Our first housesitting assignment was in Panama. We spent six months living in a semi-remote community, Los Altos de Cerro Azul; located in the mountains, an hour and a half drive from Panama City. We haven’t spent six months in one place since we left home in April 2014! Spending the time we did, we have a good idea what it would be like to live full time in that part of Panama. I’d like to share our first-hand knowledge of costs, culture, and a few of our money saving strategies that made getting to know this affordable expat destination even cheaper.
We spent 6 months in a stunning remote tropical location
Lost Altos de Cerro Azul is a private gated mountain community located in the San Blas Cordillera. The climate is a lovely 21-26 degrees Celsius (70-80 degrees Fahrenheit) because of the elevation- about 2500-3000 feet above sea level. The area will never be overdeveloped because it sits in the vast mountainous Chagres National Park. The location is very special; it offers access to one of the oldest cloud forests in the Western Hemisphere and is home to birds and animals unique to Panama. While we lived there, we saw white-faced capuchins, ring-tailed coati, capybara, sloths, squirrels, harpy eagles, toucans, ruby-throated hummingbirds, thousands of hummingbirds all within the community!
Panama is a popular choice among Canadian and U.S. expats. Here are some of the reasons why:
- Lower cost of living than both Canada and the U.S
- Temperate climate
- Good healthcare
- A straightforward Visa program
- Easy access to amenities and luxuries available in both Canada and the U.S. (for the most part)
- Financially rewarding programs for pensioners
- The currency is U.S.D.
On many counts, Panama was exactly the kind of place we were looking to settle down for a while. It had all of the hallmarks we look for in destinations we want to learn more about. Los Alto de Cerro Azul was particularly interesting to us because of its semi-remote location. Having lived rurally in Canada, we knew how much we enjoyed living off the beaten path and Cerro Azul was similar to our living situation back home. It offered quiet living away from the craziness of the big city, but everything we could want or need was within an hour and a half drive from the community.
Cheap living costs are our primary focus when deciding where we want to travel but safety, culture and if we feel welcome as tourists are all important factors to us as well. We lived in Los Altos de Cerro Azul in the offseason (the rainy season). This meant there were a lot fewer expat residents living in the community and fewer Panamanian vacation property owners driving from the city to spend weekends. There were a few permanent residents we got to know, as well as restaurant and shop owners close to the community.
We felt very safe and welcome everywhere we went in and around the community. Los Altos de Cerro Azul is a gated, security guards worked the gate 24\7. A lot of property owners in the community only visited part time, security was necessary as a deterrent for burglaries because many homes could be left empty for weeks or months. With few amenities close by (a convenience store, the community club and a couple of locally owned restaurants) we made frequent trips down the mountain to the town 24 de Diciembre (yes, that is the name of the town) which was about a 45 minute drive from Cerro Azul.
We had access to shopping, clinics, and everything we could need there. English wasn’t widely spoken by people working in the community or where we shopped in 24 de Diciembre, but we found it pretty easy to communicate. A lot of English speaking expats did their shopping in town so people working in stores were friendly and always willing to help despite language barriers.
We found Panamanians to be warm, friendly, generous and welcoming by nature. All of the things we love about Latin American culture; the importance of family, friendships, and passionate patriotic pride were part of everyday life in Panama.
One of the things we didn’t really enjoy was driving. The best word to describe traffic when we ventured to town or into Panama City was chaotic. Many cars on the road had visible signs of minor accidents and it was easy to understand why. There was no consistency for speed or obedience of street signs by most drivers. Another problem in Panama City was the lack of street signage. We had challenges finding specific addresses on more than one occasion because of the lack of road signs.
We felt safe, welcome and found people to be lovely, but the driving was notably unpleasant.
Our costs and why they were so low
There were no amenities within walking distance for us so we had to drive 10 minutes (driving on the mountain was much more enjoyable) to a convenience store offering just the necessities. There was a restaurant open limited hours in the community at the club, but we frequented another locally owned establishment 30 minutes from the community one or two times weekly. We would shop for groceries, gas and most other things in 24 de Diciembre.
Grocery and necessity costs– We spent $300 USD a week for just about everything (groceries, medications, gas and miscellaneous items we needed) living in Los Altos de Cerro Azul. We shopped for food at two stores, Rey, and Machetazo, both were very much like grocery stores back home. This is how some of our costs broke down:
Costs of basic food items in USD
Milk (1 litre) – $1.35
Cheese (500 Grams) – $ 3.35
Bread (fresh baked 500 Grams) – $1.92
Eggs (12) – $2.00
Chicken breasts (boneless skinless), (1KG) – $7.12
Domestic beer (0.5 Litre bottle) – $0.67
Bottle of mid to upper range wine- $6.00
Gas for the truck – $20-$30 weekly
Locally grown fruit like oranges and pineapples were almost 50% cheaper than back home in Canada. Alternatively, some imported produce (apples) were almost 50% more than in Canada.
On average, our grocery bills in Panama were 38% less than our grocery bills in Canada.
Restaurants and Entertainment
With the community being semi-remote, we didn’t venture to Panama City often, nine times in our six months stay. This helped us save a lot of money, we couldn’t be tempted to spend by shiny shop windows and inviting street cafes. We did visit a local restaurant ten minutes drive from the community, though. It was recommended by a local in the community. We enjoyed the atmosphere and the delicious pollo asado (grilled chicken) and sancocho de gallina (chicken stew) they served at least once a week! We spent an average of $16 USD each time we visited. That included three full meals, two glasses of wine, two beers, and a fresh lemonade. We would have paid at least $50 for the same meal in Canada.
Restaurant pricing in Cerro Azul was 67% cheaper than pricing at restaurants at home in Canada for comparable meals.
We did eat at restaurants when we visited Panama city and paid a visit to other local attractions as well. Restaurants and attractions where there was an admission cost were more expensive in Panama City than closer to Cerro de Azul. All told we spent $900 on eating out and visiting attractions in Cerro Azul and Panama City.
Accommodation is where we saved on living costs the most
When we landed the housesitting assignment, we were overjoyed! It was the perfect way to experience the community like a local and get a clear picture of what it would be like to live in that corner of the world. Six months of free accommodation was pretty exciting too!
It would have been difficult if not impossible for us to afford to rent a furnished home in the same community for that amount of time. We would have been subject to vacation rental pricing because the lease would have been less than a year. Renting a vacation rental in the area would have cost us $9300 for the same period.
Couple that with the cost to rent and insure a vehicle and we would never have considered spending as much time without the benefit of a housesitting assignment.
We were able to make truly informed decisions about Panama because of housesitting, the cost saving element that made our fact-finding mission in Panama possible.
The bottom line on living costs Panama
We spent $8464 USD total ($1411 a month) living six months in Panama (excluding flights). Our average cost per day was $46 for a family of three! Panama was very cheap for us because we had free accommodation with our housesitting assignment.
If we could have signed a long-term lease (a year) in Los Altos de Cerro Azul, we would have paid around $800 USD a month to rent a 2 bedroom house. Paying rent would have bumped our average cost per day to $74 USD, still very reasonable for a family of three.
Living like a local in Los Alto de Cerro Azul we were able to experience all of the best parts of living in the community; the stunning views, the huge variety of wildlife, the serenity of living in such a protected area. We also got to see the drawbacks to living in a rain forest community; rampant mold, scorpions, snakes, wild weather and terrible road conditions. Ultimately, learning the drawbacks we decided that part of Panama was not where we wanted to establish a long-term base.
Landing a long-term housesitting assignment helped us afford to make an informed decision on Panama.
Is there somewhere in the world you would like to learn about? Maybe you want to retire somewhere warmer or make a lifestyle change to live well for less money. Housesitting is a great way to insert yourself into local life in a destination to make sure the move is right for you.
If you’re interested in saving money on travel, house sitting or hiring a house sitter is a great solution! HouseSitMatch is a house sitting platform we use and love. Check out their benefits and start saving on travel for your next vacation.