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6 Things To Know Before Retiring To Panama City

04/10/2015 12:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015

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The Organization of American States' seventh Summit of the Americas has brought 35 heads of state, including both U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, to Panama's fair shores this week for meetings taking place today and tomorrow, April 10-11. It's the first time ever that Obama has come to Panama...and the first time Cuba has participated in an OAS summit since the United States engineered its expulsion from the organization in 1962. The cast of characters for these history-making meetings will also include the Sandinista Daniel Ortega from Nicaragua, Venezuela's President Maduro, and Señora Presidente Cristina from Argentina, who stands out, even in this crowd, for her love of the dramatic.

Panama worked hard to prepare herself for this historic occasion and has never looked better. Downtown Panama City boasts lots of fresh paint, just-planted palm trees, and neatly pruned bougainvillea.

Panama has been recognized for more than a decade as one of the world's top choices for retirement. This is truer today than ever, for all the reasons you've likely read about. This country boasts developed infrastructure and international-standard health care and can be an affordable, welcoming, accessible, beautiful, diverse, and turn-key retirement choice. Of course, though, no place is perfect.

Panama's advantages for the retiree are well-touted. I've been spending time in this country for more than 15 years and living here full-time for seven. I'm more bullish on what this country has to offer the would-be retiree than I've ever been, but, knowing Panama as well as I do now, my perspective is well-rounded.

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Here, therefore, are six things worth knowing about retiring in Panama City. Specifically, these are things I wish I'd known before arriving on the scene in Panama's capital in 2008:

  1. Don't underestimate the effects of the heat and humidity. They're relentless and ever-present, rainy season or dry. Our first few months in the city, we were confounded by Panamanian friends who insisted on driving wherever they went, even if only around the block to the corner shop. One reason the locals drive everywhere if they can, we finally came to understand, is the climate. You can escape the heat and humidity in the mountains. Living in Boquete, for example, you'd want to invest in a sweater.
  2. The second reason locals drive everywhere in Panama City is because this country's capital is not pedestrian friendly. This is perhaps the most important piece of advice for the newcomer to Panama City: When walking down the street, never take your eyes off your feet. Watch where you're stepping. I've known three people who have broken limbs as a result of falling into manholes without covers or tripping over obstacles while looking up at the pretty tall buildings.
  3. Carry an umbrella with you every day during rainy season, whether you think you'll need it or not.
  4. Remember that this is a land of fiestas and mananas. Holidays are taken seriously; appointment times are not.
  5. Don't expect Panama City to be a bargain. This was a cheap choice for cosmopolitan living 10 years ago but no longer. Panama City offers real-world shopping, dining, and nightlife at real-world prices. You can live in this city on as little as1,000 a month, but you'd be living a modest, careful life. A more realistic budget starts at about twice that. Other spots in Panama, outside the capital, do still qualify as super-affordable retirement options, including Santa Fe (for highlands living) and the western Azuero coast (for beach life on the cheap).
  6. The best way to live in Panama City is to live above Panama City. This was the advice of a friend I made after living in Panama City for two years, offered in response to my complaints about PC life at street level. Down on the ground, even in the poshest neighborhoods, Panama City can be hard to take. Despite its First World trappings, this is still a developing city. It's also a Latin city. In other words, Panama City at street level is dirty and noisy. However, Panama City from any elevation can be beautiful. So don't buy or rent a house. Choose instead an apartment in one of the many high-rise towers. From your window, you could enjoy sweeping views of the Bay of Panama, the city skyline, the offshore islands, Casco Viejo, and the entrance to the Panama Canal. Panama City on the ground can be a challenge; Panama City from above can be a delight.

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