The World’s Top Retirement Havens in 2012
In the States today, the discussion about retirement orbits around how much less of it we’re all going to have. While the cost of everything from healthcare to food swells… incomes, pensions and nest eggs erode, leaving baby boomers fewer and fewer options for retirement at home.
But look at the right places beyond our borders today, and you’ll find you have more good choices than ever for a comfortable – even a pampered – retirement. In any one of our top 19 havens for 2012, a lifestyle well beyond your reach in the States could be yours for pennies on the dollar.
In International Living‘s annual Global Retirement Index, we bring you the top choices available on the planet today. From beachfront hideaways to arts-rich colonial cities, from cosmopolitan capitals to small highland villages, there’s an overseas haven to fit your fantasy… and your budget.
For our Retirement Index, we only measure the very best havens against one other. So the country last on our list is still the 19th best in the world.
In each of our 2012 top retirement destinations, you’ll find thousands of ordinary folks who’ve not simply salvaged their retirements overseas… but upgraded them.
The Cheapest Places to Retire
Ecuador is the clear winner in our cost of living category. A couple watching their spending here can live well on $800 a month. And even if you push the boat out you’ll find it hard to spend more than $1,500.
Patricia Farmer and her husband Ron retired to Bahia on the country’s coast. After 10 months living there, they know what things cost. “It averages out to be a fifth the cost of living in California. We live in a nice highrise condo overlooking the ocean. With two spoiled cats in need of gourmet food, our love of fine dark chocolate, good Chilean wines, and eating out with friends, we enjoy a very comfortable lifestyle—even more luxurious than we had in California. You can live on less, no doubt, but our current budget is $1,500,” says Patricia.
But it’s not just Ecuador that’s cheap. In Panama’s highland haven of Boquete, expat Robin Cook rents a three-bed apartment for just $450 a month. On the Pacific Coast in Coronado you’ll eat out for $7…in the heart of the capital $1,500 covers you for everything…
In Nicaragua, expats in the colonial city of Granada are spending around $1,200 a month. A small house can be $500 to $1,000 a month to rent. You can get a fantastic steak dinner in the finest restaurant for around $13. Regular fare at typical restaurants runs about half that and a “local” meal is $2 to $3. The local beers, which are good, run from $0.75 to $1.50.
On the white-sand beaches of the Dominican Republic $2,000 a month means living in a luxury apartment, having a maid, heath care…everything. And of course, it’s easily done for less…
Where Are The Best Retiree Benefits?
It’s almost shocking just how many special benefits, discounts and breaks you can gain access to as a retiree overseas. In countries like Ireland, Brazil or Chile, for example, you’ll get discounts on public transport, utilities, importing your household goods and more.
But some countries stand out for the amount and quality of benefits they offer foreign retirees. Panama tops the category with an organized program of discounts and perks called the pensionado. The program is open to foreigners and there’s no minimum age requirement.
With it you have serious discounts, money off that makes a big difference to your costs. Like 20% off any professional services used in Panama; 50% off for movies, theaters and sporting events; a 30% discount on public transport, 25% off the price of food eaten in a sit down restaurant; 15% off in fast food joints, 15% off in hospitals and private clinics…25% domestic flights on COPA…the list goes on…
Ecuador, too, has excellent benefits, though they’re not in an organized package like thepensionado. You get 50% off public and private transportation within the country (including the Galápagos); 50% off tickets for all cultural and sporting events, including movies; 50% off electric and water bills (below certain usage levels); and free domestic landline phone service (does not include long distance and other services). You’ll also get 50% off international airfares on Taca, Copa, or AeroGal for round-trip flights originating in Ecuador. And when you’re over 65, you pay lower income tax.
And there are other countries with special programs, like Belize, which has the Qualified Retired Persons (QRP) program, and then there’s the Malaysia My Second Home program, open to all foreigners wishing to retire to one of Asia’s best-value destinations… Every country on our list has some “retiree benefits” to offer.
The Best-Value Real Estate
There’s a lot to consider when buying a home…especially one overseas. First thing you want to know is how much it’s going to cost you, and again, Ecuador offers some of the best-value real estate in the world. Fifty thousand will get a penthouse suite in a colonial mountain town or a beachfront condo.
In fact, it’s so affordable that some expats chose both. Ron and Terresa Moore wanted mountain and beachfront retirement. So they bought a two-bed condo in the Andean town of Cotacachi and a new two-bed condo on the beach in Crucita—grand total $111,000.
And in Panama you’ll find bargains, too. Karl and Liz Parker both a home among the pines of Alto Boquete for $100,000. Marvin and Joanne Riddell bought their 1,650-square-foot beachfront condo in La Barqueta for $180,000…fully furnished. And in Panama City you’ll find beautiful apartments from $90,000. Then there’s Mexico where in places like Tulum, on the country’s Caribbean coast you’ll find properties from $167,000.
We didn’t just look at real estate prices. We always recommend you rent before you buy so we also checked out rental costs. Again Ecuador is a front runner and you can rent a two-bed apartment on the beach for $500 a month or a condo in colonial Cuenca for $500.
In Thailand, about $500 a month will get you a really nice, liveable place just about anywhere in the country. IL contributor, Jason Gaspero pays just $222 a month for his beachside bungalow with air-con, hot water, WiFi, and a refrigerator.
Easiest Places to Integrate
Obviously language is the biggest factor in how easily you can make friends and build up a new network in your overseas home. That means English-speaking countries like Belize, Ireland and New Zealand do well…but other places get high marks, too, in parts of Panama, Ecuador and Mexico you’ll get by in English, and in Malaysia and Thailand you’ll find plenty of locals happy to try out their English.
Of course, in lots of places there’s already an established expat community to get involved with. There are over 80 interest groups around Lake Chapala, home to Mexico’s biggest expat community. Living in Paris, your high-school French might be rusty, but there are dozens of long-established expat clubs happy to welcome new members. The expat communities of places like Cuenca, Ecuador, and Granada, Nicaragua, have changed the face of those cities, and you’ll find making new friends and establishing yourself in the community a lot easier than you think.
Then there’s the million-dollar question—exactly how friendly are the locals? Well, the answer varies from “very” to “extremely” with the locals in all our havens happy to help a stranger in a strange land. Making an effort with the language, even just “buenas dias” or “merci” will earn you mega-brownie points. And remember, making new friends, learning about different cultures is often the best—and least planned—aspect of an overseas retirement.
But what about those home comforts? There’s nothing like peanut butter, being able to catch a ball game and pumpkin soup mix to help you settle in. For our Index we gauged just how difficult it was to find that packet of Cheerios or a genuine hotdog. You’ll find them in most places, although as imports they’re usually more expensive than local brands.
The Most Exciting Retirement Haven
Let’s get this out of the way…none of our picks are boring places, it’s just that some have more to offer than others in terms of the range of amenities and entertainment options to keep you busy.
If variety is the spice of retired life, than Paris, Panama City, the expat communities of Mexico, Medellin in Colombia, and Bangkok, Thailand, should be top of your list. Here you’ll find something different every night…choose from catching a concert, seeing a movie or eating out with friends for a fraction of the cost back home.
“Thai food is amazing,” says Jason Gaspero, “But if you get tired of it, you can find restaurants with food from all over the world.” In Medellin’s El Poblado district you’ll find Japanese, French, seafood and Italian restaurants within a block of each other.
In Malaysia you’ll catch a movie in English for $4…before it comes out in the U.S. In Punta del Este, Uruguay, artists like Shakira don’t just perform there, they live there, too.
If you love the sea, then Placencia and Amergris Caye in Belize, Roatan, Honduras, and Panama’s Caribbean Coast make sense. Scuba diving, fishing, sailing, kayaking and snorkelling, they’ve got it all. And if surfing is your passion, catch the best waves on Nicaragua and Costa Rica’s Pacific Coasts.
For foodies in love with culture, Spain and Italy offer a menu of delights unmatched anywhere else, even the smallest villages ooze history and art is everywhere. You’ll find delicious three-course meals for less than $20 in both countries, too.
Of course, you might be content with amazing new views, meeting friends down the boardwalk and a homecooked meal. “If you’re looking for exciting night clubs, Kentucky Fried Chicken, or a night at the opera, Bahia, Ecuador, is not for you. But for peace, simplicity, a dish of Pingüino ice cream, and soothing natural beauty, this is heaven,” says Patricia Farmer. “You would be hard-pressed to find such tranquillity in any beach resort town in the U.S. Even the wealthiest people inhabiting fortress-like beach homes on the hills of Malibu have to spend much of their lives sitting in rush hour traffic, breathing in smog, and feeling the crush and pressures of a type-A culture.”
Healthcare in our Havens
In each of our 19 havens you’ll find first-class hospitals and clinics where care is second-to-none, and the staff are often U.S.-trained. But while the care is similar to the U.S. in many places, it’s a lot cheaper than back home. You’ll literally save thousands on procedures if you need them, and hundreds on prescriptions and doctors’ visits.
For example, a visit to the doctor in Nicaragua is $15, in Panama its $10 and in France house calls are standard. In fact, in many of our choices doctors put a value on the personal touch. “Our doctor in Nicaragua speaks English and we have his personal cell number for emergencies. Hard to imagine that happening in the U.S.” says Darrell Bushnell.
In many of our picks the public health care systems provide wonderful low-cost care. In Costa Rica the public health care system called the Caja, is part of a socialized medical system. Living in the Central Valley, Sharon and Lee Harris are members. “It provides economical and excellent medical care as well as prescriptions for only $40 per month for both of us. There is a Caja clinic in every neighborhood. There are also many excellent private hospitals in the Central Valley and state-run Caja hospitals in every province,” says Sharon.
The Ecuadorian government guarantees senior citizens access to free health care and medication and exemption from notary and registration fees. “All expats are able to participate in the Ecuador Social Security medical program,” explains Jack Moss who, with his wife Debbie, retired to Cotacachi two years ago. “The premium is about $57 a month, and there is no co-pay or deductible for physician visits, hospitalization, medications, or dental visits.”
Even just living overseas can improve your health, as Lucky and Erin Ivy point out on page 11 of this issue. On the sandy beaches of Placencia, Belize, they found a stress-free life that means they sleep better, and feel healthier, than ever before.
The Best Retirement Infrastructur
These days, you can have a U.S. phone number ring in your home overseas for less than $20 a year. Through online services like Skype, you can video chat with friends and family back home every day if you want to— for free. The world is more connected than ever, and that makes exploring it so much easier than it ever has been.
Good Internet coverage is a necessity most expats today are reluctant to do without. In all our havens, rest assured: You can get online. Malaysia, Italy and France have higher levels of Internet penetration than other countries—but there’s access in all of them. Quality roads and good cell phone coverage matter, too. Now, you may not want to drive, and in that case, you’ll want access to a good public transport system.
In Paris, expat Jim Leavy says he’s delighted by the great public transportation…in Cotacachi, Ecuador, IL editors Dan Prescher and Suzan Haskins get by with taxis and buses. When the mood strikes, Patricia and Ron Farmer can explore the sandy beaches of the Ecuadorian coast by taxi—$35 for the whole day. And what about direct, cheap flights home to the U.S. to visit family? You don’t even have to fly to get to Mexico; you can drive. It takes less time to fly from Houston to Quito or to Panama City than it does to fly from New York to Los Angeles.
The Best Climate
You’ll find lots of climate choice in our top retirement havens. Sharon Hiebing says she practically lives in tank tops and shorts now, and only occasionally needs a light jacket or close-toed shoes. Ever since her move to San Ignacio, Belize, Sharon has been enchanted by the climate. She’s not alone. Thousands of expats have turned in their snow shovels for good.
In places where the weather is warm year-round, not only do you eliminate the need for heavy winter clothes, but you gain in quality of life. Better weather means you’re outside more. And that often translates to “healthier.” Plus it usually means lower utility bills, too.
In Belize you’ll find an average temperature of 80 F, and it isn’t even one of our highest scoring havens in this category. Because pretty much all of our picks offer a perfect climate for part of the year, we concentrated on the ones that are the best year round.
But you could opt for the part-time strategy—capitalizing on good weather in different parts of the world. That’s what Kelly and Angela Grams do. They live lakeside in Canada May to September, then head south to their second home in warm-weather Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, October to December. Then every January to April they rent out their Mexican condo to cover their costs and spend those three months traveling.
How to Know You’re Safe Overseas
The expats living in each of our top havens report they feel safe. In fact, often they say they feel safer than they did back in the States. That’s not to say there’s no petty crime or that nothing bad ever happens.
But just as you wouldn’t dismiss the idea of owning a condo on Chicago’s upscale Magnificent Mile because of the crime stats on that city’s south side…you shouldn’t reject a town we recommend in a country where you can retire well for less…because you remember hearing something about that nation being “dangerous.” Old stereotypes die hard. You’re best served by seeing a place for yourself. Talk to expats on the ground. See how comfortable you feel there. We predict: You’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Why Ecuador is the World’s Best Retirement Haven
No matter where you choose to live in Ecuador, there is no better retirement haven in the world. That’s what our 2012 Global Retirement Index reveals. Across all eight of our crucial categories it scores strongly. It outright wins two. And nowhere does it fail to live up to its reputation.
Ecuador has the cheapest costs of living, the best-value real estate, and it presents you with some of the most diverse options of any country. Live in the colonial splendor of its cities for less than $1,000 a month…buy a beachfront condo for $60,000, with a view of the crashing Pacific…explore the country’s Amazonian jungles…live comfortably in thriving expat communities…or with friendly, welcoming locals.
The special benefits you can avail yourself of as a retiree are second only to those offered by Panama, and they don’t trail by much. You’ll find world-class healthcare at a fraction of the costs back home, along with doctors trained in the U.S. who speak English.
You’ll have dinner out for $2.50, an hour long massage for $25…a beer costs $0.85, and if you want to keep busy with work, it’s one of the best countries for an expat start-up.