1 August 2016

Kris Cunningham - Expat in Panama

Kris Cunningham - Expat in Panama

We’ve had the chance to talk to Mrs. Kris Cunningham, 62, an American Expat living in Panama.

Mrs. Kris Cunningham, who moved to Panama with her husband to retire, has no shortage of praises for the country. With affordable cost of living, laid-back lifestyle and beautiful scenery, the only grouse she had was the language barrier – though, even that has dissipated over time. Meeting hospitable locals, they have made friends with many Panamanians during their two-year stay.

“We ride our bikes, hang out with friends, take day trips or occasional travels to places farther away. I like photography, gardening, and I write on my blog. My husband plays music. Both of us are studying to improve our Spanish. We manage to keep quite busy!,” Mrs. Cunningham described what they do in their free time.

Read more about Mrs. Kris Cunningham’s experiences as an expat in Panama, in her full interview below.


Q: Where are you originally from?

A: New York, but we were living in Florida for 17 years before moving here.


Q: What made you move out of Florida?

A: We couldn’t afford to retire in the US without working, and we didn’t want to work forever.


Q: Where are you living now?

A: David, Chiriqui, Panama.

Q: How did you come to choose this new country of residence? 

A: We made a list of requirements and Panama kept coming to the top of the list. When we visited we thought it would out for us, and it has.


Q: How long have you been living in Panama?

A: Two years.


Q: What has been the most difficult experience you've had when you were new in Panama?

A: Finding my way around, and not always understanding the responses to my questions. 


Q: Would you say that formalities like getting visas or work permits and international health insurance was particularly difficult in Panama? What was your experience with these?

A: We are not working, and we have not bought health insurance. A visa is given automatically for 180 days when you enter the country. We are in the process of becoming residents which means various paperwork requirements – proof of income, marriage certificate, background check, etc.


Q: Are you living alone or with your family? How are they adjusting to the Expat Lifestyle? 

A: I am living with my husband. He also loves it here.


Q: Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialise with other expats in Panama? How did you manage to find a social circle?

A: Panamanians are very friendly and welcoming and it is very easy to make friends. We socialise a bit with other expats but our main friends are Panamanian. Our friends are neighbors and people we met in our daily lives.


Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Anything to recommend to future expats?

A: That’s hard to answer without knowing what a person likes to do. There are beaches to the south of us, and mountains to the north including the town of Boquete which has a lot of tourist activities.  In town, there are restaurants, movies, shopping, and casinos. There is also a tennis club, a bike group, ball games, and other sporting events. Panama also has a lot of holidays, celebrations, parades, fairs, rodeos, and other events. For us, we enjoy this more relaxed life here. We ride our bikes, hang out with friends, take day trips or occasional travels to places farther away. I like photography, gardening, and I write on my blog. My husband plays music. Both of us are studying to improve our Spanish. We manage to keep quite busy!


Q: How does the cost of living in Panama compare to your home?

A: Overall we are living on about 1/3 of what it cost us in Florida, for basics – house, food, utilities, etc. and I don’t feel like we have given up anything in the way of a comfortable life. Our main expense beyond that is travel back to the US.


  • How much is a cup of coffee?

I don’t know.

  • How much is a meal in an inexpensive restaurant?

$3-4 in a restaurant frequented by locals.

  • How much is a meal in an expensive restaurant?

Maybe $20-30? We rarely eat out since we have time to cook and enjoy our own cooking.

  • How much is a bottle of wine? How about a pack of cigarettes?

Wine can be found for $4-5, and up. I don’t know what cigarettes cost.


Q: What do you think about the locals?

A: I never knew we would be living with such wonderful people! They are warm, friendly, welcoming, helpful, and very accepting of differences. I feel a greater sense of community and social network here in a short time than I ever did anywhere in the US.


Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in Panama? 

A: It’s hard to think of negatives since we are so happy here. There are some frustrations mainly related to the language barrier but since my Spanish has improved, that has decreased. There are some irritations that bother some other expats more than us like trash in the street, potholes, different driving style, and the tendency to not show up on time.


The positives though, I could write a lot! – the people, the joy of living, laid back lifestyle, the sense of community, the beauty of the country, the warm climate, the diversity (everything from beaches to mountains, country to city), the diverse wildlife, the affordable cost of living, the lack of hurricanes and natural disasters, the newness – new culture, language, food, birds, bugs, trees, fruit – there is always something I’ve never seen before, something new to learn about. We just don’t feel the stress here that we felt in the US.


Q: Do you miss home and family sometimes? 

A: I have two daughters and a grandson in the US, but we haven’t lived close to each other for years so this has not been a big change. I am thankful for the internet and video chats so we can keep in touch well.


Q: Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?

A: No, we are very happy here. 

Q: What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?

A: The language barrier. Few people speak English here, and it’s frustrating when I don’t have the vocabulary I need or can’t understand what people say to me. Thankfully, I’m a lot better than I was when I arrived!


Q: What tips can you give other expats living in Panama?

A: Learn the language as much as you can. You don’t have to be fluent, but the ability to communicate (and a dictionary in your pocket) are enormously helpful. Be flexible and patient. Things are going to be different, frustrating, and sometimes difficult to understand. Go with the flow and look at it as a learning experience. These things will get better as you get more familiar with the country and customs. Be outgoing and friendly, and be polite and respectful of service people. A greeting when you see anyone (entering a bus or waiting room, or passing someone on the street) is customary, and a bit of small talk is always welcome. Keep any negative opinions about the country or the people to yourself.


Q: Do you have favourite websites or blogs about Panama?

A: I put quite a few articles on my website. Of course, there is also my own blog.