By the staff of International Living
|Shortcuts to Your New Life Overseas:
In the place that wins this year’s Top Retirement Haven, you can’t ignore the doorways. In fact, if you have a camera with you, you’ll find yourself taking pictures of them. This one is arched. That one square. The wood is always ancient—like the cobbled streets you walk along. But it’s carefully tended—sanded and stained, or painted red or blue or teal.
Look up, and you see waves of terracotta tile roofs. And rising from them, renaissance cathedral domes—each a soft blue and white, carving a crisp arch in the cobalt sky.
Cuenca, Ecuador is a place of old world beauty, where you can enjoy the open welcome of an artists’ community, the comforts of modern conveniences, and the wallet-pleasing prices that deliver a private retreat for as little as $300 a month.
For a decade now, Ecuador has been one of our favorite locations for overseas retirement. In fact, it won the top honor in 1999 and has been among our preferred locales ever since. This year, it’s back at number 1—followed by Mexico, Panama, Uruguay, and Italy.
In years past, we’ve always discussed our top picks in terms of what each nation has to offer. But this year we’ve taken a slightly different approach. We asked our roving editors—folks who actually live in each of our top five countries and travel them extensively—to choose one destination within each nation. Pick, we said, the one place you’d tell readers to begin their search for the good life overseas.
Whether you imagine yourself in a colonial-era town… a sandy beachside getaway… or a cosmopolitan city, you’ll find in our list of the 2009 World’s Top Retirement Havens, something to please you.
|Did You Know That…
1. Ecuador: Cuenca
Cuenca enjoys beautiful weather, with an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables available all year. It’s a city of almost half a million people—the third largest in Ecuador—so you have everything you need for comfortable, all-year living. There’s a new, modern shopping mall on the edge of town, theater, orchestra, and lots of good restaurants and cafés. The expat community is thriving and content.
And most importantly, Cuenca is one of most beautiful and best-preserved colonial cities you’ll find…and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The cobblestoned streets and architecture are much as they’ve been for hundreds of years.
You can rent a beautiful condo here for $300 a month or buy a large apartment for $43,000. (See page 7 of your issue for more properties for sale in this thriving city.) And the cost of living is low. A couple can live well here on less than $1,500 a month. See the sidebar on this page for a breakdown of monthly costs.
The city sits in the fertile Paucarbamba Valley, where four small rivers converge. One, the Tomebamba, runs through the center of town, dividing the historic section to the north and the newer suburbs to the south. Cuenca is a center for some of Ecuador’s finest crafts. The area is known for jewelry making, weaving, leather goods, furniture, ceramics, Panama hat making, and more.
If health care is a concern, you won’t need to worry if you retire here. One reader who lives in Cuenca recently wrote to use to tell us about her experience. A friend visiting from Florida came down with a bad case of flu. They went to an English-speaking doctor and waited only 15 minutes before being seen. The visit cost just $25 and the medication $8. And that evening, the doctor called to check if she was ok. Now that’s a service you won’t find back in the U.S.
|A Sample Monthly Budget for a Couple Living in Cuenca:Housing (rental of a luxury two-bedroom apartment): $500
Utilities (including, phone, Internet, and cable television): $150
Maid (twice a week): $60
Maintenance and fuel for one car: $140
Entertainment (two people dining out eight times a month at top restaurants or other entertainment): $200
Health care (four $30 visits to a doctor per year for two people, divided by 12 months): $20Total per month: $1,415; Total per year: $16,980.
For more information on retiring to Cuenca, or elsewhere in Ecuador:
2. Mexico: Merida
Merida is the biggest small town in Mexico. Clean, prosperous, and safe, here you find a blend of Mexican and Maya culture with historic influences from Europe and the Caribbean and come up with something unique. The air connections in and out are excellent, which means you can fly to or from almost anywhere. It’s half an hour from Gulf Coast beaches, but not exposed to the coastal weather. And you won’t be bored. There’s lots of theater, art, shopping, and entertainment.
If you’re from the U.S. or Canada, you’ll have all the services you’re used to…except snow removal. No need for that with Merida’s year-around tropical climate. Merida is the easiest and most convenient city south of the border for retirement living.
The city is a center of commerce and home to universities, hospitals, friendly locals, and lavish houses that might cost three times as much in San Miguel de Allende or any of central Mexico’s other, more-discovered colonial enclaves.
At sidewalk cafés, friends sit under the shade of awnings and leafy branches sipping tall glasses of iced coffee. On the main square, the oldest cathedral in the Americas stands as a testament to this city’s centuries-long attention to elegant detail.
Despite all of Mérida’s culture and sophistication, the price of real estate is still surprisingly low. Colonial houses in the heart of town routinely list for less than $100,000—sometimes much less.
Unlike many other cities in the world, Mérida is growing with both forethought and grace. The local government is actively preserving the interior of the city, offering incentives for those who paint the fronts of their homes, and keeping the many plazas trash-free and inviting. If you’re looking for an attractive, safe, and easy place to live that’s close to home and within easy access of a sandy beach…book a flight to Mérida (flight time from Miami is only two hours).
For more information on retiring in Mexico:
3. Panama: Coronado
Over the past decade, cosmopolitan Panama has steadily gained popularity as a retirement destination. For beachfront buys, you can’t beat Coronado. It boasts the area’s best infrastructure and it’s less than an hour and a half by car from Panama City. Best of all, the beach—a mix of bright white and glittering black volcanic sand—goes on for miles.
The real estate in Coronado proper lists in the $200,000-range. But there is plenty of inexpensive property on beaches within 15 minutes of Coronado, where you can buy from between $100,000 and $150,000 and still be close to all of Coronado’s amenities
This beachfront area is known as the Arco Seco or “dry arch.” The name came about because the region, which arcs over the Pacific, gets less rain than other areas of the country.
Retirees and local residents say the region has become remarkably international over the past five years. And the living has gotten ever more convenient. You’ll find opportunities for community service and social outings. And there’s plenty to keep you occupied – from tennis to Mahjong to golf (the golf club here features a championship course designed by Tom Fazio). There’s even an Olympic pool and an Equestrian Club.
Despite this growth, the cost of living remains low. At little beach shacks like La Posada you can still have a meal for $5. A burger is $1, a steaming bowl of traditional sancocho, a chunky chicken soup, is $2. At the newest Mexican restaurant, Cholo’s, warm freshly made nachos cost less than $2 and you can buy a local beer for $1. At the San Fernando Clinic, a consult with an English-speaking doctor will set you back just $35…about half what you’ll pay in Panama City.
Coronado has always been a popular beach destination, but the long-awaited San Fernando Clinic has really sealed the deal. The 24-hour facility opened its doors in October of 2008, and is equipped to offer a wide range of services. It boasts modern medical equipment so patients can get X-rays, CAT scans, Ultra Sounds, lab tests, and even cosmetic surgery. A dentist and ophthalmologist also work out of the clinic, which has English-speaking doctors on staff.
For more information on retiring to Coronado, or elsewhere in Panama:
4. Uruguay: Punta del Este
In lively Punta del Este, the standard of living is among the highest in Uruguay, yet retirees enjoy a small-town atmosphere, without the crime or problems associated with a big city. The beaches are clean, wide, and well-groomed. And although it’s a world-class resort, prices are still unbelievably low for a home near the beach. There are plenty of properties for sale for less than $150,000.
Punta del Este is a coastal resort town that boasts 20 miles of sandy beaches and blue waters, along with the country’s hottest nightclubs, the best casinos and shows, and the highest concentration of fine restaurants.
The department of Maldonado puts a lot of money into keeping things nice in Punta del Este to keep the visitors coming back. Crews walk the beaches every morning at daybreak, raking the sand, emptying trash receptacles, and picking up any stray refuse. The roads and streets are clean and well kept, and even the shrubs growing wild on the dunes are trimmed every year. New wood walkways traverse the dunes here and there for people who may have difficulty walking in the sand.
For more information on retiring in Uruguay:
5. Italy: Calitri
If you seek the real Italy and a charming village house for a bargain price (by bargain, we mean move-into for $60,000 or less), get to Calitri before the rest of the world discovers it. Above the greenery of the olive groves, pastel-colored houses scatter helter-skelter down a hill. A timeless little town of 6,000 people lost in the folds of Italy’s south, Calitri is the real, traditional deal.
Along with bags of medieval magic and authentic local cuisine, it has a great weekly market. Emerald green lakes are on the doorstep—and the spectacular Amalfi Coast, Naples, and historic Pompeii are only an hour’s drive away.
For more information on retiring in Italy:
International Living’s Top 30 Countries to Retire in 2009
How our Global Retirement Index is scored
Real Estate. Countries where real estate prices are low and the purchase of real estate is relatively easy receive the highest scores. We use our own experiences plus reports from our contributing editors and real estate contacts around the world to rate each country. Weight: 15%
Entertainment, Recreation, and Culture. This category considers the number of newspapers per 1,000 citizens, the number of museums and cinemas per capita, the number of university students, the literacy rate, and the variety of cultural and recreational offerings. Weight: 10%
Cost of Living. This score is based on statistics from the Indexes of Living Costs Abroad, Quarter Allowances, and Hardship Differentials, published by the United States Department of State, and on data published by Business International. We also use our firsthand experiences living and traveling in these countries. The lower the score, the higher the cost of living. Weight: 20%
Safety and Stability. This measure of unrest in each country is based primarily on Interpol data and State Department statistics. It also takes into account the civil liberties and political rights granted by each government. Our own experiences and reports from expatriates living in these countries also influence the safety scores. Weight: 5%
Health Care. Considered in this category are the cost of a typical visit to a general practitioner and the cost and coverage particulars of health insurance. Weight: 20%
Climate. Countries with temperate weather throughout the year, moderate rain fall, and little risk of natural disaster come out on top in this category. We use data representing each country as a whole instead of favoring one region over another. Weight: 5%
Special Benefits. This category considers government provisions that make moving to and living in each country easier and more affordable for foreigners. Taken into account are property rights for foreign residents, property tax rates, duty-free imports on personal belongings, currency controls, employment restrictions, voting rights, and transportation discounts for seniors. Weight: 20%
Infrastructure. This section considers the number of cars and telephones per 1,000 residents, the length of railroad track in usable condition, the number of airports, the quality of the country’s road and highway network, and the availability of telecommunications. Weight: 5%
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