conditioner. If you run your AC all day, and you live in a pricier area, you could see bills of $300 per month or more. I know because I've received bills that high. 

Living in a place like Boquete, Cerro Azul, El Valle de Anton, or Volcan, you'd rarely use the AC, so your electric bill would be very low. However, if you're living in the penthouse suite in a Marbella condo and running the AC all day (Panama City is hot), expect to pay more for electricity.

You'd probably never use an air conditioner in Cerro Punta

All that said, if you can learn to live like a local, you can still save a lot of money retiring in Panama.

7. Customer service isn't great (for the most part) -  

If there's anything that will probably drive you nuts about living in Panama, it will be the general lack of a good customer service mentality. I'm really into customer service. I always have been, so it bothers me a lot when I'm paying for a service and someone rolls his or her eyes at me, or just refuses to's pretty aggravating. 

I've always found customer service to be a serious issue in Panama, but I'm noticing now, that it seems to be about the area you're in. It's unfortunate, but true, that if you go to a popular restaurant near a lower income area, the service just seems worse. Then, you go to the same restaurant in an upscale mall, and it's a totally different experience. 

Tantalo in Casco Viejo has great food and great service

When I taught customer service techniques here in Panama awhile back, I was told by many of my Panamanian students, that the reason they didn't provide great service is that tips are always low. I can see how that would be a factor. People are used to paying very little in Panama, so I imagine the tips are quite low as well. I think a lot of it has to do with employers not making the employees feel like they have a vested interest in the company. They're getting paid a very low salary (many times by foreign employers who came here to open up shop and save money), they clock in and out, many work more than 5 days a week, and they go home just to do it all over again. You'll rarely see sales initiatives in place or rewards for employees. That's a shame.

Keila and Eliecer provided outstanding service at
the Do It Center in Villa Lucre

This means great things for us though. We have the opportunity to completely change things. As customers, we can help by smiling, being friendly to the person serving our food, leaving a fair tip, and making sure we've actually told the server that we appreciate their great attitude and a job well done. Doing that, we might be able to change the poor customer service mentality. 

As business owners, you can lead the way by providing great service yourself and teaching yoru employees how to do the same. Motivate your employees. Make them feel a part of something bigger. And for cryin' out loud, if you come here to open up a business, be a good employer. Treat your employees with respect and pay them more than the bare minimum. You'll probably still save money. Just sayin'.

8. Construction noise in the city

This might not be much of an issue in the interior, except maybe parts of the Pan-American Highway being reduced to one lane because of construction, but in the city, construction noise is always around. 

Construction work in Obarrio

So much is happening in Panama, all over the place, and with all the work going on, you're bound to be annoyed by some of the construction noises. And if the sound of the jackhammers, wrecking balls, and other equipment doesn't bother you, you might hate, or get a kick out of, the constant whistling and yelling you'll hear every time a pretty woman walks by the site, as work halts and workers step to the ledge to check out the action down below. 

When one beautiful woman passes, one guy whistles, and no less
than 20 workers risk their lives to peak out at the street below

The good news is it's quite entertaining to see everything halt, like a Broadway musical number is about to begin, and see the guys yelling their praises to the passing women. Also, it's good to know that so much progress is happening. I'm excited to see what new businesses will spring up around the city. There's so much change going on all the time. It's exhilarating. 

9. Traffic -

If you've read anything about Panama, I'm sure you've read about the traffic issues. Panama City is gridlock traffic during all rush hours, which is a good portion of the day. Trying to leave the house anytime between 7am-10am in the morning, and 4pm-8pm in the evening, is a bad idea. Just avoid it if you can. Unlike any other place I've lived, there aren't many shortcuts here. You can't really dodge the traffic because if there's an alternate route, everyone else already knows about it.

The Cinta Costera at 5pm

Living in the interior, you might avoid most of this traffic. Unless it's carnaval time, any other holiday, or a long weekend. Many Panamanians escape the city whenever they can by heading to the interior. So, if it's Holy Week, and you want to get to Coronado, you might find yourself in some pretty heavy traffic on the highway. We went to David during one of the long holiday weekends (I can't remember which one). We avoided all traffic headed out there, had a great time (did the Volcan video which you can see here) and all was great...until the drive home.

The Corredor Sur at 8am

We left early in the morning, before sunrise, to head home, knowing everyone else would be driving back to Panama City this day too. We were flying home, no traffic at all, but then decided to stop for breakfast. That 30-40 minute break was a big mistake. By the time we got to the entrance to El Valle, traffic was bumper to bumper all the way back to the city.

So how is any of this good? Well, when you stay in Panama City during any of these long holiday weekends, you find the streets open up with hardly any traffic. It's amazing. Everyone has gone to the interior. 

The Corredor Norte at 9am

And as far as the daily traffic grind, again, things are getting better. The Metro trains are scheduled to start running this year, many of the buses have been taken off the road, and hopefully traffic will start to ease up. If traffic congestion really bothers you, just move to one of the small towns in the interior where a lot of people write bikes. That would be great.

10. Getting things accomplished, step by step by step - 

I'm sure you've all heard of the mañana attitude (where things move very slowly, especially anything relating to the government) here in Panama, but there's one other issue you might notice when trying to get anything accomplished. Several employees will be involved in whatever it is you're trying to get done, whether it's buying a cheeseburger, getting a work license, or anything else. 

For example, for one of the jobs I had here, I needed to go get a copy of my police record. I went to the building that issues these, to make sure I could prove that I was an upstanding citizen. I stood in line at one desk, to request the form I needed. When I made it to the counter, the lady told me I needed to go to a different area of the building to pay the small fee I was required to pay (I think it was only $1). Then, I needed to go back to the original lady to get the form stamped. I kept thinking, "Why can't I just pay her, have her stamp my paper, and be on my way?" It doesn't work like that here.

At one of the social security hospitals here, I stood in line with my wife to explain what we were there to do. We were given a form and told to take it to the doctor. So we went to his office, knocked on the door, interrupted his conversation with a patient, just so he could sign the form (I guess agreeing to see us), then we had to go pay at a cashier window, then go back to the first get the point, and this was all before actually getting seen by the doctor. Once the doctor prescribed our medicine (after the exam), we had to do a similar process to get the meds (including visiting the pharmacy first to make sure they had them before going to pay and then returning to get the medicine). 

For the final step in getting my cedula, I had to go to an office on the second floor of the Tribunal Electoral office to turn in my paperwork. Then, they sent me downstairs to pay. At that point I got a little bit lost. I'd paid and couldn't figure out what to do next. I got into the wrong line before I was told I needed to go back upstairs to the original office I'd been in. So I did. They did what they had to do and then sent me back downstairs to get in line to have my photo taken. Then I was told I needed to come back another day to pick up my ID card at a completely different desk.

For a great example of all this, read my steps to getting a Panamanian driver's license here.  

This might all seem a little bit crazy, and I'll never agree that it's efficient, but when you think about it, it's all a big checks and balances system. If four people are handling pieces of the process, it's a lot harder for one person to take a payoff and speed up the process for certain friends or crooked businesspeople. It ensures everyone is equal.

Plus, it helps lower Panama's unemployment rate. Panama is great at making sure its people have jobs. I'm not kidding. I counted 14 employees at the Burger King in Costa del Este. And only 3 customers at the time. This is great for the employees and makes the job a lot easier for them. Now, 14 might be overkill, but I can tell you when I was a teenager, and only 2 of us were on shift to man the front counter and the drive thru window at the ice cream joint where I worked, I would've loved to see 12 coworkers respond for backup. 

Bonus #11.   Your DVD player might not work

If you haven't already switched to streaming all of your movies on Netflix or any other online venue, you might still have a DVD player. I do. 

When I moved to Panama, I had a container shipped with all of my belongings, from Columbus, Ohio, to Panama. There was no way I was leaving my 500+ DVD collection behind. Since it took awhile for my stuff to arrive, and I wanted a second DVD player anyways, I bought one here too.

If you don't already know, DVDs sold in the U.S. have a region 1 code built into them. Canada falls under region 1 as well. Panama is region 4. I didn't know all this when moving here. What does that mean to you?

If you have a DVD player that's purchased, for example, in the U.S., it's going to play region 1 DVDs, but unless it's a multi-region player (many are nowadays) it won't play discs from any other region. 

So, when I bought my DVD player in Panama, it was a region 4 player and it wouldn't play any of the discs I brought with me from the States. I figured out what the problem was and took the player back to the store. I asked for a multi-region player. The attendant assured me the next one I bought was multi-region. It said it was on the box. Still, it would only play the movies I'd purchased in Panama, not the ones I brought from the U.S.

I took the player back to the store again, and was sent to some little room where they could test it. I brought a region 1 disc with me, and the guy was unable to get it to play. Then, I saw him play around with it a little bit, he punched a code into the remote control, and bam, it started playing my region 1 disc. I went home, happy to be able to finish my season of Friday Night Lights.

Everything was fine for awhile, until my container arrived and I set up my surround sound DVD system from the U.S. It wouldn't play my Panamanian DVDs. Same issue as before, but the other way around. I remembered the guy putting a code into the remote control at the store, so I started doing a little bit of digging around online. I found that almost all players can be unlocked so that they play discs from any region. It's a very easy process.

You really just have to go to Google and type in "How to unlock my Panasonic 57R43." Of course you'll need to substitute what I typed with the make and model of your player. I used the following site, just now, to find the code for my Philips DVP5990 player.

You'll see on that page, if the link works, that the step by step instructions for unlocking my player, in other words making it region free, are as follows:

Press the Setup button
Select the Preference Tab
Press 1,3,8,9,3,1
Press up/down key to select "0"
And hit menu to exit. 

Sometimes you'll have to open and close your disc tray and power off the player for a certain amount of time. Different players have different instructions. Hopefully this will help you be able to once again use the DVD player you paid good money for. I think this works for Blu-Ray players too. I tried with a PS3 and couldn't figure it out. 

I typed in Philips and the model number you see here 
(all except the /37 at the end)

Well, guys, I hope you didn't find my post too negative. That truly wasn't my intention. I just wanted to clear the air and be honest about some of the things I've seen and heard lately online and on the social media sites. Panama is not a perfect place. No place is. But I love this place and hope you will too. 

If you haven't already, check out our new website at It has a ton of info. Enter your email address into the field below the red suitcase (in the top right corner of the page) to start receiving our bi-weekly newsletter.

And check our Facebook page at:

And our Youtube channel at:

Thanks for reading,


Monday, January 20, 2014

Monday Q and A - Dealing with diabetes in Panama, affordable rent, home security, life in Pedasi, and much more...

Hi everybody,

Good Monday morning. I’ve gathered enough questions to do a Monday Q and A today. I hope everyone had the chance to see the Isla Taboga written report and video at Panama For Real. If not, just click here on the words “report” or “video” to be taken to them. I had a lot of fun on the island and will definitely be going back with the kids soon.

We’ve got some interesting questions this time around, so let’s get started. 

Bill (via email) wrote: 

"Hi Chris. I see you're starting to deal with diabetes. I have been insulin dependent for almost 40 years and I need to find out what out of pocket costs for insulin pens or vials and syringes might be in Panama. My health is great but acquiring an individual insurance policy is not likely as I have this "pre-existing" condition. Anyway, it sounds like you're type 2 (or pre-type 2) but I thought you might be able to give me some direction or a contact to talk to. 

"Also, any idea what the cost of blood glucose monitoring test strips cost in Panama? We are likely to retire outside of Panama City (we really like Pedasi) and want to verify I would have access to diabetic suppliers outside of the city."

I replied:

"Just got back from the supermarket. I stopped by the pharmacy, had a chat with the pharmacist, and got a little bit of info for you. Hopefully this helps. 

"The insulin costs $20.39, that's for 100UI, 10ml (does that make sense?). Syringes are $.15 each. Test strips depend on which machine you're using. The pharmacist showed me 3 brands and they varied in price from $32-$37 for a box of 50 strips. This is at the Rey supermarket pharmacy, which is also run by Farmacia Metro. You can probably find better prices at the smaller pharmacies. 

A pharmacy in Pedasi

"To address your other concern, I love Pedasi. It's one of my favorite places in Panama, but it is small town life. A new hospital is on its way to Pedasi and you'll even find a Centro de Salud clinic  and a pharmacy there. Still, if you weren't able to purchase what you need in Pedasi, you could probably pick it up in Las Tablas, which is about a 30-minute drive. I know Las Tablas has a lot of little pharmacies. Worst case, you might have to travel another 30 minutes to Chitre, which is the biggest town in the area (has a full size mall, several large supermarkets, etc.)."

UPDATE, after posting this, one of our Facebook friends and readers, David G., made the following comment, which I think is important to know: 

"Christopher, I just thought I'd let you know that the market for glucometers is pretty limited. Most people will be better off purchasing another glucometer in Panama where you can be sure to get the testing strips. Otherwise, you have to order it online and it can be a pain in the ass."

So, make sure you pick up a back up meter if you're planning to move outside of Panama City, just in case it takes awhile to get a replacement. Thanks David! 

Lord (via comments on PFR site) wrote: 

"Hello, I love your site, videos, and attention to detail you place on both. It has been very informative. My wife and I are planning to move to Panama and we are visiting in April to get an idea of where we would like to move. We are looking in Chiriqui and the suburbs of Panama City. We are on a really tight budget though, $500 per month for a rental. Can you give us some suggestions for areas to move?"

I replied:

"Hey Lord, thanks so much for checking out the site. Great question. To be honest, it would be hard to find something in the city or very near the city for $500 or less per month. It's possible, but you probably wouldn't want to live in those areas. The closest you'll get to Panama City is probably Arraijan. If you search there, just be careful as I've heard there are some really nice areas and some not-so-great (meaning not-so-safe) ones. I've met quite a few people living out there though, and they seem to like it. Maybe some of our readers living in that area can write in, in the comments below, and let us know what you think. 

According to, at the time of writing this, 
this 2-bedroom home in Penonomé was going for $500 per month

"Here's a link to some homes I found for under $500 there: Remember, website info changes constantly, so the info on that page might change by the time you get there. If so, just change the search info in the left sidebar back to $500 or less and search again. Also remember that it's hard to find deals online. You really need to get out on the road, find a place you're interested in, then really dig in and see what you can find by word of mouth. 

According to, at the time of writing this,
this 2-bedroom home in David was going for $300 per month

"David is the second largest city in Panama and I often see rentals in that area that would fall within your budget. Kris at is an excellent source for all things in that area. I even pick her brain sometimes about living in David. My sister-in-law lives there. I like it, but they say it's hotter than Panama City (and PC is hot). I'm sure you'd find homes in the smaller towns along the Pan-American Highway as well. If you spend some time in towns like Penonomé, Chitre, Las Tablas, Anton (not El Valle de Anton), probably Rio Hato...most small towns will have what you're looking for, but it's hard to find anything online in those towns. It's all about word of mouth or maybe even searching the post-it boards at the supermarkets. 

"Plus, you really need to find a place you're comfortable with. You'll see. When you find your place, you'll just know. Hope this helps."

Nevla (via comments on the PRF site) wrote: 

"Happy New Year, Chris! Enjoying your well-written articles. The Taboga report brought images and memories of visits with family when i was a child. Tell me, what do you know about Panama Pacifico? It's purported to be a new city clost to Panama City. I'm being told it's a great place to live."

I replied: 

"Hi Nevla, thanks for the kind words about our site. I'm glad you liked the Taboga report. I honestly don't know a whole lot about Panama Pacifico. It's built on the old Howard Air Base, on the other side of the Bridge of the Americas. 

Had a great time on Isla Taboga, only an hour ferry ride from Panama City

"I know that a lot of companies are starting to base their Panama operations there (it's home to over 160 businesses right now). The homes are supposed to be very nice and I just read on their website that they have a new, free, mall shuttle that will take residents (you'll have to have a specific Panama Pacifico resident shuttle card) from Panama Pacifico to the Multicentro Mall, Mutiplaza Mall, and Albrook Mall. That's pretty cool and would definitely make getting back and forth a lot easier. I'll definitely hit that area soon for a location report and video, but in the meantime, the Panama Pacifico website offers a lot more info:" 

Helena (via Facebook, after reading my comment that said, "Was watching a zombie movie with the kids the other day and got to thinkin' in Panama, we'd be pretty safe with the bars on our homes' windows. That is...unless a zombie was inside the house, then we'd be screwed") wrote: 

"From your travels, do all parts of Panama require bars on the doors and windows? What about Pedasi?"

I replied:

"No, a lot of places, especially in the interior, don't require that kind of security. It's common to see in Panama City though, especially in the older homes or in the neighborhoods anywhere near the lower-income areas. 

An old fashioned security system 

"It's just a security system. Kind of like when homes in other places install electronic security systems. It's an affordable security system.

No need for bars on the windows in Pedasi

"In regards to your question about security in Pedasi, I spoke with a couple of cops there the last time I visited (actually my wife did since the conversation took place in Spanish) and they assured us that they'd been on post for about a year, and during that year there was exactly one crime, and it was a domestic dispute. 

A home in the Costa Pedasi development

"You see homes of all income levels, shapes, and sizes in Pedasi. Some are in brand new gated communities and some are just single-family homes in the town center, but there's no need for the barred up security in Pedasi.

Live music and large pitchers of sangria at Restaurante Smiley's in Pedasi

"Most of what takes place there is probably just drunken gringos stumbling home from Smiley's on a Friday night after a couple of their gigantic pitchers of sangria."

Lisa wrote (via comments on PFR site):

"How long before your kids were fluent in Spanish? Were they in a mostly Spanish school right away? You said they changed schools, so not sure if it was a language issue."

I replied:

"Hi Lisa, thanks for writing. No, it wasn't a language issue. The first school we enrolled them in was called Instituto Cultural. They had a Spanish side of the school and an English side. My daughters attended the all-English school (all English except the Spanish class and folklore class). I really just didn't like the way the school handled things. For example, my daughter went through I think 3 teachers in one year. The teacher would show up late, the pool was always dirty, and parking was a nightmare. Other people seemed to love the school, so maybe I just had bad luck that year. 

"The second school was an all-Spanish Catholic school, where my wife was practically raised, and again, just not the greatest leadership. We had a serious bullying issue there. A 16-year-old girl was tormenting my then 8-year-old daughter and no one would do anything about it (I think her dad was someone important or something like that so they wouldn't kick her out or really do anything at all). Now, my daughters are in their 3rd school (the boys will be starting there this year), an all-Spanish school (except for their English class) and they're fine. 

"I seem to be the only person who has had serious issues with a couple of schools here, so I'm not slamming the school system or anything. Many of the schools are great. The school they're in now is fine. 

"So...that was the long way to answer your question, lol. My oldest daughter had the hardest time with the language barrier. It took her a couple of years to really grasp it (and she grew up hearing it quite often). My youngest daughter started kindergarten here (in English), but just soaked up the Spanish like a sponge when we switched schools. Then again, learning the colors and putting puzzles together from the beginning in Spanish is probably easier than being thrust into multiplication, science, and other difficult subjects in a totally different language. 

"If you're able to afford to put your kids into one of the good English based schools, I'd advise you to do that. My daughters understood quite a bit of Spanish when they got here from hearing my wife and their grandmother speak Spanish to them. It's important for your kids to learn Spanish when living here, of course, but even most English programs will have Spanish classes, plus they'll be surrounded by Spanish speakers in everyday life so they'll learn. Hope I've answered your question. Thanks again for getting involved with the site!"

Darryl wrote (via comments on the PFR site, he's referring to the cost of living article here):

"Two quick things (thanks for the article by the way). Your ability or inability to speak Spanish can impact your budget a bit. For instance, my Spanish is poor and I live in La Boca and I can spend between $150 to $200 per month on taxis.

"Also, as for entertainment, you mentioned Zona Viva (which I believe has a different name now). that place actually might be the best deal in the city. I was getting $0.50 beers and $1 rums. Not the safest place around though."

I replied:

"Great point about the taxis. I won't even get into taxi until I've asked the cost for where I'm going. If I don't like what they say, I laugh and tell 'em to get bent. Usually after a couple of taxis I'll find a driver who isn't trying to rip me off.

"I was with my daughters once and wanted to get from Multiplaza Mall to Multicentro, which is almost right across the street. I could easily walk it, but I had my daughters with me, so I figured we'd take a cab. The first driver told me $5, and I not-so-politely told him to take a hike. The next driver did it for I think $2, which was still kind of a rip off.

"Later, when leaving Multicentro, I flagged down a cab, and the first one that pulled up had an honest driver. I asked how much to get from the mall to my house in Chanis, and I was shocked. He actually pulled out a chart, checked it, and told me $3. In the end, I gave the guy $5. So he got a $2 tip just for being honest. 

Zona de la Rumba on the Amador Causeway

"By the way, you're right about Zona Viva. It's actually called Zona de la Rumba now. And with the big convention center on its way, right there behind it, I wonder if it will disappear altogether. 

What they're building right behind Zona de la Rumba

"At least at Zona Rumba you can usually get in to the clubs without paying a cover charge. Calle Uruguay is getting ridiculous. Some of those clubs charge like a $10 cover. I refuse to pay just to go into a bar or club. Thanks for getting involved with the site, Darryl."

Iam Seniornerd (via Facebook) wrote: 

"Hey Chris. I think you're doing a fabulous job of getting information out to us who may be thinking of long-term visits to Panama. I really like the up-to-date'ness of what you're doing. Question: Do you plan to put out something on Expat communities? Thanks in advance." 

I replied:

"Hey Iam Seniornerd (I'm sure that's not your real name, lol). I'll eventually put something together about expat communities, once I've visited enough towns. I'll put together some sort of report I'm sure. At the moment, I wouldn't be able to, as I don't have footage of many of the towns with a high concentration of expats. 

"So, as I keep hitting the towns, I'll be sure to mention which ones have a large expat community, and then once I've visited them all, I can put together a good video/report. I mention expat communities a lot in my blog and when answering peoples' questions. 

"Off the top of my head, the main expat hotspots right now are Boquete (in the mountains of Chiriqui), Coronado (on the beach), Pedasi (also on the beach, but with a good mix of foreigners), El Valle de Anton, David...and of course quite a few live in Panama City (mostly in El Cangrejo/El Carmen/Obarrio area, Punta Pacifico, Costa del Este, Marbella, Casco Viejo, and San Francisco. If anyone else wants to add to this, please do in the comments below." 

Karen wrote: 

"Here's a question for the 'Stay At Home Gringo.' If someone were visiting Panama and wanted to have a cell phone for calling and texting the U.S., what's the best way to do that? I know you can have your phone unlocked and purchase some kind of no-contract plan. What would that type of cost be vs. purchasing (or renting) a cell phone when they got there?"

I replied:

"It's pretty easy. You just bring your phone with you, take it to one of the little cell phone stores (the generic ones not the actual cell phone service providers) and get your phone unlocked. I got my daughter's Samsung Galaxy unlocked and I paid about $30. They had to keep the phone overnight though. The cost and maintenance time depends on the type of phone and how busy the technician is. 

"That's the easy way to do it. Then you just buy a chip from one of the major cell providers, which can oftentimes be bought at the same store where you got your phone unlocked, and buy prepaid minutes. I buy the $5 cards. 

"I'm not sure how this would work if you're just visiting Panama and need to go back to the U.S. I'm not sure if having it unlocked would cause any problems with cell phone provider in the U.S. or Canada or wherever else. If any readers have had issues with this, please write in and let us know how it goes when you return home. It's definitely a good idea if you're planning to move to Panama anytime soon as you'll need your phone unlocked once you're here anyway." 

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

If you haven't already, check out our new website at It has a ton of info and enter your email address into the field below the red suitcase (in the top right corner of the page) to start receiving our bi-weekly newsletter. 

Thanks for reading,