Panama Vacation - Part 1 - Nueva Gorgona and Anton ValleyWe finally made the trip I’ve been waiting for… our Panama vacation! 聽And guess what – it was awesome!

Because there’s a lot to cover, I thought I’d break this up into a couple posts. 聽This first post will cover the first half of our trip and the second post will cover the second half – easy enough, right? 聽馃檪

If you’ve been following my adventures, you know that I’ve been doing a lot of digging to determine if Panama is the perfect place for us to retire. 聽You might also know that I’ve become a lot more serious about the idea over the past year.

Well, reading’s not enough, so taking the trip was the best way to determine if it really is a good place for us.

 

Panama, here we come!!

So, let’s start with the trek down to Panama. 聽My wife, daughter, and I were flying in from Ohio and my brother and his wife from Texas. 聽Our flight had a layover in Miami, which is perfect for me. 聽I struggle with long flights (I tend to get antsy after being on a plane too long), so a three-hour flight followed by an hour or so break in Miami before getting on another three-hour flight to Panama City was perfect for me.

My brother and his wife would be landing in Panama City about an hour and 45 minutes after we do. 聽We can grab lunch, wait for them at the airport before getting the rental car, and then make our 2-hour drive to Nueva Gorgona… another perfect plan!

Until it wasn’t.

While we were in Miami, we heard from my brother and their first flight was delayed enough that they would miss their next flight. 聽In the long run, they weren’t going to get into Panama City for about 8 hours after we did – ouch.

Our daughter has always been the perfect traveler, even when she was a baby, but I think just sitting in an airport for an entire day with no agenda might be pushing my luck. 聽And as a side note, the rental car was in my brother’s name.

Time for a new plan.

Panama Vacation - Part 1 - Nueva Gorgona and Anton Valley - On the plane...
Our daughter looking out the plane window as we got over Panama City.

Before we get to that though, let’s talk about the Panama City airport. 聽When we landed, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect of an airport in this country. 聽The only other airport I had been to previously outside of the U.S. was the Bahamas over a decade ago and it wasn’t too impressive.

The Panama City airport (PTY), though, was actually pretty awesome. 聽It’s a large airport with stores of high-end brands all over the place and the whole facility was very clean. 聽If we had to be stuck at an airport, this one would be just fine… except that everyone there speaks Spanish, which I’m not fluent in.

Just to add to the fun, the car booster seat for our daughter didn’t show up. 聽Mrs. R2R took on the challenge of trying to have that conversation with American Airlines. 聽Somehow she communicated the problem and they told her it was still in Miami and they’d deliver it to us tomorrow at our place two hours away… um, Ok.

Panama Vacation - Part 1 - Nueva Gorgona and Anton Valley - Balboa!!
My first Panamanian beer… BALBOA!!!

So, we decided to eat lunch at the airport while we decided what to do. 聽I also had my first Panamanian beer… Balboa, which reminded me of a Coors Light. 聽Our daughter also was excited when I told her how to ask for a lemonade…聽Limonada por favor. 聽By the end of this trip though, I think she was sick of lemonades (even though she continued to ask for them just because she loved knowing how to say it in Spanish.

We decided to take an Uber – yes, they do have Uber in Panama (at least in Panama City). 聽On top of that, they have something called聽uberXENGLISH. 聽For a premium,聽uberXENGLISH gets you an English-speaking driver.

So, not only did we decide to take an Uber for a two-hour drive, but we also decided to upgrade to get someone who speaks English. 聽This is probably going to be pretty costly!

We did an estimate in the app…聽$89.86 – I’m liking this country already!

Before we left the airport, I got a new SIM card for my phone to get some talk, text, and data service for our whole Panama vacation. 聽I hit two different booths because the first person didn’t know what she was doing, but after the second one, we made the magic happen.

After some discussion using Google Translate on my phone, I still don’t know exactly what I got, but $40 did give me the ability to make phone calls (in Panama only), unlimited WhatsApp usage (the go-to messenger in almost every country but the U.S.) and some amount of data (1 GB?). 聽While we were at the airport, and especially during this transaction, I really felt like a foreigner. 聽But once we left the airport, that feeling quickly聽diminished.

So, the Uber picked us up and we headed to Nueva Gorgona. 聽It ended up taking just shy of three hours to get there since Panama City is a train-wreck to drive in (think New York City). 聽Once we got out of Panama City, everything was great. 聽Our driver was fantastic – he was like a tour guide for the whole drive and I tipped him $20.

Panama Vacation - Part 1 - Nueva Gorgona and Anton Valley - Panama City
A view of Panama City from our uberENGLISH

We got to our place, which was wonderful, and eventually, my brother and his wife got the rental car and showed up. 聽The view overlooked the ocean (couldn’t get much closer) and you could hear the waves crashing throughout the evenings. 聽Here are a few more photos of and around our place…

Nueva Gorgona was an interesting area and a good part of our Panama vacation. 聽It was nice and warm (around 85掳 F) with a nice breeze and the beach had some great waves to play in. 聽The ocean water was extremely warm too. 聽This is awesome because I’m definitely a freeze-baby!

We were there during the rainy season, which generally runs from around April through August, but we didn’t really get any rain while we were there. 聽However, maybe most people are afraid of the rainy season because there was barely anyone there. 聽If you look at the pictures above, you’ll see that even with those giant condo towers, the pools and beach are almost completely empty. 聽It was like that the whole time we were there – rock on!!

 

So what was it like in Nueva Gorgona?

Panama Vacation - Part 1 - Nueva Gorgona and Anton Valley - Panama Light
Of course, I needed to try all the Panamanian beers! Panama Light reminded me of Heineken…

It’s important to note that this was a reconnaissance mission of sorts. 聽Yes, we were there to have fun and do some vacationing, but the goal was to determine if we could and should retire to this country.

Because of that,聽I purposely made sure that we didn’t book an all-inclusive resort somewhere. 聽Anyone on an all-inclusive trip thinks,聽“Wow, I could live here forever!”

The problem, of course, is that you’re living a dream and not a regular day-to-day life. 聽I wanted to ensure that we got out and enjoyed the local life as if we lived there. 聽I sought to find out what it’s really like and to talk to everyone I could hold a conversation with to get the scoop.

This was the same reason we barely bought any groceries. 聽I felt like we should be spending time at the local restaurants to try new foods and see what the cuisine is like in Panama.

All that said, here’s what we learned about Nueva Gorgona… there’s not a ton of stuff here. 聽And the local cuisine isn’t usually some obscure foods you never heard of – the local dishes are generally different varieties of chicken and rice. 聽Not as exciting as I anticipated, but I’m good with chicken and rice!

We did eat at a fantastic restaurant called聽Rinc贸n Catracho. 聽An older woman runs it and she basically does everything there – the cooking, cleaning, serving, etc. (although I think her daughter may have helped a little in the kitchen).

We were the only ones at the restaurant at lunchtime. 聽After asking for some recommendations from the owner, we ordered a bunch of food to share. 聽It was absolutely delicious.

Panama Vacation - Part 1 - Nueva Gorgona and Anton Valley - Rinc贸n Catracho
Welcome to Rinc贸n Catracho!

 

Panama Vacation - Part 1 - Nueva Gorgona and Anton Valley - Rinc贸n Catracho menu
The Rinc贸n Catracho menu – prices for what we got were more than reasonable

Other than that, Nueva Gorgona was pretty scarce. 聽You had to drive over to Coronado (5-10 minutes away) for any shopping or more choices. 聽Coronado is a big expat city in Panama and the prices are a little more expensive, but not anything crazy.

We spent a fair amount of time at the tiki bar of our condo talking with expats from all over. 聽It was great to learn from them and hear what they had to say. 聽Everyone spoke very highly of Panama in general, especially the Nueva Gorgona and Coronado area.

Our daughter, who is turning seven, is an only-child and normally very much all about hanging with mom and dad. 聽Even so, she made friends with a couple of the girls at the beach. 聽In one of the photos below, you’ll see she’s hanging out with another girl who doesn’t even speak any English. 聽She also befriended another girl who was bilingual and helped our daughter learn a little Spanish.

Panama Vacation - Part 1 - Nueva Gorgona and Anton Valley - Dad and daughter
My daughter and I sitting in the shallow part of the ocean and letting the waves crush us…

 

Panama Vacation - Part 1 - Nueva Gorgona and Anton Valley - Mom and daughter
Our daughter and my wife made a game out of out-running the waves…

 

Panama Vacation - Part 1 - Nueva Gorgona and Anton Valley - Our daughter with a new friend
Our daughter became friends with a girl who doesn’t speak any English…

 

The Cavs game

Both the expats and the locals聽were all very nice and seemed to go out of their way to be helpful. 聽The tiki bar was only open on the weekends, but we befriended the owners and they decided to open up on a Monday just for us because my brother wanted to see the Cavs basketball game in the finals.

Panama Vacation - Part 1 - Nueva Gorgona and Anton Valley - Cavs game
My daughter and my brother watching the Cavs game…

There’s actually a reason I’m bringing this up. 聽One of the owners gave the employees (all Panamanian and one Venezuelan) the option to work if they wanted. 聽She let them know that she wouldn’t be paying them, but they could work solely for tips… they聽all jumped at the opportunity.

Now think about this… I already said that we had the place to ourselves for the most part with a few stragglers here and there. 聽So they would be relying on tips from mostly just us and then would need to split the tips among all of them. 聽Hold that thought.

We had a great time that evening and made some new friends that showed up that evening so learned even more about the area. 聽Then there was this fella…

Panama Vacation - Part 1 - Nueva Gorgona and Anton Valley - Little guy...
Poor little dead guy… came across him on the beach, although he does look like he’s smiling! I know it’s sad that he died, but he’s so funny-looking that I chuckle every time I look at this picture!

We tipped well for the evening, but this would be split among four guys.

Now for the surprise… the next day, we ran into the owner again. 聽She told us that we tipped too much. 聽She said that was probably more than those guys generally would make in an entire week!

It’s crazy to see the differences between the working classes in other countries. 聽In general, tipping isn’t as insane as it is in the States. 聽People in Panama tip, but usually in lesser amounts. 聽I’m used to being a 20%+ tipper (yes, for as cheap as I am, I’m still an excellent tipper!). 聽However, in Panama, 10% is generally considered plenty.

 

El Valle de Ant贸n (aka Anton Valley)

We took a day trip to Anton Valley while in Gorgona. 聽We had a friend that recommended we check out this area so we took the hour drive to scope it out. 聽It’s a town in the depression of an inactive volcano.

It was definitely beautiful there, but didn’t strike me as a place we would want to retire to. 聽It seemed to be all locals and was in the middle of nowhere.

However, we did have lunch at a restaurant called La Casa de Lourdes and had another fantastic meal.

Remember that car booster seat that didn’t quite make it to Panama with our luggage? 聽Well, it never was delivered to us while we were there either so we had to get another one. 聽The fun part is that I don’t believe car seats are required or regularly used in Panama, so this became a tougher mission.

We finally found one on the way back from Anton Valley after we made it to el Machetazo聽in Coronado- you might consider this the Walmart of Panama. 聽It’s not the same, but you can find a lot of what you need here. 聽On another note, we’re in the process of billing American Airlines back for the cost of this new booster seat (around $60).

 

Panama Vacation (Part 1) Recap

After that, we spent the rest of the time in Nueva Gorgona before leaving for Boquete later that week (which I discuss in Part 2 of this series). 聽Boquete was the part of the trip I was most excited about. 聽I enjoy the beach, but I can’t imagine that if I moved to Panama that I would want to be at it every day.

So let’s go through the good and the bad of this first part of our Panama vacation…

 

Panama Vacation - Part 1 - Nueva Gorgona and Anton Valley - Thumbs upWhat I liked…

  • At the beginning of this trip, we definitely felt like foreigners. 聽We were totally out-of-place. 聽Probably within a couple of days though, we felt like we fit in much better. 聽There’s still a learning curve, but everyone was so friendly and, if we had stayed another week or so, I’m absolutely sure we would feel like we weren’t just visitors anymore. 聽Obviously, this is important for a place you’re considering retiring to.
  • The language was also not too big of a hurdle. 聽My brother and I had taken a couple of years of Spanish back in high school and, although I thought I forgot a lot of it, it came right back to both us. 聽If someone tells you that you don’t need to know Spanish in Panama, that person’s not giving you the whole picture. 聽Although my brother and I remembered some basic Spanish, we still struggled at times communicating and needed to use the Google Translate app to help out (it did a great job!).
  • The dollar in Panama is called the Balboa(yes, the same name as my first beer I had and the last name of a great fictional boxing legend!). 聽What’s nice is that it’s tied to the U.S. dollar so you can use both currencies interchangeably. 聽We never needed to exchange our cash for Panamanian money. 聽Sometimes we would get back change in U.S. currency and sometimes in Panamanian. 聽Nice and easy though.
  • You could see that some things would be cheaper in Panama than they are at home. 聽Although some of the regular household items seemed to be about the same or slightly more than prices in the States, a lot of the food seemed much cheaper. 聽Real estate prices seemed comparable to what we see here in the Midwest.
  • According to the expats we talked to, the cost of medical care is ridiculously cheaper in Panama. 聽There’s really no frivolous malpractice suits in the country, so that brings the costs down. 聽One gentleman told us he doesn’t even have insurance. 聽He said he had to go to the doctor for a problem on a Sunday that then required him to go to a specialist. 聽The doctor gave him the specialist’s cell phone number to make an appointment (what?!!!). 聽When all was said and done, with all the visits and everything surrounding it, it cost him around $2,000. 聽He also said the medical care is very good in the country.
  • It was also pointed out that dentistry and orthodontics are just as inexpensive and that’s why you see so many people walking around with braces. 聽Everyone takes advantage of the low costs.
  • We were told that not only are the private schools great in the area, but they only run about $2,000 per year. 聽And they only go four days a week – Monday through Thursday. 聽The Panamanian public schools are different – all Spanish-speaking and they run half-days all year round. 聽If we decided to retire here, I would either home-school my daughter or she would go to a private school.

 

Panama Vacation - Part 1 - Nueva Gorgona and Anton Valley - What Surprised Me
Holy macaroni!!!

What surprised me…

  • Outside of our condo in Nueva Gorgona were all the residential areas of the locals. 聽Over the course of our stay on this part of the trip, I would bet we saw 20-30 stray dogs walking around all over the place. 聽Most of these dogs are emaciated and just walking around or just resting on the sides of the roads. 聽Sometimes you see them feeding on roadkill as you’re driving. 聽I don’t know the backstory, but it’s pretty sad to see.
  • I knew the driving in Panama City would be a mess, so I’m glad we ended up taking an Uber to get to our place. 聽However, based on what I had read, I anticipated that the roads in the rest of the country would be covered in potholes and completely messed up. 聽That wasn’t the case. 聽They weren’t perfect, but they really weren’t bad at all and driving was not anything too out of the ordinary.
  • Construction, on the other hand, was a little interesting. 聽I’m used to seeing some notice with some signs such as “One lane road ahead” or “Merge right” or something along those lines. 聽Not so much here – you could be driving along and then suddenly –聽BAM!聽– the construction would be right in front of you. 聽The lane might just end with no notice and you have to get over on-the-fly. 聽It wasn’t anything terrible, just a bit of a surprise.
  • Panama is home to a lot of varieties of birds. 聽In fact, I believe I had read that they have more varieties of birds there than in any other country. 聽However, we barely saw more than a few different types of them here and not a lot of them anywhere.

 

Panama Vacation - Part 1 - Nueva Gorgona and Anton Valley - Thumbs downWhat I didn’t like…

  • There wasn’t too much that I didn’t like, but I was a little bummed because I had different expectations for the area. 聽Although I was hoping to absorb myself into the Panamanian culture, there wasn’t too much going on in this area.

So all-in-all, we had a wonderful time in the area and learned a lot from everyone we talked to, but it seemed more like a vacation than a scouting mission. 聽And that wasn’t my goal for this trip.

After a handful or days here, we took the six-hour drive to Boquete to spend another four days. 聽Will it be different in that area? 聽Is there a better chance of wanting to retire there? 聽One way to find out…

 

Be sure to check out聽Panama Vacation – Part 2 – Boquete聽to read about the rest of our adventure!

 

Thanks for reading!!

— Jim

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Panama Vacation – Part 1 – Nueva Gorgona and Anton Valley

16 thoughts on “Panama Vacation – Part 1 – Nueva Gorgona and Anton Valley

    • June 27, 2017 at 9:42 am
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      Haha, your visit to my site is well-timed… I was just in the middle of listening to your appearance on the Radical Personal Finance podcast. Good stuff so far! 馃檪

      I think you’d be just fine doing that. Allow yourself a little bit of time once landing at PTY to go through customs – I believe getting our bags and customs took us 45 minutes to an hour for everything. And like I mentioned, you can request an uberXENGLISH (if you’re not fluent in Spanish) to take you to your hotel.

      — Jim

      Reply
  • June 27, 2017 at 3:38 pm
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    Thanks for sharing about your trip. We have not traveled to Panama yet. Panama City looks like a nice city. I know that Panama is now a hot spot for expat retirees. I look forward to reading more in your follow-up posts.

    Reply
    • June 27, 2017 at 7:45 pm
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      Thanks, Dave – ssshhhh, don’t tell people it’s the place for expat retirees… I don’t want it to get too crowded before I get there! 馃檪

      — Jim

      Reply
  • June 27, 2017 at 10:20 pm
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    I am looking to hear more about your trip to Panama. I have seriously thought about moving there (although that would be a bit). I also speak fluent Spanish so that would help, but the fact they use the USD, expat culture, good weather and the like make me think about it more.

    Reply
    • June 28, 2017 at 8:10 am
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      There are definitely a lot of pros that make Panama a place to consider moving to. There are only two reasons for hesitancy for me – you’re moving away from friends and family and you’re moving into a completely different lifestyle. And that second item isn’t a bad thing, but more of a fear of leaving what you know.

      — Jim

      Reply
  • June 28, 2017 at 12:39 pm
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    I’ve been waiting for this post for awhile now Jim! Great to finally see it!

    Panama seems like a very nice country, but I get the impression you weren’t terribly impressed with the Nueva Gorgona area. Was it too quiet for you?

    Looking forward to part2!

    Reply
    • June 28, 2017 at 1:50 pm
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      Hi, Mr. Tako! We definitely had a great time and it made for a great first part of our vacation, but Nueva Gorgona didn’t impress me as a place to live. I’m not sure if quiet is the right word because most of Panama is pretty quiet with the exception of Panama City. But, aside from our actual condo area, Gorgona was pretty empty. Coronado was just around the corner, but that was a little too busy for me and somewhat pricey. The weather is also great in those areas for a beach vacation, but if I plan picking a place to live, I prefer a milder temperature.

      — Jim

      Reply
  • June 28, 2017 at 1:57 pm
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    Wow, seems like you are having a lot of fun there, sir.
    Nice, I’d like to take ride my motorcycle there, Waiting for P2 of this series.

    Reply
    • June 29, 2017 at 10:42 am
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      That would be a beautiful across the country on a motorcycle! You would just need to be careful of rain. 馃檪

      — Jim

      Reply
  • June 29, 2017 at 7:46 am
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    Great review! I was waiting for this too 馃檪 Looking forward to Part 2. I definitely got the sense that this wasn’t what you were looking for – although the visit certainly gave you great information! I wonder if these areas are busier during other parts of the year? The medical costs are really on our minds these days. It’s amazing what you can get in other parts of the world!

    Reply
    • June 29, 2017 at 10:51 am
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      Thanks Vicki – it did sounds like the place is busier outside of the rainy season, but I definitely had no complaints about having the beach and pool to ourselves for the most part!

      I was reading an article talking about how the US can’t mimic some of the other countries like France and Canada because the lobbyists are now too powerful here to let those changes happen. The author continued and said what we already know that any changes are only made for money now and not for the sake of the people. Definitely makes you want to consider some of the other countries that are doing it right!

      On a side note, remember that Panama email newsletter that you hooked me up with? I ran into her both at our condo in Nueva Gorgona doing a tour and again in Boquete… how funny is that? 馃檪

      — Jim

      Reply
  • July 2, 2017 at 8:12 am
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    Wait! I was only one blue. For what you didn’t like and it said it was Not much you didn’t like! There’s got to be something no?

    The pictures you provided are great. I love the lushness. How big do you think the ex-pat community is and are they just mostly older retirees?

    Also, how much does it cost to rent a three bedroom, two bathroom apartment with a dead on Oceanview? How about the cost to purchase? Thanks

    Reply
    • July 4, 2017 at 11:12 am
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      I did enjoy Nueva Gorgona as a vacation spot, but the weather is my biggest struggle for that area. If I’m going to pick a place to live, I would love a more moderate climate that lets me get out more without dying of heat. I like the beach, but if I wasn’t on vacation, that wouldn’t be my focus all the time. A short drive to the beach would be more up my alley. Check out Part 2 of my trip and you’ll get a better idea of what I mean.

      Right now the expat community in Nueva Gorgona isn’t a large percentage. However, it seems to be spilling over from Coronado (one city over) where the percentage is probably about 30% expats. And from what I gather, the majority (maybe 60-70%) are retirees.

      One of the odd things we noticed was that a lot of places there have the same or more bathrooms than bedrooms. But you could find a nice beach front condo in Gorgona with 3 bedrooms and 3 or 4 baths for only around $300-400k. Long-term rentals seem to be pretty scarce in the area, but you’d likely be looking at around $1,500 a month.

      — Jim

      Reply

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