On a recent trip to South America, my wife and I found ourselves with a long layover in Panama — a place we had never visited but had been considering as a potential future retirement location. Having 8 hours or so to kill between flights, this was a great opportunity to leave the airport and get our very first impression of this small Central American nation. We grabbed the chance with both hands.
We did a little research. You might be wondering…
Why Retire in Panama?
Panama, smaller than South Carolina with a population of about 4.4 million (about the same as Kentucky), has become one of the most popular retirement destinations for American expats — and for good reason.
You Can’t Beat The Weather
There is no real winter and summer here — only dry and wet seasons, and the amount of rain depends on whether you are on the Caribbean or Pacific coast or higher inland. There are many different microclimates in this country, resulting in incredible biodiversity — there are 10,000 different plant species native to Panama. But with temperatures rarely below 70 degrees Fahrenheit or above 90, living here cannot be that uncomfortable. For sure you won’t need to bring your snow shovel.
Safety is a major concern no matter where you decide to retire. Panama is generally considered to be the safest country in Central America and very welcoming; though, as with every city, some parts of Panama City may require some caution. The U.S. State Department notes specific areas where crime is a concern.
It Feels Familiar
Panama is modern, clean, and familiar. The currency is U.S. dollars, English is widely spoken, and there are many familiar products and stores here, too — often with lower prices. The Panama City skyline is a mass of high-rise towers, apartments, and established, world-class businesses. Modern infrastructure makes it easy to get around. The country is peaceful (it has no standing army), the government is stable, and the economy (based mostly on the canal, banking, and commerce) is strong. Overall, it is possible to live comfortably in Panama at costs that can be much lower than in the U.S.
Great Healthcare Options
One of the biggest draws for retirees to Panama is the excellent and affordable healthcare, with options for private and government-provided healthcare. Nearly all doctors and many nurses speak English and are renowned for their bedside manner.
Panama City’s medical facilities have a reputation throughout Latin America; Punta Pacifica, a John Hopkins affiliate, is considered one of the most technologically advanced hospitals in Latin America.
Editor’s Note: Want more information? Here’s our full guide to Panama’s healthcare system.
The Great Outdoors
With two coastlines only 30 miles apart at Panama’s narrowest point, a tropical rainforest, and biodiversity second to none, Panama offers so much to see and do right on your doorstep. Remarkably, almost 30 percent of Panama’s land is protected as forest reserves, national parks, or wildlife refuges. Combined with the tropical climate, this is a place you can explore year-round.
What Can You See In Only A Few Hours?
Realistically, with only a few hours available, we would only be able to tickle — let alone scratch — the surface. It was important, therefore, for us to have a good plan of how to use our time effectively. We booked a personal tour with a local guide in advance, and he was waiting for us with his car running as we left the baggage hall. We wanted to see the Panama Canal, of course, a little bit of the old town, and everything in between would be simply adding context. We didn’t have time to drive through different neighborhoods — nor did we need or want to — at this time.
We visited in October. The weather was overcast with a few spots of rain that didn’t last long. The temperature was in the low 80s. The drive from the airport to the canal was easy on well-maintained highways that were not at all busy. The scenery was undulating as we headed away from the airport, green and lush — hardly surprising in this climate — and the presence of palm trees reminded us of the temperate climate.
The Panama Canal And Former U.S. Compound
The Miraflores locks and visitor center are only 22 miles from the airport and offer the best views of the canal. During these COVID times, the visitor center was limiting the number of visitors and booking was required, so we passed on the visitor center, but our driver found a small parking area close by where we were able to watch a freighter (named Ocean Happiness — was this an omen?) being ushered by a couple of tug boats into the first lock. We were not the only ones peering from the parking space — families were enjoying the sight of a massive steel ship gently edging through a narrow passage. It was cool to see and appreciate that the canal is more like two rivers on either side of a small lake, each with its set of locks rather than one long straight, narrow channel as we had imagined. We visited the buildings formerly occupied by U.S. personnel when the canal was still owned by America and learned the fascinating history of its construction and ultimate transition to Panamanian ownership.
As we drove back to the city, we stopped briefly to watch more ships pass under the Bridge of the Americas, complete with a few locals hawking their tourist wares at the lookout point.
Our route back took us through Casco Viejo, the small but charming historic UNESCO district of Panama. Though we didn’t have enough time to sit and enjoy an outdoor coffee, we saw enough to know we will be back and grab that coffee someday in the future. Our last stop was at Cinta Costera — a 64 acre public space built on reclaimed land from where we took in great views of the Bay of Panama and Casco Viejo and wondered… what if?
I have to admit, we felt like a couple of students traveling from place to place, spending only a few minutes at each, ticking locations off a “Must-See” list and saying “been there, done that.” We might have just about “been there” but we certainly had not “done that.” All the locations remained unchecked on our list.
It was probably good to spend our first hours in overcast weather and to see how Panama shaped up in the shade. The lushness of the environment was expected but was even more green than we had anticipated. The cityscape was more impressive (both in the size and number of skyscrapers) than I had expected, though we did see some adjacent areas with old, dilapidated buildings that had seemingly been left to rot, which was disappointing. We didn’t hear much honking of car horns or miles of traffic jams — it was a Sunday, but at least we could pretend life here is always this calm.
There were many small boats bobbing in the harbor and along with cycle paths and promenades, we were delighted to see that an active lifestyle would not be out of place here.
Did We Learn Anything?
This was a perfect first toe dip into the country and a great use of our layover time. On the next layover, we would focus on only one area of the city — likely Casco Viejo — but we have seen enough already to know that a much longer stay is warranted to explore this varied and inviting country from coast to shining coast.
It’s impossible to get a comprehensive overview of a country in only a few hours and certainly not enough to make the decision to retire there. However, our initial feeling was that Panama was clean, modern, and felt prosperous. Parks and cycle paths suggested activity and the many restaurants provided ample eating out options. The airport is serviced with quick connections to the U.S. and English was widely spoken.
Our short, opportunistic visit confirmed that Panama remains a viable retirement possibility and is deserving of further investigation. It just goes to show, not all flight layovers are a waste of time.