Retire in Panama

by Heather Hovenkamp

Sailfish I fishing in Panama
Let me tell you why we decided
to retire in Panama.
leaving for a fishing charter

After living in the Caribbean for more than 10 years, my husband and I were fed up with the extremely high cost of living, inescapable stress from work, apathy of people and governments, and inability to enjoy any hobbies or interests because time and money were limited. We had fallen into another rat race, only this time on a tropical island in the Caribbean. St. Maarten/St. Martin had good medical care that was reasonable, but there were limited specialists on the island.

So, we both decided we had to get out of the rut, and improve our lives. We had 4 dogs that we would never leave behind. But the criteria for selection had to be established for all of us. What did we want and need?

So, in order of priority, this is what we felt was important:

  1. Cost of living – cheaper housing prices, little or no taxation, better purchasing power

  2. Transition – needs to be a place where we can adapt easily
  3. Riding Apache
    while Chocolatay grazes
    horseback riding in Panama

  4. Good Medical must be available for reasonable costs and excellent care (veterinarians included)

  5. Climate – must be warm (I find anything less than 25º Celsius or 77 º Fahrenheit to be too cold), and it would be nice if it were green/eco.

  6. Immigration and residency – should be within our financial means and should be available within reasonably short time

  7. Friendly, attentive and welcoming. No racism.

  8. Free of natural and other disasters? E.G. Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, pollution, droughts or fires due to droughts, snow storms/blizzards, or tsunamis??

  9. Languages – English, French or Dutch spoken?
  10. Communication – must have good telephone, internet and TV (preferably in English)

  11. Lifestyle – cultural and social activities available

  12. Deep Sea Fishing (marlin fishing) available?

  13. Possibility of owning a horse or at least access to horseback riding within reasonable distance and cost

  14. Airport accessible for international travel, and/or within reasonable costs to reach one.

Researching the Best Place to Retire

The most important criteria were the first. We wanted to be able to buy a house and live for several months without needing to work. This produced a list of countries that appealed to us and included: Panama, Aruba, Costa Rica, Belize, France, Dominican Republic, and Canada.

More research needed to be done. This took approximately a year (off and on).

It is important to explain however, that my husband is Dutch, and I am Canadian. We had been living in the Caribbean for 13 years. My husband speaks Dutch, English and a little German. I speak English and French. When we arrived in St. Martin we thought we would retire there. But things changed when the 37 sq. mile island became a concrete jungle with no place to move, no place to build anymore, and no more public beaches!

Since I am the computer savvy person, it was my task to do the research. Panama came out on top because it satisfied most of our wants and needs.

Why We Didn't Retire In Aruba, Belize, France, Canada, or Dominican Republic

So why did we cross the following off our list?

Aruba is expensive (at least as expensive as where we were leaving) and it is still in the Caribbean where we believe racism will continue to exist.

Costa Rica has had a real estate boom and thus the cost of purchasing a home is no longer reasonable. Inflated real estate prices do not reflect the real cost of living in Costa Rica, which is still relatively low. The currency is not tied to the US dollar which therefore makes purchasing power more volatile.

Belize: This statement just about sums it up: "The reality however, is that many food and household items are highly priced, crime and drug problems are eminent in some areas, and it is a semi-tropical, developing country with a true multicultural population which one may find difficult to deal with, there is apparently red tape and plenty of it; and medicine that in some cases isn't up to first-world snuff."

France is rated top for health care and for lifestyle. But the cost of living (especially in Euros) and the climate just didn’t warrant consideration.

Dominican Republic is subject to natural disasters like hurricanes and floods, very few people speak English, and racism is probably evident and thus transition to this country would overall be extremely difficult.

Canada is COLD. Cost of living isn’t all that it is cracked up to be unless you live in the boonies, away from the city. Immigration is also expensive and difficult and the country is highly bureaucratic for everything. There is no sport fishing and horses are a rich luxury.

Why We Chose to Retire in Panama

Panama became our choice. Panama’s advantages are unrivalled. Apart from tax advantages and privacy advantages...

  • Panama has a stable government and a growing economy.

  • The US dollar is the legal tender. Panama has a stable economy that has been based upon the U.S. Dollar since 1904.

  • Residents pay no tax on foreign earned income

  • Foreigners can buy and own property in Panama with the same rights and protections as Panamanians citizens.

  • Pensionado program (retiree incentive program), the best in the world, is not necessarily age related and the benefits are considerable.

  • Tourism investments have exemptions from import duties, construction materials and equipment, income, real estate taxes, etc.

  • Property tax exemptions apply to all new construction on a sliding scale according to value.
  • English is widely spoken.
  • The US presence in the country for many years has lead to a US style infrastructure with a number of familiar names and businesses.
  • Panama has a number of US standard health care facilities and services with many US trained English speaking doctors available (e.g. John Hopkins Hospital).

  • Panama has a reliable communications system with fiber optic telephone lines and much of the country has ADSL internet.

  • Panama is one of the best offshore havens in the world.

  • Panama means “abundance of fish” therefore fishing is fabulous.

  • Last but not least, Panama is beautiful.

Our beachfront condo
under construction
tPanamanian beachfront condo
From cool mountain retreats like Boquete, to affordable beachfront property, or cosmopolitan city apartments overlooking a stunning harbor, the choice is yours.

With real estate prices beginning to rise, one has the opportunity to make a considerable return on investments made now. Rental property is in high demand particularly in the highland areas, so even if one is not looking to retire for a while this is an opportunity to get into the market and earn a return on investment in the meantime.

Our Life in Panama

My husband's favorite passtime
go fishing in Panama
So now we are in Panama, loving everything it has to offer. I have two horses that I ride every day.

My husband has his sport fishing charter boat. Panama has the best fishing the world has to offer.

We have a live-in maid who cooks, cleans, irons and cares for our dogs for less than $200/month. A gardener comes once a week for less than $50/month. We are now able to relax, live, and enjoy our lives. We have invested in a home, a boat, and a beachfront condo unit that will bring us income and a good return on investment.

Tips On Immigrating During Retirement

One very important piece of advice for anyone immigrating to a foreign country. It isn’t worth trying to go through the immigration process yourself unless you are masochistic. Hire a lawyer from a large reputable legal firm. It will pay off in the long run. We had permanent residency status within 2 months. We know of others who are do-it-yourselfers and have been here for several years. They still need to leave the country every 90 days and pay penalties/fines unless they leave every 30 days.

©2007 Heather Hovenkamp Used by permission

Heather writes about life in Panama at

Tell us what you consider to be the best place to retire.