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Moving to Panama With Children

Remember what it was like to be a kid in the 50s and 60s?  That’s what it is like for kids in Panama today!

Almost every time I am driving around downtown Boquete, I see 11-year-old Pryce Bailey riding his bicycle around town while grinning from ear to ear.   He looks so happy!  It is so refreshing to live in a place like Boquete Panama where kids can enjoy a safe haven and just be a kid… and where parents can let their kids explore without worrying about them leaving the house.   So, I asked Pryce’s Mom, Ellen, to write an article about how Pryce and their family are adjusting to living in Panama.

By Ellen Bailey

expat kids in Panama

“You’re moving to a third-world country, why?? Will you have electricity, cell phone/internet service, indoor plumbing?”  And my favorite comment (to my then 11-year-old son),  “You’ll be kidnapped and held for ransom if you move there!”  All of these are just a few of the questions and comments my husband and I heard when we decided to sell everything we own, pack up what little remained and move to Panama with our 11-year-old son, 2 cats and a Chihuahua.

Why you may ask as many have, would you make this decision? There really is no simple answer but for a little background, prior to 2013, my husband and I both worked full time and our son went to public school.  We were active in church and our son played the usual sports – baseball, football, took karate, etc.  We lived a pretty “normal” life.  Just like many in the United States we felt overworked, overwhelmed and under appreciated.

Then, in an instance, our whole lives changed. 

My mom suffered a devastating stroke in March of that year and because of a delayed/misdiagnosis was left a mere shell of her former self.  The once vibrant, active 77-year-old was now 100% dependent on others.  So after many months of rehab and skilled nursing home stays, we brought her home to live with us.  Our entire world was turned upside down as I had to quit my job to stay with her 24/7 and my dad who suffered from vascular dementia had to try and live without his wife of 50+ years.  In August of that same year, he was hit by a car while in a crosswalk and succumbed to those injuries 2 months later.  In that same month, my father-in-law suffered several mini-strokes and we moved him from FL to live next door to us so my husband could take care of him.  Our care-taking roles continued as we continued to do a lot of soul searching.

Steve and Pryce Bailey in Panama

We decided we were tired.  Tired of working all the time and spending very little time with each other, tired of all the rules and regulations being imposed on us, tired of being told how to raise our child.  We didn’t like the path that we saw the U.S. was heading down. This wasn’t the same country my husband and I grew up in and we didn’t want what it was becoming for our son.  We also wanted him to see that there was more to life than suburban Birmingham, AL.  I wanted him to see there were people who didn’t look like him, dress like him or have what he had.

So after visiting Panama twice, once on Jackie Lange’s Panama Relocation Tour in September 2014, and again in January 2015, we decided to make this our new home, and our journey here began in August of 2015.  Although my mom was going to move here with us, she passed away in June of 2015, and then my father-in-law died the week before we left.

What an amazing and healing time for all of us it has been!

Playa Blanca Panama

Because my husband grew up in the Panhandle of FL and I spent many summers there, we originally chose to move to the Pacific beach town of Playa Blanca.  We lived on the 9th floor of a 12 story condo building just a short walk from the beach.  We had breathtaking views of the Pacific out of our living room windows and mountain views from our kitchen.  Playa Blanca which is about 30 minutes from Coronado, the most developed beach community in Panama, and 5 minutes off of the Pan-American Highway is a very clean and safe community.  There is only one way into and out of the resort past 24 hour security guards.

When we first moved there we enjoyed swimming in the huge pool our complex shared with one other building, walking on the beach, and even the bus rides into Coronado and Penenome’ to shop. These 30 minute rides were to the closest grocery stores, hardware stores, nice restaurants, etc.   Once we bought bicycles, my husband and son enjoyed riding all over Playa Blanca exploring our new home.  My 11 year-old would ride through the complex and down to the mini super by himself once we had been there a few weeks and he became more comfortable.  I never worried about his safety as the security guards knew him and always watched out for him.

moving to Panama with Children

In fact, this was where he learned his first Spanish words!! Before we moved, we had already decided to home school even though he had been to public school from K5-5th grade.  At first, he really enjoyed it.  What child wouldn’t want to spend a few hours online working on lessons, at home, and then be able to hit the pool or beach?  About 3 months into it though, he started missing being around other children.  There was one other expat child that was his age who lived in a building next to ours but except for the weekend and holidays when Panamanian families would visit from the city, he was the only child.  When it was time to make his Christmas list and his one wish was for a friend, we knew it was time to move to another more child friendly part of our beautiful country.

I contacted Jackie who lives in the mountainous highland town of Boquete which is about 60 minutes from the Costa Rican border.  She insisted we come to visit as Boquete is full of kids and activities for all of us.  The week after Christmas we met with her to find a new home in Boquete.  We had stayed in Boquete for a week after her Panama Relocation Tour and I had fallen in love with it then.  I loved the quaint town area, the gorgeous views and the amazing weather – it’s like Spring all year as opposed to the mid to high 90s we were coming from in Playa Blanca.  Although we looked at several different places, we chose one that was located right behind what we would consider an after school program in the U.S.  After packing up (again) and moving 5 hours West, we arrived in Boquete which is where we now consider home.

The first day we were here a precious Panamanian boy yelled to my son, “Vamos, amigo” which means come on, friend! It was at that moment I knew we had made the right decision!

Moving to Boquete Panama with Children

That was almost 6 months ago and my how things have changed!  My son is almost a permanent fixture next door.  He completes his school assignments and heads out the door to play soccer, tag, or volleyball with the kids that are in the program.  There are different ages that attend all day long from 7:00 – 5:00.  He eats with them, participates in Bible and language classes and was even allowed to ride on the bus to take the children home.

If he is not there, he is often riding his bike through the neighborhood to go play with the expats on the next street over or their Panamanian neighbor.  He has become close friends with them and our next door neighbor who is a few years younger.

Since we moved to Boquete my husband has become the Service Manager of a rental car company here.  My son loves riding his bike down to see his dad or just around town.  We live about 2 blocks from downtown and thus the nearest stores.  He and I will walk together to shop or if we only need a couple of items he will go by himself.  I have NEVER worried about his safety here either.  In fact, he knows when the street lights come on, he better be home! Does this sound familar to some of you?

My advice to anyone even considering moving here with your children is to just go ahead and do it!!!

expat kids in Panama

All the things that I mentioned in the beginning of this article that I wanted for him to experience, he has.  Those people who look differently – yes, he hangs out with them every day.  Those children who don’t dress like him or have as much as he does – yes, he sees them wearing the same clothes day after day and how thankful they are for the meal they receive at the after-school program which may be the only one they have every day.  He has also seen where they live with no water, power, or sometimes with no walls.

And then there is his Spanish.  Until we moved here perhaps his only Spanish was, “Yo quiero Taco Bell!”  Now, his Spanish is better than mine and I studied it in both High School and College!! He now wants to go to an actual school here since he is so confident in his speaking ability and to be around his friends.  My son has always been outgoing and popular.  He knew everyone and everyone knew him.  However, being forced out of his comfort zone when moving here, he is, or was, the outsider, the gringo, the American. Now he feels like he belongs no matter his nationality.

Not only has he had wonderful experiences here in Panama we have also been to Costa Rica twice.  He has not only endured as many as 5 bus rides in a day, processed out of Panama and into Costa Rica through immigration, but also walked 2 miles in the pitch dark, up the side of a mountain to where we were staying in Costa Rica.  Would this ever happen in the U.S.?? Absolutely not!! I would be terrified that something may happen to us in a strange town after dark. We had 3 different groups of people that night trying to help us find our way to the Hospedaje where we were staying!

These are experiences I hope he will never forget.  Although he has never been shy, his confidence has grown exponentially!

Not only is our son thriving in this wonderful town of Boquete, his dad and I are loving it, too!!

Although my husband is working, the stress of the job is nothing compared to what it was in the U.S.  It is a very laid-back environment and the men he works with are great! I am finally starting to relax again and just BREATHE! After losing two of the most important people in my life within two years of each other (my mom and dad), I am beginning to be able to let go of the grief, anguish, and I must admit, the anger I felt.  Seeing my child flourish and my husband much more relaxed has helped me to start healing.

Panama expat kids

The fact that my son is free to just be a kid without worrying about his safety is, well, refreshing! 

The beautiful mountain view, clean, fresh air, and cooler temperatures are very cathartic! Every Sunday we go for an afternoon drive just to explore and appreciate this extraordinary place we call home.

This was absolutely the right decision for my entire family – even our animals love it here!  So what are you waiting for? Life is too short to keep saying I’ll do it when my children are older or when this or that happens.  Do it now!! They will never forget these experiences that you will be able to give them once you take that leap of faith!!

See this video with Ellen, Steve and their son Pryce

See this video of Pryce talking about growing up in Panama. He was 16 in this video.

Jackie Lange

Jackie Lange is the founder of Panama Relocation Tours and lives in the highlands of Boquete Panama. She has helped thousands of people relocate to Panama.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Margit says

    Thanks very much for sharing your story, Ellen. I moved to Nicaragua with my then 8 year old daughter in 2010. We’ve made similar experiences in how easy it was for her to find friends and meet them without having to arrange a “play date” a week in advance (as it used to be in Ireland where we lived before).

    My daughter’s Spanish is excellent – although she didn’t speak a word before moving here, and she mixes easily with both local and expat kids. And because of the lower cost of living, she can follow her passion of horseback riding. We even got a horse ourselves. Would have never been possible back home.

  2. Jessica Oliveira says

    Are you still in Panama?

    • Jackie Lange says

      Yes, I live in Boquete Panama. No plans to move away.

  3. Jenine Schirtzer says

    Wow! Thank you so much for this article. I have an 11 year old son and my husband and I have been considering moving out of the US. We are currently in California and were thinking Costa Rica but I had some concerns. I’m now 100% sold on moving to Boquete. I’d love to connect with you about this if you are willing to. It helps to know someone when considering such a move

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