The Price of Living in Boquete

Anyone would find it difficult to find a more beautiful place to live than this small town in western Panama. Fresh air, green, cool temperatures, picturesque mountains and a dormant volcano. It’s about an hour to the beach and less to ‘city’ shopping. In less than 2 hours by car, you can visit Costa Rica. A 45 minute plane ride brings you to an international airport and the rest of the world.

In the last 2 weeks, we have seen 2 different groups coming through Boquete on an organized sales tour. Their objective was to sell their victims clients land in Boquete. If we saw two groups, there were probably several more that we did not see. We were at the same restaurant as one of the tour groups so we could overhear what the participants were being told. Long story short – America is going down hill fast, everyone speaks Spanish and Boquete is a cheap place to leave it all behind. What did the tour group organizers leave out?

Boquete isn’t the cheap oasis you hear about. Housing is expensive and buying is often more costly than a similar home in my hometown of Coral Springs, Florida. People will tell you that you can buy a two bedroom house for $50,000 and you can live very well on Social Security or less. You can, if you want:
to live in a Panamanian home**
to live far from an established town

A low cost typical Panamanian** home is small, maybe 500-600 sf. No king-sized bed. No couch/love seat/TV and tables in the living room. The kitchen will be one 4 foot counter that includes a two burner stove and dorm size refrigerator. stove

You will not have hot water in your sinks or screens on your windows. You will not have cable TV and probably not internet. This will run you about $200-300 mo. If you pay less, you may get a room with a shared toilet area. If you move up to the $400 range, you may get a suicide shower for hot water but not in the sinks. suicide shower This electric attachment on your showerhead, provides immediate hot water. All of this is completely dependent on how close you are to town. More people are renting in Boquete so availability of properties and the costs are rising significantly.

Other rental units are available and can run up to the $2000+ range. For this you get a gated community and all the amenities you would expect in an exclusive area in the States. They have golf, nice restaurants, club houses and full-time gardeners.

Cars cost about the same as in the States but gas is more expensive, about $4.17 for regular. Gas prices are determined by the government and currently is $1.08 per liter. Car insurance is about half what we paid in Florida. Many people rely on the bus and taxis. Both are cheap and available unless you live on the outskirts where availability is not terrific.

Food is cheaper and you will save about 1/3 on your grocery bill. Thankfully, there are no “fast food” restaurants in town so your menu will be healthier. Eating out can be cheap or pricey depending where you go. I’ve previously written about this.

Another expense that is never talked about is entertainment. What will you do with your time? There’s an enormous selection of activities. Visitors to Boquete go rafting, zip lining, kayaking, and renting ATVs. They run about $75+ for each activity. Eighteen holes of golf run about $80 and less for the 9 hole course. There are clubs and organizations for every interest. Most are run by expats and are free to very inexpensive and they are very grateful for your volunteering hours. You must drive to David to go to the movies and, unless you are fluent in Spanish, your selections are limited to the ones that have Spanish subtitles and audio in English. It costs about $2.50 and first run movies do come through.

And then there’s health care. It is good and much cheaper than in the US BUT it is not free. If you end up in the hospital for a few days, it gets expensive. Medicare is not accepted here and prescriptions are costly. Don Ray Williams has lived in Panama for ten years and recently wrote about this topic. http://www.chiriquichatter.net/blog/2013/07/18/a-caution-before-moving-to-panama/ We are lucky to have Tricare as David is retired from the Navy. That is not the rule.

Internet and cable are dicey depending on the provider available in the area you may live. Close to town, it is good and affordable. Further up the mountains it is best to check as those services quickly become expensive and/or unreliable.

These for-profit companies are doing their clients a huge disservice. Pressure to buy after just a few days is reckless at best. But they continue to write articles and people continue to believe. There are cheaper places to live in the States where services are available and there’s no communication barrier. These companies should be promoting a change in lifestyle. That would be honest but not as profitable. Panama reminds me of growing up in S. Florida in the 1950s. Children walk in the rain and don’t rely on mom’s mini-van. Most Panamanian kids don’t have cell phones and are not attached to Gameboys or other electronics. People, including children, make eye contact, greet and speak to you.

What they should be saying: Things are slower here – tranquilo. Repairs are seldom perfect but they are “good enough”. Road hazards mean that you must pay attention and change lanes to avoid it or wait, as there won’t be a half a mile of orange warning cones and blinkers. Watch where you are walking. Learn Spanish. This isn’t the US or Canada. Don’t expect water and electricity all the time. Manana doesn’t mean tomorrow, it means ‘maybe sometime in the future’. Many people only live here a few months a year, not full time. You can no more change a culture than move a mountain with a teaspoon.

The most popular advice from people who have actually lived here is—-Rent at least 6-12 months before buying. We’ve only lived here permanently for 3 months and have already seen new ‘permanent residents’ come, find a place to live and now they have already left.

I’ve also heard more than once that “if you need a group tour to escort you to a foreign country, expatriating may not be for you.” I don’t know if that’s true but the typical expat here is an extremely well traveled. They have been to London, Paris and Rome but have also been to Turkey, China and India. They are independent and fearless travelers who love to experience different cultures. Panama is safer than most of the US, but if you act like you just fell off the turnip truck, you will be scammed. And the biggest scammer very well may be your tour director who told you that you will live like royalty on your Social Security check.

living in Panama

Blog Expat: living abroad

8 thoughts on “The Price of Living in Boquete

  1. “If you need a group tour to escort you to a foreign country, expatriating may not be for you.”
    This is definitely the quote of the year, Cindy. May I quote your quote??? Thanks for letting the truth out there — perhaps some of those tour group members will start to read blogs and other sources rather than just the tour operators. Jerry

  2. Bravo!

    As a Canadian we also have to contend with the fluctuating exchange rate. We are extremely fortunate that Hubbie has a pension from the Department of National Defence as we don’t yet qualify for the equivalent of your Social Security . We also pay for comprehensive medical and dental coverage through that same pension at much less than it costs to purchase health care here, although we have socialized health care in Canada that didn’t cost us anything for basic coverage.

    We were fortunate to have equity built up in our home before we took early retirement. For us, to buy a house here was cheaper than in our home town in Canada, where the economy is still really good, but yes, we could have moved somewhere in the Maritimes for about the same cost. We wanted the sunshine and warm temperatures and if the US had been able to offer us year round residency it would have been much easier in someplace like Florida or Arizona if the housing prices were right.

    Most of these tour groups only take their clients where they want them to go. They will not drive through the back roads of our town to show the little houses with tin roofs and no doors, or smaller more affordable PanameƱo housing, or even renos that have included more services. They drive out to the fancy developments where they will be charged about 1/3 more for house plans and services because it’s such a hassle dealing with the developers and builders. And after all, if people have the money to buy there, they have the money to pay the extra costs, don’t they? Not that our neighbors aren’t happy living in their situation but to some, seeing it for the first time with the chickens and dogs running down the street and the music blasting it would be appalling.

    We have travelled extensively and of course my spouse has also served tours in some of the “hotspots” of the world. We have been called “courageous but not foolish” hence the reason we have a smaller home by North American standards and very few expenses. We too have seen many people come and go in the 16 months that we’ve lived in Panama. We’ve also seen people overextend themselves by taking out mortgages at an advanced age to afford those fancy houses with the ocean views and pricey maintenance costs. I can almost predict from the first conversation who will do well and who will not. And I know people who come here with the best of intentions and get themselves into situations by listening to developers or buying a piece of land and thinking they can build a house in six months without living here full time.

    Most annoying are the people who visit on vacation and think that we all party 24/7. We would all be raging alcoholics if we did. This is real life. We have household cleaning and maintenance, meals to shop for and cook and we have bills to pay. And everything takes extra time, especially if you chose to cook some of the things you can’t find prepackaged from scratch or you get tired of waiting for the workers to show up and do it yourself. We become the Butcher, the Baker and the Candlestick Maker. And yes, there are bugs, and snakes and lizards and we get rain, lots of it, during Wet Season and we carrying on living. We also eat better and for less and have the satisfaction that by doing the job ourselves it’s done right, but we’re also not foolish enough to think that we are experts at everything.

    We find a meaning and purpose in our retirement even if it is only to help our neighbors out. Those that are expecting to live in Shangri La in a 2000 sq foot home with servants doing everything for them had best recheck their budget, a modest pension will not do it for you. Our biggest splurge is my yoga classes twice a week and our Spanish lessons and we eat out infrequently. And yes, you need to learn Spanish unless you want to live cut off from the rest of the world behind the gates of your fancy house. Our social life consists of spending time with friends or outdoors at the beach. We have to drive an hour to the theatre, but something that we took for granted now is a treat for us. We have big fiestas and celebrations here, but our town is not full of exciting night life all the time. Some even call it boring, but once you’ve experience the party it becomes more annoying than exciting. It’s best to live in a city if you want excitement, certainly not the campo.

    That’s my opinion to add to yours C. I feel no need to write on my own blog now. :) We really are happier that a pigs in s**t in our retirement, but it isn’t glamorous or exciting. It’s simple and tranquilo, without many expectations. And to tell you the truth we kind of like it that way. Why? Because the alternative would be to still be working and looking forward shovelling snow in just a few months. And for that, despite some of the frustrations, we find the gratitude every day. :)

  3. Fantastic post! So true! We did spend $100 and something to download and listen to the International Living four day seminar in the comfort of our family room. We did learn a bit about taxes, owning property, the geography of Panama, etc, but at the end of the day, I was so glad we didn’t spend our time in a conference room hearing all the hype. We have taken two trips, explored the country ourselves, had friends take us around, we have another trip in January to explore Panama City, and we will definitely rent! Rent, rent, rent! We read blogs extensively (thanks!), and follow forums (some good, some not so good). Do your research folks! Again, great post and great comments that have followed!

  4. YES! I totally agree. You know I am not a fan of relocation tours. Not only are you a poor candidate for moving here if you can’t travel on your own, but people are different and their needs are different. If we had done that tour and were convinced to buy in Boquete, we wouldn’t be happy. David is a much better fit for us. Other people have other needs. How can you accommodate all these differences in a tour? Well of course we all know they don’t care if anyone is happy, only if someone buys what they want to sell. It’s a darn shame because it’s people’s money and dreams and happiness that suffers.

    So, did you go over and say anything to these people? :D I would have been badly tempted! ” I probably would have bitten my tongue and not said what I really wanted to say, but I could certainly give them all cards with my blog address on it. That’s one reason for my blog, so people can see the real truth of someone’s real life in Panama.

    Oh the other hand, if you are foolish to leave everything behind and buy property in a foreign country on the word of some salesmen…… Still though, I hate to see people taken advantage of for profit. I know it happens the world over every day but that doesn’t make it right.

    I feel a blog post coming on about water, of which we have had none all day… :D

  5. Pingback: The Price of Living in Panama | The Panama Adventure

  6. Excellent post, C! Loved every word you had to say. You and I have the same philosophy and experiences about living in Boquete. We come from Southern California, however, where it is VERY expensive in all things. So for us, everything in Boquete by comparison is less with the exception of furniture. Furniture costs relatively more because most (at least what we’d want) is imported and that adds many costs. Yes, we wanted to retire early to get off the treadmill, and yes, we could have found less expensive places to live in the U.S., but for us we kept coming head to head with medical costs. I won’t turn 65 until 2020 (egads!) so we’d have to self insure. Exorbitantly expensive premiums, high deductibles, no or little co-pays and the bills from the medical providers are 4 to 5 times what we’ve experienced in Panama.

    I have begged my newly-moved-in neighbor who has a 10 month’s lease on a home to continue renting, but darned if she didn’t tell me she and hubby bought a lot in Jaramillo Centro and are going to build. sigh. I wish them luck. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to sit on my rented terraza, look at my gorgeous rented view, luxuriate in my rented condo on the hillside and count the income from my own rentals back in the states.

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