1. Abundant Natural Beauty. Panama is a small, skinny country with varied microclimates. Panama City and the expat Coronado beach community have great views of the Pacific Ocean, and where I live in Playa Bonita (just outside Panama City) has a breathtaking view of the ships entering the Panama Canal. The less inhabited side of Panama is bordered by the Caribbean Sea. Places such as Bocas del Toro give stunning views of crystal clear azure water. For those who like a cooler climate, Boquete is nestled in a tropical jungle. The stunning vistas and abundant greenery calm your senses, while the year-round 70-degree weather feels like paradise.
2. The Weather. I love the weather in Panama. There are diverse microclimates that will appeal to just about everyone. The weather is very consistent, peaking at mid-day and cooling about 10 degrees each night. It ranges from very warm in Panama City and the Coronado Beach area (80-90 degrees) to spring-like temperatures in Boquete and Altos del Maria (65-75 degrees). It gets hot when the sun is shining at full strength but most days there is a cloud cover for at least part of the day. It also can get humid, but the humidity is not as bad as Houston, Texas, nor does it last for days on end. Having moved from Dallas, Texas, my skin loves the humidity. I don’t have to run for lotion 17 times per day, and plumper skin means a more youthful appearance. Plus, I only have to worry about one wardrobe of wash & wear clothes. No more dry cleaning for me!
3. Restaurants. Chile was the first Latin American country I visited, and I was very disappointed in the food there. Having low expectations when I arrived in Panama, I was blown away by the quality and diversity of the restaurants. There are Italian restaurants that rival the cuisine in Italy and sushi restaurants that could be located in Hong Kong. There are expensive white tablecloth restaurants where you can drop a few hundred dollars on dinner and local fondas where a meal for two could set you back all of five bucks. You can get Peruvian, Colombian, Thai, French, Spanish, and American without even trying hard.
4. Fresh Produce. For those of you who prefer to cook at home, fresh fruit and vegetables are also diverse and abundant, such as the sweetest pineapple you have ever tasted, whole coconuts, mangoes, papayas, bananas, and other exotic fruit you have never heard of. The vegetables are just as great—tomatoes that taste like tomatoes, avacadoes that are twice as big as Haas, and eggplant that is much more flavorful than the big fat eggplant you buy in the US. Although not produce, gourmet items are also available and often inexpensive. For example, you can get a large bunch of flaky Ceylon cinnamon sticks at the produce market in Panama City for about $7 (a $40 savings over US prices) and Jasmine rice for seventy-one cents per pound.
5. Fresh Fish. Fish markets offer just-caught fish in every area of Panama, and local produce stands are easy to find. If you’ve never had just-caught, never-frozen fish, you are in for a treat. It is buttery and tender and more delicious than you can imagine. Corvina is the national white fish, but you can also get almost anything you would normally get in a fish market, including langostinos, octopus, and red snapper.
6. The Panamanians. Panamanians are very friendly and most love Westerners. They go out of their way to be helpful and always apologize if their English is bad. I think this is funny as I should be the one apologizing. After all, I’m in their country and should speak Spanish. I came here knowing 10 words and now I’m up to a hundred. I can get by but I still rely on pantomiming or Google Translate on my iPhone. If I am swatting at mosquitoes outside, a stranger will offer me his bug spray. When I rented an apartment on Balboa for three months, my landlord felt protective of me because I was a single woman and went out of their way to make me feel like family.
7. Chivalry. Latin men understand chivalry. In fact, it’s in their DNA. They open doors, they lift heavy objects, and they allow you to cut in front of them in line. One of my favorite stories is the day I was driving in very bad traffic in the city. I was trying to cut in front of a work truck because my lane was ending but the driver wouldn’t give an inch. You can’t see through most windows here, as they are all tinted very dark, so I rolled down my window and waved. The driver rolled down and his window, and when I said, “Por Favor…” (the only part of Please Let Me Cut In that I knew), he waved his hand and graciously let me in. A Panamanian man can fight another man for an inch of road space, but they can’t fight a woman.
8. Driving. I love the Latin style of driving. It’s politely aggressive, but it gets the job done. Stop signs that don’t make sense are ignored, while those that are imperative are obeyed. I also love that horns are a communication device, much like the bark of a dog. A honked horn doesn’t necessary mean “Get Out of my way, you jerk!” It can mean, “Do you see me?” or “Sure, cut in front of me” or “I’m passing you so stay where you are.” The way the horn is honked gives the indication of what is being communicated.
9. Sunrise and Sunset. Panama is on the equator so sunrise and sunset are consistent throughout the year. We get 12 hours of sun. The sun rises at 6:30 a.m. and sets at 6:30 p.m. I like knowing exactly what time it is when the sun rises. I also like not having to screw up my internal body clock twice a year with Daylight Savings Time. Aside from the consistency of the time, I also like the beauty of each sunrise and sunset. I typically wake up before sunrise and drink coffee on my balcony while I watch the sunrise over the water. It’s one of the most perfect moments of each day.
10. Latin Man Sex Look. I came to Panama as a single woman, but I think married women will appreciate this as well. Latin men show their appreciation by giving what I call the Latin Man Sex Look. This is a prolonged stare, often accompanied by an open mouth and twinkling eyes. This is much different than the Construction Worker Wolf Whistle that we’re accustomed to. I find that offensive, but I find the Latin Man Sex Look downright charming. Being a white woman, I get this look dozens of times each day. Ladies, let me be frank…it’s hard not to feel like a supermodel when you get the Latin Man Sex Look even when you’re looking decidedly unsexy. I was talking to a New Yorker in the elevator of my apartment, and he said to me, “I’ve seen you before. But you look a lot less glamorous when you walk your dogs in the morning.” Really!?! Did he need to say that? I know I don’t look ultra fab when I’ve just rolled out of bed, but the Panamanians still give me the Latin Man Sex Look, for which I am eternally grateful.