The Hassles and Problems of Living in Panama

If you have followed my blog for a while, you know that I am really really happy in Panama. But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t hassles and problems. None of them are a big deal for me. But I know that many people read this blog because they are considering making the move, so a full and balanced picture is very helpful.

So, in the spirit of revealing the downsides, I will list as many hassles and problems as I can think of.

The people all speak Spanish. Yes, there are some who also speak English, maybe many depending on where you live. But, chances are good that you will have problems communicating somewhere. My Spanish is better now but it will never be perfect, and I will never understand everything. I still have to look up vocabulary for new situations and ask people to repeat things I don’t get.

If you like to shop on line, that may change here. Yes, you can still shop on line but now things must be shipped down here with the extra costs and time involved, and you have to go pick them up from whatever shipping business you use. There is no mail service to your house. Your water and electric bills are hand carried around the neighborhood and left in your front gate. Other things usually entail a trip to the business unless you have an automatic thing set up with your credit card. No mail is not such a bad thing unless you think you will really miss your junk mail.

Procedures for doing things are often different which can be confusing, and of course this is made worse with the language barrier. When you buy something sometimes you tell the sales person. Then you have to go to another person there to pay for it, then bring the receipt to yet another person who will find your item and inspect it for problems. Then you have to sign something and only then can you leave with your item. The process is similar to buy tires, and they will put them on the car also. But, if you want them balanced that’s separate and you have to go through another buying process in that other office over there, even though that work is done in the same place as putting on the tires. Often things need copies, which means going to a place that makes copies (hoping they aren’t closed for lunch) and then returning with your paperwork. Once you understand the procedure for something it’s a lot better but at first, it can be very confusing.

Sometimes you can’t find things. You go to the store who sold you the printer to get ink cartridges, and end up going to five more stores before you find what you need. You always buy your favorite food item, and one day it’s not there and doesn’t appear again for months, if ever. The fabric store doesn’t have thread or pins (but you find them in the supermarket). In the US, I could go out with a list of errands and get them all done in short order. Here, we do well to get one or two things done on a trip out. But, we are retired and have time, and people do their best to help us along the way.

The place is not orderly (at least by US standards). The weeds along the streets can get rather high before anyone cuts them. There are dogs running loose, and chickens, and children, and sometimes cows and horses. The dogs bark and the roosters crow, and nobody cares or keeps them quiet. Sometimes people aren’t good about throwing trash around (they are working on this but it’s going to take a while to change). There is little zoning so people can have a business in their house which may involve noise and more mess like car repair, a body shop, cutting and selling wood, making concrete sinks, or serving food, to name a few I’ve seen. I can always tell when my neighbor, the welder, has a new job because there will be lots of clanking and sawing in his carport as he makes long pieces of metal into new security doors, window coverings, and gates.

There are no street signs or addresses. I see this slowly changing in Panama City but here in David, not so much. Actual addresses read like – behind Romero’s supermarket in San Mateo (a neighborhood), next to the real estate office on the corner. Streets have names but without street signs it’s hard to figure out which one you are on. Add a language barrier while asking directions and it gets even more interesting. People will also give you directions with lots of confidence even when they don’t know and are telling you the wrong thing. Any answer is better than no answer!

The drivers are crazy, according to some expats who come here and have trouble adjusting to the driving style. Rules of the road are often only suggestions, and if there is an opportunity they are going to take it. Taxis tend to be the most aggressive. But, pretty much everyone has the same driving style so once you understand it, you know what to expect. There isn’t road rage and it is very unusual to hear a horn honked in anger. They will give you a short honk frequently though just to say “I’m here, in case you didn’t see me”, which is helpful. People are generally patient and understanding when someone needs to do some maneuver that temporarily blocks traffic.

Sometimes there is no water. This happens to everyone all over the country. Many people have water tanks to tide them over through these times. No one ever knows why there is no water. Sometimes there is a shortage so they just make the rounds turning it off in various neighborhoods for a while. Sometimes they are fixing something. Sometimes in our area the intake pipes from the river are clogged with debris after a heavy rain (we know because it comes back on muddy for a while). The country is working on this but the infrastructure is pretty funky in many areas. It’s common to see PVC pipe just lying on the ground. Thankfully in our neighborhood it has never been off for an entire 24 hour day. Other areas have not been so fortunate. For us, we keep bottles and gallons of water on hand so it’s only an inconvenience, but areas with long outages or households with kids it can find it more difficult. People grumble a bit but no one seems to get very upset, and often just go to the river if there is one nearby.

This is the tropics. It’s hot all the time. It’s hot in the rainy season (which starts in April) and hotter in the dry season (which comes in Dec.) If you want cooler weather you need to go to higher elevations, but up there you may have more wind, more rain, and lots of very moist foggy air that moves through and wets everything. It rains most of the year, sometimes dumping amazing amounts of water in a short time. But, mornings are almost always clear and the rain moves in later in the day so if you do any running around, laundry, or things that are better when it’s dry in the morning you will be fine. Humidity can be a problem. Your leather will mold, and so will your clothes if you don’t keep them aired out. You won’t need much skin cream or chapstick though. There is tropical wildlife also – bugs, birds, snakes, jungle forests, etc. If you don’t like bugs you may not like Panama. I have never seen such a large variety and abundance of bugs anywhere. Thankfully though, very few of them are a problem and I’ve been bitten or stung far less than anywhere I lived in the US. Here in David we don’t even have that many mosquitoes, which surprised me. You don’t want to be sticking your hand anywhere you can’t see though, because you never know what might be living in there.

There is armed security everywhere which isn’t a problem really, but can be disconcerting at first. There are guards in supermarket parking lots, one inside and another outside every bank or business that has money on hand. There are pairs of policemen that ride around on motorcycles, the passenger holding a large rifle and both dressed for battle. There are boats patrolling the waters full of army looking guys. I scared me when I first arrived and then I realized, pretty much nothing goes on here because there is so much security. We left our car at the supermarket for a few days when we were away, and when we returned the security guard rushed over. He had been so worried about us since the car was there so long! The motorcycle cops just patrol the city to be sure all is well, and the guys on boats are there mainly to keep drug runners from reaching our shores. The police and all the security people are usually very friendly, helpful, and nice to everyone. They really live the “protect and serve” that is printed on their vehicles. But, this doesn’t mean you will get away with anything. If you don’t have your car paperwork or license in order and they spot it, you’ll get your car towed and it will cost you.

In my little world here, these are the things that come to mind that might bother people. People in other areas having different experiences will probably have different things. I expect traffic will be very high on the list for people in Panama City, and I hear complaints about customer service. More rural areas may have expensive and unreliable internet.  If any of you with experience in Panama want to add something else, please write it in the comments section.




About Kris Cunningham

We live in David, Chiriqui Provence, Republic of Panama! This blog is about some of our experiences in our new country.
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24 Responses to The Hassles and Problems of Living in Panama

  1. Emma says:

    the deadly sidewalks!!! what a great synopsis of this crazy place we call home. i’ll miss knowing its intricacies and how to handle them.


  2. Robert & Helen says:

    We do not care, we take it as it is.If one speaks fluent Spanish they listen and you get things done quite allright. Patience like I lived and worked 14 years in Spain. You love it or leave it. We love it.
    We are leaving Santa Lucia area beginning of June. Too many Gringos, Canadians and high level Panamanians. Found a nice house in Jardines de Boquete. Next to the mother of the mayor of Boquete. Thanks to Eduardo Horna. 450. Little bit larger than your home. Painting etc to be done.
    All Panamanian middle class neighbours.


  3. Robert & Helen says:

    Accept the place as it is. Do not compare Panamá to your home country. It is some land of the free.
    When I listen to Americans they are obsessed by healthcare cost. Ridiculous rip off in the USA. Why, because to become a surgeon or doctor it will cost one a fortune and that has to be urned back. My wife broke her upper right arm badly. Chiriqui Hospital, surgary, titanium pin and screws, 1 night in a nice room with excellent meal 3,500 box. Dr. Rivera Man. He can also do hip and knee


    • Don’t even get me started on health care in the US. I was a nurse so I got to experience it from many angles. I’m glad to be here because of health care as well.


  4. tombseekers says:

    You mentioned buying an item but the process is reversed to return something. Take the item to the person near the door, then to the department salesperson who calls his/her boss who both try to get you to change your mind. (The drapes are too short-“We have them in red, would you like that”) then the head guy is called to authorize your refund which you take to the first guy you talked to. That was the only time I thought my head was going to explode.


  5. oldsalt1942 says:

    re: goods in the stores…When you go grocery shopping and you need something specific and there are only three of them, TAKE TWO! Chanced are it won’t be there the next time you need it. And there’s a reason things disappear from the shelves never to return, and I’m NOT KIDDING about this…It’s not restocked because the store’s buyers say it’s “too hard to keep on the shelves.” They have yet to grasp the concept that the reason things disappear from the shelves is because people want them.

    Oh, well. I’m gonna miss it when I’m gone…


    • We heard that too about buying when you see it but didn’t listen well. Now we know better!
      I also heard the story about things being too hard to keep on the shelves, and also that people keep buying something which messes up the displays so they don’t want to stock it any more. My friends in Nicaragua sometimes call it the land of not quite right. We have a bit of that here as well.


  6. Excellent, Kris. And all of these hassles and problems can apply to Nicaragua. Another thing I would like to mention, which is happening in Nicaragua, is the increasing number of foreigners moving to Central America. Nicaragua used to attract mostly backpackers looking for adventure, but now we are experiencing a rise in the number of wealthier foreigners moving here. Along with the influx of foreigners, there has been an alarming increase in crime. Prostitutes, thieves, and drug pushers bus from Managua to the larger cities like San Juan Del Sur and Granada. The tiny ineffective police forces are overwhelmed and underpaid. The expats are becoming nervous, angry and frustrated. I don’t know what can be done to solve these problems, but I do think that more realistic articles like yours are important, instead of the “International Living” perspective of living in a place called paradise for less than $1,000 a month.


    • I’m sure you have these hassles and more where you are. We are also seeing more crime here, especially in Boquete where it’s full of expats. Many people have had their homes broken into, and there have even been a couple assaults on home owners. The police have increased their presence, and now have a permanent check point on the road going up there. I have heard rumors that similar things are going on in El Valle and somewhere else where there are lots of expats. When people look rich and much more well off than the locals, it can lead to more problems.


    • Susan says:

      Thank you so much for the IL reference. I’ve been reading their emails for about a year and they really seem to just be selling not actually informing. We made a new friend from Estonia named Elza recently and she turned me on to Kris’ blog. This is way more realistic.


      • Yes, IL is a business and they do what they do for profit. I think they are trying to give more balanced pictures but they still have to be very aware of what sells.
        You know Elza?! Very cool. I cycled with her from here into Costa Rica, and I think of her often. She is a very special person and I love following her adventures.


  7. ME BE in Panama says:

    Great blog Kris. Love this, “People will also give you directions with lots of confidence even when they don’t know and are telling you the wrong thing. Any answer is better than no answer!” It only took us, oh a week or two before we picked up on this local truism. But we just added it to our list of fun stories from the land of not quite right. Cheers, Mariah


  8. Carole says:

    Thanks for your thorough blog. Very enlightening, you cover a lot of things. It’s best to know before you make the move if any of these things would bother you. Such as no mail delivery, I could deal with that. Just gets bills and junk mail , which I could do without. We adjusted a lot living on an Island, still adjusting. The info on the water shortage is good to know, I would hate to run out of water. We have had that happen here. But as long as you prepare for it, we would be fine.
    Thanks for all the info, your blog is really nice.


    • Glad you found it helpful 🙂 I’m sure there are adjustments anywhere, especially when moving to a different country and if you can’t adjust, it’s going to be difficult to be happy.


  9. Robert & Helen Berding says:

    Yes, accept your new country as it is. If you have more plusses than minuses you stay. If not, go back or move on to another country. We are very happy in Panamá. If things generally might turn ugly here, do to international and local problems, we have a plan B. Uruguay.


    • I think it’s a real shame when people don’t understand the realities of living here before they decide, and then are disappointed and unhappy after they move. That could be prevented.


  10. Rick Edwards says:

    I currently live about 35 minutes away from Panama City. The water situation is aggravating and I am not sure why a big city, modern and metropolitan cannot solve its water problems. However, that being said, I would like to add one more irritation. I was on my way to a doctors appointment and 2 different times I was stopped in a road block and asked to pull over. I explained in good Spanish I was on my way to the doctor. They asked to see my drivers license and passport, which I showed the policeman. He said it wasn’t good enough and I was going to get a ticket. I said, “Me pregunto qué hice mal” ( I wonder what I did wrong) he didn’t respond. I then ask him in Spanish if I could pay the ticket now. He said, “mala delito” (Bad crime) I showed him a $20.00 in my wallet that was all I had. He took the $20.00, and said, “Listo”. I then drove on my way. This happened twice.


    • I wondered where you landed. I hope it’s working out well for you there.
      Well, except for the police. No, I have never heard of that. I think I would say just give me the ticket! I know people get stopped for speeding and actual infractions, happened to us once too and the cop showed us the number on the radar gun and had a legitimate reason to stop us. I believe it’s not legal to ask for money in the street. I wonder what he would have done if you pulled out a camera and took his photo and ID?


  11. Robert Gambetti says:

    I love your post, my daughter and I were in Panama from 2012-2014 will return soon, how has the zika virus affected tourism? Robert G


    • Thank you 🙂
      Zika virus is here but I haven’t heard people in this area talking about it much. In March though we got a visit from the health inspector. He was going house to house and checking yards and outdoor areas for standing water, and educating everyone on mosquito control. There is also dengue and chikungunya, both very bad illnesses spread by the same mosquito, but thankfully they don’t seem to be common in this area either. I’m glad they are aware and trying to control the problem though


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