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Monday, March 10, 2014

Monday Q and A - Defending Panama, safe places to live, buying a used car, and much more

Hi friends!

Well, I asked (via Facebook) after my last Q and A, if people found these useful and it seems that most people do, so I'll keep doing them, but maybe just spread them out a bit, so not every Monday. Whenever I round up a decent selection of questions and answers, I'll put a new post together. 

So here's what I've gathered over the past month. The first one is a doozy and actually got me a little bit fired up:

Paul (via email) wrote: 

"I was seriously considering retiring in Panama in less than two years (from Tulsa), but after reading several pages at the following link ...

".... about the severe trash and sewage problem, high crime problem, the high number of Americans who moved there then return home after several years, etc, etc, I'm wondering why anyone in their right state of mind would ever want to live or visit Panama.

"I am very disheartened and do not know where the best place to retire would be.

"If you would read the first two pages at the above link and give me your opinion, I would greatly appreciate it very much!!!"

I replied: 

"Hi Paul, a fellow Okie! That's awesome. Hey, I can definitely see why you'd be concerned after reading the post at that link. So, I'll do my best to address the issues in that article. Remember, this is Panama For Real, so I have to keep it real. 

"First, it's important to realize that post, which basically bashes the hell out of this country, was written in 2009. That's 5 years ago, and things are constantly changing seriously, constantly, lol. 

Panama looks pretty to me

"Okay, so let me address what's in the article, by number, the way the original poster did.

"1. The poster wrote that you'll find a lot of Americans in Panama, but not the kind you'd want to associate with.

"Is it just me or is that a pretty shitty attitude to have? I don't want to bash anyone, but come on, that's really negative. I've met quite a few Americans here and only a few I'd really try to avoid. Ouch, 'They couldn't afford to retire in a real place, so they came here.' 

"What would be considered a real place? Rome? And what does he mean can't afford a real place (as I blow the dust out of my empty wallet, maybe he has a point). 

"Will you find unpleasant Americans in Panama? Sure. But will you find much much more in America? Ha, damn right you will. So, to that, I say you'd need to visit Panama, scope out an area you're truly considering, and see if you like the in-crowd.

"2. Again, wow. Okay, yes, this is a dollar-based economy (the poster wrote about Panama falling apart if the U.S. dollar tanks). But that's kind of what makes it cool (at least in my book). I don't have to worry about an exchange rate or try to figure out how much 300,000 pesos is when all I want to buy is a loaf of bread. 

Use U.S. and Panamanian money interchangeably

"And as far as this country not being able to feed itself? I constantly write about the farmer markets. I was in Penonomé, a small town in the interior, a few months ago, and I went to their Saturday market. It was full of people and had so much affordable produce on offer that I was like a giddy little child. I bought a bunch of stuff for only $6.

The only problem I've had getting food is 
trying to get this damned mango out of the tree

"A few weeks ago I was in Cerro Punta, an awesome, cool-weather mountain town and bought a gigantic bag of vegetables for $6. This thing could have fed a retired couple for at least a week. And at most of these markets, huge bags of rice are sold for very cheap. 

Here's that big $6 bag of veggies from Cerro Punta

"Panama City has an awesome seafood market, plus a big drive-through fruit and vegetable market...I could go on and on with this one. Panama can easily feed itself. 

"3. Yes, Immigration is a pain in the ass. It is almost everywhere. But, you can definitely get a visa here in Panama, and nowadays it's easier than ever. However, you need to be able to afford it. You're best off getting a good lawyer who knows the system. Will this cost you? Of course. But I paid A LOT of money trying to put my wife through the U.S. Immigration system in Alaska, then in Chicago, then in South Florida. Immigration issues are not unique to Panama. 

"4. Violent crime. Does it exist in Panama? Yes. Are we targets? Yes, we can be. But the one sentence that bothers me is when he wrote, 'No matter how bad you think it is where you live in the USA, I assure you it's worse here.' Come on. Seriously? Ok, if you live in small town Kentucky, sure, you probably know everyone and things are good. But again, I've lived in Chicago and I've lived near Miami. I've lived in some seriously shady areas of South Florida. These were areas where I was afraid to go out at night. I'm not afraid in Panama. 

A gated community in Condado del Rey (part of Panama City)

"I've said it many times before. If you don't go into the areas known as red zones. And if you don't flash around your diamond encrusted Rolex while playing Candy Crush on your brand new iPhone while strutting down the Panama City streets while you occasionally make it very obvious you're checking out someone else's wife or girlfriend, you should be fine. 

"There is crime here and gringos can fall victim to it. But like anyplace else, it happens, but it's less likely to happen if you use common sense and don't go wandering into unknown places. Just ask around and people will tell you where to go and where to stay away from.

"5. The poster started this one off with, 'This is a filthy country.' Again, this was written in 2009. I've addressed the garbage issue in Panama several times. It does bug the hell out of me that people litter here. I saw, maybe two days ago, a taxi stopped at a red light. The passenger opened the door and set a whole styrofoam food container (you know the big ones with the separate compartments) on the ground, right there on the street, and closed the door. I wanted to scream! That's just ignorance.

"It bothers Panamanians as much as it bothers foreigners, maybe even more since this is their country. 

"I've written before about the areas that have become trash dumps for entire neighborhoods, mostly because the city doesn't have enough trucks or just doesn't provide service like it should to certain areas. But I promise you, the government seems to be trying to fix this. I posted a photo of an area close to my house (the photo below) that's just a filthy area because residents just toss their garbage on the ground beneath this tree. 

This is what it used to look like, but there's a dumpster there now

"Yesterday, I drove past that area, and there was a sign posted saying they were working on cleaning it up, and I noticed a new dumpster was in place. 

"I used to complain that people didn't clean up after their dogs. And for the most part, that's still true. But the good news is I've noticed signs up telling people to clean up after them. 

"I've also noticed recycling containers in a lot of the parks and in the tourist-heavy areas. 

"Just like crime, there are pockets that are just nasty, but it seems that Panama is working hard to fix this issue. Michigan Avenue, The Magnificent Mile, in Chicago is beautiful. You always see city employees outside sweeping up the garbage. But if you venture into some of the not-so-tourist-friendly areas, you'll find plenty of spray painted walls and litter on the ground. 

"6. Haha, Panamanian women USE AMERICANS is what the poster wrote here. This, unfortunately, can be true. I've seen it and have definitely heard about it. And it's not just Panamanian women, but many women from other countries residing here. 

"But again, this frustrates me because it's true everywhere. How many young, hot blondes are with old, luxury-car-driving men in LA? It kind of goes both ways too when you think about it. 

"How many American men come here, wanting a young, sexy Latina, because they're pretty sure the girl is going to be great in bed and could probably cook amazing meals? Right? 

"You just have to be careful, like anyplace else. Are there women here who will use you to get out of their situation, whatever that may be? Sure. But are there also loving, beautiful women, who just want to be with a man who will treat them with respect? Of course. I'm married to a Panamanian (and as I again blow the dust out of my wallet, I'm pretty sure I have a keeper).

"7. I'm not going to spend too much time on this one. He wrote that people hate Obama and run here to escape corrupt politicians and how Panama is no better. Politics are politics. 

The Transistmica Metro train going through a practice run

"The one thing I can say about Panama's current administration (which is almost over) is they seem to love having Americans around (they've made it easier for us to get visas and the pensionado program is awesome) and this place has been upgrading like you wouldn't believe. You should see the metro train and its elevated tracks and stations. Things are getting better here. 

"8. He mentions here how people think Panama City looks beautiful at night, but that it's basically rundown and ugly. Lol. Panama City is a major city. 

"The Cinta Costera looks amazing at night and you'll see swarms of people out there rollerblading, jogging, riding bikes, playing's really cool. Chorrillo doesn't look so great at night (that's one of the areas most people try to stay away from). 

I think the Cinta Costera looks pretty darned cool at night

"South Beach in Miami looks great at night. Liberty City? Not so much. 

"Paul, I hope I was able to clear this up a little bit. Sorry I got so heated, but it just frustrates me that people move here, live here (in Bella Vista, according to the poster's profile, which is one of the nicer areas of the city) and then bash the hell out of Panama. I'm sure I could live in Paris and pick the place apart if I put that much time and effort into it. 

"Everyone is free to have an opinion. Is Panama perfect? No, it's definitely not. But it's working hard to live up to its hype. The people are lovely and if you live within your means, you'll find that this place is surprisingly affordable. 

"Everything this poster mentioned is true in most places in the U.S. and in most countries. Panama, unfortunately, is the place up for question so naturally you'll have people who love it here and people who hate it. You honestly need to make a trip here, now that you've heard both sides of the story, check out the city, check out the interior, and just like any place you consider moving to, spend time in that area during the day, see it at night, talk to people living there, and decide if it's right for you. 

"I hope this helps a little bit. Oh and I just scrolled down to see everyone else's comments on that post, and the most recent was written in January of 2010. So, again, these are old posts, some still hold true (kind of), but overall this sounds like someone who has had a very bad experience here, is very bitter, and needed to let his feelings fly from his fingertips. Keep an open mind and visit Panama." 

Kevin (via email) wrote:

"I'm planning to visit Panama with my wife and have a quick question. Will we need to book our hotel stays ahead of time or can we pick a spot when we get there? (not sure if they gouge you if your a last minute arrival) I can always send my fiancé in, she is Peruvian, vs the American Gringo, like myself."

I replied:

"Most hotels here you can book just by walking in. If you're able to, it's always a good idea to book in advance though. You never know. In El Valle, the last time I was there, I booked in advance at Rincon Tableno, which was an okay place to stay (not great, kind of pricey), but they did have the best steak I've had in a long long time (try the bistec encebollado). 

Our Las Tablas hotel came with condom instructions on our nightstand
(but hey, it is a carnaval town)

"In Las Tablas, I think we just walked into the hotel, Hotel Piamonte. It too was just okay. I'm usually on a pretty tight budget on my trips so you might be able to find something better. Our place had only a bed, TV, and warm water. It was a place to rest your head. 

"So you can do either really, book in advance or walk in...unless it's carnaval time, then you need to book like a year in advance, lol."

Keith (via email after reading the Shipping vs. buying new article) wrote:

"I noticed when we came down in 2011 the Samsung washer/dryer that we have has a cricket board and the same item that was in Panama was a dial.  Is it better to have dial verses a computer touch control?

"At least here in the states you have American Home Shield which is a company that you pay monthly in case something goes wrong in your home. For example when our refrigerator went out and it couldn't be fixed AHS paid us the retail value for it.

"Is there something like that in Panama?"

I replied:

"Hey Keith that's a great question. To be honest, most of what I've seen is the board with the dial. I'm not sure if I've ever even seen the computer control here. I've never looked specifically for that though so I could be full of it. I'll try to keep my eyes open the next time I'm in the store, but I'm sure the dial is a lot more common here, which means it'd be a heck of a lot cheaper to fix. You know how that computer stuff is. One bad board and you're talking some major change to get it fixed.

Standard dial controls in Panama

"I haven't seen anything like American Home Shield, at least not an organization that covers you like that. I'm pretty sure some of the stores offer their own similar deal (if any readers know of anything like this, please let us know in the comments below), in addition to the regular warranty. However, even without coverage, you can usually find repairmen willing to work for a lot less than what you're used to paying in the U.S

"I was buying a bunch of ceiling fans one time and the service charge for having someone come out and hook them up was like $50 each or something like that. The guy selling the fans pulled me aside and told me he'd come over after work and take care of it for like $20. Find one of the workers in a hardware/Do it Yourself kind of store, and they'll probably help you with the repair or  know someone else they can refer you to. Everyone has an Uncle Peto, lol (that's my wife's uncle who can fix just about anything). In that case, you'd probably just have to supply the parts and pay the repairman's fee."

Cindy (via email) wrote: 

"Hi, Chris. I just discovered your website today and am very impressed by the wealth of information and great thoroughness of your posts! With our Connecticut streets piled high with snow, I am starting to get serious about my plan to move to a warmer climate in about five years. I'm a writer and so don't intend to retire then and will hopefully still be doing freelance gigs. But I've had it with the cold.

"I'd like your advice on the best places for a single 50-something woman to move to in Panama, from a safety and community perspective. I have a second cousin who retired in the ex-pat community of Volcan, so I'm picking his brain as well. But I thought you'd have some valuable thoughts here.

"Thank you for any direction. Keep up the great work!"

I replied: 

"Hi Cindy, thanks so much for checking out the site and for writing. I can't imagine what it's like in Connecticut right now. In some ways I'm kind of envious. I'd gladly take the cold and snow...but can we trade for like 4-5 hours only?

"Hmm, the best places for a single, 50-something, female writer. Off the top of my head, I'd probably say Coronado. Just because I know there's a great community of expats there and it's on the beach. It's not super affordable though. It's definitely not somewhere you'd retire on a shoestring budget.

Expats hanging out at a rooftop pool in Coronado

"Volcan might be a bit cut off for you. I don't know exactly what you have in mind, but Volcan is kind of spread out, very quiet, not a big social scene. At least in Coronado the expats gather for karaoke nights and things like that in some of the restaurants in the area. It seems like there's always something going on there.

"I've heard there's a decent sized expat community in El Valle, which is another beautiful place, but in the mountains. And of course, Boquete, is probably the most expat-friendly mountain/hilltop community.

"If you're considering moving to Panama City, you'd probably want to stick with El Cangrejo or maybe San Francisco.

"Just reading through your email again, if your cousin is in Volcan and is happy there, maybe you should consider giving Boquete a try. At least that's very close to Volcan and has one of the largest expat communities in the country.

"I hope some of this helps. I might've just confused you even more, haha. You basically need to first decide what kind of lifestyle you're looking for (city, beach, mountain, farm?), then find the safest and most expat-friendly area based on that decision.


"Panama City: El Cangrejo or San Francisco.

"Beach: Coronado or maybe Pedasi (I love Pedasi, but it's a mix of expats from all over the world. A cool place, but the expat community doesn't seem quite as organized as it is in Coronado).

"Mountain: Boquete or maybe El Valle.

"If you haven't already, check out the other Panama blogs on the following page, these people live in some of these areas, so reading their posts might help you with your decision. I've visited all of these areas, but I live in Panama City, so I don't have my finger on the daily pulse if you know what I mean. Click here to go to those other blogs:  

Jerry wrote:

"Love, Love, Love the blog. It has answered many of our questions about moving to Panama -- which we plan to do in June, 2014. We will be locating in David or Boquete. Our dilemma concerns buying a used car. We had planned on arriving in David and finding a car -- but the more we think about it we are thinking about staying in PC for awhile and buying a used car there --- then driving on to David/Boquete. 

"Would you please offer an opinion? Perhaps it may be better choices and prices for a car in PC.??   Thanks again for all the help available to Expats on your site.  Jerry"

I replied:

"Hi Jerry, thanks so much for checking out my site and for writing.

"Hmm, used cars. David is the 2nd largest city in Panama, so you could definitely find a used car there. However, you will have a lot more options in Panama City. 

"Check out the following website. You can look for used cars here ahead of time. And you should be able to even switch the area of your search from Panama City to David or wherever else you're looking. This is a great site for finding real estate, cars, electronics...whatever you want. I've found jobs on it and recently bought the kids a used Playstation 3 off this site. You can also check Panama's craigslist and the Panama related facebook pages. Oftentimes, when someone is leaving Panama, they sell their car for a reasonable price."

Zach (via email) wrote: 

"We visited the city,  Boquete,  Bocas, and San Blas. All of those places were great but living wise we were drawn to the Boquete area. We love the mountains and the easy access to the coast.  

"One question: The only thing that we really have of value or I'd want to take down, other than our clothes, is my Jeep. It's brand new and seems like a great ride for that area. I have gotten mixed reviews on taking a vehicle down. Ship, drive, sell.....any advice?  You may have covered it already. Thanks Chris."

I replied: 

"Hi Zach, Yes, Boquete is great. To answer your question, I've never shipped a vehicle. I couldn't bring mine because I was still making payments on it. So, readers who've shipped a vehicle may feel differently about what I'm going to say. If so, please write in and let us know in the comments.  

"I'd say bring your Jeep if you can, just so you don't have to deal with the hassle of buying one here. People drive down all the time, but I've heard it's a rough ride. Make sure you do some research though and see if you'll be able to get parts for your Jeep here. 

"I don't know anything about Jeeps, but when I went to buy a Dodge Caravan (like we had in the U.S.), a couple of years ago, the dealer pulled me aside and kind of whispered that I should think twice about buying it because getting parts for it could be a real pain. 

"I ran into the same issue with our used Mazda 323. When the ac compressor went out, the mechanic took one look at it and basically said, 'Good luck. You won't find that compressor in Panama.' I eventually found one, but it was no easy task." 

Sheila (via Facebook) wrote: 

"We are a family of 5 moving to Panama City in July. We have three kids -- all girls ages 10, 12, and 14. Where is the best place to live with teen girls? Many thanks."

I replied:

"Hi Sheila! If you're moving to Panama City, I think the best places to live with a family are Costa del Este or Condado del Rey (if you want to live on the outskirts, kind of the suburbs of the city). If you want to live downtown or close to downtown, I'd say probably San Francisco. El Cangrejo (and nearby El Carmen), Punta Pacifica, and Punta Paitilla are great areas too. 

"I did reports and videos on Costa del Este and Condado del Rey. If you haven't already seen them, check out our website at or to go straight to the videos, check out our Youtube channel at:"

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

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