It’s my passion to share my own stories about Panama with you, my readers. But I enjoy it just as much when I have the chance to hear from other Panama expats about their experience in Panama, and to have the pleasure of sharing their stories here, too.
Meet Bella Williams from Boquete.
Doesn’t that have a lovely ring? “Bella from Boquete”
Bella and her late husband Joel originally hail from Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Side note: Am I the only one that has a hard time spelling Albuquerque? I had to Google it TWICE to be sure it was correct!)
Joel became interested in Panama after seeing several issues of International Living magazine, when the country kept popping up as one of the top places in the world to retire. That was more than ten years ago in 2003.
In 2005, the two traversed the Panama Canal in a cruise ship, and were amazed by what they saw. “That first cruise just whetted our appetite to find out more about the country,” Bella said. “In 2006, we took another cruise and this time, we did a day trip into the city of Panama.”
Read on for the full story of Joel and Bella Williams and how they decided to retire in Panama, ultimately ending up in the Interior of the country in Boquete.
Boquete: “One of the most beautiful places I’ve ever lived.”
Elizabeth: How long did you research Panama before you moved, Bella?
Bella: It was a four to five year process. After those first two cruises, we came again in September 2011, and stayed for a week to check out the country. We had a romantic notion that we could stay in the city and walk around.
That was definitely not the case! We found the city of Panama to be too hot and too busy. It was then that we realized that a smaller town might be more to our liking.
Elizabeth: Did you visit other small towns in Panama?
Bella: No, actually, we moved to Boquete sight unseen. Joel and I were always known by our family and friends as adventurers.
Elizabeth: I guess so, Bella! That’s not something I would recommend to someone, anyway: moving anywhere site unseen, much less Panama.
Bella: Nor would I normally recommend it, but we did it. That’s just how we often did things. It worked for us.
Elizabeth: How long was it between when you made that last visit in September 2011 to when you moved to Panama?
Bella: My husband retired at the end of 2011 at the age of 55, and we moved to Boquete in March 2012. What was the process like, moving to Panama?
Elizabeth: What was the moving process like?
Bella: The move itself was actually a breeze. We had an estate sale and sold almost everything we had in Albuquerque. (I am always amazed at the stuff people will buy at estate sales!) We each came with three suitcases apiece.
Elizabeth: Ah, okay. You guys traveled light. That does make a big difference.
Bella: We flew into Panama City, and rented a car. Our first adventure was on the drive from the city to Boquete (which is a good 6-7 hours) when we got stopped by a police car, who asked us for a bribe in order to be sent on our way! That was our first experience after moving here!
Elizabeth: So what did you do? Did you pay him?
Bella: Well, needless to say, we had $100 less in our pockets by the time we got to Boquete.
Elizabeth: Happily, that practice of the police asking for bribes in lieu of traffic tickets happens a lot less now in 2014 than it did when we first arrived (in 2008). I believe that’s improvement. ☺
Bella, had you and Joel already found a place to live, before you picked up and made the move to Boquete?
Bella: Yes, we rented a place from another expat – a home that was completely furnished, which was great. I found the place on YouTube, and the process of paperwork was really just a formality by the time we arrived.
Ahead of time, we had booked a stay at a hotel, and we did that for about a month. We stayed at The Haven Spa in Boquete, which was top notch, five star, and not very expensive. We were there for two weeks, and then for two weeks at the Del Rio until the house became available.
The experience of living in Boquete.
Elizabeth: Bella, how did you and Joel like living in Boquete?
Bella: It’s probably one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever lived, Elizabeth. And, that was in terms of both the natural environment – the cooler temperatures, the cloud forest, all the trees – and the people. Both the expat group and the locals were so lovely to us. Within the expat group, Joel and I found a sense of solidarity…a sense of community… that we had never experienced anywhere else. If you ever had a need or a concern as a new expat in Boquete, we always found people were available to help.
Elizabeth: Did you find a lot of other expat friends like yourselves in your mid 50’s?
Bella: No, most of the expats in Boquete we met were older than us.
Elizabeth: Bella, tell me about the cost of living you found in Panama, and specifically, Boquete. How did that stack up for you?
Bella: One thing we discovered about living in Boquete was that if you want to be very humble in your dwellings, or if you want a McMansion, you can find both options. We had lived in California for 14 years prior to moving to Albuerqueque. The home we rented in Boquete was around 1,800 square feet. In California, that same house would have cost millions.
We found Boquete to be very, very inexpensive compared to California. In terms of food and services, we found everything in Boquete to be about 20-30% cheaper. For example, in Panama, you can buy a bag of fruit at a roadside stand for $2-3; in California, that same fruit would cost you $10-15. That’s a big difference.
Elizabeth: You said that you and Joel had done quite a bit of research before you moved to Panama, so you were pretty prepared. What things surprised you about Panama, even so?
Bella: Probably, the biggest thing that surprised me was my inability to learn Spanish. I just tried to pick it up along the way versus studying formally, but that wasn’t very successful.
I found not speaking the language was a big detriment for me, especially when Joel became ill and needed medical care. I was very surprised at the lack of English speakers in David and in Boquete, specific to the healthcare professionals. At the grocery and so forth, that was all fine.
The experience of getting medical care in Panama
Elizabeth: I know what you mean about the language barrier in the medical services industry in Panama. My husband had surgery last year, and no one in the hospital spoke English except the doctor.
People forget that in a clinic or a hospital setting that the doctor is only with the patient once in a while, so it can be very frustrating and challenging without Spanish skills. (Note: You can read more about my husband’s surgery story in my second book, The Gringo Guide to Panama: More to Know Before You Go.)
Was the medical care you took advantage of located back in the city of Panama, or in Boquete?
Bella: The closest hospital was in David. The care there was adequate, however the language barrier was the biggest challenge.
Elizabeth: Bella, you had a unique experience, given that Joel passed away recently, which was what took you back to the U.S. to live. (And, my condolences to you again on the loss of your husband.) What would you say about Panama for those who are nearer the end of life, or caring for one partner that is ill?
Bella: My husband’s physician in the city (of Panama) was excellent. If you can hire an advocate or an intermediary that speaks fluent Spanish that could interpret and be there to make sure both sides are clear and communicating during the process of receiving healthcare services, I would highly advise it.
Elizabeth: Bella, was there anything else that was a surprise for you about Panama, good or bad?
Bella: The amount of rain that falls in Boquete was a pleasant surprise. We loved it. We loved to get out and walk in it.
Elizabeth: Bella, what were your favorite things about Panama, overall?
Bella: Most of all, the climate, and the people. And for creative people, Boquete is a really great place because there seems to be a unique energy in the air. We met a lot of artistic people in Boquete. Joel and I spent most of our mornings at our computers, writing, and listening to the birds and the rain, etc. Our life in Boquete was a magical time for us. Honestly, I enjoyed almost everything about our time in Panama.
Elizabeth: What is the best advice you would give future expats that are considering Panama?
Bella: I would tell people to come with an open mind. You certainly don’t find the same level of sophistication in Panama that you will in other places. But, it’s the small things that make your life so lovely when you live in another country.
We lived in Boquete for a total of about a year and a half: one continuous year, then we left for six months, and returned for three months more. Those last three months in Panama for us were almost like heaven on earth. Everything was almost perfect.
Elizabeth: Bella, do you miss Panama?
Bella: Yes, I do. My dream is to return to living in Boquete Panama, possible after my young grandson reaches adulthood in a few years. For now, after losing Joel, it’s important for me to be close to my family in the U.S.
Elizabeth: Of course, that makes perfect sense. Thank you so much, Bella, for your willingness to share your story. I’m so happy you got in touch with me many months ago, and were interested in being interviewed. Sharing your story and your experience will help others who are interested in Panama find out if it’s right for them.
In addition to her Panama experiences, you can read Bella Williams’s new book on Amazon, which came out last year. Published under her pen name, Dianne Dewilliams, the book is titled Minding Marilyn, and is a factoid biography about Marilyn Monroe.