Live Like a Panamanian

When discussing the cost of living in Panama, it is often said that it’s expensive unless you want to “live like a Panamanian”. I got to thinking… what exactly does this mean? So, I posed the question to the busy “Expats in Panama” group on Facebook and got many interesting responses.

First, a couple thoughts. There is Panama City and then there is the rest of the country, and they are very different in many ways. Panama City is a large busy city and it’s expensive. Rent can easily be $1000/month and more for anything most expats would find acceptable. It has all the traffic and hassles that go with a large city. But, they also have the best in shopping, restaurants, health care, entertainment, and the other big city advantages. For us, at our age, it wasn’t appealing, but I can see how for many others it would be wonderful.

The rest of the country has many options. Do you want to be around a lot of other expats? If so, you will likely pay more. Do you want to be in the mountains or on the beach, in a city or in the country? How is your Spanish? How much do you want to assimilate into the Panamanian community and culture? All these are factors to consider when looking for a suitable place for you. I know someone who paid $125/mo for a small but comfortable house in a small town down the road, and spent $.35 to ride the bus to David. But, nobody out there spoke English. The dogs ran free, the roosters crowed, and the neighbors had community events and parties with loud music. He loved it. Someone else might hate it.

Back to the question of living like a Panamanian – here are some of the main points made in the responses.

  • In the US we have everything available to buy, and at the click of a mouse most of it can appear at your door PDQ. This is not so in Panama. It might be hard to find something of the type or quality you want, if its available at all.  Most expats learn that there is something they can’t find here, but how critical is this for your happiness? A Panamanian will make do with what is available and what they can afford.
  •  Housing – Air conditioning and hot water are not standard. A typical Panamanian house is smaller than what most of us are used to. Construction is typically cement floor, block walls, tin roof, and minimal to no wood. Of course if you want to spend more you can have whatever you want, but the typical construction makes a lot of sense in this climate. Dishwashers and clothes dryers are also available, but you won’t find them in most houses. Many Panamanians live in smaller houses with more people and less frills.
  • Many Panamanians rely on buses and taxis for transportation. In Panama City this makes sense. In other areas it’s convenient to have a car because waiting for the bus takes more time. But, the community is set up to make it work. Many take the bus to the supermarket and then a taxi home with their bags. There are always taxis outside the supermarkets for just this purpose. If you are shopping at multiple stores, there are places to check your bags so you don’t have to carry them around. There are inexpensive buses that go everywhere, including residential areas and small neighborhoods.
  • One person brought up the lack of holistic health care services, midwifery services, and sustainably grown chemical free food. As more expats request things though, I have seen many options become available but if a particular service or product is very important, be sure to research this ahead of time. Panamanians use doctors and mainstream medical care, but most also have knowledge of plants and traditional remedies passed down through generations.
  • If there is some food from home that you crave, it might not be available here. It’s fun to learn local dishes, but others may want what is familiar at least some of the time. If you eat like a Panamanian and shop where they shop, it’s cheaper than buying imported goods in the supermarket.
  • One of my favorite answers – “It means stretching $4 for three days worth of food right before your paycheck but then when the paycheck comes it’s time to go to bar and buy drinks for everyone.😂😂😂”

The main point – what do you need to be happy? Will you see “living like a Panamanian” as a downgrade? I see Panamanians who don’t have much, live in tiny homes with dirt floors, outhouse in the back, outdoor kitchen, conditions that most of us would probably consider very primitive but they are laughing with their neighbors, hanging out with their families, and generally enjoying life to the fullest.

Those of us from the US, on the other hand, have been taught that we need to work hard, get the good job, the good looking partner, the big house, fancy car, and the big TV with 500 channels. Are we happy though? Or, are we stressed by running on that hamster wheel to just keep up? Or worse, did we not run fast enough or bad luck came along and we fell down, and are now living on the street?

And, how does a Panamanian really live? It depends on who you look at. Yes there are poor people, but there are also people with lots of money. There is a thriving middle class. I see my neighbors upgrading their homes, getting better cars, and doing very well. There are jobs for everyone, maybe not easy high paying jobs, but if someone wants to work they can find something. There is education and opportunity. My friend was worrying about paying for the next semester of university – $25. She got it together though, and will graduate soon with credentials to be a teacher. I see cohesive, loving families and strong community ties. I see a lot of happy, optimistic people enjoying life and looking forward to the future.

Live like a Panamanian? Oh yes, sign me up for that! Oh my yes, and thank you from the bottom of my heart. I have never been so happy.


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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9 Responses to Live Like a Panamanian




  2. Hola amiga! We read your blog all the time but this one is out of the ball park! You nailed it perfectly and we think one of your best blog posts.
    We totally agree about the Panamiam middle class, it is growing very fast and reminds us of how the middle class grew in the US in the late 50’s and 60’s. There are a lot of Panamanians that are very well off.


  3. jim and nena says:

    Hola Kris,
    Great post!
    The differences you have listed describe the differences in the provinces and the urban vs rural areas. Panamá and more recently Panamá Oeste offer more modern conveniences and “stuff”. Moving west from there, the provinces lean toward agriculture/farming/ranching until Chiriquí. The differences are big city to down-on-the-farm living. The phase “live like a Panamanian” is as misleading as is “live like an American” would be.

    Chiricanos have a different view of those living in Panama (as the locals call Panama City) than in other areas of Panama. Most Chiricanos would not consider themselves poor, they reserve that distinction for the Guaymi people living in the comarcas. It is all a matter of perspective.

    Much of Panama is like a time warp to USA in the ’50’s. Panama City during the time the USA occupied the zone was like a Rod Serling script had come alive. The 10 minute bus ride from Balboa into the city was like driving through a waterfall; USA in the midwest to old world Europe of the middle ages. It never ceased its effect on me. Perhaps that’s why I like leaving Panama City for Chiriquí as fast as possible. It is my Walden’s pond.


    • Yes, for a small country Panama has a wide variety of lifestyles and living conditions. i agree that it is a matter of perspective, and this experience has changed my perspective on what is important, changed it in a good way.


  4. I’d love to get my education at such a bargain! Paying over $4000 for just my summer classes is killing me!


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