The third in a series of articles comparing Central America’s two leading expat and retiree destinations. Costa Rica is the more established of the two, but Panama is the upstart new kid on the block with a full head of steam and a pocket full of dollars. Who will come out on top? Read more and find out.
Click here for Round 1: Retirement Benefits
Click here for Round 2: Climate
Click here for Round 4: Things To Do
Round 3: People and Culture
If you are going to relocate, either as an expat or retiree, its important to know what your neighbors will be like. Considering that most prospective expats and retirees don’t want to live in a country full of jerks, this article takes a look at the culture and people in both countries and determines a winner. Round 3, begin!
Note: These are generalizations and not meant to include every citizen. Also, food will be covered in another article.
The oft-repeated generalization is that Costa Rica, in fact, has no culture. This is impossible; even a land of brain-eating zombies have a culture of, well, eating brains. The Ticos certainly do have a culture, albeit not as impressive as the Mayan-rich countries to the north. And if culture is defined by recent social and political instability, then I think most Costa Ricans would be more than happy to have little of it.
CR is definitely the whiter of the two countries, with 97% of the population classifying themselves as white or mestizo. Some Ticos will claim that there isn’t racism in the country, which is easy to say when you never really see Afro-Caribbeans or pure indigenous people. In fact, Afro-Caribbeans were not allowed to leave the Limón province until 1949 (however, the U.S. had some pretty draconian racial laws at this time as well). But alas it is the 21st century and for the most part all is well.
Ticos are generally conservative people who for the most part shun the weird and bizarre. Additionally, they shy away from debate in an almost offensive manner as to, ironically, not offend anyone. Perhaps that is the Central American key to political stability: don’t talk about politics, don’t stir the pot. They will, however, do whatever they can to impress their guests and are extremely amiable.
Religiously, Costa Rica is a dominantly Catholic country. However, the church does not have the kind of power or influence it does with CR’s neighbors; many Ticos claim to be Catholic but practice it more as a tradition than a lifestyle. A crucial part of the country’s culture is its strong middle class, something of an oddity in Latin America. It acts as a sort of homogenizing ease between the poor (yes, Costa Rica has poor people despite claims to the contrary) and the rich elite, smoothing over tensions by giving the poor an feasible economic ladder to climb. Thus, coupled by the fact that the country has no army and no military budget, is the reason why the school, medical, and road systems are developed.
Summing up, Ticos are smart, kind people who wish to leave a good impression on visitors. While this makes for a great vacation and you know your neighbors will be peaceful folks who invite you over for sunset dinners, the general disdain for healthy debate takes some of the spark out of conversation
Panamanians must be split up into two groups: those living in the capital, and everyone else. Just about every city-dweller in the world makes fun of, looks down on, or thinks less of the hicks, rednecks, countryfolk, farmboys, etc etc that live outside the metropolis’ limits. But the inhabitants of Panama City seem to have an indignation, nearly reaching hatred status, of everyone else in the country. Once, when telling a Panama City friend of mine that I was going to go to the rainforests to the west of the city, he became perplexed and responded simply with “Why would you want to go there?”. PCity is the place to be; if you don’t live there, then you haven’t made it to the top yet. Thus the snobbish attitude that many capital residents have and the reason why two groups must be made when looking at the people and culture of the country.
Whereas Costa Rica is very, very white, Panama is a melting pot of races and cultures. A healthy population of Afro-Panamanians, as well as several indigenous communities, inject a good deal of diversity into the country. Additionally, the canal project and subsequent international trade has brought sizable enclaves of Chinese, Koreans, and Indians to the capital. The diverse crowd, along with prosperous economic times, makes racism a mute point, although it does exist.
The Panamanian attitude, especially in the capital, is a combination of New Orleans’ “let the good times roll” and Las Vegas extravagance. The new found wealth that the canal and international banking have brought has fostered a forward-thinking capitalistic society that could care less about the past; in fact, I had a Panamanian history and culture professor in Panama City tell me that history is pretty much irrelevant and can even be a hindrance.Panamanians can be a bit more closed off than their Tico counterparts, but once the initial ice is broken they are as inviting as any culture. They love to talk about anything, which is perhaps a vestige from their Colombian roots. However, the wealthy elite, who are growing in number, can be a bit prudish and flashy.
Round 3 Winner: TIE. While their timidity and political disassociation can get a bit annoying at times, the Tico’s welcoming vibes are irresistible and definitely add to the charm of the country. Also, their predominately European heritage makes them unique in Central America. Panamanians love a good party and are cool people, but the initial closed circles and penchant for the uber-rich to flash money around is a turnoff. But the diverse racial mix of the country, including several indigenous groups and the Afro-Panamanians on the Caribbean coast, make up for any big-spending showboaters.