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A Panamax ship being lined up to enter the new locks on the Caribbean side of the Panamá canal

I do not live in Panamá, so I can’t claim to be an authority on living in the country; however, when people learn that I have been there several times over the last two years, they often ask me if it is a good place to live, and I have a two-word answer…

It’s depends.

Panamá is Panamá 

If you are looking for a tropical paradise, where the cost of living is low, the people are friendly, and you will be unburdened from life’s annoyances, Panamá is not the place for you. In fact, there is no place on Earth like that. People who seek to find happiness elsewhere will never be happy anywhere.

Panamá is a beautiful and unique place. For the most part, Panamá is as safe to travel as most places in the United States.

It is also a country with a poor public education system, a government that at times seems brilliant, and at times seems self-defeating, and cycle of poverty that traps people and the economy.

Conflicting Lifestyles
Panamá is a small country, but culturally, it is really many countries. Panamá City is El Centro for all of Panamá, but is also a stranger to most of rural Panamá, with completely different values and attitudes than most of the rest of the country.

In addition, the influence of centuries of occupation by Spain, then France, then the United States has left a residual influence of multiple cultures and values. Each of those countries imported workers from other countries, which have introduced the cultures of China and Africa into Panamanian society.

In many ways, Panamá City is bigger than the country of Panamá. Almost half of all Panamanian citizens live in Panamá City and it is the epicenter for immigrants from neighboring Latin American countries. The question of who is a native of Panamá is almost impossible to answer, and within Panama City the question is almost irrelevant.

Beaches, yes, but not near Panama City

Beaches, yes, but not near Panama City

The rural Pacific areas, especially those within a two-hour driving distance of Panamá City, consist of an interesting mix and conflict of cultures. The original Panamanians of the rural regions were mostly quiet people living a rural life; however, several decades ago the areas near the Pacific coast became the envy of developers seeking to attract foreign investment in country.

It is important to note that the Panamá coastland is not one long stretch of sandy beach. Much of the coast is rocky with interspersed beaches. It is also important to know that Panamá’s primary land transportation artery, the Pan-American Highway, does not offer quick access to any beach areas. The nearest area beach area to Panamá City that is near the Pan-American Highway is about an hour drive, southwest from Panamá City.


Beachfront development along the rural Pacific coast

For the past three and a half decades, developers have targeted these rural beach area for condo development. This has attracted a mix of foreign and domestic buyers, that have different reasons for purchasing property in Panamá.

Foreigners, primarily from the United States and Canada, seek an inexpensive tropical escape from the cold; however, many of these investors are not wealthy. Certainly some buyers purchase a condo or house in Panamá as a second or vacation home, but many ex-patriots have moved permanently to Panamá with the plan to retire and/or live economically, perhaps with a side income in their new country.

Domestically, wealthy Panamanians have purchased beachfront condos and homes, eager to escape the city on weekends. 

The mix of foreigners with little spendable income, and wealthy Panamanians who run to their condo on the beach for the weekend, has created an environment that has all the look of a tourist-based economy without the expected inflow of tourism dollars, because the non-natives do not engage in tourist activities.

Overall, the result of the development of the rural beachfront communities has been a few successful grocery, household and furniture businesses, with a constant stream of failed enterprises that attempt to coax wealthy Panamanians and ex-patriots out of their condos and into their stores.

It should be no surprise that the natives have no great love for either the wealthy Panamanians or the ex-patriots. The rural residents also have no overt hate for them either. The natives have benefited from the influx of the invaders to their communities, but other than low-paying service jobs, the financial trickle-down impact has been minimal.

The income for rural natives is only enough to force people into working six-day weeks, and two or more jobs to maintain a minimal existence. At the same time, property values have skyrocketed creating a gentrification effect on the local people, driving them away from the highly sought after beachfront areas.

All this creates an unspoken, but real, conflict of lifestyles that a person should understand before they make a decision to live in Panamá.