Ecuador vs. Panama: The Best Battle It Out to the Finish
When looking at lists published by international living gurus citing the best places to live in and retire to overseas, the nations of Ecuador and Panama consistently appear among the places with the highest rankings.
As beautiful, affordable tropical destinations go, they’re among the best of the best. And, while they’re both excellent overall as places to retire, raise a family, start a business, or just live for a short time, each has certain areas where it shines brighter than the other.
We’d be hard-pressed to say which country is the best or, even more specifically, which one is the best for YOU and your particular situation. That decision is best left up to your family, based on your individual needs and priorities.
What we can do is highlight a few categories that are important to expat families and tell you which country excels in that area.
Round #1 – Lifestyle Hacks
Winner: It’s a Tie
One of the coolest things about living abroad is the ability to enlist help for tasks that you might be fed up with doing yourself, but would’ve never had the means to hire out in North America. Some examples are maids, gardeners, drivers, tutors, and nannies.
And domestic help is abundant and affordable in both Panama and Ecuador. We’d be tempted to give this category to Ecuador for its lower cost (around $10 per day for the services of a maid vs. $15 for the same work in Panama).
However, as is often true, you tend to get what you pay for. So some might argue that the quality of service you receive from domestic helpers is superior in Panama.
Round #2 – Connectivity
Outcome: Panama By a Nose
This is another area where both countries excel far beyond the reach of most of their Latin American neighbors. And, up until recently, this category would have gone to Panama by a landslide.
However, Ecuador is aggressively working to improve its internet coverage. As a result, the country’s connectivity is increasing by leaps and bounds with a goal of access in 50% of households by 2015. (It’s currently closer to 35%.) Free public access centers are also widely available across the country.
While Ecuador’s connectivity is great, Panama’s is excellent due in part to a long-standing U.S. military presence. In fact, it ranks #2 in all of Latin America for technology and internet penetration and #1 for wireless availability.
Most Panamanian cities offer affordable broadband service, and there are free wi-fi hotspots nationwide. Because of its technological advances, companies such as Dell, 3M, and Philips have chosen it for their regional headquarters and customer service centers.
Round #3 – Living Options
Slight Edge: Panama
Both Ecuador and Panama have a lot to offer in terms of variety of living options. When it comes to mountain towns, Cuenca, Ecuador, and Boquete, Panama, are among some of the top expat destinations in Latin America. There are others as well, such as Loja, Quito, and Vilcabamba in Ecuador and Volcan, El Valle, and Santa Fe in Panama.
There are also popular beach towns in both countries. Salinas, Ecuador, has been compared to Miami’s South Beach. There’s also Montanita and Manta. Panama has Bocas del Toro, the quintessential Caribbean beach town, as well as Coronado and Pedasi.
Panama City trumps places like Ecuador’s Quito and Guayaquil if you’re looking for something that more closely resembles a first-world city. The other place where Panama takes the cake is with its options for island living. Ecuador has the Galapagos Islands, a great place for tourists to visit or explore but not necessarily live.
However, Panama offers options like Boca Chica Island, which offer nature-loving expats the opportunity to own their very own piece of a private island that’s only a hour away from the country’s second-largest city and an international airport.
Round #4 – Green Living
While Panama has long had its sights on continuing to improve its infrastructure and commerce, it lags a bit behind in its sustainability initiatives. However, it is making some strides in the right direction. Take for instance the village of Kalu Yala, a development that has a goal of becoming the world’s most sustainable residential community.
Most green efforts in Panama are more grass roots and less government-driven. On the other hand, Ecuador has the unique distinction of being the only country in the world where the rights of the natural environment are protected by the nation’s constitution.
Sustainability issues are on the government’s radar in Ecuador as it battles issues like the threat of drilling in its Yasuni National Park, the most biodiverse place on earth.
Round #5 – Cost of Living
Clear Winner: Ecuador
Ecuador and Panama both offer the ability to live satisfying lifestyles for a fraction of the North American budget. As you can imagine, prices vary greatly from one city to the next, with some of the more developed areas running much closer to U.S. prices.
However, overall the cost of living is considerably less in Ecuador. In fact, it’s often one of the country’s biggest selling points, with many expat couples claiming to live just fine on a mere $1200 per month including rent, which averages around $450. This includes luxuries like high speed internet and once-a-week maid service.
Both countries have great discount programs for their senior adults, with Panama’s pensionado program being one of its most attractive benefits for retirees. However for most expats, particularly young families, it’s cheaper to live in Ecuador.
Round #6 – Ease of Access
This was an easy one. Mainly because the majority of Ecuador’s incoming flights have layovers in places like Panama City (as well as Miami, Bogota, and places in the Caribbean). As a result, travel to Ecuador is longer and a bit more expensive.
It does have great public transportation once you fly in to Quito or Guayaquil, as well as connecting flights to a number of regional airports.
By contrast, Panama’s recently expanded Tocumen International Airport receives direct incoming flights from multiple U.S. cities, as well as various points in South America. David’s Enrique Malek International Airport will also soon begin welcoming international flights, opening up the western regions of Panama to expats and tourists from all over the world.
Round #7 – Business Climate
Champion: Panama, Hands Down
To decide this category, you only need to look at the stats. The International Finance Corporation ranks Panama 55th in the world for ease of doing business, compared to Ecuador’s rank of 135th. This survey is based on factors that affect one’s ability to start and operate a local business.
This comes as no surprise, as Panama’s government has historically been extremely pro-business and pro-investor. It’s also somewhat of a tax haven and an increasingly popular place to open an offshore bank account. Panama also offers a whole host of visa options, with the number of choices increasing frequently.
Ecuador, on the other hand, has a reputation of being a bit unstable and unpredictable. It struggles with issues such as high government turnover rates and an economy that is based a bit too heavily on petroleum.
However, Ecuador’s economy is growing. The country is also taking steps to reduce the government’s influence in certain business sectors.
Round #8 – Banking
Both Ecuador and Panama benefit from having a dollarized economy. However, both have seen requirements tightening in recent years due to laws like FATCA and other U.S. tax evasion agreements. As a result, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for foreigners to open an account.
That being said, the banking process is far more friendly to foreigners in Panama. It’s home to a number of international banks and is emerging as a major player on the global banking scene.
Ecuador, on the other hand, suffers from inconsistent regulations and subpar accounting standards, although its banks’ performance has improved in recent years. Due to the inconsistencies, however, the process of opening an account can be a bit long and tedious.
Round #9 – Investment Opportunities
Our Pick: Panama
When you look at the ingredients for a savvy investment, they include factors like low costs, massive infrastructure projects, a focus on tourism, and government incentives. Both Ecuador and Panama have all of these. And lots of them.
Panama just has more. Its real estate is still affordable. The government has recently invested $15 billion in projects like airport expansions, new roads, and a metro system. There are tax breaks on everything from the importation of building materials to build a hotel to income tax on land purchased for reforestation.
Ecuador offers many of those same advantages, and often at a lower cost. So you could argue that in Ecuador there’s a bit more room for appreciation. However, the benefits of investing in Panama are just still too good to award this category to anyone else.
Round #10 – Health Care
Outcome: Another Tie
Ecuador and Panama both benefit from having excellent health care systems, with skilled medical staff and modern facilities. English is widely spoken by doctors in both countries, many of whom trained in the U.S, and hospitals offer the latest in technological advancements.
The low cost of care is also a big plus, with procedures generally running about ¼ of the price for the same service in North America. Health insurance is also affordable and widely available.
Both countries suffer from the same main drawback in this category: availability in rural areas. While they both have state-of-the-art hospitals, they’re found only in the largest cities. Clinics in more remote locations may be limited to basic services or even first aid only.
Round #11 – Consumer Goods
Both Ecuador and Panama have a surprisingly good selection of consumer goods. As a result, you usually need only drive to the nearest city to find exactly what you’re looking for, or at least a comparable replacement.
Where Ecuador suffers in this arena is due to its ever-increasing taxes. Many items have become more difficult to find, or at least more expensive, in recent years. Consequently, fewer and fewer items (like vehicles and cell phones) are being imported.
Panama, on the other hand, has become quite the shopping hub for folks all across Latin America. This is due in part to its low value-added tax of 7% (vs. 12% in Ecuador). We’ve even seen people who traveled from Ecuador to Panama City to buy several flat-screen TV’s due to the better prices and availability.
Round #12 – Foreign Land Ownership
In both Ecuador and Panama, foreigners who buy property have their rights protected by the constitution just the same as nationals of that country. There are also few restrictions on what land they can buy. Well, there’s only one really, and it’s in Panama where foreigners can’t own land within 10 kilometers of the border.
Both countries offer an abundance of land available at, in some cases, rock-bottom prices. However due diligence is absolutely necessary before buying land in either country.
Purchasing real estate as a foreigner can be a challenge, but the whole process is a bit easier in Panama. A good attorney is a must, so choose one who’s experienced in land transactions and can handle things like researching the title, drafting contracts, and registering the deed.
And the Grand Champion Is…
Nah. We didn’t keep score. There’s just too much to love about both of these countries for us to try to give the trophy to one or the other.
What’s more important than our opinion is your own experience with each of these fine countries. So, if Ecuador and Panama are on your short list of potential expat destinations, then we suggest you open a new tab and start looking for flights. There’s no better way to pick a winner than to just let the two duke it out firsthand.
Map of Panama
Panama Fast Facts
- Population: 3.8 million
- Typical temperature: Temperature typically varies from 72°F to 91°F
- Nearest airport with U.S. flights: U.S. bound flights leave daily from Tocumen International Airport
- Nearest U.S. consulate: Panama City