Just back from Panama, scouting what the country offers for retirees and relocatees, and especially comparing what Panama and Belize are doing.
Of course there are several sides to every story, but overall I was much more favorably impressed with what Panama offers than I expected to be.
It was an excellent trip, and I was knocked out by Boquete and other parts of the Chiriqui Highlands about 300 miles west of Panama City.
The country around Boquete is beautiful, with mountains up to about 11,000 feet and most homes and farms at about 3000 to 6000 feet, an "eternal spring" climate, coffee plantations and organic farms everywhere, few if any mosquitoes, and cheap prices.
I also enjoyed Panama City, El Valle about an hour and a half west of Panama City, and the Pacific coast of Cocle, where the beaches are very nice and with very little development.
I didn't care for Colon and while Panama City is impressive, with a big-city skyline and more than a million people, great and inexpensive restaurants, beautiful shopping malls, and overall very affordable -- living costs are probably one-third of those in a U.S. large city and less than in Belize City -- I don't think I'd want to live there.
Grocery store prices in Boquete and all over Panama are generally lower than in the U.S. and usually half of what you'd pay in Belize, gas about the same as the U.S. and about half that in Belize (I drove a Nissan Patrol diesel 4WD and paid about US$2.15 a gallon at most stations, and premium gas was never more than US$2.40). Produce prices in the markets are dirt cheap. You can buy a huge bag of navel oranges for a couple of bucks.
Panama has the best roads in Central America, and even in the mountains most of the roads are excellent. The Inter-American highway is partly four-lane, and the expressways around Panama City are first-rate divided highways (some are toll).
Booze and beer about one-third to one-half less than in the U.S. (even in small towns a liter of Stoli or Johnny Walker Red goes for US$12 to $14 and local beers are US$2.20 to $2.50 a six-pack), compared to US$6 in Belize, a big hamberguesa con queso and a mango smoothie at Java Juice in Boquete is US$1.75, a steak dinner at the best restaurant in Boquete is US$12, beer is 75 cents to a dollar in nice restaurants, and home building costs to North American standards are around US$40 to $55 a square foot. Boquete is only half an hour from David, the second largest city in Panama (about the same size as Belize City).
Panama offers good medical care, friendly people, most of the country is clean and well-kept, and you can drink the water almost everywhere. Panama's pensionado program is one of the best in the world, requiring only US$500 to $750 a month income and providing some real discounts and benefits for retirees.
The big difference in Panama is that the government actively is seeking retirees and the incomes they bring rather than driving them away, as the Belize government seems to be doing with its 15% property surcharge and other taxes and restrictions.
I think Panama also compares very favorably with Costa Rica. It is more like the Costa Rica I used to know 20 years ago than the Costa Rica of today, with its million tourists and Florida-level prices.
On the flip side, you absolutely need decent Spanish to get by -- I know I'd have to spend quite a bit of time getting mine up to speed -- and land costs in the Chiriqui Highlands are a little higher than I expected (though elsewhere in Panama prices are low, certainly far lower than in Costa Rica or most of Belize).
Unfortunately I did not get to visit Bocas del Toro this trip, the area on the Caribbean Coast to which a number of former Belize expats have moved.
I also didn't get to Isla de Cohiba in the Pacific, about which many Panamanians rave.
--Lan Sluder www.belizefirst.com
Living Abroad in Belize -- out from Avalon probably next month