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And on and on.

In all, we compile thousands of statistics related to the following 12 categories of consideration:
  • Climate
  • Cost of Living
  • Crime
  • English Spoken
  • Entertainment
  • Environmental Conditions
  • Existing Expat Community
  • Health Care
  • Infrastructure
  • Real Estate
  • Residency Options
  • Taxes

As Mr. Twain suggested long ago, though, statistics are a funny thing. Some pieces of data we've collected for each locale in our Index are straightforward enough—number of international airports, for example. Others less so. What's a museum? How many books does a building need to house before it's a library?

Some data points beg doubt. Who's counting the expats in residence in each of these places? Or surveying the local population to confirm who does and who does not speak English...and at what level?

In a country like Belize, for example, with three paved highways (in this case, that was one statistic I could confirm from my own experience), there's not a lot of room in the budget for polling and census taking. Coincidentally, I was in Cayo, Belize, as we finalized this year's Index. Driving to meet a friend one day, we passed the Statistical Institute of Belize. It's a single-room wooden shack that didn't appear to have electricity.

For this survey each year, we start with recognized sources—including the CIA Factbook, the World Health Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and WorldPopulationReview.com, for example. Our team in our Panama City headquarters spends weeks plugging numbers thus collected into spreadsheets, then figuring averages and ranking results.

That work done, they present their findings to Lief and me. We call in reinforcements, sharing those early results with key correspondents around the globe.

"How can you say that the per-square-meter cost of an apartment is greater in Medellin, Colombia, than in the City Beaches of Panama," wondered Overseas Property Alert Editor Lee Harrison after reviewing this year's initial figures...

"Those expat population figures can't be right," Lief responded...

"It's easier to establish residency in Thailand than these rankings indicate," Asia Correspondent Wendy Justice pointed out, "and I'd say that the residency program offered by the Philippines is one of the best anywhere..."

"The City Beaches of Panama can't finish that high in the rankings this year," I commented. "The cost of living in the extended Panama City region has risen too much for that to make sense..."

And so on.

Full disclosure: When our personal experience differed from what the statistics suggested...we went with our personal experience.

"Next year, maybe we should short-cut the whole thing," Managing Editor Kaitlin Yent, who has directed and overseen this mammoth project, suggested when all was said and done. "Maybe we should forget the statistics and jump straight to our experience."

We won't go that far. The published, formal statistics, such as they are, provide a foundation and give us something to react to. We know we must start there, then overlay some judgment.

Bottom line, where did all that figuring and comparative analysis land us this year?

We've shared our hot-off-the-presses 2014 Retire Overseas Index first with subscribers to my Overseas Retirement Letter. It comprises our bumper August issue, in subscribers' inboxes now.

Next, we'll reveal the results to attendees at this week's Retire Overseas Conference in Nashville. If you're among the hundreds of readers preparing to meet us in Music City, watch your inbox for a special email from Conference Director Lauren Williamson containing a link to the complete 2014 Retire Overseas Index online, including fully detailed budgets for each of the 21 destinations featured.

In addition, of course, we intend to detail the survey results for you, too, dear reader.

Watch this space.

Kathleen Peddicord

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"As we made our plan for where to go," Lee remembers, "the reality of what we were doing began to settle in. I was only 49 years old, for crying out loud. What if we ran out of money? I began to worry about being back in the States at age 75 looking for work."

Lee spent a lot of time running the numbers and, finally, he and Julie found the courage to make the leap.

"We satisfied ourselves," Lee explains, "that, in Cuenca, Ecuador, the city we'd focused on, my pension would allow us to live very comfortably."

Lee and Julie were pioneers. Two of the original Cuenca retirees, in 2001 they received Visa 1 and Visa 2 from the New York consulate when they applied for legal Ecuadorean residency.

"We lived in Cuenca for nine months before meeting another English-speaking couple," Lee says. "We didn't mind. We were having so much fun taking advantage of all we discovered that Cuenca had to offer. This is a very cultural city, with free symphony events, museums, and annual art shows.

"The best news, though, during those early months," Lee continues, "was the realization I had that the cost of living was even lower than I'd estimated. Cuenca enjoys great mountain weather year-round. This means no heat and no air conditioning. I had underestimated the effect of the climate on our overall budget."

The cost of living in Cuenca has increased steadily in the dozen years since Lee and Julie first took up residence. Still, this remains one of the most affordable options in the Americas. You can rent an apartment for as little as US$300 per month. More typical is US$500 monthly. Figure a total budget of US$1,200.

And you may, indeed, decide to invest in a place of your own. The cost of real estate in this city is one of the greatest bargains in all of Latin America, cheaper than in Montevideo, Uruguay; Medellin, Colombia; Fortaleza, Brazil; Panama City; or most any other Central or South American destination you might consider. You could buy a small city condo for less than US$50,000.

Gas, too, is cheap, and Ecuador is a great place for exploring by car. Lee says that he invested in a car soon after making the move, because he and Julie so enjoyed motoring around the country. He advises figuring an additional US$150 per month if you own a car.

One thing to remember about Ecuador is that this country uses the U.S. dollar. For an American retiree, this means it's easier to understand what things really cost; it's easier to keep track of what you're really spending, month to month; and, very important, you don't have any currency-exchange risk. You may still have local inflation to contend with, but you won't have to worry about that being compounded when the exchange rate goes against you.

Given his extended personal experience living and investing in this country, we're delighted that Lee has agreed to act as host for our upcoming Live and Invest in Ecuador Conference taking place in Quito next month.

The Early Bird Discount for this event remains in effect today and tomorrow only. You have until midnight Friday to save up to US$250 when you register.

Details on the program we've put together with Lee's help are here.

Kathleen Peddicord

P.S. Cuenca, Ecuador, home to a big and fast-growing expat community, qualifies as one of the world's top retirement havens and perhaps the best place in the Americas to live well and comfortably on even a very small budget.

In this colonial city recently, I filmed a brief video to give you an idea what Cuenca has to offer. Take a look.

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The waters in Maceió are warm and blue and calm thanks to a barrier reef just offshore. The beaches in town are clean and well kept, with fine sand and swaying palms. They're fairly busy, too, especially during holidays and weekends. But at the city's edge the crowds disappear...
leaving miles of uncrowded beaches fringed by palms and natural vegetation.

The property market here has performed well, and its growth looks to be at a sustainable rate. Prices for beachfront in Maceió have gone up about 35% since 2009. That's about 7% per year, which is respectable but, again, also sustainable.

And right now, thanks to the exchange rates, even though values have gone up 35% in Brazilian reais, the prices in dollar terms stand at 2009 levels. So it's a very good time to be looking at Maceió.

Ponta Verde is my personal favorite residential neighborhood here, its beach my favorite beach. Ponta Verde is the southern starting point of Maceió's best area for restaurants, the boardwalk, and the city's best hotels. It is also the start of a long stretch of sandy, palm-lined beaches heading north.

Jatiúca is adjacent to Ponta Verde and is Maceió's most popular area for visitors and travelers. Jatiúca starts at Ponta Verde and continues the same stretch of terrific beachfront northward. It's Maceió's best area for nightlife and has the highest concentration of hotels and resorts.

The Farol district sits on a hilltop overlooking the beach neighborhoods about 8 blocks away. Property prices are lower here, and you can find some with super views. Farol is definitely worth checking out if you enjoy ocean views, don't need to be near the beach, and would like to save some money.

Bottom line, prices in Maceió and Farol are deep into bargain territory.

Lee Harrison

Editor's Note: Correspondent Lee Harrison writes a free weekly update on key property markets around the world. His Overseas Property Alert dispatch this week features a complete overview of Maceió, including details of particularly appealing properties currently on the market. If you aren't receiving Lee's OPA yet, sign up here now. Again, it's free.

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June 9, 2014

"Ms. Peddicord, I would first like to thank you for all of the information regarding overseas retirement options. You have opened my mind to the possibilities outside of the USA. I am a 63-year-old single woman and only have a retirement income of US$1,500/month. I would like to find a place where I could exist comfortably on that. I have a very adventurous spirit but also wish to be cautious as I would be venturing out alone.

"Are there any places that stand out as best options for someone such as me? Any advice would be truly appreciated."

--Debbie B., United States

Indeed. On that monthly income you have several good choices, depending what kind of lifestyle you're in the market for, including:

  • Ecuador—you could retire anywhere in this country on US$1,500 per month...
  • Nicaragua—again, your budget would buy you a comfortable, interesting, and adventure-filled retirement anywhere in this country...
  • Panama—not in Panama City but in the mountainous interior of the country or on the coast outside the most developed regions...
  • Thailand—in most of this country, your monthly income would support a top-shelf retirement
  • Vietnam—more exotic but also even more affordable
  • Philippines—where you could get along with English only if you wanted

This is the kind of thinking we'll do during this year's Retire Overseas Conference taking place in Nashville, Tennessee, August 29–31. Ecuador, Nicaragua, Panama, Thailand, Vietnam, and Philippines are all on the featured haven list for this special event...along with 15 other countries.

Details are here.

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The first opportunity that jumped out at me was in real estate.

I spent several days looking at properties available for sale in the city, reading newspaper ads, photographing signs in windows, and combing the streets. Never did I find a single English-speaking real estate agent in downtown Loja.

And the Spanish-speaking agents I worked with were nothing to write home about. They couldn't keep appointments. In one case, I persisted for three days but ended up seeing only one house...despite having made my initial appointment more than a month in advance. Another real estate agent had more than 20 listings...but only 3 homes that had not already been sold.

The first North American who opens a real estate business here will have a wide-open market. Team up with an energetic and well-connected local entrepreneur, and you could grab a good share of the local market just by running a tight ship and providing good service.

Granted, there are not a lot of North American clients in Loja right now. But remember Cuenca. The first professional English-speaking real estate agency in this city pre-dated its discovery as a top expat retiree destination. In fact, to some extent, CuencaRealEstate.com helped to enable the expat migration that followed.

The second opportunity I noticed was for a good Spanish-language school.

Loja is known throughout the country for its Spanish. The version spoken in Loja is crisp, clear, well-enunciated, and true to form. Lojanos take pride in the quality of their Spanish. I've seen bumper stickers calling out their linguistic purity.

Yet I couldn't find a Spanish-language school. I went to the department of tourism to ask about this, and the best their agent could come up with was a tutor I could hire privately. (She was the young lady's mother.) I asked at a couple of English schools (there are plenty of these in Loja). They all said they could fix me up with private lessons with a freelance tutor, but none offered actual Spanish courses.

So, again, the first person to open a quality Spanish school in this city will have the market to himself. As with the real estate idea, there is not a huge pent-up demand for language study in Loja right now, but one big reason is that there's nowhere to study. With a good quality school in place, I think Loja's linguistic reputation (and maybe some smart international exchange student agreements) would bring plenty of students.

My final observation was in the area of short-term rentals.

On my most recent visit, I looked at a good bit of real estate, again, both for sale and for rent. But I found only one quality furnished rental. It wasn't bad, but it wouldn't be among the finalists for a Good Housekeeping Award either.

I'd say there is a market for a handful of modern, short-term, furnished apartment rentals, built and equipped to higher-end U.S. standards, apartments of the type that are so popular in nearby Cuenca.

A skeptic might say that, if there were a good market for these kinds of units, there would already be a supply of them. In a more developed market, that would be the case, but, in Loja, we're at a pre-market stage. The demand for these kinds of short-term rentals is coming. As Loja becomes more popular as an expat destination, this demand will grow. At the same time, the existence of these kinds of rentals will create their own demand.

I'll use Medellin, Colombia, as an example. In Medellin, the existence of these high-quality units has actually changed people's habits and enticed many travelers away from hotels. In my case, I'd never used short-term rentals for business travel. But when I found out that I could get a luxury apartment, all to myself, for less than the price of a hotel, I switched to short-term rentals right away. And I'm not alone.

Lots of expats like Loja. I hear from more and more people each year who find Loja's cultured, low-key lifestyle to be just what they're looking for. But, in the end, almost no one actually moves to Loja. And I think I know some of the reasons why.

I'll use Cuenca's success as an expat destination as a benchmark.

Of course Cuenca is a great city to start with. But when a potential expat comes to check it out, they can stay at their leisure in a quality, furnished, short-term rental, equipped with cable TV and high-speed internet. They can shop for real estate on an English-language site with a good inventory, and they can view properties with an English-speaking agent. Meantime, then they can master Spanish at one of Cuenca's excellent language schools.

In other words, they can pretty much just show up and rely on this infrastructure to get them going.

In Loja, none of these things exist yet. But once they are available, the scene will change. And it will be a handful of expat entrepreneurs who are paying attention right now who will help to make that happen.

Lee Harrison

Editor's Note: We'll explore business and entrepreneurial opportunities available in Loja and elsewhere in Ecuador at our Live and Invest in Ecuador Conference in Quito Sept. 17–19.

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Kathleen Peddicord

Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter.

Her book, How To Retire Overseas—Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.

Read more here.

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