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Panama - The Up and Coming
Destination for Snowbirds

by Sandra Snyder

Just as the swallows return to Capistrano and the Monarch butterflies return to Ururapan, the Panama Canal Zonians are joining the numerous Snowbirds headed south and are returning to Panama. For many years it was Florida that was the favored spot for escaping the rigors of the winters in Canada and the northern states. In more recent years Mexico has had this distinction, followed by Costa Rica, but now it is Panama that is finally beginning to welcome the Snowbirds.

The term Snowbird is used to identify those people in these northern areas that plan to move to warmer climes at about the same time the snowbirds start to head south. For many years I heard about people from Michigan, New York and Canada heading south to Florida for the winter. Even my cousin in Virginia joined those headed south each February for a month but many people also spend January to March somewhere that the sun is shining. And sunshine is Panama’s attraction, which is why Snowbirds are beginning to arrive in the summer as well.

When my husband and I first sailed into Cartagena years ago we were amazed to find two things. First, there were eighteen sailboats from Canada and the United States, comfortably settled in the Yacht Club. Second, there were numerous Canadians spending the winter in the delightful colonial city of Cartagena. This was the furthest south we had found Snowbirds. Years before, when in Mexico, we discovered that Canadians had been going to Mexico years before us; and, of course, upon arriving in Costa Rica we found Snowbirds as well.
No place has capitalized on the Snowbird population like Florida until, recently, Mexico. These two areas have recognized the potential economic benefits and have structured their tourism industry and services to accommodate the market.

What is needed to become a Snowbird destination?

First, is housing. Snowbirds generally spend a minimum of one month and as many as three months. They prefer apartments instead of hotels and their needs range from efficiencies to two-bedrooms. While Snowbirds tend to be couples without children, they often have friends join them for extended stays, and therefore need a second bedroom.

Second, they want ease of living. This includes safety, transportation, availability of goods and services. Panama comes out on top in the areas of safety and availability of goods and services as well as the convenience of the U.S. dollar. Public transportation is also readily available.

Third is language. Amazingly many of these travelers do not speak the local language so they tend to be a very adventurous group or as one Canadian told me, “we’re just cold and want to be somewhere warm”. As a result, they are willing to deal with the language problem. Fortunately, Panama has many English-speaking people willing to help and the population in general is friendly and helpful.

Finding housing for these long-term visitors is Panama’s current challenge. While Panama has much excess housing available, many landlords have yet to recognize the potential of this new market. The concept of Snowbirds is new to them in many ways but soon they will realize the benefits of repeat business that is part of the Snowbird concept. Additionally, Panama has begun to experience a further development of the Snowbird concept – the summer tourist. Americans in particular are accustomed to the long summer vacation, July to August, when children are out of school. While the father may have to make regular appearances at his office and only have a few weeks vacation, the mother and children can escape to the seaside for a longer break. Thus, the necessity for the beach house for a month or two and what better choice than Panama and its beaches?

Snowbirds whether the winter or summer variety, are not looking for 5-star hotels but they will spend as much or more during their extended stay than the average hotel tourist. They not only visit restaurants during their month or more but also shop at the supermarket, the pharmacy, hardware store and other local businesses. They visit the theater and explore the interior, as well as numerous sites of interest to the tourist. They often join a pool or health club especially if their apartment building does not have those amenities. All this getting around requires use of rental cars, taxis and occasionally buses. Many Snowbirds eventually purchase an apartment for these annual or semi-annual visits. As a result, the Snowbird has a very positive effect on the economy and for an extended period of time.

Snowbirds want a nicely furnished place complete with dishes, linens, TV, telephone for local calls and an Internet connection. Rentals need to include all utilities upfront or arrangements made for the client to be billed monthly for these extras. Once a Snowbird finds a comfortable place to return to annually, they often acquire other items that make life comfortable while in Panama. These often include a computer, additional furniture beyond the basics, kitchen appliances including a microwave, books and bookshelves, just to mention a few. Being able to store these possessions in the building is another requirement for some Snowbirds.

What makes Panama more attractive as a destination to these visitors?

What brings them here instead of Florida or Mexico or Costa Rica? I asked several of this year’s crop of Snowbirds and here is what they had to say:

Judy and Bob lived in Panama many years ago where they enjoyed playing golf, hiking, diving and pursuing their careers. They always thought they would return here for vacations some day. In 1996 they began doing just that, first with a couple of weeks in the winter, more recently they have started coming for several months. Eventually they would like to come for three to four months twice a year.

When asked what is the attraction, Judy is quick to reply, “It is guaranteed to be warm.” Even “Florida can have chilly days or weeks but in Panama the warmth is constant. In Panama we can golf, scuba dive, study Spanish and relax. The people are really friendly and it is fun – like returning to our hometown. There is also the excitement of the changes in Panama. We have great hopes for the country as a fun place.”

In response to a question about concern for security, Judy responds, “an apartment in Panama is very safe”. They would love to have a house especially since they live in Manhattan the rest of the year, but an apartment is easier since they only come for a few months. Petty theft is not a problem and traditionally Panama is not known for violent crime. Judy and Bob find Panama would be their long-term choice as it is “natural and not a vacation place.” They are looking for a place long-term to call home for a part of the year. These returning Zonians still have lots of friends here, both Panamanian and American, as even their parents lived here in the days of the Canal Zone.

They also invite friends from the States to join them for a week or two to explore Panama, do birding trips and enjoy the diving and golf. Judy says that after this first group of friends leave a second group is coming for two weeks of fishing and to attend a Balboa High School Reunion. She particularly enjoys showing others what Panama has to offer whether it is an evening of bridge buddies or a trip to Boquete. “Panama is an international city with people from all over.”

While Judy and bob are younger, semi-retired, and looking for a part-time home in Panama, Buka and Sandra are completely retired and looking for a place to get out of the cold. This Canadian couple currently spends three to four months in Panama, a month or so at a time throughout the year. Again they eventually plan to relocate permanently. They say “Panama has something for everyone. In the mountains the climate is cool and fresh. There are beaches for water sports and the City for social live.”

Buka and Sandra have spent their visits driving around the country and trying out each of these areas to see where they like best. Currently they think the City provides the best attractions for their life style and health concerns. Buka says he is “impressed with the Hospital Nacional and the availability of doctors”. Currently they have a boat “at home” and the possibilities for boating in Panama may prove to be an additional attraction for them.

For eleven years, Richard and Jo spent their winter vacations in Costa Rica. They do not speak a word of Spanish but somehow manage to fit right in to the Latin picture and enjoy themselves. After Richard retired as a University professor two years ago they decided to give Panama a try. Since then they have returned twice to spend three months at a time “falling in love with Panama”. “We enjoyed everything about the apartment in Panama: location, spaciousness, comfort, security, helpful and considerate people, and the relatively inexpensiveness, the spectacular vistas from the apartment, and other attractions to numerous to list.”

While they are typical snowbirds, coming only during the winter season, they were also like the others in that they travel all over the country while here. They took advantage of the beaches, the mountains, and the City life. They, too, invited friends to join them for a week or two at a time in order “to share all that Panama has to offer”.

Mary and Robert with their two children, ages ten and twelve, came to Panama for a summer break. It was their first trip to Panama and their first visit to any Latin country. While they did not speak Spanish they were anxious to expose the children to another culture and language. “Perhaps they will learn a bit of Spanish playing with other children as well.” Initially Robert arrived with the family and spent the first two weeks with them. They rented a car and drove from the City to Bocas del Toro in order to experience the country as well as the beaches. After that time Robert had to return to the U.S. and work.

Mary and the children spent the next month in Coronado where they rented a beach house. “The children wanted to learn to dive and love exploring the shore, swimming and just being in the outdoors.” Coronado proved to be an excellent choice in all ways. The children could walk to the beach, as safety was not a concern in this private beach community on Panama’s Pacific coast. Additionally, Coronado has grocery shopping within walking distance and a complete center available by bus. In fact, the local grocery store provides pick up and return for residents of the area. Robert returned to Panama to rejoin the family at the end of their month so they could return to the U.S. together.

Whatever category of Snowbird you may be – former Zonian interested in returning to your roots, retiree, a family looking for a summer of adventure, or the traditional escapee from the cold, Panama is becoming the Snowbird destination of choice.

 
© Sandra T. Snyder, August 2003
Author of Living in Panama and other books

First published in Business Panama, November 2003

 

The International Book Fair 2009
Sandra will be available to autograph books and answer questions
August 19
through August 23, 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Info

Gran Morrison will inaugurate Book Week with Panama Authors: Sandra Snyder, Rose Marie Tapia, Rafael Candanedo and Rosita Cordoba.
September 19, 2008, 4:00 p.m. at Gran Morrison El Dorado, El Dorado Mall.

Tuesday Morning Meeting
Sandra will share some of her experiences and provide some helpful hints for better living in Panama. Info
March 11, 2008

P.B.C. Person2Person
Sandra & David on the radio. Podcast
January, 2008

 

 

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