Chantal Poulin and her husband, Eric, lived fast-paced lives in Quebec. They owned two art galleries. They earned high incomes. But they wanted more. Not more money – but more out of life.
They now live on a four-acre property in Panama near the mountain town of Boquete, where they spend their time tending to a pack of rescue dogs. “It was stressful in Canada,” Ms. Poulin said. “So many people measure themselves by what they own and they keep wanting more. We wanted to get away from that.”
Panama, which borders Costa Rica and Colombia and straddles the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, has long been a favourite retirement destination for Canadians seeking a slower pace of life, a different culture and warm weather. The country is known for the ease with which it gives legal full-time residency to foreigners.
But this summer, the Panamanian government announced stricter requirements for its Friendly Nations Visa. Under the new regime, applicants would have to either sign an employment contract with a Panamanian company, buy at least $200,000 in Panamanian real estate, or make an equivalent deposit in a Panamanian bank. Would-be expats from Canada and a number of other countries rushed to get in before the change.
Marcos Kraemer, a managing partner at Kraemer & Kraemer, a Panama City-based immigration law firm, said Canada typically ranks among the top three points of origin for people seeking residency in Panama, along with the U.S. and the U.K. A legal assistant at the firm told me in June that he had processed more Canadian residency applications that month than he did in a typical six-month period.
Anyone considering moving to Panama must be on board with the Latin American vibe. Even in the region’s larger cities, life tends to move at a slower pace than in Canadian cities and towns – a potential frustration for people accustomed to fast-paced living. But the culture offers social benefits. For example, it’s common for people to greet each other when getting on elevators or public buses. In smaller towns, strangers typically greet each other on the street.
Also attractive to many expats is Panama’s relatively low cost of living. Although the country has one of Latin America’s most advanced economies, its gross national income per capita was, in 2020, about a quarter of Canada’s, and life essentials are priced accordingly. Medical and other professional services are inexpensive (a doctor’s bill might come to $20), and so is general labour.
Panamanian real estate, in particular, can seem like a bargain – at least from the perspective of a retirement-aged person with Canadian home equity. A 1,000-square foot condo with one bedroom, two bathrooms and a common rooftop patio with a pool and an ocean view in Panama City typically costs about US$280,000.
A larger, 2,000-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo on the ocean was recently listed at US$429,000. In Boquete, where the Poulins live, a 1,000-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment was listed for US$165,000.
Panama’s two mountain ranges offer various climates. For example, Boquete, in the country’s interior, is about 4,000 feet above sea level. Year-round temperatures there are similar to those of Victoria, B.C., in summer. People seeking warmer weather can live at lower elevations, near one of the country’s two coastlines.
Linda Downey and her husband, Doug Howard, chose the latter option. They live in the city of Coronado, on Panama’s Pacific coast. The couple sold their home in Penticton, B.C., and retired two years ago. “We enjoy a country-club style of living that we couldn’t have afforded in B.C.,” Mr. Howard said.
Adding to Panama’s appeal for retirees is a system of legislated discounts for older residents. Women over 55 years of age and men over 60 qualify for 50 per cent off movies, theatres, concerts and sporting events; 50 per cent off the closing costs of home purchases; 50 per cent off hotel stays from Mondays through Thursdays; 30 per cent off hotel stays from Fridays through Saturdays; 25 per cent off restaurant meals; 15 per cent off dental and eye exams; and 25 per cent off airline tickets.
But not everyone moving to Panama does so to retire. The Friendly Nations Visa allows foreign residents to work, and the country doesn’t tax residents on foreign income – a boon to anyone telecommuting to a job in their home country. (Panama recently launched a short-stay, nine-month Digital Nomad Visa to encourage exactly that sort of visitor.)
Jay Dgé, 46, and his 47-year-old partner, Eva, recently took advantage of Canada’s high-flying real estate market to sell their home in Montreal. After acquiring a Friendly Nations Visa, they bought a home near Coronado. They built a swimming pool and converted the home into a four-guest-room resort that they named Casa Swell. Now they run their own hospitality business.
Mr. Dgé likes Panama’s overall safety and the fact that the country uses the U.S. dollar. But he warns anyone thinking of moving to the country to spend a lot of time there first.
“Some people come here for two to three weeks and make a quick decision to move,” he said. “But that could be a mistake. It’s easy to enjoy a vacation in a rental condo. But living in Panama includes challenges.”
For residents who don’t speak Spanish, basic things such as shopping, hiring contractors or fixing internet problems might be a struggle. The slower pace of life also frustrates many Canadians.
“In many ways, the lifestyle is opposite to what it is in Canada,” Ian Flint said. He worked at TD Securities in Toronto before moving to Panama in 2009. “Here in Panama,” he says, “manana [tomorrow] doesn’t always mean tomorrow. Sometimes it means the day after tomorrow, or the day after that.”
Panama isn’t for everyone. But Ms. Poulin made a compelling case for it: “If extraterrestrials decided to pick a place on Earth to live, I’m pretty sure they would pick Panama over a place that gets snow and ice,” she said.
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