Euro-Chic Retirement in Latin America

Experience a European lifestyle while using U.S. dollars.

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Panama is a safe, stable, and welcoming retirement haven that’s easily accessible from the United States. The country boasts first world infrastructure, first world health care, and the world’s best retiree residency program. The sun shines year-round, and the climate is cooler in the mountains if Panama City’s heat and humidity is too much for you. And Panama uses the U.S. dollar as its currency, meaning retirees whose retirement funds are denominated in dollars face no exchange rate risk.

Another big advantage to Panama is that this country, small as it is, serves up a surprising diversity of lifestyle options. Casco Viejo, for example, offers the most cosmopolitan, European city retirement lifestyle to be found anywhere in the region.

Casco Viejo, Panama City’s old town on a peninsula that juts out into the Bay of Panama, has one of the world’s most impressive collections of old colonial-style buildings. The Spanish, French, and Americans have all left their architectural marks in this part of this city over the past 400 years.

Casco Viejo has central squares like you find in European cities, with wooden benches and trees for shade. There are narrow streets paved with bricks, restaurants and cafes with sidewalk seating, historic churches, the Panama Canal Museum, and the Teatro National (which recently hosted a production of the opera Tosca). In this compact section of the city surrounded by water on three sides, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you find more of interest per square meter than anywhere else in the entire country. You could make an argument that there’s more to discover and enjoy in Casco Viejo including history, architecture of note, and nightlife than anywhere else in Central America.

I was introduced to Casco Viejo about 12 years ago. And I was so impressed with the rows of two-, three-, and four-story colonial structures with shuttered windows and iron-railed balconies, that I barely noticed what was all around them. There was trash on the sidewalks and in the gutters, barefooted, barely clothed children, and skinny, mangy mutts.

Twelve years ago, Casco Viejo was a barrio. Speculators had just begun buying up the old colonial buildings, and only a few had been renovated. But the picture overall was of a ghetto. Those early-in investors had their work cut out for them. Before they could renovate or rehab, they had to evacuate. Many of the big old houses were occupied by sometimes a dozen or more people representing multiple families, often all squatters.

Casco Viejo has since been spruced up and cleaned up. The entrance from Balboa has been reconfigured. The old garishly painted Oriental arch that has long marked Casco’s entrance remains, but now is overshadowed by a broad new passageway. While the former narrow, not-quite-double-lane road in was a gauntlet through street vendors, beggars, and boarded-up wooden shacks, today’s entrance qualifies as grand and genteel.

Today’s Casco Viejo is home to dozens of restaurants, bars, cafes, and nightclubs, as well as nicely renovated and outfitted condos. There is a growing community of expats and foreign retirees keen to help the ongoing rejuvenation of this old city along. If your budget isn’t small, this is a great Panama City lifestyle option. Casco Viejo is a place where you could take advantage of all the benefits of retirement in Panama while enjoying an Old World, almost European city lifestyle. This is the only part of Panama where you could easily live without a car, as Casco Viejo is very walkable. You could dine al fresco at a different café or restaurant each night of the week, and take in a gallery opening or an evening of theater at the classic-style Teatro Nacional.

You’d need a budget of at least $3,000 per month to afford retirement in Casco Viejo. The cost of living in this compact area is greater than in most of the rest of Panama because rents are higher. In Casco, though, rentals are not only more expensive, but also more special. Here you find well-appointed apartments in carefully renovated centuries-old buildings with features like exposed brick and stone walls, 20-foot ceilings, interior courtyards, and shuttered windows, and they’re now supported by all the conveniences of the 21st century.

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.