This ‘Life as a Nomad‘ post about Panama City is a guest post by Penny de Vine over at travellingpenster.com.
Panama City is the capital of Panama in Central America (not Panama City, Florida in the US, which often comes up in your Google searches!). It has a population of almost 900,000, and a metro population of around 1.2million. The City is relatively small, but quite spread out; much to many people’s surprise, has no ‘downtown’ area.
But why Panama City?
My boyfriend and I were living in Antigua, Guatemala, and decided it was time for a change. I’d been travelling for several months already, so just had all my worldly possessions in a backpack. My boyfriend had been living there for much longer, but he packed up everything within a few days, and we were off!
Why Panama City as opposed to somewhere else in Central America?
We had heard about the great amount of growth Panama is experiencing, and thought there might be some opportunities here for us. Also the currency is the US dollar, so we thought that would help us save, and make our money stretch further as we continue our journey to South America (or wherever the wind takes us).
How do you get there?
We got here by chicken bus, coach, coaster, van, and boat – we overlanded from Guatemala over several months, it was a lot of fun! But for a more conventional route, you can fly direct from many cities in the US, Canada, Europe, and of course, other Central and South American cities.
Are there many foreigners around?
Tons! The expat population is quite large (some say up to 30,000!). There are mostly North American expats, but also Canadians, Germans, Brits, Australians, Mexicans, Colombians, and many more! There are many large multi-national companies here that attract foreign talent.
Are there many foreign products or services around?
Absolutely! Head to one of the Riba Smith stores here. They sell local, North American, and other foreign products – pretty much anything you can get at home. Another chain called ‘El Rey’ has some foreign products, but Riba Smith is by far the most popular with expats. There are also a number of specialty stores selling products from countries around the world, including India, Japan, Thailand, and even the Middle East! Sadly though, no Vegemite or Tim Tams from my home country (Australia).
What about the language barrier?
It can be tough here if you don’t speak Spanish. Most things you read about Panama will tell you that everyone speaks at least a little English, but that’s not really so. I definitely recommend taking some classes before you come here, and while you’re here. It’s the perfect place to learn through total immersion.
What’s there to see around town?
The Panama Canal of course! You can’t come to Panama and not visit the Canal. There is also some spectacular 16th and 17th Century Spanish, French and American architecture in the old town (Casco Viejo), and a stunning waterfront boulevard (the Cinta Costera) that has great views of the City, and Panama Bay. You can even take a hike through the City’s national park (Parque National Metropolitano), and see some unique flora and fauna.
Is it worth coming to Panama City as a tourist?
Most definitely. There are so many things to see and do in the City, you can very easily jam pack a week full of activities. Gorgeous beaches, islands, rainforests, volcanoes, and mountains are not too far from the City either, so you could take some nature based day trips (or multi day trips if you have more time). If you’re up for some socializing, you’ve come to the right place. Panamanian’s love to eat, drink, and party, so there’s a plethora of local, and international, cafes, bars, restaurants, and clubs to keep you busy – day and night.
What’s the best way to get started as a slow nomad there?
Central America is a place that you’ll need to bring lots of patience with you. Things move at a much slower pace here, so if you’re a slow nomad, it could be the perfect place. My biggest piece of advice is not to waste your energy getting frustrated, and just go with the flow. Don’t come with any specific expectations; rather, come to experience a different, diverse, exciting way of life.
Importantly, if you’re reliant on the internet for work, you’ll need to do some research into internet companies, as service is sketchy. It regularly slows, or goes down completely (and the customer service reps are often not terribly helpful). Coverage is different for different areas of the City (depending on how close you live to a tower, how good the wiring is in your building, etc.) The city’s growth also adds to the unreliability, as the service can’t keep up with demand. Some areas of the City get good coverage with ‘Cable and Wireless’, some with ‘Cable Onda’. The most reliable, and fastest, but far most expensive is ‘Panetma’ (it is out of the budget of most people here). Major phone companies also offer a USB/mobile modem sticks, but these are hugely unreliable (and slow). Check my post above for more.
How did you find a place to live (e.g. where did you look)? What will you do differently the next time out?
We looked on a few websites (namely encuentra24.com and Craigslist), enquired with local agents, and drove, and walked around. Prices advertised can be much higher than market prices, so it helps if you have a local contact here to get better (not-so-gringo) prices. Often places for rent will simply have a sign out the front (rather than be advertised anywhere). You then call to view, and negotiate a price if it’s what you’re after. A word of caution: always get rental agreements in writing, and be aware of what your responsibilities as a tenant are, as well as the conditions of renting that particular apartment. There aren’t really any standard, across-the-board rental agreements here. I have heard some horror stories about people being charged more than was agreed, and certain things not being included as promised. We were lucky enough to find a furnished place in a great neighbourhood, for a great price. This was just pure luck, and took a lot of hard work hunting across the space of a few weeks.
Which specific websites, forums, or Facebook groups are worth joining? Which ones aren’t?
‘Expats in Panama’ and ‘Tropical Cowboys and Cowgirls’ Facebook groups are worth joining. These groups provide general advice on anything Panama related. Yahoo groups are not worth joining (so I’ve heard). Apparently these groups can get quite nasty, and personal in their discussions. Sometimes the Facebook groups I mentioned can too, but for the most part they’re helpful, and have a friendly vibe. As Panama is a hotspot for retirees from North America, there are plenty of websites you can look at for information as well, but for me, the Facebook groups provide the quickest and most up-to-date information. You need to keep in mind however, that things in Panama are constantly changing, and there are no hard and fast rules for things – what might be accurate one day (with one person, or with one customer service agent), might be completely different the next. The website ‘International Living’ gets a bad rap from most people, as some of the information on there regarding costs of living for example, is misleading. So have a look on there for general information, but take some of it with a grain of salt – nothing beats your own first-hand experience. For networking and socializing, Internations Panama, and Young Expats in Panama are great. These groups help both locals and expats come together regularly for business, social, and special interest activities.
Are there many jobs available for nomads like yourself, or is it easy to find clients in the neighborhood?
There are plenty of part time English teaching jobs, and hospitality jobs to help pay the bills, but the job security, and wages are generally fairly low, so you’d need to supplement your income with blogging for example. If you’re seeking a full time teaching job, your best bet is to approach the international schools here for something which pays well, and is relatively secure. There are a number of multinational corporations here, so depending on your skills, you could seek work with them. You will definitely need a good working knowledge of Spanish for these roles. Marketing, copywriting, and freelancing writing jobs can be found through networking at local events – networking is king here.
What’s the vibe you get around locals? Do they see you as a potential partner or a threat?
You’ll need to have a good working knowledge of Spanish to partner with locals. I think many are open to the idea, and may in fact speak English really well, but to get your foot in the door, Spanish is a must.
What’s been the most difficult thing to get used to as a nomad in Panama City?
The pace that things work here. Everything is much slower than you’re used to, and rules change regularly. When I first arrived, I often set out with a list of things to achieve for the day, but usually only got one or two things done. This could be because of the traffic (long travel times), rules changing, slow customer service, or people just not feeling like working that day. Panama teaches you patience, each and every day.
Think you’ll miss it after you leave?
There are definitely some things I’ll miss when I leave, but I love travelling, and experiencing new things, and almost always have itchy feet, so I’m doing my best to appreciate the moment (while planning my next trip).
Last, but most important question: where’s the best place to get a beer?
Oooh, tough question! Beer here is SUPER cheap at less than $1 a can in supermarkets, and just a few dollars in pubs. Since you’ve asked specifically about beer (and not other alcoholic beverages), my answer has to be a pub called ‘Rana Dorada’ (this means ‘golden frog’ in Spanish). This place has its own microbrewery, which produces a great range of beers, catering for most tastes. They have happy hours (from 12pm-6pm) every day except Sunday, where beers are two (pints) for one. They have four locations, but my favourite one is in El Cangrejo, across from a giant, cement Einstein head [OWG note: see above!]. They’re serious about their beer here, and even the bathroom sink is a keg!
Penny is an avid Australian traveller, who is 1.5 years into a 2 year trip abroad. She’s currently living in Panama, and has so far visited 20 countries across 4 continents. Penny is the creator and author of www.travellingpenster.com, which features humorous stories, useful tips, and stunning pics from her adventures across the globe. Check out her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter to find out more.
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Also published on Medium.