“Trying to decide…Panama, Nicaragua, or Costa Rica?”
When the idea of flying south for the winter turns into “Hey… why don’t we move there?” people will typically compare similar destinations, especially those nearby their first choice. Costa Rica is the number one nation in Central America for tourist visitations, but it is not the top earning destination, which is taken by Panama. And Nicaragua is the quiet underdog that has everyone wondering if it will be the next hot tourism spot because of its raw nature and cheap prices.
“Now could be the time to buy in!”
Or is it?
What is it that has us shouting “Pura Vida” from the jungle’s canopy at the rest of the world, believing that there is no better place for us to live?
Below are a few quotes from some anonymous online commenters when asked: “Costa Rica or Panama or Nicaragua?“
“Personally I think the weather might be better in Costa Rica. We like it cool and everything I have felt in Panama has been hot and sweaty.”
Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua all have an array of microclimates that make the temperature cooler in the mountains and hot and humid on the coast. Some higher-elevation places are so cold that homes will have fireplaces roaring at night.
Each of these three countries shares similar geology and topography, with Panama having the interesting feature of having over 1500 islands along both coasts, and Nicaragua having two very large lakes. None of these tropical nations have reefs but surfing and deep-sea fishing are great in any of these three countries.
What sets Costa Rica apart is how easy it is to get from the coast to the mountains. You can experience the sultry beach destinations and the fresher mountain communities in a short drive across this narrow, mountainous isthmus, filled with rushing rivers and stunning waterfalls. Nicaragua’s width and Panama’s length do not offer the same opportunities, which is why many tourists and ex-pats claim to like Costa Rica’s weather and environment more.
“I especially like the compactness of Costa Rica. And a big plus is that everywhere is close to the international airport, whereas Panama has many more wide open spaces.”
Although the International Airport in David is due to reopen to international travel when Covid is no longer a threat, there are currently many parts of Panama where it is difficult to travel to the airport in one day. It is true that Panama’s highways and road infrastructure are more developed than in Costa Rica, but there are many areas of Panama that are challenging to get to for sheer distance.
Costa Rica’s smaller size and higher population mean that you won’t go far without encountering a town regularly. It also means that if there is a road delay, traffic can get quite bad. Nicaragua’s infrastructure is nowhere near comparable to either Panama or Costa Rica and its sheer size means that there are many sparsely populated regions with minimal infrastructure.
“Nicaragua is three times cheaper than Costa Rica…”
Yes, but the above sentiment is often followed by something about how the people are not the same, which is understandable given the very different political climates in either country. Socially, Nicaragua is nothing like Costa Rica. Nicaragua’s streets are stocked with paramilitaries wielding automatic weapons and its citizens face a lot more poverty. Nicaraguans who flee their nation’s dictatorship will often come to Costa Rica for a safer life with better economic opportunities.
Costa Rica has a highly educated population, a skilled workforce, and great socialized healthcare. Together, these qualities elevate the standard of living in Costa Rica greatly above its neighbors. Customer service, friendliness, and an openness to diversity are all qualities that Costa Ricans are known for.
When foreigners come to Costa Rica wanting to maintain a similar standard of living as they did in their home countries, they can end up spending over $2000 per person to live here. But after spending some time here and learning how to shop and eat like a local, that monthly sum can go down to just a few hundred dollars without feeling like you are going without.
“Panama is less expensive, but you get what you pay for.”
Panama is also known to be cheaper than Costa Rica when it comes to “American” goods, thanks to the imports coming into the Panama Canal. Thanks to the high amount of tourism in Costa Rica, you can find almost anything you want here but you will pay a premium for those Doritos or car parts because of Costa Rica’s higher import taxes.
With those premium prices comes the safety and stability of a country that does not have such a wide divide between the higher and lower classes. Much of Costa Rica is middle class and this means that there is less poverty and violent crime here than in the neighboring countries. For instance, Panama experience two times more violent gun crimes than Costa Rica, and the murder rate in Panama is 83% more than in Costa Rica. Nicaragua also has a higher rate of violent crimes than Costa Rica with 49% more murders occurring in Nicaragua.
“If you are comparing not only financial aspects, Costa Rica wins.”
Panama does have a superior system in place for expats who want to operate a business. Investors can operate a business in Panama with serious tax advantages. Panama uses the US Dollar and does not have its own Central Bank so its currency is stable. However, the country is still subject to much corruption and the lower property values in Panama reflect the global distrust in the government.
Costa Rica is also known to have corruption at all levels of government. However, according to transparency.org, Costa Rica was ranked 38/180 in 2021 and Panama was 105/180.
“Corruption is Panama’s biggest challenge. Panama ranked 111 out of 180 countries in the 2020 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. The U.S. and other international investors have voiced concerns about corruption and inconsistent treatment of investors and businesses.”
One of the pillars of Costa Rica’s economic development has been the expansion of trade, which has allowed Costa Rica’s exports to surpass 50% of its GDP. The country has also implemented many structural changes resulting in productivity growth, diversification of the economy, and a higher level of investment.
“Today, Costa Rica exports thousands of distinctive products to the world and is highly recognized as one of the top 30 leading exporters of high-tech products. Foreign investors remain attracted by the country’s political stability and high education levels. All these changes have translated into important social achievements. In the last 20 years, poverty was reduced from 40% to less than 20%.”
–Embassy Of Costa Rica In Washington, D.C.
“I have visited Panama several times, very dirty compared to Costa Rica. We spent time in Panama City, and even in the nicer neighborhoods trash was everywhere. And on the southern drive from the border, there were broken garbage bags all along the road.”
Streets lined with garbage and the smell of burning garbage almost constantly are not what people envision when they imagine moving to the tropics. However, if you choose Panama or Nicaragua to visit or live in, you are much more likely to have this experience than you will in Costa Rica.
“If you’re a city person, Panama City is awesome. San Jose can’t hold a candle to it. Otherwise, quality of life is probably better in Costa Rica.”
There is a higher price to live in Costa Rica but that premium pays for a lifestyle upgrade that is hard to pass up. Expats who live in Costa Rica will often choose to travel to Panama for the items that are difficult to find here or to save on cost. They may go to the border town of Paso Canoas, David, or fly to Panama City, where they will be greeted with good shopping as well as hawkers in the streets vying for their attention, police carrying submachine guns, and garbage in the streets. They are happy to return to the cool, green, misty mountains, warm people, relaxed vibes, and police officers who smile and joke around.
“If you like a lot of cheap items, choose Panama. If you love nature, choose Costa Rica.”
Panama solidly wins if you are looking for a modern city experience. Everything is available in Panama and the capital city is often referred to as ‘the Dubai of Latin America,’ with lots of ultra-modern skyscrapers and a lot of wealth.
“Panama is cheaper but there is more social injustice. Costa Rica is more expensive, but the people are very loving and helpful and in social justice matters we are better among the indigenous population of the country. There are indigenous reserves where there is no access to clean drinking water and workers do not receive minimum wage.”
If you don’t like cities, most of the rest of Panama seems to have been left behind in terms of infrastructure, like medical care, clean drinking water, and other services. The wealth gap in Panama is prominent when you leave the city and this makes for a challenging social climate for foreigners, who will typically live in gated enclaves.
San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, is an underrated city because people are put off by the challenging driving conditions of this unplanned metropolis. Highways weave around the topography instead of carving through so direct routes are difficult to come by. However, if you spend some time in this character-filled location that is home to more than 1/5th of the country’s population, you will find incredible restaurants, shopping, and entertainment ripe for your enjoyment.