Panama qualifies as one of the best places in the world to think about retiring overseas for many reasons. Its location is at the hub of the Americas and the country has developed, near-first world infrastructure. The U.S. dollar is the currency, which makes relocating much easier for expat Americans. There are also international-standard medical facilities and many affordable options for health insurance.
Another reason Panama is appealing to retirees is that it offers up many distinct lifestyle options. There is urban life in Panama City, cooler mountain climates, and a number of beautiful and tempting beachfront choices. The trouble is that many of this country’s top beach options have become discovered and, therefore, more expensive than the typical retiree on a budget can afford.
One important exception is Las Tablas, on the Azuero Peninsula. This is the first town of note along what is emerging as this country’s Gold Coast. Other beaches are easier to access from Panama City, but these “city beaches” have gotten expensive. Panamanians like to be able to leave work on Friday afternoons and reach their places on the water by dinnertime, and they are willing to pay a premium for that privilege. Properties at these Panama City beach areas have appreciated in value over the past several years, and retirees may not find them worth the high housing prices.
It’ll take you four hours to reach Las Tablas from downtown Panama City. The good news is that you can travel along a well-maintained highway door-to-door. Once you’ve made the drive, you are greeted by a charming and lively town center, a welcoming local population, and a long-established community of Panamanians and expats who savor their ultra-affordable seaside lifestyle.
You could join them on a budget of as little as $1,200 per month. Of course, you could always spend more, especially if you travel often to Panama City to enjoy the distractions of the big city. But if you’d be happy with a modest life, sticking close to home, passing your days fishing and swimming, and enjoying the company of your neighbors, Las Tablas could make a charming retirement spot.
At the heart of Las Tablas is the town square and the centuries-old Iglesia Santa Librada. Fanning out from this point are neighborhoods of modest, Panamanian-style houses. Each is painted a different bright color. Las Tableños favor pink, purple, and blue, making for a vivid landscape. Beyond these small houses, you pass a handful of cantinas and a large open area that is the site of outdoor discotecas during the Carnaval and New Year’s celebrations. Just outside downtown Las Tablas are the turn-offs to the nearby beaches. These are the main attraction.
In Las Tablas, life alongside these Pacific beaches is laid-back, friendly, welcoming, and safe. It can also be almost unbelievably affordable, largely due to low housing costs. You could spend less for rent than on groceries each month. It is possible to find a small but comfortable two-bedroom house within walking distance of the beach available for rent for as little as $400 per month. You won’t likely find rental bargains like this on the Internet or working with a real estate agent, but searching via word-of-mouth, you can.
The quality of life doesn’t reflect the low costs. Las Tablas is a quintessential small town, that is compact enough that you can get around it on foot. You could walk anywhere within the town limits in about a half-hour. Many local residents make their living as fishermen, and their lives revolve around the sea, beach barbeques, and fish fries.
As development along this country’s Pacific coast continues, this stretch of coastline has increasing levels of amenities. The cellular phone and Internet services are reliable, and cable TV is available.
Known as the birthplace of Panama’s most important folkloric traditions, no part of the country is more authentically Panamanian than Las Tablas. Dozens of street vendors have stands along the main street in front of Igelsia Santa Librada offering traditional woven hats, leather sandals, and polleras, the national dress of Panama. This white lacy dress, which is reserved for special occasions and festivals, is hand-embroidered with multicolored threads by women taught the skill by their mothers and grandmothers. Because it is handmade, a single dress can take nearly a year to complete.
Life in Las Tablas could best be described as slow, but that is the charm of this colonial city. Although some developed-world comforts are lacking, you could enjoy an interesting and comfortable retirement in this region of Panama on even a very modest budget.
Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter. Her book, How To Retire Overseas—Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.