By Rainer Hensel
Rainer Hensel and his wife Carol moved to Panama City from Singapore with their then teenage boys, Alec and Toby, in 2014. He works in wealth management for a Swiss bank.
Since we first visited Panama in 1994 it had always been our dream to live here. We simply fell in love with it.
Before moving, we expected a hot, tropical country and not much else. However, because of various external and internal economic circumstances, Panama’s economy has been growing steadily over the past decade; gross domestic product is forecast to increase by 6 per cent in 2019.
This growth shows: looking down when flying in to Tocumen International Airport, it looks like a not-so-little copy of Miami. High-rises litter the skyline and new real estate developments abound.
The rush-hour traffic is terrible, but fortunately we live close to my office and can avoid the worst of it. Renting or buying a home close to school and work is definitely recommended, otherwise life can be stressful.
Panama is not cheap. A decent meal out, supermarket runs and rents are probably on a par with Miami and more expensive than Mexico City or Bogotá. On the positive side, healthcare and private schools are excellent, but again not cheap. Another big advantage is that income generated outside Panama is (still) tax free.
Panama City offers an abundance of outdoor activities. We frequently go mountain-biking on a trail, Plantation Road, in an abandoned cocoa plantation just out of town near Panama Canal. The land has been entirely reclaimed by tropical rainforest and, if you look closely, you can spot howler monkeys, anteaters, snakes and sloths.
At weekends, this trail is 20 minutes by car from our home in Santa Maria, where we live in a recently developed gated project built around a golf course.
Another favourite weekend pastime of ours is spending time at the beach. Although there are beaches much closer to the city, the one we prefer, Playa Blanca, is two hours’ drive away on the Pacific coast.
Adventure-seekers can drive two hours to the San Blas Islands archipelago on the Caribbean side of the country and take a boat to little islets that remind you of tacky rum advertisements — yet they are real and the waters are crystal clear.
The number of museums in Panama City might surprise some. Another attraction is the Panama Canal. Following the completion of the new and expanded locks in 2015, you can now see the operations on both the Caribbean and the Pacific sides.
Our favourite museum is the Biomuseo. Designed by renowned American-Canadian architect Frank Gehry (whose wife is Panamanian), it celebrates the biodiversity of this small country. It is located at the entrance to the Panama Canal and offers stunning views of the city and the canal. Another recommended museum is the Canal Museum in the city’s colonial quarter.
A highlight for visitors is a walk through the old part of town in late afternoon, when it is cooler, followed by a mojito in the American Trade Hotel and a visit to the hotel’s Danilo’s Jazz Club (owned by Danilo Perez, a Grammy award winner).
One of the few disappointments of life in Panama City has been the local cuisine and food culture. There are a few decent restaurants, but Panama lacks the eclectic culinary adventures of Bogotá or Mexico City.
My wife and I are both vegan, and finding a restaurant that caters to our needs can be challenging. That said, the restaurant scene is changing slowly.
Our favourite restaurants include Acha (which attracts fish lovers, but the chef recently put vegan options on the menu), Azahar (a very cool place to chill) and Maito (on the list of the best restaurants in Latin America). At Maito, our non-vegan teenage boys order the steak, which they say is “out of this world”.
Panamanians may have a reputation for being unfriendly, but if you make the effort to be friendly yourself, you will be rewarded with one of the warmest smiles you have ever seen. I recommend taking Spanish lessons before you arrive; it is a matter of courtesy to try and speak the language and makes life a lot easier.
The international community is quite large, with the largest proportion of expats coming from the US, so there are numerous activities at which to make friends. Our favourite is the annual British Ball in early December: a big bash with dancing and drinking.
All in all, we love our life in Panama and hope we can enjoy it for several more years.
What do you wish you had known before you moved?
Not to live near mangrove swamps. When we moved from Singapore, we wanted to live in a house with a garden and pool. Bad idea: the property was quite expensive to rent and, even worse, swarms of mosquitoes would descend on us when we opened the door to the garden.
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Photographs: Getty Images/iStockphoto; Dreamstime; Marek Poplawski; British Ball