Thai Massage in Casco by Renu Decap

Panama, Casco Viejo, Casco Antiguo

Traditional Thai Massage is a combined system that blends ayurvedic principles, yoga postures and even acupressure. A good Thai massage helps you stretch and re gain your flexibility. It doesn´t use lotion, you dress with comfortable clothing and it is a full therapy for your whole body. Wonderful!

Now Casco has Casa Thai, run by Thai therapist Renu Decap. At Portal de Caldas, you can contact her and make reservations at:

Renu is knowledgeable and has that zen energy that will get you to relax instantly. Enjoy!!

deep foot logo paquete thai zen



Anti- Corruption Film Festival,

Cinema and audiovisual media have undoubtedly become the most effective tool to raise awareness, report injustices, promote advocacy and to move the audience’s sensitivity, weaving bridges for small and large actions alike. Aware of this power, Transparency International has teamed up with ECOCINEMA and BRITDOC to produce FILMS FOR TRANSPARENCY –Anti-Corruption Film Festival in parallel to the 17th IACC. They will presenting in Plaza Catedral and Plaza de Francia. Free entrance.

Here is the schedule,

Plaza Catedral:

November 29th,  at 20:00 film-freightened




November 30th, at 18:30 film-719




December 1st, at 18:30film-a-la-deriva




December 2nd, at 18:30film-chicago-boys




December 4th, at 18:30film-daughter-of-the-lake




Plaza de Francia:

December 3rd, at 18:30film-el-alcalde

Black Friday Casco Viejo Style! Shopping that Matters

Panama, Casco Viejo, Casco Antiguo

Casco has really special retail, but our favorite ones are those who have an impact. Whether they benefit social causes like women empowerment and environment, or they promote young entrepreneurs with great design, truth is shopping in these stores will make your purchase benefit far beyond the person you are giving the gift to.  Most are located on A Avenue, between 3rd and 5th, which will make your experience fun and compact!

Starting at 3rd Street, next to Arco Chato:

Karavan: art from Panama´s Caribbean side and modern Guna indian designs.

Viviendo: One of my favorite places for gifts, not only because of the quality of their handcraft and design but because of the direct effect these sales make on the lives of really remote women who live in the mountains of Panama. Each purchase trully makes a difference. Dyes used come literally, from the jungle that surrounds their homes, browns from the clayish floor in those areas. Give a really special gift from the heart of Panama.

casco-viejo-black-friday          shopping-casco-viejo


Lupa: A window into Panama´s young designers. A place to support young artists: clothing, accesories, art pieces.

lupa-casco-viejo casco-viejo-lupa

Undercover Boots: Rainboots! each one with a different design, supporting a cause. For example, the Golden Frog boots support the Golden Frog project, an effort by the Smithsonian and a coalition of Panamanian and international scientists to save the Golden Frog, which is unique to this country and found no where else. They´ve done an amazing job building a sort of Noah´s Arc for them, and studying the fungus that is killing them. It is said that frogs are an indicator of global health: we need to protect them, and to understand them.

casco-viejo-undercover-boots casco-viejo-christmas-1

Mahalo: Café and store. They feature Panamanian gourmet products and natural soaps. Brands like El Motete are an effort from food producers to market their products directly.

mahalo-new-products mahalo-casco-viejo

Lido (Next to the Canal Museum): Casual wear and accesories from Bocas del Toro, our Caribbean province (next to Costa Rica).


No Me Olvides: If you are craving a Cuban style guayabera dress or shirt, this is the place to get it. Corner of A and 4th, right in front of Arco Properties.


Reprosa: Jewelry inspired on Pre Columbian Panamanian design.


Relocating to Panama? (or anywhere) read this first: Happy Expat

Panama, Casco Viejo, Casco Antiguo

This is the second article on relocating to Panama that we wrote (six years ago).  We find it to be as relevant today as it was then. If you are thinking to relocate to Panama (or anywhere!) this is a must read. From head to toe!!!

The Happy Expat (Part II): Lifestyles for Happiness

Casco Antiguo is my home, a history-steeped peninsula with a fortress at its tip, jutting into Panama Bay with a panoramic view of Panama City’s skyline in one direction, and Isla Tobago in the other.   With its Old Panama atmosphere, its narrow bricked streets and variety of sights, sounds and people, it is an interesting place to study what makes for a happy expat.

As is the case in most places, expats drawn here start with common denominators.  Most apparently, those who come to live in Casco Antiguo are virtually self-defined as eschewing the high-rise or golf club life available a short distance away, which draw their own compatible communities.  This is a lively place, a walk-around neighborhood of plazas and restaurants where rundown and revitalized dwellings of three stories or less co-exist under a United Nations historic preservation designation.   You are not lured into thinking a part of “back home” has been transplanted here, and it does not usually take long for a foreigner to make the “love it or leave it” decision.  Yet while most who elect to stay remain happily, a few become disenchanted.  As I have written before, the question that intrigues me, is why?   Is it the experience or the individual that makes the difference?

On any block in Casco Antiguo, you may see laundry draped over the balcony of a century old dwelling next to a revitalized apartment house required by ordinance to keep its Old City touches, while work is underway on still another.   About thirty restored apartments come on the market each year, most of which are purchased by foreigners, though two hundred or so expats still are just a small percentage of the Casco’s population of some 6000.   My roles as a real estate broker and president of a neighborhood association make me (a Panamanian) constantly cognizant of our neighborhood’s human scale.   As to expats, I come to know almost all of them, hence my  opinions on what makes for a happy transplant.

As a group expats fascinate me, perhaps because I have been surrounded by them all my life: My parents were expats (both to and from Italy), I worked at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama with scientists from around the world, and my husband is from the States.   As individuals, I am endlessly fascinated by expat backgrounds and talents. That little group of two hundred expats in Casco includes renowned scientists, private bankers, day traders, professional writers, energetic entrepreneurs right out of college, a working actor, quite a few globe trotting executives, at least two doctors, a director of a large NGO, the regional head of a famous luxury brand, a yoga instructor…the list goes on.

The great majority are extremely happy and I think that most will tell you that they could never see themselves returning to their home countries.  In a recent survey of United Kingdom Expats, 71 percent said they thought they made the right decision, and I would have to guess that the number is not too different here.

Think about that for a second: accomplished people from big, highly-developed countries relocating to a small “third world” country for lifestyle.  As a realtor, I met many such “successes” by telephone or email when they were first contemplating the move and was able to observe them through the process of deliberating, moving, making friends, becoming part of the community and then, finally, helping others to do the same.

In order to better counsel my clients who often become friends, I have tried to be analytical about what makes for a successful transition from a developed country to a developing country.  In Part I of this article I wrote about things that all of the unhappy expats I have known had in common.  But what about the vast majority who have flourished?  They’ve built businesses, started families, made friends and in some cases fortunes. How do they do it?

No two are exactly alike (and that’s what makes it more art than science), but the four things that I think the happiest expats have in common are that they:

1.   knew what they were seeking,
2.   have good chemistry and are compatible with their new environment,
3.   made an effort to adapt culturally, and
4.   engineered a lifestyle they could not have found at home.

Know Thyself, Know Thy Destination

In Part I I mentioned that often expats fail in transitioning simply because they were not going to be happy anywhere. Whether they understood it or not, they were in essence trying to escape from themselves.  The corollary to that is that most of the happy expats I know understand exactly why they left their home countries.  In many cases there were positive reasons, such as searching for new opportunities, experiencing a new culture, accepting a new job, wanting a more active lifestyle, looking for a more central place to base their business or following a romance.

In other cases they reject certain things they know will be different in their adopted country.  Whether it’s politics, economics or a desire to transcend the “same ole,” these are optimistic people who knew what they wanted in life and proactively looked for it.

I’m always amazed at how much I learn about my own country from new clients who come into my office armed with folders full of facts and figures.  Clearly the information is helpful to making an informed decision, but my question to clients contemplating moving to my neighborhood is always the same: what are YOU looking for? The more specific and clear they are about their own priorities, the more confidence I have in recommending (or not recommending) my country.

Chemistry and Compatibility

In romance, great chemistry often starts through the eyes, but what makes two people truly compatible over the long run is how their personalities fit together;  Same for expats and their adopted countries.

I haven’t met anyone who can sit in a cafe on Casco’s 300-year-old Plaza Bolivar and not fall in love with the beautiful architecture in about the time it takes to down a Mojito. But the ones who have great chemistry with the place notice and appreciate much more subtle things, like the sounds of children playing in the street or the weathered wooden building with it’s peeling paint patina on the far corner or the old wandering salesman who sells hot bollos for .25 cents.  When a person focuses merely on the architecture and tells me how much “potential” the neighborhood has and then asks, “When do you think it will be finished?”, I pretty much know the fit isn’t right for the same reasons that I wouldn’t want my best friend to date someone who took that approach with her.

But beyond the initial chemistry is true compatibility. Every place has a character, an essence, and the more that your personality fits with that character the happier you are going to be there.  If you are a Type A personality who needs everything ordered and a world that jumps at your command, the tropics probably aren’t for you no matter how much you love palm trees. To me the key is to simply take some time to focus on the imperfections of a place and ask yourself if they are deal killers. Easy to say, but until you get beneath the surface you won’t really know what its imperfections are.

Cultural adaptation

As anyone with a successful marriage will tell you, chemistry only takes you so far; at some point, relationships require work.  At the risk of torturing the metaphor, I’d say the same goes for moving abroad, and that in both cases the work you put in is paid back many times over.

You can certainly survive in Panama with zero Spanish, but a 500 word vocabulary makes it so much more fun, and as a bonus, almost everything suddenly gets cheaper!  The curiosity to find out why things are the way they are before jumping to how you think they should be is another great adaptation tool, and one that has the added benefit of getting you into a lot of interesting conversations.  A good attitude which includes curiosity is about all that is required here.

The Well Engineered Lifestyle

Probably the greatest thing that moving abroad allows you to do is engineer a lifestyle that is right for you.  If you move to a place that offers more of the things that are important to you than your home did–say waves if you are a surfer, freedom if you’re a libertarian, or parties if you’re a partier–you’re a long way towards finding happiness.

Lifestyle engineering is a whole topic unto itself and I plan to write another article with case studies of expats who have created unique “cosmotropical lifestyles” in the historic district. One of those case studies will certainly be clients of mine, three friends from California, who started a hotel and quickly figured out that it only took two of them to run it, so at any given time one of them is out on a two month travel. They’ve pretty much seen all of Latin America at this point.  Traveling is their priority and they engineered a unique (and lucrative) lifestyle that would have been impossible for them to create back in California.

The key is prioritizing–the happiest expats I know have their priorities straight and have done the work to organize a lifestyle around those priorities in a way they couldn’t have where they came from.

Love for the underdog

One final thing I’ve noticed about the expats here is that quite a few seem to have a love for the underdog.  I noticed this watching the world cup with a group of them because I was stunned to see that the group favorite was…Ghana?  We Panamanians had been rooting for Brazil, Spain, Argentina, Italy–anyone we thought had a chance of making the finals, but all the expats were screaming their heads off for a team with no chance.  I’m still puzzling this out, but somehow I think it wasn’t coincidence but rather a happy trait.

Moving from the developed world to the developing world is about more than lifestyle engineering.  At some level expats are trading themselves to a new team–a scrappy up-comer with lots of opportunity and room for improvement, where a person coming from the outside with new ideas, energy and capital can be a meaningful contributor to a better future.

At the same time, they don’t have their expectations fixed on any definite result.  Is Panama going to attain the tidy efficiency of a Switzerland in our lifetimes?  About as likely as Ghana winning the World Cup (which is to say just possible enough to make it fun to watch). But the happy expat seems to understand that life is about the journey, not the destination.  For them, watching little Ghana advance one round was infinitely more satisfying than rooting for the favorite Spain to win the World Cup–just like being a part of Panama’s little successes as it tries to make its way into the ranks of developed world countries.

Thinking about relocating? Read this first: The Unhappy Expat

Panama, Casco Antiguo, Casco Viejo

Six years ago (wao!) we wrote two articles about the people we met through the years moving abroad, specifically relocating to Panama.  This week, we re read the articles and were surprised on how relevant they still are, and worth sharing again.

If you´ve been thinking on relocating (to Panama or anywhere), we do recommend you to read both of them from A to Z.  I know, reading these days takes time, but worth doing for such a big decision. Can´t we just make an infographic? humm…. no….  =) A video would be fun though!

They were two articles: The Happy Expat (Part I): Unhappy Expats  and the second one, about those who make it or “The Happy Expat”

Here it goes! First delivery:

The Happy Expat (Part I): Unhappy Expats

A couple years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article for The New Yorker about how there are certain jobs that defy our ability to predict who will be successful and who will fail once they are hired.  The article cited schoolteachers and professional American football quarterbacks as two examples of jobs where almost nothing we can learn about a candidate before he is hired will tell us how well he will do in the job. The article got me thinking about the many people I have seen succeed, and the few I have seen fail, transitioning from a developed country to our little corner of a developing one.

I am a real estate broker in Casco Antiguo with Arco Properties, a walled colonial town that abuts bustling Panama City.  During my six years in the business, I have sold or rented to approximately 120 foreigners.  I even married one.  All of these people brought their hopes and dreams to my country. They came excited to make a new life for themselves. The vast majority have flourished.  They’ve built businesses, started families, made friends (and in some cases fortunes). They’ve engineered a special lifestyle for themselves they could never have anywhere else and, I am sure, will never return to their home countries.  They are now hyphenated Panamanians; part of a growing diaspora of developed world expats who I believe will prove to be one of the great sea changes of this century.

But a few wound up regretting their decision to move. Somehow Panama didn’t live up to their expectations. The trials and frustrations of a developing country, the inefficiencies, the disorganization took their toll and pushed these people past their breaking point.  But everyone here, particularly foreigners, are subject to the same conditions, so why do some foreigners thrive while others become frustrated, burnt out and eventually leave?

I had both personal and professional reasons for wanting to be able to better predict who would transition successfully and who would fail.  Obviously, unhappy clients are bad for business, and part of a realtor’s role is to help her clients make the right decision for themselves, but in my case it is even more personal than that.  In a small historic district like ours, your clients are your neighbors and your neighbors are your friends.  You want everyone to be happy. To see someone slowly burn out and become frustrated, knowing that at some level they relied on you to make such a large life decision is a heavy burden.

So I meditated on the question and analyzed case-by-case the happy and the unhappy expats I had dealt with here.  As I did, I began to see some patterns emerge. It’s nothing scientific–and probably couldn’t be since you never really know what is going on inside someone else’s’ mind– but it’s given me some insights that help me better counsel my clients.  The context is people moving from a developed country to a historic district in a Latin American country because that is what I know, but I would think that the insights apply to anyone moving from a developed country to a less developed one.

For those who feel there might be a fit between them and a historic district like our Casco, I am publishing a separate series that goes into the nuts and bolts of successfully engineering what we have come to (half-kiddingly) refer to a Cosmotropical life style in our historic district.


In the famous opening line of Ana Karenina, Tolstoy says “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” My father-in-law is fond of saying that old Leo got it backwards: it’s the unhappy families that are all alike–they’ve got one of several problems–money, infidelity, substance abuse, love gone cold, kid issues–but the happy families each have their own special little chemistry that keeps them together despite the vicissitudes of life, and that chemistry defies being reduced to a formula.

I tend to think my father-in-law is right, and that his philosophy applies to expats.  When I look back at my list of hundreds of expats I’ve known, it is much easier to see patterns among the few who left than the majority who stayed.  Not that there aren’t things to learn from the happy expats, it’s just that there are fewer things that I would consider predictors.  Below I’ve touched on the three main predictors of unhappiness, and in the second part of this article I will look at some of the ingredients I’ve seen in the chemistry of the happy expats.

1. If you are not happy anywhere, you won’t be happy here.

In my experience, the most frequent cause of unhappiness among expats is that they were simply unhappy people to begin with. Somehow they had convinced themselves that “getting away from it all” and “starting over” in a new place would bring them true happiness.  I’ve now become very attuned to people who quickly dive into stories of how unfair life has been to them, the complaints, the broken relationships they need to get away from.  My advice when I hear it is “get a shrink”–expatriating is not the answer.

If you feel on the verge of a nervous breakdown, moving to a developing country is probably the worst thing you can do.  You need a predictable, stable environment, where you can focus on yourself, work through your issues and repair your relationships.  You may have an idealized conception of the tropics as more laid back, less regulated, less stressful, but unless you are on holiday, it takes a while before it becomes those things.  For your first couple of years it’s tough. It bumps you around, it challenges your assumptions of what’s logical, fair, right.  If you are not very comfortable in your own skin and don’t have good coping mechanisms the developing world will make you more nuts than you already are.

2. The best way to become a millionaire in Latin America is to start with a billion.

The second most common reason for unhappy expats in my experience is that they get themselves into financial trouble.  This is most often the case with entrepreneurs, which many expats here tend to be.

It is well known that most new businesses fail within the first two years.  It is also well known that it is more risky to start a business in an environment you are not familiar with than it is to start one in your own back yard.

It is therefore astounding to me how many people move to Panama and put their life savings at risk starting a business in an industry they do not know, where they don’t speak the language, know the customs or have personal networks.  Sitting bleary-eyed in your New York office at three a.m. behind a pile of papers, you might convince yourself that opening a bar in a tropical paradise like Panama is a quaint, stress-free way to make a living, but ask yourself: would I take the risk on the exact same thing down my own block? If not, listen to your own excuses for not doing it on your own turf: too much competition, too many legal hassles, cost of living too high, don’t know anything about bars….

Well, the deck is stacked against you even more here.  It’s certainly possible–but you cannot go in making unsupported assumptions about the time things take, the cost of doing things right (meaning at the level you are accustomed to), who you can trust or the quality of the labor pool.  You must do your homework and leave large cushions of time and capital, otherwise you are very likely to find yourself a very unhappy expat for a very good reason: you’re broke.

It’s too early in my area’s development to really know the failure rate for expat businesses, but of the thirty or so I’ve seen open, only a few have failed.  I think the reason it is not higher is because this is a fast growing market and often expats come in with insights into where the market is heading that makes up for some of their other competitive disadvantages.  If they have a decent idea, enough capital and stick it out long enough they normally do fine, and some even get rich.   But my experience is that the best bet is to have a nest egg or a source of income outside of Panama that allows you to take advantage of its low cost of living without being overly exposed to its tricky business climate.  If you want to dabble in a side business to see how it goes, great. But whatever you do don’t take one big roll of the dice on a bumpy felt like this one. And if you do and it goes wrong, please don’t blame the country–statistics say it probably would have happened at home.

3.  Living in your own private Panama.

The previous two reasons account for almost all of the unhappy expats I have seen.  There is another condition that often accompanies one or both of the others that I define as unrealistic expectations.  Essentially, these are people who want Panama to be something that it simply isn’t and when they realize it, they refuse to adjust and become unhappy because they feel that they have been betrayed.

If naivety is a legitimate excuse, then this feeling is justified; there is an unlimited amount of propaganda floating around on the internet selling Panama as a species of tropical paradise that it isn’t (and nowhere else could be). If you’re expecting paradise, pretty much anything that really exists in this world is going to disappoint you.

What I’ve learned to listen for in this respect are the words “should” and “ought”.  If someone recently arrived in Panama frequently mentions that “Panama should” do this, or “they ought” to do the other, I can be pretty certain that this person will soon become an unhappy expat. Whether or not they are correct on their observations, the fact that they are focused on how things should be rather than trying to understanding why they are the way they are tells me that they probably don’t have the coping skills they need to deal with this imperfect environment. It’s got it’s good and it’s bad; the job of the expat is to do his research before moving to make sure that the rough edges between his personality and Panama are a good fit.

Interestingly though, I have found that quite often the things they think “should” be, if done, would create exactly the circumstances that they say they didn’t like in their home country.  A typical case is when people find out that there is no real cause of action for negligence here. They claim to hate the litigiousness of the US, but the first time they step in an open manhole they think that they ought to be entitled to compensation.

The key to happiness here, as anywhere, is focusing on the positive and the things you can change and letting the rest go. As an expat, it is important to have the cultural intuition and curiosity that allows you to understand why things are the way they are.  Everyone, including locals, occasionally meanders into the land of should and ought, but living there is a sure fire way to make yourself miserable no matter where you are.

Saquella opens in Casco Viejo

Panama, Casco Viejo, Casco Antiguo

Located on A Avenue, corner with 7th Street, Saquella has opened a beautiful local in Casco Viejo. We went there with some friends and tried a bit of everything! Loved the big salad portions. open for dinner as well, here are some photos!

dinner img_1771 img_1781 img_1799 img_1800 img_1801 saquella-casco-viejo temaki

Tio Navaja opens in Casco Viejo

Panama, Casco Viejo, Casco Antiguo

This Sunday, we tried the brunch at the recently opened Tio Navaja café between Diablicos and Manolo Caracol. It was very good! the pork was excelent, gave me a total guilt trip which I know will lead me into a second 30 day fitness challenge at Alley Cat Gym.

Some photos! & Phone: 395-1749

busy-brunch casco-viejo-tio-navaja fish pork tio-navaja-casco-viejo


SUP Race at Casco´s Beach

Panama, Casco Viejo, Casco Antiguo

Dozens of paddle boarders gathered really early this morning for a SUP race organized by Creba.  Thumbs up! by noon the race was over, happy smiley faces everywhere.

casco-viejo-beach-panama casco-viejo-beach casco-viejo-surf foto-by-maru-galvez surf-arco-chato

Hotel Central Opened! Nueve Reinas Restaurant

Panama, Casco Viejo, Casco Antiguo

It was a long and bumpy road with Hotel Central. But after more or less 7 years, there was light at the end of the tunel: the hotel is opening! still a couple of weeks more for the rooms to be available to the public, but their main restaurant Nueve Reinas has opened.

It is an Argentinian style restaurant with specialty in meats. We ordered the tuna tataki for some balance. One of our friends ordered her meat red and the other one ordered his meat 3/4. They both loved it.  We ordered tataki and corvina and they were both very good.

Thumbs up and congratulations! looking forward to having the full 135 room operating hotel!

carnes-2 carnes1 corvina hotel-central-casco-antiguo hotel-central-casco-viejo tataki



Swan Lake, as a climate change commentary

Panama, Casco Viejo, Casco Antiguo

Last Thursday, we went to the Prisma Dance Festival performance at the Anita Villalaz Theatre in Casco Viejo.  Two companies. one from Hungary and one from South Korea. Ferenc Feher from Hungary had an interesting concept based on the Tao Te Ching about humans living in harmony. But it was the South Korean troupe that stole the night with Swan Lake, five swans losing their homes due to pollution, dying at the end of exhaustion. Tchaikovsky´s music had the perfect notes for everything: drama and comedy. But the end was done in silence, as it should be.

What a performance! thanks so much to the Prisma Dance Festival! thumbs up!