Latvia versus Panama

It´s the age old question of anyone thinking of moving abroad. Latvia or Panama? They both have only a few million people, so which one? There are lots of online guides for Panama, mostly directed at American retirees curious as to how to spend their million dollar pension to make their final years dribbling through their false teeth as comfortable as possible. Indeed, the vast majority of guides are aimed at Americans; bigging up the fact that Panama uses the US $ and has a similar time zone. I always found the last a bit unusual, Eritrea has the same time zone as Latvia, but I doubt I´m relocating there any time soon. All the guides are a bit useless for Europeans. So, lacking such a guide I decided to go ahead and write one. You´re welcome.

How does it compare to Latvia? It’s more a struggle to find similarities. But here’s the run down.


Supermarkets, what a great microcosm of popular culture. Panama´s ones have some good features that Riga´s lack. For example, there´s none of this stuff of cashiers refusing to take money from you or put it in your hand. All Riga supermarkets have this silly tray where you have to place your money. Waste of time! In Panama you hand money directly to people and they do the same. They also have express checkouts “ten items or fewer” which are a rarity in Riga, because waiting in line to pay for a litre of milk is so much better. Uh huh.

Still, Panama’s supermercados do have a lot of people doing totally unnecessary jobs. There is a woman near the entrance who sits like a cloakroom attendant and takes your bag and issues a token when you go in. Another person weighs and bags the fruit. At the checkout, there’s another guy who bags things for you, often double bagging a small number of things! Unlike most of Europe, where bags cost 10 cents, there’s no charge here. Boo on environmental grounds.

Another annoyance in Panama terms is the pricing policy. Europe operates a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) pricing system. The price displayed is what you pay. Not here, where they do it North America style. An item displayed as costing $1 will cost you $1.07 when you pay for it. To add to the fun, it’s different for booze. I found a bottle of craft beer I like for $2. When it came time to pay, it cost me $2.20. The beer tax of 10% wasn’t included. Arrrgh!


Before I came here, I was licking my lips at the food prospects. Warm climate and large coastline. Surely that means lots of cheap fresh fruit, vegetables and seafood, right? No. The prices here make MC2 in Riga look cheap. When Dutch people here complain that the prices are higher than in Amsterdam, you have to wonder what’s up. Last week I went to an Indian restaurant and for a lamb vindaloo, basmati rice and a beer, paid $31. In Riga I’d pay under $20.

Worse (and this deserves a blog post of its own) a lot of the food on offer is dross. American or American-style fast food outlets predominate.


“Would sir like processed chicken or processed meat with his grease?”


In Riga, when a new restaurant opens, over half the time, it seems to be a sushi one or Italian restaurant. (Yawn!) Sushi in general seems to be a bit of an obsession in Riga. Even Chinese restaurants seem to feel obliged to stick it on their menus, while Double Coffee and Cili Pizza have sushi menus. Who goes to a coffee shop or pizzeria to eat sushi?! Here, thankfully, there isn’t the same obsession, but it would be nice to have some cheaper, healthy options.


After many years in Riga, I’m still getting used to the fact that smiling and saying hello aren’t illegal. It’s a shocker. Not only do Latvians not smile, they actually pat themselves on the back for “keeping it real”, making excuses like “only idiots smile” or that it’s “fake.” I don’t buy this idea of “happy inside Balts” who don’t need to smile and neither does anyone else. In a global survey of “happiness”, Latvia ranked a dismal 88th out of 145. The winner, for the second year in a row, was…. Panama. Things like landscape and social bonds were cited as reasons. The locals are definitely a more cheerful bunch than the sour faces I see around Riga central market.


Welcome to Latvia.

People hold doors open for you, say thank you if you do the same, ask permission to pass.


Ask a Latvian what’s great about their country and one of the two answers you’ll get is… “nature.” I never got that. Latvian nature is very limited. No mountains and thus a lack of associated features like beautiful waterfalls or valleys. Panama has them all and much more. Islands, tropical jungles, volcanoes… you´ll find them all here. Even in European terms, Latvia is in the bottom half of the table, versus Panama it´s like Mike Tyson in his prime boxing my 11-year-old nephew. No contest.

From Riga you’ve 2 nature options: forest or beach. Latvia’s main beaches are in Jurmala, a playground for the rich from Russia. I’ve never understood Jurmala’s popularity. Houses there go for 2 million euro, that in a place where it’s only warm enough to swim for 6 to 7 weeks of the year. You could get a decent house for that in Spain where it’s warm enough to swim 6 or 7 months of the year. Another thing about Jurmala’s beach is that it’s very shallow. You have to wade for what seems like a kilometre before it’s deep enough to swim. Panama has much better and more picturesque beaches and weekend getaway options. For example, the islands of San Blas are just a stereotypical tropical paradise.



Not missing Jurmala!


beach at Jurmala, not quite as good



Weather is a bit of an obvious one and a bit of a less obvious one. Again, I´ve been taken aback more than once when I ask Latvians to tell me positives of their country and the second of two they mention is the weather and the “four seasons.” WHAT? Weather is one of the biggest negatives for me about Latvia.

jan riga weather2

January in Riga

panama jan

January in Panama

I hate snow. Hate, hate, hate! The lack of mountains means it´s not even possible to do most winter sports. What´s the use?

“It´s nicer than grey” Latvians say. To that, I can only say: I´ve never slipped and broken my finger in grey, I´ve never had grey fall off a roof and hit me on the head, never been splashed by wet grey by motorists, never nearly have a kid take my eye out with a misthrown greyball. Sure, you can´t make a greyman, but my snowman-making days are long behind me and I can walk in grey much easier. The sun and heat in Panama are much nicer than both.

Panama doesn’t do winter. There are only 2 seasons here, a wet season from mid-May till the end of the year and a dry season the rest of the year. During the wet season it rains like crazy for a 40-minute spell every day and is overcast. Weirdly, Riga gets more hours of sunshine than Panama. Still, I’ll take the heat here versus the snow any day.


Avotu and Maskatchka in Riga get a bad rap, but they´re like Beverly Hills compared to some of Panama´s neighbourhoods. El Chorillo, bordering the Old Town is one of the worst


wanna buy a condo here?

but there are other rivals like Currundu, San Miguelito etc where Americans and Europeans have a reasonable risk of getting mugged or worse.


Riga gets its fair share of British and Irish tourists. Unfortunately, a lot of them have been yobs fresh off Ryanair flights, expecting to pay 15 cents a beer and the local women to drool and fall at their feet due to their Brummie or Geordie accents. Those days are gone (if they ever existed) and these guys leave, hungover and disappointed. I’ve met 3 British and Irish people in the 5 weeks here. Lots of Americans and Canadians, quite a few Germans, Dutch, Swedes and Norwegians, but the Brits and Irish just don’t seem to have discovered the place yet.


Lots of Latvians know this song, but few people know that it means cockroach (tarakāns.) Panama isn’t a place for people with bug phobias, as in addition to monster cockroaches, there are lots of mosquitoes and, worst of all, sand flies, who fly in packs which bite you 20 times. In Latvia, as in most other former Soviet states, cockroaches have virtually disappeared. At least I’ve never seen one in 10 years there and not complaining about that!


I´ve lost count of the number of times I´ve been standing at the bus stop beside my house in Riga and some idiot who´s been standing right beside the bin has nonetheless chucked their  ciggie end on the ground. That doesn´t happen here. Not only do people have more brains respect, Panamanians, like most Latinos, don´t smoke. The benefits of this extend to the beaches. Lying on the beaches near Riga often feels like lying in the middle of an ashtray, as I´m constantly brushing discarded ciggies aside, something I don´t have to do here. Seriously, I can eat on Riga beaches and take my junk home, is it so hard for braindead muppets who smoke to do the same?


I’ve developed a new love for Latvian taxi drivers after living here. They’re so unobtrusive. Here every single taxi honks at you, regardless of the fact that 5 of his mates have just driven past doing exactly the same. Yes, I’m a foreigner. No, that doesn’t affect my legs, which work perfectly fine. I don’t take taxis in Riga, even when it’s -10, so why would I start in Panama, where it’s warm enough to walk round in t-shirt and shorts? Such a joy to do that in February.


Similar to snow, ice hockey sucks. The most boring and pointless sport I can think of, with too many stoppages and pauses. Panama is a football country but hmmmm. Judging by the number of football shirts around, 55% of people here are fans of Barcelona and 40% are fans of Real Madrid. The blinkered glory-hunter approach to it all is really grating and I’m starting to wonder if maybe no interest in football really is worse.


In the cities, you’ll find people who speak English, but I dunno how good it is, as I just speak Spanish all the time. Better still, the people, even if they speak English, will speak Spanish with you. In Latvia, despite the fact that the people complain about people living there not speaking Latvian, lots of people won’t speak it with you when you try.


In the winter months, Riga can get a bit depressing as it’s dark by 4pm. But there’s a nice flip side of that. In the summer, it’s bright until 11pm.


Riga at 10:22pm in June.


There’s over 11 hours difference in the amount of light between the two. Panama’s light is like Panama’s temperatures, not much variation. In December, it gets dark at 6:30pm, in mid June, at 7pm, a whole hour of difference. I guess there would be advantages to that in terms of sleep patterns, but Riga in the summer months almost makes the winter worth it.

I started this post thinking it would be a slam dunk for Panama, but it’s more balanced. Overall, in terms of summer daylight, taxis, food prices and quality (surprisingly) , lack of bugs, public safety and taxi drivers, Riga wins. In terms of winter daylight, friendlier people, ease of speaking the local language, lack of idiot smokers, football, weather and nature, Panama wins. Paradise is in the eye of the beholder.















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