Best Place to Retire: Why You Will Want To Retire in Boquete Panama

Best Place to Retire: Why You Will Want To Retire in Boquete Panama
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Boquetes, Panama is a small little town nestled in the mountains on the western side of Panama.  It boasts 75 degree (or 24°C) weather all year long because of its altitude.  That sounds pretty good to me!!  I sat down with Jim White who recently retired there at the ripe old age of 43 with his family.  He started a super helpful blog called for those who are interested in living abroad and retiring early.  For those who prefer to read, here is the transcription from the interview.

Risa: “Today I want to talk about retiring in Boquete, Panoma.:

Jim White: “Yes.”

Risa: “I had never heard of the town to be honest before I arrived here, but it’s actually quite popular amongst expats it seems. It’s like kind of a little enclave.”

Jim: “I believe it’s the second most popular city of expats in the country.”

Risa: “So, why Boquete. I mean I know it has amazing weather.”

Jim: “That’s the biggest thing. The first thing is—well, we were looking at finding a place domestically originally to restore to and you could find some places with nice weather and stuff there or you can find places with low cost of living, but you usually can’t find them together. Here, when we started looking more internationally, we found Panama and looked at different places. It’s hot in Panama—in most places, but in Boquete we’re up in the mountains, so it’s pretty much 75 degrees everyday.”

Risa: “Everyday of every year which is pretty in sane. I mean right now we get these beautiful breezes, and it feels completely comfortable and not—”

Jim: “Yeah.”

Risa: “So, how high up are we?”

Jim: “We’re under 4,000 feet. Just under 4,000.”

Risa: “So high, but not too high.”

Jim: “Yeah, and what’s nice is that you can choose your temperature. If you like it a little warmer, you just move down the mountain a little bit as you go and that’s exactly our point. We initially looked at some of the places along the beach and everything. We’re like, ‘This would be fantastic, but you’d have to live in air-conditioning.”

Risa: “Right.”

Jim: “We got the best of both worlds. We’re up here. We’re at 75 [degrees Fahrenheit], you can walk around everyday. You don’t have to worry about heat. Most places don’t have heat. They don’t have air conditioning. It’s just perfect. If you want to go to the beach, it’s an hour down the mountain and boom you’re there.”

Risa: “Right and it’s 90 degrees.”

Jim: “Right and there’s cheaper places around in Panama. This is kind of a low cost living, but it’s not as cheap as some of the other ones, but I’m good with that. I’m okay. We’ll take the temperature with that.”

Risa: “Well, you’re then not spending money on air conditioning or in heat.”
Jim: “Right.”

Risa: “So talk to me about cost of living. So how have you kind of seen it—how comparable is it to the US.”

Jim: “Well, it’s much cheaper than the US. When I go to a restaurant or bar and get a beer for a buck, I’m good to go there. You know, so I would say to kind of put into perspective, if you go to a fancier restaurant here, it’s probably the cost of what you’d pay for a mid-level restaurant in the states. We went to breakfast a few weeks ago at a local place and for the 3 of us. It was 11 bucks for this giant meal of great food and stuff. So, price is good.”

Risa: “That’s pretty nice. What about utilities and rent and that sort of thing?
Jim: “It depends. So, what’s nice is that most of the places here are fully furnished and that was a big deal coming down here because we didn’t turn around and hate it. Now, we just spent all this money, but we didn’t have to worry about that. So, they come fully furnished and it depends on what you’re getting. Sometimes utilities are included, sometimes some utilities are included. Sometimes, they’ll throw in a weekly gardener or a weekly maid or something like that. So, it kind of depends, but I’ll throw mine out if you’re good with that.”

Risa: “Sure.”

Jim: “We’re in a condo in a gated community and you know we have all the amenities you can think of—pools, hymns, racquetball courts. All that we’re paying $1,100 a month. So, by Panoma standards, that might be a little high, but I’m okay with that. For what we’re getting, that’s fantastic.”

Risa: “Well, you couldn’t even think about that in the States.”

Jim: “Well, not in certain states. We’re from Cleveland, so yeah you could find places like that in the Cleveland area and you’re not getting what you’re getting here for sure. And most of our utilities are included with the exception of—I should know by now—but it’s—electric isn’t included and gas propane is what they use and stuff. So, but other than that, we’re good to go.”

Risa: “Wow, that’s pretty awesome. So in terms of food, can you get the foods that you want here or do you go to local markets?”

Jim: “You know it’s funny because there are a lot of people who come here and they want to live like Americans and suddenly they’re paying you know the same, but they’re actually paying more in groceries than they would be otherwise. So, but for us—”

Risa: “You buy your peanut butter in the US and you bring it there.”

Jim: “Of course. Macaroni and cheese is a good example. For whatever reason, the blue box—I don’t know if you let me say the brand, but the blue box, the macaroni and cheese is the exact same price as the Panamanian brand here, so in that case, we buy the good old blue box. But you know, with most of our groceries, we like to try different things. We’re finding different things that we like and don’t like or—”

Risa: “There’s a lot of fresh produce here.”

Jim: “—a lot of—yes and unlike the US, there might be a truck pulled up with pineapples in the back and you know if you saw a truck pull up in the states you’d probably question it a little bit. Here, it’s normal. You pay 50 cents for a pineapple or a thing of bananas and call it a day. It’s delicious. Very fresh.”

Risa: “And I’ve seen and actually been able to eat in a lot of really nice restaurants in such a small town. Yeah really. You know, you have your little restaurant rode.”

Jim: “Yeah, it’s a very walkable town which is great. I don’t know that they do a census here, but I think there’s 30,000 people we’ll say and there’s I’m told 75-85 restaurants.”

Risa: “Oh, wow. I didn’t realize there were that many.”

Jim: “Yeah, and I was talking about the local breakfast thing or the fancier places that we don’t usually go to. Once in a while, it’s great to play dress up. You know usually we’re in shorts and a t-shirt, but—”

Risa: “That’s my speed too.”

Jim: “Yeah, so you can find anything that you want and food is good. Do you have any complaints about the food you’ve had?”

Risa: “No, the food’s been really great and it’s actually been kind of the range, right? So, you can have your local Panamanian food to more western food, Italian food—”

Jim: “A lot of Italian food yeah. Not a lot of Mexican food which I would have thought some of that influence would spread to the area, but you don’t see too much of that here.”

Risa: “You were talking about transportation, so you don’t have a car here which I can’t believe especially coming from Ohio.”

Jim: “Right, but you’re coming from New York. A lot of people don’t have cars there.Yes, so that was kind of an interesting point with my wife and she kind of misses the car. She likes being able to get up and go, but we’re a half mile from town and the whole point of us moving to a place where it’s 75 degrees everyday is so we could be outside. It’s hard to see the mountains and everything when you’re behind the steering wheel, but when you’re walking just looking at the rainbows. You’re looking at everything and going, ‘Wait, you could just stop,’ and you go, ‘Look oh my gosh, Look at that. That’s cool.’

Risa: “But, if you need transportation like a bus or a taxi or whatever, is that easily accessible?”

Jim: “Taxis are everywhere and cheap. When we first got here, we grabbed the taxi from town and I think it was 2 bucks to get back to our place and we’re like, ‘This is great. This is the best place ever. We’re good.’ I mean if you wanted a tax—easily accessible, so we’ll use it sometimes from town or what not. If we’re going to one of the cities around here, but if we want to go to like David, which is about 45 minute drive, we’ll take the bus and—”

Risa: “And that’s the closest big city?”

Jim: “That’s the closest big city and that’s getting you closer to the beach and that’s where you’ll find you know in this town you’re not gonna find a Walmart or something like that. You’re— you know—you got your basic stuff and it’s good. You got your groceries. You can find clothes here. You can find whatever if you’re looking for something specific, David’s the place to go. We usually go there maybe once a month and hop on the bus. Clean buses, air-conditioned, wonderful buses.”

Risa: “Wow, that’s awesome.”

Jim: “—and you hop on and for that 45 minute drive it is a buck and 75 [cents]. I’m good with that and you get there. You grab a cab if you need it. You know they’ll drop you off right in front of a shopping center where there’s restaurants that are or I’m sorry stores like Conway is like a target. They have pricesMart which is like Costco. They have do it centers like Home Depot. I mean, you can—”

Risa: “So, they have their version of everything.”

Jim: “Yeah, but you can definitely find what you’re looking for. Like I said, once a month, we go there and get those odds and ends.”

Risa: “That’s pretty awesome. Se a little field trip.”

Jim: “Yeah, it’s fun. It is. It’s an experience. It’s good.”

Risa: “So this is a fairly small town.”

Jim: “Right.”

Risa:  How do you keep busy? Are there activities here? What kinds of things do you do here? What kind of things do you do? You know, fills the soul.”

Jim: “So, this is a big change for us completely. Mind you that. We’re now retired and we’ve taken our daughter. We’re homeschooling her and so, there’s a lot of change completely for us. So, we’re—”

Risa: “still kind of adjusting.”

Jim: “Still adjusting to everything, but activities for kids—there’s not as many. It’s mostly an older crowd here, but it’s starting to transform a little bit. We’re starting to find that there are more families moving here which is great.”

Risa: “So, it’s good for retirees.”

Jim: “It’s definitely good for retirees. You know our daughters—we’re starting to get her into some activities like horseback riding. For us, we just like walking around. That’s I mean just enjoying nature. We’re doing group hikes. There’s young people there. There’s old people there. It’s across the spectrum. You’ll find everybody and they’re fantastic.”

Risa: “You also have your zipling and—”

Jim: “You can do the experiences like that right. So, I mean it wouldn’t be an everyday thing, but ziplining and the bridges. What do we call those bridges?”

Risa: “suspension bridges?”

Jim: “Yeah, white water raft. I mean so, they have things to do here. Golf. If you’re a golfer. Racquetball. I play racquetball. Swimming—you know whatever. There’s different things. A lot of people make beach trips and do that.”

Risa: “So, there’s a lot of animal rescue here that I don’t think—”

Jim: “There’s places like that. My wife and daughter—they volunteer once a month for a spay and neuter clinic. It’s kind of incredible. They go through like 300 animals on that day. They have vets from everywhere and there’s hundreds of volunteers that you know help out with that whole thing.”

Risa: “That’s awesome.”

Jim: “ It’s kind of cool.”

Risa: “That’s my thing.”

Jim: “That’s not me though.”

Risa: “Oh, I know.”

Jim: “That product placement. That’s when I’m working on my blog.”

Risa: “Actually, this is a good segway. So, in terms of money and banking and so, the currency here is US Dollars which I was actually kind of surprised by. I’ve been here before and then, I forgot. Yeah and that’s kind of an easy transition for Americans.”

Jim: “That was a big reason why. So, when we were looking for it, we’ve never lived in another country before and we wanted the transition to be as easy as it could be without counting like Canada I guess. So that was a big thing for us. It’s kind of neat when you go to the ATM machine and 20s pop out that you’re used to and everything. They do have a bell boa her and you’ll see some of their different coins, but they’re all interchangeable. There’s no fluctuations. It’s even with the dollars, so you don’t have to worry about that.”

Risa: “So, you have your American bank accounts. Do you have a bank account here or how do you like—”

Jim: “We don’t. So, a tip for your viewers here. We’re sticking with the bank accounts for now, but the problem you’d have is when you use credit cards or different things like that unless they waive foreign transactions fees and different things like that. You can kind of get screwed. So, we’re living—”

Risa: “Well, Capital One has a transaction free card.”

Jim: “Yeah and there’s a few that do. They all have annual fees and if you’re cheap like me, you don’t do that. But like Schwab has—if you have a bank account with them—they give you their debit card or whatever, but they will waive all ATM fees that’s US or international foreign transaction fees. They waive them all, so you just use it like your regular card and you can use it like visas if you need to or whatever. That makes life so much easier that we don’t have to worry about that. We go to the ATM at the end—ATMs I think are charging like $4.50 now.”

Risa: “Yeah, I know it’s crazy. I don’t take money out of the ATMs because of that.”

Jim: “I mean we’re paying our rent in cash, so you know, we’ll go a few times a month and then, at the end of the month get the statement. They show you the credits back of all the ATM fees so that makes life a lot easier.”

Risa: “Oh, that’s great actually. So then, you just pay your bills online.”

Jim: “Yeah, I mean, but when you say pay them online, there’s not too much. Like I said, utilities are mostly included—”

Risa: “Right.,”

Jim: “—so we don’t have to worry about that. I mean—”

Risa: “Yeah, well your credit card bills or whatever.”

Jim: “Yes, yes. That’s correct. We’re not really using credit cards. We’re using our—”

Risa: “Oh right.”

Jim: “Then, we go back to the states, we use up all our credit cards to try and get some rotation. Cell phone plan—we’re having that taken out of our bank account too.”

Risa: “So wait, do you have an American cell phone or a local cell phone?”

Jim: “Well, I have an American cell phone, but the cell phone plan I have here and it’s just a monthly plan comparable. It’s more expensive than you’d think for being in Panama. It’s $34 a month for unlimited data and everything and everybody uses data here. Texting, voice, everything. They’re using whatsapp. As soon as you get here. People aren’t asking, ‘What’s your phone number?’ They’re asking, ‘What’s your whatsapp?’ That’s how they communicate. Then, when we go back to the states, we pop in a SIM card from another MVNO monthly plan. Pop that in the states and then reactivate service, so.”

Risa: “But, your phone number is an American phone number?”

Jim: “So, that’s gonna get tricky. I like this, but I’m using—I wrote a whole on using Google voice while abroad.”

Risa: “Ah, is that what’s your phone number?”

Jim: “You know about how that works? Do you want to hear about that at all? It’s interesting, so you can port your number to different companies. Google voice lets you port your number to them, so it’s up in the cloud—in the internet. So, it’s out there and what’s neat is then within Google’s little console or whatever. You can say where to have it ring. You can have it forward to wherever you’re at. So, when we were transitioning, that was part of the hard part. I didn’t want to have to deal with you know having friends—It’s gonna be hard enough for everybody (friends and family)—I didn’t want to have to deal with them having to go to okay, maybe you need to download whatsapp or download that. So, doing this, now that we’re here, it rings to my panamanian cell phone number. Doesn’t matter with the SIM card 

Risa: “Oh, I see.”

Jim: “When we’re in the U.S., switch it to that. It’s seamless for everybody. So, they’re still calling and texting my regular number that works over data. It’s whether they’re calling, texting, or anything. It’s kind of cool.”

Risa: “That’s pretty cool. That is very cool actually.”

Jim: “and free. Free is good.”

Risa: “Free is a good price. I think free. How do you do with the Visa situation?”

Jim: “The visas here are pretty easy to obtain. They have different ones depending on your age. I think the most common once your retirement age is you can go after the Pensionado Visa which is fantastic and get all these discounts and benefits and all kinds of cool stuff. 

Risa: Yeah, this is really crazy actually—the Pensionado Visa, right?.”

Jim: “ Oh yeah and I can’t give you the exact numbers because we don’t have that visa, but you can get let’s say 25% off at restaurants or you know 25% off on flights that you’re boarding.”

Risa: “yeah, it’s the flights. It’s the food. It’s like pretty much everything.”

Jim: “—medical, everything. I mean, it’s kind of crazy. But what’s interesting is you don’t need that visa to get benefits. Once you’re of age, you also get those. The pensionado visa—you have to be able to prove that you have guaranteed income coming in every month.So, that could be an annuity, a pension, different things like that, but you can’t be financially independent. So say, ‘Oh, I have a good net worth. We have enough money.’ That doesn’t count.’”

Risa: “They want the income.”

Jim: “You actually have to show them. I think it’s a letter that says, this is specifically what I will be getting for the rest of my life to be able to get that. So if we had that— if we had an annuity that could cover that, we could provide that at our age, but so that’s what I’m saying. Usually it’s more traditional retirees that are able to do that for other people or people that want to get a job down here. Then most people will go after the friendly nation’s visa and that one’s an easy one to attain. The biggest hurdle is cost and it’s not—it’s not the end of the world I think we’re budgeting maybe seventy-five hundred dollars for the three of us, but we’re holding back from doing that right now because we want to make sure this is the right place first. We decided one year first. We’ll stay here for a year and if it’s our place, then we’ll get it. In the meantime, we’ll follow the tourism rules and it’s not a big deal, but yeah.”

Risa: “That’s awesome. So what about like culture and community. How is that? Is it easy to kind of integrate within the Panamanian culture? Do you need to know Spanish?”

Jim: “It’s funny you said, ‘Do you need to know,’ I actually—I literally wrote down this morning. That’s gonna be a blog post that I planned out. Yeah, I just wrote that down as an idea and maybe I shouldn’t give away the answer. No, you don’t need to know Spanish here, but it is definitely helpful and I’m still blown away by a lot of expats who come here who don’t know Spanish like—”

Risa: “Or are not trying either.”

Jim: “Yeah, so you know I’m using apps like drops and duolingo and Memrise and you know my wife and daughter they’re using a tutor right now and going from there.”

Risa: “That’s awesome.So, has there been any kind of surprises or—I don’t know—challenges living here as an American?”

Jim:  “I think the hardest thing has probably been and this is just maybe my vision, but like I envisioned us becoming more integrated with the culture. I want to have some Panamanian friends. I want to learn. This is exciting. This is an adventure. I want to learn these kind of things, but I do see a little bit of a separation—not like any animosity, but kind of you know, the place where we’re at there’s not very many panamanians that live in this community and what not, but you know I mean everybody’s so friendly. Everybody. You walk by somebody. Everybody’s saying, ‘Hi, How are you doing?’ and all that. Whether it’s expat or local or whatever, but I was hoping for more of like a blend and I’m so far from that. I’m not superman—maybe as my Spanish gets better.”

Risa: “Yeah, I think if you do and then you make the effort, then that’s I guess how.”

Jim: “Right. Yeah absolutely.”

Risa: “Wow and so, do you miss the US at all? Your quality of life is pretty good here.”

Jim: “ I love every bit of it and  my wife and daughter will tell you. I mean the hard part is family, friends—you know, you give up and left and you’d find that though if you didn’t even move to another country—if you just moved to another state in the US—but if you’re moving far, it’s hard to uproot. I mean, you see generation after generation staying in the same place. Somebody’s got to start it. Somebody’s got to move it and try it. It’s just beautiful—minus the rainstorm—this is beautiful here.”

Risa:  “No, it doesn’t get much better than this.”

Jim: “Right, yeah it doesn’t get much better than this.”