(USNews.com) Despite its small size, Panama offers a number of diverse lifestyle options to people interested in retiring overseas. There are appealing retirement choices for people with a variety of priorities and lifestyle preferences, ranging from the cosmopolitan capital to the coast and including beachfront and cooler mountain climes. There are also good options for retirees on strict budgets as well as those whose retirement resources stretch a little further. Here are five retirement havens in Panama:
Las Tablas—beach retirement an a budget. Las Tablas is a safe, friendly, and charming colonial town on Panama’s Pacific coast that boasts a laid-back lifestyle at a bargain-basement cost. Las Tablas is one of a string of towns along the east coast of the Azuero Peninsula, the stretch of this country’s Pacific increasingly referred to as Panama’s Gold Coast. Boom may be coming to Las Tablas, but it hasn’t hit yet, which is why you can still enjoy life in this coastal town of cowboys and fishermen on a budget of as little as $1,200 per month.
You could spend more, of course, especially if you travel often to Panama City to enjoy the distractions of the big city. But if you’d be happy with a modest life, sticking close to home, passing your days fishing and swimming, Las Tablas could have your name written all over it.
It’ll take you four hours to reach Las Tablas from downtown Panama City. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you can travel on well-maintained highway door-to-door. The other important thing to note about Las Tablas is that it is very much a “local” choice. At home in Las Tablas, you’d be living mostly among Panamanians. If you’re not comfortable with this idea and have no interest in learning to speak at least a little Spanish, Las Tablas may not work for you.
Boquete—comfortable climate and an established expat community. Sea-level temperatures in Panama can be steamy. The climate is much more comfortable in Panama’s interior highlands. Boquete isn’t this country’s only mountain town of note, but it is the best known and most developed highlands retirement option. Boquete has been attracting foreign retirees for the past 10-plus years. Today, there are nearly as many expats as Panamanians living in this town of eternal spring, and this is one place where you could retire without learning to speak Spanish. On the other hand, Boquete isn’t as budget-friendly a choice as Las Tablas, for example, and, to state the obvious, it isn’t at the beach. This may be a negative for you or a positive.
Also, while Boquete is perhaps the best-known town in Panama outside Panama City, it is not easily accessible. You reach Boquete via a 45-minute in-country flight from the capital to David. From David, Boquete town is another half-hour drive away.
The real estate market in Boquete has settled noticeably in the past two years, meaning property prices are down from their bubble levels of the last decade. Generally speaking, the cost of living in Boquete is about 50 percent more expensive than in Las Tablas. Your costs are greater, but so are the levels of products and services you’re able to access. Boquete is a town that has seen something of a boom already. Both the infrastructure and the cost of tapping into it, therefore, are higher than anywhere else in this country outside Panama City.
Coronado—developed beach area near Panama City. Panama City is hot and steamy. That’s why those with the means keep weekend and holiday houses at the beach. Among Panamanians who reside in Panama City, the preferred beaches are those nearest by. Panamanians like to be able to leave work on Friday afternoon and reach their places on the water by dinnertime, and they are willing to pay a premium for that privilege. That’s why property prices at these “city beach areas” have appreciated in value dramatically over the past decade.
Perhaps the most developed of these “city beach” communities is Coronado. Development at Coronado began about 30 years ago, when this spot on the Pacific coast became a destination of focus among wealthy Panamanians from the capital. About two hours’ drive from Panama City, Coronado is home to about 600 full-time residents, a mix of locals and expats. It is the most full-service, user-friendly beachfront option anywhere in Panama.
Santa Fé—remote mountain hideaway and top budget option. Not everyone would be happy living in Santa Fé, especially full-time. This is a beautiful, safe region where the living is sweet but not well-appointed. At home in Santa Fé, you’d be living a true Panamanian lifestyle, among Panamanians. You would need to speak Spanish, be comfortable taking care of yourself, and be willing to put some effort into building your new life. If you are up for the challenge, you’ll be rewarded with a safe, pleasant, relaxed lifestyle in a beautiful mountain region with an ideal climate and a very low cost of living. Santa Fé is a great choice for someone who wants mountain living but who can’t afford Boquete.
I visited Santa Fé for the first time about four years ago. Back then, Santa Fé was as out-of-the-way as a mountain town can be. Today, it is slightly less so. The government is currently replacing the bridges along the road close to Santiago and beginning to carve a new road from Santa Fé to the Caribbean. The influx of tourists moving from coast to coast will be followed by commercial traffic. There is talk of a Caribbean coastal highway, which would turn Santa Fé into a station on a land bridge across the mountains.
How will things play out in Santa Fé from this point? No one can say for sure, but an important infrastructure development generally means opportunity. In advance of the improvement there are opportunities for speculation. After the improvement, there are opportunities for investment, increased tourism, and an expanding population, including an expanding population of foreign retirees and other expats.
If you’re interested in a cool-weather, back-to-basics, and super affordable place to live or retire, you should plan a trip to this unsung corner of Panama. Change is coming, but it will unfold slowly. And it won’t be all bad. In the meantime, in charming Santa Fé, a small budget could buy you a rewarding lifestyle.
El Cangrejo—the best of Panama City life. A compact city of a million-and-a-half people, Panama City offers dramatically varying lifestyle options ranging from waterfront high-rise (along avenida Balboa) to suburban neighborhood family home (in Costa del Este). You can also find trendy and rowdy (on Calle Uruguay) and genteel and established (in Marbella) areas. My top pick for expats interested in a cosmopolitan life in Panama’s capital is colorful El Cangrejo, where the streets are lined with palm trees and dotted with restaurants. The expat community is diverse and expanding, and the cost of living isn’t bargain basement, but does still qualify as affordable.
Rents spiked in El Cangrejo (as they did throughout the city) about 24 to 30 months ago, but now they’re down and negotiable. You should be able to rent a comfortable, well-located apartment in El Cangrejo for about $800 a month. A reasonable overall budget for living here would be about $1,800, including rent, utilities, groceries, and a $300-a-month entertainment allowance.
Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter. Her book, How To Retire Overseas—Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.