What does it really take to make it in this town, financially speaking? More than the popular myth of cheap Central American living belies, but still less than what our household of three spent in the States just to break even.
The cost of living in Boquete has risen rapidly over the past few years, as foreigners, entranced by promises of easily assimilation into a tropical paradise on an affordable budget, have flooded the housing, good and services markets with their gringo cash. As a result, the cost of living in Boquete is among the highest in all of Panama. El Valle (Panama’s other area with a temperate year-round climate) and Panama City (Central America’s urban hub) being two other high-cost locales.
If you are pursuing the implied dream of <$200 per month rent, you’ll need to live outside Boquete and El Valle in a more rural location, pretty much anywhere else in Central or coastal Panama. The trade-off for this will be the heat, as year-round temperatures range between 85-90 degrees with dense humidity in the rest of the country. You’ll either pay high cooling costs, which will offset your cheap rent, or sweat… constantly.
As with any budget reporting, the bottom line depends on when and where you spend your money. We chose to live in an American style house for as little rent as we could find during our search. We chose to purchase a relatively inexpensive vehicle, since my husband is adept at car repairs. We chose to invest in private school for our young daughter. We eat organic, non-gmo food whenever possible. Your choices will obviously vary according to your priorities and income level.
I have kept extremely detailed records since the moment we arrived in Boquete. I’d say accuracy hovers around 90%, as I can threaten, but not force the people I live with to participate in record-keeping. After tabulation, this is what I can share:
Our Monthly Budget in Boquete, Panama
- Rent: $525 (includes electric and water)
- Propane Gas: $6 (cost to refill a tank)
- Internet: $32 (Cable Onda)
- Netflix: $8
- VPN Service: $4.58 (Strong VPN annual subscription)
- Housekeeper: $30 (1/2 day, 2 x per month)
- Gas for Vehicle: $100 (diesel)
- Private School: $50 (Pio XII in downtown Boquete)
- Food: $700 – $900 (organic, non-gmo – as available)
- Pet Grooming: $16 (every other month)
- Medical: $150 (no insurance, no prescriptions)
As you can see, our monthly budget comes in around $2000 per month. Our unit consists of a dad, mom, young daughter, fat dog and a cat. We live modestly, but comfortably. With more income, we would add extra-curricular activities for our daughter, more eating out and little trips to explore nearby spots, Panamanian medical insurance and HBO streaming for an estimated increase to $2500.
This number is at least $1000 less per month than when we lived in in the suburbs outside Syracuse, New York, where our rent alone for an old house with a weird non-functional layout was $1000 (we were in the cheapest non-apartment accommodation available in the suburb), and our heating bills ran over $200 for half the year.
Rent and The Rental Market
Rents in Boquete have doubled or tripled in the past few years, according to the verbal accounts of friends and acquaintances who’ve lived here for a while. We currently pay $525, electric and water included, for a partially furnished 1.5 bedroom house of new construction in the Santa Lucia neighborhood. It has quirks: Our daughter’s room is more of a giant closet or tiny office space. Access to the only bathroom is through our bedroom. And not one single room, not even the bathroom, has a door on it. Yet we are getting a “great deal” on an expat style rental.
Currently, tiny two bedroom houses in Alto Boquete are advertised for $450-$650. Several one bedroom casitas and apartments in various neighborhoods are listed in the same price range. Places (apartments and houses) with more generous comforts such as a washer and dryer, dishwasher, fenced yard or two or three bedrooms cost closer to $800 per month. There is no shortage of grander options, with prices ranging from $1000-$2500 per month, depending on how high on the hog you choose to live. The four-bedroom house we lived in prior to this one on the Jaramillo mountain charged $1600 per month.
Another other option is to rent a “Panamanian” style house, which requires an “in” with Panamanians. Expect to speak excellent Spanish to find one, and be willing to forgo square footage and the aforementioned amenities, as well as convenience of location. However, if you find one and are willing to make those compromises, you can rent for $200 or $350 per month.
We have friends who live in a “tiny house” for $200 per month, others who live above a restaurant downtown in a noisy two-bedroom apartment that smells of fried Peruvian fish for $550 per month, and still others who have a cute little two-bedroom house downtown for $450, but got an amazing deal a while back and aren’t giving it up. We also have friends enjoying a Panamanian rental, surrounded by an extended family who built a few houses for extra income on their property, for $175 per month. These friends are fluent in Spanish and comfortable with the chickens and soccer ball-kicking kids running through their yard; and they drive half a mile down an unpaved road to get home.
Low utility costs remain a perk of living in Panama. Our electricity bill hovers around $30 per month, a figure much higher than other people I know who report bills of $10-$20 per month. We keep fans running almost constantly because Santa Lucia runs hotter than we prefer, but don’t need an air conditioner. We wouldn’t need to do so on the Jaramillo mountain or even El Salto, which sport cooler microclimates. The electric bill also includes a tiny apartment tenant attached to the house we are renting.
Water costs run even less than electricity. Most ovens and dryers run off propane gas. After investing in a tank for around $60, it costs $6 to refill. Rarely do we go through an entire tank in one month, though we cook at home almost every meal.
The Cable Onda internet bill deducts $32 from our account each month. We chose a mid-range mbps. Be aware that Cable Onda only serves the lower lying areas – not past Jaramillo Centro, nor the upper areas of Volcancito. Other providers who do service such areas offer much, much lower mpbs for triple the price.
Cable is a variable, and an expense with which we are not familiar, though I can tell you Skye Satellite is $100 per month. Common alternatives include subscriptions to Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Amazon, etc., each at their own seemingly nominal price point. Though once you choose two or more, you’re basically paying the same cost as cable. The plus side of the subscriptions is everything is in English and there are no ads.
However. Some of these require that you sign in from an IP address that originates in the United States. Since you are obviously in Panama, you will need to purchase a VPN (Virtual Private Network) service and sign in to it every time you want to binge watch Breaking Bad or recent episodes of John Oliver Tonight… or any NFL stream. We use Strong VPN, which cost $55 for an entire year. It isn’t a lot per month, but is required to utilize many subscriptions.
One of the perks of living in Panama is cheap labor. This post is not about the politics of a living wage, though I’m not opposed to considering the philosophical aspects in the future. The bottom line is housekeepers make around $2.50 per hour and gardeners make $25 per day. It is customary to provide lunch for either a half or full-day shift. Our housekeeper comes once every two weeks for four hours to hit the spots I don’t. She vacuums dead bugs out of the window sills, is the only person who mops the floor and will do the extra stuff like wiping out the inside of the refrigerator if I ask specifically.
Gas for Vehicle
Fuel costs are relative to your lifestyle choices. We drive to David every 2-3 weeks to stock up on dry goods and affordable cheeses not offered in town. We like to take a scenic drive here and there, but for the most part are just running around town, taking our daughter to school and back.
If you have children, you have six choices. One of the four private schools in Boquete District: Pio XII, Guadalupano, Buen Pastor or Academia International; Panamanian public school; or homeschooling. The private schools run from $50-$165 per month, depending on institution and grade level.
Food costs represent a variable with more propensity to slide a scale based on personal lifestyle choices than even entertainment. I’ve written a post about food prices already. What I can tell you about our food choices is that we try to eat organic, gluten-free, non-gmo and/or hydroponic whenever possible. We don’t eat a lot of meat, but are, for the moment, relapsed vegetarians. You could absolutely eat more cheaply if quality of ingredients is not your first priority.
Additionally, we go through almost a pound of coffee per week, don’t drink much booze anymore and stick to water as our primary source of hydration. When we do eat out, we eat at Panamanian restaurants (rice, beans and chicken) for $3 per meal, and we only do that when we’re too exhausted or busy to cook at home. Eating out, like anywhere, can cost a little or a lot in Boquete.
We include feeding our dog and cat in the food budget, and don’t separate extra little non-food purchases that might be on a grocery store receipt (such as a potholder to replace the one my daughter caught on fire) when tallying the total food expenditures for a month.
This might seem like a non-essential, but it costs half the price for better service than we’ve received in the States, while ensuring that our dog stays cool and that our house is not overrun by dog hair. It’s one of those “luxury” services so much less expensive in Panama, like having a housekeeper, that improves our quality of life. The Dog Spot
Another variable, on which I intend to do a separate post. I see the chiropractor every week out of necessity for $25 per visit. Anything else falls under “emergency” or “planned” status (such as a dental cleaning). We seem to have at least one of those two each month, making it a “regular” expense. At the moment, we have no insurance of any kind to add to the budget.
We stocked up big time on specialty products from the States before we came. We use 7th Generation cleaning supplies, non-toxic deodorant and shampoos, and I make our laundry detergent from Dr. Bronner’s bar soap, borax and washing soda. So, at this time, our budget does not reflect such products, except for vinegar and bleach, both of which are included in the food budget.