Which Of These 5 Top Retirement Havens Is Right For You?
Where is the best place in the world to retire?
That’s a tricky question to answer, so I suggest coming at this from a different angle. Rather than trying to identify the world’s top retirement haven, consider instead who’s best suited to retire where.
A short list of very thin-sliced top retirement options in the Americas right now would include:
- Cayo, Belize
- Medellín, Colombia
- Granada, Nicaragua
- Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
- El Cangrejo, Panama City, Panama
Which one of these places is your best choice? It depends on who you are.
Belize is a retirement, a tax, and an offshore haven. This is a sunny country where the folks speak English and value their freedom and their privacy. Belize is easy to get to from the States, and the people living here are welcoming and hospitable once you’ve arrived.
On the other hand, this is a small country where the infrastructure is most kindly described as “developing.”
The cost of living can be affordable, even low, but not if you want to live a more developed-world lifestyle that would mean buying lots of things not produced locally. Anything imported comes at an inflated price.
My favorite part of Belize is its Cayo District. This is one of the best places in the world to embrace a self-sufficient lifestyle. No infrastructure, limited services and amenities, and little market demand could be interpreted as negatives, but, in Cayo, these things are a big part of the appeal. Once you get to Cayo, you don’t mind that there’s no infrastructure. You don’t mind that the culture is more concerned with country living than consumerism.
You don’t mind… or, if you do, you’re not happy. If you’re interested in a lifestyle supported by the diversions and distractions of a big city, Cayo is definitely not for you. If you’re delighted by the thought of wide-open spaces where life revolves around the land and where independence and self-reliance are prized above all else, then Cayo could be the paradise you seek.
At home in Cayo, the view outside your bedroom window and from your front porch would be of fields and pastures, trees and jungle, rivers and livestock. You’d see Mennonites driving horse-drawn carts and children walking home from school. Everyone going about his or her business, not much bothered by market values, fiscal cliffs, or the mounting deficit. Here, in this land of escape, where life is simple, those things don’t seem to matter or even to register.
For me and Cayo, it was love at first sight. Nearly 30 years later, the appeal of this unassuming region of Belize is finally beginning to attract attention. Our next Live and Invest in Belize Conference, taking place Jan. 20–22, 2016, will be the biggest in our history and will feature many Cayo expats, experts, and resources.
As an aside, after only a little more than one week of open registration, the event is more than 50% sold out. If you’re interested in discovering all that this sunny, quirky, English-speaking country has to offer, not only in Cayo but also out on its Caribbean islands and along its long mainland coast, I urge you to reserve your seat in the room now.
Medellín is a pretty, tidy city with a near-perfect climate. It’s also culturally and recreationally rich and diverse in a sophisticated, developed-world kind of way. On any given day, you could visit a museum or see a tango show. There’s opera in season, shopping year-round, and dance clubs, nightclubs, and white-glove restaurants… plus interactive outdoor museum-parks, an aquarium, an amusement park, botanical gardens, a planetarium, a “Barefoot Park” with a Zen garden, and dozens of small, neighborhood parks and treed plazas.
And it’s all available right now at a discount thanks to the continued strength of the U.S. dollar versus the Colombian peso. Your dollars go further in this country today than they have in more than 12 years, making the already affordable costs of living and, especially, of real estate screaming global bargains.
Medellín is an economic and financial center for Colombia, as well as a literary and an artistic one. It’s the base for newspapers, radio networks, publishing houses, an annual poetry festival, an international jazz festival, an international tango festival, and an annual book fair. Back in 1971, Medellín was even the venue for Colombia’s answer to Woodstock, the Festival de Ancón.
Medellín is a place where things work—the Internet, the metro, street-cleaning, garbage-collection… you can count on these services day-to-day. Taxis are metered, shop-keepers are well-mannered, and the people you pass on the street are well-dressed.
Making this a good choice for someone who wants city life but who also enjoys the out-of-doors (as this is a city best enjoyed alfresco). Medellín is suited to the retiree who isn’t interested in hot, humid, or tropical and who appreciates Euro-chic but doesn’t want to travel all the way to Europe.
The expat and retiree communities in Medellín are fledgling, meaning that you’d have to assimilate into the local one. This would mean speaking Spanish. If you don’t already speak Spanish and don’t want to learn, Medellín is probably not your ideal retirement haven.
Nicaragua is a land of contrasts at an interesting time in its development. The civil war is history, and Nicaraguans today want nothing more than peace and prosperity. It offers the world’s cheapest retirement residency program and the cheapest living in the Americas.
Geographically, Nicaragua is blessed, with two long coastlines and two big lakes, plus volcanoes, highlands, rain forests, and rivers. In this regard, it’s got everything Costa Rica’s got, all less discovered, less developed, and available for the adventurer, eco-traveler, and budget-minded retiree at bargain rates compared with costs both in the United States and in Costa Rica or anywhere else in Central America.
Architecturally, too, Nicaragua is notable. Its two sister colonial cities, Granada and Leon, vie for the title of Oldest City in the Americas. Whichever story you believe (that the Spanish conquistadores settled first on the shores of Lake Nicaragua at Granada or, perhaps, a few months earlier in Old Leon), Nicaragua is the big winner, with impressive colonial-era churches, public buildings, and parks to her credit. Colonial Granada is, in our opinion, the most romantic city in the Americas.
Nicaragua appeals to the romantic. It is a land of pirates and martyrs, heroes, warriors, and poets, fighting each in his way for what he believes. Nicaragua is a colorful land, from its red clay-tiled roofs to its powder blue church steeples… from the yellow, green, red, and blue facades of its centuries-old haciendas to the pink and purple bougainvillea that cascades down its inland hillsides. The local people know how to relax. On the happy meter they rate much higher than North Americans do.
The cost of enjoying all this diverse and beautiful country has to offer is, again, about as bargain-basement as it gets. Nicaragua is one of the most affordable places in the world to enjoy a comfortable, full, and rich retirement.
Because it has been so long misunderstood, ignored, and, frankly, feared, Nicaragua remains a frontier, a land for pioneers in search of opportunity and a new way of life. It is also, however (and herein lies the real opportunity), one of the most affordable places in the world for the would-be retiree. Nicaragua has opened its heart to those bold enough to overlook its past, ignore its headline-grabbing president, and embrace all that this country has to offer. Some 5,000 expats have already voted with their feet, half of them from the United States. A recently published report from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) names Nicaragua the safest country in Central America and Interpol has previously ranked Nicaragua as the country with the lowest crime rate in Latin America.
On the other hand, Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Americas. There’s not a lot of extra money in the budget for things like infrastructure improvements. This is an underdeveloped, Third World country. If you’re not up for the challenges and frustrations that can mean, Nicaragua is probably not your best choice.
Romantic. That might be the best single word to describe Puerto Vallarta. The city also offers shopping and fine dining, boating and golfing, country clubs and community, gourmet shops and designer boutiques… all alongside a beautiful stretch of the Pacific Ocean.
Puerto Vallarta could be called glamorous, but the cost of living and of buying real estate here aren’t jet-set. This is one of Mexico’s most sophisticated resort spots, with more cachet than Mazatlán and more chic than Cancún. Walking around Vallarta, you get that happy, vacation-time feel that successful beach resorts exude.
And that’s the would-be retiree overseas who should consider Puerto Vallarta–the beach-loving soul who likes the idea of retirement as a perpetual, fully appointed vacation.
El Cangrejo is the expat hub of Panama City and a top choice for a comfortable, affordable, downtown-city-living experience. In El Cangrejo, you’re smack-dab in the middle of everything Panama City has to offer.
This is one of the few neighborhoods in this city that is walkable and where you could get by without a car. It’s also the only neighborhood in this city I’d describe as “cool.” Over the years, El Cangrejo residents I’ve known have included a Chilean artist, a corporate transplant from Canada, many young Panamanians bucking the tradition of living with their parents through their 20s, retired hippies from the States, an entrepreneur from Serbia, and an Irish writer.
Panama City is the region’s melting pot, and El Cangrejo is where the most interesting of the many transplants to this town choose to settle.
It’s also one of Panama City’s red-light districts, a center of its prostitution (legal in this country) and casino trades. El Cangrejo’s streets are lined with nightclubs and cafes, restaurants and pubs, plus low- and mid-rise apartment buildings. This isn’t flashy Panama City (you find that in the high-rises along Avenida Balboa and in Punta Pacifica) and it isn’t power Panama City (that’s in Altos de Golf). El Cangrejo could be called the soul of this city, a good choice for the retiree with an open mind…
Who doesn’t mind heat and humidity, congestion and traffic, noise and litter. These things, too, are all a part of the scene here.
P.S. I’ll apply this thinking to top retirement havens in Europe and Asia later this month, considering who might be happiest where. Watch this space.
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