“I’m volunteering with the Boquete Community Playhouse, doing production and stage managing. There are lots of retired professionals here who used to work in TV and Hollywood.”
Chris Jones hadn’t planned on becoming a croupier, but he was living in Las Vegas and needed a job, so he ended up working in the casinos. Twenty-five years later, divorced and the father of two grown children who he had raised alone, Chris was looking at retirement. Determined to take his time and make a good choice, he took a tour of Panama geared to retirees who are looking for a new place to call home. The Panamanian government’s retiree benefits programs are considered among the best in the world. After visiting a variety of places—from Panama City’s country-club gated communities to little rural villages—he found Boquete.
Nestled in Panama’s mountain highlands about 60 miles from Costa Rica and known for its natural beauty, Boquete has a sleepy small-town feel with a cosmopolitan slant—it’s a favorite destination for American expats (it’s been dubbed “Gringolandia”) and is home to the annual Boquete Jazz & Blues Festival.
The town appealed to Chris, and at age 65 he made the move to a lush, green place with lots of rainbows and a glorious view of the mountains—a far cry from the desert he was leaving behind.
Chris spoke with Senior Planet by phone from his home in Boquete.
What appeals to you about Panama?
I was looking for a place that was inexpensive, welcoming to Americans and easy to travel back and forth to from the US..
I’m not pleased with the U.S. government. I remember times when things were more democratic, not controlled by party politics. Panama has a stable government and a strong economy, and with the second canal open, it’s even better. The other factor is that my retirement funds are limited. I’m living on a fixed income with Social Security and a small pension, which isn’t stigmatized here like it is in the US. Panama is friendly to retirees—both locals and foreigners—and the government even has programs geared to seniors. Restaurants have mandated discounts for people age 55-plus.
The Panamanian people are friendly and polite. They’re not hostile because you’re white. They always say hello and goodbye. If you go to the grocery store, you greet each other before you do business, you don’t just blurt out a question. There are many indigenous people from a number of tribes; in fact, the largest indigenous tribe in Central America lives in Western Panama. They wear traditional dress and are dirt poor, but seem happy and not envious.
I picked it because of the climate. It’s in western Panama in the shadow of the Baru volcano, which at 11,401 feet is the highest point in Panama. There are around 20 microclimates here, and your local climate depends on where on the mountain you are. My side is a little less humid. Any time of day or night I can go outside in a T-shirt and be comfortable. Everything is lush and green. They have a type of rain called the bajareque, which is a little denser than a mist, but it’s inconsequential and no one pays attention to it. A lot of people move to the coast, but that’s like Florida, way too hot and humid for me.
Besides the climate, there’s a well established expat community here. Boquete has amenities, and what you can’t get here you can get in David, the second largest city in Panama, about 40 minutes away. David has stores like Target, Costco, Home Depot…
Tell us about life in Boquete.
I’m living in an apartment under the terrace of a big house, which is standard. A lot of people build western-style houses with terraces on the side of the mountain to enjoy the view, and under their terraces they create apartments. My apartment is about 1,000 square feet with one bedroom. The windows are all sliders that I can open, so my whole living room is a terrace. I have floor to ceiling windows, it’s beautiful. I often find myself spending my time just looking out the window or walking out onto the porch in front of my house to look at the mountains.
There’s an amazing range of available housing here, depending on what you’re willing to put up with in terms of native-style living or what you want in modern amenities. I have nice appliances, wifi TV, Netflix.
You do have to put up with a more primitive infrastructure here. TV and internet are satellite, not cable. Electricity is not as advanced, so it’s subject to outages much more often than in the US. It’s usually not a real concern, but if a power line gets knocked down by a tree or there’s a severe storm it takes a day or three or more to get the power repaired. Some people have generators.
Food is inexpensive and good—depending on your preferences. If you go into a standard Panamanian restaurant you can get a big lunch or dinner plate with chicken or pork and rice and beans and salad for $3.50. But if you want to eat gourmet style, we have those restaurants as well, and prices are like in the States. In the middle, there are a lot of places that do international cooking for moderate prices. You can get an Italian meal for $10. There are restaurants where you can get burgers or pizza for a reasonable price.
What do you and other retired expats do to keep busy in Boquete?
There are lots of volunteer groups in the community of Boquete, and not just among expats. Many groups help the locals, who are poor. A couple of foundations help the handicapped. There are two or three different animal rescue clinics and a community theater.
There are plenty of other activities, too—quilting, birding, hiking, traveling. We have a photography club, a reading club, all kinds of things. There are Facebook pages for Boquete, and the website Boquete Ning posts info about club events, library schedules and other local resources.
I volunteer with an animal group, a spay-and-neuter clinic that brings in vets from Costa Rica. We do 175 to 200 animals a day. I’m also working with the Boquete Community Playhouse doing production and stage managing. We put on as many as six productions a year. There are lots of retired professionals here who used to work in TV and Hollywood, and several with vast amounts of experience.
As far as outdoor activities, Boquete is in a volcanic valley with rifts and canyons, so there are lots of rivers for river rafting. Most of the rivers are small, but with waterfalls, so there are neat places to go for a picnic or a day trip. The area also has a couple of golf courses, plus there’s biking, or you can hike or rent ATVs and go off into the jungle.
How’s your social life?
Great! I’ve made more friends here in a few months than I did in my neighborhood in Las Vegas in 25 years.
Whereas in the States everyone’s busy doing their own thing, the expat community here is close-knit. In Boquete we have a Tuesday market, and most of the expat community shows up. It’s easy to meet people, and we often get together for an activity or event—there are presentations of local interest; local bars have bands playing and DJs. When I first moved here my neighbors were hikers and birders, and they invited me to go places with them. Now I have friends from the animal group, and I’m meeting people from the theater group. It’s an ever expanding network. If you’re interested in something and make that interest known, there’s probably someone or two who will take you or show you.
Can you get along without speaking Spanish?
If you want to limit your circle to English speakers you can do that. You can live your entire life without speaking Spanish. But many Panamanians don’t speak English, so if want to get to know the community, you need basic Spanish. I’m learning Spanish slowly. There are at least one or two Spanish schools and lots of individuals who offer Spanish lessons.
What are the cultural differences?
Too many people come here with preconceptions. You need to understand the culture before making the move. Our culture in the US is based on book learning, on written history. Latin American cultures were once colonies subjugated by Europeans. When the conquerors left, native cultures that survived were based on spoken history rather than a written history that was developed from the point of view of a foreign slave master. Immigrants came to America to be free from oppression, but Central American natives didn’t have that choice, so they’re less tied to personal advancement, they don’t have the drive to get everything done right now—their priority is family. If they say they’re going to be there, they may not show up on time but will show up eventually. It’s a tranquilo culture. You have to accept their point of view to get along.
What’s the best thing about living here?
I like being tranquilo. It’s laid back, there’s no pressure, I can do what I want to do when I want to do it.
What’s the worst?
I miss mail service—essentially, there isn’t any. Houses don’t have addresses and everything is general delivery. There are post offices, but you have to go there. If you buy something on Amazon it has to go to Miami first, and postage costs extra. Lots of things are available here, but they’re made in Europe and South America, so sometimes you just have to go to Amazon and pay extra to get what you want.
How do you stay in touch with your family?
I have two daughters and a granddaughter who live in Vegas, and we communicate by email. There are direct flights to Vegas for $650 to $800 depending on time of year. My children haven’t come to visit me yet, but plans are afoot. I’ve been back twice since I moved here less than year ago. I do miss them, but we discussed this before I left, I didn’t just pick up and take off, they’re aware of my reasoning and desires.
How about healthcare?
Healthcare here is pretty good. You don’t have to fly back for major procedures. They have world class hospitals in Panama City, good hospitals in David and three or four clinics in Boquete. Unless you’re in a very remote place, most medical providers speak some English—my dentist speaks English. Doctors are knowledgeable and don’t charge very much.
I have no serious chronic health conditions, just high blood pressure and cholesterol, so I’ve chosen to not be insured in Panama. I pay the doctor $12 a visit and if I need lab work, an X-ray and blood work is $14. But there is a national insurance plan that covers everyone, including permanent residents, for treatment at public hospitals and clinics. There are also private Panamanian insurance plans from $400 that cover serious conditions. If I had serious health problems I’d stay here for treatment unless it was cheaper to fly back and use Medicare. Some people do that.
Tell us what “aging with attitude” mean to you.
Adopting an attitude that allows you to live a life where you age gracefully, enjoy yourself, adapt to and incorporate the environment and culture you live in.
The Bottom Line
Living Expenses: Moderate You can live comfortably if frugally on $2,000 a month. Expenses run $400 to $500 in addition to rent, including gas, food, entertainment and car insurance. Rent varies widely from $200 a month in a rural village near Boquete to $1000 for a large, well equipped modern apartment in town. Home prices are similar to a moderate U.S. city: $200,000 to $300,000. This site has more information about home prices.
Climate: Pleasant Boquete has been called “the land of eternal springtime.” The low is rarely less than 65F, and the high rarely rises above 80F, depending on time of year.
Expat Community: Growing Panama is an international expatriate destination. International Living calls it the best place in world to retire, and Boquete the best place in Panama. Some 20% of Boquete’s population of 23,000 are expats from various countries.
Crime: Low There aren’t any gangs of pickpockets in Boquete, but there are burglaries. Violence is rare.
Visas: Easy As a retiree, getting a resident visa is relatively easy as long as you can show $1100 a month in income. But there is a lot of paperwork, and it’s a good idea to hire a Panamanian lawyer. You can apply for a visa from outside Panama but must be in the country to finalize it. Here are more details.
Human Rights/civil rights: Comparable with the US Panama is a multiparty constitutional democracy with free elections. According to a US State Department report, the country has widespread low level corruption and harsh prison conditions. Laws protect women against violence and are generally upheld by the courts, and indigenous people are well integrated into the mainstream.
Best place to stay Want to check the place out? Chris Jones recommends El Oasis ($70+). There’s also the more modern Downtown Suites ($70+) which is modern and also cheaper hostels with private rooms ($30+). AirBnB is also available.
Top photo: © CC Cali Hoff