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Panama vs. Costa Rica

Folks who consider moving to a tropical paradise, full-time or part-time, eventually consider Costa Rica or Panama. So the question pops up: which one is better as a place to live?

The debate still continues. When I first considered moving more permanently to Central America back in 2006, I did some research to find out which one of these countries would be best.

All of the oversea retirement experts, including International Living Magazine have been recommending Panama over Costa Rica for many years in a row.

In fact, most of these publications barely talk about Costa Rica nowadays.

The talk is all about Panama, Panama, Panama.Last year, I even attended a week-long “relocation and investment” seminar in Panama City, to get the final word on the subject.

So what’s the big deal about Panama?The big deal is the strong and booming economy, lower cost for real estate, but mainly a more attractive “pensionado” program, which is the retiree program.

It’s definitely easier to obtain residency in Panama than in Costa Rica, and “pensionados” get many tax-free breaks and even discounts on restaurants and public transportation!

The infrastructure in Panama is better.When I first visited Panama from Costa Rica, I felt like in a different world.

Modern highways, fast and efficient bus systems, and a much more “Americanized” feeling everywhere.

And Panama City is simply the most modern city in Central America. While I’ve never seen Skyscrapers in Costa Rica, Panama City is full of them. The supermarkets are filled with imported goods, including lots of “health food” types of items I had never seen in Costa Rica, such as organic baby spinach (imported from the USA), organic fruit bars, and items you regularly seen in your health food store.

Panama City is just a more modern city, period. And Panama in general has attracted more wealth and saw huge improvements in its infrastructures from US presence.But what about Costa Rica then? Why am I here?

Here’s a few more positives about Panama:

– Buying a car is much cheaper

– Alcohol is much cheaper (but I don’t care cause I don’t drink)

– Imported goods in general (such as clothes) are cheaper

– The country has more islands! More scuba diving possibilities… 🙂

– English is spoken more widely (but is it true? So I’m told. I’m not sure because I speak Spanish).

– The country uses US dollars (and not the funny Costa Rica currency with a constantly changing exchange rates that forces you to perform maths everywhere you go to figure out how much things really cost).

Now some negatives:

I found Panama City too hot for my taste. The weather is in the 90s, and very humid too. I don’t see anyone living comfortably there without air conditioning.

Overall I found much more agreeable climates in Costa Rica, although if you go a bit in the mountains in Panama you will find cooler climates. But I just wouldn’t imagine living in Panama City for now. Too steamy, too much of a city for me. Great to visit, but I prefer to live somewhere quiet.

And try to find a cheap, modern apartment in Panama City right now! Just look on Craigslist and you will find what I’m talking about.It seems there’s been increased demand for housing, but not enough supply. So the prices are totally inflated, and it will take a while for them to normalize as more apartments and condos are made available.But there’s more than monetary considerations.

I found Panamanians friendly, but the Costa Ricans (Ticos) are friendlier. In fact, they may be some of the friendliest people in the world.In Costa Rica, I feel more at home.Yes, the roads are bad in some places, but to me that’s almost part of the local charm.

Things might take more time in Costa Rica to get done. You want a cell phone? You need to be a resident or own a corporation (which is easy to set up, by the way).

And to get phone lines and Internet access in some places can take months.But if Internet access is important to you (and it sure is to me!), you’ll find it. Just make sure you don’t relocated to a remote area.

Here in Costa Rica my connection is fast enough for what I need. I get the equivalent of a standard DSL connection.And you can get up to a 2 MB per second line.

Sure, in Canada I get an even faster connection, 10MB per second type of cable setup, but it’s mostly a luxury because I can do just fine on a standard high-speed connection.From my personal experience, Costa Rica has more charm. The people are friendlier, and there are so many gorgeous places it’s unbelievable.

I haven’t fully explored Panama, so I cannot tell you for sure, but after two trips, my experience is that for someone into raw foods and health, Costa Rica is a better place.

guanabanaThere’s lots of fruits and vegetables grown, and you can find organic. You’ll also find a wide range of tropical fruits, and more importantly, there’s an established network of raw-foodist and natural health enthusiasts.

For me, that was the deciding factor. I just KNOW more people here, and I happen to really enjoy the country.

The Ticos really enjoy the company of North Americans. In Panama, I would say that this feeling is not as widespread (without saying that they are not welcoming people).

Like I said, I just felt more “at home” in Costa Rica.

But Panama has so much to offer, that my solution is to live in Costa Rica (at least part of the year), but also take trips to Panama: it’s right next door!

Although it might be more difficult to get residency in Costa Rica, it’s also easier to easily move there part of the year.When you enter the country, you automatically get a 90-day visa. This visa can be then renewed for another 90 days by just leaving the country for at least 3 days and coming back. (That’s when you’ll want to take your trip to Panama).

Technically, you are allowed one extension and then after you should leave for at least three months, but the law is not enforced and there are many visitors that have been living here for years and just renew their visas every 90 days.

In Panama, you only get 30 days, and then you can only extend it to 90 days.So for me the choice is easy: Costa Rica, with visits to Panama.The only way for you to know for sure is to come down here and check it out for yourself.

How to Move to a Tropical Paradise

Frederic Patenaude
Frederic Patenaude
Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.