Cultural Differences between Panama and Costa Rica

I’ve now lived abroad as an expat – outside my country of origin, which is the U.S. – full-time for close to nine years. I sometimes think: Wow, where has the time gone? Here I am into my first full year living along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, and I previously lived in Panama for eight years. Yes, time flies.

Today’s topic is about some observed cultural differences between Panama and Costa Rica. Now that I live in Costa Rica and write about expat topics in this country, people ask me these questions almost every week: “But, JuliAnne, why did you leave Panama?” or “What brought you to Costa Rica?” and “What are the main differences between those two countries that I should consider as a future expat?”

Great questions, all. And I could probably write another book or two on just that last topic. However, today, I’m going to write a bit about the observations I have about cultural differences between Panama and Costa Rica.

A few things to keep in mind, first:

  1. What you are about to read are MY observations. I am not God and I have not lived in every part of Panama, nor of Costa Rica. But I have lived here in both countries long enough to have formed some pretty solid opinions based on my experiences in each. But remember these are OPINIONS.
  2. No one pays me for what I write, so you’re getting an unvarnished viewpoint here. Not so in many other blogs and books.
  3. I am not loyal to either country. I appreciate them both for what they are, and I am grateful for the time I’ve lived in each. Have some of these considerations impacted my choice to live in Costa Rica? You bet your boots they have!

Okay, so with that housekeeping out of the way :), let’s get to the good stuff.

Part One: Cultural Differences between the people of Panama & Costa Rica

This is Part One in a series of posts I’ll be composing on this issue over the coming weeks. So as I add more, you’ll be able to click through to links  to those other posts, so that you have all the information at your fingertips! Hooray!

For this post, I’m going to focus on the cultural differences between the local populations of Panama & Costa Rica: the Panamanians and the Ticos. (The slang for a Costa Rican national is “Tico”.)

So, here are some major differences I’ve observed between Panamanians and Ticos.

Since this first post appears on my Panama Gringo Guide blog, let’s start with the Panamanians.

Personality differences between Panamanians & Costa Rican locals

Panamanians: Loud, gregarious and love to party.

There’s a reason that Panama’s people have been rated in recent years as some of the happiest people on earth: they are!

So when I say gregarious, what do I mean? According to, here’s the definition of that word: “fond of the company of others; sociable.” And it fits Panamanians to a T!

Panama Gringo Guide best-selling author and expat JuliAnne Murphy cultural differences dancing in street

Panamanians love loud music and dancing

At the drop of a hat, Panamanians will crack a beer, turn up the music, crowd into the street and start dancing. It’s a festive, fun atmosphere, even if you don’t speak Spanish, and especially if you like to dance.

In Panama City, you can find a number of fun places to go and let loose. And, not just not the weekends either; it’s almost every night.

Similarly, Panamanians like their music. It plays all over the place – in their cars, in their kitchens, in their offices (if allowed) and in every bar in town. And not only do they like their music, they also like it LOUD. Most of the time, you’ll hear a strain called Reggaeton, which is a funky mix of Caribbean and rap with a lot of rappy-tappy bass.

This kind of thing should be taken into consideration before you buy a piece of property anywhere in Panama – who are your neighbors and what kinds of parties they like to throw. Panamanian families are famous for inviting friends, family members and everyone else over for a pig roast or a barbecue on the weekends, including all generations young and old, up to 60 people in a yard the size of postage stamp. And, yes, the music will be pumping!

And, the loudness of the locals in Panama – as a personality trait – extends beyond the party scene. They are simply people who are used to talking loud, yelling across the room (even when it may be considered a bit strange to do so by those of another cultural background) and when they get tickled about something, they laugh long and LOUD.

You’ll often find that their ‘loudness’ often extends to table manners, as well. As a general rule, most Panamanians – especially when they’re having fun – are not known to have tidy table etiquette. There’s no Miss Marple’s School of Etiquette in this country – even with all the sophisticated skyscrapers and amazing architecture in Panama City. What I hear complaints about all the time is that there’s a lot of open mouth chewing, talking with food in the mouth and loud, boisterous laughter.

If you put a table of Panamanians having lunch together in a room of 50 other countries, trust me: I could pick ’em out blindfolded just from the noise! And, bottom line, this crowd will also be having the best time of any table there!

It’s true Panamanians are indeed a fun people, but at times they pay very little regard to the impact of their felicidad on those around them. That can be a major adjustment for most expats new to Panama.

Costa Rica “Ticos”: Reserved, polite, quiet and respectful.

On the flip side, Costa Rican nationals are much more reserved. So much so, that the first time I came to Costa Rica for business 18 months ago, I got off the plane and walked through the airport and was shocked at how understated everyone was. That, and the politeness I experienced everywhere I went. Having boarded the plane in Panama and deplaned in Costa Rica, believe you me, the cultural differences are so vast and visible, they almost slap you in the face.

Ticos – as a rule – are not loud. They speak in lower tones, at a slower pace and with much clearer enunciation than the locals in Panama do. Most expats and visitors to Costa Rica tell me they can understand Spanish more easily in Costa Rica than in Panama. That makes sense: Panamanian Spanish uses a lot more slang, smashes words together, cuts the last vowels of many common words with their accent, and another example of what I said above – they speak fast.

Ticos are also very respectful. They speak at a lower volume, they listen to what you say, and they seem to be much more detail oriented. Perhaps it’s the fact that tourism drives much of Costa Rica’s culture. Perhaps it’s the fact that their public education system is much stronger than Panama’s. I don’t know. But what I do know is that it’s a marked difference for visitors and expats between the two Central American countries.

Panama Grino Guide best-selling author and expat JuliAnne Murphy cultural differences Costa Rica musicAs for finding a loud, boisterous party in Costa Rica? Not that common. I live along the Pacific coast, where one would think that you’d find parties galore every day of the week. I mean, we’re right on the beach, Mae! And, aren’t Ticos known for their love of Pura Vida?

Well, yes, we are on the beach. And yes, Ticos do live in a way that’s very relaxed and laid back. But it’s not a huge party scene, to be honest.

Now, to be clear, I am not including Jaco, Costa Rica – which is the most active beach town in the country on the Pacific coast. I refer to Jaco as “Costa Rica’s Sin City”. While the tourism board may not appreciate that too much, I say that because Jaco reminds me of a dirty town in Mexico 25 years ago: cheap, dusty, and an abundance of drugs and hookers. That scene resonates with a lot of tourists and some expats in Costa Rica. It simply doesn’t for me, nor does it for a lot of Ticos.

So, back to the rest of the country. So other than Jaco (and maybe Tamarindo during the high season), the Costa Rican culture is not big on loud, boisterous, rock-all-night, party-’til-you-drop festivities.  And, at this point in my life, I like that.

Now, when I want a urban, party weekend, I’ll book a flight to Panama. But, for my lifestyle at this point in my life, in my late 40’s, I’ll take the road less traveledhere in Costa Rica.

Panama Grino Guide best-selling author and expat JuliAnne Murphy cultural differences Costa Rica Ocean Landscape

View over the Pacific Ocean in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica.

Part Two Coming Soon!

So that’s it for today, folks — your snapshot of the cultural differences between the people of Panama and Costa Rica. I hope that this has given you another angle to consider as you’re planning your next vacation to Panama, traveling to one of these countries for work or considering a move to Panama.

In my next post, I’ll be sharing my perspective on Cost of Living Differences between Costa Rica and Panama, as it relates to your monthly food budget.

Please Like my Official Author page on Facebook, if you’d like to follow my writing about both Costa Rica and Panama, or topics on living as an expat. You can also sign up for my email list on my website to be notified of announcements about my next book about Panama, which I’m finishing as we speak.

Until next time, Pura Vida, Mae!

A Live Conversation about Panama

It’s that time again: time to have a live conversation about Panama! Can you believe been TWO YEARS since I did an interview about the Panama Gringo Guide? Yikes!

And in that past interview (which you can see here), I was still using my prior pseudonym (Elizabeth Vance) for privacy reasons, so you didn’t even get to see me!

A Live Conversation about Panama with Author JuliAnne Murphy

So, yes, I’m a bit overdue in getting this updated interview out on the wire. The past two years have meant lots of changes both for the country of Panama, and for me, personally and as the author of The Gringo Guide to Panama book (and blog) series.

On the country end of things, before this year, no one had ever heard of now well-known phrases like ‘Panama Papers’ and the ‘Panama Waked money laundering scandal’.

For me personally (and a much happier note), both my books, The Gringo Guide to Panama: What to Know Before You Go, and The Gringo Guide to Panama: More to Know Before You Go, were updated earlier this year – in April 2016 – so rest assured that you are getting accurate, timely information about Panama when you purchase them. 🙂

As a new expat to Panama, or as someone considering a move to Panama, would it be helpful to you to hear from someone like me, who lived in Panama for eight years?

What will you learn in this live conversation with me about Panama?

Here’s five golden nuggets: Goldnuggets JuliAnne Murphy Best-selling author of Gringo Guide to Panama series

  1. What makes The Gringo Guide to Panama books unique?
  2. Why do I write about Panama?
  3. What is the best part of being an expat?
  4. What is the most challenging thing about expat life?
  5. How did living in Panama change my life?

And, there’s much more

Finally, thank you for bearing with the internet speed in Costa Rica – which caused our interview to skip and jump a bit here and there. That’s something we don’t have to worry about much up North these days (though I do talk about it in a recent post.)

Thank You from expat and best-selling author of Gringo Guide to Panama books, JuliAnne Murphy

Lastly, I continue to appreciate your interest in my writing about Panama, and my books about Panama (Click here for Book 1).


This Panama journey for me – just under eight years until I departed in early 2016 – has been an incredible one, and one that changed my life forever. I’m honored to share snapshots of it with you in conversations like these.

Finally, Pura Vida, mae! (I have relocated to Costa Rica, which you’ll hear about in the interview…) And you can also learn what Pura Vida means, as well.

Learn more about JuliAnne Murphy as an author on her Official Author website.

Panama Papers & What It Means for Expats

The Panama Papers scandal…

Ugh. Is anyone else tired of hearing about the bad guys? Frankly, this story is old news. There have always been people trying to hide their money from the government – in any country – and they took whatever means they could to do so. Some countries – like Panama – had set-ups – at least for a period of time – that allowed them to do that.

It’s important to note that the type of ‘numbered corporation’ type of set-up that allowed this type of thing in Panama hasn’t been legal now in Panama for some time. Something like four or five years.

So, while, yes, those with lots of wealth took advantage of it for a number of years in many countries, including Panama, Panama’s government decided to put a stop to that way before the Panama Papers story came out.

Entonces (which means, “Then…”), to me, this stuff is old news.

Panama Papers and What It Means for Expats

But, let’s step away from the media hype at the moment. Does all this seemingly new scrutiny on banking – in Panama and other places – really impact you as an expat living in Panama or retiring to Panama?

Good question.

Bad PR about Panama

In my opinion, there hasn’t been much immediate impact to expats. Some locals I’ve talked to – both expats and Panamanians – feel that their country has been slimed because of a few rotten apples. Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela even wrote a column about the Panama Papers in the New York Times last Monday. You can see that here: Panama’s President writes about the Panama Papers in the NY Times.

Don't Blame Panama. Tax Evasion is a Global Problem

So, beyond a grand slam of Trump-sized bad press in the past few weeks, what else has happened that really impacts expats in Panama immediately related to this?

Impacts to expats living in Panama from the Panama Papers scandal

Has real estate demand, which has been higher in the past four months according to my broker friends in Panama City, been negatively impacted? Nope.

Are expats having to jump through extra hoops to get bank accounts opened any differently than they were a month ago? Nope.

Let me clarify that opening a bank account in Panama as an expat – especially if you are from the U.S. – has been laborious now for some time. I’ve written a few other posts about my own experiences with banking in Panama, which you can refer to here:

The Frustration of Banking in Panama

How Banking Works in Panama

More on Banking in Panama

So, related to banking, the reality is that Panama has not been a free-wheeling, easy-to-get-an-account, skip tracing paradise for a few years. Especially not for U.S. citizens.

Anyone heard of FACTA? It’s been in place now for several years. And, for those U.S. citizens that live in Panama,  it’s been a requirement for three years now that you claim, list and report every single bank account you have abroad to the Department of Treasury AND the IRS. That responsibility falls on the shoulders of the individual, yes, but banks in Panama in the last five years – as those laws took shape and the implementation became real – began to require annual W-9’s on all U.S. account holders. And if you didn’t do it, my banks told me they would freeze or close your account. Does that sound like a fiscal paradise to you?

I personally have filled out at least ten W-9’s in the past five years. (Again, it’s a yearly requirement – or maybe they keep losing last year’s form, who knows…this is Panama.)

There have been rumors – and these are only rumors, people – that some Panamanian banks are losing their relationships with their correspondent banks in the U.S. However, larger, reputable banks in Panama that are on the up and up have not reported any issues related to this type of thing that I’m aware of.

How might this impact me if I lived in Panama and had a bank that lost its U.S. correspondent bank? Well, for one, it would make doing any international transfers difficult – at least for a period of time, until a new correspondent bank was found.

Moving beyond the Panama Papers scandal

Otherwise, for expats living in Panama, the Panama Papers is something that’s old news. Day-to-day life is ongoing. The challenges of adjusting to life in Panama as an expat are ongoing. (For more on that, get my first book, The Gringo Guide to Panama: What to Know Before You Go, as that is its main subject matter.)

So, let’s let the high-paid attorneys and the governments and the media carry on with whatever else they need to about the Panama Papers. The rest of us – with real jobs and school commitments and mouths to feed and books to write – have moved on.

Sunrise over the Pacific in Panama, April 15, 2016

Sunrise over the Pacific in Panama, April 15, 2016

Panama street scene, April 15, 2016

Panama street scene, April 15, 2016