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Myth busted! 7 Misconceptions Expats Have About Panama

Anyone who’s ever traveled or lived abroad knows spending time in a new country is bound to come with surprises. No matter how much you research or how much you think you know about another country, misconceptions abound.

Panama is no different. Expats and tourists alike often have ideas about Panama that just aren’t true. People are quick to assume what they know about one Latin American country must apply to all of them. Or they read one article and think they understand everything there is to know about Panama.

In reality, though, things are much more complicated. There are lots of subtleties and surprises to be had (both positive and negative). Below are seven of the most common misconceptions expats often have about Panama. Whether you’re already here or considering the move, this is one list you don’t want to miss.

1. Panama is cheap

For those coming from North America or Europe, there is a commonly held belief that everything in Panama is cheap. While there are plenty of deals to be had, this understanding is only true some of the time.

Many basic purchases associated with everyday living are certainly more wallet-friendly here than they are in other countries. Going to the movies, buying local produce, and grocery items such as fresh fish can often be enjoyed at prices far lower than what you’d pay in North America. However, many food items cost about the same as you might find in a supermarket back home. And some items, like cheddar cheese or imported goods, can cost even more.

Restaurants are another area where expats are sometimes surprised by the prices. There are plenty of delicious, cheap eats available if you know where to find them. That said, Panama is also home to plenty of trendy and gourmet restaurants, where you’re likely to pay comparable prices to what you would spend for a dinner out in the United States.   

Finally, there are also some things that are undoubtedly more expensive in Panama than elsewhere. Furniture is one example. You aren’t likely to find the variety and number of furniture retailers here as you will in the United States. As a result, prices tend to be higher. The same goes for things like winter clothes, clothing that’s imported and baby products. Essentially, anything that’s imported, is likely to have a higher price tag than what you’re used to paying back home.

2. Panama is unsafe

Here’s one area where people are quick to take what they think they know about one country and apply it to a whole region. There are many Central American countries that have been plagued by violence in recent years. Luckily, Panama has largely been unaffected by large-scale organized crime and violence. So when you hear horror stories on the news about what’s going on in Central America, it isn’t fair to assume those stories are as prevalent in one nation as they are in another.  

Nonetheless, Panama City is a large metropolis that requires common sense and street smarts. You don’t want to be flashy when walking around at night or go to certain areas at night on your own. That doesn’t mean, though, that you can’t wear nice clothes or drive a nice car, just that you should use your best judgment. The peace of mind residents can have while out and about in Panama City is a real luxury and one of many expats’ favorite things about living in Panama.

3. Panama is run-down

This is another area where people have a tendency to generalize. Whether or not you consider Panama to be run-down is entirely relative. If you’re coming from somewhere known for cleanliness and modernity like Singapore, you might consider Panama to be more rustic. However, depending on how much you’ve traveled throughout the world, Panama is comparatively pretty clean and modern compared with many other developing and even developed nations.

Sure, some of the infrastructure is older (particularly in more rural areas) and there’s bound to be trash here and there, but the same can be said for just about any country. And besides, part of what many people love about Panama is the ease of spending time in regions that feel ‘untouched’ by tourism and booming populations. What one might consider run-down may be another person’s paradise.

4. Panama is unwelcoming to foreigners

This is perhaps one of the most egregious misconceptions on the list. Panamanians are incredibly friendly and welcoming people and having foreigners around has been a part of the nation’s identity from the beginning. Since the country’s inception, Panama has been home to French, American, and other foreigners who were involved in the construction of the canal and ended up sticking around.  

Panama’s tax incentives focus on foreign investment, and its growing role as a hub to many multinational businesses means the number and diversity of expats who call Panama home have only continued to grow over the past several decades. Most Panamanians recognized the presence of foreigners means huge benefits for business, schools, and the sharing of ideas. As a result, Panamanians are by and large friendly to expats –they welcome their business, contributions, and friendship. Finally, Panamanians love their country and want to show it off. Locals take pride in the fact that people from all over the world would rather live and work right here than anywhere else. Your best bet is to be respectful and friendly and to strike up a conversation. Ask a local his or her favorite place to eat or favorite beach spot and you’re bound to glean some great tips and have a friendly conversation.

5. Drugs are everywhere

Believe it or not, drug use is pretty low in Panama. While the country does lie smack between drug supplying nations to the south, and drug purchasing nations to the north, you honestly don’t hear much about drugs passing through or being distributed within Panama. From time to time, there will be stories of packages getting picked up off the coast on the trade routes between Colombia and Mexico. All in all, though, drug use in Panama is minimal. Even recreational drug use is considered taboo.

6. The weather never changes

Given its proximity to the equator, some people assume the weather in Panama is consistent all year long and the country doesn’t have distinct seasons. While Panama’s seasons are certainly less drastic than those of New England, say, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Each year, from January to April, tends to be dry. In Panama City, you may not get any rain in these months or if you do the quantity is minimal. Then, from May until December the weather is similar to Hawaii or other tropical regions. There often is a heavy shower in the morning or evening, but rarely does it rain all day. It is very rare to encounter monsoon conditions where it rains for three or four days straight.

For most of the year, temperatures in the capital range between 27 and 33 degrees Celsius (80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit) during the day, with evenings and early mornings being a bit cooler. There are also plenty of mountainous areas of the country, such as Boquete, where residents and visitors can go to escape the heat.   

7. Cash is king in real estate

There’s a common misconception that you have no business buying real estate in Panama unless you’re prepared to pay in cash. There are plenty of instances where paying in cash can expedite a purchase, but it’s by no means compulsory. The fact that a buyer is willing to pay cash for a property does not necessarily give him or her a tremendous amount of leverage because, at the end of the day, there are a lot of cash buyers. A seller might have already seen many cash offers for their home, so cash isn’t necessarily a huge incentive for them to drop the price.

If you’re looking to buy a home or property in Panama, there is financing available. The process to secure a loan can be a bit cumbersome, especially for foreigners. So while it is a possibility, many expats opt to finance their existing assets overseas and use cash to purchase properties.

The biggest perk of paying in cash is the speed that a transaction can move. Cash sales are typically completed twice as fast as financed sales. For example, purchasing a home with cash might get the keys in your hand in 30 days, while the same home purchased with a loan might take three months to close. Sellers like cash because it can speed up a sale, but that doesn’t mean that getting a loan is a deal breaker.

So there you have some of the most common misconceptions about Panama. Hopefully, you’ve learned something new and maybe have even changed your mind about something. Regardless of how long you’ve lived in Panama, your best bet is to keep an open mind and a positive attitude. There is so much to enjoy and embrace with this beautiful country — it would be a shame to waste your time dwelling on the ways it isn’t what you expected it to be.  

Do you agree or have any other myths you think are worth busting? Let us know in the comments below.

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