Friday, May 22, 2009

What to Bring to Panama, What to Leave Behind (Updated)

A few years ago a friend from California who was planning a move to Panama asked me what she should bring, and I wrote a post about it. The subject has come up again in the Panama Forum Yahoo discussion group, as it does from time to time, so I'm updating my old post. I have also expanded the list of things to leave behind.

If you live in Panama (or anywhere in Central America since all deal with similar challenges of humidity and lack of local manufacturing) and you have any further suggestions of your own, please add them by commenting to this post:


  • Quality tools of any kind, whether hand tools or electrical tools. The ones here are imported from China and are poor quality.
  • Quality kitchenware, including pots and pans, silverware, can openers, etc. Again, not the best quality here.

  • English language books, CDs, DVDs. Even if they're books you've already read, you can trade them at the various book exchanges, like the one at the expat center in Panama City.
  • Light clothing made of natural materials such as cotton or linen. I recently ordered a bamboo fiber shirt online and found it to be extremely light and soft. Also, you may not find your size here. Panamanians tend to be shorter and more slender than North Americans.
  • A pair of waterproof boots or shoes for the rainy season.
  • If you'll be in the highlands, a waterproof or water-resistant jacket might come in handy during rainy season. In Panama City, however, it would be too hot for this.
  • Comfortable house shoes or house slippers. I have removed three giant spiders from our house, and I always wear slippers now. In addition, floors here are tiled, not carpeted, and so may not be as soft as you are used to. I have a pair of Crocs that I wear around the house and I'm very happy with them.
  • A computer. The computers sold here have Spanish-language operating systems, so if you prefer an English-language model you should bring it with you. Also, computers and electronics in general are more expensive here than in the USA. Other electronic items I have brought from the states include a digital camera, aSkype-enabled cordless phone and a PDA.
  • If you have particular cosmetics or skin care products that you like, I suggest you bring a supply with you, since there's no guarantee that you will find the same brand here. Certainly the Farmacia Arrocha is full of imported skin care products, but you may not find that particular brand that you're used to.
  • High thread count sheets and pillowcases. Hard to find here, I've heard.
  • Alice, a reader of my blog says: "Face Cloths! When we traveled to Panama in January most of the mid-priced hotels we stayed in did not have face cloths. When browsing different stores for items like towels, pillows, etc there was a VERY small selection to choose from. I also noticed that the quality of plasticware was very poor. I dare say you wouldn't put any of it in a microwave, so I'll bring my own. Just a couple of observations while in Panama."
  • Richard adds, "Right-on about the face cloths. My wife and I spent considerable time even in Panama City trying to find small wash cloths and just ended up with what we call 'hand towels' that were much larger than needed."
  • The power goes out here occasionally. On her last trip to the U.S., Laura brought back a hand-cranked lantern and flashlight made by Freeplay. I love these. You just wind them up and you have light. No batteries needed. I take the flashlight with me when I go on my evening walks.
  • Update regarding hand-cranked devices: I brought back another hand-cranked flashlight and a hand-powered radio and I gave them to my gardener as gifts. He lives in a village in the mountains with no electricity, and walks an hour every day to get to El Valle. And I know that he (like many locals) is too poor to buy batteries for battery-operated devices. He was very happy with them and I believe they will significantly improve his quality of life. I can imagine the whole family sitting around in the evening listening to the radio and taking turns winding it up.
  • Connie from the Panama Forum came up with the following list: "Lots of refills for anything that requires refills: coffee filters, vaccuum bags, Swiffer refills. They aren't available here very often... I don't think you would want to ship them, but you may find yourself bringing back spices and extracts (just try to find peppermint extract in David or > Panama City) and other goodies like special flours or canned green, chilis or whatever it is you like to cook... Susan G-G would probably recommend a good can opener... Plastic shelf liner from the Container Store (if you have an American style kitchen, you may have trouble finding enough liner of any kind). If you are building, kitchen knobs; without being picky, I could not find enough of any kind in David or Panama City unless I wanted plain wooden ones. Anything for organizing: hooks, drawer dividers, shelves, etc. (very limited selection here). More gardening tools (good quality) and some of my favorite plant pots. An electric space heater (I live in the mountains)."
  • I second the vote for a good can opener. I searched everywhere for one. Many stores carried electric openers, but it wasn't until I visited one of the department stores on the peatonal (the pedestrial stretch of Avenida Central) that I found a low-quality manual opener. I had to show Rosa (our maid) how to use it because she had never seen one and had been punching cans open with knives!
  • Susan Guberman-Garcia says, "If you have a high end computer with a lot of data and software in it, bring that. If you have a good saw and a few high end tools bring those. Bring your cotton clothes. If you have books you particularly treasure, bring those. Everything else leave home, sell it, give it away, or put it in storage if you aren't sure whether you are coming back. That's my opinion and I'm sticking to it. (and I think it's nuts to ship a car here...)."
  • Another reader of the Panama Forum says, "Well I would recomend being sure to bring all small appliances from the States. We paid good money for a coffee maker at the Do-It Center (in Panama) and it died this morning. Just a short 8 week life span. Yesterday, a $40.00 tower fan died a slow death. Actually it was a massive heart attack and very quick. The fan lived a short 6.5 weeks. Not really long-life appliances."
And a few more unusual ideas:
  • Are you an ice cream fan? It's hard to get good ice cream here. They do sell Haagen Dazs pints at the Supermercado El Rey, but they are expensive and often have that icy texture characteristic of ice cream that has melted and re-frozen. So Laura brought back a "Lello Gelato" ice cream making machine, pictured here, from her last trip to the States. It makes fantastic home made ice cream. Laura has made coffee, honey and chocolate flavors.
  • When you're ready to build a house, you want to make sure that any wood used in the construction is thoroughly dried, otherwise it may warp later. This is a problem here in Panama, as wood kilns are extremely rare and air-drying is not effective in this humid climate. If you can afford it, I suggest buying a meter that will measure the moisture level in wood (costs about $350).
  • A final word from Connie: "What we brought that I am glad we did: books, my husband's tools, my sewing machine (cleaned and checked out before I came), yoga equipment, all my kitchen stuff, our computers. Oh, yes, my husband's box of suits and ties, so I can tease him about never wearing them. By the time we unpacked them, the wool suits were already moldy."


If you maintain a home in the USA, or you can leave a few things with a relative, you should consider leaving the following items at home. If you really must bring them, take extra care with them:
  • Anything that would be adversely affected by constant humidity. For example, a baseball card collection, personal artwork, or family photographs. Of course you want to have some family photos with you, but is it necessary to bring them all? If you have time you could scan them and put them on CD's or a hard drive.
  • One reader of this blog commented, "With regard to family photos. I totally agree with "not bringing them. My wife and I have spent the last two years, on and off, scanning 22 years and 12 albums onto C.D's. These can be kept forever and with a DVD player viewed on television on the game setting. Works very well."
  • And Randy added, "Take care with putting archives on cds. I believe removable hard drives are the way to store this sort of thing. CDs and DVDs are not designed to last forever."
  • Anything fragile, such as glass-framed posters, glass collectibles, or ceramics. These kinds of things are easily damaged in shipping. If you must bring them, pack them very carefully.
  • Heavy clothing, woollen clothing, jackets, sweaters, etc. Unless you are going to be in a highland town like El Valle, Cerro Azul, Boquete or Volcan, you will not need these things at all. Even in the highlands, a few windbreakers and sweatshirts generally suffice.
  • Another list by Connie Grant from the Panama Forum: "What I wouldn't bring: Henredon or other brand wood furniture from the U.S. It swells in the humidity... Anything wool; it tends to mold in the humidity... Same problem with some but not all leather goods... Cars (everybody I know who did it wishes they hadn't)... Front loader washers (sometimes special detergent is available, sometimes it isn't in David). Also, last rainy season, our wooden spoons got moldy. Now we use only nylon spoons for cooking."

1 comment:

Chester said...

Flannel Sheets, bring if you live above 3,500 feet in elevation. At 5,500 feet, we love the warm touch when you first climb in bed.