I hear every single day that people are tired of the hype all over the Internet about how perfect Panama is. Most of that is coming from people selling conference tickets and houses in Panama. So, I just had to do it. I had to write about the 10 things you’re definitely going to hate if you move to Panama.
Now, before anyone jumps down my throat, you should know me fairly well by now. This won’t be a negative post. I love Panama and for every single not-so-great situation I describe, you’ll discover there’s something really great going on to counter it. However, there are things that will bother you about Panama. It’s a fact. I’m sure there are things bothering you in Kansas City, Quebec, Chicago, Miami, London, Helsinki, Las Vegas, or in Caracas. Wherever you’re from, I bet you could put together one hell of a top 10 things you’d hate list. Here’s mine on Panama. This is in no specific order.
1. Motorcycle drivers create their own lanes –
This blew my mind when I first moved here, mostly because I almost ran a couple of these drivers over. It’s crazy. In the U.S., motorcycles have to stay in the appropriate lane, just like any other vehicle. Here (and I thought this was illegal until I noticed many cops on motorcycles doing the same thing) motorcycles swerve in and out of traffic, and drive up the narrow aisle between lanes.
I sat in traffic one day on a street that was two lanes going in the same direction (one way street). A young couple, walking hand-in-hand, looked both ways before crossing the street. They did everything right. Then, as they crossed, suddenly a guy on a motorcycle came flying up that space between our lanes and screeched to a halt. I mean his back tire came up off the ground as he somehow managed to stop before slamming into this couple. The driver shook his head and threw his hands up in the air as if it were the couple’s fault. I didn’t even think it was possible to get run over by a motorcycle. Really? That was a close one though.
Beware, when driving, checking your blind spot in Panama also means making sure there aren’t any motorcycles creeping up, like the one you see in the photo below, just chillin’ at this person’s back bumper.
Why should you learn to love it? Well, when you’re waiting for your pizza to arrive, you’ll be glad your delivery guy is able to get through the traffic quickly.
Plus, if you happen to own a motorcycle, you’ll be able to almost completely avoid traffic. Hmm, maybe I should learn to ride a motorcycle.
2. Everything shuts down on certain holidays –
What does this mean? Panama is full of very religious people, of many different religions. Quite a few of the business, especially in Panama City, are run by Chinese or Jewish business owners. This means that on any Chinese holiday or Jewish holiday, getting things done may be difficult. I set out one day to do some clothes shopping with my family, and my mother-in-law kind of shouted out as we were leaving that it was a Jewish holiday. I heard her, but didn’t think much about it.
A few miles down the road, when we pulled into the Los Pueblos outdoor shopping center, I noticed the gates down and the doors closed on most businesses, so many that it didn’t really make sense to walk around and shop.
And it’s the same with the Catholic Holy Week. You might want to run out to the mall to pick something up and find that it’s closed down or closed early due to a religious holiday observance.
So, it’s a big deal sometimes when it’s a normal day for you, but you can’t get anything done. It’s like trying to get your favorite chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-A on a Sunday. Ain’t gonna happen.
What’s the good side of this? You’ll always find something open on your holiday, whether you’re Catholic or Jewish or it’s the Chinese New Year. Your options may be limited, but you can still get things accomplished.
3. Snakes and bugs –
This is the tropics. Not only is it hot and muggy, but you will see lots of bugs, and quite possibly snakes and even scorpions. You might find less of these pesky creatures in Panama City, but they are here in and around the city. And I’m sure you’ll find much more out in the interior.
A friendly writer living high up in one of the mountain communities in Panama’s interior, Rhonda, recently wrote about finding a scorpion at her front door one morning, stinger up and ready to attack. Her cats were just messing around, swatting at it, no care in the world. I’ve never seen a scorpion here, but I’ve found very large spiders in my house. The spider in the photo above was found in my bathroom.
In our last house, my wife woke up early in the morning to use the bathroom and through her tired, blurred vision, barely noticed a snake slithering around near the toilet. I’ve written about this before. She screamed, ran out of the bathroom, and slammed the door behind her. I rolled out of bed thinking someone had broken into the house or something. Marlene warned me to stay back because there was a huge snake in the bathroom that might be poisonous. I’m a wimp when it comes to snakes, so I was more than willing to back off.
When the firefighters and police showed up, they had a big laugh when they found the snake. Looks huge in the photo above, but it was really this big. Look at the photo below.
What’s the good side? It’s the tropics! This means wonderfully warm (genuinely hot) weather. Forget the bugs! If you don’t like bugs or other pests, get a cat. Or get a dog. Hell, the spiders eat the mosquitos.
4. There’s no MLS (Multiple Listing Service/System) in Panama –
This can be frustrating when you’re searching for a home, or when your preferred real estate agent is searching for you. You won’t find one-stop shopping when it comes to apartments, condos, or homes in Panama. People have set up websites, some really great ones, to try and roundup some listings, but it’s difficult to get a real finger on the pulse of the real estate action going on across the entire country. That’s why you’ll notice most agents stick to small areas, where they can truly understand what’s available.
What’s the good side? You’re still able to find great deals in the towns you love, as long as you get out on foot and do a little bit of searching. If you visit, for example, Penonomé, absolutely fall in love with the place, and decide you’d like to talk to a local real estate expert or go directly to the owner of a house you see for sale, you can do that. You can do it without having to worry that 20 people are online about to pounce on that home. You might not find such a large audience if trying to sell a home, and as a buyer you won’t see all the cards spread out on the table, but when you find a gem, you have much more of a chance of getting your hands on it.
5. Littering is still a problem in some areas –
I’ve heard from many expats visiting Panama that they were shocked by the amount of garbage on the ground in some areas. This is a problem. It bothers Panamanians just as much as it bothers visitors and the causes vary from people just being careless and tossing their milk carton out of their car window to not enough garbage trucks on the street.
In some neighborhoods, you’ll see big unofficial garbage collection points, that are just flat out nasty. You’ll see dogs picking at bones and flies buzzing around. Did I paint a gross enough picture for you? I don’t want you to be shocked when you get out and visit the non-touristy areas.
The good news is this is a problem the Panamanian government is well aware of. More trucks have been purchased, new programs have been put in place, and it seems that they’re genuinely trying to clean up the streets. I’ve seen signs posted reminding residents to not throw their garbage in some of these unofficial collection points.
I’ve seen recycling bins in parks and other places that get a lot of foot traffic. I was just at the Cinta Costera the other night, a fun place to hang out along the water, and I noticed the recycling bins in place. Even in the smaller towns in the interior, I’ve started to see recycling bins. At the town center in Penonomé, the little park there in front of the church had bins in place. That’s awesome.
Many Panamanians have taken it upon themselves to help clean up the issue. Just yesterday morning, I heard on The Breakfast Show with Gerry D (which can be heard Mon-Fri, from 7am-10am, on Cool 89.3 FM or at their website www.pbcpanama.com), a fellow named Roba Morena talking about an upcoming recycling fair. He said his group collects nearly 10,000 pounds of recyclables per year. You can read about the upcoming fair, which is actually this Sunday, Jan. 26, at the Banco General parking lot in Villa Lucre from noon until 5pm, at http://www.robamorena.com/feriayoreciclo/
So, in some areas you might still see trash on the ground, but at least you know people are working on cleaning it up.
6. This place might not be as affordable as you’ve heard –
Let’s just say it like it is. A lot of companies are hyping up Panama, telling you that it’s the most affordable place to base your retirement. You’re being told that you can find super-affordable rentals, you can buy food for half the cost of what you’d spend in the U.S., and utilities are crazy cheap.
Panama City is definitely not the cheap retirement haven it used to be. It’s hard to find a low-cost rental in a desirable location. Like most major cities in the world, Panama City is a popular destination, right on the water, and living downtown can cost a lot. In that same area, electricity will be high, and grocery costs will probably be a lot like what you’re used to, even more expensive for some items if they’re imported.
However, this doesn’t mean you can’t retire to Panama on a shoestring budget. You absolutely can. You just have to know how to do it.
You have to face the facts about Panama City. It’s expensive now. Expect to pay at least $1,200 to rent a decent place in the city (and that’s on the low end). Out in the interior, it’s still very possible to rent a place for under $500 a month. I’m not going to go into this too much, because I just covered it in my article The Real Cost of Living in Panama, which you can find by clicking here.
Panama is not like the U.S. You won’t walk into a Target or a Walmart and buy everything you need right there in one spot. You will find places like El Machetazo and Discovery Center, where a variety of items are on the shelves, but I’m telling you, warning you, if you rely on one store to get everything you need, you’re going to spend a small fortune.
You have to learn to shop like Panamanians. This means buying your fruit and vegetables at the Saturday market or any other fresh market around town. If you live in one of the small towns where fish is brought out straight from the docks each morning, buy your fish from the street side vendors. With a family of 6, I buy certain things at PriceSmart (member shopping, like Costco) like meat and juice, but I buy toilet paper at the regular supermarket. If you learn what to do and what not to do, you can live in Panama on a fairly low budget. You can read my article about PriceSmart shopping here.
I put a Real Supermarket Prices article together, which you can read here, and afterwards I got a lot of email responses about how Panama didn’t seem any less expensive than peoples’ home cities. The reason for this is I tried to put items on the list that people would be familiar with, so they could see what those prices are like here. I also tried to put some Panamanian brands on the list. You can buy a $5.39 pack of Chips Ahoy, or you can spend $1.50 on a similar local brand. As I mention in most articles, you can’t buy all imported goods if you want to save money.
Water is usually very inexpensive in Panama and so is trash collection, but electricity…wow. It totally varies. I’ve heard a lot of people tell me their electric bill is well under $100 per month. My sister-in-law is shocked if hers goes over $30, but she’s rarely home and never uses an air conditioner. If you run your AC all day, and you live in a pricier area, you could see bills of $300 per month or more. I know because I’ve received bills that high.
Living in a place like Boquete, Cerro Azul, El Valle de Anton, or Volcan, you’d rarely use the AC, so your electric bill would be very low. However, if you’re living in the penthouse suite in a Marbella condo and running the AC all day (Panama City is hot), expect to pay more for electricity.
All that said, if you can learn to live like a local, you can still save a lot of money retiring in Panama.
7. Customer service isn’t great (for the most part) –
If there’s anything that will probably drive you nuts about living in Panama, it will be the general lack of a good customer service mentality. I’m really into customer service. I always have been, so it bothers me a lot when I’m paying for a service and someone rolls his or her eyes at me, or just refuses to help…it’s pretty aggravating.
I’ve always found customer service to be a serious issue in Panama, but I’m noticing now, that it seems to be about the area you’re in. It’s unfortunate, but true, that if you go to a popular restaurant near a lower income area, the service just seems worse. Then, you go to the same restaurant in an upscale mall, and it’s a totally different experience.
When I taught customer service techniques here in Panama awhile back, I was told by many of my Panamanian students, that the reason they didn’t provide great service is that tips are always low. I can see how that would be a factor. People are used to paying very little in Panama, so I imagine the tips are quite low as well. I think a lot of it has to do with employers not making the employees feel like they have a vested interest in the company. They’re getting paid a very low salary (many times by foreign employers who came here to open up shop and save money), they clock in and out, many work more than 5 days a week, and they go home just to do it all over again. You’ll rarely see sales initiatives in place or rewards for employees. That’s a shame.
This means great things for us though. We have the opportunity to completely change things. As customers, we can help by smiling, being friendly to the person serving our food, leaving a fair tip, and making sure we’ve actually told the server that we appreciate their great attitude and a job well done. Doing that, we might be able to change the poor customer service mentality.
As business owners, you can lead the way by providing great service yourself and teaching yoru employees how to do the same. Motivate your employees. Make them feel a part of something bigger. And for cryin’ out loud, if you come here to open up a business, be a good employer. Treat your employees with respect and pay them more than the bare minimum. You’ll probably still save money. Just sayin’.
8. Construction noise in the city –
This might not be much of an issue in the interior, except maybe parts of the Pan-American Highway being reduced to one lane because of construction, but in the city, construction noise is always around.
So much is happening in Panama, all over the place, and with all the work going on, you’re bound to be annoyed by some of the construction noises. And if the sound of the jackhammers, wrecking balls, and other equipment doesn’t bother you, you might hate, or get a kick out of, the constant whistling and yelling you’ll hear every time a pretty woman walks by the site, as work halts and workers step to the ledge to check out the action down below.
The good news is it’s quite entertaining to see everything halt, like a Broadway musical number is about to begin, and see the guys yelling their praises to the passing women. Also, it’s good to know that so much progress is happening. I’m excited to see what new businesses will spring up around the city. There’s so much change going on all the time. It’s exhilarating.
9. Traffic –
If you’ve read anything about Panama, I’m sure you’ve read about the traffic issues. Panama City is gridlock traffic during all rush hours, which is a good portion of the day. Trying to leave the house anytime between 7am-10am in the morning, and 4pm-8pm in the evening, is a bad idea. Just avoid it if you can. Unlike any other place I’ve lived, there aren’t many shortcuts here. You can’t really dodge the traffic because if there’s an alternate route, everyone else already knows about it.
Living in the interior, you might avoid most of this traffic. Unless it’s carnaval time, any other holiday, or a long weekend. Many Panamanians escape the city whenever they can by heading to the interior. So, if it’s Holy Week, and you want to get to Coronado, you might find yourself in some pretty heavy traffic on the highway. We went to David during one of the long holiday weekends (I can’t remember which one). We avoided all traffic headed out there, had a great time (did the Volcan video which you can see here) and all was great…until the drive home.
We left early in the morning, before sunrise, to head home, knowing everyone else would be driving back to Panama City this day too. We were flying home, no traffic at all, but then decided to stop for breakfast. That 30-40 minute break was a big mistake. By the time we got to the entrance to El Valle, traffic was bumper to bumper all the way back to the city.
So how is any of this good? Well, when you stay in Panama City during any of these long holiday weekends, you find the streets open up with hardly any traffic. It’s amazing. Everyone has gone to the interior.
And as far as the daily traffic grind, again, things are getting better. The Metro trains are scheduled to start running this year, many of the buses have been taken off the road, and hopefully traffic will start to ease up. If traffic congestion really bothers you, just move to one of the small towns in the interior where a lot of people write bikes. That would be great.
10. Getting things accomplished, step by step by step –
I’m sure you’ve all heard of the mañana attitude (where things move very slowly, especially anything relating to the government) here in Panama, but there’s one other issue you might notice when trying to get anything accomplished. Several employees will be involved in whatever it is you’re trying to get done, whether it’s buying a cheeseburger, getting a work license, or anything else.
For example, for one of the jobs I had here, I needed to go get a copy of my police record. I went to the building that issues these, to make sure I could prove that I was an upstanding citizen. I stood in line at one desk, to request the form I needed. When I made it to the counter, the lady told me I needed to go to a different area of the building to pay the small fee I was required to pay (I think it was only $1). Then, I needed to go back to the original lady to get the form stamped. I kept thinking, “Why can’t I just pay her, have her stamp my paper, and be on my way?” It doesn’t work like that here.
At one of the social security hospitals here, I stood in line with my wife to explain what we were there to do. We were given a form and told to take it to the doctor. So we went to his office, knocked on the door, interrupted his conversation with a patient, just so he could sign the form (I guess agreeing to see us), then we had to go pay at a cashier window, then go back to the first counter…you get the point, and this was all before actually getting seen by the doctor. Once the doctor prescribed our medicine (after the exam), we had to do a similar process to get the meds (including visiting the pharmacy first to make sure they had them before going to pay and then returning to get the medicine).
For the final step in getting my cedula, I had to go to an office on the second floor of the Tribunal Electoral office to turn in my paperwork. Then, they sent me downstairs to pay. At that point I got a little bit lost. I’d paid and couldn’t figure out what to do next. I got into the wrong line before I was told I needed to go back upstairs to the original office I’d been in. So I did. They did what they had to do and then sent me back downstairs to get in line to have my photo taken. Then I was told I needed to come back another day to pick up my ID card at a completely different desk.
For a great example of all this, read my steps to getting a Panamanian driver’s license here.
This might all seem a little bit crazy, and I’ll never agree that it’s efficient, but when you think about it, it’s all a big checks and balances system. If four people are handling pieces of the process, it’s a lot harder for one person to take a payoff and speed up the process for certain friends or crooked businesspeople. It ensures everyone is equal.
Plus, it helps lower Panama’s unemployment rate. Panama is great at making sure its people have jobs. I’m not kidding. I counted 14 employees at the Burger King in Costa del Este. And only 3 customers at the time. This is great for the employees and makes the job a lot easier for them. Now, 14 might be overkill, but I can tell you when I was a teenager, and only 2 of us were on shift to man the front counter and the drive thru window at the ice cream joint where I worked, I would’ve loved to see 12 coworkers respond for backup.
Bonus #11. Your DVD player might not work
If you haven’t already switched to streaming all of your movies on Netflix or any other online venue, you might still have a DVD player. I do.
When I moved to Panama, I had a container shipped with all of my belongings, from Columbus, Ohio, to Panama. There was no way I was leaving my 500+ DVD collection behind. Since it took awhile for my stuff to arrive, and I wanted a second DVD player anyways, I bought one here too.
If you don’t already know, DVDs sold in the U.S. have a region 1 code built into them. Canada falls under region 1 as well. Panama is region 4. I didn’t know all this when moving here. What does that mean to you?
If you have a DVD player that’s purchased, for example, in the U.S., it’s going to play region 1 DVDs, but unless it’s a multi-region player (many are nowadays) it won’t play discs from any other region.
So, when I bought my DVD player in Panama, it was a region 4 player and it wouldn’t play any of the discs I brought with me from the States. I figured out what the problem was and took the player back to the store. I asked for a multi-region player. The attendant assured me the next one I bought was multi-region. It said it was on the box. Still, it would only play the movies I’d purchased in Panama, not the ones I brought from the U.S.
I took the player back to the store again, and was sent to some little room where they could test it. I brought a region 1 disc with me, and the guy was unable to get it to play. Then, I saw him play around with it a little bit, he punched a code into the remote control, and bam, it started playing my region 1 disc. I went home, happy to be able to finish my season of Friday Night Lights.
Everything was fine for awhile, until my container arrived and I set up my surround sound DVD system from the U.S. It wouldn’t play my Panamanian DVDs. Same issue as before, but the other way around. I remembered the guy putting a code into the remote control at the store, so I started doing a little bit of digging around online. I found that almost all players can be unlocked so that they play discs from any region. It’s a very easy process.
You really just have to go to Google and type in “How to unlock my Panasonic 57R43.” Of course you’ll need to substitute what I typed with the make and model of your player. I used the following site, just now, to find the code for my Philips DVP5990 player. http://www.videohelp.com/dvdhacks?dvdplayer=Philips+DVP5990&hits=50&Search=Search
You’ll see on that page, if the link works, that the step by step instructions for unlocking my player, in other words making it region free, are as follows:
Press the Setup button
Select the Preference Tab
Press up/down key to select “0”
And hit menu to exit.
Sometimes you’ll have to open and close your disc tray and power off the player for a certain amount of time. Different players have different instructions. Hopefully this will help you be able to once again use the DVD player you paid good money for. I think this works for Blu-Ray players too. I tried with a PS3 and couldn’t figure it out.
Well, guys, I hope you didn’t find my post too negative. That truly wasn’t my intention. I just wanted to clear the air and be honest about some of the things I’ve seen and heard lately online and on the social media sites. Panama is not a perfect place. No place is. But I love this place and hope you will too.
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Thanks for reading,
P.S. this article was originally written on 1/23/14 so some things may have changed by the time you read it.
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