• – By Suzanne Soto-Davies

Retirement in Panama: Why it's one of the TOP countries to retire in


After being in long-time stressful management positions, Peter and Gaby decided to make a lifestyle change and went to Panama. "We went searching for the beauty of the tropics, visited Hawaii and Costa Rica, but found this perfect place," says Peter smiling. "Panama took our breath away."

After a few visits and one final international move, Peter and Gaby exchanged their hectic city lives for land ownership in the western shore of the Azuero Peninsula, in the province of Veraguas. They began by purchasing fifteen acres of land and over time grew it to a current 450 acres. Their property is not only their home but a project from the heart – selling one acre or larger parcels to fellow expats interested in caring for the land and designing their own refuge.

Peter and Gaby titled their property 'Punta Duarte', and it's not a master-planned development, but an opportunity to make a wonderful living by being surrounded with others that share their vision of appreciation for this natural beauty. Peter works maintaining the property and managing their family of workers, while Gaby beautifies the surroundings and designs the furniture, interior and hospitality of their Bed & Breakfast. "It's truly a piece of heaven on Earth, with incomparable 270 degrees of ocean views, fantastic sandy beaches alternating with rugged lava beaches and tropical forests," says Gaby. Their properties currently start at $20/square metre, and you can build your own home on it for an average for $18/square foot!

Opportunities abound in Panama because of the low cost of pristine land and clear ocean views, availability for quality materials and workmanship, and the many perks the Panamanian government provides to businesses interested in setting up shop, as well as to retirees. There are also many Real Estate opportunities for those searching for an already-built condo or home. As reported by Business Week magazine just last year, "A luxury beachfront mansion can be had for the same price as a dump in Daytona."

In Panama City, a small condo with two bedrooms and one bathroom can cost you $80,000; in the established El Cangrejo neighbourhood (which is very popular with expats) you can pay $90,000 for a 1,000 square foot two-bedroom apartment. And the government's retiree program – called the 'Pensionado' program – also extends to any foreigner who retires in Panama.

"Not 65 yet? You can qualify at any age.

The Pensionado Program is the most generous and appealing program of special benefits you will find anywhere in the world today. The program began in 1987 as the government's way of rewarding its seniors for a lifetime of hard work, and it has been extended to include anyone who retires in Panama.

Even if you're under 50, you can qualify as a Pensionado, by providing documentation of guaranteed pension income of $1,000 per month from a corporation or government agency (ie: Canada Pension Plan). And if you buy a home in Panama valued at $100,000 or more, that amount is reduced to just $750 per month. One more bonus: You will pay zero income taxes in Panama for your foreign-earned income.

In addition, the pensioner in Panama is entitled to a one-time exemption from duties on the importation of household goods (up to $10,000), PLUS an exemption on the importation or local purchase of a car – every two years.

As a pensioner in Panama, you can line up at your own Pensionado cash register at every supermarket, bank and theatre; you receive 50% discounts on entertainment (movies, theatres, golf, concerts, etc.), 50% off hotel stays, 30% off bus, boat and train fare rides, 25% off airline tickets and dining at restaurants, 20% off medical consultations, professional and technical services, 15% discount on dental and eye exams and 10% off prescription medicines (which are of high quality brands), and there's more…

Nice and clean… and SAFE.

The truth is that the Pensionado program is just the icing on the cake. "As soon as I landed in Panama during my first visit while on holidays, kids on toe, I asked the Customs clerk where I could buy a bottle of water," says Sabrina, who recently purchased a future retirement property of her own in Panama. "I was floored when the clerk noted that I could get water from anywhere, even at the airport bathroom faucet! Of course I didn't believe her at first, but later I found out she was right. Unbelievable!"

Yes, in Panama you can drink the tap water nearly everywhere. The highways are clean and smooth, with state-of-the-art infrastructure and services. There is excellent health care at very low rates (approximately $35 for a complete blood workup at a new hospital managed by John Hopkins Medicine Int'l); there is a low crime rate (except for in some areas and times of day in Colon, the world's largest duty free zone in the world after Hong Kong); there is reliable high-speed internet, with growing e-spot cafés popping up in all major cities. You can actually trust the police when you need them. And above all, the people are irresistibly polite, friendly and helpful.

"There is a world of opportunity for my future and that of my children in Panama," continues Sabrina. "After our property purchase, my husband and I are going through the process of applying for our residency status and that of our children AND our parents. And since we live here right now (in Canada) and have no immediate plans to emigrate to Panama, we just have to ensure we visit every two years in order to keep our residency status."

Not ready to retire abroad? Try a visit.

Upon clearing customs, you will be provided with a "Free medical emergency card" which covers any medical emergency and accident you could incur during your stay in Panama, for your first 30 day stay (some limitations and exclusions apply). Most Panamanians are fluent in English, so the Spanish-language barrier is minimal. Consider renting a phone for $10 or buying a chip for your existing iPhone or Blackberry for about $5, with enough time on it to use during your stay (you can do this at the airport).

Travel to Panama is reasonably inexpensive, with the best package deals planned ahead through Sunwing (sunwing.ca). It is possible to book a package including flight, airport transfers, and one week stay at an all-inclusive four-star resort (with all meals and snacks, all drinks, and hotel stay with entertainment) for under $600 per person (not including taxes).

Some of the country's best all-inclusive resorts are located 1-1/2 hours from the airport, so try to book the afternoon arrival flights in order to catch a glimpse of the Panama Canal, the spectacular sunset and views of the countryside, and book into your hotel in time for a late-afternoon swim on the Pacific Ocean.

One such resort is Playa Blanca, which features two large pools, three specialty restaurants (including irresistibly fresh and professionally prepared Sushi), a snack bar and several walk or swim-in bars, nightly entertainment, sports, and well appointed, clean rooms complete with a safe for your valuables, television, and Wifi internet. Plan to pay for some add-ons such as the internet plan, tips (the average Panamanian earns $400 per month, so a gracious tip can go a long way), specialty branded drinks, laundry service, items purchased at the store (which as expected can be shockingly expensive), and a wide assortment of water sports, cruises, fishing trips and horseback riding. Good news is, children 12 and under stay for free, and some rooms can accommodate up to six people.

Disappointed with all-inclusive resort meals? Playa Blanca is well known for its exquisite buffet, which is prepared by the Red Seals Chef flown in from Costa Rica. Meals are flavourful, hot and well presented, and there is always a good variety to choose from to suit any palate, including a large assortment of fresh salads and in-house baked desserts.

Most all-inclusives offer golf on-site or nearby, as well as day trips and excursions. Ocean tours, zip-lining tours, snorkeling and deep-fishing tours, are highly recommended but must be pre-arranged almost as soon as you arrive at your resort, to ensure availability.

Another possibility is to travel on your own (with a reliable car rental and GPS system) and rent a condo or apartment in Panama. With a budget of $600-$700 per month in rent you can have lots of options for living a quality life in Panama City. Outside of the big city, it's not uncommon to find a rental home or apartment for $300-$400 per month. The typical monthly budget including rent, utilities and food, is approximately $1,000 per month – per couple!

A stay in downtown Panama City will prove to be an exciting chapter in your travels. Highly recommended, is the Hotel RIU Plaza. It's located in the heart of Panama City, with abundant selection of shops and malls, quaint and deliciously upscale restaurants, nightlife and many local attractions within easy access. The hotel is spectacular, safe, and its 645 rooms are well-appointed, many which boast spectacular views of the city, ocean and sunset. Five on-locale restaurants serve quality meals and snacks, and the staff is polite and helpful. Highly recommended is Tastes restaurant, which serves fusion cuisine and some of the freshest, most delicious Sushi you will ever enjoy!

The Dubai of the Americas.

Panama City is a dynamic metropolis, with over 300 banks from around the world working diligently to cash in on foreign investors and fortune-seekers. There are over 40 skyscrapers under construction, including the second Trump Tower and the Panamera: Latin America's first Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The expansion of the new Panama Canal (the Third Set of Locks project) will double the capacity of the canal by 2014 by allowing larger ships to transit – a project stated to generate enough wealth to transform Panama into a First World Country.

Despite the global recession, Panama's economy is one of the few to continue growing – largely thanks to the Canal. In fact, Panama has one of the region's top two strongest economies, with less than 2% inflation per year, and ranking from most-to-least expensive cost of living indexes for 2012, Panama ranks at #520 out of 730 cities and regions studied globally.

Panama City is a modern city, with state-of-the art hospitals, global hotels and skyscrapers. Population for 2012 reached 3.5 million people in the country, for which 75% reside in Panama City and other larger cities (the countryside is vast and lush, green fields abound). The country topped GDP outlook index in Latin America, and 20th in terms of real global growth, with a rate of 10.6% (Source: CIA World Factbook, July 2012).

Panama is politically stable and prides itself on safety and growth. And because of its location and former ties with the U.S. on the Canal (the U.S. administrated it until 1999), it's arguably the most modern and sophisticated country in Latin America – yet still affordable.

The best of both worlds.

You will no longer need to wait until the winter months to escape to a sunny, warm climate – no more snowbirding! Your family will love visiting you, as Panama's temperature and humidity are often lower than Florida's, with about 100 microclimates, so weather varies by location: Mountain areas such as Boquete are cooler and windier; Caribbean side (such as Bocas del Toro) is more humid and rainy, while the driest part is the Azuero Peninsula on the south coast, and the hottest part being around David (near Costa Rica). Average rear-round temperature is 28° C (92° F) and the "rainy" season (for when it rains 1 to 2 hours per day) is between May to mid-November – nearly the same seasonal weather pattern as South Florida (except for the complete absence of hurricanes).

Panama was picked the "#2 place to go" by the New York Times. If you're looking to retire, set up a business, take a vacation, or want to start a new life, it's obvious why Panama makes sense.

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Silver and Gold magazine, since 2006. Read more great articles like this one online! www.silvergoldmagazine.ca

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