By Jessica Ramesch, International Living,
In 2005, I left my job in the cruise industry and decided to try my luck in Panama. I had a wonderful group of international friends—some from the Americas, and others from as far off as Australia. And I told them all to come visit me in Panama sometime.
To my surprise, many of us actually did keep in touch and visit each other. I remember a girl from Venezuela asking me how come there were so many U.S. products on the shelves here. She had traveled the world with me on Carnival Cruise Lines, so she was no country bumpkin. But to her, Panamanians were definitely spoiled for choice.
Panama stands out in the Latin America/Caribbean region as a Mecca of comfort and convenience. Supermarket chains like El Rey and Riba Smith keep up with the latest trends. If stores in the U.S. or Canada are stocking something fancy or new—chia seeds, Gardein, organic quinoa, you name it—then you can bet Panamanian distributors are going to do the same.
I can’t remember the last time I was unable to find something I wanted to eat. Or drink, for that matter; we have some of the best wines available here, and they are incredibly inexpensive. Frontera brand wines are around $5. My favorite organic wine from Argentina is just under $8 a bottle.
And it’s not just the supermarkets. Shop for electronics, major appliances, gym equipment, cars…or visit Panama’s malls. You’ll see an incredibly diverse array of brands, from the U.S. and all over the world. From the Mac Store to Victoria’s Secret, Panama’s got it covered.
A lot of it has to do with Panama-U.S. relations. Panama separated from Colombia in 1903 and declared itself a sovereign nation—something it couldn’t have done without backing from the U.S., which in turn received the rights to build the Panama Canal.
U.S. communities and military bases began to spring up in the area around the Canal and the U.S. in utilities, infrastructure, health care, and more. Panamanians grew very accustomed to North Americans, and slowly began to adopt some of their words, customs, and tastes.
And that openness to U.S. citizens continues to this day. Panama is home to one of the region’s busiest international flight hubs and a major destination for international business, conventions, banking, shipping, tourism, retirement, and a whole lot more.
What does this mean for the new expat arrival? Well for one, there are a great many English speakers here. They tend to come out of the woodwork to help if they hear you struggling to communicate at the local drug store or cable office. Go to the movies and you’ll have your pick of first-run flicks in English, with Spanish subtitles. Move into a new community and you won’t have to worry about sticking out like a sore thumb. Not only are Panamanians used to having neighbors from all over, but they also tend to treat foreigners like VIPs.
Even the government makes you feel welcome. Panama has some of the most foreigner-friendly laws in the world. With very few restrictions, expats can buy property, start new businesses, and even obtain permanent residence. There are visas for expats of all ages—and few countries in the world make applying so cheap and quick.
And if you have a pension, man do you stand to save. Panama’s Pensionado program grants qualifying members the right to live here, and it gives them access to a wide range of government-mandated discounts. Pensioners can save up to 50% on everything from entertainment and dining out to utilities and health care.
Simply put, it’s hard to imagine an environment more comfortable and welcoming than this.

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