We finally made the trip I’ve been waiting for… our Panama vacation! And guess what – it was awesome!
Because there’s a lot to cover, I thought I’d break this up into a couple posts. This first post will cover the first half of our trip and the second post will cover the second half – easy enough, right? 🙂
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. 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. My wife, daughter, and I were flying in from Ohio and my brother and his wife from Texas. Our flight had a layover in Miami, which is perfect for me. 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. 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. 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. And as a side note, the rental car was in my brother’s name.
Time for a new plan.
Before we get to that though, let’s talk about the Panama City airport. When we landed, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect of an airport in this country. 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. It’s a large airport with stores of high-end brands all over the place and the whole facility was very clean. 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. Mrs. R2R took on the challenge of trying to have that conversation with American Airlines. 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.
So, we decided to eat lunch at the airport while we decided what to do. I also had my first Panamanian beer… Balboa, which reminded me of a Coors Light. Our daughter also was excited when I told her how to ask for a lemonade… Limonada por favor. 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). On top of that, they have something called uberXENGLISH. For a premium, 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. This is probably going to be pretty costly!
We did an estimate in the app… $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. 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?). While we were at the airport, and especially during this transaction, I really felt like a foreigner. But once we left the airport, that feeling quickly diminished.
So, the Uber picked us up and we headed to Nueva Gorgona. 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). Once we got out of Panama City, everything was great. Our driver was fantastic – he was like a tour guide for the whole drive and I tipped him $20.
We got to our place, which was wonderful, and eventually, my brother and his wife got the rental car and showed up. The view overlooked the ocean (couldn’t get much closer) and you could hear the waves crashing throughout the evenings. 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. It was nice and warm (around 85° F) with a nice breeze and the beach had some great waves to play in. The ocean water was extremely warm too. 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. However, maybe most people are afraid of the rainy season because there was barely anyone there. 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. It was like that the whole time we were there – rock on!!
So what was it like in Nueva Gorgona?
It’s important to note that this was a reconnaissance mission of sorts. 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, I purposely made sure that we didn’t book an all-inclusive resort somewhere. Anyone on an all-inclusive trip thinks, “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. I wanted to ensure that we got out and enjoyed the local life as if we lived there. 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. 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. 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. Not as exciting as I anticipated, but I’m good with chicken and rice!
We did eat at a fantastic restaurant called Rincón Catracho. 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. After asking for some recommendations from the owner, we ordered a bunch of food to share. It was absolutely delicious.
Other than that, Nueva Gorgona was pretty scarce. You had to drive over to Coronado (5-10 minutes away) for any shopping or more choices. 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. It was great to learn from them and hear what they had to say. 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. Even so, she made friends with a couple of the girls at the beach. In one of the photos below, you’ll see she’s hanging out with another girl who doesn’t even speak any English. She also befriended another girl who was bilingual and helped our daughter learn a little Spanish.
The Cavs game
Both the expats and the locals were all very nice and seemed to go out of their way to be helpful. 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.
There’s actually a reason I’m bringing this up. One of the owners gave the employees (all Panamanian and one Venezuelan) the option to work if they wanted. She let them know that she wouldn’t be paying them, but they could work solely for tips… they 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. So they would be relying on tips from mostly just us and then would need to split the tips among all of them. 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. Then there was this fella…
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. She told us that we tipped too much. 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. In general, tipping isn’t as insane as it is in the States. People in Panama tip, but usually in lesser amounts. I’m used to being a 20%+ tipper (yes, for as cheap as I am, I’m still an excellent tipper!). However, in Panama, 10% is generally considered plenty.
El Valle de Antón (aka Anton Valley)
We took a day trip to Anton Valley while in Gorgona. We had a friend that recommended we check out this area so we took the hour drive to scope it out. 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. 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? Well, it never was delivered to us while we were there either so we had to get another one. 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 in Coronado- you might consider this the Walmart of Panama. It’s not the same, but you can find a lot of what you need here. 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). Boquete was the part of the trip I was most excited about. 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…
What I liked…
- At the beginning of this trip, we definitely felt like foreigners. We were totally out-of-place. Probably within a couple of days though, we felt like we fit in much better. 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. Obviously, this is important for a place you’re considering retiring to.
- The language was also not too big of a hurdle. 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. If someone tells you that you don’t need to know Spanish in Panama, that person’s not giving you the whole picture. 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!). What’s nice is that it’s tied to the U.S. dollar so you can use both currencies interchangeably. We never needed to exchange our cash for Panamanian money. Sometimes we would get back change in U.S. currency and sometimes in Panamanian. Nice and easy though.
- You could see that some things would be cheaper in Panama than they are at home. 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. 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. There’s really no frivolous malpractice suits in the country, so that brings the costs down. One gentleman told us he doesn’t even have insurance. He said he had to go to the doctor for a problem on a Sunday that then required him to go to a specialist. The doctor gave him the specialist’s cell phone number to make an appointment (what?!!!). When all was said and done, with all the visits and everything surrounding it, it cost him around $2,000. 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. 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. And they only go four days a week – Monday through Thursday. The Panamanian public schools are different – all Spanish-speaking and they run half-days all year round. If we decided to retire here, I would either home-school my daughter or she would go to a private school.
What surprised me…
- Outside of our condo in Nueva Gorgona were all the residential areas of the locals. 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. Most of these dogs are emaciated and just walking around or just resting on the sides of the roads. Sometimes you see them feeding on roadkill as you’re driving. 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. 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. That wasn’t the case. 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. I’m used to seeing some notice with some signs such as “One lane road ahead” or “Merge right” or something along those lines. Not so much here – you could be driving along and then suddenly – BAM! – the construction would be right in front of you. The lane might just end with no notice and you have to get over on-the-fly. It wasn’t anything terrible, just a bit of a surprise.
- Panama is home to a lot of varieties of birds. In fact, I believe I had read that they have more varieties of birds there than in any other country. However, we barely saw more than a few different types of them here and not a lot of them anywhere.
What 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. 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. 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. Will it be different in that area? Is there a better chance of wanting to retire there? One way to find out…
Be sure to check out Panama Vacation – Part 2 – Boquete to read about the rest of our adventure!
Thanks for reading!!