What’s It REALLY Like to Live in a Foreign Country?


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What's It REALLY Like to Live in a Foreign Country?We’ve now been living in a foreign country for six months.  If you’re not familiar, we moved to Panama in August of 2019.

We had visited the country in the summer of 2017 as a sort of recon mission along with my brother and sister-in-law.  Don’t worry, we had plenty of fun while there, but the real goal was to determine if we could see ourselves actually living there.

The cities we scoped out included Nueva Gorgona, Coronado, El Valle de Anton (aka Anton Valley), Boquete, and David.  We spent time talking to expats about the pros and cons, going grocery shopping, and checking out local restaurants.

After a 10-day trip across Panama, we headed back to the U.S.

Right off the rip, my brother said that they thought Panama was a great place to visit but it wasn’t a place they could see themselves living.  I, on the other hand, saw things differently and envisioned a more unconventional but happy life in the country.

I kept my mouth shut though and waited to hear Lisa’s opinion.  Then, a couple of days after we got back, she said, “I think we could do this… I think we could move to Panama.”

And that’s when we decided to make it a reality…

 

What people think about living in a foreign country

Believe it or not, deciding to move to Panama might be what would be considered the easy part.  The harder mission was letting friends and family know.

Why would that be?

Well, I noticed that a lot of folks tend to have preconceived ideas in their minds about other countries.  I think most of us are guilty of that (including myself).  Moving to another country can really shake people up.

And, of course, people might balk if we had decided to move somewhere else in the U.S., but I couldn’t see how moving to a foreign country would really rile folks up.

It didn’t matter.  Minds were blown when we told them about our plans.  They didn’t know what to think.

Immediately, we started getting lectures from everyone about how a foreign country like Panama has all sorts of issues…

You can’t move there – there’s human trafficking, drugs, and murder!

Wait, what the?!  Slow down!  What the heck are you talking about?

Um, aren’t those things that happen throughout the U.S. every day?  And funny enough, we had already done quite a bit of research and knew that the crime rate in Panama is very low, particularly with violent crimes.  Numbeo shows that the crime index and safety rating between Cleveland and Boquete are staggeringly different and inarguably in Boquete’s favor.

But that didn’t stop the weird line of questions…

Is it like a jungle there?  Will you be living in some sort of hut with wild animals all around?

Ok, this one’s partially true – we’re living in the mountains in what amounts to a rainforest.  And nature here seems more beautiful than I’ve ever seen.  However, where most folks live here is a far cry from what you’d see in the Jungle Book.

What's It REALLY Like to Live in a Foreign Country? - View from Our Condo in Boquete
Here’s the view from our condo in Boquete. Beautiful, yes… a hut with a dirt floor, not so much!

And yeah, there are different animals here, but I have yet to see some jungle cat roaming around.  Most of what you’ll find will be cool animals such as coatimundis and sloths…

What's It REALLY Like to Live in a Foreign Country? - Coatimundi at the Boquete Welcome Center
These coatimundis seem to be all over the place. They remind me of a cross between a raccoon and an anteater. They do their own thing and tend to just mind their own business.
What's It REALLY Like to Live in a Foreign Country? - Faith Holding a Sloth
Holding a sloth seems to be the dream of a lot of people… at least it was for Faith!

Anyway, it’s a lot less exotic than you might have in your head.

The problem is that if you haven’t done much traveling, you might think that moving to a foreign country is a step down in many ways.  You tend to get stuck in a bubble thinking that the U.S. (or wherever you’re from) is all there is – everything else is just not as good.

And sure, there are some places in the world that might not be up to your expectations, but I’m not finding that being the case here in Boquete, Panama.

 

Why would we want to live in Panama?

I won’t go too much into this because I’ve already written about the reasons we chose Panama with my post The #1 Question We’re Asked About Moving to Panama… but most of it should be pretty straightforward:

  • Great climate – wonderful 75° Fahrenheit weather… every day!  And if you head down from the mountains where we’re at, there are beaches about an hour or so away.  The temps suddenly are in the high 80’s or mid 90’s – perfect for playing in the ocean!
  • Lower cost of living it’s not as cheap as some other countries, but still lower than we’re used to.
  • Walkable town – and with the awesome weather, it’s a perfect match!
  • Good and inexpensive healthcare – need I say more about this?
  • Strong expat community – this makes the transition much easier.  According to Jackie at Panama Relocation Tours, expats make up about 10% of Boquete’s population.
  • A stable and growing economy – a solid economy makes me feel much more at ease and less fearful of problems like Venezuela’s economic crisis.
  • U.S. ties – yes, a lot of people move from the U.S. to a foreign country to get away from the U.S.  However, I like knowing that the U.S. has a vested interest in the Panama Canal and that they are Panama’s military.  I also like that currency here is interchangeable with the U.S. dollar – it trades evenly.  That makes life a heckuva lot simpler!

Not everyone’s going to have the same wish list in a foreign country to live, but for me, this pretty much nailed it!

 

What’s it really like living in a foreign country?  Is it scary?

Ok, let’s get to the meat of this post…

Tell me what it’s like, what’s it really, really like…

Yeah, I’m not good at parodying the Spice Girls’ hit song, but who is, right?!  Thank you Spice Girls for even allowing me to think of stupid phrases like that!

Ok, here’s something that may surprise you – it’s actually pretty “normal” living here in Boquete, Panama.  I’m not saying that it’s the same as living in the U.S., but it’s really not all that different in a lot of aspects either.

Sure, we spend our days enjoying the wonderful weather and being amazed at the beautiful landscapes.  But once you get past the honeymoon phase, we’re still living a life that’s similar to most folks in the U.S.

 

Responsibilities

A lot of the day-to-day responsibilities don’t just disappear.  For instance…

Grocery shopping

Um, yeah, you can’t eat out all the time or you’ll either go broke or probably be a lot unhealthier than you want to be.

So yes, we go grocery shopping.  And because we don’t have a car, we do it a little differently.  We generally buy groceries in smaller amounts to a degree and go a little more often.  We bring our reusable canvas bags (because plastic bags are not allowed at the grocery stores anymore) and buy a few bags worth of food to carry back.

Sometimes, if we need to do some major shopping (particularly heavier items), we’ll bring our infamous cart with us for the walk.  It’s much easier to walk back with that than it is to carry some heavy bags.  Besides, I like the challenge of trying not to take a cab whenever possible – we’re in Panama for Pete’s sake!  We need to be outside enjoying this weather and taking in the beauty around us!

And yes, I just said, “for Pete’s sake.”  That’s a phrase Lisa loves to use… ssh, don’t tell her but I think you’re only supposed to say that once you’re like 106 years old!

As far as the grocery stores themselves go, we have a handful to choose from here.  There are a couple here that are very modern (Romero and Super Barú) and we can find most of what we like.  There’s also Supermercado Mandarín which also has a good selection as well as a small hardware section.

A lot of what we get in this “foreign country” is the same as what we buy in the U.S.  We can find a number of the same brands too but we like to try some local brand equivalents.  We can usually find something that tastes the same (or sometimes better!) than the U.S. brand for less money.

What's It REALLY Like to Live in a Foreign Country? - Muuu Max
As official judges (if there was ever a contest), our family would say that these knockoffs are even better than Oreo cookies! I love these things!

And then we like to get our fruits and vegetables from a small market place called Sara’s.  Great fresh stuff and very inexpensive!

Now, remember that we live in a pretty small town.  My understanding is that Boquete has a population of around 30,000.  So just like most small towns, we’re not going to find everything we need here.

So periodically, we head to PriceSmart in David.  PriceSmart is just like the warehouse clubs you’re probably familiar with (Costco, BJ’s, and Sam’s Club) including all the free samples!

PriceSmart (along with other stores that are similar to Target, Home Depot, etc.) is about 45 minutes away and would run about $35 by taxi.  We usually take the public bus down, which is actually very nice, and we pay $1.75 each.  Then we get what we need and take a taxi or the bus back.  Other times, we’ll rent a car for $35 for the day instead and run our errands that way.

In essence, we have a routine and we run our errands accordingly.  Although deciding not to get a car makes our means a little different, we’re still just doing our shopping like anyone else.

And some interesting news – Uber’s about to start up in David.  They’ve had it in Panama City, but that’s been the only city so far.  That change is definitely going to shake things up around here!

 

Laundry

Just because you live in a foreign country, doesn’t mean you can walk around smelling like dookie.  I guess you could but your social circle’s probably going to be very small.

So yes, in addition to personal hygiene, you have to do laundry.  And guess what, we have something called a washing machine as well as a dryer here.

That’s right, it’s just like you’re used to… very normal!

 

Paying bills

Retiring to a foreign country doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay your bills.  We don’t have a Panamanian bank account as of yet, though we’re considering opening one down the line.

Until then, we pay for rent in cash.  A couple of trips to the ATM each month and boom, we’re ready to go.  We use our Schwab debit card (no ATM or foreign transaction fees) so that makes it easy peasy.

We also use that card when paying the rest of our bills.  Everything’s online that we need to pay – yeah, believe it or not, they have the Internet here!

So by now, you should be seeing that a lot of the regular chores seem pretty similar to what you’re probably already used to.

 

Entertainment

Jim, that seems pretty normal, but all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  What could you possibly be able to do for fun there?

Let’s be honest, Boquete’s not a party city.  It’s a small town and the expat community leans more toward the age of traditional retirees.  It’s not a 24-hour city by any means, but I think there’s a club or two open into the wee hours where the twenty-somethings love to hang!

Still, plenty for us to do regardless…

Restaurants

There are so many great choices for restaurants here.  For such a small town, it’s wonderful that we have so many dining choices.

I’m told that there are about 75-85 restaurants here.  Want local Panamanian here?  Done.  Italian?  No problem.  In fact, there are quite a few Italian joints here.  Chinese?  Sure.  Peruvian?  You get the point.

It seems like you’ll find food from every ethnicity here.  Then on top of that, there are places that run the three of us a total of $10 or the high-end fancy-pants places that we get dressed up for that run us around $100.

What's It REALLY Like to Live in a Foreign Country? - Night Out at Paladar
A night out for dinner with a little bit of dressing up.
Note to self, remember to bring sunglasses when taking photos while we’re facing the sun!

There are also plenty of bars in Boquete.  Considering that Lisa, Faith, and I spend so much time together though, we’re not finding a lot of bar time in the mix.

 

TV/Movies/Internet

We have cable TV and Internet service here – it’s included with our rent, which is nice.  But we don’t watch the cable TV because it’s almost all Panamanian channels in Spanish and we’re not ready for that… yet.

But welcome to the era of technology!

We have Chromecast in the bedroom, which we don’t use too often.  But it’s nice to have when we do want to watch something.

Then we have a Roku Streaming Stick and Amazon Fire Stick in the living room.  The Roku works better with Plex to watch our local media.  It’s also great because we have it set up to do a random slideshow of all our photos when we’re not watching anything.  The Amazon Fire Stick, on the other hand, works well with our VPN.

What’s a VPN?

A VPN creates a secure tunnel from one endpoint to another.  Why is that important?  Because it allows your computer (or another device) to be as if it’s on a different network.

Yeah, yeah, yeah – what the #$%^ are you talking about, Jim?

Picture this – a lot of streaming services are restricted from being able to show certain movies or shows in foreign countries.  So when you go to watch a movie on Netflix or Amazon, for example, they check your IP address to see where you’re located.  In the U.S., you get a pass and you’re good to go.  Outside of the U.S., you’re probably going to be blocked.

A VPN lets you easily connect to a server/network in a different country.  In our case, I tell the VPN software to connect to a VPN server endpoint in the U.S.  So now when we stream a show or movie, the streaming service sees that we’re in the U.S. (on a technical level) and allows it.

It’s wonderful and yes, it’s completely legal.  This gives us the ability to enjoy the content we wouldn’t be able to watch otherwise.

After spending wayyyyy too much time evaluating the different VPN providers, I went with NordVPN.  It was a no-brainer and it was inexpensive enough that I signed up for a 3-year deal with them.  No buyer’s remorse on this one – NordVPN is great!

 

Outdoors

We didn’t come to Panama to spend all our time watching TV!  I loved Ohio and we did get to spend some good times being outside.  The problem was that the winter seemed to go on forever every year.

Now we’re in a place where we don’t have snow – yay!!  So we spend a fair amount of our time outdoors.

I mentioned that we walk to and from town for our shopping.  We also go on group hikes every week where we have the chance to be outside and meet new people.  It’s a really fun way to explore various trails around.

What's It REALLY Like to Live in a Foreign Country? - Group Hike
Stopping off on our last group hike for a photo opportunity at the Caldera River…

 

Events

Besides all the day-to-day activities, Boquete seems to have a lot of great events throughout the year.  The Boquete Jazz & Blues Festival just wrapped up.  That was right here at the amphitheater in Valle Escondido.  We didn’t end up going but we could hear the music whenever we were walking around over the weekend.

The Boquete Flower & Coffee Festival took place last month.  That was pretty but nothing too exciting.

There was just an international dog show earlier this month.  They had dogs from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Mexico, Cuba, and the U.S. competing.

Then there are stage shows, various talks, parades, live music at different bars and venues, and all sorts of different events.  It seems like something’s always going on here.

What's It REALLY Like to Live in a Foreign Country? - Christmas Parade
The Christmas parade was on Christmas day and was packed for miles down the road

 

Downtime

I think this one took us all by surprise, but there’s quite a bit of downtime, too.

For some reason, you might envision that if you retire to a foreign country, you’ll be on a permanent vacation.  Between the beach and partying, what else is there?!

Guess again.  You’re still living a normal life.

You still have those responsibilities I mentioned.  You can’t constantly be having fun.  Everyone needs to sleep sometime.

I might feel like I’m constantly busy (I think that’s some kind of disease), but there are plenty of times when we’re just not doing anything exciting.  Welcome to the retired life!  So we tend to spend our downtime playing cards, watching TV or movies, swimming, reading, or playing video games. 


I can’t speak for every foreign country – in fact, I can’t speak for the entire country of Panama.  But our life here in Boquete has been anything but crazy or scary.  We have our daily routines that aren’t all that different from what we had in the States.

Bear in mind that I’m speaking as a retiree. Going to work here could be a whole different ball game.

Notice I didn’t even talk about the language barrier.  I’m excited as I learn more and more Spanish, but it’s such a small part of our day-to-day that it’s really not that big of a deal.  Between the locals being open to trying to understand us and our willingness to learn, it’s actually a very small hurdle in our daily lives.

Overall, we’ve never really felt like an outcast here and there hasn’t been a time we felt unsafe walking around.

It’s not all perfect and there was an adjustment period, but living here in Panama really hasn’t been that different for us.

As a side note, if you’re interested in coming to visit to see if Panama’s the right country for you, I highly recommend that you book a group tour through Panama Relocation Tours.  Jackie Lange will take you across the country honestly filling you in on the pros and cons of moving here.  It’s one of the smartest and best ways to visit the country and determine if you should be my new neighbor!

 

Do you think it would be crazy or scary to live as an expat in a foreign country?  Why or why not?

 

Thanks for reading!!

— Jim

30 thoughts on “What’s It REALLY Like to Live in a Foreign Country?”

  1. My ILs moves to Mexico 20 years ago, and your description sounds much like their experience. I would add the importance of investing in your community. Volunteering and with your (relatively higher) wealth. Doing that has insulated them from the petty theft break-ins that other expats have experienced. And now that their health is declining in their 80s they have a community that cares for them. Not that they helped their community for those reasons – they did it because they care for the people around them.

    1. Excellent point, Kari! We’re still newbies to the community, but my wife, Lisa, and our daughter, Faith, are already volunteering at the animal clinic here every month. As we continue on down the path here, I would guess the volunteer work will continue to grow in different areas as well.

      That’s great for your in-laws – it’s fantastic to not just be in a community, but be a part of it. 🙂

  2. Comparing Cleveland’s crime statistics to Boquete (or almost anywhere) isn’t fair 🙂

    I’ve actually seen Colombina snacks here at Dollar Tree. They are pretty good overall.

    1. That’s a fair comment about Cleveland’s crime stats, but that’s where we’re from so it is what it is. Regardless, if you look at the numbers in Boquete from that link, you’ll see that it’s a very safe community in general, so that’s really the point.

      I can’t believe they have those Oreo knock-offs at the Dollar Tree… now, I can share a little bit of the joy we have here with friends and family! 😛 Delicious!

  3. I spent a week in the canal zone while in the Navy – and have wanted to return to Panama ever since. Although I like the exchange rate in Costa Rica better – where $1 equals about 500 colons. When you withdraw colons from the atm, it feels like you should have a monacle and top hat like the Monopoly guy….

    1. Haha, I remember when we were under 21 and would head from Cleveland to Canada so we could drink and gamble (the good old days!). We’d be so excited changing our money over on the way there, but then when we’d come back and do the exchange again, you’d feel like you were getting robbed! I might have to hit the ATM the next time we’re in Costa Rica just so I can get that brief feeling of excitement when all that money starts rolling out!

      As a side note, we were actually just playing Monopoly yesterday, so your comment comes at the perfect time. No need to ask – I won, of course!. 😉 Ok, fine – I usually lose, but I did win yesterday and that’s all that matters!

  4. Hey Jim, if we were to spend say a few weeks, or a month in Panama, would Boquete be a good choice? Or is that somewhere that’s more suited to what you’re doing? Where else would you recommend in Panama? Thanks

    1. Hi Rick – really it just depends on what you’re looking for. If you want a beach vacation with some hot weather, Boquete won’t be your spot. You’d probably want to look at maybe Nueva Gorgona or maybe Bocas del Toro or Boca Chica.

      If you want the NYC/Miami type of scene, Panama City would be your stop. You can also find some beaches in that area there, too.

      Otherwise, Boquete is great for the nice 75 degree weather and small town vibe. It’s also got the amazing mountain backdrop. It’s not a party place really, but you’ll find plenty of restaurants, hiking, etc. There’s also zip lining and other activities.

      You’ll probably need to do some more digging to figure out what’s best suited for you.

      Good luck – I hope you have a great time!

  5. I dreamed to moving to Central/South America since high school! 40+ years later I hope it will finally come true. As you said, most family think I am crazy! But friends that know me best Are surprised I am still here! Step one is to travel alone 😬

      1. I have friends with family in Guatemala, Brazil sounds exotic and exciting, but I always wanted to go to Peru to eat different color potatoes!

  6. Sounds like you guys are having a great time Jim! In fact, it would seem like any fears you might have had regarding things being “different” have disappeared as you’ve gotten to know how things work in Panama.

    Save that spot on the couch for me! 😉

    1. Life is definitely good, Mr. Tako, and life here is even better!

      We only have a couple of loveseats in the living room so your legs are probably going to droop over the side, but it’ll still be worth the visit! 😉

  7. It looks like you guys adjusted very well. That’s great news. I’d love to come down to visit at some point.
    Good news about the food too. We visited Costa Rica a while back. It’s a beautiful country, but the food wasn’t that great. 🙂

    1. We’d love a visit so don’t lose sight of that thought! That’s interesting about the Costa Rican food – we were only there for one evening as we passed through to Panama so we didn’t get much of a chance to try much there. That’s kind of a disappointment to hear.

  8. Thanks for sharing your experience Jim. Love hearing other people’s stories with these moves. I’m actually planning now on moving abroad and can definitely relate to the hard part being talking about it with family and friends. Much harder than I thought it would be.
    Cheers!

    1. It’s actually kind of weird – if you moved to a different part of the state you’re currently living and would likely see them as often as moving out of the country, you probably wouldn’t get much pushback. Very strange.

      Where are you planning to move?

  9. Planning on doing 1-2 years in Thailand. I guess I kind of fell in love with the place after being there multiple times in the past decade or so. However, living somewhere is not the same as visiting as a tourist. I’m really not sure how it will go so pretty interested in other people’s stories.

  10. I th would love to live in Panama or a foreign country. I speak fluent Spanish. My wife is from Nicaragua but Nicaragua is too unstable and then there is the simple fact of the children.

    1. I definitely get it – it was hard to pull our daughter, Faith, away from her friends and family. But we wanted to do it while she was younger because it would be much harder for us to leave once she had already established roots. I couldn’t imagine moving away from kids (or grandkids). Maybe at some point you join all the snowbirds and move down here for a few months out of the year! 🙂

  11. Hey Jim. Heard you on the choosefi podcast and really enjoyed this post. my family and I are in the beginning stages of looking into moving to Latin America and Panama is very high on our list. Is there another way to connect with you such as email where I can ask you some questions and tips on your journey to Panama? Thanks

  12. So many people I talk to think Panama is a 3rd world country. Obviously NOT ! I lived in Greece for awhile years ago. At first I was shocked going outside to the outhouse (no indoor bathroom!) but I got used to it. I even got used to climbing trees to pick fruit. Then we set up 3 large tubs of water to do laundry. One tub to soak. One tub to scrub. One tub to rinse. Then hang the clothes on the clothesline. The clothes smelled so good! I also got used to maysimari which is similar to siesta time. Light breakfast (a guy passed by every day with a cart full of fresh pastries, cheese, fruit, bread), lunch is the main meal (including drinking saki or sangria), then falling asleep for a few hours. Back up at 4-5PM & we had a late but light dinner. Except for tourist shops, all businesses close a few hours each day for maysimari & reopen 5PM for a few hours. I quickly adapted to this life & in the end, I hated leaving! You just adapt when you live in another country & make the best of it, like you, Lisa & Faith are doing right now! Thanx for sharing all your experiences! PS it’s so funny you consider 30,000 people to be a small town. I get it since you’re from a big city. Right now I’m visiting my mother. Her town is 2500 people with one stop light. The closest grocery is 25 minutes away!

    1. It sounds like Greece seemed to fulfill the idea of a third world country more than Panama would be, at least in my mind! You’re absolutely right though – you need to just figure things out and adapt or you’ll be miserable wherever you go.

      Wow, your mother’s town makes Boquete seem like NYC! 😉

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