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Panama emerges as alternative for snowbirds

June, 2010

The loudest grumbling heard from Florida these days concerns the weather. For Montreal condo-owners who winter there, that complaint has turned into a deafening roar. After all, who likes to escape frigid Montreal and then be subject to chilly weather, nasty drenchers and, lately, gales, hurricanes, tornados, and flooding?

Over the last few years, Panama has emerged as a credible alternative for second-home buyers. Flight time is a relatively easy 51⁄2 hours from Trudeau airport. There is a booming and still affordable real-estate market in high-rise condominiums and single-family dwellings and the U.S. dollar is the official currency.

What makes this Central American country particularly appealing is its weather, reaching temperatures of 32 degrees in winter. By some geographical miracle, Panama is the only country in the region free of the devastating earthquakes and hurricanes that plague its Latin America neighbours. Panama is bordered by the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other – the Caribbean side known for its rainier climate.

When I visited Panama last December, I was struck by its modern capital. The downtown financial centre hosts 90 banks and high-rise towers with sky-scraping building cranes throughout its core. The Bank of Nova Scotia has established a strong presence and advertises its services everywhere.

Panama City has become a North American-style metropolis with wide thoroughfares and requisite car jams, as well as almost all the familiar names in fast-food eateries. Three modern shopping centres can be found in the city – one with an ultra-modern movie plaza that rivals any you could find here.

With retirees bringing big dollars and their presence fueling the growth of the service and construction sectors, Panama has begun to compete head on with its neighbour Florida, a mere two hours away by air.

Panama’s fibreoptic infrastructure is world-class and enables access to high-speed broadband Internet everywhere. Listening to live CBC radio on my iPhone over breakfast at a seaside hotel in the stunning Pearl Islands was a real treat.

On a more practical note, Panama has American-class hospital services and is becoming an increasingly popular destination for people seeking affordable “beauty” treatments.

To encourage the growth of the senior population, the state has established incentive programs that afford special tax privileges for home ownership – deductions of 50% for home loan closing costs and imports. Other incentives provide 50% discounts for movies, 25% off some restaurants, 30% off bus, boat and train fares, and even discounts on prescriptions medicines and dental and eye exams. Many developments have shuttle buses to Panama City.

How can you qualify for these benefits? You only have to prove you have a monthly income of $500, provide a health certificate and a police report.

Another attraction for the American and Canadian expats is the affordable price of luxury condominiums and “gated” communities. Property values have increased in the last few years, a stark contrast to the housing meltdown in Florida.

A Century 21 listing of homes for sale substantiates their claim. Waterfront condos can be had for under $200,000. A block away, you might have to ante up $75,000. If your tastes run to the more opulent, $6-million villas are common. The real lure of Panama lies outside its cities. It is a haven of eco-systems, with a thousand miles of beaches and an environment of biodiverse rainforests. In 2 million hectares of national parks, hikers can enjoy a thousand species of migratory birds and a variety of flora.

Despite its virtues, Panama is not for everyone. The country’s first language is Spanish, and its bureaucracy can be daunting. Its English-language newspapers contained articles urging the government to reform the speed of services.

You have to be the type of individual who enjoys cultural diversity and living in a foreign language. Professionals in the country all speak English and English television and newspapers can be readily accessed, but that is not always the case with the man in the street. On the other hand, learning basic Spanish can be an appealing challenge.

The cost of living in Panama is a lot less than in Canada or the U.S. Expats cautioned me that a couple still needs a secure income of at least $2,500 U.S. a month, housing not included, to live comfortably. If you intend to fly home a few times a year, that figure will increase. At the very least, you can be guaranteed to bring home a suntan.

Keep in touch: mark@



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