My husband Clyde and I have been fortunate enough to live in not just one but two of the world's best retirement destinations. For five years we enjoyed life near Coronado, Panama. We bought a house, made many friends and enjoyed the hot, mild air that surrounded us every day.
Then we started traveling and discovered what a big world it was and realized that we wanted to experience expat life elsewhere. After visiting many countries in Europe, we decided to settle in Portugal. Our life in Portugal began on the Silver Coast near the town of Caldas da Rainha. Last summer we decided to move further south and now live in the Portuguese Algarve region.
I am often asked why we left Panama and which country is better. Comparing two completely different countries is like comparing day and night, but I'll try to give a brief overview of each in my opinion …
Portugal has perfectly paved roads across the country that make traveling hassle-free. Many of the roads require tolls to be paid, which can get expensive, but offer a more direct route which ultimately makes them a cheaper choice. Panama has only one main road that runs through the whole country and it can be quite congested during the tourist season.
Portugal has crystal clear drinking water that is abundant all year round. Panama has a four month dry season with no rain. Water sources are dwindling during these times, requiring the government to restrict the unlimited use of water for the general public. When we lived there we had reserve water tanks that we could use during those dry spells. Our water costs around $ 78 a month in Portugal, while in Panama we paid less than $ 10 a month.
Electricity is expensive in Portugal, but it is efficient and has never failed in the years we have lived here. In Panama, power outages occurred frequently, if only briefly, in some areas. Since electricity is also expensive in Panama, propane is more likely to be used as an alternative. Tumble dryers, water heaters, and cooking appliances typically run on propane to make them more affordable.
Our electricity bill in Portugal is around $ 80 a month, in Panama it was only $ 30 – but that was five years ago. A propane tank in Panama costs $ 5 or less, but here in Portugal it costs around $ 36.
Panama is hot and humid year round which we really liked, with temperatures around 80 ° F most of the time. The eight-month rainy season brings sunny mornings with sometimes heavy rains in the afternoons. Most of the people who live in Panama prefer the rainy season, as do we.
Portugal offers four seasons with a variety of weather conditions for almost everyone. The winters bring wet, cold weather to the north and the central regions with less rain in the south. Summers tend to be hotter in the south and cooler in the north.
When we lived in Panama, we used private health care because it was so affordable. There are clinics across the country offering medical and dental services, often run by English-speaking professionals. The Coronado area, with its large expat population, had an abundance of clinics, but the nearest major hospitals in Panama City were a 90-minute drive away.
While living in Panama I had surgery in a private hospital and my experience has been wonderful. It cost $ 3,100, including three days in the hospital. In Panama, doctors usually give their patients their private cell phone numbers which they can use when needed.
Portugal offers both private and public health care to foreigners living here and we have used both but prefer to use the private system to avoid long waits. Here we can see an English-speaking doctor in nearby clinics for around US $ 35 without insurance. As in Panama, the doctors here are in no hurry and take time to treat the entire patient. When we lived in central Portugal, my husband had a cardiologist whom we went to the gym every morning. He would always stop to chat.
In Panama we had health insurance with a high deductible because paying out of pocket was so cheap. Here in Portugal, we pay $ 350 per month for health insurance with no deductible, which pays 90% when the doctor is online and 80% when not.
Panama receives the award for the best retirement benefits in the world, something else that I miss about living there. After we established ourselves as retirees, we got tons of perks for everything. We have saved 50% on hotel rooms during the week and 30% on the weekend; 25% discount on airline tickets purchased there; 25% discount on restaurant meals; Dental, medical, prescription drugs, and more have all been discounted.
Portugal has discounts on museums, tourist attractions, and transportation for people over 65, but nothing else.
Let's face it, when we lived in Panama we stood like ghosts among a nation of bronze-skinned people with dark hair. Since there are Europeans of all skin and hair colors in Portugal, we blend in well until we open our mouths to speak. Portugal shows films in their original language, usually English with Portuguese subtitles. In Panama we had the choice between a film that was dubbed in English or in Spanish. But film prices in Panama are about half of those in Portugal.
English is taught in schools here, so many Portuguese speak at least some, especially the younger generation. Although not recommended, it would be possible to live in Portugal and get along with little to no Portuguese. The larger cities and the Algarve have many more English-speaking Portuguese than in the north due to tourism and a large presence of British expats.
In our five years in Panama we found few Panamanians who spoke English. Aside from professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and real estate agents, we had to speak Spanish every time we went to a store or doctor's office. But having learned Spanish helped us a lot with Portuguese, and we are grateful for that.
Cost of living
In Panama we lived on about $ 2,000 a month after buying a house and a car. In Portugal, our monthly budget is between $ 2,400 and $ 3,000 per month, but that includes paying the rent.
The truth is that there is no truly perfect place in the world to live and what is right for one may not be right for another. Even so, we loved our time in Panama and we love our life in Portugal. You can not ask for more.
This story originally ran in International Living.