The first impression is one of noise and bustling activity…a city of steel and concrete. A few days here, though, and you’ll realize the phrase “more than meets the eye” has never rung truer.
This is a place where you can have tropical rainforest hikes…Bayside morning walks…and dinners in a palm-studded marina filled with yachts and a cruise ship or two. All without leaving the city.
I’m talking about Panama City, often referred to as the Hub of the Americas thanks to its busy Tocumen International Airport.
And busy is certainly one way to describe this modern capital…and my life here. I moved here full-time in 2005 after four years of working on Miami-based cruise ships. Today, I don’t know when I’ve been busier. My weeks are full of new activities…
Last week started with a trip to MultiPlaza mall…I wanted to see the temporary ice-skating rink that had been installed for the holidays. In the middle of this sultry city, it was a gas to see kiddies of all ages, gliding across the ice. For under $10, they got skates and an hour of wintry fun unlike anything most of them had ever seen.
The mall is filled with designer stores…first-time visitors gape in wonderment…Jimmy Choo, Tiffany’s, Hermes…this is Panama?
I whisk them away to Albrook Mall, where for $20 you can buy a new pair of jeans, a shirt, and lunch. Bargain department stores like El Titan and Dorians are like a shopaholic’s dream…spend three hours picking up everything that catches your fancy and you’ll be hard-pressed to spend $100. The stores are usually crawling with foreigners exclaiming over the low prices and trendy clothes. “Cosas tan bellas en Panama,” I heard one of them say. “Such beautiful things in Panama.”
Last time I went, I got an evening clutch—very similar to the one in the window at Jimmy Choo, I might add—for $5. I also picked up an adorable pajama set for $3.99 and a pair of designer shoes for $19.99. Several of the stores in the mall act as outlets, selling irregulars or last-season items for much less than you might imagine possible.
After a hard day of shopping, I like to mosey over to the crepe stand where a filling bourgeois lunch is under $5. And hey, if you feel like splurging, the Haagen Dazs ice-cream booth is just a few steps away.
Not much of a shopper? Another favorite pastime of mine is dining out. Try the delicious queso fundido with mushrooms at Guatemalan restaurant Hacienda. At just $5.95 and enough for two to share over mojitos (with warm, soft tortillas) it’s a great option for eating out on the cheap. Other great dishes to share for under $8 include the grilled Saganaki cheese at Jimmy’s, Panama’s most famous Greek restaurant, and the Kiora Farms cheese platter at ultra-swank Luna.
What else can you do for fun for less than $20? Last Friday I attended a book club meeting for people who enjoy reading in English. The founder, Anne, had hooked me at the first meeting: “I’m starting this club as an excuse to drink good wine and enjoy good company…and maybe we’ll discuss a book now and then,” she had said. Definitely my kind of club.
That day, we discussed a novel by an Indian author, and even ordered spicy Indian food to set the mood. I made friends with smart, vivacious expat women with similar interests to my own. We chipped in $5 each for the food and I spent about $6 for my book (via the Amazon Kindle store). Now I never miss a meeting.
But it’s not all drinking and eating…I live an active lifestyle. Saturday I met up with a couple of new friends—one from France, and one from the U.S.—at “the causeway.” The Amador Causeway is a land bridge connecting three islands to the city mainland. Here, joggers and cyclists and families and tourists converge. Take a walk and enjoy the view, have a $1 beer at one of the many restaurants, or just sit and enjoy a stunning sunset. I can’t think of a more peaceful way to end the week. We walked the dog for a bit, got fresh fruit smoothies (I chose Passionfruit-Papaya), and truly relaxed.
Nearly every resident I’ve spoken to—from thirty-somethings like me to retirees age 60 and up—agrees that Panama City is anything but boring. Here, you can be as active as you like, and it won’t cost you much. Expat Paul Kimmel jokes that he can’t find the time to actually be retired.
Says Paul, who moved here two years ago with his wife Ramona, “There are four or five couples we play golf with or invite over for dinner. We play bridge…and we love concerts and plays and things of that sort.”
Not only are all these activities much cheaper here than in the U.S. (concert tickets can be as little as $5 if you’re a retiree), but they’ve helped Paul and Ramona meet many expats and Panamanians. “We have a much more active social life here than we did back home,” says Paul. Imagine that! Clearly less expenses + more friends = a fun lifestyle.
Editor’s note: Join us in Panama City, April 13-16, and discover everything you need to know about Panama to help you decide if it’s your ideal “retirement” destination. Full details here.