In the early evening, as the sun starts to sink over the coffee farms and flower plantations, Robert Lawrence likes to stroll along the river that bisects the town of Boquete. A tall, 67-year-old Texan with silver hair and a friendly smile, he has made his home in this mountainous region of Panama for the past four years. As he meanders along the cracked walkway, he notes the flashy new condos sprouting up on the hillsides, built by foreign investors to meet the influx of American retirees.
The numbers of migrating retirees have swelled in recent years, transforming this scenic hamlet of 20,000 in fundamental ways. For years, Boquete’s primary business was agriculture; today it is also tourism. As many as 20 percent of the town’s residents are “expats,” as they call themselves, although they are more accurately described as immigrants or economic “refugees.”
“Property taxes here are almost nil and health care is actually affordable,” says Lawrence. “They have something called a ‘Pensionado Visa,’” he continues with enthusiasm. “If you’re a foreigner and can prove a certain amount of income, you get immediate permanent residency and discounts on everything from restaurant meals to transportation to health care. That’s a real draw.”
The program, in fact, allows anyone over the age 18 who is receiving a minimum of $1,000 per month, or who invests a minimum of $100,000 in real estate, to access a wide array of discounts, including half-price movies and hotels, 25 percent off utility bills, and reductions on medical and dental care. Panama introduced the visa in 2012, as a way to help replace the flow of expatriate money that had helped fuel the economy until the American military withdrew in 1999. As a consequence, affluent foreigners may now pay less for many goods and services than the Panamanian housekeepers and gardeners in their employ. To further sweeten the pot, some banks and shops have special pensioned sections, so those who hold the visas get served quicker.
Panama wasn’t the first Central American country to set about luring retirees from the North with promises of perks and discounts. Costa Rica pioneered the idea in the 1980s and 1990s, setting off the first post-retirement rush. Since then, so many middle-aged and older Americans have been moving south of the border that many observers have begun referring to Central America as “the new Sun Belt.” With retirement becoming ever less affordable in the United States, locales where costs of living and heath care are low are increasingly attractive.
Though estimates vary, with some observers suggesting that as many as 1.4 million American retirees now live overseas, official reports suggest the number to be around 600,000. Popular destinations include Belize, Tamarindo (also known as Tamagringo) in Costa Rica, San Miguel de Allende and Lake Chapala in Mexico, and Cotacachi and Cuenca in Ecuador. In 2015, International Living, a magazine that serves the expat retiree market, named Panama the number-one destination for offshoring seniors.