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Life’s not all a bed of roses here in Boquete. I thought today that I’d share some reasons not to live in Panama.
So far, living here has been a wonderful experience for me and my family. It definitely was an adjustment (and still is occasionally), but just being a part of a life that’s so different than we’re accustomed to is both interesting and amazing.
A couple of weeks ago, I talked about The 7 Reasons I Love Living in Panama as an Expat. Between the perfect temperature (at least for me!) in Boquete where we’re living, the mountain scenery, the cost of living, and more, we’ve been very happy.
But there’s no perfect place and I thought I’d give it a go in sharing some of the downsides of living here as well. Some of this focuses specifically on the city of Boquete where we live and some on the country as a whole.
I’m gonna be honest (why do people say that?!), it was a much harder mission to come up with reasons not to live in Panama. Not that there aren’t legitimate reasons, but the list might seem kind of petty.
And that’s really the point. Except for one major one, life here is pretty awesome.
As a side note, you might think that I’d have the mañana attitude listed here. That’s when things are more lackadaisical overall. Maybe you have someone coming to do some work on your house and he/she tells you they’ll be back mañana.
Oh, tomorrow? That’s not so bad. Nope, that might mean a few days, a week, or whatever.
That also sometimes applies to the idea of slow service in general.
But, believe it or not, we really haven’t experienced that (yet!) so I didn’t feel like that should make my list of reasons not to live in Panama.
Instead, I wanted to focus on the things that have made our new home a little tougher for us personally living here.
1) Leaving family and friends – the biggest of the reasons not to live in Panama
I’m starting with the most obvious of the reasons not to live in Panama. When you move to another country, you’re going to be leaving all the bonds that you’ve had in place for a long time, possibly many decades. That’s hard to do!
This is the hardest one for us. It’s also probably the only thing that could get us to move back at some point down the line.
Sure, we’ll develop new friendships over time, but it takes time and you start from scratch on new memories. That’s tough… really tough.
In the meantime, we’ll continue to drink as much beer with other folks as we can in the effort to cultivate these new relationships. Sheesh, the things we do for friendships!
And, it goes without saying that you only have one family. Leaving the people you’ve known since you were born is a strange feeling in and of itself.
The good news is that technology makes this world a little smaller. Between Google Hangouts and Google Voice, we’re able to keep in touch with everyone regularly. And visiting at least a couple of times a year helps ease the burden a little, too.
Just remember though, this isn’t something that affects only expats. Moving to another state or even just a city that’s far enough out can slowly erode the closeness you have with your loved ones.
So we can’t really blame Panama specifically for that, but either way, for us, it’s absolutely the hardest part of being here.
2) ¿Habla usted Inglés?
This should be obvious, but if you don’t speak Spanish here, life can be a little frustrating.
Although most expats speak English and you’ll find some Panamanians who are bilingual, it’ll seem few and far between when you’re out shopping or at a restaurant.
And guess what – that’s the way it should be. Yes, it makes life easier when you bump into a taxi driver or waitress who speaks English, but that’s not their problem – it’s yours.
Spanish is the official language here and as such, you should learn it if you want a better experience here.
That said, we’re still learning. I took two or three semesters of Spanish back in high school (it’s been so long I can’t even remember how many I took!). And I’ve been studying every day for almost the past year using three different apps. I haven’t missed a day yet!
Lisa and Faith have been practicing with a couple of the apps as well and starting last week, they now go to a tutor every week. It’ll be a race to see how long before they’re more fluent than I am (of which I’m far from!).
So in the meantime, that language barrier can sometimes be tough. A lot of the foods at the grocery stores are written only in Spanish so it takes some time with Google Translate to figure out the details.
Asking for help while shopping also requires Spanish as well. Google Translate is important for that one. The good news is that folks are so friendly and, as long as you’re giving it a shot, they’re more than willing to try to help you out.
Last week, I made a doctor’s appointment over the phone… that was interesting. I muddled my way through it based on the Spanish that I do know, but it was a struggle. Without knowing what I do know, that mission would have been a complete failure. I’ll let you know after my appointment if I did it right!
If you would be frustrated with the language barriers, this could absolutely top your reasons not to live in Panama!
3) Cash society
This isn’t too bad, but it’s tough to get used to. When you’re used to using credit cards all the time, you become a little spoiled.
Here in Boquete, you can still use credit cards at some grocery stores and some restaurants, but it’s all depends on the place. Cash is still the main way to pay for things here. And if you do get to pay with a credit card, you best be using a card with no foreign transaction fees! I have some in my list of recommended credit cards.
We purposely opened a Schwab Bank High Yield Investor Checking Account for this purpose before we got here and that’s been working well. No foreign transaction fees and they reimburse for all ATM fees worldwide. It’s debit card/Visa, but it fits the bill well here.
And then some odd things make it seem like we’ve gone back a few decades. For instance, we’ll more than likely have to go to the grocery store to pay our electric bill in cash every month once we get it.
The cash society hurts in a couple of ways:
1) We need to remember to always have cash on us. That also means we need to remember to go and get money from the ATM.
Right now, we don’t have a Panamanian bank account either. That means we also need to make multiple visits to the ATM just to get enough money to pay our rent. The daily max withdrawal seems to be $500 at all the ATMs we’ve been to.
UPDATE: My friend, Jason, who lives in David, Panama gave me some new information. I talked to Schwab and we have a max of $1,000 per day set… per card. In other words, we could do two $500 transactions for my card and then the same for my wife’s if we wanted for a total of $2,000. The fee is usually about $5.25 for each transaction, but Schwab reimburses for this.
It would probably be a rare occurrence that I would pull that much money out because I don’t want to walk around carrying a lot of cash. Regardless, it’s nice to know we have that option if we need it! Thanks, Jason!
Here’s my pile of cash ready to go for rent this month…
Oh, did I forget to mention that they like to deal with 20 dollar bills or lower? After I went to the ATM, I went into the bank to “color up” and they only had one 1 hundred dollar bill there. That’s like McDonald’s not keeping beef in on-hand figuring that they have plenty of chicken people could eat instead.
2) It’s harder to keep track of where your money’s going when you can’t tie it all into a free service like Empower (formerly Personal Capital).
That was exactly the service I was using (and still am) and it threw me off quite a bit trying to get a handle on my expenses. It took me a little bit of adjusting, but I added in Mint for our day-to-day transactions and now use Empower (formerly Personal Capital) just to keep track of our investments.
Toss in my awesome recurring expenses spreadsheet to look at periodically and life is good again!
3) Your credit cards could be closed for lack of activity. That hurts your credit score because it brings down your total available credit line, which moves up your total credit utilization (a big part of your score).
We’ve just been rotating our cards for online purchases we’re making (like Amazon, NordVPN, etc.). Additionally, when we head back to the U.S. next month for a visit, we’ll be sure to rotate through all our cards to get some activity on them.
So is a cash society justifiable as one of the reasons not to live in Panama? It depends on if you’re fine with ATM runs or bank visits regularly and a little bit of extra work managing your finances and credit cards.
4) It rains… a lot
It normally rains a couple of hours late in the day or early in the evening and that’s about the extent of it… almost a scheduled rain to a point. And when it rains, it pours!
You adjust life accordingly. You ensure your shopping and other chores are done in the morning or early afternoon and know that it’s going to rain shortly thereafter… no big deal.
But we’re now coming up on the peak of the rainy season. And that means it rains a lot more… like a lot more. We never, ever leave the apartment without our umbrellas because you just never know.
And you can’t rely on weather apps here because of all the microclimates, so you just walk around prepared. That’s especially true for us because we don’t have a car here. Sometimes we take a cab back, but usually, we’re hoofing it because we like being outside.
After a while though, you’re sitting at home in the morning just rolling your eyes because it’s raining again. It’s depressing when you want to be outside enjoying how wonderful it is here. If you’re looking for reasons not to live in Panama, this might be high on your list.
Then again, it’s only about a month or two of these heavy rains before it’s back to normal. And we’re coming from Cleveland – an area where it seemed like it snowed for 11 months out of the year (it didn’t)! I’ll take a little water from the skies over that any day!
5) With rain, comes high humidity!
In my opinion, high humidity really only makes a difference when there’s high heat (feel free to argue that in the comments below). When your temperature is 75 degrees Fahrenheit almost daily and there’s usually a good amount of cloud cover, humidity ain’t nuthin’!
Ok, maybe it doesn’t bother me, but it might be one of your reasons not to live in Panama.
But really, it isn’t being out in the humidity that affects me… rather, it’s how the humidity can affect my stuff.
Boquete has what I consider the best temperature (as noted in my The 7 Reasons I Love Living in Panama as an Expat post). No heat or no A/C needed.
However, that also means no forced air throughout. And with high humidity, that’s a problem.
Though we keep the ceiling fans running almost all the time, life’s not perfect. One of the problems we noticed when we visited in 2017 was still prevalent when we moved here in August… damp sheets.
Ok, “damp” isn’t the right word because it’s less than that. I just can’t figure out the right word to use… “moist”? But it’s not even that – you can’t feel any moisture in them, but can just tell they’re not completely dry. Clammy?
Who knows… does that even make sense?
It’s sometimes a strange feeling pulling the sheets up, but it’s not like you’re going to get wet from them.
Anyway, we should have a dehumidifier by the time you read this. And if that isn’t enough, we’ll look at DampRid to help mitigate it – though I think the dehumidifier will suffice.
Regardless, I’m told that the humidity will shorten the life of electronics here quite a bit. Unfortunately, that isn’t something that we’ll probably actually see happening, but it’s important to be aware that my Home Theater PC I built probably isn’t going to last 9 years like it did in the States.
Here’s something you might not have known… every place in the world gets roughly the same amount of daylight over a given year. They each receive the sunlight differently, however.
For instance, we had more daylight living in Ohio during the summer, but the days were much shorter in the winter.
Then there are places like parts of Alaska or closer to the poles where there’s 24 hours of daylight for parts of the year and 0 hours during other parts.
Overall, though, they add up to about the same amount of daylight over a given year (give or take).
What’s interesting is that here in Panama (close to the equator), the daylight is pretty consistent throughout the year. There’s no Daylight Savings Time and the sun rises every day around 6:00-6:30 am and sets around 6:00-6:30 pm.
So we’ll be enjoying longer days than we’re used to in what we’d normally know as the winter months. And we’ll have shorter days than we’re accustomed to in the summer months.
Ok, that’s fair. But the adjustment for us is actually that the sun is setting so early every day while it’s nice out (almost all the time here!). If you want to make the most of the day, the ideal move is to wake up earlier and go to bed earlier.
Easier said than done especially because I’m more of a night owl. But that’s the reality of it and we’re slowly trying to adjust our sleep accordingly.
8) Alone time for Mom and Dad
Ok, this isn’t going to apply to everyone. But a tough hurdle we have is that we’re in a foreign country with our 9-year-old daughter.
While we love it here in Boquete, it’s not a place filled with young kids (expat-wise). And just like any new place, it takes time to make new friends. But in a city where the scales are tilted to an older crowd, it makes it even more difficult.
That means “play dates” (I hate that phrase) or even sleepovers are much harder to come by.
We’re all starting to make some friends, but it’s slow going. And we’re Ok with that – we love our time together! And somehow we’ve managed not to kill each other spending every waking minute together since we moved here.
But while we’re slowly making friends, it means we’re joined at the hip. That also means no alone time for Lisa and I. I’m not talking about hanky-panky – I’m talking about being able to sit together, relax, have a beer, and watch a movie that’s not rated PG.
I’m sure eventually that’ll change. We’ll make friends and take turns watching each other’s kids. We’ll feel comfortable enough to get a babysitter while we go out to dinner ourselves for a night. Or maybe we’ll be confident enough to leave Faith at the apartment while we walk over to the Cantina in our community for a beer (or seven!).
Really, this would apply to any foreign place, but since it’s where we’re at in life, it’s worth sharing for those with kids. If you’re a parent, it’s possible that something like this could make your own list of reasons not to live in Panama (or any foreign country).
9) Not all the same standards or rules
Some rules are stricter here while some are looser or non-existent. I mentioned that Faith is easily able to help with volunteer work here because nobody cares about her age.
On the other side of things, when we first visited in 2017, we learned that car seats aren’t really much of a thing here. In fact, it took us a lot of searching over a few days just to find a place that sold any at all.
While not thrilled with the idea, it is what it is. But then we’ve also been in taxis with no seatbelts in the backseat… what the what?!
I’m told that the building code for electrical is more stringent here in Panama than in the U.S. That surprised me for sure!
How about this one? Drinking and driving here just isn’t tolerated. The legal blood alcohol level for drivers is 0.0% (yup, zero!) with some stiff penalties for failing a breathalyzer – fines, your car being impounded, and/or jail time. This is another good reason I’m happy we don’t have a car here.
Maybe some of the rules or standards will drive you nuts or maybe they won’t. Overall, it’s just different and it takes some time to learn and adjust.
10) The itsy bitsy spider…
People tend to think that this place is crawling with bugs everywhere. It’s one of the most common things people back in the States ask us about.
It’s also not something that’s been too noticeable to us. Yes, there are bugs here, but here in Boquete where it’s cooler, there doesn’t seem to be that many. I’d actually go so far as to say there are fewer bugs around than we had in Cleveland.
That said, the bugs aren’t all the same so we’re always intrigued checking them out. Here’s a snippet showing off leafcutter ants we recorded on a hike recently for Faith’s YouTube channel…
I’m going to push my luck and say there are more than the 200 there that Faith is saying, but you get the picture. If you want to see more videos on our adventure here, check out her YouTube channel, Fun with Faith. And if you really want to make her day, consider clicking the “Subscribe” button on the top right of that page.
The insects here don’t seem to “bug” us that much (see what I did there?!). But it does seem like one of us always has at least one bug or spider bite on us. I couldn’t tell you where they come from, but considering we spend most of our days outside walking around or hiking on the trails periodically, it doesn’t surprise me.
We had thought that they were coming from some creepy crawlies climbing into bed with us. The more I think about it though, I do think it’s from while we’re outside because other than some occasional ants, it’s rare that we see anything inside.
Does that bug you (see, I did it again!)? If so, that could be one of the reasons not to live in Panama.
You might have noticed that the list of reasons I love living here is longer than this list of reasons not to live in Panama. But really, this list seems like a stretch on just some minor nuisances more than anything. Seriously, I feel like I was reaching trying to build a good list of items.
UPDATE: An astute reader pointed out that I don’t even have 10 reasons here. There’s no #7!!! So really, I could only come up with nine reasons not to live here (so far!).
Maybe these reasons not to live in Panama have deterred you, but they definitely wouldn’t have swayed me.
It’s got its challenges for sure and I’m sure deciding not to get a car for now and homeschooling our kid doesn’t make it any easier. But, with the exception of leaving friends and family, if you’re comfortable with a simpler lifestyle and a few adjustments in life, Boquete Panama is such a wonderful place to live!
If Panama’s on your radar as a possible place to retire to, check out Retire in Panama Tours. It’s a first-rate way to see different parts of the country, learn about the pros and the cons of living here, meet other ex-pats living here, and gain a lot of the right resources to make the transition easier (immigration attorneys, for example).
Oscar, Rod, and Megan are great people, too. They have the knowledge to guide you through Panama, answer your questions, and ensure that Panama’s the right place for you. Check out Retire in Panama Tours for more info!
I can’t promise a perfect life and I don’t want to build it up too much, but I do love living here in Boquete, Panama!
Do my reasons not to live in Panama bring down any enthusiasm about living as an expat here?
Thanks for reading!!