“We sold everything, started a new life in a new country and are now ordinary people leading extraordinary lives. It was so much easier than people think,” says expat Darrell Bushnell.
Darrell and his wife Amy live in the colonial city of Granada, Nicaragua, on the shores of the largest fresh water lake in Central America. “We didn’t experience any culture shock here and the locals are gracious and gentle. This is a place brimful of opportunities for starting a business and enjoying social activities,” says Darrell.
Darrell and Amy are just two of the thousands of expats who have made a new home abroad in a place where it’s relatively easy to settle in. Should that be your top priority when choosing a locale overseas? Not necessarily. But there’s a strong case to be made for communities where the welcome mat is out for expats and your new adventure can begin with a minimum of frustration.
What makes a place “easy?” First, it’s not too far from home. If you need to get back for an emergency or friends and family want to visit, it’s not a chore. When you can still get many of the same goods and services you’re used to, culture shock won’t disorient you. When there’s at least a small expat community already established, it means you can make friends in your own language and you can ask questions of folks who have “gone before you.” That increases your comfort level exponentially.
In a place that’s “easy,” you can rent a home or apartment you’ll be comfortable living in, and that means you can take your new life for a test drive. And an “easy” place offers good, affordable healthcare…restaurants…and things to do.
All the places we highlight here meet those criteria. Yet they’re hardly cookie-cutter destinations. And you won’t mistake any of them for Kansas. They each have their individual appeal. What they have in common is that they’re all places where you can settle in easily…and start enjoying your new life fast.
Live Lakeside in Mexico
Lake Chapala, Mexico, is arguably the easiest place in the world to adjust to life as an expat. This area offers all the charm and romance you love about Mexico…but with the U.S.-style conveniences and support systems to make your transition a snap.
Lake Chapala is in central Mexico, less than an hour from Guadalajara, the country’s second-largest city, and only half an hour from Guadalajara’s busy international airport. Loved for its mild, spring-like climate and expansive views, Lake Chapala has been attracting expats for 60 years. Today, its home to the largest U.S. and Canadian expat community in the world: As many as 15,000 live here full- or part-time.
You’ll have no trouble getting by in English. You’ll make friends and acquaintances just walking down the cobblestoned streets of little pueblos like Ajijic, Chapala, and San Juan Cosala, all of which lie on the lake’s well-populated North Shore. Through the Lake Chapala Society, in Ajijic, you can get involved with over 80 activities groups covering everything from line-dancing to bridge…
Many expats have also opened businesses here, including restaurants, shops, and real estate ofﬁces. It’s easy to ﬁnd English-speaking U.S. and Canadian real estate agents to walk you through the property buying process in Mexico.
Prefer to rent? With thousands of snowbirds coming to Lake Chapala every winter, you’ll ﬁnd a market prepped for rentals, with plenty of rental homes and condos to choose from. Properties for rent or for sale are listed online at numerous websites, so you can do your research long distance.
Rentals can start as low as about $400 a month, while condos for sale start in the low $100,000s, making this area very affordable. Medical care is a snap, too. Several health clinics on Lake Chapala’s North Shore can handle day-to-day health needs.
For major treatment, expats head to Guadalajara, a medical hub that’s home to well-respected medical schools, numerous ﬁrst-rate hospitals, and excellent doctors—many of whom speak English.
The Cost of Living in Mexico
The following chart gives you an idea of the monthly expenses a couple might incur living comfortably in Mexico. We have rounded up the numbers, and we’ve provided this imaginary couple a maid three days a week who cooks and cleans, and a gardener. We have included rent—though keep in mind that if you’ve bought your house outright, you won’t have this expense (though you would want to include property taxes—rarely more than $200 per year—and regular maintenance). We haven’t included a few other expenses that you may well want to consider—they’re in our options list below.
Sample monthly expenditure in Mexico:
Housing (rental of a two-bedroom home): $800
Utilities (electricity, gas, water, phone, cable TV, Internet): $200
Entertainment (dining out and other activities): $250
Health care (two people on IMSS insurance, plus $70 per month for incidentals): $112
Maid (three times a week): $160
Gardener (three times a week): $192
Monthly Total: $2,164
Notes: Prices will differ depending on where in Mexico you live. All prices are in U.S. dollars.
Additionally, you might consider maintenance, fuel, insurance for one car (around $150) or public transportation (about $40).
Everyone’s lifestyle requirements are different. You could live on less. It’s possible to rent a place for $400 a month (or even less). If you don’t need a cable TV or Internet, you can save on those expenses.
If you like to eat out frequently, travel, play golf, scuba dive and the like, you will obviously spend more money. If you opt for a private health insurance plan instead of IMSS, you may pay about $200 per month per couple instead of $42.
Costa Rica for Convenience
Although Costa Rica is known for its beaches, the majority of foreigners who move here tend to settle in the Central Valley…near, but deﬁnitely not in…the chaotic capital city of San Jose.
They’re after the temperate climate and access to amenities the Central Valley offers. At an elevation of about 3,600 feet above sea level, daytime temperatures average 75 to 80 F.
The poshest and most popular Central Valley destination—for foreigners and locals alike—is Escazú, just a few miles west of San Jose. Several foreign embassies are located here, as are the residences of the U.S. and British ambassadors, and you’re as likely to hear English spoken as Spanish.
In Escazú, you’re close to the country’s largest shopping malls and most sophisticated hospitals. There are many ﬁne dining and nightlife options, a luxurious country club, and an 18-hole championship golf course. All this, and you’re only an hour’s drive from the Paciﬁc coast.
Beach real estate tends to cost more than properties in the Central Valley, but be aware that Escazú is home to some of the highest-priced real estate in the valley. That’s the price of convenience. Still, those who live in Escazú say you can live quite well on $35,000 to $40,000 per year.
Because of its many international residents, it’s easy to meet people in Escazú and there are several expat clubs to facilitate networking. The Little Theatre Group, which offers performances in English and the Women’s Club are good places to start. For more clubs and activities, see here.
Hands down, Costa Rica’s universal health care system is one of the best in the world. Once you obtain legal residency in Costa Rica, foreigners are eligible (required, in fact) to participate in Costa Rica’s universal health care system, CAJA.
It’s afﬁliated with 10 major public hospitals in the country and many small clinics in almost every community. You can also buy private insurance—most plans cover dental work, optometry, and cosmetic surgery in the case of an accident. Private medical insurance in Costa Rica currently costs about $50 to $100 per month per person, depending on age, gender and other factors.
And don’t worry about language issues—many doctors speak English and have received training in Europe, Canada, or the U.S.
The Cost of Living in Costa Rica
Most American, Canadian and European expats in Costa Rica spend much less money on day-to-day expenses than they do in their home countries. The minimum needed for a decent standard of living for a single person ranges from $1,200 to $1,500 a month. However, a person can live on as little as $35 a day, excluding housing. Some single people scape by on considerably less, and others spend hundreds of dollars more, depending on what one is accustomed to. A couple can live on $2,000 per month, and live better on $2,500 to $3,000.
Below is an example of what you might expect to pay over the course of month:
Sample monthly expenditure:
Housing (two-bed apartment): $500
Property taxes: $8
Utilities (electricity, gas, water, phone, cable TV, Internet): $245
Entertainment (meal at mid-range restaurant for two eight times a month): $80
Doctor’s visit: $25-$35
Maid (full-time): $200
Maid (per-hour): $2
Gardener (once a week for two hours): $16
Monthly Total: $1,079
Notes: Prices will differ depending on where in Costa Rica you live. All prices are in U.S. dollars.
Public transport is particularly cheap in Costa Rica—a bus ride across town or to a neighboring city usually costs $0.50 to $0.90 depending on distance. Cross-country bus fares, meanwhile, cost no more than $20.
English-Speaking Caribbean Belize
Placencia is a place you ﬁnd by accident—a visit to a friend or a diving vacation turns into something more permanent. Most expats in Belize have stories like this. It takes about 20 seconds to ﬁgure out things down there—everything is familiar.
The language is the same, the money is the same, even the electrical system is the same—you won’t need a power adapter for your iPod or cell phone. Everyone speaks English. Less than 30 years ago Belize was still run by the British (the Queen of England features on the Belize dollar). The U.S. dollar is accepted everywhere but most things (except hotels and real estate) are priced in Belize dollars. The exchange rate is $2 Belize = $1 U.S.
Belize City is a two-hour ﬂight from Houston…and from there, dozens of bush planes make the 20-minute hop to Placencia every day. This is the Caribbean, so the climate is tropical. That means high 80s F when the weather is good, and the possibility of hurricanes when it’s bad. Most of the big storms that hit Belize during the last 150 years landed during September and October.
The best time to be in Placencia is December through May. You can rent a small beach house—it takes about 10 seconds to get from your bed to the ocean—for $60 a night. Longer-term, most real estate agents are now getting into property management. Look for the signs in Placencia village.
Placencia has a clinic and a pharmacy. Belize City has private hospitals but most expats travel across the border to Mexico for anything health related that isn’t minor. Belize in general has a poor reputation for health care, but it is improving—there are now dental tourists that come from North America to save money.
There is one category that Belize scores poorly on—it’s one of the few countries in the world where it’s difﬁcult to use VOIP services like Skype (because they are blocked by the main Internet provider). Use phone cards to call home—a $10 card will buy you enough minutes to call home several times.
Though Belize isn’t the cheapest country in the Western Hemisphere, it takes less to live well in Belize than in most places in the U.S., Canada or Europe. Although the cost of running a household is generally lower in Belize, be aware that some expenses can be higher.
According to Corozal-based real estate consultant Charlotte Lanore (tel. +501 422-0183; email: email@example.com), this is a typical monthly budget for two residents who rent a modest two-bedroom house in good condition.
Sample monthly expenditure:
Rent (unfurnished house): $400
Electric (without air conditioning): $80
Butane gas (for cooking and bathing): $25
Cable TV (100 channels): $20
Internet with landline ($500 deposit plus installation): $80
Entertainment (dining out and other activities): $200-$400
Maid (50 hours per month): $130
Gardener (50 hours per month): $130
Monthly Total: $1,415 to $1,765
Notes: Prices will differ depending on where in Belize you live. All prices are in U.S. dollars.
Gasoline costs considerably more in Belize than in many other countries in North and South America. Figure on at least 50% more than in the U.S. As a result of high prices, black-market fuel, known as “bucket gas,” has become a popular alternative in Belize, costing only about half as much as legally sold fuel. Be cautious when you buy bucket gas. Many sellers are known to charge customers for a full gallon while giving them considerably less.
On the other hand, the cost of medical treatment in Belize is almost always low. Most visits to the doctor cost less than $50, which is about the price per day for a private room in a public hospital. Two of the country’s leading private hospitals—La Loma de Luz Adventist Hospital in Santa Elena and Belize medical Associates in Belize City—don’t charge much more.
Panama: A Tropical City Adventure
For an expat easing into city living there are few places as convenient and appealing as Panama City. Most foreigners arriving here for the ﬁrst time are happily surprised by what they ﬁnd. It doesn’t ﬁt the stereotypical image of the Third World… The infrastructure, diversity and sophistication are utterly First World. This is a tropical city with a taste of home.
You have a wide choice of neighborhoods to suit your own style and taste. There are “American-style” enclaves with tall trees and manicured lawns. Restored colonials offer a taste of history. And newly built waterfront high-rises provide modern conveniences with a water view.
The country’s Pensionado program is the world’s best retirement-residency package. And foreigners can qualify. The economy is growing fast and multinationals are ﬂocking here. International phone calls go through ﬁrst time, every time. High-speed Internet is the norm rather than the exception and its modern international airport offers daily ﬂights to the U.S., Europe and the rest of the Americas. It’s the perfect base from which to explore the continent and ﬁnd your next adventure.
You can dine in ﬁve-star restaurants, attend plays, symphonies, and the ballet, and shop at the many upmarket boutiques. And in Panama City, you can enjoy these luxuries at about half the price you’d pay in any U.S. city.
Expats here say they’re “busier than ever” now that they’re “retired.” Almost all of them will tell you that they got healthier without doing anything special, learned local customs and the language thanks to friendly locals (many of whom speak English), and attended so many expat and local events that networking and making friends was laughably easy.
People who live in high-cost areas along the east and west coasts of the U.S. are amazed at the kind of home their dollars will buy in Panama. Those from the U.S. Midwest and central plains states don’t find a huge difference in property prices here, but when they realize the savings they will achieve on things like heating bills and property taxes, they see the true value of Panama.
Obviously, cost of living is determined by your lifestyle, and many people live here on much less, but here is an idea of what you might expect to spend each month to live comfortably in Panama City.
Sample monthly expenditure:
Housing (rental of a two-bed apartment in Panama City): $1,100
Housing (rental in a two-bed rural, suburban or local area): $350
Utilities (electricity, gas, water, phone, Internet, cable TV): $350
Supermarket items (food and household): $300
Entertainment for two (movies twice a month and dinner four times a month): $150
Maid (once a week): $15
Maid (live-in full-time): $200
Monthly Total (based on more expensive housing option): $2,100
Notes: Prices will differ depending on where in Panama you live. All prices are in U.S. dollars.
For maintenance and fuel for one small car, you can expect to pay around $200 each month. However, if you live in Panama City you may decide that you don’t need a car—taxis are very inexpensive (often no more than $2, even for an hour-long ride through rush-hour downtown traffic).
As for the overall cost of living, much of it depends on personal choice. If you like to eat at fancy restaurants or have expensive hobbies like golf, scuba diving, sailing etc., you’ll obviously spend more than someone with more basic tastes. However, Panama offers value in every aspect of life…so even a round of golf in Panama will cost far less than it will on a comparable course in the U.S.
Food prices for imported items from the U.S., Canada and Europe can be comparable or less expensive than you’ll find back home. And local foods, household items and produce—even organic and hydroponic produce—are very inexpensive. For example, Panama-brand beer—an award-winning larger—sells for about 50 cents per can or bottle at the supermarket. Local fruit and veggies are often up to 50% less expensive than imported items.
Small Town, Cool Weather in Ecuador
The highland town of Cotacachi, Ecuador, has changed in recent years. The biggest change…and one locals are still shaking their heads in amusement at…is the inﬂux of foreign retirees coming for the perfect climate and the low cost of living.
It’s not just retirees succumbing to the charms of Cotacachi. There are several new residents in their 30s and 40s and at least three families with young children, teenagers, and young adult children in tow. For the most part, they’re combining local schooling with home-schooling.
To meet demand, new pharmacies have opened and a new health clinic is in the works as part of a new retirement community being built by a British couple. On the main street, the town’s ﬁrst real supermarket will open any time now.
But this peaceful little village still offers a small-town lifestyle that has all but disappeared in most of the world these days. There are two shady main plazas where you’ll see friendly working people going about their daily business with a smile and a nod to everyone they meet on the street…where children of all ages play and ride their bikes late into the evening anywhere in town and indigenous women rule the local market, selling the largest, freshest produce you’ve ever seen. ($5 buys more than you can carry.)
Because of its status as an artisan and tourist town, Cotacachi—and nearby Otavalo, where textiles and other crafts are made—is prosperous. This prosperity has also allowed the town to treat itself to a facelift. Recent years have seen the main streets repaved and sidewalks replaced with new decorative tiles, ﬂowerboxes, and streetlamps. The main plaza has just undergone a major renovation.
High-speed Internet, cable and satellite television is everywhere—for better or for worse. (Yes, you can watch your favorite English-language programs.) Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar, so you won’t have to do currency conversions off the top of your head.
There really are no expat clubs in Cotacachi—mostly you see people on the street and are introduced to them at parties. However, there are two expat-owned restaurants. One, just one for breakfast and lunch is called Solid Rock and its one the main street. The other is called Kipper’s Fried Chicken and it is on the northwest corner of the main plaza, across from the Catholic church.
And it’s not as difﬁcult to get here as you might think. Sure, it’s a mountain town in the Andes, but a four or ﬁve hour ﬂight from the U.S. brings you to Quito, and from there it’s a two-hour drive.
The Cost of Living in Ecuador
From the cost of hiring a full-time maid to the price of produce and dinner at a good restaurant, you’ll be surprised at how little it costs to live in Ecuador. A survey of our expat friends living in the country concluded that it costs about 50% to 70% less to live in Ecuador when compared to a similar standard of living in North America.
It’s not difficult to live on less than $17,000 per year, and you don’t have to live an austere lifestyle to do it. Keep in mind that many expats live on considerably less than $17,000—we know some who get by on less than $8,000—but the budget presented below represents what we believe will provide for a realistic standard of living for most foreign residents.
Sample monthly expenditure for a couple in Quito:
Housing (rental of a luxury two-bedroom apartment): $600
Utilities (including phone, cable TV and Internet): $150
Entertainment (two dining out eight times a month and other entertainment): $225
Health care (four $30 visits to a doctor per year for two people): $20
Maid (twice a week): $60
Monthly Total: $1,600
It is important to keep in mind that not everything is cheaper in Ecuador. In fact, you will find that most imported items are more expensive. These include such things as cars, electronic equipment, books, some clothing and liquor. To fully realize the savings the country offers, remember to “buy local.”
Following the idea that smaller means bigger savings, let’s take a look at a sample budget for Vilcambaba and Cotacachi, small, rural communities.
This is not the least you could spend—you could do without the car, for example—but it’s near the low end. Keep in mind that some of the service and goods that you would find in Quito and Cuenca are not available in Vilcabamba and Cotacachi. The budget should also work in most other rural areas as well as on the coast.
Sample monthly expenditure for a couple in rural Ecuador (Vilcabamba or Cotacachi):
Housing (rent on a three-bed apartment in town, or a three-bed country home): $300
Maid (twice a week): $60
Phone charges: $20
Health care (based on four $30 visits to a doctor per year for two people): $20
Maintenance and fuel for one car: $140
Water rights (can vary by neighborhood): $2
Eating out (six times per month): $175
Monthly Total: $1,017
Notes: Prices will differ depending on where in Ecuador you live. All prices are in U.S. dollars.
Roatan, Honduras: Your White-Sand Island
“After 28 years I’m still enchanted by Roatan’s natural beauty…just like the ﬁrst day I set foot on the island. It’s a quality of life that I can’t imagine having in the U.S.,” says expat Marian Seaman.
If you’re a scuba diver or have enjoyed a cruise to the Western Caribbean, you may have already discovered the Bay Islands. Nestled in the “L” formed by Belize and the north coast of Honduras and protected from most hurricane activity, Roatan is the largest and most developed island.
English is widely spoken here and people are friendly and helpful. With more than 5,000 foreign residents, some part time, some full time, there is plenty of opportunity to meet like-minded people. You can be involved as little or as much as you want—hide away like a hermit in your hilltop aerie or frequent popular hangouts where you’re sure to meet friends.
There is an international airport on Roatan, with direct ﬂights from Houston, Miami, Atlanta and Newark. And resident seniors, deﬁned as 60 years or older, get a discount on air fares. You’ll ﬁnd a public hospital and several small clinics on the island. The most popular among expats are the Cornerstone Clinic located at Anthony’s Key Resort and Clinica Esperanza in Sandy Bay.
The past decade has seen a lot of growth on Roatan; where there was once only one cruise ship dock, there are now two; the almost-bankrupt electric company was bought by a Texas oil and gas company who infused millions of dollars to provide a steady supply of electricity.
If you want a place where you can feel safe, visit the grandkids easily, bring your dog or cat, commune with nature, relax and enjoy life, then beach-ringed Roatan could be for you.
The Cost of Living in Roatan
Honduras has all the makings of an attractive retirement haven—lush countryside with beaches and mountains, a tropical climate, a developing economy, a stable government, international airports, safe cities, friendly people, and, most important of all, a very low cost of living.
You can eat well on just a few dollars a day in Honduras. But, keep in mind that living on the mainland will be quite a bit less expensive than living in the Bay Islands. As a rule, island living anywhere is more costly. Below is what you might expect to pay, living comfortably on the country’s most popular island, Roatan:
Sample monthly expenditure for a couple in Roatan:
Housing (rental of a two-bedroom, 1,076-square-foot house): $1,200
Utilities (electric with a/c, gas and water): $300
Communications (cable TV and Internet): $120
Health insurance (couple aged 55): $250
Maid (three times a week): $190
Monthly Total: $2,260
The cost of making your way around Roatan is not particularly high. A gallon of gasoline will set you back $4.40 while a taxi ride across town will normally come in at $1.85. Although cheap, this is still more expensive than what you can expect to find on mainland Honduras where a gallon of gas will set you back $4 and a taxi ride across town costs around $1.50.
Notes: All prices are in U.S. dollars.
Colonial Nicaragua on the Cheap
With its cobbled streets and shady plazas, Granada is Nicaragua’s number one tourist destination. Businesses are used to catering to foreign visitors, services are plentiful and standards are high. And for the past three years tourist numbers have risen. If you like the idea of a running your own B&B, bar or gallery, then there are excellent opportunities here. Many of the local restaurants and bars are expat-owned and a great place to meet people.
Nicaragua is one of the cheapest countries on our radar. And although the national currency is the Cordoba, American dollars are accepted in most places. You’ll get a steak dinner in the ﬁnest restaurant for around $13. Regular fare at typical restaurants runs about half that.
In Granada, a room or suite with a kitchenette ranges from $300 to $500 a month to rent. And when it’s time to look for your own home, you’ll ﬁnd good online access to local English-speaking realtors. There’s no need to give up life’s niceties when you choose this spot. You can practice yoga, ﬁnd English-language bestsellers…install wireless Internet and use Skype to save on the cost of international calls. Cable TV costs $18 a month, with many of the channels in English.
And Granada is easy to get to. It lies just 45 minutes from Managua’s airport, which offers good nonstop service to Houston, Atlanta, and Miami; just two-and-a-half hours away. Medical care is cheap and Granada is within 40 minutes of one of the ﬁ nest hospitals in Central America. A visit to a doctor is $15.
Finding a doctor that speaks English isn’t a problem and often he’ll give you his number in case of emergencies. “If you want a really affordable life in a beautiful, vibrant city…a place full of opportunities for starting a business and enjoying social activities…then Granada is for you,” says Darrell.
The Cost of Living in Nicaragua
The prices in Nicaragua can often come as a pleasant surprise to many expats arriving from the U.S., Canada or Europe. The cost of living compares well with other countries in the region. Here is a break-down of what you might expect to spend on various outgoings over the course of a month:
Sample monthly expenditure in Nicaragua:
Housing (rental of a luxury two-bedroom apartment): $700
Utilities (electricity, gas, water, phone, cable TV, Internet): $75
Entertainment (dining out eight times a month plus other activities): $275
Health care (four $30 visits to a doctor per year for two people): $20
Cook/Maid (full-time): $120
Maintenance and fuel for one car: $95
Monthly Total: $1,710
Notes: Prices will differ depending on where in Nicaragua you live. All prices are in U.S. dollars.
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