The five best places to retire abroad

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Retiring abroad is a dream for a lot of us who are over 50, and many retirees have made that dream come true: see my recent interviews with Loren Chudy, Allan Prout and Sue Watson. But what are the best countries to retire in?

It’s a complicated question. There’s a pretty long list of criteria for choosing a retirement haven, from the weather to the local amenities to health care and, of course, cost of living.  Happily, there are people who study things like this, and chief among them is International Living, a magazine and web site for those looking to live and retire abroad.

Every year, IL does a world-wide survey to determine which are the best retirement destinations based on the criteria above, and a few more. Then they publish their list of the top places to retire. I thought I’d share the top five picks from the 2014 list with you. I’ve been to all five countries, and I’d consider retiring in any of them.

1: Panama A longtime favourite of both IL and myself, Panama is a great place for nature lovers, and for sun lovers too, with great golf and beach resorts. But as IL points out, it’s also “the only country in Central America with People in a swimming pool at a Panama beach resorta true First World city”. Panama City is rapidly becoming a cosmopolitan marvel, and with the new expansion of the canal, that’s only going to accelerate.

As well, Panama is affordable, with still-reasonable house prices and a cheap cost of living (the country uses the U.S. dollar as its currency). Then there’s its famous pensionado program, which gives retirees discounts on everything from public transit to movie tickets. And it’s simple to get residency if you have a pension of $1,000 U.S. a month — and even if you don’t, there are other ways.

There’s good health care and infrastructure, reliable WiFi coverage, modern hotels, and western-style subdivisions are going up weekly. As well, the country has a stable government. Overall, it’s a comfortable place to enjoy the sunshine for less than it costs at home.

2: Ecuador Another perennial IL favourite, Ecuador still ranks right at the top of the list due to its combination of good weather and low costs. Its capital, Quito, boasts spring-like weather year-round for those who like it warm but not hot. Many expatriates say they get along without paying for either heating or Ecuador shotcooling.

That brings up Ecuador’s low cost of living. An upscale apartment can be had for $400 a month, food prices are cheap, and a cab ride costs $2 or $3. And besides Quito, there are other charming places to live, including Cuenca in the south, the favourite destination for retirees. You can choose the cool Andes or a Pacific beach town, where it’s hotter — or for these prices, spend a few months each year in both.

Ecuador’s infrastructure is not up there with Panama’s, but it’s improving, and there’s a good private health care system. And while the government has periodic upheavals, the economy is stable. Best of all, the country has a great and colourful culture and spectacular natural vistas, from the high Andes to the Pacific coast and the Amazon forest. If you like exploring, you’ll never get bored.

3: Malaysia One of my homes away from home, Malaysia is the only Asian country that makes the top five. It’s a long plane ride if you come from Europe or North America, but if you want a comfortable retirement in a fascinating country, it’sColonial buildings in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia worth the trip.

While Malaysia has a hot climate, it offers a range of locations, from oceanfront cities like Penang to cool hill stations like the Cameron Highlands. And costs are low: IL reports that a couple can live there for as little as $1,000 a month. English is widely spoken, and there’s a tantalizing mix of cuisines, from Chinese to Indian to fragrant Malay dishes filled with exotic fruit and veggies.

And despite what you might think, Malaysia is a modern country, with good roads and infrastructure: the capital city, Kuala Lumpur, has a brilliant monorail system that goes directly to its modern airport. Many doctors are trained in the U.S. or U.K., and you can see a specialist for $11 — without waiting! Residency requirements are stiffer than in Latin America, but the rules are a bit easier for retirees.

4: Costa Rica Long a haunt of nature and beach lovers, Costa Rica has come down in the rankings a bit since it’s become more expensive than some other parts of Latin America. But it’s still a great place to retire, whether you want to A vertical photo of a heliconia flowerlive in a beach town or a highland home with a view of the rainforest and coffee plantations.

Living costs are more expensive than in Ecuador, but IL says a couple can still live on less than $2,000 a month. And the country has a good health system: for $50 to $150 a month, you get free access to the national health system, and private insurance is also available. As well, Costa Rica has long had one of the most enlightened governments in the region, with good public services and no political strife.

Residency requirements are easy: just one spouse must have a pension income of $1,000 a month or more. After that, just settle back and enjoy the easy living — or as the Ticos say, Pura Vida.

5: Spain It’s the only European country to make the top five, and Spain is there for one reason: after the recent deep recession, IL calls it “the best bargain in Europe.” And it still comes with Europe’s famous cultureA female flamenco dancer and amenities.

Prices in Spain these days are comparable to parts of Latin America. Buy a condo for $150,000 or less, rent an apartment for $550 a month. Fresh fruit and veggies are cheap and plentiful, and you can buy local wine and olive oil at bargain prices straight from the producers. Meat is more expensive than in North America, but after all, how much will you need?

More importantly, you get First World infrastructure, from good roads to cheap WiFi, and Spain is well located for visits to much of Europe and even North Africa. Add the mild weather and the delicious food, and you might be content here for a long time.

Colombia, Mexico, Malta, Uruguay and Thailand round out International Living’s top 10 places to retire. At least two of them are surprise finishers, but the list raises a good point: don’t dismiss a country due to your preconceptions. Many of these places have changed significantly in the past 10 years.

Of course, there’s more to retiring abroad than finding a place with low costs and good services. You have to like the country, its culture and its people, not to mention the weather: if you hate the heat, moving to a hot country likely won’t make you happy.

Experts advise living in a country for at least six months before committing to a life there. Even then, there’s always an adjustment period as you get used to a new way of life, with its own quirks and oddities. And while it’s easy to stay in touch with family these days, you’ll still be far apart.

But for those who do retire abroad, though, the rewards are well worth the effort, and life can be a daily adventure as well as a good financial deal. And  when the northern winter rolls around, it’s a good bet you’ll have no regrets.

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Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

4 Comments

    • Thanks, Molly. I wouldn’t have picked Spain myself, but it just shows how many great places there are in the world. I’ll have to make a return visit and see for myself.

  1. These are all wonderful places and offer an exciting new life when you retire! I have been to 19 countries in the last 7 months and every one of them have something to offer. Instead of just picking one place, go to as many places as you can. Your life will be forever enhanced.

    • That’s the approach I take, Melissa. But some people want to have a permanent home, and the experience of living in another culture. Whatever works for you, that’s the path to take.

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