Panama As An Expat Destination? Think Twice…

PanamaWe lived in Panama for about a year, around 2007. Granted, it was in Panama City, so take my rant with a grain of salt. If we had lived in Bouquette, maybe our experience would have been different. I’m not expecting to change your mind if you’ve already decided to move to Panama. But for anybody else considering it:

Panama has grinding poverty. My wife is Colombian and even she was shocked.

The Panamanians– culturally– are very rude. You say, “Thank you,” and they say nothing. Or, “Okay.” if you’re lucky. I didn’t find that to be the case in either Costa Rica or Colombia.  They have a bad attitude and have not learned business etiquette.

– I’m told the banks are corrupt. There used to be a gringo who ran a site called Noriegaville.com. Maybe use the Wayback Machine to read some of the old posts. There was another site too that documented the bank corruption. They only give lip service to rule of law in Panama. There is no recourse if the banks take your money. I know you’re thinking, “Why would the bank take my money? If they develop a reputation of taking people’s money, they will go out of business.” Sure. And god-forbid you listen to some dumb expat who tells you that you can hide money in Panama. You can’t. One of my neighbors worked for the IRS. The banks down there have desks for the IRS agents to man, full time. LOL. Unfortunately, they’re not down their to protect your money… they’re down there to protect Uncle Sam’s money.

– It’s difficult to get a gun down there, let alone a concealed carry permit. If you get citizenship, it might be easier. I asked at a couple of gun stores, and as a resident he basically told me, “Not a chance.” You might want to investigate this further, though.

– We left because Panama, like a lot of 3rd world countries, make it very attractive for Expats to come… because it brings money and investment and tourism. But after awhile, they start to get fat and arrogant and begin jerking the expat community around. For example, they arbitrarily changed the tourist visa from three months to one month. Previously, you could live down there on a tourist visa as long as you made a “visa run” every three months. But every month? Give me a break. A large part of the expat community started to put their condos up for sale and leave. Fortunately, the Panamanian government realized the error of their ways and after 9 months they switched it back. But by then… we were gone. So were a lot of our friends. Gracias, adios.  And before you say, “Well.. why wouldn’t you just get residency?”  The answer is that: It costs a lot of time and money.  Generally, it’s a good idea to “test drive” a country before committing to residency.  Now, if they had a streamlined residency program… that would be another argument.  But asking Panama to develop anything “streamlined” is asking a lot.

This idea that many Panamanians speak English is false. You can find people within the professional sector who speak English, if you search for them. You will not normally encounter people on the street who speak English. My advice is to budget at least four hours a day to study Spanish for AT LEAST the first year you’re down there. Your ability to speak the language will directly affect your ability to successfully navigate your environment.

– The heat is oppressive. It wears on you.  Expect the humidity to reek havoc on your clothes and shoes and furniture.

My recommendation is to RENT for the first two to three years before buying anything. Be aware that construction is not up to American standards. Everything looks great on the surface, but it is not. For example: Building inspectors are routinely paid off. The parking in our high end condo was back to back and not wide enough to back your car out.  So, if somebody was in the space opposite to your’s, you’d have to go find the owner of the car or wait for someone else to back their car up. These were $200k+ condos. LOL.

The food was good, though. I’ll give ’em that.

Expat Prepper Diary: Surviving A Home Invasion In Costa Rica

When I first moved to Costa Rica (they told me it was the “Switzerland of Latin America”) I was surprised to find that everyone lived behind razor wire fences, gates and iron doors. Every window had bars. Every door had deadbolts.

I rented a small townhouse in a middle class neighborhood. I had virtually no furniture, except for a cheap (cheap!) sofa, a mattress that was on the floor (I didn’t even have a bed, yet!), a camping chair, a TV and a card table. I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay there, so I didn’t want to invest a lot of money in furniture and then have to leave.

When I brought the TV home, it worked for about an hour and then shorted out. (Probably more a fault of the crap electrical wiring in CR than the TV). Regardless, I took it back to the store for a repair but still had the empty box sitting in the middle of my also-empty living room.

I had bought a bad ass Rottweiler I named Einstein about a week earlier. But even as a professional dog-man, Einstein was more hassle than he was worth, so I returned him to the breeder, probably a bad decision on my part in hindsight.

Two days later I was upstairs lying on my mattress doped out of my head on migraine meds. I had every light in the house on and Einstein’s giant dinosaur bone was still on the welcome mat out front. (Out front was a patio enclosed with iron bars and a deadbolted gate door with razor wire up top).

It was 7 pm and across the street some neighbors were having a party for their kids.

In my half-awake stupor, I heard a car pull up, fast. It sounded like maybe they bumped into the gate out front or perhaps the neighbor’s gate. I continued my migraine trip, figuring I’d check it out in the morning.

Then I heard another, “Bang!” and this time I knew somebody was in my house!!

I hadn’t been in-country long enough to get a gun permit but I did have the forsense to buy a machete. I grabbed the machete and started to run downstairs. Then I stopped, realizing that if they saw a crazy gringo running at them with a machete, they’d just shoot me if they had a gun.

I ran back upstairs and crouched behind the door, ready to chop anybody in half before they could shoot me.

As it turns out, they were cowards and when they first heard me running down the stairs, they turned and ran out. Or perhaps they just saw the empty TV box and ran. I’m not sure.

Neighbors called the police for me but it took them 3 1/2 hours to show up. Literally 3 1/2 hours.

Turns out the crooks pulled up fast in front of the gate door, drilled out the lock and kicked it open. Then they drilled out the lock of my front door and kicked that one open, too.

I was doing a lot of kicking, too… kicking myself for getting rid of Old Einstein.

The next day I moved to an upper class neighborhood that had a gated complex with a 24/7 armed guard. Eventually I left the “Switzerland of Latin America” because it was too dangerous. And I later found out that some crooks paid off the guard and robbed my neighbors at the new place, too.

Hopefully the U.S. won’t get as bad as Costa Rica. The Ticos pretty much won’t leave the house unless somebody (like a maid or an uncle) is at the house all the time. Most people are surprised when they hear me say that because they’ve been to Costa Rica on vacation and had a wonderful time. But dig deeper… talk to the people who aren’t trying to sell you something or who haven’t invested every dime they own and are self-deluding themselves about the security situation… and you’ll hear a whole different story.

I’ve heard all of the excuses and they usually start and end with, “Crime happens everywhere.”

Yeah, that may be true. But isn’t it interesting that they don’t let the embassy people in San Jose, Costa Rica walk around at night… even in the “Beverly Hills” of Costa Rica? By comparison, the State department doesn’t have a problem with it’s workers walking around in North Bogota, Colombia (I’m not kidding!) … which should tell you a little bit about the security situation in Costa Rica.

Expat Prepper Diary Entry: I Hear Gunshots

I found this note on my hard drive tonight.  It’s something I wrote for my journal from back when I was living in Costa Rica, in Escazu… considered “the Beverly Hills of Costa Rica”.  Can you imagine this (below) happening in Beverly Hills on a regular basis?

“A guy can’t even take a nap in this country without something crazy going on!

6:21 pm. About 20 minutes ago I’m lying in bed and hear what I think is a gun shot.  Sounds like it’s coming from one of the houses next door.

Can’t be.  Probably just a car backfire, right?

Lie back down and listen.  BANG!  Another one.

Okay, that was definitely a gun shot.  WTF?  And this is supposed to be the Beverly Hills of Costa Rica?

I wait about 10 minutes and peak down to the guard tower.  Guard is tranquilo (or dead?) but if he’s alive, he seems to be in one piece.

I go down with my trusty Maglite.  It’s all I’ve got since getting a gun in this country requires jumping through all kinds of hoops I haven’t figured out how to maneuver.  Going down there with a machete would seem cavalier.

Can’t completely understand his Spanish (Nicaraguan dialect) but as best I could tell, shots WERE fired but they were not in our complex but in the complex to the South.  The IOHOTA (the Federal Police) were searching for a guy or something, and my Spanish isn’t quite good enough to tell who shot who.

Man… I love this s**t!  (seriously).   I thought moving to Texas would be fun, but this is a real adventure.  (Sarcasm)

Finally got a working diesel land cruiser yesterday and a native girlfriend. Now I gotta work on getting a gun.  (Or two!)

Lovin’ it here– can’t wait to get shot.  (More sarcasm). ”

When I wrote this, I was still in that intellectual space between the picture the “Escape America” websites paint for you vs. the stark reality of living in a third world country.