With its tropical climate, exuberant, yet laid back Latin culture, and relative affluence, safety and political stability comparative to its neighboring countries, the continuing surge in the numbers of expats moving to Panama is hardly surprising. Nestled between the Caribbean to its north and the Pacific to its south, this small Central American country has a particular draw for US citizens with a desire to relocate beyond their native borders. Its famous continent splitting canal existed as an unincorporated US territory from 1904 to 1979. This helped establish Panama’s strong cultural relations with the US, the spread of English within its major cities, and its still expanding community of US expats. In recent years increasing numbers of expats of other nationalities have also begun arriving on its sandy white shores.
We have prepared this guide to offer an outline of the cost of living in Panama in case you, too, are thinking about making the move there. The Panamanian currency, the Balboa, has been pegged to the US dollar at a fixed rate since 1903. As a result, the two currencies share the same value and US paper currency is legal tender in Panama. As is true of any country, prices and the general cost of living vary from place to place. For this article, we have focused on the cost of living in two of Panama’s most popular expat destinations: Boquete and Panama City.
The Cost of Living in Panama City
Sitting astride the Pacific mouth of the Panama Canal, Panama City is the county’s capital and also its largest city. Among its streets Spanish colonial grandeur rubs shoulders with ultra modern skyscrapers and the local Panamanian culture mingles with a diverse and growing cosmopolitan community. This city is especially popular with many of the younger and higher income expats in Panama, but you’ll find plenty of digital nomads and foreign retirees here too.
Monthly rent for a 1-bed apartment located in the city center will likely cost somewhere in the region of $900-$1000. For a 1 bed outside of the city center, rent usually amounts to $600-$700 per month. Hiring a maid to do the housework is popular among capitalinos (Panamanian Panama City dwellers) and expats alike. A full-time live-in maid costs around $250 per month, whereas as-and-when visits for quick cleans or cooking meals are usually priced at around $15 apiece. Expats in Panama City often use Taxis for journeys that are too far to travel on foot. Taxis are convenient here because they are everywhere and their fares are cheap. Do not expect your ride to set you back more than $3-$5 for distances of around 3 miles. Even if you are traveling for some distance at a busy time of day, don’t expect your fare to rise far in excess of $10. Cinema tickets are $6 and movies are usually screened in their original language subtitled in Spanish.
Panama City is big and increasingly international. You will encounter all manner of restaurants here serving all kinds of food. Local Panamanian cuisine is often the cheapest option, but by no means the least flavorsome. Formed of a blend of indigenous, Spanish, and African influences, Panamanian food is a culinary reflection of the country’s peoples and its culture. Corn is the primary Panamanian staple, but those moving to Panama will quickly discover that beans, rice, veg, meat, and seafood are popular ingredients here too. $10 is what you can expect to pay for a basic meal without drinks at a local eatery. Depending on what you eat, a meal at mid range restaurants will cost more, somewhere around $20. Chinese, Italian and plenty of other popular international cuisines can be found here and in most of Panama’s other cities too, but they are likely to be a lot more expensive. Beers can be bought for as little as a buck at cheaper bars.
If you want to keep the costs down when cooking at home, try your hand at local recipes. You will find plenty of budget supermarkets throughout the city stocked with inexpensive ingredients used in Panamanian cooking. Many also stock American and other international foods, but again, these options tend to be more expensive.
Panama city caters to lovers of luxury too. An expat can live well here on what at home they would probably consider a modest budget, but those moving to Panama who enjoy splashing out on the occasional indulgence will also find a raft of gourmet restaurants, glitzy designer fashion outlets and all manner of other extravagances befitting of a big modern city. Monthly rent for an apartment in one of Panama City’s more exclusive areas, such as Punta Pacifica, is likely to cost $1,200 – $2,500 and upwards.
A comfortable life in can be lived in Panama City on a monthly budget of $2,000 – $2,800. It is possible, however, to get by here on as little as $1,000 per month, and for those looking to spend, the sky is the limit.
The Cost of Living in Boquete
Foreign retirees make up a large portion of expats in Panama. Many decide upon moving to Panama because of the huge range of discounts they get with a Pensionados visa, which dramatically reduce a holder’s cost of living in Panama. You will find retirees scattered all over the country, but Boquete is their main city of choice. There, foreign retirees account for almost half of the local population.
Those moving to Panama often find that the country’s tropical climate can be both a pleasure and a pain. Not so in Boquete. The city is situated in the lush highlands of Chiriquí Province, 340 miles to the west of Panama City, close to the Costa Rican border. Thanks to its 4,000-foot elevation above sea level, it escapes the seasonal extremities of heat and humidly in areas below. Residents here enjoy a temperate climate that remains both fresh and warm all year round, topped off by stunning views of the surrounding mountain scenery. With a small population of 20,000 Boquete also offers a place of escape from the hectic hustle and bustle of bigger city life, yet still affords a sizable enough community for regular open markets and local festivals.
Although the large number of expats living in Boquete has inflated the general cost of living in and around the area, prices here still remain closer to what you would expect in a small provincial city. If you know the right places, $5 – $7 will buy you a meal at one of Boquete’s Panamanian restaurants. However, as in Panama City, expect to pay more for foreign cuisine. Great quality local produce can be purchased on the city’s food markets for next to nothing.
Unsurprisingly, accommodation in Boquete is available in a range of different sizes and standards of quality. As a general guide, you can rent some houses here for as little as $400 a month, whereas others will set you back as much as $4000 a month and more. Studio apartments can occasionally be found here for as little as $250 per month. You will have to pay a premium to live in one of Boquete posh gated communities such as Valle Escondido. When moving to Panama it is also worth noting that all sorts of added bonuses such as Internet connections, TV packages, gardening services, and utility bills are often thrown in with the price of your rent, so make sure you inquire exactly what you will be getting for your money.
You can live a comfortable life in Boquete for a monthly budget of $1,100 – $2,500.
Panama’s economy is expanding and prices in the country are gradually rising, but for now, and for the foreseeable future, a comfortable life can be lived in Panama for considerably less than in North America. It is also worth remembering that negotiation is part and parcel of Panamanian culture— in this part of the world a little wrangling has the potential to save you a lot of money.
As is true of anywhere, your cost of living will always depend, at least in part, upon the extravagance of your lifestyle. In Panama’s rural and less developed regions, many Panamanians get by on an average monthly income of $550. Expats, however, are a rarity in these places. You had better have a decent command of Spanish, be willing to forgo many creature comforts enjoyed in your home country and expect a scarcity of jobs in your field of employment if you are planning to move to one of them. The cost of living in Panama’s popular expat areas may be a little more expensive, but it is still likely to be cheaper than at home. Those moving to Panama also enjoy the free added bonuses of the warm sunny clime and exciting culture.
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