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Jacki at her Panama office

Why We Moved to Panama: One Family’s Story

One young family’s journey of giving up a life in Canada to start anew in Panama

By Jacki Leroux from Here!

I’ve heard it said that if you’re going to run, be sure you are running towards something, not away from something.

I often thought of this back home in the months leading up to our Big Move, as every friend, acquaintance, neighbor and even total stranger we came across expressed the same sentiment when we told them we were moving to Panama.

“What?!” they’d say, all aghast. “Why?!”

At first, my husband and I actually attempted to list the reasons why – low cost of living, tropical climate, little-to-no crime, new adventures, etc., etc.

But after awhile, we stopped. It got to a point where, when someone asked us that question, our answer was simple, and yet seemed to sum it up beautifully. “Just because,” we’d say.

And you know what? Everyone got it. They’d smile, and nod, and say: “Ahh.”

They got it because they’ve all fantasized about it at one point or another. Who hasn’t? Especially those of us from chilly Canada, where six months of dark, grey, freezing, soul-sucking winter is enough to take down even the hardiest of men.

But the reality is very few of us actually do it. To most of us, it doesn’t seem like a real, tangible goal in life. I mean, the tropics is somewhere where you go for vacation, not to actually live, right? Unless you’re retired, of course.

My husband and I, and our group of friends back in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, are all in our forties – some of us, ahem, closer to 50 – and nowhere near retirement.

Everyone is well-established in their well-paying careers, bogged down with car and  hefty mortgage payments, 2.5 vacations per year, kids tucked away in good schools, lots of extended family nearby to spend Christmas and Easter with. Most wouldn’t dream of leaving all that.

But my husband and I saw things differently.

Which brings me back to my opening thought – were we running towards something, or away from something?

To be completely honest, it was a bit of both.

We were definitely running away – screaming – from the harsh Canadian winter.

There seems to be a general misconception that all Canadians love the cold season, that we are these robust, winter stalwarts who embrace the snow and cold and ice with our snow shoes, hockey skates and toboggans.

We don’t. We hibernate for half the year.

It starts in early November, and for the next six months, we gripe about the forecast, rarely leaving home unless we absolutely have to, living in our fuzzy slippers and Warmth-Rate-6 duvets (only someone who lives in a cold climate will get that one) while we huddle on the sofa, remote in hand, in a grey, cloudy funk that doesn’t dissipate until April.

In urban southern Canada where we lived, winter is less a pretty, white, winter wonderland and more a blustery landscape of freezing rain and black ice.

We were also running from the ever-escalating cost of living in Canada. Between astronomical heat and hydro bills and income taxes that drain about 30% of every paycheck out of your pocket, we’d had enough.

But there were other more personal reasons for our decision – and this is where the “we’re running towards something” comes into play.

While I could opine endlessly in a bout of clichés – you know, working to live not living to work, etc.,  etc. – I’ll let my unsentimental and rather practical husband sum it up in one succinct sentence:

“You only live once and if we wait until we retire we could be dead.”

Amen.

This statement strikes a deeply personal chord within me. You see, I grew up listening to my mother talk about what she was going to do when she retired at age 65. She was going to travel more, spend more time with her young grandson, go on a hot air balloon ride…

She developed breast cancer and passed away at 66.

For us, the time had come to exist in the present. I mean, we’d taken plenty of vacations that achieved the objective of “getting away from it all,” but we wanted more. We wanted different.

We wanted a better quality of life. No more rat race. More opportunities to enjoy life every day. And the pursuit of this new way of living led us to… Panama.

So the logical follow-up question to “Why are you going?” was always “Why Panama?”

Frankly, we started considering a life abroad with Costa Rica in mind – we had gone there on vacation and loved it.

But in our research, we discovered the realities of moving to Costa Rica. Real estate was too expensive. The international schools were crazy expensive. We heard numerous crime horror stories. A friend of a friend who had lived there for three years said: “It’s not a matter of if you get robbed, it’s a matter of when.”

Although we realized some of what we were hearing was hyperbolic, we decided to look at the alternatives.

We liked the idea of Central America because it’s a short, direct plane ride from Canada. So we next considered Belize – I had visited many years ago and remembered it being gorgeous, idyllic really, and English-speaking to boot. But with a population of only 300,000 in the entire country, we decided it was just too small to be our full-time living destination.

Then my husband discovered Panama.

I say ‘discovered’ because we really didn’t know a whole heck of a lot about it. And we’d quickly discovered that few people do (in Canada, anyway).

To most people we’d spoken to, the word Panama conjured a single image: the Canal. But as we started speaking with other travelers and expatriates, and reading about this incredible country, we soon realized that Panama was so much more than just the home of an iconic canal.

And we were right. It is sooo much more.

It has the gorgeous beaches – one of which, Playa Serena, we live on – tropical climate and rainforests of Costa Rica and Belize, with many added bonuses:

It’s affordable – We estimate our living expenses to be a half to one-quarter of what they were back in Canada. (Canada is a very expensive place to live – Americans may find their savings to be less, but they’ll still save)

It has modern infrastructure – Good roads, quality housing and clean drinking water in most parts of the country. What more could you ask for?

It has affordable, high-quality international schools – Our son’s Panama school costs $2,500 per year, compared to $8,000 to $10,000 for schools we looked at in Costa Rica. And we are not sacrificing quality education in any way – the Panama Coast International School (PCIS) in Gorgona has an excellent reputation. Our son loves it.

Panama City – If ever you need to indulge your urban sensibilities, this booming metropolis has everything you need from arts and culture to high-end duty-free shopping. And, of course, the world-famous Canal.

It doesn’t get hurricanes – They all turn north before they get to Panama. Panama doesn’t need to board up and move inland for tropical storms – not ever.

It has very little crime – Yes, tourists can be victims of crime in any country. But Panama has the lowest crime rate in Central America and, in fact, of almost any Latin American country.

It has beaches on both coasts and rainforests throughout – Panama is fortunate to have beautiful beaches on both the Pacific and Caribbean sides. And, in some cases, it’s just a couple of hours’ drive from one side to the other – you can experience both oceans on the same day! And along the way, you can tour the jungle. Panama definitely fulfills anyone’s sense of adventure!

To read more about Jacki’s everyday life since moving to Panama, click here!

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