The Panama Expat Lifestyle: An Interview with Chad Darroch

Panama expat lifestyle Elizabeth Vance
Panama expat lifestyle Elizabeth Vance

This gorgeous little frog was captured by Chad himself.

When you’re considering a move to Panama (or anywhere else you might move overseas), having the chance to hear other expats’ stories and experiences is incredibly helpful. What they have learned might be useful as you look at different areas of Panama, and consider whether Panama is right for you (or not).

Meet Chad W. Darroch from El Valle

Elizabeth Vance panama expat interviews

Chad W Darroch with his dog & the gorgeous El Valle valley below.

Today, it’s a pleasure to publish an interview from Chad W. Darroch, a Canadian chap, who’s originally from the Toronto, Ontario area of North America.

Chad and I had the pleasure of meeting on Google+ with the obvious connection being that we both live in Panama as expats. Chad says he’s “more of a writer than a talker” and preferred to answer my interview questions in writing rather than to speak in person, so some of the responses you’ll read by Chad here may be summarized for brevity. (And, I do allow my Panama expat interviewees to review the final written interview copy before it’s posted here to ensure that they are okay with it.)

What’s Expat Life in Panama really like?

El Valle Panama Elizabeth Vance

A beautiful waterway in El Valle, Panama

Having lived in Panama “more on than off” since 2003, I think it’s safe to say that Chad has a pretty good feel for Panama. His more than 10 years bests my own almost-seven on the Isthmus, anyway. And, because our questions and answers turned into more than 1500 words from stem to stern, I’ll be publishing this over the next few days as a number of separate blog posts, so that they don’t get too long. (We all know that shorter blog posts are an easier read…)

And, here’s the expat interview….

Elizabeth Vance: Chad, it’s so nice to connect one-on-one after all the +s and shares on Google+ for almost two years. Thanks again for agreeing to share your Panama life story with the Panama Gringo Guide readership.

Chad W. Darroch: Thanks for the opportunity, Elizabeth!

Elizabeth: Chad, you said that you’re from a little town outside Toronto. Were you a farm kid growing up in Canada?

Chad: My family didn’t farm, but our little town (Fergus & Elora) sure did – it was very rural; for half of my childhood most of my neighbors were cornfields. In recent decades, though, it’s become something of a commoditized tourist hotspot and popular fly-fishing destination for its ‘quaint little village’ feel and the nearby Elora Gorge park.

Elizabeth: I’ve never personally been to Toronto, Chad, but for our North American gringo readers, how might you distinguish Canada from the U.S., in your opinion?

Chad: These days I see a lot more similarities than differences, since the two nations are in similar boats with similar struggles and share identical modern culture (certain social issues aside). The strong and nuanced culture I remember is long gone; supplanted by a Wal-Mart and a pair of same-old strip malls. But maybe that’s just nostalgia talking.

Elizabeth: Where do you live in Panama?

Chad: Right now and for the foreseeable future, I live in El Valle de Antón. Previously, my wife – who is Panamanian – and I have lived in Penonomé (Coclé, in the interior) and Bocas del Toro (on the Caribbean side of Panama).

Elizabeth: Is Panama your first expat experience, or have you lived in other countries beside Canada in the past?

Chad: Panama is the only place I’ve ever lived outside of Canada.

Elizabeth: What was it that brought you to Panama originally?

Chad: Well… romantically speaking, I abhor consumerism. In practice, I’m simply not into chasing the Ever More Stuff lifestyle, or the monotonous corporate grind that seems to come with it.

Elizabeth: Does that mean you came to Panama in search of a simpler lifestyle?

Chad: Indirectly, yes. I value experience over the material, and I feel like I can live a life that more closely reflects my vision here. I never truly connected with my birth-culture because its values do not align with mine, and I felt limited in life by its incessant machinations.

Coming to Panama in the first place was a totally random convergence: in my final year of college, I saw an ad on a bulletin board (“Panama-Dolphins-Something-Something”) and I went for it. So my first visit was just a students’ tour: one week traveling the mainland and another in the islands of Bocas del Toro.

Elizabeth: Did something happen to you on this trip that made you decide to move to Panama?

Chad: Yep: the first of three thoughts. As the days wound down, I found myself standing on the upper balcony of a hotel in Bocas, watching the sun rise over the Caribbean Sea. I’ll always remember the moment I thought “how long will it be until I see something like this again; until I feel so alive and free? How many years? …ever?”

Elizabeth: Panama made quite an impression on you, then, it sounds like! Especially Bocas.

Tropical lifestyle in Panama Elizabeth Vance

Tropical fish abound in the Caribbean waters of Bocas del Toro, Panama

Chad: It sure did. The color, the variety, the intensity of it all… I was totally starstruck. And that made returning to Canada (in the middle of February, no less) even more drab and depressing than normal. A few months later, post-graduation, I’d discovered that the ‘grind’ was exactly like I imagined it (a far cry from how I pictured life in Panama – and nothing like it turned out to be).

Elizabeth: Can you share more on that – these things you feel like your Panama lifestyle has brought you?

Chad: Full disclosure: at first it was all about the beach and carefree island living. Woohoo! Simple and shallow. But I discovered something way cooler; way more important than that, although to be honest it took me a few years (and a couple of extended trips back to Canada) to figure it out.

Living in Panama provides a feeling of personal freedom I hadn’t even identified as ‘missing’. I feel more empowered; healthier; much happier. We’re able to independently enjoy a clean, pristine environment and live a natural, active life with comparatively little effort. These are choices I didn’t even have access to before – not without a lifetime’s worth of money (or debt).

 And, when I say ‘clean’, I really meant literal cleanliness – Ontario is very polluted. I spent my childhood swimming in the river, jumping off the waterfall. Can’t do that now; toxic runoff. Can only eat certain amounts of the fish… When I was a kid you could see Toronto, over 100km away, from the top of a high hill. Now they have “Smog alert days” where the kids don’t go to school… etc. I can really feel the “clean” when I return from a visit there.

Elizabeth: And, it was this desire for a more natural, clean lifestyle – a freer life less dependent on ‘stuff’ – that originally inspired your move to Panama?

Chad: You got it! Of course in the beginning I really only had eyes for tropical weather and the clear blue sea – plenty for a 20-something; I’d worry about the rest later. And though it was pretty freaky to just pack up and take off, it ended up being the best decision I’ve ever made…

~ ~ ~

Because this interview turned out to be longer than planned, I’m breaking it into two blog posts. Look for that second one in the next few days, and I’ll also link it here, once it’s live.

And, special thanks to Chad for sharing his personal photos of Panama for this piece!

You have probably noticed from the writing above that Chad – in his answers – is both a unique and gifted writer. You can connect with him on Google+ here, or see his profile on O Desk, if you’re interested in contacting him about working for you.

~ ~ ~

Meanwhile, you might wish to check out the other Panama expat interviews and Panama expat lifestyle pieces we’ve featured in the past year or so:

Finally, if you did not have time yet to catch the Live Hangout last week about the Panama Expat Lifestyle, click here to hear it on YouTube. I took listener’s questions and responded to them, as part of the program.

A Live Q & A on Panama coming this weekend

What’s the expat lifestyle in Panama really like?

You asked for it, and I’m delivering. A live Q&A on the expat lifestyle in Panama, that is.

So, please, mark your calendars for later this week!

Friday, August 8, 2014

11:30 A.M. Eastern Time

This will be a Hangout on Google+, and it will be LIVE.

A Live Call to talk about Panama?

Yes, that’s right.

I’m actually doing this Hangout in conjunction with an Amazon promotion I’ll be having this weekend, during which my first book – The Gringo Guide to Panama: What to Know Before You Go – will be free.

So, not only would I like you to take advantage of that, but I’m also opening up my time for an hour on the first day of the promo to take your questions.

Get Your Questions about the Expat Lifestyle in Panama answered…

It’s a pleasure to be able to interact with you – my readers and my future readers – like this. Normally, I do most everything via email, Twitter, Google+ and your comments on both this blog, and on my Official Author blog at

But, with the promotion, and the 56 comments (and counting) on a recent post I did on the Expat Lifestyle in Panama more than a year ago now – I decided this was a great opportunity to do a live event with you. (You might also want to refer to a post I did on the necessity of patience when you live in Panama here.)

Join in on the live conversation about living overseas in Panama

I’ll look forward to speaking with you, and to answering your questions. My good friend and colleague Shira Gal of will be moderating.

Here’s the link to this Friday’s Hangout again.

Friday, August 8, 2014

11:30 A.M. Eastern Time

See you there!

Surf’s Up! What’s up with Surfing in Panama.

Panama surfing
Panama surfing

Panama offers good surfing for beginners & advanced surfers.

Panama is becoming popular with tourists and visitors for its rustic beaches and big waves. While we’re not Costa Rica (with its more sophisticated luxury resorts and established beach communities), there’s actually a lot of options when it comes to beach & water sports in Panama. Today’s post focuses on surfing in Panama.

Surfing in Panama

Surfing is obviously the most popular water sport in Panama.  And if surfing is your thing, then the Pacific Ocean coast is your obvious choice. For those new to surfing, check out El Palmar or Coronado on the Pacific Ocean to get in some beginner lessons at low tide. There’s a great little school in El Palmar called Panama Surf School. The owner, Flor Villarreal is from Argentina originally but has been in Panama for many years, and has a solid business for those wanting to learn the surfing thing. I personally took lessons from Flor – both my husband and I did – six years ago, when she was first getting going. Now, she has a bunch of teachers who work with her and they’ve grown from a tiny enterprise to a more professional one. Beginner surfers should always take lessons at Low Tide, to ensure that they are learning in the lowest waves possible. If you’re taking from Panama Surf School, you’ll probably start out at El Palmar beach, which is also popular with locals.

Kite Surfing in Panama

Kite Surfing Panama

NitroCity in Punta Chame Panama is the best place for kite surfing.

I’ve never personally kite surfed but I did surf behind a boat on the lakes where I grew up, and it was no easy thing. The only place I know of to learn or practice your kite surfing in Panama is Punta Chame, on the Pacific Coast. Because of geography of the bay there, the wind and the beach there make a perfect combination for this specific sport. NitroCity is the hottest place to learn to kite surf in Panama. I haven’t taken lessons there personally – in fact, I’ve only been to Punta Chame before NitroCity existed, but it must be good, because I keep hearing about it. Even Justin Bieber went there on his recent trip to Panama!

Best Beaches for Advanced Surfing in Panama


Panama surfing Playa Venao

Playa Venao in Panama is great for surfing.

Playa Venao – about four hours from the city of Panama if you drive, and less than an hour flight – is one of the best beaches for advanced surfers. It’s also very popular with locals, who have been going there all their lives. El Palmar Point – there are actually two points in El Palmar at high tide that are fantastic for advanced surfers. This is the same beach as where the beginners learn (at low tide), but high tide brings a completely different set of waves further to the East and West of the beginner beach.

Surfing on Panama’s Caribbean Coast

Panama surfing in Bocas

Bocas del Toro on Panama’s Caribbean coast offers reef surfing.

Reef surfing is very popular on Panama’s Caribbean coast, but it’s also a tad more difficult to get to (than Panama’s Pacific coast beaches). However, the water is gorgeous and more clear, so the experience is very different. Many of our friends have gone reef surfing in and around the Bocas del Toro region of Panama, along the Costa Rica coast. The best website I could find with specifics on the beaches there and what it’s like was done by Island Path Panama. Here’ll you find great descriptions of the various locations in Bocas del Toro for surfing, as well what the water is like.

Surf Equipment & Surf Lessons in Panama

Yes, you can buy good equipment in Panama for surfing, no worries. You can also bring your own with you, if you’re just visiting or vacationing in Panama, but if that’s the case, be sure to check with your airline as to the additional costs and size restrictions.

If you don’t have your own equipment, there’s plenty of surfboards to rent while you’re learning. You do NOT need a wetsuit to surf in Panama.

You are in the Tropics, so the water temperature is warm. You will notice that the water on the Pacific side is cooler than the Caribbean.

For surf lessons, plan to pay anywhere from $30-$60 for a 90-minute to two-hour lesson. The price variation depends on if you’re at a more remote beach or one that has a big hotel on it. (More tourists, the higher the price.)

Otherwise, have fun while you are surfing in Panama! It’s one of the most fun things you can do on the beach here in the Tropics, so whether you’re new to it or advanced, you’ll find there’s somewhere in Panama that will give you just the waves you’re looking for.

I’ll cover other beach & water sports in Panama in a future post.

Join me in a live Google+ Hangout this coming Friday!

Get your questions answered about life in Panama, and hear more on my personal experiences.

Join us this Friday, August 8 at 11:30 A.M. Eastern Time on Google+!

Click here for the Hangout details.