I by no means anticipated to retire to Panama — however we live ‘very comfortably’ on $1,200 a month
Kris Cunningham never expected to live in Panama. When her husband Joel talked about retiring to Central America, “I thought he was mad.” She did not have a passport and had never been abroad.
But after nine years of living in David, a city with 83,000 inhabitants on the Pacific and near the border with Costa Rica, “we are super happy here,” says the 69-year-old. “It exceeded my wildest expectations.”
She learned Spanish, taught herself to play the bass guitar, and joined her husband’s rock band called Monkey Nerve when the bass player moved to Colombia. She seems to get into conversation with everyone, has cycled across Costa Rica and Nicaragua from home and blogs about her life.
Trace back a decade. Cunningham was a visiting nurse in Florida, burned out but knew that she and her husband, who had already retired from his home renovation job, couldn’t afford to stay in Sarasota without a paycheck or Social Security check. And even a reduced check was a few years away.
“We were just working to stay afloat,” as she counted the days until she could file social security claims with 62, she recalled.
At the insistence of her husband, they decided to explore Costa Rica and Panama. Costa Rica was more expensive. Panama City wasn’t a good fit – too much city. Boquete in the mountains is an expat enclave and not attractive. But David felt right – not too big, friendly and foreigners are integrated into the community instead of living separately. “It just feels so free here, so relaxed, so not alone,” she says.
They did the numbers thinking they could live on savings until their social security check kicked in.
She took Spanish classes before leaving Florida, but her friends in Panama don’t speak English. This is how she learned, even though she had to rely on a dictionary for the first four years.
In Florida, the couple was spending $ 3,000 a month on basic necessities, not to mention clothing and restaurant meals. For David, it’s between $ 1,100 and $ 1,200. Additional costs are minimal; They’re not big diners, so mostly flights back to the US
You rent a house – 3 bedrooms, 2 baths on 900 square feet plus a garden full of fruit trees – in a beautiful middle-class neighborhood for $ 385 a month, including water and garbage collection. In Panama it is customary to bring the refrigerator, stove and washing machine with you to an unfurnished house.
Feeding the wildlife: an iguana claims a papaya bowl
Courtesy Kris Cunningham
The kitchen stove runs on a gas cartridge similar to an American gas grill – typical for Panama – and costs $ 5.12 for a refill, which is usually needed monthly. Internet and cable television together cost $ 46 a month.
Insurance for their cars – liability insurance only because they are more than a decade old – is nearly $ 300 a year.
A simple, good Panamanian lunch costs around $ 4, she says, while the chic Italian restaurant nearby could be $ 40 per person. Your favorite restaurant costs no more than $ 10 a piece. The $ 45 she recently paid in the US for a meal for four out of three hamburgers, chicken nuggets, and something to drink would cost half or less in Panama, she said.
“We don’t live badly here, we live very comfortably.”
Cunningham and her husband chose to pay for health care out of pocket because they are healthy and not on medication, and they are putting money aside for emergencies.
A visit to the doctor costs $ 40 to $ 50, she says, and she pays $ 30 to get her teeth brushed.
When a spot on her tooth turned into a major tooth decay, gum surgery, root canal and crown treated by three dentists, “it ended up being less than $ 900 for the whole shebang,” she recalls.
The mountains over David.
Courtesy Kris Cunningham
You need a visa to live in Panama
Panama’s rules have changed since Cunningham’s arrival. While you can stay as a tourist for 180 days, as a tourist you can no longer live in the country, she says.
Panama requires individuals to document $ 1,000 of verifiable income each month plus an additional $ 250 for each loved one, she says. This can be a social security check or a state or private pension. Here is what the Panamanian embassy lists as requirements.
The visa offers various discounts for retirees, including flights.
If the standard retirement visa doesn’t work for you, consult an attorney about other options. You can also contact the nearest Panamanian consulate with your visa questions.
Cunningham openly admits there will be frustrations. Staff may not show up when you expect them and meetings can start late. It gets louder too – loud music running late, roosters crowing, dogs running down the street. Depending on where you live, you can face regular power, internet, and even water outages.
Then there are even more mundane differences. Favorite brands may not be available. Suitable clothes and shoes can be hard to find as Panamanians tend to be shorter and thinner than Americans.
A swimming hole in Panama
Courtesy Kris Cunningham
The weather in David is hot, but more pleasant than in Florida, where it has also gotten cold.
Many Americans choose to live in the mountains of Boquete, where there is no shortage of events in English and the workers speak English. Even so, she saw many people come and go. Some are fed up with what they consider to be inefficiency or bureaucracy, or they miss their grandchildren, or they want US health care. (Medicare cannot be used abroad.)
“Sometimes I think they wanted the life they had in the States but cheaper,” she says.
Your advice? Cool. Adapt to the culture and you will get better at what you want.
“For that to work, you have to know that it won’t be the same as it was in the US,” she adds. “You just have to recognize that you are daring a leap of faith into the unknown, and you just have to go with them.”
Interested in Boquete? “It’s madness to stay in the US”: Why this 63-year-old teacher left Massachusetts to retire to the highlands of Panama
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