There are only two types of people. There are expats and those who want to be expats. One of the most reliable sources of information about relocating and living in another country is real expats – those that have done exactly that, for an extended period.
In this post, we interview John and Susan Pazera, a couple from California in the USA. Their answers to our questions give a unique perspective to the expat experience, specifically related to their Panama experience.
You completed a once in a lifetime sailing adventure many years ago, including a passage through the Panama Canal! Apart from this adventure, what else prompted you to become expats?
In many ways, our three years travelling aboard our boat was our first expat experience and the catalyst for us to consider expatriating long-term someday. We spent time in Mexico’s Baja and Sea of Cortez before working our way down the Pacific coast, stopping in mainland Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.
Our Canal transit was a huge highlight and an experience we’ll never forget! After spending two weeks in the San Blas Islands (not nearly enough time), we sailed north to Isla Providencia in the Caribbean, then to the Bay Islands of Honduras and Isla Mujeres in the Mexican Yucatan before crossing over to Florida.
At that point, we returned to “dirt world” and our careers, but we had been seriously bitten by the travel bug. We had fallen in love with the people of Hispanic America and all the commonalities, as well as the subtle variations, we found from country to country. It’s a cliché to say that travel changes you and broadens your horizons, but it was true in our case.
You eventually relocated to Panama in 2015. Did you visit Panama before you decided that it would be your new home?
Yes – after that initial sailing visit, in which we spent close to two months in Panama, we came back twice more before finally deciding to make the move to Boquete. On the first trip back, we rented a car in Panama City and visited El Valle de Anton and the Coronado area in addition to Boquete.
On our last trip before moving, we returned to Boquete and spent a lot of time visiting with other expats and getting a feel for what daily life might be like there. In our opinion, that type of research is essential for anyone pondering the expat life.
Did you apply for residency? If so, which visa did you use?
Yes, we did. John successfully applied for the Pensionado Visa while he listed me (Susan) as his beneficiary since I’m still working.
Some expats view the residency application process as a waste of time and money. Instead, they just do the perpetual tourist thing. Those so-called border runs. What is your take on it?
In our opinion, getting residency is an important part of the expat experience. In Panama, of course, there are plenty of financial benefits that come with the Pensionado Visa. But it’s more elemental than that – something about residency makes you feel like you’re part of the community, that you’ve invested in your new country and you’re proud to call it home.
That said, we didn’t apply right away when we got to Panama. The biggest reason is that John was still more than a year out from getting social security, and you need a pension in order to qualify for the Pensionado Visa (and other types of visas are a lot more expensive). At the time, doing a “border run” was a lot easier than it is now, and we were able to get through the year with a couple of weekend trips to Costa Rica in addition to trips back to the U.S.
Right about the time we applied for our residency, Panama started cracking down on “border hoppers” and started enforcing rules that had always been in place; namely, that you have to stay out of the country for 30 days before coming back in. We hear that border runs are still technically possible and some immigration agents are less by the book than others are. But being a “perpetual tourist” is a pretty risky (and illegal) way to go, in our opinion.
As a side note, often when returning from a trip and showing the immigration agents our Panama residency cards, they would beam and say “residentes – bienvendos!” They really seem to appreciate that we had taken the effort to become residents.
Note from Travel Hippi: The 30 days mentioned above is correct. However, if you exit Panama before the end of five months of your tourist visa, you can return after 72 hours. These are the laws. The fact that an immigration agent would allow anything else does not change the law; it should be seen as an isolated case.
Could you speak Spanish when you arrived? Is it possible to settle in Panama without speaking Spanish? What would be your advice to prospective expats?
We had a bit of Spanish from our sailing travels, but we were far from fluent (we knew all the Spanish names for parts of a marine diesel – ha!). Since Boquete has a huge expat community, we discovered that we’d be able to get by with no Spanish at all if we wanted to (in fact, many people do just that).
But honestly, that’s not what we signed up for. Learning Spanish is critical if you want to have really meaningful relationships with your Panamanian friends and feel more involved in the community since very few locals speak English. We have a long way to go, but we’ve made a lot of progress with the help of tutors and online language tools.
Our biggest advice: learn a few phrases and just get out there and try, even if you think you’ll sound foolish. The locals really appreciate the effort and they’re always kind and helpful.
Tell us more about living in the highlands of western Panama. Where exactly did you settle? Did you rent or buy?
Since we love to hike, one of the biggest reasons we chose Boquete is its stunning natural beauty – the cloud forests, national parks, waterfalls, birds, wildlife. The climate is also ideal there since we’re not really hot-weather people and it rarely gets above 80 degrees. At first, we were determined to rent, but market conditions and other issues changed our minds. Long story short, we bought a house in Boquete after six months.
Granted, the market has changed a lot in the meantime, but the advice might still be helpful for folks looking for a rental.
We have no regrets about buying our house. It was a wonderful home for us and our dogs, and we didn’t have to worry about hopping around from rental to rental. And now that we live in Colombia, we really appreciate the rental income!
You imported your two dogs. Many people are apprehensive about their pets being held in quarantine. Tell us about the process.
When we flew our dogs from LAX to Panama City, it was very stressful, since they’re our babies! But Copa Airlines does a fantastic job with its pet program, and they arrived safe and sound (even after having been in their crates nonstop for over 13 hours!). We highly recommend Copa for this; in fact, we just flew the “kids” again from Panama to Colombia last November with no problems.
We did an entire blog post about the process and everything involved with pet immigration. Regarding quarantine, at the time it was possible to avoid the airport quarantine and have your pets released to home quarantine with the right paperwork.
Note from Travel Hippi: if you are considering importing pets, please ensure that you are up to date with the latest laws and regulations.
What were the biggest challenges you faced as new expats?
Language is always a challenge, especially now that we live in Colombia. We know we won’t be able to fully embrace the experience unless we can speak some Spanish, and we’re determined to become proficient.
And just like everyone, we experienced some culture shock. If you’re expecting things to happen as quickly or efficiently as they do back home, think again. If you get resentful when things don’t go as you expect, you’ll never be a happy expat. Instead, we learned to just take a breath, laugh things off, and be patient.
Tell us how you managed your health care or health insurance.
We signed on with the local MS Panama program, which is essentially a discount program for many different Panamanian hospitals. It’s well worth the cost. We also had an international health insurance policy from Worldwide Medical. The upshot is that we don’t recommend moving to Panama without some form of insurance. It’s a LOT less expensive than health care in the U.S., but there are still costs.
I am sure your four years in Panama have affected you both on many levels. Can you describe how you, or your thinking, have changed?
Mark Twain famously said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” Life as expats has given us a broader perspective and more tolerance than we ever had growing up in the U.S.
We’ve learned to celebrate other cultures and people’s differences, and we’ve realized how much we can learn from other points of view and different approaches.
Also, learned how few material possessions we really need to get by (a lesson that started with life on a 42-foot sailboat!). We’ve met people who have very little and yet are extremely happy because they’re not weighed down by the burden of “stuff.” The material culture of the U.S. is one of the things we miss the least about life there.
Moreover, maybe most importantly, we have adopted a much more “Tranquilo” attitude towards life. A deep breath and a little patience go a long way, and if something doesn’t get done today, there’s always “mañana!”
Our sincere thanks to John and Susan, for the perceptive and delightful interview. We certainly echo their sentiments about cultural assimilation and wish them the very best for their journey through Hispanic America. You can read more about their take on expat life in their blog Latitude Adjustment.
“Imagine a country of immigrants only. So when you arrive, you won’t be an immigrant, you’ll just be the newest kid in town.” – Travel Hippi
I would love to have your thoughts on expat life and becoming a permanent resident of another country.
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