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Best Places to Live Overseas: Costa Rica vs. Panama

By Joshua Wood

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Summary: When expats consider a move to Central America, there are more and more options available to them. Often, the conversation will turn to Costa Rica vs. Panama. Read what expats who have lived in both of these countries have to say.

Best Places to Live Overseas - Costa Rica vs. Panama

Expats interested in moving to Central America or South America typically go through a process of comparing many of the nations that make up that part of the world.

Two countries that end up getting compared and contrasted a lot are Panama and Costa Rica.

Cost of Living in Panama and Costa Rica

Several expats with experience living in both Panama and Costa Rica indicate that the cost of living in Panama is lower.

"Costa Rica has gotten to be excessively expensive. I live near the border with Costa Rica. The Ticos (Costa Ricans) come to Panama to shop. Panama is a lot better than Costa Rica. So is Colombia."

There is no comparison. I have lived in [Costa Rica] for 7 years and Panama for 4. Panama is half the price and visa is 6 months. I have to say it is better than any place in [Central America].

"Planned to retire [in Costa Rica] until I visited Panama... cost of living in general is much cheaper in Panama. I may move again in my lifetime but it won't be to Costa Rica. The hype is overblown."

"The Ticos are okay. The problem is the government of Costa Rica is perhaps a bit too socialistic raising taxes to the point that the cost of living is too high for many people. Overall I think Panama is a better choice. But there still might be some reasons why someone might chose Costa Rica. There are some very attractive places in Costa Rica."

Another expat that has lived in Costa Rica for 18 years, defeneded Costa Rica:

"There's a big difference between visiting Costa Rica and living here. Also, the cost of living can vary greatly from area to area."

Yet another wrote that "everyone has an opinion and here's mine. Costa Rica has the highest cost of living in Central America but also the highest standard of living."

Here is a thread on our Panama forum about the Panama's Economy.

Here is specific cost of living information for Costa Rica and cost of living information for Panama

Health Care in Costa Rica and Panama

An expat retiree in Panama reported that Health care in Panama either middle-rate, or world class, depending on how long one wishes to wait, and how much $$$ you have. No Medicare, of course, and Tricare (military coverage) is available, but not widely accepted."

Similarly, an expat describing health care options in Costa Rica shared:

"National health care may not provide a sufficient safety net - it may require a long wait for medical procedures. Private health care is recommended, but coverage for 'pre-existing conditions' is generally not available except through national health care," advised another expat in a report about healthcare in Tamarindo.

Expats often rely on private health insurance completely or as a supplement to other forms of coverage.

Expats interested in expat health insurance should take a minute to get a quote from our trusted expat health insurance partner, CIGNA.

Where to Live and Housing in Panama

Here's an excerpt from an article about the Best Places to Live in Panama:

"Panama welcomes people from many countries with great expat laws and easy residency," said one expat in Panama. The temperatures vary greatly in Panama. If you can't stand the heat, you may benefit from one expat's advice that, "Panama is in the deep tropics so to be comfortable you need to have some elevation. I would say the comfort range starts at about 800 to 1000 meters and goes to about 1500 meters. Above that it starts to get too cold. You can drive to the beach and spend a couple of days there and then return to your home in the mountains."

An expat in Rio Mar, 10 minutes from Coronado, Panama described what he likes about where he lives:

Having an amazing view to look at every day, being able to hear the ocean, having a beach to walk on at my doorstep as well as pools to do laps in and an air-conditioned gym to workout in is a huge plus. I also enjoy that the area is slightly secluded, quiet and green.

Having lived in a house in Panama city I now really appreciate the convenience and security of a gate community. The tropical climate creates a lot of work around the house and in the garden and there was always someone ringing the doorbell to sell or request something. Neighbors at Rio Mar are a diverse mix of foreigners from all over the world and Panamanians. After living in a neighborhood with only Panamanian neighbors I really appreciate this diversity.

Where to Live and Housing in Costa Rica

Here's an excerpt from an article about the Best Places to Live in Costa Rica:

"Costa Rica is loaded with small peaceful towns a friendly people, but you are best advised to either tour the country for a while with a guide, or if you have the time, rent a SUV and Tour the Country yourself to see what areas are to your preference, climate, culture, etc. Costa Rica is a surprisingly diverse country for its relative size (smaller then West Virginia). It has 7 specific major "zones", from northern coastal plains and beautiful beaches in the dryer and hotter Guanacaste Province, all the way to the opposite side of the Country on the southern caribbean near Puerto Viejo."

An expat in Playa Hermosa de Jaco reported:

"Our housing costs are lower than in the states. Taxes are very inexpensive in Costa Rica and the taxes in the states substantially higher. Private home insurance is less expensive in Costa Rica from our experience. It is very hard to determine the average cost of housing. In this area, the closer the location to the beach, the higher the price. Direct waterfront may cost well over $500,000 to the millions depending on amenities. However in a lower profile condo building with less amenities, you can absolutely find something at half that price. Knowing the market is really key here and return on investment must be weighed in if you plan to rent the unit, seasonally or long term."

Expats that Love Costa Rica

The expat who purchased in Playa Hermosa de Jaco also shared:

Our first home in Costa Rica (CR) was strictly by word of mouth. We had lived in the area for a few months and told just as many people we trusted that we were looking. In just a few months time, we looked at many properties. We got to know the area very well by renting so we knew the neighborhoods we liked and knew what a good price was to pay. We were in no hurry as we were renting at the time so we didn't appea anxious or desperate to the seller. The purchasing process was a breeze. After 8 years in that same location and home, we decided we wanted a quieter area and we finally were able to realize our original dream of having a water view property. 17 years total in CR ... it's working for us!

Expats that Love Panama

One expat wrote: "Our original plan was Costa Rica; the roads were bad couldn't drink the water, and the currency. I found the people nice, but it was more expensive. Crossed into Panama and never left."

An expat that has lived in Costa Rica for 16 years and 7 years in Chiriqui, Panama shared:

"Loved CR from the first visit in 91, but it became unrecognizable, and departed in 2011. The people in Chiriqui are nice, low key...the cost of living cannot be beat...very few regs...the police are happy and are generally not out to give tickets...Panama is a wealthy country while CR is facing default ... bottom line. Have been living offshore since the 80s... owned homes in 6 countries, and no complaints here in Panama. You will need air conditioning of course."

Another expat wrote:

"We have been here for 3 years and built a house in La Acequia half way between David and Boquete, Not as hot as David and not as cold and windy as Boquete. Perfect. It is very peaceful, quiet and safe here. It is 15 minutes to shopping and health care in David and 15 minutes to restaurants and the expat community in Boquete. We are 20 minutes to the international airport in David. We lived in Boquete and in Potrerillos Arriba for a while and like it much better here and it is also much more convenient. Our Panamanian neighbors are great and very helpful and also let us know when there are bad elements in the area but then we return the favors and help them without question."

Crime in Costa Rica and Panama

"No question Panama is better by far. Plus white collar crime is rampant in CR. I was ripped off twice, once by a lawyer/notario and once by an immigration/resident agent. I will not return to Costa Rica."

Another expat who retired in San Jose, Costa Rica wrote that he enjoys "making new friends in Costa Rica. Not expats so much, but Ticos. I also enjoy traveling around the country on the buses which are safe and comfortable."

Expats that Love Costa Rica

The expat who purchased in Playa Hermosa de Jaco also shared:

"Our first home in Costa Rica (CR) was strictly by word of mouth. We had lived in the area for a few months and told just as many people we trusted that we were looking. In just a few months time, we looked at many properties. We got to know the area very well by renting so we knew the neighborhoods we liked and knew what a good price was to pay. We were in no hurry as we were renting at the time so we didn't appea anxious or desperate to the seller. The purchasing process was a breeze. After 8 years in that same location and home, we decided we wanted a quieter area and we finally were able to realize our original dream of having a water view property. 17 years total in CR ... it's working for us!"

Expats that Love Panama

One expat wrote: "Our original plan was Costa Rica; the roads were bad couldn't drink the water, and the currency. I found the people nice, but it was more expensive. Crossed into Panama and never left."

An expat that has lived in Costa Rica for 16 years and 7 years in Chiriqui, Panama shared:

"Loved CR from the first visit in 91, but it became unrecognizable, and departed in 2011. The people in Chiriqui are nice, low key...the cost of living cannot be beat...very few regs...the police are happy and are generally not out to give tickets...Panama is a wealthy country while CR is facing default ... bottom line. Have been living offshore since the 80s... owned homes in 6 countries, and no complaints here in Panama. You will need air conditioning of course."

Another expat wrote:

"We have been here for 3 years and built a house in La Acequia half way between David and Boquete, Not as hot as David and not as cold and windy as Boquete. Perfect. It is very peaceful, quiet and safe here. It is 15 minutes to shopping and health care in David and 15 minutes to restaurants and the expat community in Boquete. We are 20 minutes to the international airport in David. We lived in Boquete and in Potrerillos Arriba for a while and like it much better here and it is also much more convenient. Our Panamanian neighbors are great and very helpful and also let us know when there are bad elements in the area but then we return the favors and help them without question."

Crime in Costa Rica and Panama

"No question Panama is better by far. Plus white collar crime is rampant in CR. I was ripped off twice, once by a lawyer/notario and once by an immigration/resident agent. I will not return to Costa Rica."

Another expat who retired in San Jose, Costa Rica wrote that he enjoys "making new friends in Costa Rica. Not expats so much, but Ticos. I also enjoy traveling around the country on the buses which are safe and comfortable."

Roads and Traffic

An expat who has lived in Panama and Costa Rica wrote that the "roads are better [in Panama], and the gasoline is half the price.

Another expat reported simply that "the roads and traffic are terrible."

Even one expat that loves Costa Rica added that "the traffic is gnarly but I use a motorbike mostly."

Visit our Panama and Costa Rica country networks and see what's the best choice for you!

About the Author

Joshua Wood Joshua Wood joined Expat Exchange in 2000. His areas of responsibility include creative aspects of the community, research, sales and business development. Joshua received his Master's Degree in Clinical and Counseling Psychology from Fairleigh Dickinson University and graduated from Syracuse University with a BA in English Textual Studies.

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First Published: Apr 24, 2018

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