By Larke Newell
For many years my husband and I had vowed that one day we would relocate to a warm tropical country to live out our retirement years in peace and tranquility. When he reached retirement age, the Canadian cost of living was soaring, and the cold winters became unbearably bothersome to us, we began to research a destination.
This being a huge step, it is necessary to do a whole lot of research. Read books and online articles, listen to the personal experiences of others who have “taken the plunge”, and weigh the pros and cons of several options. Then when you have narrowed it down, it is imperative to visit the country you have tentatively chosen.
Panama was the choice we made. It is not excessively far to travel back to Canada, the climate is warm year round, it has the very best pension program in the world, the lifestyle is laid back, and the people seem to be perpetually happy.
It is best to research many different areas within your chosen destination. Panama is a relatively small isthmus but has very diverse terrain and climate. At the higher elevations it is quite spring-like and would be suitable for those who dislike intense heat. This is the area where most of the coffee plantations are located, as well as huge market gardens and orange groves.
Heat lovers can choose between beach living or going a bit further inland to the agricultural areas. Cattle, pigs, and chickens are raised here as well as rice, bananas, pineapples, and grain crops. Panamanians also have some of the most beautiful horses in the world and love them almost as much as they do their children!
Those who prefer a faster paced, more urban lifestyle would love Panama City. Skyscrapers, plenty of shopping, and exuberant nightlife are similar to any other city in the world.
We were favorably impressed with virtually every aspect of the Panamanian way of life. The people are extremely friendly and accommodating, the cost of living is comparable to that of Canada during the sixties, albeit more in Panama City, the government is stable and democratic, they use the US dollar as well as having their own coins called Balboas, their medical care and facilities are second to none and very inexpensive. Add to this the stunning scenery and wildlife and the delicious, inexpensive fresh food and there is almost no down side to living here.
English is not spoken here as much as in some other Spanish speaking countries but they are attempting very aggressively to remedy that. It is highly recommended that you at least learn the rudimentary basics of their language before making the final move as it will make so many things easier. Obtaining insurance, hooking up utilities and television, and virtually every aspect of daily living is made much more difficult with a language barrier. There are online language learning courses available as well as books and college courses. After arriving in Panama there are many schools offering more advanced Spanish courses.
Time to take the big plunge. Shipping household goods, vehicles, and other personal property to Panama is relatively expensive and there is quite extensive red tape involved. I would suggest that you keep only your most precious possessions and sell the rest. You can purchase everything you need in Panama, whether it be furniture, vehicles, bedding, lawn mowers, tools, or other necessities.
Passports must be up to date and need to be valid for at least six months after your arrival. Immunizations required are tetanus, hepatitis A, and typhoid.
Upon arriving in Panama you will be on a tourist visa until obtaining your permanent residence. One small idiosyncrasy of their system: although you can stay in their country as a tourist for six months you can only drive without a Panamanian drivers’ license for three months. They are quite strict with this rule and, if caught, you can face a fine as well as having your vehicle impounded. Therefore it is necessary to leave the country for seventy-two hours and return with a new passport stamp in order to drive for your next three months. This is an opportunity to visit neighbouring Costa Rica or Columbia.
Obtaining permanent residency can be accomplished in several different ways, none of which is that difficult. It is strongly recommended, however, that everyone retains a reputable lawyer who is well versed in these procedures.
One way of obtaining this status is simply to prove that you have regular monthly retirement income from your country of origin. They require either $1000 per month for a single person or $1500 per couple.
Several years ago the Pencionado Program was introduced in Panama in order to encourage immigration to their country. The above monthly income is the only requirement necessary to be eligible for this exceptional program. They do not even require you to be of retirement age. With the pencionado everyone can take advantage of from ten percent to fifty percent discounts on insurance premiums, pharmaceuticals, domestic flights, hotel rooms, restaurant meals, and much more.
Although we purchased a home in a small Panamanian community and have never once regretted that decision it is wise to rent a home initially until you decide for sure that you wish to remain in that particular area or even that country.
There are several ex-pat communities throughout Panama which enable newbies to ease into living in a foreign country, while making new English-speaking friends. We, however, opted to immerse ourselves in the Panamanian culture. Our neighbours have all welcomed us enthusiastically and keep an eye on our property while we are away. They are amazingly accommodating and helpful in every way and even have patience with our fumbling “Spanglish” way of communicating. They find it very amusing but in a kind way.
Recreational activities abound in our area. Stunning beaches within a half hours drive, local rodeos, golf, baseball and soccer games to attend, a garden club, a theatre group, bird watching, a monkey rescue centre, to name only a few. Wildlife and brightly hued birds are plentiful and hours can be spent relaxing on your terrace observing the iguanas strolling by.
Internet service is excellent. Most people use cell phones as the land lines are not completely reliable. Roads and highways have recently been completely updated and are excellent. Housing prices are low, especially in more rural areas, property taxes are almost non-existent, thanks to a twenty year exemption that was entered into law several years ago.
Food is relatively inexpensive, especially if you utilize the many fresh fruit and vegetable markets that are everywhere.
One thing to take into consideration when deciding to relocate to another country is the cost of travel between the two destinations. We are discovering that it is getting more and more expensive to return to Canada each year. Therefore this must be factored in to the new cost of living.
All in all, Panama is a wonderful retirement destination. Life here is rewarding, peaceful, and enriching. We have not regretted our decision for a minute.