Never In a Million Years!
By Julie Groves
We never would have thought we would be lounging in a rooftop pool, 32 floors up, bedazzled by postcard-perfect scenery after after a day of rainforest trekking and a gourmet meal served at a castle in the mountains! Last year at this time we had no thought of real estate investment, lifestyle change or retirement. As Canadian small business owners, we assumed we would be doing the “same old, same old” until we were just “too old.” Then a kaleidoscope of events took place in 2012- 2014 that furiously flung open some pretty amazing doors of opportunity and here we are: sun drenched, beach buffed, Panama property owners.
When our business started (and continued!) to expand, we decided we could at least start dreaming about no more white-knuckling it through Canadian winters. We started planning our vacations in tropical places with a “what if” objective continually whirring in the background. That was fun for a while, but the airplane landed and the dream slammed back to reality with a frosty smack of winter in the face. Plan B was needed.
Number crunching, financial projection, spreadsheet analysis and online investigating: fun! We had to see how to Shazam our nest egg into a possible future void of polar vortexes and full of sun and fun. Amassing a realistic picture of what we had to work with was the first step. The second was creating a list of personal needs. At almost retirement age, we had no desire to end up in a shack on a hill just because it had a palm tree. My husband, the engineer, takes an analytical approach to everything, and I have a Type A, detail-obsessed personality, so it didn’t take long for us to have our whole future cobbled together (at least on paper). So onto the third (GIANT) step: the “how” and “where” (with extra emphasis on the “HOW?”).
Online searching turns up endless lists of countries rated as the best places to retire. It’s worth the time to help narrow things down in comparison to your personal needs list. We also spent hours reading personal blogs and watching videos from expats who had already made the jump. Topping my husband’s needs list was golf and health care (in that order) and topping mine was health care for my husband and an active fitness community. With that in mind, we booked a “what if” vacation to Panama for August 2014.
Then the “not in a million years” door fell off its hinges, giving us a wide berth for early retirement! By the time our trip to Panama came around, we had gone from “what if” to “let’s do this thing!” The difference for us in comparison to other places we had visited is that Panama has a stable government, explosive development, a huge expat community of all ages and a “Friendly Nations Agreement” that literally sets Panama on a pedestal high above other viable options. We are welcomed here.
Most people recommend renting and trying out a country before investing, and I would say that would be the wisest. However, our experience of working in the 4th world country of Haiti for 20 years (our other job) has given us endless hard-core lessons of how to live and work in another culture in the least stressful way. We know that you must embrace a foreign culture with humility and not have the audacious attitude that it must change to accommodate you. So that experience made it easier for us to make the quick decisions we did and end our retirement quest after one visit to Panama. Which brings me to the end of the story and start of the next one.
We found an amazing investment guide, the magical Sarah Booth, (bonus: she is a Canadian with almost a decade of living in Panama) and a fabulous Panamanian lawyer, Tamara Fernandez. We bought two condos during our 10-day stay. One, much to my husband’s delight, sits in the middle of a gorgeous golf course. To say we are excited to immerse ourselves in this exquisite, exceptional country would be a vast understatement. We will keep one condo as a rental that will pay all the bills and after five years (just a little work left!) we will live in the other. As I type this, we are on our way to Panama City to file for residency and solidify the next leg of our journey.
All this has been possible because of Sarah’s profound patience and supernatural savvy. Although we had to accomplish everything long-distance after our return to Canada, her attentiveness and effervescent spirit made us feel like she was right beside us all the way. I can’t say enough about her capacity as a re-location expert, and for sure can’t say enough about the diverse, unique country of Panama and its extraordinary people, both nationals and expats.
Would I encourage others to invest in either a change of lifestyle/career or retirement years here? That would be a BIG, GIANT “YES!” Talk to Sarah, she’ll hook you up and I’ll see you at the beach. Your happy ending could be one vacation away.