When you are considering moving overseas, the best way to learn about a prospective country is to talk to other expats. Even after living in Panama for more than five years, I love to hear other’s stories of how they got here, and what their experience has been. Every single person I talk to has an interesting story. I’m pleased today to share a recent interview I did with Susanna Perkins, who just celebrated her first year of living in Panama on March 13, 2013.
Susanna and her husband moved from Orlando, Florida to Las Tablas, a small town in Panama’s Interior in March of 2012. While her husband is retired, Susanna works full-time in her own online consulting businesses. One is Future Expats Forum, which she began to chronicle their process of moving abroad in 2009. The other is WordPress Building Blocks, which helps non-technical people get educated about building their own websites.
Elizabeth Vance: Susanna, why did you choose Panama as your new country?
Susanna Perkins: Elizabeth, first of all, thanks for the opportunity to speak with you. I always say when people ask me that question ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’ The short answer is that we were whacked by the economic meltdown in the U.S. in 2009. We were interested in a more affordable lifestyle – where we could actually live comfortably on our income. We wanted to stay close to the U.S., so we could travel easily to see our grown children. After a lot of evaluation, we cut down our list to three countries: Mexico, Ecuador and Panama.
Mexico fell off the list, due to a comment made by one of our daughters, who said she would not feel safe visiting us there. My husband worked with a colleague who did some business in Panama, so his comfort level with Panama became higher over time, as he heard more and more about it.
Elizabeth Vance: Over what period of time did your research take place? Months? Years?
Susanna Perkins: We had been thinking about retiring abroad for several years – I would say probably six years from start to finish. We got serious about planning for the actual move from 2009 to 2012.
Elizabeth Vance: What resources did you find useful that you might recommend to others considering a similar move?
Susanna Perkins: I had done a lot of looking around online, and of course, I found International Living. Once we narrowed our list down to Panama, I discovered some online forums, which were helpful. Kathleen Peddicord started Live & Invest Overseas, which I subscribed to. I also attended a conference here in Panama for three days, which was key for us. After the conference ended, my husband joined me and we toured the country together for a week, looking around. What was most helpful was networking with other expats.
Elizabeth Vance: Was the week you came to look around sufficient, in your mind, before making the decision to move? Would you recommend anything different to other future expats, as they consider the country?
Susanna Perkins: If someone can afford to spend longer than a week, then I recommend it. Our budget allowed us a week, so we had to make it work.
Elizabeth Vance: Susanna, you moved here with your husband, and your three dogs. Why did you choose Las Tablas versus Panama City or some of the other areas that many expats are drawn to, such as Coronado or Boquete?
Susanna Perkins: When we came for our week in-country, we spent three days in Panama City, three days in David, then Boquete, and then we took a bus to Las Tablas. As soon as we pulled into town, we really liked Las Tablas. It’s a small town, and it felt manageable. It’s attractive and lively. We both felt comfortable here. We’d actually planned to go on to Penonome on the final leg of our journey, but after we got to Las Tablas, we canceled that stop because we liked it here so much.
Elizabeth Vance: I’ve only been through Las Tablas once, enroute to Pedasi. Tell me more about what you found appealing about the area.
Susanna Perkins: While Las Tablas has a population of about 10,000 people, it serves the region around it in terms of retail and shopping. We have two good size groceries, and a new supermarket under construction. There are plenty of small clothing, housewares, electronics, and furniture stores – you can find a lot of what you might need right here in town. If there’s something you need beyond what’s available here, you can probably find it in nearby Chitre. Las Tablas also has quite a few restaurants, from locales to some nicer places. While there’s not a huge variety in terms of types of food, you do have some choices.
Las Tablas is also in a drier part of Panama, meaning it gets less rain, which makes it a bit less humid than some other areas, which we liked.
There are three locally-run hotels, but no chains, and, a nice downtown park with free WiFi.
Elizabeth Vance: Wow! Free WiFi in a park? Not even Panama City has that!
Susanna Perkins: We’ve also found a really good vet in Las Tablas, which is important because as I mentioned, we brought our three dogs with us.
Elizabeth Vance: You mentioned that you were looking for a place where you could live more affordably (than in the U.S.). Have you found that in Las Tablas?
Susanna Perkins: Actually, the cost of living when we moved here turned out to be a bit more than we had expected. We were basing our expectations on what we had seen when we did our week-long visit in 2011. Pricing on housing and food stuffs had increased about 30% during that time, which was significant. But, at the same time, we are now living within our budget, and that’s what we set out to do. I have done a cost of living analysis on my website, and if anyone’s interested, they can take a look at that.
Elizabeth Vance: No doubt there’s lots of people who would be interested to see that. Susanna, do you or your husband speak Spanish?
Susanna Perkins: We don’t speak much. I studied for a couple of semesters at a community college before we moved to Panama. Sometimes, I get frustrated when I can’t communicate clearly because of the language barrier, but I’m better than I was when we arrived a year ago. With what we’ve learned, we can conduct basic day-to-day business in our limited Spanish. And, if we have an emergency, we call on a couple of local bilingual friends.
Elizabeth Vance: One of the top things I tell potential expats is the importance of managing their expectations about what life in Panama will be. In my opinion, it’s a key element to expat success in the country. Susanna, since you’ve moved here, what has been a surprise for the two of you, from what you originally thought Panama might be?
Susanna Perkins: Two things come to mind. I thought it would be easier to find someone to take care of our dogs in our home, if we wanted to travel, like a pet sitter. That’s the type of arrangement we had when we lived in the U.S. But, we have not been able to find that in Panama. While there is a local vet who will board our dogs at his house, pet sitting services per se don’t really exist here yet. Part of that may be because the attitude about pets here is much different than it is in the U.S.
Secondly, I had read about the fact that Panamanians love to party, get rowdy and play their music loudly on the weekends. This doesn’t bother me really, but I’ve definitely had to adjust to the types of music.
One thing that really bothers my husband is the roadside litter that we encounter here. He often goes out and picks up trash on the side of the road – or on the beach – a couple of times a week. I remind him that in the 60’s and 70’s in the U.S., everyone littered.
Elizabeth Vance: You’re right. Remember the government campaigns of “Give a Hoot. Don’t Pollute!” and “Keep America Beautiful.”? Panama has just begun a grass-roots campaign for educating its population about trash. The reality is that it’s probably going to take years for that to take hold. I hear this comment frequently from many expats I speak with.
Susanna Perkins: The nicest thing about Panama is the people. Our fellow citizens in Las Tablas have been so kind to us. They’re warm and friendly, and we’ve been treated really well. This has been a really nice surprise too. And, another reason why Panama has been the right choice for us.
Special thanks to Susanna Perkins for her willingness to share her Panama story with The Gringo Guide to Panama! If you have not read my personal story, consider getting an e-copy or a paperback of my book (paperback coming soon) on Amazon. Because it’s the things you need to know before you go that will ensure your success as an expat in Panama.
(All photos courtesy of Susanna Perkins.)