So how does Panama measure up as a destination for Location Independent Professionals? After some extensive research and narrowing down our options it became the first place on our list to try.
Why? Well, we had certain criteria. We wanted a place that…
1) Had a lower cost of living
2) Is English-speaking, or at least we could get by in English
3) Is a bit more ‘exotic’ and different from the usual expat places
4) Has good internet & telecoms structure
5) Is politically stable & safe
6) Has a decent infrastructure that wouldn’t require us to ‘rough it’
I’d read some good things about Panama on the internet forums, reviews and blogs and so we thought “why not? Let’s give it a whirl!”.
So did Panama meet our expectations and did it fulfill our criteria?
1) Cost of Living: The cost of living is generally cheaper than in the UK. Taxis are ridiculously cheap (although a hair-raising experience), food is reasonable (although you’ll pay the same for most US & UK imports), alcohol & beer are cheap (about £0.75 for a beer at TGI Friday’s for example) and our main rental apartment (which included all utilities and broadband internet) was reasonable.
2) Language: This was the biggie. We got to Panama, having read that “English is widely spoken” in guidebooks and forums and found that, surprise surprise, it isn’t at all. At least not in the places you’d expect it to be for tourists (restaurants, bars, taxis, shops). Now this doesn’t apply to all over the country – but mostly Panama City. More touristy places like Bocas del Toro are largely English-speaking and the places where you expect to find lots more tourists, you’ll generally just about get by in English. But for general day-to-day living, you’ll need at least basic Spanish skills (which we didn’t have!). We took some private lessons (for approx. £6 per hour) and within a couple of weeks we could get around reasonably comfortably.
3) Exotic factor: Panama is definitely more exotic than other typical expat places. You’ve got the Caribbean on one side and the pacific on the other side. But more exotic also means it can be more of a challenge! Because we stayed in/near the city (which very few expats who come here do) we rarely saw other ‘foreigners’ so it felt like we were being really brave coming to somewhere a little bit ‘different’. I have a feeling this will change within the next few years, so get to Panama while you can.
The other big plus is that Panama is really quite a small country. This means that you can go to lots of places on weekend trips (because remember, you’re working during the week, not gad-about-travellers!!) fairly cheaply. There are the Caribbean destinations of Bocas del Toro and San Blas, the Darien jungle (only with an experienced guide), islands closer to Panama City such as Isla Taboga, the mountainous regions of El Valle (2 hours from Panama City) and Boquete/Vulcan up in the Chiriqui region and the Pacific-side beach areas such as Santa Clara & Coronado.
4) Internet Connectivity: Wherever we stayed the high speed internet connection was fine. Even in Bocas del Toro (which is really a very sleepy, backwater town) we had good wireless connections to high speed internet. Wireless security isn’t that prevalent so you can often just hook yourself up to a wireless connection from anywhere. The phone system is fine – we use skype mostly anyway so as long as the internet’s working, we can call anywhere.
5) Political Stability: Panama doesn’t have an army and since Noriega was deposed (he’s shortly due to be released from prison apparently) Panama has seen relative political stability. Like all cities there are no-go areas but we generally felt very safe, even in Casco Viejo which we were told can be unsafe if you wander round the ‘dodgy’ bits.
6) Infrastructure: Whilst we wouldn’t class Panama City as a first world city quite yet – it is very close. The infrastructure is pretty good. There are first world malls such as Multiplaza, Multicentro and Albrook. There are the typical US food places such as KFCs, McDonalds, TGI Fridays, Bennigans. There’s a new first world hospital, linked to John Hopkins in the US.
Public transport is the big thing lacking. Taxis are cheap but a little bit daunting if you don’t know the ‘system’. We didn’t even dare try the buses, known locally as ‘diabolo rojos’ – red devils. They’re crowded and we couldn’t really work out the system – we didn’t really need to because cabs are so cheap.
Panama is a fantastic destination for location independent digital nomads who speak Spanish. It’s great for others too but you do have to know a little basic Spanish in order to get around and survive. It also makes for a richer experience if you can interact with the locals – we were fortunate and met some very lovely locals (who also spoke English) who showed us round, invited us to their homes and made our stay in Panama a very enjoyable experience. The facilities & structure required by location independent professionals is definitely available – although at a slightly higher price than you might expect, especially when it comes to furnished accommodation.