Comparing Panajachel, Guatemala to Oaxaca, Mexico as a Retirement Destination

Q&A with a Reader

Camera-shy Maya Indigenous at a market in Panajachel


If you had to choose, would you favor Panajachel over Oaxaca as a place to live? If possible could you give the main reasons for your choice, please?

Thank you! I find your blog very interesting.

John D.

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Hi John!

Thanks for taking the time to write.

In regards to your question – which might be the better choice for a retirement destination, Oaxaca, Mexico or Panajachel, Guatemala let me first say that these are two very different locations in all kinds of ways.

Colonial architecture of the big city, Oaxaca

Oaxaca is in Mexico, of course, and there are different rules for retirement visas and how to go about getting them. If, while you are deciding on this city you want to take your time, you will receive 180 days visitor’s visa upon arrival, versus the 90 day visitor visa you would receive in Guatemala.

Oaxaca is a very large Colonial city known for its cuisine, theater, art, and gardens, with expert medical care readily available in the city.

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Panajachel is a funky, artsy, musical village, with a large Mayan presence and the spectacular natural beauty of the Lake and volcanoes. There is little to do in the way of museums or theater, but there is one botanical garden just right out of town which people do like to wander through.

Wooden dock at Lake Atitlan

Cuisine is “international” in that there is one Mexican restaurant which is pretty good, 2 Japanese options, a couple of Italian places, BBQ, all sorts of bakeries and restaurants that serve traditional food. Medical care here is adequate for day-to-day stuff — colds, flu, dentists and stuff like that, and there are several pharmacies. Anything of major significance (dialysis, heart surgery, eye surgery, cancer treatment) all need to be done in either of 3 other cities, Guatemala City (the capital with the best selection) Xela (which is closer and has a good selection of hospitals and doctors) or Antigua (which has some special medical procedures available like tooth implants and plastic surgery).

So those are big differences between these two places.

Restaurant Quinta Real in Oaxaca

The indigenous are incredible. Friendly, innocent, colorful and ready to engage in conversation, their culture is a boon to the whole Lake Atitlan area. You will definitely know you are in a foreign country when you are in Pana. Panajachel is also a small village with a very small expat population who live around the lake, and generally speaking, someone sneezes here, and the word gets around the lake very quickly. If you have a disagreement with someone or want to date someone… soon “everyone” will know. It’s a bit like the sitcom “Cheers” – everyone knows your name (and your business.)

In Oaxaca, there are literally hundreds and hundreds of places to hide or discover or plant yourself. No one will know your name unless you assertively build friendships. It’s a big city (but people are friendly also).

Santiago Cathedral, Oaxaca, Mexico

Pana is walker-friendly and everything is within walking distance. If you are in a hurry you can grab a tuk-tuk to take you somewhere, and if you want to visit another village, you simply get on board a lancha, which will take you across the lake in less than an hour. Oaxaca has traffic, taxis, and buses. There are large malls and plazas in which to do your shopping as well as little tiendas. Pana’s shopping is more than adequate for just about anything you might want, but not on this large of a scale.

I think in general, Pana’s weather is a bit better, more reliable and the air is clean (except for volcano dust!)

Sunset at Lake Atitlan

In terms of where we would choose to retire, Oaxaca or Pana… the jury is still out on that one. We tend to prefer large towns over big cities, but we do enjoy visiting Oaxaca for all that it offers. Pana can be a bit small in terms of medical options, but we are not bored there. We enjoy the Mayan locals and the Expats. There are plenty of restaurants and cafes to sit in and enjoy the food and company. And the lake is stunning.

You might need to review your preferences in lifestyle to see which place might work for you. Both places are excellent in their own ways.

I hope you find this information to be useful towards making  your decision. You might need to visit both to find out for yourself which places fits better.

Best of luck!

And thanks again for writing.


Monte Alban Mayan Ruins in Oaxaca, Mexico

About Retire Early Lifestyle

Billy and Akaisha Kaderli retired three decades ago at the age of 38 and began traveling the world. As recognized retirement experts and internationally published authors on topics of finance and world travel, they have been interviewed about retirement issues by The Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine, The Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement newsletter, nationally syndicated radio talk shows and countless newspapers and TV shows nationally and worldwide. They wrote the popular books The Adventurer's Guide to Early Retirement (Your Simple Path to FIRE) and Your Retirement Dream IS Possible.
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