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What's It Like To Live In Panama?

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Written by Matt   
Saturday, 19 May 2012 13:33

The Republic of Panama was just named the #1 Place To Go in 2012 by the New York Times’ predictable yet supremely influential travel writers and this feat is important for precisely two reasons. The first is that being ranked #1 will stand as the single most potent achievement for Panama’s tourism industry over the span of this decade. The second is that no one specific in Panama really did anything to deserve it. This second reason is a surprisingly good thing.

I recently wrote an article about living in Casco Viejo that got picked up by a bunch of blogs, social networks and news sources in Panama mostly because it didn’t suck. Articles that are too negative make readers angry and articles that are too positive make readers feel stupid. Which is to say that a lot of people liked my article about living in Casco Viejo because it didn’t make them feel angry or stupid, which is great (I think).

When addressing what it’s like to live in Panama as a whole, I always explain my love for places that are simultaneously easy and difficult – “easy” in the sense that Panama landscapes are comprised of lush beaches and jungles of year round glimmering sunlight, but “difficult” in the sense that “doing” everything is intrinsically complicated. I enjoy destinations that are unpredictable and challenging: so I enjoy that Panama keeps me on my toes.

I also like places that are weird and Panama never ceases to outbizarre itself.

Proportionally, that Panama is a small pond means everyone has the opportunity to be a big fish. To me, this is a great thing. From a social standpoint, I like living here because it’s organically become an incubator for young, aspiring foreign professionals and being around similar-minded peers tends to make things easier because peers share burdensome challenges.

Most of the young foreigners you find in Panama were not born with four aces: which is to say, they’re not here because they’re rich. They’re here because they want to be. In my book, young entrepreneurial hunger is great fuel for an emerging country but its too bad the country doesn’t harness it. 

And it’s not just foreigners either. Panama is also naturally nurturing a new renaissance generation of its own thinkers and artists and individuals. These are youngsters who are going against hundreds of years of behavioral patterns so I find it intriguing to watch them reinterpret and redefine the history of their Republic. 

I like how in Panama, you’re never really supposed to get offended by anything. As role models, the country features a supermarket expert (Ricardo Martinelli), a few select athletes who excel without the help of a team (Roberto Duran, Irving Saladino, and Mariano Rivera), and a man who could enter a room of successful musicians and pretty much outplay them all (Ruben Blades). I admire how most Panamanians don’t get caught up in fame or really get starstruck. 

If there is one inescapable reality, it’s that the Canal is no longer central to the Panama experience. A lot of places around the world make an effort to organize themselves to cater to foreigners. But I like how (with the exception of casinos and cruise ships) Panama has never really done that. Most people consider it a downside. But the best tourism opportunities in Panama are far from easy or mainstream. You have to know people. You have to seek out experiences. Because Panama is so disorganized in this sense, it attracts a different, DIY type of traveler, which I prefer 100x over to the conventional fanny pack and binoculars tourist.

Living in Panama, to me, means traveling frequently throughout the country and through the region. I like that Panama’s infrastructure is good enough (and it’s wingspan small enough) to make going mobile rewarding. I like that you can travel pretty much anywhere by yourself safely and that the local police treat foreigners (sometimes unfairly) well.

Inarguably, there is no better-rounded Central American country when it comes to road trips and (only over the past 5 or 10 years) I like how foreigners are somehow motivating Panamanians to explore their own country more often.

Living in Panama also means dealing with annoyances and trying to figure out ways around obstacles, both literally and figuratively. Since most of this takes place in either tropical heat or arctic air conditioning, living in Panama also means adjusting to contrasts. 

Nowadays, the message of Panama is powerful. That’s not necessarily the same as “good,” but it’s something. It’s also timely. I like how by sheer luck, Panama started to emerge at a time when Costa Rica began its plateau. I like how Panama began its most robust growth just as the world’s biggest nations began to financially flounder.

I like how, based on its almost unfairly good geographics, Panama became the default hub of several major continents. These things may have been the result of luck or simply being in the right place at the right time. Panama has a history of this sequence.

As for happiness, I like to think of myself as mostly a creature of habit. I find comfort in ordering the same dish at my favorite restaurants, buying the same sneakers when old ones wear thin, flying the same airline…etc. What I like about Panama (for myself) and what I think it accomplishes (for visitors) is a balance of the predictable and the unexpected. Doing things outside my comfort zone (which Panama is full of) is a surefire way to spice things up, while falling back on the familiar (which Panama also affords) is a great normalizer. 

It was once brought to my attention that, in Panama, you could pretty much bribe your way out of (or into) anything. And even though the opportunities to do this are diminishing (with Panama’s semi-focused yet, in my opinion, paradoxical efforts to thwart corruption) I like this sense of lawlessness. I like how it makes you feel invincible, like you’re really in the third world and not some country masquerading as cosmopolitan. I just bribed a cop $5 the other day for talking on my cell phone while driving and it was more fulfilling perhaps than doing the Ironman Triathlon. 

For me, the popularity traction of Panama seems to be most accurately gauged from the frequency with which my friends from home inquire about visiting. When The Bachelor (a TV show I still don’t really understand) was filmed in Panama City, I had no less than twelve estranged friends coincidentally reconnect. When the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition featured on US newsstands, I suddenly got visits from college friends (who I needed to remind, of course, that the SI models themselves had long left town).

“But I’ve been telling you this for the better part of the past decade,” I told them. This is to say, I like how (now) there seems to be some real credibility (dating shows) and influence (models) behind my beliefs.

If Panama’s #1 Place To Go in 2012 achievement was presented at an award symposium somewhere, and someone were needed to receive it, I like how you can’t really point a finger at someone who’s responsible for its rise in popularity. It’s certainly not any of the government agents who would be better off on reality shows themselves. It’s probably not any Panamanians embracing the fruits of their country, or any foreigners bragging to people about it back home.

Living in Panama is like immersing yourself in a vision.  While you’re not sure exactly what the vision is, or who is actually in charge of bringing it to fruition, both foreigners and local know wholeheartedly that they want to be there to watch it happen (whatever that even means).

Comments (1)Add Comment
You bribed a cop and felt good about it?
written by Tay , June 05, 2012
Well that's dispiriting to read. Even if the country is only semi-focused on thwarting corruption, that's better than what you seem to be.
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Last Updated on Wednesday, 23 May 2012 15:25