Liz Larroquette

Portugal vs. Panama is Mostly Personal

Panama and Portugal flags

It used to be relatively easy to compare the various spots that turned up on “Best Places To Retire” lists because many of the more highly rated were in Central and South America. Costa Rica, Mexico, Uruguay, to name a few, but now the lists have expanded. Panama remains at the top of almost all lists, but today it is joined by countries such as Portugal, Malaysia and Thailand.

When individuals ask me about other parts of the world, I am happy to give my personal choices, but I am quick to point out that my choice is just that—my personal choice. It’s relatively easy to note that Belize hasn’t really developed and that bugs are a real concern every minute of every day in what would otherwise be a haven. I like Costa Rica because it is beautiful, has lots of development, but it hasn’t continued to grow substantially over the last ten years. Mexico is a diverse country, but the drugs and gangs mar the natural beauty. I couldn’t see raising my children there.

Map of europe

Well, It's European

Recently, I am most often asked about Portugal and what I want to immediately say is that it is European. In one word, that completely separates it from Panama. Just as I always immediately say about Thailand and Malaysia—it’s Asian. The only thing I have ever figured out that these places have in common is the cost-of-living is relatively inexpensive. If that was the only driving factor, I could name lots of underdeveloped places where one could retire much more inexpensively than any of the spots on the list.

Algarve cliff beach ocean

Algarve is a popular tourist destination on Portugal's coastline

It’s easy to get a flight to Portugal, rent a car and have a fabulous time driving around the country through ancient, sometimes walled cities, you can find beautiful white beaches, lush mountains, castles and white washed towns. The people are gracious, friendly and English is widely spoken.

It’s a seven hour flight from New York to Lisbon and they are five hours ahead in terms of the time zones. Panama City is about three hours from Miami or a five hour flight from New York and we are on the same time zone as the eastern part of the United States. That makes a big difference to me personally but it’s certainly not a deal breaker if you prefer Europe.

Fine Dining

Two-Star Michelin Chef

It’s hard to pinpoint the food personality of Panama because there really isn’t one. I always think of starch, root vegetables, fresh fish, beans and rice. But, you can find every possible type of food in Panama, from sushi to a stunning tasting menu offered on the 29th floor of the Hotel Las Americas Golden Tower which boasts a two-star Michelin chef.

El Rey Supermarket

El Rey is one of the popular supermarket chains in Panama, where you can source a number of products you would find on the shelf back home.

Every type of food product can be found in Panama, just as it can be found in Portugal. You need to weigh how you personally like to cook to make sure it will be compatible because you are going to find more American style grocery stores in Panama than in Portugal.

The custard tarts and other baked goods you find at the many Pasties de Belem in Portugal are almost always a religious experience and I would go to Portugal simply for the different ways they prepare squid. The wine is local, inexpensive (about €4.45 for a mid-range bottle) and often times garner high points from publications such as Wine Spectator. I have, however, started to worry a bit, because 60% of all the cork used in wine bottling is from Portugal. I almost always find myself unscrewing my selections these days, but I’m sure there will be new uses for cork! The many cork trees in Portugal are pretty and add to the ancient feel of the country.

A Domestic Beer For A Dollar

Wine in Panama is easily accessible, inexpensive and while not local, a nice bottle of sauvignon blanc will run you about $7.50 (€7.00). There are less taxes than you’’ll find in the United States but the selection is about equal. In Panama you can purchase a domestic beer for less than a dollar, where in Portugal a local beer will be about twice that.

Generally alcohol consumption is different in Portugal than in Panama. Panamanians love a cold beer on a hot day and expats have plenty of places where they can have upscale wine and cocktails while watching the sun set. According to The New York Times, “Booze abounds all over Europe and Portugal is no exception, but the Portuguese take the time honored tradition of alcohol consumption to another level.” Because there is a problem with drivers operating vehicles under the influence, there has been a concerted crackdown by local police. 

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Property Is Less Expensive

Property is less expensive in Panama than in Portugal. On average, you can find older homes on small plots of land in the interior of Portugal for less than €200,000 ($214,000), but if you want something seaside, with modern construction, you are generally looking around €500,000 ($535,000). There isn’t a lot of property currently under construction because Portugal is just now stabilizing from the global recession and the fact they were part of the international bail out.

Playa Bonita Residences

In Panama, you can live in a beautiful luxury home for less than you might pay in Portugal

Of course, these are sweeping averages. Properties can be found at all price points just as they can be in Panama. Average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in a City Center will run approximately €500 or $535. A McDonald's combo meal is, on average €5.50 and utilities will be about €85 a month.

According to Trading Economies, a global reporting company based in New York, the average salary for a Portuguese citizen was $1,130 per month in 2016 compared to $1,238 for a Panamanian that same year. Domestic workers cost about €9 an hour in Portugal but only about $7 an hour in Panama.

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Hopping A Train To Paris

I love the European aspects of Portugal, that it is part of the 28-country European Union and that you can easily hop a train and be in Paris or London in a matter of hours without worrying about a visa. But, then I enjoy the ease of travel in Central and South America and that Panama City is the hub for most major airlines servicing the area. It’s simply easier to get to the States or Canada and that seems to be an important point for many of my clients who return home for healthcare and grandchildren and family.

I like being able to drive a few hours and be in the rain forest, or ready to hike a volcano. Surfing in Bocas del Toro is a day drive away and it is incredibly easy to find an inviting island after a short boat ride from Panama City for sun bathing and swimming. Portugal has it’s share of islands and the largest island of the Berlenga Archipelago is a lovely day trip from Lisbon. Both countries have beautiful beaches and areas that seem like they should be swimmable, but aren’t because of the rocky formations.

beach sun surf

Gorgeous beaches like this one in Bocas Del Toro are just a quick plane ride from Panama City

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Intriguing Geographical Aspects

I find both countries have unusual and intriguing geographical aspects. Panama is the only country in the world where the sun both rises and sets on the Pacific Ocean, but if you haven’t seen the Rock of Gibraltar, which is a monolithic limestone promontory just south and east of Portugal, you need to visit soon.

Geographical map

Gibraltar's proximity to North Africa makes it a key point for immigration entry into Europe.

In my opinion, the fact that Gibraltar, which is completely British, is an easy boat ride from North Africa and relatively close to Portugal, makes Portugal part of the highway for immigrants seeking a better life. Portugal has promised to take in up to 10,000 refugees but with an unemployment rate of over 12% most refugees seek countries with a stronger economic base.

Portugal is physically larger than Panama. Portugal has a population of about 10.46 million, where Panama hasn’t yet reached 4 million.

While there is a lot to love about Portugal, for me there are several fatal flaws. The US State Department notes that Panama and Panama City are safer than many American cities and that the drug cartels operating out of South America don’t even fly over the small isthmus. Portugal is another story.

Security symbol

Open Borders With Western Europe

“Portugal’s open borders with its Western European neighbors allow possible terrorist groups to enter and exit with anonymity. Credible information indicates terrorist groups continue plotting possible near term attacks,” is the warning currently posted on the US State Department’s web site.

In addition to the possible terrorist attacks for all of Europe, Portugal suffers from small, local crime stemming from both drug usage and the fact unemployment is at an all-time high. According to the State Department, “Crimes of opportunity, such as pickpockets and purse snatchers, particularly at popular tourist sites, restaurants, or on public transportation are common. Pick-pockets take advantage of crowds getting on and off of all forms of public transportation, using the jostling of the crowd as a distraction. At night travelers are often approached by drug dealers, in the downtown area, especially near the bars and restaurants.”

“Crimes of opportunity, such as pickpockets and purse snatchers, particularly at popular tourist sites, restaurants, or on public transportation are common. Pick-pockets take advantage of crowds getting on and off of all forms of public transportation, using the jostling of the crowd as a distraction. At night travelers are often approached by drug dealers, in the downtown area, especially near the bars and restaurants.”

US State Department

No other country is really angry with Panama and since we control the Panama Canal, other countries are not interested in picking a fight with us. Just about everyone wants to keep the canal successfully flowing with traffic. We also enjoy a special relationship with the United States and it is generally accepted that we hold protected status. Even our currency is the US Dollar. Our economy is one of the most stable on the globe and we are economically growing at a rapid rate, unlike Portugal which has seen declining population and rising unemployment.

currency symbols and savings

Government Instability

My biggest concern about Portugal is the instability of its government and economy. The New York Times recently reported that “Portugal was one of the European Countries pummeled particularly hard by the global recession.”  Forbes, the American business magazine, reported that “Portugal’s banks are stabilizing, supported by a mildly favorable, but fragile, operating environment. Downside sector risks were reported and it will take time before the banks significantly improve their stand-alone financial strength and political uncertainties could dampen reforms to boost investment and growth.”

Bank of Portugal

Portugal's economy is still stabilizing after being hit hard by the global recession, and is still described as 'fragile'.

Healthcare is solid in Portugal and like most European countries it is much less expensive than in the United States. US and Canadian retirees must take caution to cover healthcare costs prior to retiring to, or even visiting Portugal, unless there is no concern about cost. Private health insurance is available to expats and it allows visitors access to most local facilities. Just like in Panama and all other foreign countries, Medicare and the Canadian Health Act, are not valid in Portugal.

Relief icon of a pastry

Caution: Pastries 

There are many reasons, clients come to me looking for the perfect new residence or investment, so when I see the new lists of “Best Places To Retire”, I do my homework. Often, I want to have a chat with the list makers on why they select various new places for inclusion.

Unfortunately, I think there is too much emphasis on a bargain lifestyle as opposed to the overall picture.


Just looking at these Portuguese tarts makes me want to hop on a plane to Lisbon!

If I had to guess about Portugal’s new appearance on many lists, I would say a lot might have to do with the financial hardships being endured by the Portuguese. Their economy is fragile so while everything can be a bargain, it also drives up crime. With an uncertain economy, it is difficult to endorse investment. The profits might be higher but there is also a great deal of risk. Panama is high yield with solid security.

I love Europe, but for now, I’m just going to visit. With my love of pastries, it’s probably a good idea I also limit my visits to Portugal.

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About the Author Liz Larroquette

Whether you are looking to retire in Panama, relocate your family, or buy property as an investment Liz is a wealth of knowledge you can and should tap into.

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