Snowbirds Land in Rural Panama
Canadian snowbirds escaping winter in Pedasi, Panama
Roosters started crowing somewhere between 2:30 and 4:30 in the morning, continuing almost constantly until mid-morning when the crowing tapered off to intermittent for the rest of the day. From time to time, dogs wailed as accompaniment to the cock-a-doodles. At sunrise, other birds joined the chorus. These sounds became familiar in our month-long sojourn in rural Panama.
My husband and I have spent three snowbird winters in the greater Phoenix area of Arizona. This year was time to do something different. January in the Phoenix area is warmer than our home on the Canadian prairies, but temperatures still merit long pants and sweaters and sometimes dip to the freezing mark overnight. Over the last two years, our two beloved Cavalier King Charles Spaniels passed away, just a little over a year apart, leaving holes in our hearts and freedom to travel further afield. We looked for some place HOT.
We wound up in Pedasi, Panama. Pedasi is a small town (population 2000 as of the 2010 census) at the southern end of the Azuero Peninsula along the Pacific Coast, about 350 kilometres from Panama City. It is a quaint, laid-back fishing town which has developed a small expat community over the last few years and attracts tourists to its nearby surfing beaches.
We rented a typical Panamanian house, complete with tin roof, which had been renovated by an American. A hallway along one side connected the front and back and provided access to the other rooms. A living room at the front, two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen at the back of the house. There was no eating area inside the house. Instead we used the table on the back patio. Free-standing, open shelves in the kitchen contained dishes and cookware. Everything was covered with towels. The owners told us they did that because geckos are known to get into traditional homes. I never saw a gecko in the kitchen, but I did spot a couple in the living room. My husband saw a gecko once in the kitchen.
There was an electric water heater attached to the shower, the only place in the house where hot water was available. To this Canadian, the combination of water and electricity sounds dangerous, but it was quite safe and is very common in Panama. An alcove on the back patio contained a stacking washer and dryer. Cold water only in the washer. The dryer was powered by a portable gas tank, similar to the propane tanks we use on barbecues in Canada. The dryer was unusable for the first week because the tank was empty. The owner had been unable to replace it. The stores in town were sold out. After he installed a new tank, we still only used the dryer for towels and sheets. Everything else we hung to dry in the second bedroom. Nothing took very long to dry. I suspect very few of the town locals had dryers. Washing was usually hung outside to dry. And we saw one of our neighbours using a wringer washer in her back yard.
We were a five minute walk from the main store, not huge by Canadian and U.S. standards, but adequately stocked, although availability of particular items varied throughout the week depending on last stocking time. (There were a few smaller “mini” grocery stores throughout the town.) With the exception of a few North American brand items, prices were generally reasonable. The store had an in-house butcher and meat was inexpensive. Not surprising, as we’d seen fields of cattle on our ride from the city and we knew there were lots of chickens around. The chicken was tasty – most of it free-range. Meat cuts looked different than we were used to and this posed more of a challenge. The stewing beef I bought for a curry was a bit tough, but I should have simmered it for much longer. We’ll never know about the piece of meat we thought was pork tenderloin. Not wanting to make the kitchen even hotter by using the oven, I attempted to roast it in the toaster oven. I set the dial to toast instead of bake and we wound up with shoe leather. The frozen fish we bought (corvina, a type of sea bass) was excellent.
I eventually figured out how to use the toaster oven to roast vegetables, but the choice of vegetables in the store was limited. Greens are not a big part of the traditional Panamanian diet. Starchy vegetables are a staple. Some vegetable items were already bagged and priced in the cooler – three carrots, a bunch of lettuce, two or three limp stalks of celery. For those which we bagged ourselves, such as peppers, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, and cucumbers, we took the bag to the meat counter to be weighed and priced before going to the check out.
There was a large selection of fruit, both local and imported. Local fruit included watermelon, canteloupe, papaya, oranges, and pineapple. Trucks with their beds full of fresh fruit for sale drove through town a few times a week. The pineapple, whether bought at the store or from the food trucks, was the tastiest I’ve ever had. We ate well. And if we didn’t feel like cooking, this little town had an amazing selection of good restaurants.
Our days alternated between exploring the area and relaxing, with a beach day thrown in once a week or so. I wrote. We read. I had some ebooks on my iPad, but mostly we read the selection of second-hand paperbacks we’d brought with us, intending to leave them behind. Halfway through our stay, my husband had read them all. Smiley’s, a restaurant popular with the expats, had a small bookshelf where people left books. He found more reading material there.
We had Internet access of sorts. We purchased a SIM card with data access for the USB stick in the house router. That gave us wireless Internet access at approximately dial-up speed. We were able to stay in touch with family and friends, but some things we just didn’t do. I was unable to publish the blog posts I’d painstakingly prepared ahead of time. The cellular connection I had with my phone travel plan was faster and I published through that. About a week into our stay we learned the town had free “high-speed” Internet available at hot spots throughout the main part of town. We were able to access it from our house. I wouldn’t classify it in the same high-speed category as we’ve gotten used to in Canada, but compared to what we’d been using it seemed lightning fast. The speed slowed down at times and access to some sites, such as YouTube, was blocked, but overall it was a better option. I am seriously reconsidering my online priorities as a result of this experience.
Our lack of Spanish hindered us in some ways, but was not a major obstacle, mostly because people were so friendly, patient, and willing to help. But some degree of fluency in the language would have enabled us to interact more with our neighbours and get through reading labels in the grocery store much quicker. I regretted not working harder at the Spanish class we took three winters ago and at not doing something more after that class.
Ironically, one of the things I found the hardest to adjust to was the one of the main reasons we’d chosen Pedasi – the heat. Temperatures were in the low thirties Celsius (high eighties, low nineties Fahrenheit) with the humidity making it feel a few degrees warmer than that. The bedroom had an air conditioner unit we used at night. We were able to sleep comfortably, but afternoons were tough. Each room had a ceiling fan, but that made little difference during the day. Most of our days were spent outside in the shade of the back patio during the earlier part of the day, on the front porch later in the afternoon. We enjoyed the days with breezes. I discovered I could work in reasonable comfort at the patio table in the afternoon if I moved it to the shadiest part of the back patio and positioned a portable fan to blow directly at me. The living room was comfortable in the evening with the ceiling fan and the portable electric fan on. It always felt cooler at the beach with the breeze off the ocean.
There is a lot more to say about our time in Pedasi. We enjoyed it and often looked at each other and said, “I can’t believe we’re here.” Our stay had some similarities to our time in Arizona and yet was vastly different. Read Snowbirds in Pedasi – We are Not in Arizona Anymore for those comparisons. I end this post with more of the sounds we became used to in our time in Pedasi.
∼ Latin music playing at neighbour’s homes or other houses we walked by
∼ Cracks of fireworks every forty-five minutes or so during a Saturday evening fiesta
∼ Words blasting from a truck loudspeaker, advertising fruit and vegetables for sale, getting louder as truck came closer
∼ Short car honks as drivers passed houses of friends or someone they knew on the street
∼ Holas and Buenos from people passing our house as we sat on the porch or as we passed each other while walking
I’ve heard good things about Panama from some expats. Some have considered retiring there. I have yet to visit. Your post was very helpful and a good reference if I ever should go.
Susan, Panama is popular right now with both Canadians and Americans for retirement or winter homes. We were in a very hot and very rural part. There are other areas, more urban and cooler, which area also popular with expats and retirees. Maybe I’ll get back one to explore some of the other areas of Panama,
I’ve never been to Panama. Being so close to Mexico, I figured that the area would be primarily Spanish speaking. It sounds great though. How did you find the house to rent? My husband and I would like to do this with homes in AZ or other areas south soon.
Sabrina, we found this particular house through VRBO. Based on my experience with renting in Arizona, I wrote a post with some tips for renters. Maybe it will be on help to you. https://www.destinationsdetoursdreams.com/2014/10/seeking-arizona-winter-rental/
Wow, you picked a place that was really out there! Super interesting – Pedasi sounds like a fun experience. I wonder what the cost of living is like there? If you’re looking for heat and a bit more in terms of amenities and ex-pat community, I also recommend Puerto Escondido, Mexico. It’s still authentic and quite reasonably priced but there’s great wifi and fantastic ocean views.
Michele, the cost of living is less than than in the U.S. or Canada, but like all places can vary depending on how you live and what you do. I don’t know how it compares to Mexico. Thanks for your tip about Puerto Escondido. We will check that out. Is it difficult to get to?
Hey Donna, so glad to read again about your adventure in Pedasi. I was one of the lucky ones who received emails about your stay. I loved the title of this blog!
Thanks Linda. I struggle with titles for my posts. It’s so exciting when one works out well.
Well I admire your courage! Sounds like a great experience in Pedasi and as a good friend of mine is fond of saying, “At least now you have an opinion.” That’s a whole lot, in my book.
Thanks Jacquie. I don’t know that it took a great deal of courage to make our trip, just a willingness to experience something different. Pedasi was a good experience.
You are lucky! This was the coldest winter in Arizona, according to locals! I couldn’t help remembering my childhood in the Philippines as you described your adjustments during your month in Pedasi. I bet you spent only half of what you used to spend in Arizona! Congrats on completing this wonderful adventure.
Carol, it certainly cost less than we would have spent in Arizona, but I’m not sure the difference was as big as half. With the Canadian dollar having dropped so much in value over the past year, travel in general, and especially to the U.S., is much more expensive for us this year. Pedasi certainly was a great adventure.
Donna, you always take the most wonderful photos. It sounds like you moved right in with the Panamanians, something that I always thought was the only way to travel. It would be hard to get a feel for a place if you only stayed in the tourist spots. Interesting about the geckos – I don’t think I’d want them rooting around in my kitchen.
Thanks Lenie. Geckos eat bugs so I don’t mind a few of them around.
Your description of crowing roosters and barking dogs hold true for our time in Mexico oh so long ago and our new adventure in Greece. Water supply and heating it are also topics on which we can so relate. We’ve just spent our annual month in Hawaii and basked in those mid-80-degree temps, even on the most humid of days. I used to have a fear of geckos until we learned in Mexico that they eat the bugs – since then I’ve welcomed them into any home in which we live! Great recap and I look forward to your next post.
Thanks. Dealing with water supply and heating issues is likely a prominent concern in many parts of the world. We often forget how privileged we are in the U.S. and Canada. And geckos are okay with me too, as long as they get too prolific.
Living in a traditional home as you did must be the best way to experience a place and find out what it is really like. Panama sounds very interesting, very different from the northern part of North America.
Karen, definitely different than northern North America. In climate and culture. We enjoyed our experience.
How did you ever decide to stay there? It looks so tempting as right now it is -15 degrees C in Toronto! Good for you for trying out some place new!
Janice, it was a combination of things that led to us winding up in Pedasi, Panama. It started with looking for someplace hot. My husband did a lot of research and Panama rose high on his radar because of its current popularity with expats and retirees. We were open to any part of Panama, but after spending three winters in the desert, I wanted to be closer to an ocean for a change. We found the rental property in Pedasi and started looking into the town and decided to give it a try. We returned home through Toronto and it was about -15 when we landed. It was even colder when we got to Winnipeg – Winnipeg was going through a stretch of extreme cold. It was a shock to the system. It is warming up now though and before the end of the month we are off again – this time to Arizona.
My mother-in-law lived in Panama for awhile and she really liked it – although they lived in Panama City. Living in a tropical climate I tend to head to cooler climates but I would definitely enjoy this laid back atmosphere. And Donna you ever want to hang out with geckos just come on over because they are EVERYWHERE here! Enjoyed the tour. 🙂
Thanks Marquita. We spent three days in Panama City before heading to Pedasi. It is much more urban, modern, and western than the little town we stayed in. And yet it is very much Panamanian. Panama is an interesting country.
Hope you enjoyed your time there – looks as though you had a great adventure! I love to travel and when I see yet another destination on someone’s blog, I imagine myself in that country, eating the food and learning about the culture.
Your articles are so descriptive that I can actually envisage being at that destination.
Phoenicia, I’m glad I was able to make the destination come to live for you. It was a great adventure.
Wow! I, too, wondered how you took this leap of faith to wind up in Pedasi, Panama. Did you know people who had been there before you? Sounds like a sharp learning curve. It’s great that you both were so flexible to appreciate the best aspects. Reading this made me feel like a wimp:-)
Irene, I am a wimp much of the time. I’d read enough about the area before going to feel reasonably comfortable in giving it a try.
Loved reading all about your adventure! The roosters crowing in the morning must remind you of growing up on the farm in Morris 🙂
Theresa, I actually grew up inside the town so don’t remember roosters crowing (if they did, I’ve forgotten). But there was lots of other things about Pedasi to remind me that small town life has similarities even between cultures miles apart.
First time I’ve heard from someone traveling in Panama. Sounds like it was an adventure in the most positive of ways. Love the simplicity of the life you described–and the warmth and fresh produce!
Sorry to hear about your dogs passing. That’s difficult.
The roosters’ crowing would have made me crazy and I”m a morning person!
Rose Mary, you get used to the roosters after a few days. It was a fun and interesting adventure.
I haven’t been to Panama. I think it sounds like a nice place to visit. It’s kind of fun to live a more simple life while on vacation, as long as it doesn’t last too long. It reminds me a bit of my visit to Eleuthra in the Bahamas.
Beth, it was nice to have a chance to live more simply. Gives new perspective and time to recharge a little, even while exploring a new place.
Sounds a lot like living on St. Croix. We loved it. Believe it or not, you get used to the roosters. Don’t even notice them after a while.
Veronica, it was surprising how quickly I got used to the roosters and they didn’t bother my sleep at all.
Hi Donna. I’ read a fair amount about living in Panama via the International Living site. They really believe it is the best choice for retirement living for expats. We’ve only docked there while on a cruise, but I’ve never spent time there. Would love to check it out some time.
Doreen, it was via the International Living site that my husband first became interested in Panama. He then read more in other places. We had a friend who visited (a different area than we wound up in). It would be nice to go back some time and see some of the other areas.
This brought back a lot of great memories as we spent several weeks in Panama on both the Caribbean and Pacific sides exploring different areas in 2014 with the idea that we might return someday to live. By far our favorite area was the Azuero Peninsula, rural, laid back and hot! We loved all the fresh fish and good chicken but learned to do without beef because we never could get it to the chewing stage! The bounty of fruit was wonderful but, like you we really appreciated some green vegetables whenever we could find them. Anita
Anita, we enjoyed our time on the Azuero Peninsula but haven’t seen much of the rest of Panama to compare it to. After reading your comment, I’m glad I didn’t spend too much time trying to cook beef!
Your post paints such a good picture of your time in rural Panama. I haven’t been there yet but am very interested as it’s becoming a popular expat and retirement spot. Looking forward to more posts.
Shelley, we enjoyed our time in Pedasi. It was quite different than how we spent winters in the past so every day was an adventure. The people and the town were wonderful.
Sounds like you had an adventure this winter. I would spend my winter in Panama just for the great Pineapple. That is my absolute favorite fruit so I would probably be beyond ecstatic with the pineapple selection.
Erica, the pineapple was delicious.
What a wonderful description of Panama. I will admit I was there it was 1989 – 1990, lets just say I was there on business, and I did not have much time for sign seeing.
I like your description of the heat and humidity, that is one thing people from the northern parts cannot grasp about these countries. The humidity is high there, and you will feel it.
Thanks for sharing this with us.
William, I agree the humidity is hard to grasp if you’ve not experienced it. I wonder how much change you’d find if you went back to Panama now. Panama City has so many tall skyscrapers I’ve been told were built after 1999.
I love that you went far off the beaten path and experienced a more authentically typical version of life in Panama. The descriptions you gave of the roosters and drying clothes on the line made me think of when we lived on Kaua’i. And I loved that limited connectivity inspired you to re-prioritize your online time. I think you’ll return to Panama, and places like this one. 😉
Betsy, I haven’t completely re-prioritized my online activity. I am back home and it is easy to slip into more frequent access, but I am still mulling it over and think I will ultimately arrive at a place with new priorities. I don’t know if I will make it back to Panama, not because I didn’t like it, but because there are so many places to see and experience. The experience has definitely made me interested in other “off the beaten path” destinations.
Pedasi looks like a really relaxing place to spend the winter. I’d be thinking about one of those pineapples for breakfast every morning. Kind of goes with the setting.
Ken, our time here was pretty laid-back. And yes, the pineapple does seem to go with the setting – I miss it now that I am back in snow and cold for a short while.
Panama seems like a pretty cool place. I need to add it to my travel list.
Jason, Panama is an interesting place to visit. I will be writing more about it in the upcoming weeks. And I only saw a part of it.
I’ve been hearing interesting stories about Panama and love the fact that you chose to stay off the beaten path and had the time in one place to really have an authentic experience. It looks pretty laid back and relaxing-perfect for recharging the batteries!
Alison, it was great to be able to stay in Pedasi for a month. It was laid-back and authentic.