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Panama Authenticity Report: Part 2

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Written by Matt   
Monday, 23 August 2010 15:19

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if things in Panama happen only to me or if they happen to other people.  I’m almost 28 now and I’m still as fascinated with Panama as I was when I first visited at 23, generic albeit for totally new and different reasons. I never thought this would happen. I assumed my interest in Panama would fade like every other obsession I’ve ever had and every now and then, search this does seem to happen: I’ll let something piss me off enough, here then board a plane out of Tocumen muttering derogatory words as we take off, swearing never to return again. But curiously, there’s always a recurring urge to get back and I want to understand why I feel this way.

What’s seriously important is not that Panama, itself is an authentic place, but rather that people visiting or investing in Panama feel authentic.


I want to understand why so many other foreigners are magnetically drawn back to Panama after complaining about it so much as well. It’s certainly not because of the regurgitated propaganda we’re told we should cherish: the beaches, the cosmopolitan city, the anonymity, the banking district, the world-class infrastructure, blah blah blah. All this stuff is fine. But if they were true, a million other places would be more successful and more appealing. Of course, they are not.

In fact, very few of Panama’s upsides are, in and of themselves, strong enough to hold water. Instead, I think the actual reason people like it here rests on one of the following four ideas or, probably more likely, a combination of all four: a) people like to think they’re living aspiring lives, b) people like to tell other people about things they’ve discovered, c) people want to be challenged, but not too much, and d) all the other options pretty much suck.

Each of these things except for the last one are kind of related to superiority: they are ways for us to feel better about ourselves based on the assumption that other people are somehow less well-off. That’s a sad social commentary, but it’s probably mostly true.

There is no career move more romantic or radical than moving to the tropics. It says intrigue. It says mystery. It says, “I don’t give a fuck.” What makes moving to Panama even more aspiring is that it’s a developing country, a circumstance that gives the foreigner plenty of excuse ammo (riding the real estate bubble, buying cheap real estate, “living on dollars a day” (which by the way is comically false)) when it comes to explaining to their friends, just what the hell they’re doing down there. Relocating to Panama is akin to starting a new diet: it’s the intention that we use to sell and convince ourselves.

I’d say it’s one of my favorite social satisfactions: discovering something before it reaches the threshold of mainstream recognition. It makes me feel revolutionary and dynamic and progressive. All of this is, of course, is completely worthless if I can’t tell someone about it.

I mean, think about it. How many photos would you take of your vacation if you were not permitted to show them to anyone else ever? How many adventure tours would you sign up for or dirt holes would you poop in, if the story could never again be told. We do a large percentage of things so we can talk about them later. Why do foreigners like to hang out in Panama? Because hearing themselves tell people at home about Panama somehow reiterates – almost elevates – their own existence. Panama is hyped, in a way, because it’s not hyped.

People say they like challenges, but what they really mean is, they like challenges that they can overcome comfortably. There is a very small portion of people that actually like putting themselves through pain to accomplish something: the rest of us prefer to feel like we’re being pushed, until that is, we are actually being pushed at which point we want it to stop.

In this way, moving to Panama is not unlike putting a treadmill in your basement:  in theory, you will work out every morning for one hour, but in practice, you’ll most likely stop when you get tired. Which is to say, the idea of “life in Central America” is daring and bold, but the amount of creature comforts Panama offers tend to produce a watered-down, more tolerable version of the exotic. 

Once on an airplane, like ten years ago, I was asked by the stewardess if I wanted a plate of chicken cacciatore. I asked if I could see it before I made my decision and that was smart because at first sight, I almost threw up (which, ironically, would not have changed the plate’s appearance much). The cacciatore was not to be outdone by the other option – beef bourguignon – a dish I would have felt awkward serving to inmates. My third option, and that which I ultimately ended up eating, was this three-day-old pastrami sandwich I totally forgot was at the bottom of my backpack.

Panama is the expats’ pastrami sandwich. It came along at the right time, its ratio of good things to bad things is good (comparatively speaking), and, dealing with its complexities is, in the end, probably worthwhile. It’s the lesser evil. (Note: This is not meant to sound at all disparaging to Panamanians. In fact, were I to tell a girlfriend one particular dress wasn’t as bad as the others, she’d interpret that correctly as a Matt compliment.)

Panama is a place that makes foreigners feel good about themselves and whether that good is founded in anything substantial or not, I don’t really care. What’s seriously important is not that Panama, itself is an authentic place, but rather that people visiting or investing in Panama feel authentic. That they feel unique. These emotions and the way they ricochet are Panama’s greatest marketing tool. It’s why anyone who’s been to Panama will always return and why those who haven’t will wish they had.




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Last Updated on Monday, 23 August 2010 15:31