Panama is consistently ranked as the #1 place to retire. The lower costs of living, great weather, and diversity are all big draws. Panama’s famous Pensionado Visa offers discounts on everything from 25% off airfare to anywhere in the world, 20% off restaurants, 25% off utility bills, 50% off entertainment like movie theaters, and more. Panamanians are welcoming, warm, and friendly.
Of course, Panama is not just for retirees. Many non-retirees move to Panama. And Panama is attracting families with children too.
We are often asked where is the best place to live in Panama. The answer is… it depends. It depends on what kind of weather you prefer (near beaches or mountains), it depends on your budget, it depends on if you prefer an urban setting. small town, or being away from the crowds, and it depends on the kind of social activities you like. There IS a perfect place for you in Panama.
Let’s take a look at Panama’s geography. When you look at Panama on a map, surprise, it’s orientation is east to west. The Pacific Ocean is to the South and the Caribbean Sea is to the North. Panama is a small country with a total landmass area of 75,517 square kilometers (29,157 square miles), which makes it slightly smaller than South Carolina. Panama has many different climates, microclimates, and a diversity of natural and man-made amenities in each of the popular expat destinations. Understanding these will help you determine the best place for YOU to relocate to in Panama.
Now, it’s time to start checking off some boxes of what you want in your new home with an overview of some of the most popular, and almost unheard of, towns and areas to help narrow down your search a bit more. We visit many of these areas during a Panama Relocation Tour and discuss the pros and cons of each area to help you decide which area is best for you.
Tom wrote, “wow……I have been reading International Living for almost 10 yrs and this article really blew me away…..comprehensive and a great snapshot of Panama…….good job…..
The list is divided into two groups:
Popular Expat Areas and Undiscovered Local Towns
Popular Expat Areas – These include most of the towns you have probably already heard about or read about on the internet. Panama has had a steadily increasing community of expats in pockets around the country for the past 10 years or so. Some of these neighborhoods and towns have a well established networking group, community events and activities, and they tend to have more of the amenities you may be used to from back home. The larger areas will possibly have an international school nearby. Usually, they are near the larger hospitals, supermarkets, and have a greater variety of restaurants. There will be a larger population of English speaking expats and locals, so if you find learning Spanish difficult, you may be more comfortable where you can communicate easily. These are all comforts that expats are used to and have re-created to some extent, in their new home. Because of this, the prices for real estate, dining out, and other items will tend to be somewhat higher in these areas. When it comes to price, there is a give and take in most areas. You have to decide what you MUST have in your life to be comfortable and happy, whether it is a golf course down the road or your favorite deli items in the supermarket. You can eliminate places which don’t have the things you want and need in your life so you can narrow your search for the best place to retire in Panama. Soon, you’ll start to pinpoint the spot that is ideal for you!
Undiscovered Local Towns – Some of the places on this list may be new to you. They offer a very different kind of freedom. What they lack in amenities, they usually make up for in natural beauty and local culture. There are going to be much fewer expats living in these areas and the predominant language will be Spanish. If you can’t speak the language, be prepared to become immersed! I think immersion is the fastest way to learn Spanish. There may not be any fancy restaurants nearby or an international school, but Panama is a small country and it is never more than about a 30-60 minute drive to get something you really need. Life in these towns tends to be pretty basic. The word in Spanish is “Tranquilo”. If you are looking to stretch your dollars, you will find $2-3 Panamanian lunches and a simple (run down) Panamanian house can cost around $40,000 to $50,000. Often only a few blocks from a beautiful and secluded beach! If you can life without daily spa visits and enjoy peace and simplicity, you may find your dream home in one of these spots.
So, what are the pros and cons of selecting an existing expat community versus an undiscovered local town? The existing expat communities will already have a lot of English speaking expats and often in these towns more locals speak English too. There will be many more social activities for you to get involved in. It will be a much easier transition for you to relocate to an existing expat community even though the prices may be a bit higher than the undiscovered areas. There will be many North American style houses to rent or buy in the established expat communities.
In the towns which have not been discovered by many expats, there will be fewer English speaking locals and very few expats. The undiscovered towns may be more affordable but you’ll have a harder time making the transition to living in Panama unless you speak fluent Spanish. Finding a decent house to rent can be a real challenge in the mostly undiscovered towns.
An example: Coronado and Boquete each have 1000s of English speaking expats. Some of the other towns have less than 100 expats and some of them live there part time. The more expats in a town, the more English will be spoken at restaurants, banks, doctor’s offices, etc. The fewer expats in a town, the more Spanish you’ll need to learn.
Popular Expat Areas:
If you enjoy city life, Panama City is the place for you. It is a noisy, cosmopolitan metro with almost nonstop activity. Panama City is home to the Panama Canal and the largest International Airport in Latin America. More names you are probably familiar with can be found here like Hard Rock Hotel, Krispy Kreme, TGIF, and even Starbucks Coffee. It is not a huge city by North American standards, with a population of around 2 ½ million people, but it has pretty much everything you need and more.
There are constant cultural and musical events and festivals to attend. You will never get bored in Panama City! International events in Panama include an annual Jazz Festival and even a Beer Fest! Fine dining and ethnic cuisine is abundant, along with several giant shopping malls, a couple of boat harbors, nearby golf, museums and theater.
Many expats I know in the city use public transportation to get around. Parking and driving can be a nightmare and it is usually not more than $5 to get from point A to B in the city. If you use UBER, it is even more affordable and the cars are much better than a taxi. There are a number of good international schools in the area and supermarkets with everything from organic to kosher. Minimal culture shock should be experienced moving here.
The real estate will be mostly condos, with a few beautiful single-family homes in neighborhoods like San Francisco. One friend rents the ocean view condo where I snapped the photo above for $1200 per month, furnished. That’s a good deal. You can find condos in town for sale for $200k and up. A couple of the more popular expat areas are El Congrejo, where prices are slightly less, and Casco Viejo, where prices have sky-rocketed over the past few years. It will cost considerably more to live in this eclectic Historic–Spanish part of town. Many of the crumbling old buildings have been purchased and refurbished, turning the area into an art and cultural center and popular tourist destination.
There has been tremendous growth throughout Panama with new neighborhoods, new roads, new hospitals, airport expansions and much more. This growth is expected to continue in Panama. The new Panama Canal expansion will be a boost to the already robust economy, starting in 2016. Tourism is a focus of the new administration and this will only help draw more tourists to the country. An indication of what’s to come can be seen in the Tocumen Airport Expansion Project which is expected to increase capacity from 5.8 million to 18 million by the year 2022.
Coronado & Nearby Pacific Beaches
Playa Coronado was one of the first Pacific Coast beaches to develop a large expat community. Only about an hour from Panama City, over the Bridge of the Americas, it is close enough to visit the city to attend an occasional event. Coronado is a gated community at the beach with an international school and plenty of nearby shopping and dining. Nothing near the scale of Panama City, but enough to keep one satisfied. There is golfing and a nice beach to walk, swim, or go surfing.
Prices in Coronado are not low unless you compare them to Malibu, California, or Hawaii. A nice home can easily be half a million dollars or more. There are condos you can pick up for a decent price, in the $300k range, in the nearby beach area called Gorgona, just steps away but not quite as developed yet. There are several other beach areas expanding out from Coronado. They tend to get a little less costly as you move away from Coronado and the beach. Beachfront will cost you, but a few blocks inland you might find a deal. There are several large condo developments popping up along this Pacific stretch of coastline. The Coronado area is the most expensive beach area in Panama. More affordable options are San Carlos, Santa Clara, Chame and Playa Blanca.
Coronado, and the surrounding beaches, have the second largest expat community in Panama (Boquete is #1), so you won’t have a problem with speaking English here.
El Valle de Anton
Heading north from the beach towards the mountains in Coclé, you have to drive up a winding picturesque road and then down into the caldera of a dormant volcano to find El Valle de Antón.
Because of its higher elevation, El Valle has a pleasant year-round climate. It is about a 2-hour drive from Panama City. El Valle is actually a popular second home location for wealthy Panamanians from Panama City, who go here occasionally to escape the heat of the city. There are beautiful homes in this upscale area, and you will find resorts, spas, and fine dining as well. Weekends can be a little busy with visitors.
The natural beauty and abundant birds and other wildlife make this area a nature lover’s paradise. It is one of the few homes of the endangered Golden Frog. There are numerous hiking trails and waterfalls where you can take a dip if you desire. Even replenish your soul in a natural thermal hot spring!
In El Valle, there are a few homes in the $200k+ range, but most are over half a million. It is a luxury lifestyle in a resort-type setting. You’ll need to drive to Coronado or Penonome to get to a hospital, good shopping, or private schools.
About 50% of the homes in El Valle are owned by wealthy Panamanians who only come to El Valle on the weekend or a Panamanian holiday.
Chitre’ is the largest city on the Azuero Peninsula, home to about 100,000 residents, and one of Panama’s oldest settlements. Colonial records indicate that there was a village here as early as 1558. Today, it is one of the most developed cities in Panama.
A combination of rich history and modern amenities make Chitre’ an attractive place to live today. This is one of the driest regions in Panama and the closest beach, Playa Agallito, is about 15 minutes from town. The beaches along this stretch of the peninsula are known for birdwatching and nature preserves.
The city is also the cultural and historic capital of the region. It is a very lively place during the yearly carnivals! Some of the best artisan clay pottery is found in the area and pieces dating back to 5000 BC can be seen in the local Herrera Museum. A focal point of Chitré is the San Juan Bautista cathedral, built in the 18th century.
Even with all of the modern amenities in place, life is relatively inexpensive in and around Chitré. A nice rental will run you about $500 -$600 per month. However, I know people who are renting in Chitre for under $500 too.
A huge new modern hospital should be finished in 2019. Part of the hospital is already open. A doctor visit here will set you back $2.
Las Tablas is about 30 minutes south of Chitre. Note there are 10 beaches between Chitre and Las Tablas. Las Tablas has a population of about 15,000. There is a modern hospital, restaurants, shopping and more. It is only 11km or about a 10-minute drive to nice beaches. Real estate, including rentals, is more affordable in Las Tablas than in some other popular cities in the Azuero Peninsula. Las Tablas has everything you need. And Chitre, which has even more amenities, is a short 30-minute drive North. The photo below is a fully furnished two-bedroom beachfront rental for $875 per month just 10 minutes outside of Las Tablas. There are several really nice beach communities less than a 10-minute drive from Las Tablas.
Welcome to the second-largest city in Panama! David is located in the Chiriqui Province and is where all of the outlying town’s people make their occasional trek for supplies. You can find just about anything in this town, including traffic reminiscent of Panama City! There always seems to be a flurry of activity in David. There are popular fast-food restaurants, like Burger King, Pizza Hut, and McDonald’s, which feel like a treat if you only go once every few months!
David is home to a small international airport and is a hub for national flights, as well as Costa Rica, which has a border only one hour away. There is also a small marina on the coast. David is one of the hottest cities in the country, but fortunately, it is only a 30-minute drive up the road to Boquete where the weather is Spring-like all year!
In David, there is a large expat community spread out throughout the city and suburbs. Some of the best medical facilities in Panama are in David, as well as access to International Schools. There are hotels, shopping (including a PriceMart; the Cosco equivalent in Panama), dining, cultural activities, and a large MultiPlex Theatre, where you can see $2 movies in English, dubbed in Spanish, or with subtitles. English is spoken in many establishments in David today. A huge new mall is under construction in David.
Ahhh, Boquete! Home of the largest expat community in all of Panama, and it only takes one visit to understand why. The high altitude and pleasant year round weather are only a small part of the picture. The expat community is very active in this little mountain town, known as “The Little Town with a Big Heart”. They have an annual charity event that brings in over $100,000 to fund local charities. There is a weekly Market, where everyone has a chance to catch up on current events.
Located just 30 minutes up the mountain from David, you are close to major hospitals, schools, and shopping. Ten years ago, Boquete was a sleepy little town where retirees began to come for the climate and cheap real estate. Today, good prices are a lot harder to find in the area.
Boquete is now considered a top retirement destination and is priced accordingly. Rentals range from $500 to $2500 in Boquete and many have spectacular mountain views. There are many weekly social events plus the annual Boquete Jazz and Blues Festival. Note, when I moved to Boquete, I rented a 2 bedroom 1 112 bath furnished house for $600 a month. A similar house now rents for $695 which includes all utilities and a weekly gardener.
Volcan is the place to get in on a location that many say reminds them of Boquete 15 years ago. Volcan is at a similar altitude to Boquete with pleasant weather and an abundance of natural beauty. Volcan is a more rural mountain town; though it is growing in popularity quickly as many retirees. You’ll find a tranquil lifestyle only about an hour drive from David.
Most of the produce in Panama is grown in the region around Volcan and Cerro Punta. You will never have a shortage of fresh veggies here, and the growing expat community has a weekly Farmer’s Market so you can get organic produce, aquaponic products, home-baked goods, and crafts. There are also two new supermarkets that are modern with a great variety of products. Volcan does have a 24/7 hospital with an emergency room.
Volcan offers a peaceful, country lifestyle that is only a short drive away from the conveniences of the city, hospitals, and schools. Expats have recently discovered Volcan so it will not be long before there are new restaurants and cultural activities. Prices are in a wide range here, but you can find very good deals if you take the time to research the area. Rentals start about $500 per month. There are fewer social activities than Boquete. But, if social activities are not important to you, Volcan should be on your shortlist because you get more for your money in Volcan.
Bocas del Toro
Other than Colon, Bocas del Toro is the only major town on the Caribbean side of Panama.
It feels separate from the rest of the country and, truthfully, it feels like you are in a completely different country. Bocas is unique! Take a plane from Panama City to the main island, or drive 3 hours over the mountain from David to get to Bocas del Toro. You’ll find that just about everyone speaks English in this area, which is a population mix of Panamanian, Indigenous Indian, Caribbean, and a large community of expats.
Bocas is a water town. Most of the people and activities are located on one of the islands that make up the archipelago with the capital, Bocas Town, being on the island of Colon (not to be confused with the city at the Panama Canal!). Very few people own cars and transportation between islands is via water taxi, or “pangas”. There is a strong tourism market here that revolves around beaches, nature, and boating activities. It is a popular backpacker destination so there are a number of hostels and clubs in the main towns.
There is a Caribbean influence in the architecture and laid back attitude of life in Bocas, where you can shop at an organic market in the morning and take yoga classes in the afternoon. However, one drawback is that it is very isolated from the rest of Panama. There is a small hospital and schools, but prices are a bit higher here since everything has to be shipped in. Real estate has a big range in price so you have to search for a deal. There is also a lot of R.O.P. property (right of possession/ not titled) due to being on islands and beachfront, so be cautious of claims that they can easily be titled. Extra due diligence is needed when purchasing a property in this area.
Undiscovered Local Towns:
Santiago is actually a large city by Panama standards. I mention it under the ‘undiscovered’ heading because it still has relatively few expats living in the area. Most people driving across the country on the Pan American Highway, will stop in Santiago, which is right on the main highway halfway between David and Panama City, to get a bite to eat or buy souvenirs at the numerous vendors and local handicraft shops.
Over the past few years, I have been watching the major construction projects and growth happening in this lesser known expat destination. There are a number of good restaurants, hotels, and supermarkets in town. The Santiago Mall, a mega shopping complex, recently opened with dozens of stores and dining choices.
This is a convenient and central location for the country of Panama, and you can find affordable housing in and around the town. I found a 3 bedroom home in a gated community for $81k and numerous lots and small farms in the surrounding areas in the $20k range. It is a short drive up to the cool mountains of Santa Fe or down to the beaches of Santa Catalina and out to the Marine Reserve on Coiba Island for a weekend retreat.
There has been a lot of hype in recent years about this tiny mountain town, a two hour drive along a scenic winding road above Santiago. The Veraguas Province is the only one in Panama that borders both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and there is talk of plans to build a road across the country here, that would pass right through Santa Fe. This has caused a few speculators to invest in land in the area. Parcels can still be found at very low prices, but there are also land re-sales that are overpriced. Brush up on your Spanish too, since there are few expats here.
The climate and natural surroundings are idyllic in Santa Fe. There are beautiful mountain vistas, streams and waterfalls to create a backdrop for a lovely home. A small self-sufficient farm would be a good option here. Land can be purchased for around $10k per acre and re-sale homes are not readily available yet. This is a boots-on-the-ground ask the locals kind of town.
If you are looking for a place to “get away from it all” this may be it! Although the very basic necessities, local fonda-type restaurants and small convenience stores are in town, living here will mean an occasional one hour trek down to Santiago for almost anything you will need including doctors, hospital, shopping and good restaurants.
Isolation or peace and serenity ~ it’s all perception!
Bugaba & Boqueron
Bugaba is the hub of the farming and agricultural lowlands in Chiriqui. It’s a mid-sized town with a “Caballero” (cowboy) feel. If you are a fan of horses and rodeos, this could be a perfect location to investigate further. It’s about halfway between the Border of Costa Rica and David, 30 minutes either way, and right on the Pan American Hwy. This puts good hospitals and additional modern conveniences only a short drive away. There are not a large number of expats in the area, so prices are still very affordable. You can find decent homes for sale in the $100-150k range. Maybe less, if you take the time to shop around. There are many small farms in the outlying areas that would be perfect for growing produce or setting up a gentleman’s estate. A nice, comfortable lifestyle can be had in Bugaba and it is not a far drive for an occasional visit to Costa Rica, Volcan, David, or the nearby beaches.
A short trek up the hills near Bugaba, the weather is cooler and a few expats have discovered a nice rural community called Boqueron. Country living that is not more than 30 minutes to town make this location a nice option to consider today.
Playa Venao is a surfers paradise about 35km southwest of Pedasi. Playa Venao has hands-down the Azuero Peninsula’s best surfing, with waves breaking in both directions that are perfect for every skill level. The grey-sand beach here is pleasant, extending in a huge arc and surrounded by a curvy hillside. At present, this area is relatively undeveloped, but it is beginning to see a boom of projects as the word gets out about its laid-back vibe and awesome surf. Playa Venao is at the southwestern tip of the Azuero Peninsula. There is affordable housing in the area but you’ll need to drive about one hour to Pedasi to go shopping or an hour and a half to Las Tablas. If you like spectacular ocean views and being away from the crowds, Playa Venao might be perfect for you.
Playa Venao is accessible from Pedasí by both car and bus. A bus makes the 34 km trip twice daily, and Pedasí has an airstrip that welcomes commercial flights.
So many amazing choices!
Panama is a small country with a vast variety and diversity in lifestyles and price ranges. There is something for everyone!
Join us for a 6-day all-inclusive Panama Relocation Tour to see many of these areas and learn how you can live BETTER for LESS in Panama.
Or, to really get a “DEEP DIVE” into one or more of these towns, sign up for a PRIVATE TOUR! During a Private Tour, you’ll get to see a variety of different neighborhoods that fit your budget, see rentals, meet expats to live there, see the best places to go shopping, and more. A Private Tour is customized to see and do the exact things you want to do. And, a Private Tour only has you and your family plus the Private Tour Guide.
Here’s what Sean J had to say about his Private Tour in the Azuero:
My Private Tour Guides spent two full days showing me around the entire Las Tablas and Chitre areas. We visited at least 10 rentals on several beaches including Playa Uverito, Playa Estero, and Pedasi. Having lived in the area for many years they are both very knowledgeable about day to day needs of ex-pats looking to move to the area. We went to supermarkets, barbers, pharmacies, food stands, and our Private Tour Guide took the time to find my car rental place and talk with them about a problem with my rental. My Tour Guide took me to buy some pants when it got too hot in my long jeans and they were very inexpensive. My Private Tour Guides answered all my questions about the area, rentals, internet service upgrades, and even met a few ex-pats along the way. Lunch was delightful at a small but very clean Panamanian restaurant in Pedasi. Contacting them was very easy and friendly on WhatsApp; they even booked my bed and breakfast for three nights before I arrived. After touring with them I feel confident that I will move there when my time in Boquete is completed and start a new adventure on the beach! I would highly recommend them to any Panama Relocation Tours members if they are in the Las Tablas / Chitre areas.