What’s New in Panama – May 2015 Update

British Chamber of Commerce Panama logo 360x210

Well, it’s been a few months since I”ve posted. Things in Panama continue to keep me and my family busy. Plus, we’ve enjoyed some travel. My husband had another surgery. One of our daughters got pretty sick. We moved from one apartment to another. Regular life has gotten in the way of this blog.

But, now, I’m back. So, let’s get back up to speed on some recent local announcements and gossip that are of interest to expats in Panama.

Italian hairdresser opens salon in Coronado

Saloon Hair Wellness Panama

Italian hairdresser Vincenzo de Martino opens salon in Coronado

Now, for my gentlemen readers, you don’t need to click off somewhere else when you read this title. Not only because Vincenzo de Martino and his small team can take care of your follicular needs, but because this includes you too, especially if you’ve come to Panama with a wife who cares about her appearance.

If you’ve read my books, you may know that finding a salon that fits your requirements for doing expat hair – North American hair, specifically – can be difficult at best in Panama. No, I’m not saying you can’t find plenty of good looking, cool music, nice décor salons in the city. You can. But when you walk out with hair that does not resemble yours in the least an hour or two later, you soon learn that all the glitz and glam that may work for their Latin customers simply does not work for you.

Expat ladies (and gents), there’s a new solution in town! Not in the city, unfortunately, but in Coronado, a popular expat community an hour and 15 minutes from the city.

photo courtesy of thepanamaportal.com

The Village, one of several malls in the Coronado area

Vincenzo de Martino, an expat from Italy, probably in his young 40s moved to Panama last year to marry his Panamanian wife and start a family. He has since opened a new salon – aptly titled Saloon Hair Wellness Panama – in one of the Coronado shopping centers, across from Machetazo store (which is the closest thing you’ll find to a Walmart in Panama).

Vincenzo is training a small Panamanian staff, and they offer your standard fare for a small salon: nail care, haircuts, hair color, blow drys and style. And, maybe some other things too.

But, here’s the kicker. I went in for a haircut, spent an hour with Vincenzo, and left the salon with the best darn haircut I”ve had since I’ve lived in Panama! And, all for $38. Yes, $38 for a haircut is on the high end for a Panama haircut, but when it’s perfect, I’ll pay it every time.

Vincenzo is also friendly, offers you a cappuchino, his shampoo girl gives the best head massage I”ve had in years, and he sells organic hair products, similar to Aveda.

All I can say is Yay!

How did I find him? Well, his marketing consists of a flyer that he’s handing out to new clients, and a sign outside – which reads “Saloon” and may be confusing to some expats until they see the word “Hair” and then they get it. So, it wasn’t the marketing, no. But as is usual in the expat world in Panama, a friend recommended another friend, who recommended me. And, so the world turns.

Saloon Hair Wellness

Saloon Hair Wellness, #55 The Village, Coronado

You can find Vincenzo at Saloon Hair Wellness, store #55 in The Village mall in Coronado or search for the salon on Facebook. And, please! Tell him I sent you. No, I won’t get any kickbacks, but I do want to see him stay in business. Keep those quality haircuts coming, Vincent!

New director position open at British Chamber of Commerce

British Chamber of Commerce Panama

The British Chamber’s events are a great way to network

The cut-off date may be past now – I believe it may have been yesterday – but I’m going to mention this anyway, in case it’s not. The Panama chapter of the British Chamber of Commerce in the city posted an opening for their Executive Director position this past week. The nice young chap – an Irish lad – who launched the new business association a couple of years ago is heading back to his home country and it seems the British Embassy is now aligning itself a bit more closely with this group, going forward. Thus, this position has some interesting aspects to it, according to the job posting, which would be ideal for an expat coming into this market from a getting to meet the right people perspective.

Word on the street according to my peeps is that the position pays $1,800 to $2,500 per month – decent for local Panama wages though certainly not high – but offers a killer opportunity to become known in the prestigious British business circles. Someone else told me there’s a potential for added bonus $$ for meeting membership goals. Plus, the panache of the British Embassy certainly will not hurt one’s resume.

So, if you’re interested, check out their website at www.britcham.com.pa and get the details. They have a Facebook page too which you can find here on Facebook.

For those of you interested in networking in Panama, the British Chamber offers monthly events that are a good way to meet a lot of other expats in business.

Obama for President…in Panama?

Barack Obama Michelle Obama Bobbleheads on Display

Obama for President…in Panama?

This is actually gossip – which we refer to as “bochinche” here in Panama. But I’ve laughed about this particular topic enough in the last few weeks that I’m making an exception on printing gossip (which I normally don’t do), and regurgitating it here for your reading pleasure.

Many of you know that President Barack Obama was here in Panama five weeks ago for Las Cumbres or the Summit of the Americas. He and about every other President in the Americas – except for one. It was a big freaking deal for Panama – lots of press coverage – the most security this country has ever seen – all the streets in the city were seemingly blocked for days at a time – in fact, the entire business community shut down in the city because of all the booya.

For any of you that are just now getting up to speed on Panama – here are some of the recent news stories about that trip, which included President Obama. (And, yes, this was the one where he held the historic meeting with Raul Castro of Cuba.)

At any rate, the city of Panama whipped itself into shape immediately prior to this historic week in April 2015 for Las Cumbres. Potholes were fixed, buildings were painted, new curb and gutters appeared all over, new sidewalks were put in, bus shelters were repaired, new security fences and gates were installed. Literally, the city has never looked better. It was the like the prep for the wedding of the century! The city indeed had its very best foot forward by the time all the King’s men arrived from all over this continent.

Atlapa fountains

The now working fountains at Atlapa

So, the joke is that – happily – I was out of the country – on purpose – during this landmark week – on business of my own. So, I didn’t have to deal with the crazy traffic and the fact that businesses closed entirely on that Wednesday through Friday, and so on and so forth.

And, even though I left on the Sunday prior and returned the Monday afterwards, I was only out of the country for eight days.

Again, for those of you that follow this blog and have read my books – eight days in Panama generally amounts to nothing getting done. Typically you can’t get a bank account open in Panama in a mere eight days. You can’t get your cable hooked up. You can barely get something back from your attorney in that amount of time. You get the picture. Eight days in Panama is nothing.

So, when I flew back into the city on April 14th, and my driver picked me up at the airport, we began our usual drive back to Arraijan where I live. But suddenly everywhere I looked, my eye picked up something new, something different. As I mentioned – a new paint job here – a new security fence there – a new sidewalk.

“What’s this?” I asked my driver, at least ten times on the way home. His answer each time was the same. “Well,” he said. “That’s something new thanks to Obama.”

“What?” I replied, confused, glancing up at the towering city landscape before me to remind myself that I had just returned to Panama not the U.S. “What do you mean, Obama?”

(A side note here that has local relevance: I was also temporarily confused because I had probably been checking my WhatsApp as soon as I posed the question to him, which is a common addiction when you live in Panama. And, though, it’s a very rude practice to be checking your SmartPhone when someone’s talking to you, it’s a completely acceptable one in Latin America.)

But back to the story…

“That’s right,” my driver replied. “Panama got cleaned up so fast, and had so many improvements made in the last couple of weeks before Obama came, that everyone now attributes how good the country looks to him!”

Municipality of Panama

City workers hard at work

As he said this, I looked around. And, I have to say, I couldn’t argue with the logic he was presenting. More had happened in the eight days I’d been gone than in the prior year in terms of visible improvements to the city’s facade.

“And, so,” my driver continued. “We’ve voting Obama for President in the next Presidential election.”

This made me burst out laughing. Obama for President in Panama? And, we laughed about it pretty much the rest of the way home. And I’ve still been laughing every other time when I’ve seen yet another improvement that has materialized out of nowhere in the past six weeks.

So much so that every time I point at something new, my driver simply nods and says “Obama!” and we laugh.

So there you have it. Obama, if you choose to accept the nomination for President here in Panama in 2019, I’m pretty sure you’ll be a shoe-in. You made quite an impression, or at least the build-up for your visit has made a very lasting impression in this country. Just my two cents. Good luck!

Is Panama for you?

This little catch-up is just a glimpse of some of the new “What’s On” in Panama this month. If you haven’t had the chance to check out my books – you can do that on the right hand column, which will take you to Amazon. I’ve been an expat in Panama now for seven plus years, and my writing centers on filling in the gaps for new expats and potential future expats in considering Panama as a place to live or a place to retire.

Life in Panama as an Expat: What’s it really like?

12 de Octubre Station of the Panama Metro

This is a piece that I wrote for another expat website, which I recently ran across again in my archives. I’ve updated here, and hope you’ll find it’s a great recap of a lot of useful information that many new expats still don’t realize about Panama.


My name is Elizabeth Vance, and I’ve lived in the Republic of Panama now for eight years. My family and I relocated here when my company transferred me to open their Latin American office. We live in Panama, which is the only big city in the country (pop. 1.5 million), and my husband and I both work in the city, as well. (Panama City is like New York City – you only refer to it as Panama, Panama and don’t actually use the word ‘city’.)

Photo of Panama City's skyline

Photo of Panama City’s skyline

We are U.S. citizens, and we maintain our citizenship, though we are also permanent residents of Panama too. When we originally came to Panama, we thought of this opportunity as an adventure. We thought we’d stay for two to three years. We’ve stayed beyond that partly due to the professional success we’ve enjoyed here, and partly because we have grown to love this tiny country. The professional opportunities we’ve found here are almost unlimited.

Because this is a developing nation, many of the industries and services you get accustomed to in the U.S. do not exist yet. Or they are coming, but there’s little competition. That’s the reason Panama has begun to emerge in the minds of so many multinational companies in the past few years – because of that opportunity. And, of course, it’s the gateway for global commerce with the Panama Canal. The Canal is currently undergoing a $5.2 billion expansion, which when complete will triple its current capacity. This means even more possibilities exist for commerce and business in the next few years, and beyond.

The photos you’ll find of Panama (the city) show the impressive skyline, and the Canal. Promotional websites laud the international banking system, affordable real estate and flashy hotels. You may recall that two seasons of the popular U.S. TV series Survivor have been filmed in Panama in Bocas del Toro, on the Caribbean side, several years ago, and again in the Pearl Islands on the Pacific side, just a year ago. Or that the world got a glimpse of Panama in 2002 when she hosted the Miss Universe pageant about ten years ago, showcasing lovely ladies in bikinis on virgin beachfronts.

That’s all well and good, but what’s it like to really live here as an expat? Of course, the answer to that can’t be summed up in one article, but I’ll outline a few things here, which most expats want to know when they’re considering Panama for their new home.

Panama's culture is colorful and vibrant

Panama’s culture is colorful and vibrant

Is Panama right for you?

There are many, many things to evaluate when you’re evaluating Panama as a potential place to live. The considerations are endless: language, pace, lifestyle, food, services, healthcare.

Panama is an interesting, unique little place, which has a lot to offer, but it’s not for everyone. Much of your success in finding your new life in Panama has to do with managing your expectations about your life here will be.

If you’re just starting your research, I recommend you get my books – The Gringo Guides to Panama: What to Know Before You Go and More to Know Before You Go – now available in print, or online on Amazon. The two will take you beyond the nuts and bolts, to the insider perspective of an expat who’s been there, done that and learned a lot from that experience.

I wish you the very best as you explore whether Panama is the right place for you.

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Health Insurance in Panama: Barriers to Entry

Health Insurance in Panama

Finding Health Insurance in Panama

Health Insurance in Panama

New expats – that aren’t fluent in Spanish – look to a healthcare broker to provide a variety of quotes.

I received an email in the last couple of weeks from a woman in her 70s. The woman is moving to Panama this month, and suddenly realized: Oops! What about local health insurance?

I hated to be the bearer of bad news, but in reality, a month before you move to Panama is probably too late to get a new health insurance policy issued.

Why, you ask? A ha! Well, this is Panama, and getting new health insurance in Panama can be complicated.

Finding Health Insurance Providers in Panama

Unlike the new healthcare exchanges in the States that are administered by each state, there’s not one place to go and find all the health insurance companies listed in one place on the web. Not in English, anyway.

So, most new expats – that aren’t fluent in Spanish when they arrive – look to a healthcare broker to provide them with a variety of quotes. I’d recommend it, for those new to the Panama market. I won’t promote any certain one, but you’ll find English speaking reps at both Semusa and Ducruet in the city. And there’s a possibility there are others, but both of those have been around for some time.

Pre-Existing Conditions Still a Major Issue in Panama

A new health insurance policy in Panama requires a number of physical exams.

That’s right. A new health insurance application in Panama will require you to report:

Any visits to the doctor in the past five years,
Any surgeries in the past ten years, and
Any drugs you take or have taken in recent past.

Not only will you be mired in a number of pain-in-the-butt forms to fill out to get your application going, you’ll also be required to take a physical exam.

Unfortunately, we’re not just talking about a pee-in-the-cup type of exam. Nope. This is much more complicated than that.

Here’s a list of the exams a new health insurance policy in Panama requires you to take when you apply:

• A variety of blood tests
• An AIDS test (yes, you have to consent, but the application requires it!)
• A physical exam by a Panamanian physician (which you have to pay for)
• A PAP smear or prostate exam
• An EKG and/or stress test

Tick Tock, Tick Tock: The Waiting Game

The approval process in Panama can take up to two months.

If you’ve read my books, you’ve learned by now that efficiency rarely exists in Panama. And, that is very much the case when you are applying for health insurance.

When my husband and I applied for a new policy a year or so ago to replace one we’d had before, the approval process was five weeks. This year, a fellow expat couple applied for a policy through Pan American Life, and the approval process took almost TWO MONTHS. And, even then, the late 50’s husband was approved (with several exclusions lasting up to two years each), and the mid 40’s wife was denied with, “Oh, sorry, you don’t fit our ‘profile’ and therefore, we can’t be approve you.”

I’m not lyin’. The reality is that she’s in menopause and while healthy now, had a few complications in the last five years, and thus, they turned her down. Hmmm. Not surprising as Panama is a very machismo society. I would be surprised if there’s a woman even sitting on their application review panel! (Then, knowing that it’s Panama, such a  panel might not even exist….)

So, take note: pre-existing conditions are very much alive and well in the Panama health insurance market, and the local companies are still using them as reasons to decline applications, just like was done in the U.S. for years and years and years.

What’s it cost for a new health insurance policy in Panama?

Of course, the answer to that question depends on your age, and how healthy you are. But here are some examples below, based on a poll of some of our expat friends.

  • Couple – him late 50’s, her late 40’s – $2,300 per year with PanAmerican Life
    • $350 deductible per person per year, and max of $10,000 per year in coverage (local rates), no international coverage
  • Single fellow – late 50’s – $1,430 per year with PanAmerican Life
    • Same deductibles as above; only local, no international coverage
  • Couple – him mid 50’s, her mid 40’s – $6,600 per year with Worldwide Medical
    • This policy DOES include coverage in both Panama and the U.S.
    • Panama deductible: $350, US deductible: $1,000 after all Panama healthcare options have been exhausted.

My best advice once you have a healthcare policy in Panama: If you like it, keep it!

A quick Q & A on health insurance and health care in Panama, in general.

Q: Is overall health care in Panama cheaper than in the U.S.?
A: Undoubtedly, yes. A doctor visit can be from $25 and up, depending on where you go. I talk more about the overall health care system in Panama in my second book.

Q: Is health insurance cheaper in Panama than in the U.S.?
A: Undoubtedly, yes. Compare $2,300 per year for the top example above, versus a similar policy in the U.S. that costs $1,300 per month. The challenge – for those of us with advancing age – is that the lower cost is very much a good thing, IF you can get approved.

Q: Are most health insurance plans in Panama HMO’s or PPO’s?
A: Most of them are neither. You normally don’t choose a primary care physician, nor do you have to get a referral to go to a specialist with most local health insurance plans in Panama. But most insurance plans do have a list of doctors, and if you go to one of them, you pay an agreed-upon copay, and if you see someone not not on the list, you pay in cash, then have to get reimbursed, AFTER you satisfy your deductible then, then the old 80/20% split kicks in (again, think 1990’s). Be prepared, the reimbursement can take weeks, and sometimes months.

Q: Can I monitor my own health care plan in Panama online?
A: Sadly, no. Another detail still stuck in the 1990’s, unfortunately. The reality: paperwork, paperwork, paperwork. I think several companies are working on getting their own online systems up and going, but to my knowledge, nothing has been implemented.

For more on Panama, and life in Panama as an expat, follow the Panama Gringo Guide and Elizabeth Vance on Twitter and Google+.

And, for those of you starting down the path on the health insurance application process adventure in Panama, good luck!

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