How to Travel from Panama City to Boquete

This is a quick post on how to get from Panama City to Boquete, upon the request of a reader. I am happy to oblige! I am not going to take the time to provide tons of links within the text, as anyone reading this already has internet access and can easily consult Google to find Air Panama, Copa Airlines, etc. I’ll do so when I have a chance and remove this sentence. In the meantime, I hope the information is useful.

Option 1: Fly

David Airport - 1
The airport in David

There are two companies currently flying between PC and David, which is your point of entry into the Chiriquí Province on your way to Boquete. Air Panama and Copa Airlines. They have similar schedules and fares, though Copa’s seem to vary while Air Panama’s do not. Just last week Copa offered flights from David to Panama for $45 (!) on way on Wednesday morning. Typically they are around $100, though, on either airline, regardless of direction or day.

Schedule-wise, it is very difficult to coordinate flights into Panama with a secondary flight into David on the same day, which necessitates taxi or bus and hotel costs. This is because there is only one morning and one evening flight time per carrier per day. If your flight doesn’t coordinate well with those times… you’re staying overnight. Pay close attention to this when planning your flights, and consider overnight flights into Panama to mitigate this expense.

The benefits of flying are obvious: the trip is only about 30 minutes across the country. Also, if you flew into Panama City with Copa, you now have the option to book directly into David, which will transfer your generous international luggage allotment all the way across the country with you. Copa is also the only option for flying an approved in-cabin pet across Panama.

One major difference between Air Panama and Copa Airlines is that Air Panama flies into Allbrook Airport, while Copa flies into Tocumen. If you fly with Air Panama, you will be adding a taxi ride of about $30-$45 to get between airports. This ride takes at least 45 minutes in normal traffic and should be considered with serious cushion when planning and booking flight times.

Benito - 1
Call Benito Noriega for excellent taxi service in Panama City

Anyone who needs an honest, reliable taxi driver who speaks English, keeps a clean vehicle in good repair and provides terrific service from airport transports to holding your bags while you shop to trips across Panama to shuttles between the airports should contact our friend Benito Noriega. He was recommended to us by friends in Boquete during our first visit here, and has provided our taxi service exclusively in Panama City, from driving us with our dog across the country, to taking our guests from outside the country sightseeing during long layovers at Tocumen. He walked my young daughter and I into the Allbrook bus station to help us buy overnight bus tickets and made sure we were safely aboard. We’ve met his delightful wife and children and can’t recommend him highly enough!

Hint: Locals who find their luggage exceeds the allotment of either airline use Fletes Chavale to transport their goods. This service transports items by truck between Panama and Boquete on a near daily basis, meaning your luggage should arrive in Boquete the day after they get it. The fee is nominal, around $5 or $10 per item, saving travelers a whole lot on additional airline luggage fees.

Fletes Chevales - 1

Option 2: Hire A Taxi Service

There are shuttle/taxi services who will transport you across the country for around $400-$500. Driving is your only option for getting a large pet that won’t fit in an airline cabin across the country. It is a good option for several people with a lot of luggage looking to mitigate airline fees, baggage shipping costs, etc. And, though it’s a long drive at about 8 hours with the incessant construction after Santiago, it does provide the added benefit of letting you lay eyes on the entire country if you haven’t before.

Option 3: Drive Yourself across Panama

Car rentals are ridiculously expensive in Panama, on purpose, thanks to government regulations. What I can tell you for sure, without over linking to every car rental place in the country, is our personal experience that renting a car to drive yourself costs almost exactly the same as paying a shuttle/taxi service. If you want to veer off the straight path to David, it’s a plus to rent the car. If you want to eliminate the risk of your first Panamanian speeding ticket or the mania of driving in Panama City… go with the taxi.

Option 4: Take the Bus

The bus is by far the most economical option to get from Panama to Boquete. Service runs all time of day from the station at Allbrook Mall (remember the taxi from Tocumen to Allbrook if you plan to take the bus or see the note below) for about $18 per person. I can’t remember the cut-off age for child fares, but my 6 year old daughter had to pay the full price last time we took the bus. I also don’t know if an official baggage allotment exists or not, but we brought four giant stuffed-to-the-limit bags, plus several small carry-ons with us and no one batted an eye.

My husband just took the bus from Boquete to Panama last week, but during the day. He also paid $18. The trip was long and arduous due to the construction and many stops – about ten hours. My best advice is to take the overnight buses. There are officially two, one leaving in the ten o’clock hour and one around midnight. They stop only in Santiago briefly and arrive at the main terminal in David. From there, you will need to hop on a bus bound for Boquete, which costs about $1.50 per person. (And from there, you’d arrive either at your destination if it’s along the bus route, or hop into a taxi for another $1 or $2 to get to your accommodation.)

I confess I don’t speak or read Spanish well, and do not yet understand the ins and outs of the bus system. But I can say that the night we took the express bus, there was more than one bus lined up per time slot. What I think happens is that if there is need for a second or even third overnight bus on a certain route, they typically have one available. Maybe not… But it seemed so in our case, for our particular route. You also have to be there in person to purchase tickets. It’s not an internet friendly situation. So prepare for the possibility that you might encounter a full bus and have to wait however long it might take for another one to be ready.

The bus wasn’t uncomfortable, nor was it the lap of luxury. It wasn’t full, so we were able to spread out across a row of seats to attempt sleep. It very chilly, so pack a travel blanket or a sweater and socks. While it might be the only time you use them on your trip to Panama, you’ll be glad at that moment that you did.

Note: There is a bus from Tocumen to Allbrook if you want to save the taxi fare, which takes about an hour and a half to two hours. However, at that point (timewise) you are really doing some fancy maneuvering. This would work if you flew in on an overnight flight or very early in the day and didn’t mind all the bus transfers; or if economical transport was truly your number one goal. But if you are traveling with kids, have a lot of luggage to haul around, or aren’t up for virtually 24-36 hours of straight travel, this would be the moment to spent the extra cash on a taxi.

Summary

Again, I am not a consummate traveler across Panama who understands the ins and outs of every method listed here. But I have used all of the options above to get across the country, depending on our circumstances, finances and schedule. I hope this provides a useful introduction to your options. Feel free to comment with questions I can help answer from inside the country.

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The Cost of Living in Boquete

Scenic view of Bajo Boquete
Scenic view of Bajo Boquete

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.

Utilities

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.

Media

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.

Housekeeper/Gardener

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.

School

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

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.

Pet Grooming

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

Medical Expenses

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.

Notes

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.

 

The Best Time of Year to Move to Boquete

During the planning stages of relocating to Boquete, you might wonder if there is one time of year that is better than another to arrive. I think the answer is yes. Let me tell you why.

Boquete is a tourist town, meaning its economy is based primarily on tourism, because revenue generates when the population swells to accommodate vacationers and partial-year residents during certain months of the year. This is “the season,” when accommodations fill to capacity, restaurants stay busy all day, activities require reservations in advance and the backseats of cab drives never lack for fares.

Here, like almost all other tourist locations, the season corresponds to the weather; because nobody enjoys lying on the beach during hurricane season or skiing mountains covered with spring flowers. People travel to Lake Tahoe when it’s snowing, the Outer Banks when it’s summer and Florida during the months of frozen tundra in North America.

Boquete's Town Square in April 2015
Boquete’s Town Square in April

In Central America, the prime months for tourism occur during the “dry season,” the months not marked by daily afternoon rainfall, which also correlate with major holidays, festival celebrations and school recess in Panama. Specifically, these months are December to April, with shoulder periods (non-peak but still active tourism weeks) in November, when many Panamanians are on holiday, and July, when North American families with children travel for summer vacation.

Understanding how the tourist season works provides invaluable information for anyone planning relocation to Boquete because it explains when and why relevant markets are flooded, and highlights the different price points within them.

The Rental Housing Market

For example, during season lodging in Boquete is booked solid at full-price, leaving little room in the short-term accommodation market for new arrivals seeking a temporary home base from which to find long-term housing. Locals are not moving between long-term housing options either. They are hunkered down, working long hours to make as much money as they can in service industry jobs before the season ends, since often this time period comprises their near-total earning potential for the year.

Additionally, owners have little incentive to rent to long-term tenants during season because they can make more money from nightly or weekly rentals to tourists. So the long-term rental market is also nearly frozen. If and when you do find a rental of any kind during the season, you will definitely overpay for it due to the simple law of supply and demand.

Once the season winds down, both of these rental markets loosen up considerably on two fronts: occupancy and price. Hotels, casitas and vacation rentals are willing to accept longer-term tenants at a lesser rate. And locals, who finally have free time and are flush from their earnings, are able to move into new housing, creating openings in the long-term rental market for expats at the local’s price point.

Also, owners are usually more inclined to rent their properties for longer terms after experiencing the hectic process of managing short-term accommodations. At this point, the convenience of steady income often outweighs the dollar signs of vacation rentals. This is also the moment when partial-year residents who own their homes are leaving and willing to rent out their homes for 6 or 9-month leases.

My Personal Experience

My family experienced this rental market firsthand this year when we unexpectedly needed a new place to live in March. It was still season, so there were very few rentals available, and what was available exceeded our price point. We lucked out and found a place by April 1 with a 9-month lease at the top of our budget. But we noticed as April progressed, many more properties appeared for rent, several of them equal to or under our budget, for full-year leases. If we had been able to hold out another few weeks, we might have found a better rental situation.

Our next trick will be to find a place to live by December 1, when our lease is up. Since this will be in-season, we will need to search and sign a lease in October, when properties are still available. This will finally get us out of the loop of looking for a rental during peak months. By moving to Boquete during the off-season, you will avoid entering this loop altogether.

The Used Vehicle Market

Another important market affected by the tourist season is for used vehicles, which are an expensive investment in Panama. The used vehicle market floods in April/May because this is when people are most in flux.

The part-timers, folks who live in Boquete during the best weather months (when the weather is worst in their country), return home at this time. While some partial-year residents make this schedule a lifestyle, others only come once to try it out. Depending on where one is in that process, investing in and/or sell a vehicle results. Some who own property here keep them stored. But many who were just trying it out while renting put them up for sale.

This is also the best time of year for expats who’ve lived here for a few years but have decided to move home to return – because they have the best months ahead of them. The dreaded upcoming winter is not a situation anyone is eager to jump into after spending months on the equator. Better to ease into it, eh? And again, this is also the time of year when locals are flush from the season’s earnings, meaning they can upgrade to a better vehicle after selling their current one.

On a cruise through Boquete’s tiny main drag in May, you will see se vende signs decorating the rear window of about 35% of all cars. And that doesn’t include listings online, cars parked on lots or referrals from word-of-mouth.

Not only is vehicle selection wider, but because people in flux are typically in a hurry, list prices are lower and negotiation is encouraged. The off-season is a much better time to purchase a used vehicle in Boquete because you’ll get a better deal.

Other Benefits of Moving to Boquete During the Off-Season

Boquete Flower Festival February 2015
A shot from the Boquete Flower Festival in February

If you’ve arrived during the off-season, found a rental and bought a car, you need to do all the things necessary to set up house: buy furniture, register and insure your car, replace the funky bath mats that came with your rental, etc. You need to figure out where to buy the types of food you want to eat, where to buy home goods, the best times and routes to get there, etc. There are lots of etc. that could be included.

Essentially, this is the process of acclimation, getting your bearings, which is much easier to do when there are less people in town clogging up the roads, vying for the same services and goods. You will have more time to meander gently through this process because the pace of the rainy season encourages interaction between locals. You’ll make friends and connections more quickly, get information easier and see what your new town is really like without the hustle and bustle.

Other benefits include discounted rates for activities and services, and the fact that the people providing them will have more time to spend with you, increasing the quality of your experiences. Also, most Panamanian holidays occur from November to the roving date of Easter. There are fairs and festivals, parades and events. You’ll be able to get out and enjoy these if you’ve already nested for a few months, as your basic living environment will have been perfected.

And, the truth is, the weather during the rainy season isn’t so bad. Let’s face it: it’s not like it’s snowing. It just rains almost every afternoon, turning everything green again, swelling the waterways. The temperature variation is unnoticeable. There is still plenty of opportunity to enjoy Boquete. And, if you’re going to try living here year-round, you’re going to experience the rainy season sooner than later anyway. You might as well jump right in!

How Boquete is Like A 7-Layer Dip

As any good party hostess knows, a delicious layered dip is always a hit. What makes the layered dip so special is the combination of ingredients. Some of which might be delicious alone, but when mixed together contribute to an entirely new creation. A well-crafted dip enhances its individual components, resulting in a flavor sensation. Sometimes, the best dishes come from unlikely pairings.

And this is how Boquete is like a 7-layer dip.

Boquete is a small mountain town where several distinct categories of people have converged to form a vibrant, festive community that doubles as an international tourist destination. Like a 7-layer dip, the different groups who populate Boquete feature their own unique attributes. Some seem to have little in common with others. Yet they have blended together in this particular geographic location of Western Panama to form a community, elevating the experience of the town to a sum greater than its parts.

The groups who make up the 7 layers of Boquete, in no particular order:

  1. Standard Issue Panamanians

These are the everyday country natives who live in the province. They work in the labor jobs: gardening, farming, cleaning. Their wages hover between $2-$4 per hour, and they work long hours to get by. They build their houses room by room as they make enough money to do so and take buses and taxis because owning a car on Panamanian wages is much too expensive. Their children, the ones you see running around neighborhoods kicking soccer balls, attend Panamanian public schools, though, like most of the working class around the world, they may wish to send them to private school. Standard issue Panamanians flock to fairs on holidays, ride their horses around Boquete and often have little English, but a desire to learn.

  1. Professional Panamanians

Think of your real estate agent, your teacher or lawyer. These folks are also native Panamanians, but they work in professional jobs. Their wages are attached to the gringo market, meaning they may make more than the average native laborer because their clientele consists, at least partially if not mainly, of foreigners, who typically have more money to spend on services. They send their kids to private school, though perhaps on scholarship. Their children don’t run the neighborhoods. They stay inside doing homework and have play dates with cousins. Theirs are the Panamanian kids attending art classes and Tae Kwon Do with expat kids. They are likely your neighbors in Volcancito or Alto Boquete. Many speak English and have travelled to or lived in North America or Europe.

  1. Indigenous Panamanians

The Indio, who live in the mountains, are members of the Ngöbe Buglé tribe, easily identified by wide facial features and the women’s brightly colored dresses. Many are migrant farm workers who travel from the Comarca Reservation (on the border of the provinces of Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro) to pick beans during harvest time. They are literally the backbone of Panama’s coffee exportation economy, yet make as little as $1.75 per 5-gallon bucket of ripened berries. Their children walk up and down the mountains, the babies cradled in their mothers’ arms, the older kids unattended, going to and from public schools. The Indio also enjoy fairs as families, and are regulars in town on Saturday nights, but stick to their own. Their culture is at a crossroads as they attempt to avoid the technological age that is ravaging Pachamama, yet have no choice but to participate in the repercussions.

  1. Expats

This group varies drastically by country of origin, political beliefs and economic status: North Americans, Australians, South Americans, Europeans; socialists, democrats, libertarians and (a shockingly large contingent of) republicans all call Boquete home for at least part of the year. Most cite socio-economic and political motivations of some kind as a primary reason for their relocation to Panama. A majority of expats are pensionados (retirees), some getting by on social security alone, others living off millions in investments. This group also includes families with young children seeking integration with a larger world community. Yet the one thing that binds this group together is that they are not and never will be Panamanians. Having a cedula and speaking fluent Spanish will never completely erase the gringo tattoo emblazoned on their forehead.

  1. Tourists

This group seems self-explanatory, but can be divided into expat and native tourists. Expat torísticos include those scoping out the area for potential relocation, families exploring Costa Rica and Panama on vacation, and those who’ve heard of Boquete as a destination for healing energy and alternative medicine (which it is). Native torísticos from Panama City flock to the cool country climate on weekends, and during holidays and breaks, temporarily infusing the province with urban flare. The population of Boquete swells during tourist season, as does revenue for the local economy, providing a means other than farming for many native Boqueteños to make a living. Tourists bring their external expectations, attitudes, cultures and norms with them from December to April, contributing strongly to the experience of Boquete.

  1. Hostel Hopping Backpackers

These are the “kids” traveling through Central America, either solo or in pairs. Yes, they are tourists of a kind, meaning they are non-residents. But their stop in Boquete is part of a greater regional itinerary, as they seek to explore and understand the geography, history, archaeology, and culture of this part of the world. Their length of stay is not usually determined by school vacations or national holidays, but ranges from days to months, depending on how they vibe with Boquete.’s energy. They are most often on a budget, so rarely take the local tours or do other touristy things, yet are prevalent enough to fill an accommodation type created just for them. Typically, (but not always) backpackers are young adults who bring their verve and optimism to Boquete, and are willingly inspired by their surroundings.

  1. Unsavory Characters

Unsavory characters exist everywhere in the world, and Western Panama is no exception. Places tucked away in the crevasses of our collective settled world geography seem to court them. I think it’s because such characters need a remote destination to avoid major detection, but also need enough action to perpetuate their vices, crimes or shady behavior. Key West is one of these places, and so is Boquete. Don’t misunderstand me and freak out. Boquete is not a hotbed for criminal behavior. But neither are all of its residents full of sunshine and hibiscus flowers. Unsavory characters can be natives or expats, especially those who arrived about a decade ago and put their stamps on certain markets. They can be cruel or snide to those coming in. Be aware that this community exists, then promptly ignore it by flying under their radar. There are plenty of good people in Boquete, just use your smarts and skirt around the ones who aren’t.

Panamanian Public School: Statistics and Observations

A Quick History

The Panamanian public education system began after the country gained independence from Columbia in 1903. Primary education has been in effect since the 1920s. The country made funding education a top priority, dedicating one-quarter of its national budget to the endeavor. With amazing results, Panama’s adult illiteracy rate dropped by half during the following decade, and continued to drop over the next thirty years. When the constitution was adopted in 1941 Panama established its current free and compulsory education system. By the 1980s, only 13% of (mostly rural) Panamanians were still considered illiterate. Panama still spends more on education than most countries in the same region.

Click here to read about the basics if you are considering sending your child to Panamanian public school.

Comparison to U.S. Education Statistics

Today Panama averages a 94% national literacy rate (defined as people over 15 years of age who can read and write) and a 95% attendance rate for grades one through six. Enrollment in secondary education holds around 60% attendance, with half of that completing high school. The Panamanian government spends a total of 5.7% of GDP on education of all levels (UNESCO 2003). University level study has progressed from the 7% enrollment rate prevalent in the 1950s to a current rate of 25%. Nevertheless, there are still significant socioeconomic discrepancies as only 3% of the poor attend university compared to 31% of the non-poor (PREAL-COSPAE 2002). [Wikipedia and Education USA Panama]

This is very similar or better to U.S. statistics on literacy. According to a study conducted in late April by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 14% of the population (32 million adults) in the U.S. can’t read, while 21% of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19% of high school graduates can’t read. Reading below a 5th grade level means not “able to locate information in text,” could not “make low-level inferences using printed materials,” and were unable to “integrate easily identifiable pieces of information.” However, America’s high school graduation rate hit 81% in 2012-13, the highest level since states adopted a new uniform way of calculating graduation rates five years ago. Also, 40-45% of U.S. students go onto college – a much higher rate than Panama.

Obviously these are two very different countries with very different populations, GDP’s, cultures and histories. My point, I guess, is that Panama is doing well by its citizens, successfully providing a baseline of public education to create a literate society for all its people. However, just like in the United States, there there are disparities in education within the same system in Panama. Specifically, quality of education differs for urban and rural students.

Understanding The Statistics

Primary education is compulsory for all children ages 7-15. Yet Panama’s citizenry is comprised of eight different tribes of indigenous peoples, who make up almost 5% of the overall population. The diversity of culture, norms and economic situations across the Indio makes achieving higher student enrollment and retention rates difficult for the government.

The Guaymí and Ngöbe-Buglé comprise half of the indigenous peoples of Panama. The Ngöbe-Buglé are the Indio who live in the mountains between Panama and Costa Rica. They are literally the backbone of the coffee plantation industry of Panama, providing the sole means by which beans are harvested. Entire families migrate into the coffee plantations of the Chiriquí Province during picking season. For these families, the work they do during the season must support them for the entire year. A concept any worker in a transient or tourist economy understands well. The casualty of this portion of Panama’s economy is the 100% attendance rate at school for young children.

Educating Panama’s Indigenous Population

This is a tough issue, in my opinion, because one 5-gallon bucket of picked coffee beans yields the worker $1.75. Each person needs to pick eight to ten 5-gallon buckets per day to be profitable for the family. Children pick beans, but also guard already-picked buckets from thievery, shuttle full and empty buckets, run errands and provide childcare for younger siblings. It is easy to see why indigenous families place more value on their children’s ability to contribute to the economic sustainability of the family than learning to read in school for the benefit of the individual or greater society. They are no different than other pre-industrial or agricultural cultures around the world in this.

Yet where the 95% primary attendance rate is falling short, the government intervenes – by “raiding” coffee plantations during bean-picking season to find indigenous children who are not attending school, then forcing them to go. The government has a vested interest in creating a baseline of educational opportunity for all its citizens (children), regardless of tribal, cultural or economic affiliation. Alternately, indigenous families prioritize the economic necessity of their unschooled children. This is an on-going battle between two opposing viewpoints (pocket of citizenry vs. government) with different goals that will likely continue to affect the <100% attendance rate indefinitely.

Or maybe not. What do I really know about Panamanian politics at this point?

Disadvantaged Rural Schools

As in the U.S., where inner-city children are typically disadvantaged, the quality of education within Panama’s public system varies by geography, with rural schoolchildren receiving a lesser quality of education than their urban counterparts. One issue of note is a shortage of teachers in rural areas. Another is lack of resources, which are concentrated into the city.

Still another is that certain rural public schools are attended heavily by indigenous children whose social and educational norms vary drastically from other Panamanians’. According to our Panamanian friends, relations are strained between the Indio and non-Indio to the point that Indio men have begun dressing in non-Indio fashion when they come to town to avoid ridicule. There is no recognized commonality between Indio Panamanians and non-Indio Panamanians by either group. Though these rural schools meet the needs of the local transient Indio community, comprised of farm laborers, and less wealthy local Panamanians, they are not bastions of learning. And there is little push from the parents of either community for change.

A Panamanian friend explained to us that lack of motivation is a common theme among all Panamanians, but especially the Indio, who live primarily off the land. He explained that because natural resources such as mineral-rich volcanic soil, bountiful water systems, and verdant cloud forests are so abundant, Panamanians as a whole feel no overwhelming desire to achieve More. (Wow! Can you imagine not being indoctrinated into The American Dream?) They have only to drop seeds on the earth for food to grow. Their fertile country is their retirement package. He said that this attitude relegates school to something children do, but not adults, because adults don’t need to become more educated in order to live or eat well.

Aside: I imagine Panamanians to be much like Hawaiians when Americans first invaded their islands. They had it made, then the White Man intervened with an economic system that forced the Hawaiian away from his land and his leisure. Now Hawaiians are bitter. I feel like Panamanians are in the midst of a similar transition.

Why We Passed on Public School

Because we are in a very rural province of Panama, the public schools are poorly constructed, resourced and staffed. Frankly, we desire the highest quality of education we can provide for her. Panamanian public school, at least in rural Chiriquí Province, seems more like a sad educational placeholder than an opportunity.

We were also warned by Panamanian parents to expect reverse racism (maybe too strong a word) if we enrolled Rory there, as she would be the only white child. Not only are relations between the indigenous and ex-pat communities virtually non-existent, but they are extremely strained with the non-Indio Panamanians as well. Since our local Jaramillo school is 100% indigenous, and our Panamanian friends do not laude the quality of its curriculum, we struck this option off the list.

While in the future we would consider allowing Rory to experience being the only “different” child, like so many children do in this world, this isn’t the right moment for her to do so. She is already aware that she looks different than most of the kids in Panama. And she has the added stress of learning Spanish in order to interact.

Panamanian Public School System: Basic Information

If you are considering enrolling your child in public school in Panama, or simply wonder what the government is doing to educate the citizenry among whom you will live, this post is for you. If you want a quick history with statistics and observations of how the school system performs in rural areas with the Indigenous peoples of Panama, read here.

Primeria students in Boquete
Primeria students sporting their public school uniforms in downtown Boquete
School Calendar

The Panamanian school year runs from March to December. The school calendar is broken into trimesters, with a week recess after the first two and summer break after the third. The Ministry of Education determines the school calendar for all public schools. Private schools can do their own thing, but typically run on the same calendar or a North American version.

For 2015, the dates are as follows:

  • First Trimester: March 2 to May 29
  • Free Days: April 2, 3 for Easter Week; May 1 for Day of Work
  • School Recess: June 1 to June 5
  • Second Trimester: June 8 to September 11
  • School Recess: September 14 to September 18
  • Third Trimester: September 21 to December 18
  • Free Days: November 3, 4, 5, 10 for National Holidays; December 8 for Mother’s Day
  • Civic Days: October 27 for Day of Student; December 1 for Day of Teacher
  • December 19 to 23 are for tests, graduation, etc.
Language

Classes are generally given in Spanish. Note: When a public or private institution claims to be bilingual, this usually means English is taught as a second language and Spanish is taught as the first language. There is no English for English-speakers, nor Intro to Spanish.

Exceptions

Alternate school calendars (that run on a North American schedule from August/September to June) and primary instruction languages may be found in private international schools located in Panama City.

School Times

The school day typically begins from 7 am-9 am and runs until 2 pm-3:30 pm. Pre-K, kindergarten and grade one usually let out earlier, anywhere from 11:30 am-1 pm. It is also common for there to be one day of the week that all students get out mid-day. Grade school students go in the morning. The junior high and high school runs in the afternoon.

Placement

Age determines grade placement. Grade level placement is based on the cut-off date. If school starts in March, the cut-off date is in May. Pre-K students must be four years old, kindergarten students must be five years old and first grade students must be at least six years old.

In grades one through twelve, placement is determined by both the previous educational experience and age of the student. Note to ex-pats: Spanish proficiency matters during placement.

Uniforms

According to Panamanian Law, all students in schools (public and private) must wear uniforms. The standard uniform for the public schools is blue pants for the boys and blue skirts for the girls. A white top indicates either a grade school or high school student. Children with light blue shirts are in junior high. Everyone wears navy socks and black shoes.

Physical Education (PE) uniforms are required at all levels. Elementary students usually wear their PE uniforms to school on the day they have PE classes. MS and HS students change into their PE uniforms before PE class in the locker room facilities provided.

Bus Service

Bussing is not provided by the public school system. It is a private enterprise and an additional expense. In Boquete the service costs $10 per week from Boquete to AIB, and there is a central bus stop in town. This is not door-to-door service. I don’t know prices to other schools, nor if bus services are even available for public schools. I have seen many families using taxi service up and down our mountain during this first week of school.

Levels of Education in Panama

Preschool

Preschool for toddlers and pre-K are optional but determined by age.

Kindergarten

Kindergarten is not compulsory, but determined by age. The school year starts in March and the child must be five by May to attend, or wait another year.

Primeria

Consists of the first six years of primary education, including “middle school,” for kids ages 7-12 years old. Primeria education is free and compulsory in Panama’s public education system.

Premedia

Are the next three years of junior high school, grades seven, eight and nine, for kids ages 12-15 years old, which ends with a completion certificate. Premedia is free and compulsory in Panama’s public education system.

Educación Media

Are the three years of high school, grades ten, eleven and twelve, available for kids ages 15-18 years old, which ends with a diploma (Diploma de Bachiller) with a specialty in agriculture, business, literature, livestock, science or technology. Educación Media are optional and therefore not free.

The Role of The Ministry of Education

For anyone interested in legalities, here are the objectives listed on the website of the Ministry of Education, translated into English:

  • Legislate on industrial primary, secondary, university, professional e. (Art. 1)
  • Maintains compulsory and free public primary, secondary and vocational Normal. (Art. 2)
  • Holds school aged 7-15 years in the first level of education. (Art. 3)
  • Sets the direction and promotion of public education, in all its branches corresponds to the national government, without preventing the existence of private schools, but under the supervision and monitoring of it. (Art. 4)
  • Placed under the direct control of the Ministry of Education all establishments of both public and private education (Art. 5).
  • Divide education in public and private. The first is funded by the state and the second, which is taught in private schools (Art. 7).
  • Develop primary education “aims to promote and manage gradual and simultaneously the intellectual, physical and moral development of the student (Art. 15).
  • Divide elementary schools in complete and incomplete; the first consisting of six degrees and the latter can reach grade 5 (Art. 17).
  • Select schools in urban and rural. (Art. 40 of the Consolidated Law).
  • Regulates the number of students forty (40) per teacher (Art. 19).
  • Regulates the tenure of Teachers (Art. 19).
  • Change distritorial school population in the province (Art. 39 to 57).
  • Vacation deals teachers and learners (Art. 69 to 71).
  • Establishes and maintains special revenues to education (Art. 82 to 86)
  • It refers to the residence of the teacher (Art. 112 to 113).
  • Explains private schools (Art. 114).
  • Enter provisions on industrial and agricultural education (Arts.136 to 143 to 115).
  • Regulate upper secondary education, vocational and (Arts. 136 to 143).
  • Municipalities in the Republic, whose annual incomes are greater than B / 10,000.00, contribute 20% to the field of education, and not reaching that amount, with 15% (Art. 81).
  • It should be noted, finally, that the final establishment of a Ministry of Education, replacing the classical Secretary of Public Instruction, allowed the multiplication of the functions of the institution and a major expansion of its services for the community.

Pet Groomer Recommendation in Alto Boquete

A month ago we took Dexter to be groomed for the first time since arriving in Panama. He loves being shaved, though it turns him an entirely different color. His undercoat is cream while his top coat is black. We worried the very first time that he might be one of those dogs who gets embarrassed, but to our relief, he loves it! It keeps him cooler and abates whatever skin issues he has. To our benefit, there’s no shedding for at least two months, usually three, after he gets shaved. The lack of time and energy spent combating dog hair is reason enough to do it.

Since the temperature in Panama is ideal for a shaved dog, and tumbleweeds of Dexter hair were beginning to accumulate under furniture, we decided to seek out a groomer.

Groomed Beagle
Dexter, the happiest dog who ever lived, on his way to Puerto Armuelles

The Dog Spot CardA quick online search yielded what we believe to be the only non-vet, non-pet store pet grooming service in Boquete, The Dog Spot, located in Alto Boquete, just past San Francisco Plaza on the left-hand side coming from Bajo Boquete.

The driveway is ferocious, but Roberto, the owner, is terrific. He’s not chatty, at least not with us, his new customers, but he clearly appreciated Dexter for the happy, nimble fourteen year old guy he is, and that’s what matters. Roberto remarked that Dex looked great for his age and was exceptionally well-behaved during his grooming. (Little does Roberto know that, at his ripe old age, Dex no longer feels obligated to follow any rules.)

It is obvious that Roberto truly enjoys the creatures for which he cares. After two trips to his shop, he appears to have a devoted clientele – both human and furry. He is a professional dog handler with 15 years of experience, participating in shows throughout Central America. He speaks English and Spanish.

Roberto’s shop is small, but functional. He operates a boutique business comprised of grooming and some retail items, with a little doggy day care action, though space is limited. His place is very clean and inviting, with comfortable sitting space indoor and out for pet parents who prefer to wait for their babies.

Dex, just after his visit to The Dog Spot
Dex, just after his visit to The Dog Spot

The best part: The shampoo, condition, massage, nail trim, and butt squeeze was only $16. The shave another $4.

For $20 Dexter got a full morning of pampering. He gets to stay cool on hot days.

For $20, we got up to 90 days free of shedding, and one clean, fat happy dog!

And, Roberto did a cleaner job of shaving Dexter than any other groomer we’ve tried in the States. And we’ve tried several groomers in several states.

Dex looks like a million bucks!

The Dog Spot is for Cats Too!

Malo Gato
Malo Gato, Sullivan O’Grady

We also have a super fluffy buff-colored cat named Sullivan who seems to have the fastest growing nails of any feline in human history.

And, while he is excellent about using his scratching posts, his rambunctious jaunts around the house – punctuated by dramatic leaps and rolls over the furniture, ending with a sneak attack on arms of various couches and chairs – was leaving its mark.

Normally, we would use our handy nail trimmers every couple of weeks, snipping our guy’s nails into submission. But for some reason, Sully has decided that trimming his  nails equates to yanking them out. Hisses, snarls, full claw swipes are the least of it. Finally, I gave up and emailed Roberto, inquiring desperately whether he also serviced unruly gatos.

He had us in a day later and cooed Sully into submission. The cat’s nails were trimmed in less than two minutes, and he received a much-needed ear-cleaning. All for $5.

Roberto is our new go to pet groomer in Boquete. You can’t beat the Roberto’s amazing service, nor the prices. It’s worth the wee trip outside of Bajo Boquete to take your animals of all shapes and sizes to The Dog Spot. Be sure to check out his brochure below. Just click on the pictures to enlarge them for easier reading.

Contact The Dog Spot

Quick Tip: Roberto prefers an email or call rather than just stopping by, and will sometimes keep an animal if a customer is on the way to David and back. But his space is limited, that’s why calling ahead is best. His cell phone number is (507) 6603-5347.

The Dog Spot Website | Thedogspotboquete@yahoo.com | The Dog Spot on Boquete.ning | The Dog Spot on Facebook

The Dog Spot Brochure 1
The Dog Spot Brochure, Side 1
The Dog Spot Brochure 2
The Dog Spot Brochure, Side 2

 

 

 

Photo Essay: Caldera

There are other options to living in the Chiriquí Province besides Boquete proper, such as one of its subdistricts. One of these is Caldera, a tiny blink-and-you’ll-miss it village at the end of a long road. This area reminds me of a not-quite-desert Southwestern landscape perfectly designed for those who prefer flatland to mountains. It features breathtaking views of the the distant mountain range, tall grasses and wide, expansive skies.

About a third of the way down this road you’ll find Boquete Canyons, a gated community dotted with large houses on wide plots. The gate is manned by a guard who will record your passport number, give you a laminated sign for your windshield declaring you a visitor, then open the gate manually to let you pass.

The other day we visited friends in Boquete Canyons. These are the pictures of the first third of the road to Caldera and the scene inside the gated community.

A Quick List of Food Prices in Boquete

A yellow vegetable curry with rice, an example of the meals we make en la casa
A yellow vegetable curry with rice, an example of the meals we make en la casa

We are eating like royalty in Boquete, preparing meals such as fish tacos, grilled filet, roasted chicken, polenta with homemade sauce, shrimp, greens and grits, stuffed peppers… All for much cheaper than preparing the same food in the U.S. And this includes eating free-range chicken and eggs, pasture-fed beef tenderloin, freshly caught fish and hydroponic and organic fruits and vegetables. Basically, we are feeding our blended family of five people in Boquete for the cost of one of our individual households back in the States.

A major question when considering relocating to Boquete or Panama is “How much does food cost?” To help answer, here is a quick list off the top of my head of various food prices. Feel free to ask in the comments below about a specific item or genre of food if it’s not listed here. I am happy to investigate and report back.

Freshly purchased hydroponic vegetables from yesterday's Tuesday Market. This pictures shows half the purchase (chards, kales, tomatoes, parsley, celery, zucchini, eggplant), not including peppers, around 20 carrots and potatoes; and the entire batch cost $23.
Freshly purchased hydroponic vegetables from yesterday’s Tuesday Market. This pictures shows half the purchase, not including tomatos, eggplants, red peppers, around 20 carrots, kales and 3 bags of potatoes; the entire batch cost $23.
The other side of the vegetable mound above
The other side of the vegetable mound above

Examples of vegetable prices:

  • $3 for a small bag of potatoes from the hydroponic lady at the Tuesday Market
  • $2.50 – $3 for a bunch of 5 stalks of Kale at the Tuesday Market
  • $2.50 for a half gallon bag of fresh spinach (8 oz.?) at the Tuesday Market
  • $2 per bag of 5-6 big carrots
  • $1.50 – $3 for around 2 oz. of various fresh herbs

Examples of fruit prices:

(These are all fixed prices per lb. whether buying from roadside vendor or in store)

  • $1 for 2 papayas of any size
  • $1 for 12 bananas or 10 cents each
  • $1 for one pineapple
  • 25 cents each for organic limes

Examples of meat prices:

  • $10 – $12 for a whole organic chicken from Santa Finca Marta
  • $20 average for a pasture-fed beef filet (about 3 lbs.?) from the vendor at the Tuesday Market
  • $7 for ground lamb that makes 4 burgers from the vendor at the Tuesday Market
  • $4 – $6 per lb. for fresh caught fish, fileted before your eyes
  • $6.50 for a package of Black Label bacon

Examples of dairy prices:

(I can’t vouch for much because we don’t eat cow dairy)

  • $4 – $5 for bag of shredded cheese. Note: Cheese is about the same price as in the States.
  • $3 for almond milks, small shelf stable box size
  • $2 each for fresh organic goat milks, individual size
  • $3.75 per 1 dozen free range eggs
  • $1.50 average per 1 dozen non free range eggs in grocery stores

Miscellaneous prices for foodstuffs:

  • $4 – $7 for regular sized box of name brand cereal
  • $1.50 for a 2 lb. bag of sugar (turbinado or white)

Notes without prices:

  • Spices are inexpensive as long as not imported from States (McCormick)
  • Jelly is expensive

Examples of bread prices:

(We buy our bread exclusively from Sugar and Spice, a bakery and eatery downtown)

  • Sugar and Spice bread: $2.50 – $3.50 per loaf, sliced or whole. Varieties include Rustic French, Italian, Ciabatta, Multigrain, Raisin & Walnut, Sourdough and many more.
  • Therefore regular white bread at the grocery store has got to be around $1 – $1.50. But why would you want to?

Examples of drink prices:

(While most of Boquete’s water is safe to drink, not so much on our area of the Jaramillo Mountain. So we use a “Culligan” system, purchasing 5 gallons at a time to put upon the dispenser.)

  • less than $5 per 5 gallon container of water
  • $1 each per can of coconut water
  • $1.25 for varieties of shelf stable juices such as orange, pineapple, mango, apple, mixes
  • 50 – 75 cents per can of Atlas, Balboa or Panama (national) beers
  • $5 for Chimay; $1.80 for Leffe

Note: There is a tax on all bottles in Panama. If you purchase a Coke at the gas station, they ask if you are drinking it on-site or taking it with you. On-site the cost is about 40 cents. To go, the cost is about 75 cents. If you purchase beer, sodas, etc. in bottles in the grocery store you will notice this tax at the bottom of your receipt.

Examples of prices at Organica, located in the Los Establos Plaza in Boquete:

  • $5.50 per jar for organic peanut butter that contains palm oil and sugars
  • $6 for pure organic peanut butter
  • $15 for other nut butters such as almond and cashew
  • $4 – $5 for organic oats
  • $7 – $9 for organic cereals
  • $12 – $14 for Dr. Bronner’s or Nutivia coconut oil jars
  • $7 per loaf of Ezekiel and gluten-free breads
  • $7 for small bags of frozen organic berries
  • $2 per bottle of organic beer
  • $7 for tubs of New Balance butters. Varieties include olive oil, coconut, soy-free, and regular. Note: All varieties are available in limited amounts. The soy-free goes the quickest, while the coconut lasts the longest.

Organica has markdown sales almost every week as they switch stock. They rarely have the same thing twice. An example of markdowns is getting a $7 jar of organic cashew butter for $1.75 last month.

Feel Free to Ask

I hope that helps create a frame of reference for how much food costs in Boquete. Please feel free to ask questions in the comment section below and I will gladly find the answer for you.

To Read More About Food Shopping Boquete: