Many people dream of making a life change. For Brittney and Emma Morgan, Panama offered more than just a place in the sun.
Mahalo Cocina y Jardin
Sitting under the lush canopy of leaves that shelters the intimate courtyard of Mahalo Cocina y Jardin, it is easy to see why people come to live in Casco Viejo. The neighborhood, with its narrow brick lanes, colonial architecture, ocean-front promenades, diverse eateries, and community feel, offers a quality of life that rivals many other parts of the world.
For Brittany and Emma Morgan, moving from Toronto to Casco Viejo opened a treasure chest of possibilities that altered the course of their lives. The sisters’ stories illustrate what Casco Viejo has to offer those looking for personal or professional change.
Brittany had always been interested in travel. The daughter of British immigrants to Canada, she studied in Italy and Scotland as a teenager, and spent summers working in Greece as a university student. She fell in love with Panama before she’d ever visited the country.
“A family friend sailed his boat down to Bocas del Toro one summer,” Brittany told me, “He ended up staying there for a month or two. He told me it was amazing.”
Though she had studied management at university, Brittany wanted a job where she didn’t have to wear a suit every day, and Panama offered just such an opportunity. At the age of 22, with $10,000 in one pocket, and the other full of dreams, Brittany opened Raw, a small sushi-and-martini joint with a 15-person capacity in Bocas del Toro.
“Bocas had never seen anything other than fish or fried chicken, so I was the first to open something relatively healthy,” Brittany said. “When I meet other 21-year-olds now, I just can’t believe I had the courage to do it. I had a plan, and I stuck to it. I’d told so many people that I was going to do it that I just couldn’t back out.”
Brittany’s sushi project was a huge success. “There were a lot of expats there, and we were instantly packed,” she said. “We had lines every day.” One of Brittany’s customers offered her a bigger location, so the restaurant went from seating 15 to seating 70.
Brittany’s First Restaurant in Bocas del Toro
I asked Brittany what it was like to be a young woman with so much responsibility, and what cultural resistance she encountered.
“When I was 22 or 23, I had men who were older than me working under me. A lot of them thought it was funny. It was like a joke to them,” said Brittany. “I don’t have any tolerance for that now. When I interview people, I look at the type of person they are, I think about the energy and connection we have.”
Brittany began her move to Casco Viejo in 2014. “I loved Panama, but I was tired of island life,” she said, “I wanted to be in the city. The urban vibe is what I missed most about Toronto.”
She told me she had always been enchanted by Casco Viejo. “I’d seen the place growing over the years,” she said, “and I thought it was going in the right direction.”
“When you come to Casco, you become part of a community. There are a lot of characters here, for sure. Everyone is very different. That difference gives you the diversity of a big city, but in a small community. We have very good friends here.”
As well as the life she has built for herself in Casco Viejo, Brittany maintains her ties with Canada. “I’m still close with friends from my childhood. We speak on the phone. Those links to home will never disappear.”
Besides finding professional fulfillment, Brittany also found love in Panama. “My husband and I met in my restaurant in Bocas del Toro,” she told me. “We were both seeing other people at the time, but in September 2015, after I’d moved to Panama City, we reconnected.”
Brittany and her husband speak Spanglish together. She told me that after being in Panama for so long, there are things that come more naturally to her in Spanish.
Brittany and her husband, Juan Pablo
I asked Brittany how Panama has changed her as a person.
“I feel like I’ve developed a lot of patience,” she admitted. Indeed, her patience and integrity lie behind her excellent reputation in hospitality management. Brittany is currently offering consultancy services to expats hoping to open businesses in Panama. “I started with some guys from LA that came here and opened La Bárbara,” she told me, referring to a new bar-and-restaurant snuggled speakeasy-like behind a barbershop in Casco Viejo. “I’m advising on a hotel in Santa Catalina for another couple from Toronto,” she said, “I’m doing a wine bar, and I’m helping some new clients with another project in Casco too.”
“Hospitality is hard,” she admitted. “It takes a lot of hours and a lot of hustle. You have to be extremely dedicated to be successful.”
About six years after Brittany moved to Panama, her older sister Emma followed. Emma’s background is in fitness, and for 15 years she had her own business in Toronto. In her mid-30s, she felt ready for a change.
“One day I just thought: I’m 35, I’m single, I don’t have any kids, I don’t have anything tying me down in Toronto...” Emma had visited her sister in Panama every year, and she began thinking about moving to the tropics herself.
From left to right, Emma and Brittany Morgan
“I just said to Brittany, if I move down here, if I wanted a life change, what would I do?”
Brittany suggested combining her experience in hospitality with Emma’s expertise in fitness. The sisters’ vision was a tropical oasis that would serve cold-pressed juices, salads, and sandwiches. So began Mahalo Snack Shack, a cafe on Casco Viejo’s Avenida A that beckons visitors with its eye-catching back garden, a locus of tranquility away from the bustle of the popular street.
I asked Emma how Mahalo reflects her personality.
“In our first location, we tried to create a place that feels like your own backyard, you know? It’s sociable, warm, and friendly. It’s important to me that the owners are present, that we get to know the customers that come in. We strive to be healthy. We work with local farmers, and we sell local products off the shelf. We try to give back to the community wherever possible.”
In 2019, Emma and Brittany opened their second location, on Avenida B and Calle 11. The Cocina & Jardin, with its sumptuous colonial interior, tiled floors, and verdant patio, offers the best brunches in the area, bottomless mimosas, and an array of healthy lunch and dinner options.
The Snack Shack
As well as partnering with her sister at Mahalo, Emma continues to develop the business she began in Toronto, a successful fitness company: she teaches Mat Pilates and Functional Training remotely and sees at least five clients a day, “Today more than ever, it’s possible to work in more than one place, to build something here and also continue your work elsewhere,” Emma said.
I asked Emma what she loves most about Casco Viejo.
“I lived in a similar community in Toronto to the one I live in here, young, diverse, a place where everyone knows one another” she told me. “When you live so far away from home and your family, your friends become your family. You walk down the street and see a friendly face. It’s safe here, everyone looks out for everyone. It’s beautiful, the architecture, the beaches, the sunrises, the sunsets. For me, this is home now.”
Emma confessed that it helped that her sister was already living in Panama. “I’d met Brittany’s friends,” she told me. “When I moved here, they took me in. They made me feel like one of the family. That’s the difference between moving to Casco Viejo and moving to another big city. This is a small and welcoming place.”
Emma said she would advise expats thinking of Panama to look at Casco Viejo. “It’s important to move to a neighborhood like this one. It helps you adjust and feel at home quicker.”
I asked Emma what gaps she thought there were in Casco Viejo’s business community. “I would love to see more retail here,” she replied. “We have too many hat shops. We need more niche retail outlets and perhaps a few more cafés.”
The post-pandemic business opportunities in Casco Viejo look very promising. The reopening project has brought life back to the neighborhood’s streets. For people looking for a change, as Emma and Brittany did back in Toronto, Casco Viejo offers a chance to build a new life and become part of a vibrant and diverse international community. At the end of my conversation with Emma, I asked what moving to Casco Viejo has meant to her. “Panama has given me so many opportunities,” she replied, “flexibility, the freedom to work for myself, and countless possibilities to create something new.”