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An Expat Talks about Retiring in Bocas del Toro, Panama

Aug 03, 2020


Isla Solarte in Bocas del Toro, Panama

An expat in Panama talks about what it's like being retired in Bocas del Toro - adapting to island time, building a home on Isla Solarte, the friendly people in Bocas, the lower cost of living, the new hospital and challenges traveling in and out of Bocas.

What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?

Bocas del Toro

Why did you choose to retire abroad?

Warmer climate, less expensive, slower pace and cheaper real estate.

Are you retired abroad all year or part of the year?

Full time retired

Why did you choose the country you retired to?

Panama is easy to travel to, uses the same currency, language isn't an issue, government and economy is stable, real estate can be very affordable, the weather is warm year round. The country is beautiful, the locals in the islands are very friendly, love Bocas and the funky small town environment, the Caribbean ocean.

Did you ever live abroad before you retired abroad?

Some extended lengths but never "lived" permanently

How long have you lived abroad since you retired abroad?

About 5 years

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How many countries (other than your home country) have you lived in as a retiree?

Just Panama

What have been the most challenging aspects of being retired abroad?

Life in these islands is quite "slow". Gaining the understanding that our new home was on "island time" was an initial challenge. With only one airline servicing BDT, traveling in and out of Bocas (not PTY) can sometimes be a hassle, advanced preparation is advised. Finally... the stores are limited in selection so you gotta adjust your expectations.

What have been the most rewarding aspects of being retired abroad?

New friends from around the globe. A much easier lifestyle, slower, less government intrusion into our lives. The beauty of the jungle, beaches, greenery. The peace and quiet we enjoy in the islands. Beautiful sunrises from our 10 mile view deck.

What would you do differently if you were just starting the retire abroad process?

Gosh... we were pretty diligent from the start. Didn't make too many mistakes. If I had to pick something out I guess it would have to be... referring to our home and property - start out simple. Purchase or build something "adequate" for your needs and wait before building more or adding on or thinking about some sort of income producing business on your site. Retirement can be something entirely different than what you might have expected. Plans change often??

What is life like for a retiree in your city and its surroundings? (Is there an active expat community? Cultural Attractions? Recreation? Nightlife?)

Bocas is a typical Caribbean small town in a lot of ways. But it has something more special too. Laid back, easy. Night life is fairly limited to bars. Permanent retirees are very active and interactive with locals. It seems you can be as busy or as lazy as you like. The music community provides many opportunities for entertainment in a variety of genres. Fairs, holiday celebrations and carnivals happen thru-out the year. Horseback, quad rentals, golf carts provide good fun and opportunities to see the whole island of colon. World class surf and good fishing too.

What residency documents or visas did you need to obtain to retire in your host country? How difficult was this process? (Please describe)

The process for obtaining a permanent visa has been streamed lined over the recent years. With a competent lawyer you can get thru the whole thing relatively Quickly. Providing the necessary documentation in advance and being timely for appointments makes the process much easier. Be prepared to visit PTY [Panama City] a few times to sit in the immigration offices while your lawyers submits the numerous copies of documents into your file at the request of someone behind a desk (the Panamanians do not use much in the way of digital, written copies seem endless) Note the dress code for all Panamanian gov offices. Must have a clean conviction record (although it is possible to get waivers) Marriage certs if applicable. Police and FBI report. Recommendations from Banking and business acquaintances. Depending on your status of retiree (pension, friendly nations etc) you must deposit a certain amount of cash into the local bank account (can be drawn out later). Owning property is guaranteed by the Panamanian constitution and can make obtaining the Visa easier.

Did you buy a home or apartment, or rent one? Is this a difficult process? (Please describe)

Renting a place is easy. Contrary to the US the property owner has the rights of ownership while the renter is more obligated to be responsible. Purchasing property is fairly straight forward, there are real estate professionals who can help. It will be necessary to have a lawyer draw up the purchase agreements and get the proper government documents recorded. Keep good records because the Panamanians won't. A good lawyer will be diligent in the purchase or title process and is a must. We purchased several acres on Isla Solarte and built our home. I was a general contractor by trade so it was easier for me. Logistics is the only real issue. Getting your materials to the job site in a timely manner, having the necessary materials to keep the job moving along. Some materials, especially finish goods, must be obtained in the city of David and brought to Bocas (about 4 hours away) Transportation is readily available and reliable. The best advice is to talk to others who have completed what you are attempting to do. Enlist the help of someone who has been thru the process. You will make far fewer mistakes??

Financially, has living abroad in your host country met your expectations? Exceeded them?

Cost of living is much less than the US. Our particular situation is no property tax, utilities are my own (off grid), Internet, fuel and food are our only real costs besides entertainment. Internet is reliable and cheaper monthly in Bocas town then in the outer islands. The cost of food at the grocery store isn't "cheap" but surprisingly the restaurants are less. Getting bulk goods from Costco in David every couple months can save about 40% of your monthly food and disposable goods. Health insurance on a 70% /30% payment basis is only $148 monthly for the 2 of us (we are healthy). We spend less than $1500 a month when we are not traveling or being excessively social.

What are the most important financial considerations for retiring to your host country?

Pre-existing health issues can be challenging if you are wanting to obtain local insurance. Obviously having sufficient income for your expected lifestyle. International Travel in and out of Bocas currently requires 3 airports and can be more costly depending on your itinerary. Gasoline is around double the cost than in the states unless you are unfortunate enough to live in California Or the like where it is actually more than Bocas ?????. Property taxes if required are far less. Doctor and dentist visits are far less. It seems having sufficient capital to purchase a home if that is your goal might be the only real concern as long as you can provide for your daily needs.

How much can a retiree live on comfortably in your host country?

Our situation on isla Solarte in Bocas is such that we can live comfortable spending $1500 a month. Renting an apartment in town and riding a bicycle can produce a similar situation. I have older, single friends who live in town who spend much less than we do.

Do you have access to quality medical care? (Please describe - is it close? Expensive?)

Bocas has just finished a new modern hospital Centrally located on Isla Colon. There is a quality Med clinic for daily no emergency needs. Several well stocked pharmacies. There are 3 dentist offices. Very good care for more serious instances can be had in Changuenola which is about an hour. Private state of the art care in David or panama city is available too. Depending on the location (private vs. public care) costs can be a fraction of those in the western world. Actual quality care can be had in the public hospitals for free. (lots of retirees unfortunately do not trust these hospitals and attempt to disqualify them ?????).

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Is there a lot of crime where you live? (Please describe)

Bocas enjoys nearly a crime free environment. The only instances that we know about are those of opportunity. Petty theft etc... it is rare that we hear of any real problems.

Describe available transportation where you live. Do you need a car? Is there access to safe public transportation?

We live in the outer islands from down town Bocas. Boat travel is easy and affordable. Water taxis are abundant. If you live on Colon you an get by with just a bicycle. Land taxis are everywhere and just a couple dollars to most locations. Flying in and out of Bocas via air Panama can, at times, be a challenge but it seems the government is dedicated to expanding the airport and providing better options.

Is there high-speed internet access where you live?

The outer islands have reliable but limited internet it seems. You can pay more and get more but still seems limited. In town the services are less costly, faster and with more options.

Do you have any other thoughts you would like to share about retiring abroad?

If you are still "young" consider having hobbies, business or other things to keep you occupied. Don't expect more than your host country can provide. If family is an issue choose a location with easy travel.

William Russell Health InsuranceExpat Health Insurance

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William Russell Health InsuranceExpat Health Insurance

Get a quotes for international health insurance from our partner, William Russell.
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William Russell Health InsuranceExpat Health Insurance

Get a quotes for international health insurance from our partner, William Russell.
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William Russell Health InsuranceExpat Health Insurance

Get a quotes for international health insurance from our partner, William Russell.
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