PANAMA CITY - With its miles of beaches, lush rainforests and welcoming colonial towns, Panama - like much of Latin America - has become a hot spot for American retirees. They come for the scenery, the weather and, perhaps more important, the low cost of living.
"We were looking for a simple, cheap life," said Linda McKee, 61, of Bonita Springs, Fla., while enjoying a glass of wine with her husband, Eric Carlson, on the porch of their home in Boquete, a mountain town in western Panama where many U.S. retirees live. The couple moved to Panama six years ago after first trying Costa Rica.
International Living magazine, which for 30 years has published a ranking of the top 10 "havens" for retirees, included six Latin American countries in its most recent ranking in December. Ecuador was No. 1, followed by Panama. Mexico was in fourth place, Costa Rica fifth, Uruguay sixth and Colombia seventh.
"Panama is safe, stable, and friendly," the magazine said. "It boasts the best health care and infrastructure in Central America ... Its wildlife is abundant, with most of the bird species in North America, and its pristine natural setting is an eco-tourist's dream."
U.S. retirees began arriving in droves to Latin America in the early 2000s, and the numbers have picked up since the U.S. economic crisis in 2008, tourism authorities said. As many as a million U.S. retirees live in Mexico, they said, and thousands in Ecuador, Costa Rica and Panama.
Panama's government has worked to attract them, making it simpler to qualify for permanent residency. The only requirement is that foreign retirees receive a pension of at least $1,000 a month.
"With this, I can live here for an indefinite period. The process is very easy," said Robert Braun, 67, of Lincoln, N.H. He said he came to Panama for the fishing, the weather and safety.
The U.S. dollar has been the local currency in Panama since it became an independent country in 1903, and there are dozens of banks that let foreigners manage their home accounts from here. Foreign retirees can bring in items valued at $10,000 or less tax free, and can bring in a car without having to pay taxes. Benefits include discounts of 25 percent on utility bills and lower medical costs.
"U.S. retirees come because they see Panama as a place where they can have good quality of life and low living costs, a place that has everything," said Ernesto Orillac, deputy administrator of the Panama Tourism Authority.
In Boquete, a high-end development project called Hidden Valley includes residences, a small hotel and a golf course. The town of about 20,000, in a region where a popular Panamanian coffee is grown, has a cool climate with frequent light rain. When the skies clear, there are breath-taking views of green and blue mountains.
Town authorities estimate that about 3,000 retirees live in Boquete, mostly American. There are other communities of American retirees elsewhere in Panama, including near beaches.
McKee and Carlson, a 57-year-old former contractor, say they never have considered going back to the U.S., although they do miss friends and family in Florida.
Between their pension and what they make working on a jungle conservation project in Rambala, about two hours from their home, they have enough to live comfortably.
"We like that people are very quiet and security is not a problem," said McKee, whose son Daniel, 27, visits twice a year to surf on Panamanian beaches. "This is our new country, our new life."
Renting their two-bedroom house in Boquete costs $550 per month. Dinner in a nice restaurant, with wine, usually costs about $30 for the two of them.
"It's fun," said Carlson with a wide smile.
As for medical care, there are several hospitals in David, a city about 45 minutes away by car. Panama City is less than an hour from there by plane.
Braun, who had an online business until he retired 14 years ago, first traveled to Nicaragua, where he lived for five years before heading to Panama. He lived for several years in the seaside resort of Pedasi, then in a village near the Panama Canal, and finally in Boquete, where he enjoys photography, hiking and bird watching.
"Here we can live with less than $1,500 a month and go at least once a week to dinner at nice restaurants, something that cannot be done in America," he said.
Retirees also have easy access to healthy, organic food grown by local farmers. Every Tuesday, there is a farmers market, and McKee makes and sells soaps and creams made with coconut oil and lemon grass. Retirees cannot work in Panama, but they can have their own businesses.
"Everything is possible in Panama," she said.