Colonial Cuenca—The World’s Top Retirement Haven in 2009

(Click here to access International Living‘s 2014 Global Retirement Index.)

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…

  • You can buy your dream home on the beach in Brazil for $63,000.
  • Retirees in Ecuador never have to wait in line.
  • You can buy your own vineyard in Argentina for $5,000 an acre.
  • A complete facelift in Mexico costs as little as $6,500.
  • You can get 24-hour care in Panama City for $25 a day.

1. Ecuador: Cuenca

Colonial Cuenca—The World’s Top Retirement Haven in 2009Cuenca 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
Groceries: $275
Maintenance and fuel for one car: $140
Clothing: $70
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:

Try A New Life in Cuenca, Ecuador for $300 a Month

The Truth About the Cost of Living in Ecuador

International Living’s FREE Resources on Ecuador

2. Mexico: Merida

Colonial Cuenca—The World’s Top Retirement Haven in 2009Merida 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:

Why Are One Million Americans Moving to Mexico?

International Living’s FREE Resources on Mexico

3. Panama: Coronado

Colonial Cuenca—The World’s Top Retirement Haven in 2009Over 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:

Video: Young Family Move to Panama and Cut Their Cost of Living in Half

International Living’s FREE Resources on Panama

4. Uruguay: Punta del Este

Colonial Cuenca—The World’s Top Retirement Haven in 2009In 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:

International Living’s FREE Resources on Uruguay

5. Italy: Calitri

Colonial Cuenca—The World’s Top Retirement Haven in 2009If 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:

How to Buy a Home in Italy for $1.30

International Living’s FREE Resources on Italy

International Living’s Top 30 Countries to Retire in 2009

Country Real Estate Special
of Living
Culture Health Infrastructure Safety/
Climate Total
Ecuador 90 84 73 67 73 59 92 95 79
Mexico 85 76 68 72 82 64 92 91 78
Panama 80 86 65 67 77 73 93 79 77
Uruguay 83 61 69 72 79 73 100 89 75
Italy 64 63 58 100 80 67 100 87 73
France 60 45 50 98 100 95 100 87 72
Brazil 92 45 70 68 79 65 92 83 71
Argentina 81 40 68 71 86 63 100 88 71
Costa Rica 66 70 62 64 78 65 93 75 70
Australia 65 52 55 68 90 90 100 89 70
Malta 64 65 52 70 91 34 100 96 70
Spain 60 49 57 75 94 71 100 87 69
Belize 67 84 65 50 69 53 93 60 69
Chile 70 47 68 71 76 68 100 85 68
Nicaragua 87 68 62 60 69 38 79 75 68
Malaysia 87 65 66 70 65 47 86 40 68
Greece 75 49 55 68 79 60 100 79 67
New Zealand 75 36 43 83 92 65 100 84 66
Thailand 80 50 69 69 70 49 71 43 65
Portugal 66 33 59 76 80 66 100 86 65
Colombia 83 34 57 63 76 59 71 91 63
U.S. 58 27 59 79 70 100 100 86 62
Slovenia 72 46 42 65 76 56 100 83 62
Honduras 68 55 66 34 69 41 79 83 62
Dominican Republic 67 55 52 50 72 34 86 57 60
Ireland 25 65 29 85 85 57 100 59 59
Croatia 61 20 45 70 80 56 100 85 57
U.K. 23 55 30 87 81 71 100 60 57
South Africa 87 23 47 60 50 47 75 88 54



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%

Free Report: The World’s Top Ten Retirement Havens

Learn more about Ecuador and other countries from around the world in IL’s daily postcard e-letter.

Simply enter your email address below to sign up for our free daily postcards and we’ll also send you a FREE report on The World’s Top Ten Retirement Havens.

Get Your Free Report Here

No spam pledge. We value your privacy.


    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    Need a Way to Fund Your Life Overseas?

    Before you go, sign up for our Fund Your Life Overseas e-letter and we’ll immediately send you a FREE RESEARCH REPORT on six portable careers you can earn with from anywhere in the world.

    You’ll hear from us five times a week, showing you ways to earn that can hand you the freedom and flexibility to live anywhere… travel anytime… and fund the life of your dreams overseas.

    Enter your E-mail Address Below
    We Value Your Privacy
    Click here for our Privacy Policy

    Wait – Don’t Miss Out:

    Announcing: The Best Places in the World to Retire for 2016

    For the 25th year in a row, we’ve ranked, rated, compared, and contrasted the best retirement havens in the world.

    I’d like to offer you International Living’s brand new Global Retirement Index today — FREE. Whatever you dream about, you can be sure that in our 2016 Global Retirement Index there’s a place where you could make it real.

    With this special offer, you can get a copy of this brand-new Index immediately—FREE.

    Get Access Today


    Your Last Chance to Retire Overseas Now

    Before you go sign up for our free daily Postcard e-letter and we’ll immediately send you a FREE RESEARCH REPORT on the most desirable —and cheapest— retirement havens available to you today.

    Each day you’ll learn about the best places to retire, travel, buy real estate and enjoy life overseas.

    Enter your E-mail Address Below
    We Value Your Privacy
    Click here for our Privacy Policy


    Your Chance to Retire Overseas Now

    Sign up for our free daily Postcard e-letter and we'll immediately send you a FREE RESEARCH REPORT on the most desirable —and cheapest— retirement havens available to you today.

    Each day you'll learn about the best places to retire, travel, buy real estate and enjoy life overseas.

    Enter your E-mail Address Below

    We Value Your Privacy.