My lovely wife, 76, and I, 75, recently had dinner with our friends Lesley, 51, and Ash, 57, who had just moved to the Algarve from Wales. Really a rather normal event in the lives of expats here, except for the fact that seven years before they were our neighbours (two doors down) on a cul de sac called Piombino in a gated community called Altos del Maria, 600 metres high on the side of a mountain in Panama.
Lesley had, in fact, during that previous time, suggested to us that, as part of our planned holiday in Spain and Portugal, we should definitely “check out the Algarve – I think you’ll like it”. We did and liked it so much we ended up moving to the southern coast of Portugal, while they moved back to Wales to take care of family business.
So, why am I mentioning this lovely coincidence? Well, because I actually know several other people who have moved from Panama to Portugal over the past few years – some of whom I knew there as active parts of the expat community (it’s a small country and I also wrote for an English-language newspaper); and I’m hoping, dear reader, that this Panama/Portugal connection can shed some light on the overall expatriate experience.
While the two countries are very far apart and quite different in many aspects, they do have something in common (besides beginning with the same letter – we never considered Paraguay or Papua New Guinea). Both countries, for the past decade or two, have often been listed by several different sources as “ideal places for foreigners to retire”. In fact, both have been named “the number one” or “best” retirement locations many times by those who make such recommendations.
With this and my own experiences in mind, I decided to investigate the motivations behind the decision to move here from there, as part of my ongoing consideration of the expat lifestyle.
Take Linda, 70, and David, 75, for example. They were casual acquaintances we knew from a golf course in Coronado, a community loaded with expats along the Pacific Coast, about an hour and a half outside of Panama City, across the bridge over the canal and along the Pan American Highway.
Before residing in Panama, they lived in London and then spent nearly two decades of their professional lives in Kuwait and Bahrain, working in the IT and oil-related industries.
When this couple, who are about to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, decided to retire, they chose Panama for a variety of reasons. David, who always pays close attention to finances, liked Panama because its economy was based on the dollar and, at the time of their move, the exchange rate versus sterling enabled them to find buying and renovating a house on the golf course very affordable. The tax situation also seemed conducive at the time.
They also liked the fact that Panama is always warm year-round, usually in the low 30s Celsius (high 80s low 90s Fahrenheit). I was amazed when my lovely wife and I returned to Panama for two summers before we moved here permanently and noticed that the temperatures in the Algarve and southern Spain (sometimes reaching the 40s Celsius) were often much hotter in the summer than in subtropical Panama (which never reached 100 Fahrenheit even in Panama City).
Then there’s Jamuna, 60, and Richard, 61, who often played poker with David in the Coronado area. Jamuna, who was born in Pakistan but grew up in Canada as did her husband, was a leading figure in the expat community, hosting very well attended weekly socials and publishing an English-language newspaper and internet site under the banner of Playa Community (which is a pretty good example of “Spanglish”). In fact, at one point, the newspaper published a serial novel, set in Panama, which I was writing a chapter at a time.
While Richard pursued his career in offshore finances, Jamuna became an accomplished wildlife photographer specialising in birds. Panama, by the way, is a birding paradise with over 700 species either local or migrating through.
Jamuna and Richard relocated permanently to the Cascais area just southeast of Lisbon. While Richard pays attention to finances, Jamuna (everydayartist.com) has pretty much retired and is taking it easy and literally gave her frame store back in Coronado to her employees when she left.
One of the areas in Panama that was very popular with expats, particularly Americans and Canadians, was a rather isolated town in a mountain valley called Boquete.
I now know a couple Judy, 63, and Paul, 71, and a single lady named Kathleen, 70, who each have moved from the rain forest of Panama to live in Castro Marim and Tavira, respectively. In fact, Judy met Paul, a French national, in Boquete, while she was running a tour company specialising in hiking the beautiful volcanic mountainsides.
Boquete, which has a rapidly flowing river through the town, is most known for a fabulous flower festival held every year. The area is also known for international prize-winning coffee.
Two very independent women both previously married, Judy and Kathleen knew each other in the small community but came to the decision to move to Portugal independently. Judy was considering moving on to Mexico, a country of her heritage with a real possibility of parting ways with Paul, whose focus was back to Europe.
When Paul surprised her with the idea of buying a villa in Castro Marim, Judy decided to join him and their romance has continued.
Kathleen, who had lived in Atlanta for around 30 years, was seeking a change and a new adventure and was inspired when Panama was named “country of the year to retire” by a magazine that promoted international living. Again, speaking to them individually, both reported that they initially enjoyed the cooler mountain clime but eventually grew tired of just how much it rained. Kathy pointed out that while Tavira has about 20 inches a year, Boquete has 114.
One thing that enticed both the ladies and my lovely wife and I was a government programme in Panama called the Jubilado Discount that provided everybody over 55, citizen or expat, a relatively generous discount for certain services.
As part of the Pensionado policy, foreigners who could demonstrate that they had a viable pension were eligible to become residents and then receive 10% off of eating out and entertainment costs and a very useful 25% air fare reductions as long as the trip originated in the country. There was a time when Panama was actively trying to recruit foreign nationals to take up residence and add their support to the local economy by allowing some generous tax breaks. Not so much anymore.
Because of its location attaching North and South America with a very busy canal running through it, Panama City was and is an international commercial hub, attracting many young ambitious entrepreneurs.
Drew Rosner, 41, was one of an attractive group I knew who lived in Casco Viejo, the old colonial section of Panama City, which when we got there nearly 20 years ago was experiencing a revitalisation as a UNESCO Heritage Site. As he was establishing his media business dealing with domain names (mediaoptions.com), Drew met and married his wife Anna, 35, and started a family. As were some of our other friends, Drew was interested in promoting Casco Viejo (literal translation old town), which was transitioning from slum to trendy area.
When he acquired the domain name cascoviejo.org, he used the site to provide information to newcomers and even profiled several expat residents of the area including yours truly, since I was a featured writer for El Visitante, a bi-lingual newspaper popular with visitors and residents.
While speaking with Drew recently about his move to Portugal (his family has been here about three years and his son and daughter are already fluent in Portuguese.), he noted that his business boomed during the pandemic when many companies realised their newly-developed internet-friendly companies needed a domain name. “The point is,” Drew said talking about his new house in central Lisbon, “I can do my work from anywhere in world and I live here.”
Why is Drew so upbeat, as are Lesley and Ash, Linda and Dave, Jamuna and Richard, Judy and Paul and Kathleen as are my lovely wife and I? Listed below are some of the reasons. I think a number of other residents may share with our ex-Panamanian friends.
Panama v Portugal
Location: Linda and David found Panama to be just too far away from family and health care in England and now are a quick flight away. The rest of us, such as Kathy, love the opportunity to travel throughout Europe, with Spain just an hour away. Of course, while in Panama, some of us visited Colombia, Bolivia, Chile and Peru, but even with Machu Picchu, those countries can’t compete with the history and culture of Europe. The most photographed statue in the Algarve of King Alfonso III outside the castle in Silves mentions in a scroll that he was around in 1189. That’s three centuries before Columbus even went for a boat ride.
Another thing that Jamuna mentioned, for example, is that, since Panama is so near the equator, the days are divided into two equal parts – approximately 12 hours of daylight and 12 of night year-round from about 6.30am to 6.30pm Even though the days in December are much shorter. It’s nice to enjoy long summer evenings as we all have been doing lately.
Food and wine: I’ve always said, “nobody travels to Panama for the cuisine.” I don’t care wherever you’re from, there probably isn’t a popular Panamanian restaurant featuring deep fired everything and grass-fed, free-range, very chewy beef (if there is one in your old town, don’t bother firing off an angry letter to the editor, because it’s still an exception to the rule). Not everyone, Judy for example, is that impressed with the Mediterranean diet, but she did agree that there are plenty of good restaurants to choose from here along the coast and not many if any even in Panama City.
And the wine … what about the wine? In Panama, we could get some pretty good Argentinian wine, that had been on a ship for a couple of weeks, for between $10 to $20 on average. Was it as good as the local house wine served at your favourite, regular café or the very inexpensive (cheap) wine on the wine shop’s shelf? Not even close…
The people: Everyone I spoke with mentioned how friendly, open, generous and helpful they found the folks to be here in Portugal. Yes, sometimes they seem to be shouting when having a conversation and they do like to visit at the counter when checking out, but, overall, this is a welcoming place. While, of course, we all should be making our best effort to learn Portuguese (like Drew’s kids), it is quite a convenience, particularly in the Algarve, that so many of the local tradespeople speak at least some English.
While he was the Panamanian dictator, Manuel Noriega did not allow English to be taught in the schools and the infamous invasion by US forces in 1989-90 did cause some lingering resentment as did the occupation of the Canal Zone before the Carter Treaty of 1977, but “anti-gringo” sentiment really wasn’t a big problem. I always found everyday people in Panama more shy or standoffish than outright hostile.
Traffic: Think about the N125, a road that goes the length of the Algarve. It can be very slow going, especially if you’re behind three caravans cruising no faster than 30kph during high season. The locals refer to it as “the road of death” because there are so many accidents. Ah, but there is also the A22. It is a toll road, but also a well-maintained scenic option.
Not so in Panama, a skinny little country, with only one major road, the Pan American Highway, which is more of a boulevard that runs directly through all the towns along the way until it reaches only two bottleneck bridges that span the Canal across to Panama City.
When one of the indigenous Indian tribes or a trade union stage a roadblock protest, traffic jams can last for days. However, normally, particularly at the bridges, but also through some towns, the wait is usually only hours.
Every expat I know here, loves to go on road trips throughout Portugal and farther on superhighways through Europe. Lesley and Ash drove their two large dogs in their SUV from Wales, with a ferry ride along the way. Nobody did any such thing in Panama. Going through the rest of Central America was risky at best. Plus, there was no way to drive to South America because the Pan American stops dead about 100 miles past the city. When Panama gained its independence from Colombia, it was decided to maintain a buffer zone between the two countries known as the Darian, a dense and dangerous jungle region, where the Colombian rebel group known as the FARC were known to hang out.
Safety: We’ve all read that Portugal keeps being listed as the third or fourth safest country in the whole wide world. This is a good thing. Panama not so much. When discussing this topic, David said that he seldom felt afraid to be out and about, but then did allow that his home had been robbed three times at least once while they were asleep inside and that Linda had been mugged once at gunpoint. Everything is relative. My lovely wife and I were car jacked once while driving through Roberto Duran’s old neighborhood. Our mistake.
Sure there are pickpockets in Lisbon and bar fights in Albufeira, but compared to what?
Bureaucracy: Social media is packed with complaints and worries about all the hoops that newcomers have to navigate to become full fledged, legal residents of Portugal; and it’s not always easy. However, everyone of the Panamanian contingent had few if any concerns. The main difference is that corruption was a built-in part of the process in Panama, with a notable mix of disregard and incompetence thrown in.
Lesley and Ash arrived here with all their paperwork in order. David compared bureaucracies he encountered this way: “Kuwait – a nightmare; Panama – a nightmare; Portugal – twaddle.” Kathleen and I came to the conclusion that the main problem is that newbies have to do everything all at once. We got our social security numbers and driver’s licences 60 years ago and spread renewals and other formal dealing over a lifetime. The consensus advice among this experienced well-travelled subgroup is “do your homework, relax and stop whining.”
Número Um: While most of my friends fondly recall their “Panama adventures”, none of them could recall ever meeting anyone who moved from Portugal to the isthmus. As far as we’re all concerned, we know which country really deserves to be considered the number one place in the world to retire.
Ol’Pat likes to hear from his readers at email@example.com
Any story ideas are more than welcome. I would particularly like to hear from anyone else who has moved from Panama to Portugal. Maybe we could form our own expat social group called The Portumanians or Panuguese.
By Pat, the expat
For the previous 10 years, Pat lived in Panama which used to be rated above Portugal as a top retirement destination (but not any more), where he wrote a column for a tourist publication.