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Billings swap Bermuda for dream life in Panama

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Living the dream: Debbie and Dave Billing left Bermuda for Panama so they could retire early

Debbie and Dave Billing grew weary of working just to pay the bills.

They left Bermuda for Panama when they were 51 and 55 respectively. Their hope was to live the type of life they could actually enjoy.

“Our main reason for leaving Bermuda was that we wanted to retire early and stop working just to pay the bills,” Mrs Billing said.

“While living in Bermuda, Dave was self-employed and I worked for a law firm — and the daily grind was wearing us down. We realised there had to be more to life than working just to survive. We wanted a fresh start in another country.”

They decided to make the leap once their youngest daughter turned 18 and left for college.

They spent six years researching destinations and found Panama to be the best fit for them.

“It had a good infrastructure like hospitals, roads, etc and also offered many visas for people who wanted to become residents.

“There were also options on where to live — the beaches, the mountains, the city. We chose the mountains because Dave missed his birthplace in the countryside of England and we had seen enough beaches in Bermuda.”

They moved to the Chame district in 2009. Their property was located in a gated community located 3,000 feet above sea level, Altos del Maria.

They built a house (aptly named Casa Bermuda) and two rental cabins on 1.5 acres surrounded by rainforest and mountains.

Mrs Billing fell in love with the Latin American country almost immediately.

The weather was consistently warm, the people were extremely friendly and helpful and the slower pace of life was exactly what they dreamed of.

One of the biggest challenges was learning the language.

“Although we aren’t yet fluent Spanish speakers, we can get by as many locals speak English quite well,” Mrs Billing said.

“The first six months of moving here was spent finalising our visas and getting drivers’ licences. This meant many trips into Panama City. Driving in the city can be challenging — there’s a lot of traffic, and road signs aren’t clearly marked.”

So much about their lives has changed since the move six years ago.

Their expenses are down, they’re not overly concerned with material possessions and there’s a lot less stress.

“We enjoy getting up in the morning, making our first cup of tea, standing on our back terrace and enjoying the mountain views, the birds singing and the peace and quiet,” said Mrs Billing, now 57.

“We have adopted some stray animals — dogs and a cat. We also rescued a sick tamarin monkey a few years ago.

“We regularly see wildlife like sloths, deer, and toucans. We also have a friend who rescues parrots.”

The couple say they’re more social than they were in Bermuda and have been able to make friends from all over the world.

“The biggest reward for us is getting up every morning, being able to say ‘Oh, I can deal with that tomorrow’, and not feeling guilty! During the [seven-month] rainy season we are able to spend all day cooking if we want to. Living on a mountain also means we are far away from noise and traffic, which is pure bliss.

“Sometimes we don’t even know what day of the week it is,” Mrs Billing said.

“If it wasn’t for the BBC news online we wouldn’t know the rest of the world exists.”

They benefit from significant discounts offered to permanent residents of their age — midweek hotel stays and restaurant visits. A meal of rice, lentils, chicken and coleslaw costs them $7 at a roadside cafe.

Local beer is $1 or they can buy it in the supermarket for 65 cents.

“Supermarket prices are about equivalent to the United States except for local fruit and vegetables which are cheaper,” Mrs Billing said. “For instance, pineapples grow year round and cost $1.50.”

The Billings rent their two cabins to supplement their income. So far, most of their visitors have been Panamanians looking to get away from the city but they’re hoping more Bermudians will come — three couples from the Island have visited so far.

Mrs Billing’s advice to anyone looking to retire early is to do as much research as possible.

“Check out the cost of living and infrastructure in the country,” she said.

“And visit first to see if you are comfortable with the culture and changes in lifestyle.

“We rented for two years before we built on our property. After six years, we have no regrets about moving to Panama.”

• Visit Facebook: CasaBermuda or e-mail casabermuda@gmail.com.

Bermudians Debbie and Dave Billing built their dream home in Panama on a 1.5 acre property 3,000 feet above sea level. The area is surrounded by rainforest, a stream and mountains
Debbie and Dave Billing had to decide between a home near the beach in Panama or in the mountains. They chose the latter and are now nestled in the hills around Mt Picacho
Bermudians Debbie and Dave Billing built their dream home in Panama on 1.5 acres. They use two vacation rentals pictured here, to supplement their income(Photo supplied)
<p>Places to see</p>

Looking to visit Panama? Here are Debbie Billing’s suggestions for places to go and things to do:

Pedasi: This town located on Panama’s Pacific coast is one of Mrs Billing and her husband Dave’s favourite places to visit. “It’s a quaint town in the Azuero Peninsula that has good restaurants and guest houses surrounded by beaches,” she said. “One of the best surf beaches, Venao, is nearby.”

Panama Canal: It’s considered both an engineering marvel, as well as one of the most significant waterways on Earth. Mrs Billing said a visit to the canal is a must-see.

She recommends people take a day’s cruise through the first set of locks. If you get to Miraflores Locks, on the northeastern fringe of Panama City, you can get access to a platform which offers spectacular views.

Embera Indian Village: Mrs Billing describes this as a wonderful place to visit. “You are picked up in a dugout canoe and taken to their island home where you can see how they live. They feed you a traditional lunch of fish, patacones and rice served on banana leaves that is cooked over an open fire in their wooden thatched homes. You have the opportunity to buy some of their beautiful handmade baskets.”

El Valle: This is a market town just 25 minutes from the couple’s cabins. If you are in the area you can visit an orchid centre, butterfly farm, a small zoo, mud baths and experience a zip line that crosses a waterfall.

“In the town centre there is a market where you can buy local fruits and vegetables, flowering plants and locally made souvenirs,” Mrs Billing added.