Since I am, among other things, a semi-retiree, I felt drawn to visit Panama City, Panama to see whether all the popular press that is touting Panama as the perfect retirement haven is accurate.
I spent 7 nights in Panama City, did not rent a car and tried to understand the City itself. I did go to see Miraflores Locks at the Panama Canal, and unusual for me, I engaged a tour guide, Sharon Marriott of Tours by Locals; quite pleased with the experience and have some photos and videos below should you be interested in this engineering marvel that transports about 5% of all the goods moved about our planet. The canal, as of 1999, is owned by Panamanians and the history is quite colorful.
All the water required to bring these enormous ships to sea level is staggering; makes you wonder whether they price the cost of water fully into the fees they charge ships to pass through the canal. With triple bottom line accounting, if we truly factor in the cost of water, there are at least two environmental costs for the Panama Canal. First, there is the sheer amount of water used to transport the ships through the canal.
The alternative to shipping goods across the globe is to use that water for Humans and other species that need it. That assumes that we even know how to efficiently transport water and at this juncture, we have not figured out cost effective water transportation. What is the true cost of that water? The new lock completed in 2016 does recycle the water used but the two original locks dating back to 1914, merely dump the water into the ocean so there is an environmental cost that is not being properly accounted for.
It is interesting that the Panama Canal was completed the year after the robber barons like JP Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller and Henry Clay Frick helped engineer a federal income tax code. The Panama Canal was effectively an efficient way to transport fossil fuels and utilize the railroads these and other men had built and financed. The Panama Canal is really a 20th century engineering miracle that may have a problem surviving issues like sea level rise and become obsolete eventually with drones and other flying mechanisms to transport goods. That said, the Canal still serves as an essential logistics tool in the worldwide transportation of goods from now until the not too distant future.
There is a new metro system that is a work in progress but definitely a step in the right direction. The car traffic is quite intense and I must say, having lived most of my adult life in Manhattan, I think Panama City has some of the most aggressive drivers I have ever seen. In Panama City, pedestrians definitely DO NOT have the right of way. Coupled with the incessant honking by taxi drivers looking for fares, it creates a reasonably chaotic urban setting that reminds me of a cross between Miami and New York City.
There appears to be some overbuilding of luxury housing in Panama City and I guess that situation exists in many cities around the world. If history serves as a teacher, it might turn out that many of these empty luxury apartments will have to eventually be converted into rooming houses. The current status for this valuable housing, operating as “investments” for rich people seems quite wasteful and not sustainable, given the poverty that surrounds all the luxury housing.
Panama has an entrepreneurial spirit, favorable tax laws to encourage investment and a health care system that is especially useful if you can afford private insurance beyond nationalized health care because the waiting periods to see specialists can be problematic.
Panama has positioned itself like Delaware in the States and Switzerland in Europe; a corporate friendly government that encourages registering your yacht and corporation in Panama, favorable tax laws to accommodate business and lots of foreign banks and re-insurers with assets in Panama.
The several times that I saw police in the City made me uncomfortable in that law enforcement was largely comprised of very young and suspicious looking folks that seemed to be almost hiding something. The police seemed to be in congregated in packs rather than individually or even pairs of patrolling officers.
The one time I went to Casco Viejo (Old Town), I explored the safest area that had a pack of about 25 officers in one square; perhaps it was a training session but as I continued walking towards the fish market, the abject poverty surrounding Casco Viejo, flanked by luxury rises was somewhat surreal, in my opinion.
Panama City is a very interesting City and I can see its appeal and allure for many expatriates seeking an easier and more affordable retirement. Panama also offers younger people an ability to relocate to a fast growing area that appears to have enormous growth potential. Its elevation at 7 feet makes it susceptible to sea level rise, similar to Miami (6 feet) and Lower Manhattan (5 feet). Caveat Emptor! Personally, I am not investing any money in these areas.