Safe, Quiet, and Expat Friendly – Costa del Este, Panama’s Easiest Place to Raise a Family
Check out that view from the balcony of my in-laws’ penthouse suite. Kids are taking part in some sort of baseball camp in a cleared out, wide-open park you’re not likely to see in many other parts of Panama. This is Costa del Este, and while it’s definitely not what you’d call a budget lifestyle option, it’s one of the most comfortable areas to base your life out of if you’re raising a family.
This is the reason many of the U.S. Embassy’s employees live in the gated communities here. It’s located right off the Corredor Sur, giving you quick access to the city and an easy commute to the airport in the opposite direction. I was hesitant to write about Costa del Este so early in our Panama For Real reporting, because I don’t want to scare away people who’ve heard you can retire to Panama on social security income or retirement funds. You definitely can, and I promise to report on all of the towns in this country, both high-end and much more affordable, but I feel that Costa del Este hasn’t received the attention it deserves.
From reviews I’ve read in expat blogs and other online forums, it seems that there are mixed emotions over Costa del Este. Some seem to feel that it’s an upscale neighborhood where those who can’t afford to live there feel set aside, and unwelcome. Others feel it’s a paradise on the outskirts of the city.
I love Panama, and every part of it has its own appealing qualities, but every once in awhile I need a little bit of escape. I want to shop in supermarkets with wide aisles and a smorgasbord of imported goods. Costa del Este is that time away I need ever once in awhile. If you wanted to live in Panama, but not feel that culture shock, this might be the place for you. I often try to compare parts of Panama with places I experienced back in the U.S. To me, Costa del Este is like the Wellington, Florida, of Panama.
It’s set apart from the rest of the world, has parks, boutique shops, cafes, cool lunch spots, gyms and other health/fitness related places, and also has an Industrial Park and a Business Park. You could live in Costa del Este, and basically, never step outside if you didn’t want to. But what is it like to live there? I’ll go over that, detail by detail.
Finding Your Way Around Town
Let me take you on a short trip through the area, first, so you can get a sense of its layout. Three entrances give you access to Costa del Este. I’ll start at the most local of the entrances, which is located between the old town (Panama Viejo) area and the Parque Lefevre area where Chanis is. This is on the street called Avenida Cincuentenario. As you enter, you’ll see a shopping center on the corner with a large, yellow, Cochez construction supply store and a Furniture City.
As you drive onto the main road that takes you to Costa del Este, you’ll notice a small, brand new shopping center on your left hand side. This little center is full of great things. I use the Panama Air Facility there to pick up mail and packages. It’s one of those places that sets you up with a Florida address and you receive everything here. I don’t pay a monthly fee, but I do pay per pound. To check them out, you can click here and be taken to their site.
As you head back into the neighborhood you’re forced to turn left, unless your plan is to head into the Industrial Park which is straight ahead. I spent time driving around the Industrial Park, so I could tell you a little about it. Picture taking, and video taping, is prohibited. Most of what you find back there is the warehouse and distribution side of many of Panama’s businesses. Grupo Rey, the company behind the Rey supermarkets has an office and warehouse there. So does Office Depot, El Costo, Xerox, Felipe Motta (Panama’s most popular wine and liquor store), and even the Todo a Dollar (dollar store). This is also where you’ll find the main FedEx service center.
In addition to the distribution warehouses, other businesses can also be found in the Industrial Park, so don’t assume you have no business there if you’re not in the shipping industry. I found a couple of martial arts schools and even the swim school you see in the photo below. A sign next to this swim school advertises karate, yoga, pilates, and even dance classes. If you’d like to find out more about this school, you can give them a call at either +507-203-7165 or the cell phone +507-6785-5194. The school’s website is www.fusionpanama.com.
I tried to sneak a few photos on the inside of the park, but security pounced on me quickly. An officer rode up to me on his bicycle with his hands out, kind of like, “What’s up with you?” I hid the camera and pretended I was looking for the martial arts school. He gave me directions and I was on my way.
If you’d skipped the park and veered left, you’d find yourself on the main thoroughfare that takes you straight across Costa del Este. Like a bubble, with the ocean lining one half and high-rise condos and small outdoor shopping centers lining the other, this upper class area is confined to its own.
The main avenue is marked by car dealerships, pharmacies, banks, and condos. As you head deeper into the neighborhood you’ll find an opportunity to turn right, which will lead you towards the second entrance to Costa del Este, and to the business park.
The business park is where the new Westin hotel is located, which I imagine would be a great place for some of the business located in the park or even in the Industrial Park to host seminars or conferences. It’s also becoming a nice little hangout as its bar and restaurant usually has special offers and events. Aside from this hotel, there really isn’t any other place to stay in Costa del Este. Now, don’t get me wrong, you’ll find plenty of hotels in the city, but nothing within walking distance to this business park. I haven’t checked the Westin rates, but if, for some reason, you need to stay a night or two in Costa del Este, click here to go to their site.
The business park is another area where taking photos is frowned upon. I snapped the following picture of two friendly workers goofy around for the camera, right before security ran out from somewhere in the building’s parking lot, like a stealthy ninja, and demanded that I stop taking photos. This is something I’ve gotten used to as security guards in Panama take their jobs very seriously. I’ve had security shout at me in front of a synagogue in Bella Vista, in front of a social security office in Chitre, and at a mall in Cerro Viento. I need to either learn to conceal my camera a little better, or buy faster sneakers.
At the business park you’ll find the base for companies such as Ensa (Panama’s electric company), Adidas, Copa Airlines, several banks, and even Johnson and Johnson. On a typical weekday, it’s common to see vendors parked curbside offering their wares to hungry businessmen and women. Aside from a couple of restaurants, you won’t find many lunch spots within walking distance of the business park. I did see a sushi place and two other small restaurants, but none of these looked like bargain snack choices for the average worker. Most streetside vendors sell full lunch with meat, rice, and beans for around $3.
At the end of the business park I found several very nice highrise condos. All of which would have a view of the ocean just over the tree line and past the tall corporate buildings.
This is an area that’s still up and coming, and at the moment there’s a lot of construction going on. So, if you can get past the daytime noise, this could be a great place to set yourself up, as I saw a new clinic and a pharmacy opening up within walking distance of these condos. Plus, a new mini-mall is being built right next to the Westin Hotel. I’ve posted a photo of the sign outside the construction site, below, with the phone number incase anyone is looking for a new plaza to open a business.
Exiting the business park and back out on the main avenue, you pass more banks, restaurants, and shopping centers. Two gas stations are located in the area, and for any sports car enthusiasts, a Porsche dealership is located right on the corner of the main street and the one that leads you towards the business park.
Pass the Porsche dealership and you’ll find a couple of other auto dealers such as Land Rover and Jaguar. Just beyond that is the new Burger King (for all of you luxury car driving onion ring snackers). Make your first left and you’ll find yourself headed towards several of the area’s gated communities. These are the real gems of the area. I like condos. It’s nice to have everything in one building, with all of your general upkeep taken care of, but when you have a house, there’s nothing like being in a safe, gated community.
That’s what Costa del Este provides, peace and serenity. I couldn’t get past the gate to any of these communities, but what I liked seeing the most were the playgrounds inside some of the gates. It was clear that these were set up with families in mind. Outside of the gates, along the clean, well maintained sidewalks, residents jogged peacefully, and one man was pushing a stroller along as he got his afternoon workout in.
Out on the main avenue, you’ll find the Super 99 supermarket. Aside from the Riba Smith, which is also located in Costa del Este, this Super 99 is one of the most Americanized supermarkets in Panama. It’s filled with imported goods. In fact, this was the first place in Panama I saw Reese’s Pieces. Granted, they were like $7 a bag, but still…they were Reese’s Pieces. Plus, in the Super 99 building you’ll also find a Powerhouse Gym, Handyman Solutions, Rock Burger, a preschool, and if you drive into the parking garage, and make your way up to the second floor, you’ll even find Healthy Pet Clinic Orion, a 24-hour urgent care vet. I don’t even have a pet and I was excited.
Farther down the road you’ll find more shopping, but as you pass the roundabout, if you keep going straight, you’ll reach more of the gated communities and one of the area’s schools.
A right at the roundabout will take you past the Farmacia Arrocha shopping center and back towards the boardwalk, which is a fantastic place to take your kids or walk your dog. It’s a straight shot all the way down the length of the water that runs past Costa del Este. It’s quite and calm though. Only residents of the area seem to use it, unlike the popular Cinta Costera or Amador Causeway. This boardwalk is great for bike riding, jogging, rollerblading, etc. It’s not a scenic place to workout, because the trees and shrubbery completely block the view of the water, but it’s still a great place where you won’t be bothered. At one end you find more gated communities and at the other you’ll find yourself planted back in the center of the business park.
If you’d taken a left at the roundabout you’d find yourself at Riba Smith and Novey (like a small Home Depot). All around the Riba Smith there’s construction going on. A new BMW office just opened its doors, and above it is space for rent as well as in both buildings to its sides. Plus, a brand new community is being built alongside the corredor.
Passing the Riba Smith will lead you either to the Corredor Sur on the right hand side (headed towards Tocumen) or over the bridge and towards the Chanis (Parque Lefevre) area. Go around the roundabout and towards the Corredor Sur entrance near the gas station to head back towards downtown Panama City.
Now that you’ve gotten a feel for the land, let me tell you more about what it’s like to live here.
What’s Life Like In Costa Del Este?
The day to day life in Costa del Este seems to be one of ease. Unless you have to travel into the city each day for work, you can count on leaving the traffic woes behind. Aside from the congestion that builds up at the entrances to the corredor at rush hour, moving around town is quite easy. And the roads are in terrific condition. Just watch out for the speed bumps, all of which are large, but fairly smooth, as you make your way around.
Banking in Costa del Este wouldn’t be a problem at all. Banks are everywhere, and with them, ATMs. Bango General, HSBC, BAC, Scotiabank, Global Bank, and Multibank are just some of the ones I saw in town. While finding a place to park your money shouldn’t be a concern, finding a place to park your car might. One of my biggest complaints about the area is the lack of parking. Trying to eat lunch at one of my favorite lunch spots, Wing Zone, is always a pain in the arse.
Costa del Este is definitely a place for families, as evident by the number of preschools around town. One preschool claims to teach your kid five languages before he/she reaches 1st grade. Maybe I should attend their Spanish class. Learn Spanish like a toddler…maybe that’ll work for me.
It’s the availability of so many schools and classes that I think makes Costa del Este such a great place. Along one street you can find a birthday party center, several preschools, ballet and dance classes, and even a music center.
Not only are there classes for the kids, but adults, especially those trying to stay fit, have a variety of options. On the street located behind the Super 99, I saw a Strong Pack Crossfit gym and as I mentioned before, in the Super 99 building is Powerclub Gym. Down the street, in the same shopping center as the Farmacia Metro and the Scotiabank is a Pilates studio. If martial arts is your thing, there’s a Combat University along the main street, and a couple other martial arts schools located in the Industrial Park.
Two schools call Costa del Este home. On the street that leads into the business park, you’ll find AIP, Academia Interamericana de Panama, a school shrouded in mystery (a mystery to me because I couldn’t get a good photo due to the shrubbery blocking my view). I guess you’ll have to visit their website to get a closer look inside. To do that, go to http://aip.edu.pa/. The other school is located just beyond the roundabout, where the Farmacia Arrocha is. The first street to the left (after the roundabout) will lead you towards Colegio San Augustin. It’s not a college like in the U.S., but a grade school. To find out more about this school go to www.colegiosanagustinpanama.com.
Attached to Saint Augustin is a small Catholic church. This was the only Catholic church I saw in town, but remember, everything in Panama City is close, so you can find probably any church imaginable within a short drive away. Inside of Costa del Este, I also saw a Chinese Evangelic church and at the end of the business park there’s a synagogue.
When talking about daily life, a major concern for some people is medical care. Great medical care is never far away as long as you live in the vicinity of downtown Panama City, which again, is only a ten-minute drive along the Corredor Sur, from Costa del Este. There, in Punta Pacifica you’ll find the Johns Hopkins afiliated Hospital Punta Pacifica. Down the street from there is the Centro Medico Paitilla.
In Costa del Este, I saw several small clinics, a couple of laboratories, a dentist, and even the 24-hour urgent care pet clinic I mentioned above. Two major pharmacies, Metro and Arrocha, have branches in town. One of my wife’s favorite places to shop is the Farmacia Arrocha in Costa del Este. Similar to a Walgreens or a CVS, Farmacia Arrocha has a little bit of everything.
One thing that always comes up on expat blogs is the question about utilities. I’ll cover the cost of utilities a little more later, but as far as reliability goes, utilities in Costa del Este are fine. Yes, high-speed Internet does exist in the area, and WIFI too. With cable TV you have several options, from Cable and Wireless (www.cwpanama.net), Cable Onda (www.cableonda.com), and SKY satellite.
Water and electricity in Panama are always frustrating. Most of the time that depends on where you live, but with the issues we’ve had the past year or so, it doesn’t seem to matter. Water goes out from time to time and seems to stay out sometimes for a day or two. It’s getting better though. Electricity is sort of the same way. It blinks out sometimes, completely randomly, but then pops back on and all is well.
Smartphones and Blackberry’s are readily available here, and you can even bring your phone from back home and pay somebody a cheap fee to unlock it for you. No longer will you have to deal with the high priced contracts (unless you want to, we have those too). Several cell phone companies exist here, but the most popular are Movistar (www.movistar.com.pa), Mas Movil (www.cwmovil.com), Digicel (www.digicelpanama.com), and Claro (www.claro.com.pa).
Keeping in touch with the rest of the world is another topic that comes up sometimes when discussing the move overseas with potential expats. In Costa del Este there are two main PO Box companies, not to mention the other two biggies, FedEx and DHL, both of which have locations in the area. As I mentioned earlier in the article, I use Panama Air Facility to receive mail and packages. Mail Boxes Etc. also has a location in one of the shopping centers along the main avenue. What stopped me from signing up with Mail Boxes Etc. was the monthly fee. I don’t like paying when I don’t have mail coming. I’d rather pay at pick up.
The use of Whatsapp (on Blackberry and Smartphones), Skype, and Magic Jack, have made keeping in touch with the rest of the world much easier. Of course there’s always email too.
Shopping for groceries in Costa del Este can be a great, but dangerous (for your wallet) thing. All of the stores in this area can be pricey, especially if you buy imported goods. Four of my favorite places to shop are located here. Riba Smith, with its wide aisles and overabundance of imported soda, beer, cereal, and snack foods is my number one wallet draining shopping haven.
Other great grocery stores in Costa del Este include the Super 99 I mentioned earlier, Deli Gourmet (which is like a very mini Whole Foods-and a great place to grab lunch), and the Mini Super Fruteria Mimi, which is one of the best places to pick up fresh produce.
What’s It Cost To Live in Costa del Este?
As I’ve mentioned a few times, you basically have two options as far as living arrangements go in Costa del Este. You won’t find a two-story flat, and I don’t even think you’ll find a duplex anywhere in town. Living in Costa del Este, you can either rent or buy a house, or rent or buy a condo, referred to as apartments here. If you’re looking for a place online, don’t be surprised if you don’t see the word condo anywhere on a listing. Panamanians refer to anything other than a house as an apartment.
At the time of this article, using www.compreoalquile.com, my favorite place to find quick prices on real estate without having to speak with an agent, I found the following prices. The least expensive rental I found was $650 per month for a two-bedroom, but that was in a complex located right at the beginning of Costa del Este, across from the Industrial Park. It’s actually located in the place in the photo above. Now, this might be a fine place to live, but keep in mind this was the only listing I found this low.
An apartment located in the buildings pictured above, which is closer to the center of Costa del Este, over near some of the small shopping centers and the Burger King, I found two-bedrooms starting at $1,100 per month. At the $1,200 point there were quite a few on offer, and from there the prices just keep going up. So, you can expect to pay as little as $1,100 or as high as your imagination takes you for one of the luxury suites on the penthouse floor of many of the area’s condos.
Homes in the area were renting for well over $3,000 a month. To purchase a single-family home you can expect to pay $400,000 on the low end. The average seemed to be right around $600,000. These would be the homes I mentioned earlier in the gated communities. Of course, if you bought a home you’d need to tack on whatever the monthly maintenance fees are. To buy a condo/apartment in Costa del Este, you can expect to pay $175,000 on the low end, but the average seems to be right around $230,000, and of course, it goes way up from there.
You can expect to pay around $250 per month for electricity, at least. My brother in law told me he pays between $300 and $400 per month, but his family lives in a very large, 2-story penthouse, and they run the air conditioner quite often.
Take a look at the budget chart I’ve put together for Costa del Este. You’ll notice that I set the rent at $1,400. As I mentioned before, I did see rentals in the $1,100 range, but $1,400 is a better representation of the average rent price.
Monthly budget for a couple living in Costa del Este, Panama (City)
Rent 2 bedroom condo $1,400
Electricity AC can make this higher if you're not careful $250
Gas For cooking and dryer (2 small tanks) $10
Telephone/Internet/Cable Package deal $45
Phone card for calling the U.S. (if you don't use Skype/MagicJack) Telechip International, for 5 hours talk time $5
Food For 2 people $400
Entertainment Most of this cost would come from dining out as there's not a lot else to do in the area $200
Routine Doctor Visit Once per month for each person ($25 each) $50
Medication Varies, but for my monthly high blood pressure and diabetes meds this is what I'd pay just to give you an idea $45
Getting around town Buses and taxis $20
Travel outside of town By bus $40
Extras Other things you may need $50
Total Monthly Expenses For 2 people $2,515
As always, your budget could be higher or lower depending on your lifestyle. If you eat less imported foods, that $400 food allowance will be much lower. Costa del Este is an easy area to walk around, so your in-town travel could be on the low end. Electricity can be much higher if you run your air conditioner all the time.
Don’t forget to compare the Costa del Este budget with the budgets from other destinations we’ve visited by taking a look at the Budget Snapshot page in the main menu up top.
What’s The Real Skinny?
So what’s the roundup? The overall word on Costa del Este? This is place that’s great for raising a family. It’s an escape from the hectic hustle and bustle of Panama City. It’s a place you go to leave the traffic and loud noise behind, where the sidewalks are clean, the neighborhoods are safe, and everything is opened up, not all squeezed in the way most city neighborhoods are.
This isn’t an exciting place. There is no nightlife other than the opportunity to dine out with friends and maybe have a few shots of tequila at one of the two taco restaurants in town. Entertainment in Costa del Este consists of morning jogs, walking the dog, rollerblading along the boardwalk, eating out at Tre-Scalini (the new Italian restaurant), or maybe heading out to the fields or parks at the center of town and watching the kids practice football during American football season.
The wildest nighttime activity would be shuffling over to the outdoor mini-soccer field and watching some of the local teams go head to head. Right next to the field is a vendor cart that sells barbecue ribs and it’s usually packed at game time.
Not having a night scene isn’t a bad thing though. Nightlife hotspots like Calle Uruguay in Bella Vista and Zona Viva at the Amador Causeway are a short drive away, and living in Costa del Este, you’d have the opportunity to go out, have a good time, and be back in your bed in no time, sleeping safe and sound in your gated community.
It’s a place where the neighborhoods are likely to have a community center, a pool, and a playground. Your kids can go to school without sitting on a bus for two hours each way. While most of Panama City wouldn’t be considered a walking town due to the traffic and horrible condition of the sidewalks, in Costa del Este you can get out and walk to your favorite restaurants, cafes, or sushi bars.
To sum it up, I say, if you can afford to live in Costa del Este, and you’re not somebody who needs to be right in the thick of things, in the heart of the city, but you want to be close enough, it doesn’t get much better than this place.
To see the video of Costa del Este, click here.
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