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In a word: No.
We’ve spent the last 2 weeks on a road trip through Panama in hopes of finding a temporary home. It didn’t happen.
We’d heard from lots of people (most recently my brother-in-law) that Panama was an expat’s dream. It was said to be beautiful and fun, warm and sunny, full of other expats and English-speaking locals, great food, low cost of living, and modern.
That does sound great. But wasn’t what we found when we arrived in Panama City.
The country just feels…. well, like it’s dying. Panama City, once a thriving, modern city full of American expats and rising in world esteem, is feeling more hollow than vibrant. Prices for homes, transportation, and food match those in suburban America, American expats have mostly left as U.S. government slowly releases it’s hold on the country, and the city experiences heavy rainfall 9 months of the year. The result is that foreigners are less interested in relocating there, so locals are losing their motivation to keep the area safe, clean, and modern. But people seem to be in disbelief over this turn of events. Businesses refuse to respond with lower housing costs or updated infrastructure, even driving Panamanians out of the city.
It paints a bleak picture.
We spent 4 days in Panama City, and I was too inexplicably downcast to even be there that I was hardly interested in exploring. Whit and I would have a few hours of homeschool time in the morning while Ben got some work done, then he would have to convince me to leave our AirBnB. We still ended up exploring quite a bit of the small city, though, including the Panama Viejo Ruins, the Colonial Old Town area, a tour of the Panama Canal, local cafeteria-style restaurants, lots of Catherdrals and handicraft markets, the main city park, using the subway system, and more, but I never actually enjoyed it.
Like I said, the city just feels dead. Sad, gray, and dead.
We decided early on that Panama City wasn’t for us, but that other cities and towns around Panama might be. We’re not ones to give up, after all!
We rented a car and took the one main road through the country to check out Valle de Anton, Boquete, Santa Catalina, and Coronado. We had some incredible adventures and saw some beautiful landscapes along the way, but we continued to feel like the country is going downhill and we didn’t want to be pulled down with it.
Our favorite stop was Valle de Anton. This small town is built in the middle of an inactive volcano crater, which makes it the perfect destination for hikers. The surrounding mountains are beautiful, and the area’s small local population has really developed the adventure aspect. We explored multiple waterfalls, hiked a mountain shaped like a sleeping woman, went on a horseback ride up a mountain, and went to a volcanic mud hot springs. It was really a magical place, but much too small to actually live in, unfortunately.
Our second stop was another popular expat city: Boquete. Retirees started moving to Boquete after the small town was featured in AARP magazine, so it’s developed a reputation for being full of, well, American reitrees. They come to enjoy the crisp mountain air and beautiful landscape, but we didn’t find that there was too much to do. There are some hiking trails and waterfalls, but we had even more rainy weather during our two days in Boquete so we weren’t able to explore those things very much. We did take our car on a drive around the surrounding area as much as possible, though, and still decided it left much to be desired.
Santa Catalina was a pretty crazy experience. It’s another very small town, like Valle de Anton, but designed around beach and island tourism vs. mountain hiking. Our AirBnB was a beautiful duplex in a now-defunct vacation home neighborhood just outside of town. The original idea was that Santa Catalina would become a desireable escape town, and wealthy foreigners would buy individual lots in this neighborhood 10 minutes away. What they now have, however, is a road in the middle of nowhere with three pseudo-mansions on the property which lay vacant most of the year. I can understand the idea behind the neighborhood, and the idea of having a quiet neighborhood with a thriving resort town nearby is definitely appealing, but the area hasn’t really developed.
Santa Catalina is a beach town, with the main draw being boat tours to the Las Coibas islands. That’s what we came for.
Las Coibas is said to be some of the best snorkeling in Central America. We had a frantic time booking an island tour, finding our tour guide, picking up breakfast on our way to the tour, and then waiting in the rain for someone to direct us to a boat, and then speeding over huge swells in the middle of a storm for over an hour for our first island stop, but the snorkeling really was great! Ben and I took turns snorkeling and watching Whit (who was more interested in finding cool shells and inspecting hermit crabs) on each of the three island stops, and we both saw sharks, rays, barracudas, and loads of absolutely stunning tropical fish. I’m very proud to say that I did not freak out when whitetip sharks swam very close to me two different times!
But the main highlight of the boat tour? When one of the other boat guides touched Whit’s privates while waiting for his snorkelers to return. Ben and I were both nearby when it happened, but weren’t paying attention to Whit as he played neared the boats. He suddenly screamed, came over to us, said the boat captain had touched him, and a few seconds later started crying. He had been touched a couple other times while we were living in Vietnam, but we knew this time was different. He had never been so upset about it (Ben was another story) before. We talked to him about consent and made sure he felt better, then Ben took a picture of the guy and reported him to the head boat arranger guy the next day. Poor Whit.
Our fourth and final stop was Playa Coronado. Coronado is 1-2 hours (depending on traffic) south of Panama City, and where we heard lots of expats end up. The area is the closest swimmable beach to Panama City and, therefore, full of gated golf and beach house communities. We also found it gorgeous and barely left our AirBnB to do any exploring. Why would we? We had a walkable golf course, three swimming pools, private black sand beach, and mango trees at our disposal!
When we did leave it was to explore the mountains 45 minutes away. We found some great walking trails and waterfalls, which definitely could keep someone entertained if living in Coronado. But, again, we just knew it wouldn’t be the right fit for us. It was practically deserted, crawling with police, and too expensive. What a shame.
I’m so glad we took a few weeks to really explore this country, but I could never live here. The landscape is more varied and beautiful than I expected, there’s lots of nature to explore and interesting things to do, the local food is absolutely divine, and there’s a strong local identity, but it just felt too empty and bleak for us.
For a vacation? Absolutely. In fact, there’s a lot we left unexplored that we’d like to go back and see. But as a spot to live for an extended period of time? Not for us.