As in most countries, it is important to make some attempt to speak the language. Any attempts to speak Spanish will tell the locals that you respect them. It's also fun if you make it so. If you mangle your Spanglish too badly, they will often switch to English. English is the second national language of the country because of the long official presence of the U.S. there.
As a rule, Panamanians like Americans, not only because of their contribution to the country's economy through the Canal, but also because we were requested to come in and depose Manuel Noriega's military dictatorship. Noriega is still sitting in a Florida jail today, even though his sentence has expired, because no one knows what to do with him. While this may not seem just, no one in Panama doubts that the country is better off now. He has a house in Boquete; maybe I'll be his neighbor!
Panamá is nearly on the Equator; latitude is 9 degrees North. As a result, the days and nights are of equal length - 12 hours - yearlong. There are no "seasons" as defined by changes in temperature. The year is divided into a rainy season and a dry season. In Boquete the rainy season is April through December, and the dry season is January through March. However, the rainy season has showers mainly in the afternoon and there are many hours without rain. Similarly, it can rain during the dry season. During my visit there were three straight days of rain.
Boquete is known for its Bajareque Mist, a very light rain (or heavy mist, depending on how you look at it). This is because Boquete is down in a valley created by a volcanic caldera. The word "boquete" literally means "hole". This mist has the effect of keeping vegetation green year-round and also of creating many rainbows:
Rainbow over Boquete
(Not my image)
It took me a while to figure these things out. The legal speed limit on highways when no speed limit is posted is 100 km/hr (62.5 mph). It is absolutely important to honor any posted speed limit. Even the Panamanians do this. Speed limits in highly built-up areas are usually 40 km/hr (25 mph), and in semi-built up areas are 60 km/hr (37.5 mph). Sometimes the lower speed limit is just for a dangerous intersection. However, the signs may or may not be posted. Even when they are, they may be vague: "Reducar su velocidad" (Slow down). You must use your best judgement always.
When the signs are posted, sometimes (but not always) there will be a sign, "Rezumar la velocidad" (Resume your speed) at the end of a built-up area. When these signs are not present, you must use your judgement to know when it is OK to speed up again. This is usually obvious, but when in doubt just keep with the flow of traffic and err on the side of caution.
On my first day of driving, from the City to El Valle, I didn't know about the judgement factor and just kept going at the last posted speed limit as we would do in the States. People were passing me like bats out of hell, and it seemed to take forever to get to my destination. Now I know why.
It is very important to follow what seem like conservative speed limits because of the ubiquity and unpredicable behavior of pedestrians. They are walking by (or sometimes in) the road. When they are not walking they are usually waiting for a bus. Buses of various kinds are everywhere, and many stop anywhere along their route to pick up and drop off passengers. One must always be on the lookout for buses that stop unexpectedly because stopping lanes are not always present.
There are also unusual varieties of personal tranportation that can be traffic hazards. I once saw a man on a tricycle-ice cream cart pedal across the Carretera Interamericana (the Panamanian equivalent of I-95) and proceed to pedal the wrong way down the divided highway right in front of me .
In general Panamanians are excellent and polite drivers. When a vehicle starts to pass you, either in town or on the highway, the driver will beep the horn. Drivers will also beep when they see someone they know. These are all very short beeps, and the horns themselves have a "beepy" flat tone, not the foghorns we are used to. As a result, if you are listening you will hear a constant chatter of beeps in traffic. Don't count on seeing turn signals, so give other vehicles a wide berth.
The country is safe, but safety is a relative term. There is no such thing as absolute safety anywhere. In all my comings and goings I never felt endangered. Of course a little precaution can be prudent. I always carried pepper spray in my pocket and kept the long-distance pepper gel that can "slime" an opponent at a distance of 18 feet next to the machete on my bedside table. (Ahh, the warm comforts of home.)
Petty crimes can be a problem. Many ex-pats report having personal property stolen and seem agast that things they leave in cars and unsecured yards are taken. I was shocked at their naiveté. Anyone living in Baltimore knows not to leave anything where it can easily be taken. It's just a matter of common sense.
Nevertheless, there does seem to be an increase in breaking and entering. Several individuals offer workshops on personal safety in Boquete, including instruction on firearms. In my opinion the ex-pats are very slow to catch on and seem to think they can import their property and mindset from their home town, and everything will be as it was where they came from. Not.
Panamanian Economy and Legal System*
The currency is the Balboa, which is indexed to the U.S. dollar. Panamá mints its own coins, which are identical in size, shape and value to and interchangable with U.S. coins. They use U.S. paper currency even though it still called Balboas. So traveling is greatly simplified for Americans because there is no need for currency exchange.
On December 31, 1999, the ownership of the Canal passed from the U.S. to Panamá. Income from the Canal has created a situation where there is no personal or corporate income tax. However, as an outsider you cannot necessarily own a business there. It depends on your legal status. Anyone can own property. As an incentive to invest in the country, there are no real estate taxes for the first thirty years. Buying real estate is very different from in the U.S. - always work with a Panamanian attorney.
There are different legal categories for foreigners, some involving a minimum commitment to invest in the country, some leading to permanent resident status and some not.
Panamanian banks are among the most confidential in the world and surpass even the famous Swiss banks for not releasing clients' financial information. As a result some people come to Panama to avoid paying taxes in their home countries and to shield their assets from government scrutiny.
Most Ex-Pats living in Panamá are under a pensionado arrangement for retirees. The minimum age to qualify as a retiree is 19 years. All you have to do is prove that you have at least $1000 a month guaranteed income for life from some government or private pension fund like Social Security, and for a small legal fee you can gain pensionado status. Once you are a pensionado/a, you enjoy substantial discounts on travel, hotels, restaurants, medical care, etc.
Speaking of medical care, the quality of services at the larger medical centers is first-rate. This is because many of the physicians are U.S.-trained, but they do not operate under the "revolving door" system that has hurt heathcare in this country. Johns Hopkins Hospital has an affiliated center in Panamá City, Punta Pacifica. As you can see in this image, it is new and modern:
Johns Hopkins affiliate hospital in Panamá City - prettier than ours!
The Chiriquí Hospital in David is the closest comprehensive medical center to Boquete. As mentioned in a previous posting, anyone can participate in their self-insured plan for approximately $600 a year. This entitles to you physicians, in-patient and ambulatory care, and lab work. The Chiriquí Hospital is modern and well-equipped:
Chiriquí Hospital, David Panamá (30 minutes from Boquete)
Cost of Living
In general, the cost of living is 30-50% compared with the U.S. Of course, if you wish you can buy a multi-million-dollar high-rise apartment in Panamá City or ocean-front condo. But there are also many bargains to be had. Panamá is rapidly becoming the new Costa Rica, and real estate prices are rising in desirable areas including Boquete.
When I ate out, I made it a point to go to places frequented by Panamanians and to eat Panamanian food. Boquete has several charming restaurants where you eat whatever they happen to cook that day. There may be a choice of two or three entrées. Panamanian food is very mildly seasoned. Typically the fare is fresh and seasonal. Lunch would consist of wonderfully seasoned chicken or beef, rice, beans or lentils, plantains or fried bananas, and a lettuce and tomato salad. Usual cost would be approximately $3.00 - cheaper then eating at McDonald's.
*Disclaimer: The author is not an attorney nor an expert on legal affairs in Panamá. This information has been pieced together from several reputedly reliable sources but should not be construed as legal advice or counsel. Seek your own legal opinion before making any financial decisions regarding Panamá.