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El Dorado, Panama City: Central America’s Middle-Class Suburbia

When Lee Elliott and his family moved to Panama, their first stop was El Dorado, Panama City. This suburban, middle-class enclave has hidden charms…

The AC was on all night, the room was chilly, and I needed to pee. Karen and the kids were still asleep when I turned the AC off and opened the sliding door onto the balcony looking over El Dorado, Panama City, Panama.

Looking out into the morning haze, I wondered if we’d made the right choice in moving here. It had been a few months now, and we were still bouncing around, beginning to budget and get serious.

El Dorado, Panama City: Parque Recreativo Las Mercedes / Lee Elliott

When we first arrived in Panama City, we headed straight to the Airbnb we had chosen on a whim. Based on the fact it was sort of central, looked decent, and had a pool.

As a family of four, I knew we needed a more sensible base to get our collective teeth into the feel of the city before making any decisions. Acclimatize, learn how to get about, buy groceries, and learn.

All before deciding where in Panama City we wanted to live, or if even we wanted to live here at all.

We had already pinpointed a few areas we might like before realizing we needed a little more time to find the best apartment while dealing with all the money and immigration aspects on the horizon.

We decided to set up a base camp in a hotel with a reasonable price.  

One less touristy and down to earth, with an en-suite kitchen, a pool, and breakfast included. Central Park Hotel in El Dorado worked for us.

Now El Dorado was not on our initial radar as somewhere to settle, but it checked all the boxes for this hotel. Better still, it was immersing us deeper into our decision to make a life here.

Poolside at the Central Park Hotel in El Dorado, Panama City / Central Park Hotel Panama City Facebook Page

It was local and the guests were all Panamanians visiting family over the Carnival period. We were still visitors, but we were out of the gringo bubble.

Out on the balcony, I planted myself down, flipped my laptop open and wondering if I had anything worth writing. Jay and Holly would soon wake up and want to get their armbands on and head to the pool.

El Dorado is an area where many aspiring, local middle-class families have settled.      

The reason the original China Town in Casco Viejo is now devoid of Chinese people is that once they had some money, they came here. And so did many others, building a middle-class enclave with villas built into the surrounding hills.

Avenue Miguel A Brostella cuts through El Dorado with the tip of the Metropolitan National Park to one side of us, and El Dorado Mall the other. This area is a hybrid. All safe and genteel. You’ll see neighborhood watch signs at the end of the streets.

What may seem like the poorest area a few blocks south, is now home to up-and-coming Panamanians who have bettered themselves.

If we could afford a family house rather than an apartment – this is where we would have settled, on the edge of the city with easy transport in.

Later that morning we crossed the road for coffee.

Grand Deli Gourmet has a café with great panini, croissants, and good coffee. Their bakery and shelves have anything you can imagine from Europe.

After coffee, we grabbed a picnic and walked a block to Parque Recreativo Las Mercedes. Always busy with local kids playing ball and hanging out, this park backs right onto the National Park. If you’re lucky, you can catch glimpses of monkeys in the rainforest through the fence.

El Dorado, Panama City: The Metropolitan National Park beyond the fence / Lee Elliott

Although Panama City has pretty much everything a homesick expat could want, it is all spread about.    

But in El Dorado, it’s all here! TGI Fridays, Papa Johns, Subway, Sushi Express, McDonald’s, KFC, Taco Bell.

The mall has a food court with Cinnabon, Dairy Queen, Payless Shoes, Toyland, Saks, a cinema, and two well-stocked supermarkets – Reys and a Super 99.

Shopping in El Dorado, Panama City / Lee Elliott

You can get let your guard down and get seriously fat around here!

And did I mention the Chinese community? The area boasts some of the best Chinese restaurants and stores in Panama City.

Meanwhile, we sat in the park with our picnic and our kids played with the locals. The sun is now up and it’s getting hot again. I’m going back to the deli to buy some craft beers for tonight.


Lee Elliott spends his time homeschooling his youngest children with his Chinese-American wife in Panama City, Panama while lying around in bed trying to get published to retain his international press card. Follow more of his musings on his blog.

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