“We Made It” – Our First Week in Panama

By Jacki Leroux from Our Life in Panama here!

I’m sitting in my new “office,” and it’s loud.  Why loud, you ask? Loud because my new office is about 250 feet from the boisterous surf of the Pacific Ocean.

That’s right – I’m typing away on the balcony of my new oceanfront condo in Gorgona, Panama. A condo that has a 180-degree view of this gorgeous beach.  I can feel a bit of a sea breeze, but not much. It’s rainy season here in Panama, and it is humid. I keep a fan blowing on me while I work.

The journey to this point has been a long one – 18 months in the planning, to be precise. I often wonder, if I had known just how much work it would be to pack up my life and start a whole new one in another country, would I have started down the road in the first place?  Maybe not. But probably. I’ve always been pretty ambitious, and when I get an idea in my head – well, look at where we are today. ‘Nuff said.

And, of course, when I look up and I see this expanse of blue ocean in front of me, I realize that all the effort of the last year and a half has been worth it.

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Our first night in the beach condo – relaxing!

So now it’s time to get down to brass tacks. That is, the business of settling into Panamanian life. The list of things we’ve done our first few weeks here is long, but here are just a few of the most notable:

1. Gearing up for the beach – and surfing!

The second we stepped over the condo’s threshold, our traveler’s exhaustion gave way to exhilaration – especially for our 11-year-old son, Angus. He’d never been to Panama before, unlike his mom and dad. Despite our repeated assurances that he’d love his new home, he remained skeptical up to our arrival.

But as soon as he caught sight of the beach from our condo (which, by the way, is much larger than I remembered; plenty of room for guests) his doubts evaporated. The shoreline is just a pebble’s throw away.

To make the most of the HUGE swells in front of our building, we wasted no time scoring boogie boards. Angus loves to ride out the biggest of the waves, but we’ve got to be very careful. At certain times of the day, the waves are just TOO big – even the locals stay ashore. That’s when we hit the pool!

Within our first few days, we checked out a nearby surfing hotspot called El Palmar on a tip that we could find a good surf instructor there. Personally, I’m more interested in scuba diving (I’ll be looking into this soon), but the boys want to learn surfing ASAP, and I’ll certainly rest easier when Angus, my husband and I have heard from a pro how best to approach the tides and undertow.

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Angus relaxing in the pool – we go swimming four times a day!

2. Swimming, swimming and more swimming…

Yes, the waves are fun and the pool is gorgeous, but there’s a more practical reason why we’ve been spending so much time in the water – THE HEAT. Which is why we came here, right?

There are days when you feel as though you can reach out and grab the sun.  But it’s the rainy season right now, and some days the cloak of humidity suffocates and squeezes you dry.  But just when you think you’ve had enough, the rains come, washing away the stickiness and rejuvenating the mind and body.

For us, it is a small price to pay to escape the grey dreariness of a Canadian winter.

Perhaps because we’re from Canada and not Arizona, the unbelievable heat is the one aspect of our new life that requires a big adjustment on our part. It is very tempting to run the A/C 24/7, but that’s expensive (and very eco-unfriendly). So we contain ourselves – we’ve adopted a pattern of running it during the dinner hour while I cook, and then again a couple of hours before bedtime

day, all fans are running all the time and we open the windows and doors wide to let the ocean breezes flow through the place.

Not that we’re complaining about the heat – we love it. Between the pool and the ocean, we swim about four times a day. And it only took a week or so for our bodies to acclimate.

3. Stocking up

Even though our condo came fully-loaded with all the basics, one of our first orders of business was to stock the fridge. There is no shortage of nearby stores selling everything, from food and beverage, to furniture and building supplies, to beachwear and souvenirs.

Grocery shopping in Panama left us amazed at the prices — we filled our cart with everything we needed and paid less than half what it would have cost in Canada. At Panama’s answer to Costco, the PriceSmart in Panama City, we found good deals on staple items like cereal and toilet paper, but not-so-great deals on wine, which was comparable in price to Canada since they appear to stock only very fine wine. We didn’t pick up any seafood at the store – for that, we’ll be heading to the fresh fish market just down the beach!

Oh, and we got a case of Panama beer for $9. That’s 24 beers – for $9.

4. Securing transportation

One of the more practical items on our immediate checklist: to pick up our rental car at the all-inclusive resort about a half-hour away. Our lovely realtor arranged for a good friend to drive us there on our first morning in Panama.

But then it was on to the really hard part: securing a full-time vehicle.  Oliver wrote about his experience doing the same in this article, which is worth a read.

If you stick to the main roads, any vehicle will do. For reasons that go beyond the quality of the roads, a new report  has listed Panama among the top 5 places in the world for safe driving.

It seems this off-the-beaten-path travel destination has some pretty unbeatable paths for travelers to take while driving in Panama, minus the things that might throw North Americans for a loop in other countries, such as left-side-of-the-road driving, confusing signs or laws, or traffic-induced road rage.

But for the true explorer who wants to investigate the more obscure nooks and crannies of this beautiful country, driving can be, well, a little trickier. It’s not that you can’t easily do it, or that it’s not safe. You just need the right kind of vehicle.

Even more than the 4X4, you need sufficient clearance — a car that sits high enough off the road that the undercarriage won’t fall victim to the bumps, rocks, and craters you’ll encounter while driving through the back country.

We found just that in a used 2004 Rexton SUV – a Korean-made diesel that you can’t find back in Canada. Most expats we spoke to said we should budget $10,000 for a vehicle in Panama. We budgeted half that, convinced that we could find something to meet our needs. And we did.

Click here to read more about buying a car in Panama (link to your article, Oliver).

5. Getting acclimated to life with a spectacular view

So far, life in our new “neighborhood” is nice and quiet. On the weekends, the place fills up a bit – turns out, this is a popular getaway for a lot of locals, and we’ll see how busy it gets during the winter months when the tourists show up.

But nobody can touch the creme-de-la-creme of this place. It’s on our balcony: THE VIEW. Every day, I feel new wonder at the fact that this is now our backyard. I have been trying to wrap my head around the reality that we’re not visitors on vacation, this is our casa. But it still hasn’t sunk in. I’m still in awe.

More reasons I’m already loving my new life in Panama:

(stuff I knew from research that is already proving to be true)

  • Helpful, friendly folks: Local expat Jim, an ex-cop from D.C., has passed along the name of his Spanish teacher so we can sign up for $5/hour lessons. Can’t beat that! And he’s also a surfing instructor! So we’re going to try and work out a deal for both.
  • Convenient & affordable healthcare: We’ll be taking our general health concerns to a good doctor at a nearby clinic that charges between $7-$15 for a consultation.
  • Legal help: We have begun the process of looking into the new Permanent Residency visa with the help of a local lawyer. For the time being, our tourist visa suits our needs quite well.

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