I arrived in Panama in December 2018 and secured an Airbnb for a minimum month’s stay while looking to obtain permanent residency. As it turned out, an extended Airbnb stay was not to be — with the help of a highly recommended realtor, I was able to lease my first long-term apartment in Panama City soon after.
It’s been 3.5 years, four cities, and six neighborhoods checking out different areas here in Panama. Here is what I’ve loved about each Panamanian city I’ve lived in.
1. Panama City
My first apartment was a two-bedroom, two-bath, fully furnished condo with splendid views of the Panama City skyline as well as the Panama Gulf Bay. I was on the 15th floor of a high-rise, and I believe it to be my best overall location so far. The Cinco de Mayo metro station was conveniently accessible, which allowed me to get around with ease and minimal cost.
The apartment building was located at the far end of Avenida Balboa — one of the main thoroughfares in the city — near the entrance to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of San Felipe, otherwise known as Casco Viejo. I lived across from Mercado de Mariscos, the famous fish and seafood market, as well. Getting up and about was certainly a no-brainer. It was a quick, leisurely walk to enjoy great meals, excellent dining, rooftop cocktails, and Sunday afternoon sauntering, mingling with the local vendors and tourists. This was a delightful part of my experience as a fresh expat enjoying the sights and sounds of my newly adopted home.
I would be back in the city 2.5 years later, in the midst of the pandemic, for another high-rise condo experience. This time on the 11th floor in a building located on the other end of Avenida Balboa in the business and financial district. Avenida Balboa is one of the main thoroughfares in the city and has high-rise residential properties along the majority of its corridor.
The high-rise properties along Avenida Balboa shape the city’s skyline. Indeed, some properties are 30+ floor skyscrapers, which along with brand hotels, shopping areas, and upscale restaurants, make for a good-looking avenue. It has impeccable landscaping through the center strip.
The street runs opposite the Panama Gulf Bay and the popular Cinta Costera. In Panama, everyone loves the Cinta Costera! It is a scenic walk/bike/skate and an all-around fantastic urban trail that runs the length of the avenue and is totally valued by both locals and tourists.
Now that I think about it, Avenida Balboa is a beautiful avenue. Here I saw all kinds of activity, from planned bicyclists and jogging events to planned and unplanned fireworks displays. From base jumpers to protestors, major traffic jams and everything in between. I would rate this location highly favorable because of its proximity to everything and how conveniently you maneuver and manage. It would definitely suit you if you’re a city dweller that loves the cacophony of sounds and activity.
I was a short-term tenant twice in the Albrook neighborhood, both times renting a room for 2 months. What I loved most about living here was its shopping and the ability to get in and out of the city easily.
Though Albrook is technically a neighborhood, it has the distinctive feel of a city. It’s well established, historical neighborhood and showcases beautiful homes. It was formerly the site of a U.S. Air Force base during the Panama Canal Zone era. Officers built their homes amidst the natural scenic backdrop of a mini jungle and varied wildlife. I would get my exercise by walking along on the main street, admiring the homes, and thinking how great everything looked.
The country’s main ground transportation terminal is located in Albrook, as well as its secondary airport. Even without a car, transportation to essential services and shopping was never an issue. I was so close to the airport I could walk there. Allbrook Mall, the largest mall in Latin America, was less than 10 minutes by bus.
2. Bocas Del Toro
After living in Panama City for the first 6 months, I found myself on my way to the province of Bocas del Toro, where I enjoyed island life for the next 6 months. It was my first such experience, and I had an amazing time living there. I was able to travel to a couple of the islands in the archipelago, like Bastimentos and Solarte, as well as the mainland cities of Almirante and Changuinola. I lived on both Carenero Island and Isla Colón.
It’s been 3 years since I was there. At that time, Bocas del Toro (comprising nine islands and a chunk of the mainland) had a quaint, Bohemian–type vibe. It was good fun just walking down the main street of Bocas Town and taking it all in. The city square was surrounded by myriad shops, restaurants, and local vendors with their wares. I remember the food trucks, with their smoke pits and sumptuous offerings, and the meandering stray dogs that would rest in the middle of the street or wherever they wanted, totally chilled.
Bocas del Toro and its archipelago of islands is a tourist’s and expat’s delight, and it will remain so due to its gorgeous Caribbean waters that bespeak beach life. You marvel out loud as you take in breathtaking sunsets with a gin, lime, and tonic, or perhaps your favorite cabernet… this is the life! No matter where you choose to catch a beach sunset, it is something all retirees should experience. View it as a bucket list item, releasing pent-up pressure you’ve accumulated from the many years being on the grind. Bocas is a place you can definitely do that because it has a lot of great beaches on different islands that you get to by water taxi.
The water taxi service is the main way to get around. The main island, Isla Colón, is the only one with vehicle traffic. I would also add that not only were the beaches in Bocas del Toro great, I also enjoyed the community I found there. Live entertainment, social activities, and night life for the young and retiree crowd was always in full swing.
3. Vacamonte, Arraiján District
After my Bocas experience, I ventured back to Panama City temporarily while I tried to locate a less remote beach community with access to more amenities. After a couple of months, I discovered a residential beach community located in Arraiján District, approximately 25 minutes from the city. I moved into a two-bedroom, two-bath beachfront condo 3 weeks before the country — and the world, for that matter — shut down due to COVID-19.
The year I spent in Arraiján District during the pandemic was surreal. I resided in a 700+ unit residential beach club that was developed as an affordable getaway investment for locals wanting beach time away from the city. The property was situated in a community called Vacamonte, and it had beautiful grounds and well-maintained facilities.
The strict quarantine and lockdown protocols created a situation where I was able to enjoy a quiet and peaceful environment. Days after I moved in, activity at the beach went dormant. The pool area adjacent to my apartment had no visitors, except for the occasional cleaning crew. The entire area was cordoned off to restrict access to the beach. The only sounds to be heard on the beach for the next 6 months were the crashing of waves in the stillness. I remember telling everyone how blessed I felt to be locked down in a pandemic crisis under such soothing conditions. It was like my own meditative retreat. On the days we were allowed to go out for essentials only then did I realize the reality of a fundamental life change for the unforeseeable future.
I currently live in David. I moved here recently to get a taste of the local Panamanian lifestyle. I came ready to embrace the differences I knew I would find. I considered that it was important to be able to experience the different localities and living arrangements if I were to truly get to know Panama.
Instead of a condo apartment, I am now renting a three-bedroom, one-bath, old-style Panamanian house in a quiet neighborhood just outside David. I am the only American on my block, but a few of my neighbors do speak some English. I am the one with poor language skills as I struggle to get conversational. This is one of the main reasons I chose to live local — so I can improve on my Spanish.
I also wanted to enjoy more fruits and vegetables, locally grown and more affordable. I love that in the local neighborhood, you can purchase veggies, fruits, plantains, and fish right outside your front door from the local vendors that regularly ride through with their bullhorns announcing their presence.
I am sure there is more that I will come to appreciate about this area. But for now, I still have much more to explore and experience.
I know I will eventually settle into a permanent Panamanian location that I will be thrilled to have found. I have a passion for beach life, and with continued perseverance, I am sure I will find it, for this is the magic of Panama!
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