Living in Panama

How we got there, where we lived, and helpful information for moving to the city.

Why Panama?

Simple enough- my husband’s job. His company asked him to go down to work on a project at their plant. We unofficially knew that this move was possible about 3 months in advance (though the paperwork wasn’t approved by his managers until 2 weeks before!), so we got engaged, planned/had our wedding, packed up and rented out our house in St. Paul, and left for Panama!


Where We Lived

We chose to live in the town center in Panama Pacifico, simply because of the proximity to the plant where Adam would be working. If you’re not familiar, Panama Pacifico is just across the canal from Panama City and was previously the Howard U.S. Air Force Base. More or less, it’s a suburb of Panama City (think St. Paul to Woodbury, or Scottsdale to Tempe). The Base was dissolved on December 31, 1999 with the Carter-Torrijos Treaties which gave ownership of the canal from the U.S. to the Panamanians.
There are tons of trails, bike paths and roads around the abandoned homes that were part of the Air Force Base, and it is steadily developing into it’s own community. If you find yourself there, go to Papppa Pizza and get the #17 Pizza Siciliana… and also stop by Pan y Canela (there are more locations throughout the city) and get Quesitos. You’re welcome.

Map of Panama City, the canal, and (highlighted) Panama Pacifico

Helpful Information for Moving to the City

Handy Apps to have:

Waze– Like the rest of LATAM, everyone uses it for directions! Plus, it updates in real-time based on input from it’s users.
WhatsApp– This is more of an international recommendation. It uses Wifi/internet connections instead of your cell service so if you’re just visiting or don’t want to buy a phone plan, you can still send messages and make calls as long as you’re connected to Wifi.
Degusta– Find restaurants, see reviews, hours of operation, and get directions. It’s basically Yelp (which isn’t really a thing there).
Uber– Please, please, please don’t use the yellow taxis unless: 1- you are very familiar with the city, 2- you speak Spanish, and 3- you know how much it should cost from point A to point B (there are different districts and rates, so the same distance is not necessarily the same price). Believe me, we had a couple of… um, “learning experiences.”


Getting Around

Driving: It can be a little stressful, especially if you don’t have any experience driving in a big city with aggressive drivers. It’s also very common to see motorcycles weaving through traffic as well as buses and cars driving on the shoulder as if it’s an additional lane. It’s weird if you’ve never seen it… but totally normal in LATAM. Always be sure to have your drivers license, along with either your residency card or passport on you! The police aren’t very lenient, and there are checkpoints throughout the city (usually looking for D.W.I.’s).
Metro: It’s most convenient if you’re just staying in the city. Buy a card/pass and put money on it, instead of getting a single ticket each time. This will save you SO MUCH TIME.
Taxis: Use Uber. See above.
Buses: Depending on where you’re going, buses can be a great option! Around the city, it’s probably easiest to just grab an Uber or use the Metro. If you’re going out of the city (like to Pedasi, Portobelo, Boquete, or even to Costa Rica) head to the Albrook Mall and buy your ticket there. It’s the hub for all buses! I’d recommend not hopping on a Diablo Rojo (the old school buses that are painted wild colors)… but you do you. Side note: If you’re heading to the Caribbean side by Portobelo/ Isla Grande, you have to buy a ticket to Colon. Then tell the person on the bus who is collecting the tickets that you want to get off at Sabanitas. From there you wait at the corner by the el Rey grocery store, (just on the adjacent street from where you got off the bus on the highway) and jump on a Diablo Rojo. The person collecting money will ask where you’re going and then tell you the price. Easy, right?


Tipping

10-15% at restaurants, especially in nicer establishments. About 10% for taxis.


Importing Pets from the U.S.

We were fortunate enough to bring our beloved dog with us and even though we used a relocation service, it was still a mountain of paperwork! We hired Golden Frog to do all of the forms on the Panamanian side so we didn’t have to worry about anything when we got off of the plane. From the U.S., we got a health certificate signed by a USDA accredited veterinarian, made an appointment to get it endorsed by USDA APHIS, and got that document apostilled from the MN Department of State. We of course also opted for the “in-home quarantine” once we got there. Find more information for exporting animals from the U.S. here.


Areas to Avoid

In Panama City, I would highly recommend avoiding el Chorillo (it borders Casco Viejo), and Curund├║ (by Albrook). The port city of Col├│n on the Caribbean side is also an area to avoid. You’ll know when you’ve gone one street too far and find yourself in one of these neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are simply places that I wouldn’t be comfortable at night, and wouldn’t care to get out of my car during the day… though one of our U.S. friends who lived there swore by his haircuts in the old shipping containers in Chorillo.


Grocery Stores

Similar to the U.S., there are 3 tiers of grocery stores.
Low– Super99 (comparable to a low-end grocer) I didn’t go to these often; usually only when we were out of town and there was no other option.
Mid-Range– El Rey- I did most of our shopping here. If you have lived in LATAM, you know that the stock changes daily and it’s super unreliable to expect that items are actually there. So, I would typically go here first, and then supplement my shopping trip with other stores. *Comparable U.S. stores: Cub Foods/County Market (Midwest), Food Lion (NC/SE U.S.), Fry’s/Safeway (SW U.S.)
High-End– Riba Smith- I also did a lot of shopping here, especially if I was looking for something “international.” They have good meats, and more organic options. *Comparable U.S. stores: Kowalski’s/ Lunds and Byerlys (Midwest), Trader Joe’s, Harris Teeter (NC/SE U.S.)
Fruit Stands– These are my favorite!! The one I went to regularly was in Arraijan, and the produce was always fantastic!


Shopping

Multiplaza: If you want to go to a mall, I’d recommend this one. It’s near the financial district, and there is a nice blend of both mid-range and high-end stores. It’s bright, open, and not as crowded as Albrook.
Albrook: Albrook Mall holds the title for being the largest mall in Central America- there’s even a full sized carousel inside! There is also a Metro stop here, so it’s very convenient if you don’t have a vehicle.


Banking, Paying Utilities

Banks: There are a handful of banks and ATMs around the city, but the most common you’ll find are Scotiabank, BancoGeneral, Banistmo, BAC, and CitiBank. I could go on and on about the difficulties of opening an account in Panama, but someone has thankfully already done that: find more info here.
Paying Utilities: The easiest way, unless you have a Panamanian bank account, is to go to a grocery store’s bill pay counter (El Rey or Riba Smith) or go to a “Multi Pago” kiosk. Again, someone else has already written a more detailed and long winded article on this exact topic.

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