The World’s Top Retirement Havens in 2013

IL’s 2014 Annual Global Retirement Index has just been released. You can access it here.

Exotic tropical islands, temperate mountain valleys, miles of deserted beaches, First-World cities packed with ultra-modern amenities, and ancient vineyard-shrouded hill towns…

Among the top retirement spots in the world this year, you’ll find great variety in the cultural offerings, climates and lifestyles. Each destination is desirable in its own way, but they all offer something increasingly hard to come by at home: A good quality of life for a reasonable price.

Among these 22 destinations, you’ll discover places where you can save tens of thousands of dollars on world-class health care administered by English-speaking and U.S.-trained doctors…find beachfront condos for less than $90,000…and see that a couple can live well on just $900 a month excluding rent.

Now, no “formula” can spit out the name of the place that’s just right for you. After all, your priorities are uniquely yours. You need to consider what’s most important to you—maybe climate, maybe language, maybe cost, maybe distance from home—and use this index to target accordingly the places you want to explore. The only way you’ll really know if a destination makes sense for you is to go and see it for yourself.

But understand that all of the countries in our index are worth considering. A destination that scores relatively poorly in a specific category is still a nation we believe ranks among the top 22 in the world for overseas retirement today.

Each year as we compile this Retirement Index, we strive to improve it. We collect more—and more diverse—data. We interview more—and more varied—expats to get the real-world information that keeps our assessments current. This index is, by design, subjective. It wouldn’t be half as helpful if it weren’t. We bring to it more than three decades of expertise and the insights from an international network of correspondents living abroad today and scouting the world on your behalf.

See below for our experts’ more nuanced take on the top five finishers for 2013…but before you do, sign up for our FREE report on the world’s top 10 Retirement Havens.

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1. Ecuador: The World’s Best Haven

By Edd Staton

“Our life in Ecuador is everything we hoped for,” says expat Mike Grimm, who arrived in Cuenca two-and-a-half years ago with his wife Patty. “We’re totally happy and plan to live here the rest of our lives.”

Such strong praise from the growing number of expats in Ecuador is common. Whether you live alongside a gently flowing river in a scenic valley, choose the cosmopolitan lifestyle of cities like Quito or Cuenca, or relax in smaller communities like Cotacachi or Vilcabamba…Ecuador exceeds even the loftiest expectations. And wherever you go, you’ll meet friendly locals who are happy to welcome you to their beautiful country.

When you move to Ecuador, you can import your household goods duty-free. And this country offers the best-value real estate in the world. But for many, the true draw is the perfect climate. Ecuador lies on the equator. The beaches are tropical, but up in the Andes, the weather is mild and spring-like year-round.

Ecuador’s major cities have top notch hospitals, clinics and well-trained physicians. All residents are eligible to participate in the country’s Social Security health care system for incredibly low monthly premiums.

Out-of-pocket expenses for doctor visits, procedures, and drugs are a fraction of what you would pay in the U.S. When I visited my GP recently, it cost just $25—no waiting—and follow-up visits were free.

You’ll have dinner out for $2.50, an hour-long massage for $25…a beer costs $0.85 and I know couples living on less than $900 a month excluding rent.

And if you want to keep busy with work, it’s one of the best countries for an expat start-up. There are expats here running restaurants, gyms, schools and making money through import-export.

If all this isn’t enough, seniors who are residents of Ecuador qualify for half price entertainment and local transport, discounted airfares, and refunds of sales tax.

Ecuadorians have a lot of respect for older people and you can cut in line at the store. As Cuenca resident Leann Bogyo says, “I’ve been blessed to fi nd such a beautiful place to live. Every day brings a new, exciting experience.”

2. Panama: As Easy and Welcoming as Ever

By Jessica Ramesch

The World’s Top Retirement Havens in 2013“Easy” and “comfortable” are words you hear a lot from expats living in Panama. Take Karl Parker, 73, who came here from San Diego. “Panama’s just an easy place to live,” he says. “It has lots going for it…and the government stays off your back.”

On paper, Panama’s major draw is its Pensionado (pensioner) visa. Qualified pensioners get residence fairly quickly. And they are entitled to local retiree discounts…10% to 15% off consultations and medication…25% off at restaurants…and 50% off admission to movies, theaters, and such. Nearly every aspect of life comes with a discount.

But the expats here will tell you that’s not why they chose to live here. “The discounts are very nice,” they’ll say. “The healthcare is excellent,” they’ll admit.

There are many English speakers here, the U.S. dollar is the currency, and the country is outside the hurricane belt. All these are pluses.

But as most will tell you, they chose Panama for the friendly people…the rainforest…the beaches. Where else can you bathe in the Pacific after breakfast and in the Atlantic before dinner…on the same day? Where else can you visit a cloud forest, spot a resplendent quetzal, and find yourself surrounded by hundreds of rare orchids, all in the same weekend?

Most expats will also tell you: “My only regret is that I didn’t come sooner.” They say that because their lives are better than they were before. There’s something about the culture…about the idea that not everything has to be “now”…that permeates the air. By osmosis, if you move here from North America, you find yourself slowing down.

Kansas City native Robert Cook attributes this to a few things: There isn’t a fast-food joint on every corner, and his produce is grown locally, he says. People don’t like to rush, so he has learned to “take it easy.” Since he has more time to socialize, he has made good friends among the locals (he married one, too).

Cook’s family asked him if he was “on drugs” when he announced he was moving to Panama’s highlands. “Now they envy me,” he says. “My stress level is way down and I’m much healthier. They can see how happy I am.”

3. Malaysia: Asia’s Most Desirable Destination

By Keith Hockton

The World’s Top Retirement Havens in 2013“Go back to New York to live? Never!” says 65-year-old Lorna Taylor. “We moved to Malaysia because of the weather, the golf and the low prices; our costs are now a third to a quarter of what they were in the U.S. We even have a maid come in and clean four times a week. We couldn’t do that in New York. No, we’ll never leave Penang.”

I’m 30 years younger than Lorna and her husband John, and yet they still manage to beat my wife Lisa and me convincingly at tennis. They have a coach who comes twice a week, and for $10 a lesson I can see his efforts are clearly paying off.

I also completely understand and agree with their view about Malaysia. It has everything. Its weather is a tropical 82 F all year round and its beaches, islands and jungles are pristine. It has some of the region’s best street food, great restaurants, bars, shopping malls and movie theaters—and it’s all affordable.

Lisa and I rent a sea-view apartment for $1,000 a month—it comes with a shared pool and gym. We eat out five nights a week, keep a small sailboat, and our total budget is $1,719 a month. Two people can have a three-course meal here for $10.

A bagful of fresh fruit costs around $4. We also have a maid that comes once a week for four hours at a cost of $12.

Malaysia’s an easy place to make friends and integrate as English is the unofficial first language. Lots of expats live in Kuala Lumpur and Penang and numerous organizations here can help you get settled and integrated. For example, the International Women’s Association (formally The American Woman’s Association) has just over 500 members who organize activities on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. On Mondays there are jungle walks, Tuesdays mah-jong (a type of card game), Wednesdays sewing. They sponsor trivia night once a week at a local pub and put on a ball once a year. For more information, see here.

Penang and Kuala Lumpur are also medical centers of excellence and every day two planeloads of medical tourists arrive in Malaysia for various treatments. Not only is the health care amazing but it’s among the world’s cheapest. And prescriptions here cost a fifth of what you pay at home.

The last time I was at the dentist I got a filling and a cleaning, which cost $22.50. In the U.S. this would set me back around $180. We can also buy property, land, and houses and condominiums freehold—something you can’t do elsewhere in Asia.

4. Mexico: Culture and Convenience

By Glynna Prentice

The World’s Top Retirement Havens in 2013“You don’t have to look far to find fascinating cultural traditions here,” says expat Deborah Mackay about Mexico, her new home. “Music, dancing, all kinds of colorful exhibitions are a regular part of life. And the cherry on the cake is that they’re usually free!”

Mexico’s colorful, vibrant culture does rank high with expats who live here…but it is just the cherry—and the icing—on a very rich cake. For expats, Mexico is an easy, convenient choice…a largely First-World country, at bargain prices, right on their doorstep. No wonder a million or more expats make Mexico their home.

Today’s Mexico offers modern highways and airports, cable and satellite TV, Internet, and other goodies expats enjoy at home. Want a big U.S.-style washer and dryer or a monster refrigerator?

No problem in Mexico—you’ll even find familiar brands. Yet the overall cost of living can be as little as half what you’d pay in the U.S. or Canada.

Health care, too, is good to excellent. (So good, in fact, that many Mexican hospitals do a thriving business in medical tourism.) Across the board, health care—including doctor’s visits, hospital stays, lab tests, and devices—costs a quarter to a half of what you’d pay in the U.S. That’s assuming, of course, that you even pay out of pocket. If you hold a valid residence visa, you can sign up for Mexico’s national health-care system—which has a top cost of about $300 a year.

Rent a comfortable, mid-sized house in Mexico for about $800 a month, while $1,500 can get you a large colonial or a chic beachside apartment. Looking to buy? You can still find comfortable homes for around $150,000, depending on the town.

And one of Mexico’s biggest pluses is its sheer size and variety. If you want beach, Mexico has thousands of miles of it—chic resorts, sleepy beach towns, and everything in between. Prefer cool, mountain scenery?

Mexico has that, too. And there are colonial cities galore, including expat favorites like Oaxaca, San Cristóbal de las Casas, and San Miguel de Allende. In fact, Mexico has at least a dozen expat havens where you can ease almost effortlessly into life abroad.

Whatever you’re looking for…in big, beautiful Mexico you’re sure to find it.

5. Costa Rica: Comfort and Community

By Jason Holland

The World’s Top Retirement Havens in 2013“In Costa Rica I have one of the best doctors I’ve ever had in my life, Dr. Sanchez. And after my heart attack 12 years ago I saw some of the top doctors in the United States,” says Bob Lux, a nearly two-year resident of the Arenal region of Costa Rica. “My blood pressure is under control, and I feel terrific.”

Bob, 62, and his wife Stacey, 55, just got their Costa Rican residence a few months ago. They’re pensionados, or retirees. The requirement of $1,000 per month from Social Security or a pension means that getting residence is easy enough that just about anybody can do it, says Bob.

A huge reason they moved down was health care. Bob was paying $340 a month for prescriptions to control blood pressure and cholesterol, on top of more than a $1,000 a month for insurance coverage for him and his wife.

Once they became residents, they joined the universal healthcare system, known as Caja. Bob and Stacey pay $49 a month—the amount is based on income.

After that, care is free. “My blood pressure went off the charts. I went to the local clinic. They gave me fluids and an EKG. Zero dollars,” says Bob.

The couple has also found they can live comfortably on Bob’s Social Security and small pension. In the states, they’d still have to work to make ends meet.

John Buford, 65, and his wife, Caryl, 64, moved to San Ramon in February 2011. It was an escape from northwest Illinois’ bitter winters, and triple-digit-hot summer.

“This is the most stable Latin American country, closest to the U.S, with the climate we were looking for,” says John. They found their spot about six miles outside of this Central Valley town, where they live on nearly an acre at 3,800 feet.

San Ramon’s active expat community, specifically the Community Action Alliance group, attracted the couple as well. “We found this organization that’s focused on community development. We’re still young. We wanted to do things in and for the community we live in,” says John.

See all the scores in our top 22 retirement havens and find out more about how our Index works here.

For a slideshow of images of our top 10 retirement havens, see here.

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