Browsing Posts in Destination reports

Panama beach

Panama can be one of the world’s greatest places to live on a lower budget than you could in a developed country, especially if you’re a retiree. It’s also a place favored by thousands of very wealthy Latin Americans and business tycoons, however. So whether you find the place a bargain largely depends on where you live and how you live.

As I’ve been mentioning lately, I’m working on a book called A Better Life for Half the Price, about moving abroad to a cheaper destination to lower your monthly expenses. Panama doesn’t figure into my World’s Cheapest Destinations travel book except as a brief honorable mention. While it’s cheaper than Costa Rica, it’s nowhere near as good a value as some other countries in Central America. It is a poster child for publications such as International Living though and has been for at least a decade. That’s for a lot of good reasons:

- It’s a very stable country politically.
- It uses the US dollar as its currency and inflation is minimal.
- The banking system is good.
- Health care is excellent and affordable in the cities.
- Taxes are low, including on alcohol and electronics.
- Regulations are minimal for setting up a business.
- It’s easy to get a residency visa.
- The pensionada program for retirees has terrific benefits.

Panama is no backwater dirt-poor country though relying on what they can grow or dig out of the ground to build wealth. There’s a large middle class employed in all kinds of decent-paying jobs, from call centers to quality construction to the Panama Canal to banking. Most multinational companies have a base here and the whole country is like a big duty free zone.

luxury real estate Panama City

I did an interview that will air soon with Taylor White of the Overseas Property Insider Podcast. He’s stacking cash buying and selling real estate in Panama City, so he subscribes to the philosophy of “You’re going to spend what you’re going to spend, no matter where you are.” For some people that’s true and they didn’t move to Panama City to save money. Taylor spends about as much as he did in San Diego. You can spend a few hundred grand on a fancy condo with a view and there are plenty of temptations in terms of high-end restaurants, clubs, casinos, and beach resort excursions. For many, especially wealthy Latinos, the capital of this country is a “work hard, play hard” city akin to Miami. Living here can cost far less than Miami if you’re careful, but you can easily spend as much as you would there if you want.

There are retirees living in Panama City for less and the live abroad magazines and newsletters continually highlight people getting by on two U.S. social security checks—around $2,400 per month. A typical basket of goods and services is lower here, especially domestic help, transportation, domestic food, wine, and entertainment. Real estate is high for the region though as this is considered a “safe haven” investment for Venezuelans, Argentines, and others.

Outside the Big City

There are plenty of other places to live in Panama, however. Many retirees are attracted to the Chiriqui highlands around David and Boquete or the Bocas del Toro islands. Both these areas have far lower prices to rent or buy.

Panama adventure

Former Texan Richard Kongable lived in a few places in Panama before moving to a rural area near Volcan, on the side of a mountain. I tried a few other places in Panama before settling here,” he says. “I like that I never need heat, I never need air conditioning, and there’’s always a gentle breeze. I’m on the edge of a valley, with a volcano on the left and two rivers. I can see islands in the ocean even though it’s an hour and 20 minutes away.”

Richard rented his house for years for $300 a month and thought he was going to have to leave eventually when the American owner put it up for sale. Instead the owner fell into health problems and needed to sell in a hurry, so with no buyers in sight Richard got the 1,600 square foot house for half price: $25,000. He estimates that his family of three spends about $1,700 a month, including car expenses and about $300 a month for his son’s private school.

Retirees Kris and Joel Cunningham pay $385 per month for a house in a nice middle class neighborhood on the edge of David, Panama and they love it. “We have woods and a river behind us, there’s only one way into the neighborhood so it feels really safe. We’re surrounded by local professionals who are just lovely people.”

The Cunninghams were paying $1,200 per month in Sarasota, Florida where they lived before on their mortgage and taxes. If they had been renting, it would have been more. “The house next to us, similar to what we have now, was renting for $1,500 per month,” she adds.

They have been living on her husband’s social security payment and have a little savings from selling their house in Florida. Kris was about to start receiving her own social security payment when I talked to her, which will double their income and enable them to meet the income requirements for the pensionada program: $1,000 for one person plus $250 for each dependent. “It’s already so cheap though, I feel kind of guilty getting all those extra discounts,” she says.

Kris Cunningham says she has been pleasantly surprised by low costs in Panama, particularly groceries. “Food is definitely a great deal, especially fruit and vegetables. If you spend $20 on those in our local market it will be more than you can carry. We paid two or three times more for almost everything at home, including meat and fish. If you buy what the locals buy and cook, living here is very cheap.”

There’s the key advice that applies almost anywhere in the world: eat what’s local and you’ll probably be both healthier and wealthier. The usual advice that goes with that is to avoid imported products. With some of the cheapest wine and liquor prices in the world here though, you don’t have to make any adjustments in what you drink. This is one of the few places in the world where California wine is cheaper than in Napa Valley and Chilean wine is cheaper than in Santiago. (See this post on prices to booze it up in Panama.)

Italy travel Carrara

Sometimes editor types joke about the “three I’s of travel” that grace so many magazine covers: Italy, Ireland, and India. They’re photogenic, look exotic, and have nice luxury hotels with ad money to spend. You’ll rarely find a travel magazine that goes a whole 12 months without one of the three on a cover.

In the current issue of Perceptive Travel, we subbed in Iceland for Ireland. (Don’t worry, you can still find the latter plenty of places on our blog.) Iceland is also photogenic, can look exotic, and has some nice hotels. As usual though, we don’t tick off places you’ve already seen a hundred times before. We like to take the road less traveled. In this case we’re literally on the road with Luke Armstrong as he tries to learn how to drive a stick shift on the fly. In a van. Going across Iceland in the “crazy season.” See Learning to Drive a Dinosaur in Iceland.

We also have a story about Italy, but toss out your expectations because Debi Goodwin is not going to check anything off your bucket list. This place was on hers though: the Italian marble quarries of Carrara.

Old Delhi

We had a story in the past on how the “Incredible India” portrayed in ads and glossy travel stories is like an alternate universe to the Slumdog Millionaire reality that non-luxury travelers see every day. Being sheltered from the grinding poverty is next to impossible if you go for a walk though, as Jim Johnston finds out in Hunger and Privilege: Dinner in Old Delhi.

As always we run down some world music worth listening to, from a globalFEST compilation to classical music with a Turkish twinge, through the ears of Laurence Mitchell.

Susan Griffith reviews three new travel books: one from a legend, one from a shipping industry reporter, and one from…well, you decide.

Need some new travel shoes?

We give away something cool to one of our loyal Perceptive Travel readers each month and last time Jack P. from Florida scored a nice $139 daypack from Granite Gear. In April we’re setting someone from the USA up with a nice $90 pair summer travel shoes: the H2O Escape Bungee Sneaker from Sperry Topsiders.

To win, you could follow PT on Facebook and pay close attention. The better bet is to sign up for the monthly e-mail newsletter.

carnitas-mexico

Want to get a tour of Guanajuato with me and chow down on some good Mexican Street Food? Follow that link and sign up if you’re heading my way.

The problem with having a job that you can do from anywhere is that you end up doing your same job everywhere. A big reason my family ended up in Guanajuato is that most of the tourists are Mexican tourists and we actually use our Spanish regularly. It’s also a beautiful place to walk around, with weather that encourages you to be outside almost every day of the year. When I’ve got my head down cranking out articles and blog posts, however, dealing with freelancers and advertisers, sometimes I look up and go, “It’s Friday already?”

sope GuanajuatoSo if you come to Guanajuato and want to get a tour that mixes some sightseeing, market tours, and lots of chowing down, come get me out of the house. We’ll get some buns from a bakery and see where they make them. We’ll tour a local market and then later a larger covered one. We’ll sample carnitas, gorditas, tamales, and more, washing it down with fresh-squeezed juices.

We’ll ride a funicular up to a lookout point and walk down the alleys where people have only one way to get to their home: on foot. Then we’ll have some street stand ice cream and go our separate ways for a siesta.

chorizo tacos

I’ve taken out three groups so far and I’ll post some testimonials on the site later with their impressions of my tour guide and food fact-quoting abilities. Hopefully by now I know a thing or two about the highlights of my adopted town and the best vendors to buy from. Check the rest of the site out here for details: Guanajuato Street Food Tours.

Hasta pronto!

Travel in Romania

I write fairly often on here about how even seasoned travelers sometimes have very warped perceptions of potential travel destinations. The other day I saw someone spewing out all kinds of vile, derogatory comments on Romania on someone’s travel story, which I’m sure the person writing had never visited. It was one of those “I’ll never set foot in that sh&thole” rants from an ignoramus.

Living in a foreign country that has its share of bashers, I hear this from my own seldom-traveled friends and relatives in the states sometimes. I’m always surprised though when it comes from people who should know better. So let me go on record to say Romania can be a really lovely place.

Brasov Romania

That shot at the very top is from the countryside, which is quite beautiful, with high mountains and a lot of historic towns. The second one is from Brasov, which I wouldn’t mind living in for at least a few months. There’s good skiing nearby too. Yes, you can ski in Romania, and for about 1/3 of what you would spend a country or two over.

Romanian wineYou can also drink good wine here. This was an Iron Curtain country for a few decades, so as in Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia, great wine makers were forced to go into quantity over quality mode for a depressing period. Freed from the shackles of communism, they now have an incentive to return to quality again and have come roaring back. This Rhein Cellars winery I visited in Azuga, Romania makes sparkling wine with the labor intensive Champagne method. Since labor is pretty cheap here though, a really good bottle will set you back $15 or so.

Borders in this part of the world have been very fluid over the past couple centuries, so people are often surprised that Romania contains a lot of gorgeous medieval towns like they would expect to see in Germany. This one below is Sighisoara, which has changed hands multiple times after various wars. It’s a great place to feel like you’ve stepped back in time, especially if you can hang out a couple days and take a stroll after all the tour buses are gone. You can get here on an overnight train from Budapest, so it’s a good place to start your Romanian journey.

Sighisoara Transylvania

The shot below is from Sibiu, which would be a relaxing place to hang out for a few days, doing nothing but strolling the plazas, dining on hearty food at outdoor cafes, and drinking good wine for cheap at night.

Sibiu Transylvania

And this photo below, is it from one of those super-popular European capitals that are mobbed with hundreds of thousands of tourists in the summer? No, it’s much-maligned Bucharest, the capital of Romania. Yes, the famous last dictator ripped down much of the historic center to build his giant ugly “Palace of the People,” but there are still some nice neighborhoods with some interesting walks and good cafes.

bucharest-romania

If you like intricately carved wooden doors that are a few hundred years old, here are some great photos of interesting doors I saw in Romania. Next time I go back, I want to check out some of these cool castles in the countryside.

 

Guanajuato Mexico

One of the views from my house

I moved back to Guanajuato, Mexico for the second time this past August and as a couple readers have pointed out, I haven’t written much about it on this blog. That and a few consulting sessions lately with people thinking about moving to Mexico has pushed me to do some catch-up on that today.

If you’ve got some time, check out the video below to get a sense of why I liked this small city the first time I came here and why it keeps pulling me back. The aesthetics are great and it’s been here since before any English set foot in America. What you can’t really see in that video are two aspects I also love. First, most of the traffic moves through tunnels under the city, so it’s a very pedestrian-friendly place to live. Second, the weather is gorgeous almost all year. We’re at an altitude close to 6,500 feet here, so it can get a little chilly at night a couple months of the year, but the climate is agreeable enough most of the time that houses aren’t built with heat or air conditioning. It’s usually blue skies, sun, and highs around 80.

I can turn down a bit of the stress in my business here because I’m spending less than half what I did in the USA on basic living expenses. The first time we were here we rented two side-by-side apartments for a total of $800 a month, all utilities and internet included. Now we own a house outright, so we’re pouring money into improvements and furniture instead. Here are some hard numbers though for regular monthly expenses:

- Daughter’s private school is a shade less than $300 per month
- We spend about $100 a month on transportation getting her there & back (it’s not walking distance)
- We average about $50 a month on other local taxis and buses.
- Here’s a picture of one month’s water and electric bills, in pesos. The 114 peso water bill is equivalent to $8.77 and the 324 electric bill is equivalent to $25. Gas comes out to about $6.50 per month.

Mexican utility bills
- Drinking water in 5-gallon jugs averages about $15 a month, delivered to our door.
- Internet is $25 per month for 5mbps. I’d pay more for a faster speed, but can’t get it.
- Mobile phone charges (1 with data, 2 regular) $54 for 3 of us
- Our maid comes once a week and cleans the house top to bottom. That’s $62 per month.
- Food varies wildly, but a liberal estimate is $300 a month on groceries, $200 eating out
- Entertainment and fun $200 per month
- Medical/dental come in spurts, but let’s say $200 per month

Property taxes are paid annually, but would be $16 if paid monthly. Our house repairs, renovations, furniture, and other purchases vary depending on how flush we are that month. But if we estimate $600 per month, that puts the total monthly expenses at around $2,160 not counting travel.

I want to emphasize that this is for a family of three that’s not being all that frugal. We eat out far more than we did in the USA, I don’t hesitate to order a beer or two when we’re out, and we take advantage of things like $6 symphony tickets and $4 ballet performances. You could certainly live here for far less if you wanted and many people do. Considering that we were spending $2,000 a month in Tampa just on rent though and another $1,000 on health care, our Mexican living budget feels like a screaming bargain. We can spend another $1,000 on travel, visas, and shopping and still just be up to what we used to spend on those two items alone.

Guanajuato callejon

Within four months of moving back here I’d lost 10 pounds. I didn’t diet, drink less, or go to any gym. Getting around in this city requires lots of walking at high altitude though and like most people, we need to climb a lot of stairs to get to our front door. Above is the entrance to our callejon—the alley that goes up to our neighborhood. When delivery men brought a refrigerator and stove, they had to carry it up these stairs you see at the right. Walking Guanajuato

My day to day work life hasn’t changed much, which is a bit of a problem in terms of getting better at Spanish. At some point soon I need to break off some time and go back to classes for a while in order to advance. I’m just not using it enough each day because I’m holed up in my home office, working in English. (My daughter is taking middle school classes all in Spanish though, so she’s golden.) I try to take a walk each day or go out for lunch to enjoy where I’m living and I have a glorious view from my office window.

I’ll write more on Guanajuato and living in Mexico later, with more of the hundreds of pictures I have sitting on my hard drive. Meanwhile, if you’re passing through, get in touch! If you want to see the city through my eyes and my stomach, sign up for my Guanajuato street food tour.

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