A Canadian Expat Finds the Best of All Worlds in Tropical Panama

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Posted by The Savvy Retiree on September 17, 2020 in Live Better

Catherine Lefevre is the embodiment of what’s possible in the modern working world. A French-Canadian living in Panama, she works remotely in accounting and compliance for a Colombia-based company that serves clients in the U.S.

By choosing to live in affordable Panama City, she’s been able to buy a condo. She’s also a co-owner of a hostel with her boyfriend in a mountainous area of Panama that’s popular with backpackers. In this way, she has the best of all worlds—a corporate career and a small business, vibrant city living and regular access to the country’s stunning natural environment. 

Catherine didn’t stumble into this lifestyle. She single-mindedly pursued it. “I applied for different remote jobs so I could live anywhere and started working for a Canadian company doing technical support for accounting software. I worked for them for six years. Now I work for a different company but it’s still remote,” she says.

Her condo is in a middle-class neighborhood of Panama City. Meanwhile, her business, Hostal La Casa de Juan, is located in El Valle de Antón. 

“The hostel is 2.5 hours from the city. There’s a little village with hot springs, lots of hiking. We get many European backpackers and Panamanians for the weekend,” says Catherine. “Of course, right now, it’s empty because of COVID-19 but during the quarantine, my boyfriend and I stayed there for four months because there were fewer restrictions than in the city. Mostly, we go back and forth between the hostel and the city. When we tire of one, we go back to the other.”

Remote worker Catherine divides her time between vibrant Panama City and the captivating mountain town of El Valle de Antón.

Catherine’s neighborhood in Panama City is quiet and welcoming. It’s also affordable for a professional making Canadian wages. “I paid $120,000 for my apartment. In Panama, if your apartment is less than $180,000, then you can get a mortgage at a 1.25% interest rate,” she says. 

Her apartment overlooks a small tributary known as the Rio Abajo (Lower River). “It’s a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment with a small balcony. It’s a small building, only 12 apartments in a three-story building with a rooftop exercise space,” says Catherine. “We’re 15 minutes from downtown. My maintenance fee is $45 a month for cleaning, gardening, water, and gas. My mortgage is $400 a month.”

Catherine’s grocery bill is low, and she mostly dines at home. “I don’t eat at a lot of restaurants. I prefer to save my money for traveling. If it’s just me, the groceries run about $150 per month or $250 if it’s both of us. It depends on what we buy too. A local pineapple is $2 versus imported strawberries for $10,” she says.

Panama uses the U.S. dollar, which makes it easy to get to grips with the local economy. The country also makes it relatively easy for workers from select nations, including the U.S. and Canada, to get residency, something Catherine discovered firsthand. 

“It’s called the Friendly Nations visa system,” she says. “It’s an arrangement Panama has with around 50 countries. If your country is on the list, then you’re eligible. They have many different visas and the requirements are different for retirees than for someone like me working remotely. I needed to keep $5,000 in a bank account for three months. It took around three months to complete the visa process.” 

One of the things she appreciates about her remote working arrangement is the flexibility. Not only can she live where she wants, but she can also arrange her schedule to accommodate her other interests like the hostel, where internet isn’t always reliable. She also teaches French three times a week.

“The thing I love the most about Panama is the year-round outdoor activities,” she says. “There’s always nice weather and it’s a bit cooler in the mountains. Right now, it’s 20 C (68 F) there, so you don’t need A/C. In Canada, everything is far away. Panama’s a small country, so within a day I can easily get to the beach and the mountains.”

By Jen Phillips April