NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- A little more than two years ago, when we started the Web site Best Places In The World To Retire, there was a choice about which country would be the site's first. From a business standpoint, the answer was easy: Choose the country that is generating the most interest among North Americans. That country was (and still is) Panama.
The Web site now has more than 4,000 answers to the most commonly asked questions about Panama and 11 regions within it, all provided for the most part by people who actually live there, most of whom moved from the U.S. or Canada. There's also a book about Panama and a survey of expatriates.
Following is the good and the bad about living as an expat in Panama, as told by more than 300 contributors and the expat respondents to our study.
Cost of Living Pros: Compared with North American standards, the cost for labor will be extremely low in Panama: For example, you'll pay about $20 a day for a gardener or housekeeper. The cost for locally made items, including food, will also be very low. For example, pineapples typically cost 75 cents to $1.00, and a dozen eggs will cost $1.50 or less. In any fair comparison, the cost to build, purchase, or rent a house or condo will be substantially less, although proportionally not as cheap as local help and food (buildings still need some materials that has to be purchased elsewhere). Property taxes are extremely low, and many times don't exist at all due to government incentives. Your cost for utilities other than electricity will be very low (example: water for $10 - $20 per month). If you live in the famous mountain expat town of Boquete, you won't even have air conditioning or heating at all, because the temperature is so comfortable all year round. Compared with North America, if you choose to, you can definitely live in Panama for substantially less, while at the same time enjoying a higher standard of living.
Cost of Living Cons: The cost for goods imported into Panama (for example, American brands) can be as much or more than you would pay for them in the U.S. Just have to have Breyers Ice Cream? Don't expect it to cost less. In fact, expect it to cost a bit more. Also, electricity costs more than in the U.S.
Health Care Pros: If you live anywhere near Panama City, for all but the most unusual medical conditions, you have access to U.S.-standard medical and dental care at a 50% to 75% discount (or even more) to what you would pay in the U.S. Hospital Punta Pacifica is affiliated with Johns Hopkins, and there are at least two other very good hospitals in Panama City. If you live in one of the beachfront communities in the Coronado area (very popular with expats), you would have very good local health care, and you would be within an hour to 90 minutes or so of the large hospitals in Panama City. If you live in Boquete and want to go to a hospital, you need to travel to David, about 40 minutes away, where the hospitals are good but not up to the standards of Panama City.
Health Care Cons: If you have a very unusual medical condition, you may not find the specialists you need in Panama. (After all, there are fewer than 4 million people in the entire country, which is about the same as the population Oklahoma.) Also, if you live in one of the more remote areas and have a serious situation, a good hospital can be several hours away, at best.
Weather Pros: Within a range, you can choose your perfect temperature in Panama. Panama is a small and narrow country, with a pretty good-sized mountain range running down the middle. All other things being equal, for each 1,000 feet in elevation, the temperature drops 3.3 degrees Fahrenheit. So, if it's 88 degrees at sea level in Panama (not an uncommon occurrence), it will be about 75 degrees in Boquete. Not cool enough for you? In Volcan, it can be another 5 degrees or so cooler.
Weather Cons: If you don't like a high temperature between 85 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit and don't want to live at a higher elevation than sea level, Panama is not for you. Also, you can get a good amount of rain in many areas of the country, and, when you get to higher elevations, in some microclimates, wind can be an issue.
Safety Pros: While not unheard of in Panama, from what we are told, in general, our expats are less concerned about violent crimes than they were where they lived in the U.S. or Canada.
Safety Cons: Crimes of opportunity (for example, stealing your cell phone if you leave it on your car seat) are more prevalent in Panama than in the U.S., especially in the tourist areas.
Potpourri: Like all the countries we cover, Panama is not "just like the U.S., only cheaper." Panama has its own culture, and ways of doing things. For example, in general, people are not as prompt and things don't get done as quickly or as efficiently. There are other differences as well. Some people celebrate and enjoy these differences, while it drives others crazy.
On the other hand, Panama has many good features in addition to what's mentioned above, which is why it's so popular with expats. Panama has fabulous diversity in many different ways. It has jungles, cosmopolitan areas, colonial cities, and modern skyscrapers, all easily accessible and close to each other. You can swim in the Pacific and in the Caribbean on the same day, and at some places in the mountains, you can even see both oceans from the same place.
Want to go shopping at high-end malls and eat at fancy restaurants? Panama has that. Want to buy hand-made jewelry from Guna Indians or "go native" in a sparsely inhabited area? No problem. Care to be around North American expats? There are places where you can speak English to pretty much everyone you see and go to happy hours with your North American friends every day. Don't want to be around expats at all? Panama can accommodate you, too. Want to be part of a close-knit community that can provide support and also greater meaning through helping others? The expats in Panama are brilliant at that.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.