When considering a move to another country, one of the most important decisions you will make is how immersed you want to be. Some choose to move to a community full of Expats where they will feel a little more comfortable, while others wish to move to one predominately populated with locals/natives. One of the best things about Panama is its diversity and the fact that you can find either of these or even a combination of the two.
Because moving to a new country can be daunting, and even downright scary, many people feel more comfortable moving to a location with a higher Expat population. These communities have a tendency to be a little more modern and have more of the amenities that you are accustomed to having in your home country. Most of the restaurants, pubs, pharmacies, grocery and hardware stores you visit will have English-speaking employees and have a larger selection of “import” items. Visiting a spa or salon will be somewhat similar to what you are use to as many of the same services will be offered (albeit at a lower price). You will be able to share your experiences living in your new country with the other expats you meet while you are out exploring your new country. Some people only hang out with other expats when they first move to Panama. For some, this is the perfect place to start when first relocating because you are living in a different country yet surrounded by those who are more like you, which can make the transition easier.
On the other hand, many people, myself included, chose to move to a different country to be able to experience a different culture and live amongst those who are not just like us. Moving just a couple of blocks from downtown Boquete, into a predominately-Panamanian neighborhood, was exactly what we were looking for. Although many of the employees in the businesses we frequent speak some English, the people and houses around my apartment are mostly Panamanian. Because of this, I am forced to step out of my comfort zone and try to use my rudimentary High School/College Spanish. At times it is downright painful because I KNOW what I want to say and can do so in my head, but actually verbalizing it is another story! Thank goodness for my Panamanian friends who know some English as well and are more than willing to help!
When we first moved to Panama and knew no one, we would go to the same places every weekend to do something we love: sing karaoke! Music unites everyone! It was here that we began to make a lot of friends, not only with the ones who sang, but also with the employees and owners of the restaurants. Some of these have become our closest friends and are actually more like family. 99.9% of these are NOT expats and I consider my life a lot richer because they are part of it. We have learned about some amazing Panamanian traditions and have been included in many celebrations. We have loved being part of a community that is so willing to share their traditions and culture. It has also allowed us to reciprocate and teach them a little about the U.S. and some of our traditions and interests including college football. While it hasn’t always been smooth sailing, it has been one of the best experiences of my life.
Even if you initially move to a neighborhood that has many expats, you should make the effort to get to know Panamanians too. Panamanians are the friendliest people you’ll ever meet.
Panama is so very diverse and offers so many choices for those thinking about relocating here. While not one choice is right for everyone, you definitely will be able to find the right “niche” for you. It may even be that you want to start in a more Expat area and then transition to a different part of the country once you feel more comfortable. Perhaps you chose just the opposite and decided to become more immersed at first only to discover you miss being around others a little more like you. Thankfully, Panama has something for everyone and once you find that perfect balance, you will know, and feel like, you are truly HOME.