Panama In 2023—The Truth About Life On This Isthmus

City skyline with green grass and flag flying. Blue sky and white clouds

Panama In 2023—The Truth About Life On This Isthmus

I woke up this morning, brewed a pot of Irish breakfast tea, and, as has been my custom for decades now, sat down at my laptop to write you a letter. 

I want to focus your attention this week on Panama.

Trouble is… I’ve been telling people about Panama for 25 years.

In fact, I was the first person to tell people about Panama… at least in the context of a top option for North Americans looking for a place to live better for less in retirement.

I named Panama as a top retire-overseas destination before anyone else, but, full disclosure, I didn’t come up with the notion myself. A property scout who worked for me at the time put the idea in my head.

I was living in Baltimore. My scout, Bob Fordi, called me in my Mt. Vernon office one morning. He’d just returned from a week in Panama at my behest.

This was about two years before the United States was scheduled to hand over control of the Canal to Panama as had been agreed in the 1977 treaties signed by U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Panama’s General Omar Torrijos.

“You need to see this place yourself,” Bob told me on the phone that morning.

“Panama has everything Costa Rica has,” Bob continued, comparing Panama to the then gold-standard overseas retirement haven that borders it to the north.

“Panama has beaches, rain forest, highlands, wildlife, bird life, surfing, fishing… everything that draws the crowds to Costa Rica…

“The difference,” Bob pointed out, “is that the infrastructure in Panama is head and shoulders above that in Costa Rica and anywhere else in Central America. Panama City is a real city… built by U.S. engineers…

“And it’s also a screaming bargain,” Bob added.

“Plus,” I remember him saying that morning, with emphasis, “the timing is once-in-a-lifetime.

“After Panama takes control of its Canal, in about two years’ time,” Bob told me, “this country is going to begin to reinvent itself.

“I believe,” Bob predicted, “that prices will go even lower after the U.S. military pulls out. When all the GI’s and their disposable income have gone home, Panama will fall into recession… creating a historic opportunity to invest in a country that is going to become very important on the world stage in not too many years.” 

Soon after that conversation I made my first trip to Panama. I was as impressed as Bob had been. After more research and several more scouting trips, by me and others of my team, I made one of the most important forecasts of my career:

Panama, I told readers, is the world’s next top overseas retirement and investment haven.

Eventually, others caught on. By 2010, Kiplinger, Forbes, The New York Times, Fortune, Frommer’s, Condé Nast Traveler, the Wall Street Journal, and even the AARP had named Panama the world’s #1 place to retire overseas.

So, when I woke up in Panama City this morning and remembered that my plan today was to tell you something about Panama… I panicked.

After two-and-a-half decades reporting on this little isthmus of a country… and after more than 15 years living here with my family full-time, sharing my experiences and discoveries with you in real time… what in the world new could I have to say about Panama that’s worth your time and attention today?

How about this:

Panama is not what you think it is.

I and many others have been telling you about this country for years, but much or most of what you’ve garnered from all of that is not true… at least it’s no longer true.

Over the past two-and-a-half decades, Panama has been one of the fastest-changing points on our planet.

I’m sitting, as I write, in the living room of my apartment on Avenida Balboa. From this spot, I have a long view of central Panama City on the Bay of Panama, from Punta Paitilla and Punta Pacífica in one direction… 

Apartment view of Avenida Balboa and Panama Bay

To Casco Viejo in the other…

View of Casco Antiguo in Panama City, Panama

Between these two landmarks, in the bay on the Pacific Ocean, is a long queue of ships awaiting their turns for passage through the Panama Canal. This queue is perpetual, a constant on the seascape 24 hours a day 7 days a week.

On my doorstep is the lengthy and nicely landscaped park and pedestrian zone known as the Cinta Costera that extends along the Bay of Panama, from Paitilla to Casco… 

When I visited Panama City for the first time two-and-a-half decades ago, most of what I’m describing did not exist.  

The two small peninsulas—Paitilla and Casco Viejo—were here, of course, but looking at photos of them from 25 years ago you wouldn’t recognize either.

Paitilla then was a neighborhood of high-end houses; Paitilla today is a mass of high-rise towers overlooking the bay.

Casco Viejo then was a slum; Casco Viejo today is an evolving gentrification project and the hippest night spot in the city.   

The Spanish-, French-, and American-colonial structures here, a world-class UNESCO-protected collection of buildings, have been renovated into private homes, condos, restaurants, bars, art galleries, and shops. The whole place now is encircled by a highway suspended above the water.

It’s not only the Panama City skyline that has been transformed over the past 25 years… it’s also the size and makeup of the Panama City population.  

A city of about 1 million in 1996, the Panama City metropolitan area is home to nearly twice that population today.

More people, more high-rise apartments housing those people, more cars (a lot more cars), more shopping malls, restaurants, hotels, fitness centers, furniture stores, casinos, bars, pubs, gentleman’s clubs, strip joints, schools, health clinics, grocery stores, fast-food franchises, real estate agencies, liquor stores, delis, dry cleaners… and on and on and on…

You can get anything you might want in Panama City today. Every product and service imaginable is available in this boom town this 2023.

For better or for worse.

Under former President Ricardo Martinelli, Panama set an aggressive agenda for herself.

On leaving office in 2014, Martinelli was accused of corruption, embezzlement, and domestic spying on grand scales. He spent time on the lam and then under house arrest, then in 2019 he was found not guilty of the various charges. Earlier this year he stood trial once more, this time for money laundering. He was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison. 

That was a big talking point in Panama, but it’s not the point. The point is that Martinelli thought big. Panama will be the next Singapore, he decreed upon taking office… and then he spent every day of his five-year term (2009 to 2014) working to make that prediction reality.

The reinvented landscape I see from my window today is largely due to Martinelli’s near-fanatical commitment to making his little country competitive on a global scale.

Love Martinelli or hate him, you can’t deny what the guy made happen while in office. If not for Martinelli, Live And Invest Overseas might not be still in Panama. Without Martinelli’s Executive Order known today as the Friendly Nations visa program making it easy for any national of any of the “friendly nations” on the list to acquire residency and a work permit in this country, we would not have been able to find and hire the educated English-speaking staff we’ve needed to build our business.

I’ve told you about our eclectic group before. We’ve got Panamanians in our El Cangrejo office, sure, but we’ve also been able to hire Americans, Canadians, Germans, French, Dutch, Irish, British, Jamaicans, Venezuelans, Argentines, Guatemalans, and Hondurans.

That’s the better.

The worse is the challenges and frustrations that go along with life in a boom town.

A drive across Panama City during rush hour is one of the most miserable experiences of my life… and, when I’m in town, I do it twice a day.

A walk down a Panama City street is one of the most dangerous experiences of my life… and I do it all the time.

I don’t worry that I’ll be mugged or encounter violence. That’s not the fear. The fear is that I’ll fall into an open manhole (I’ve known five people who have), trip over an exposed tree root, or be caught up in low-hanging electrical wires.

You need to keep your eyes open as you maneuver this city, by car or on foot. Accidents are common.

What else do you need to know to be able to take advantage of all the better on offer in Panama today while avoiding, as much as possible, all the worse? 

Join me in Panama in January 2024 to find out….

Until next time, 

Kathleen Peddicord
Founding Publisher, Live And Invest Overseas