International Living Daily Postcards
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One of the best things about living in Chiriqui Province is the ease with which I can change my environment to suit my mood. I live on the north side of the provincial capital of David, and from my home many of the best places to see and things to do are only about an hour away. Boca Chica, for instance, is a bit more than an hour’s drive east of David right on the Pacific coast. I went there with my husband recently for a brief birthday holiday, a little R&R.
Ah yes, another warm, sunny day in Panama is drawing to a close. It’s been just one of many afternoons spent reclining lazily on our terrace watching the iguanas, birds, and squirrels cavorting in our yard. Unfortunately the day did not start out that way. My poor husband suffers periodically from allergies and, after completing some vigorous yard work he had irritated, sore eyes and itchy skin. But after a quick trip to our local farmacia (pharmacy) he was symptom-free.
In Panama, you can choose where you want to live based solely on the climate you want. The fact surprises a lot of people. “Isn’t Panama a tropical country, lying so close to the equator?” Well, yes, it is, but here’s the thing…because of the wide range of elevations, it offers an amazing choice of climates. Suppose you’re a beach lover, seeking the warmth of the sun, balmy breezes tinged with salty humidity, and long stretches of sandy shoreline facing nothing but endless ocean to the horizon.
“Are you nuts?” This might be the first thing you hear when you tell friends and relatives that you’re thinking of retiring abroad. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as it used to, now that Forbes and FOX News and The New York Times and just about every other major media outlet are featuring stories about people retiring overseas and where they’re going. Some are even putting out their own lists of the best overseas retirement destinations, a-la International Living. (I guess if you do something for 35 years, sooner or later somebody else will catch on.)
My husband Dan Prescher and I were in the States for the Christmas holidays last year—the most frenetic and stressful time to visit. There’s so much pressure, so much to do, so much to spend money on…and it’s icy cold! Temperatures for a few days running while we were visiting in Omaha hovered at about 5 degrees Fahrenheit. I hate to admit this, but there were a few days when I couldn’t bring myself to leave the house. I’m no longer used to (or very tolerant of) those kinds of bone-chilling, life-threatening temperatures. And that’s not to mention that the sun depressingly slips away at 4:30 p.m. on a winter afternoon.
Coffee plantations and orange groves line the slopes outside of the town of Santa Fe. Sparkling rivers, like the Santa Maria and Mulaba, rush around huge boulders to flow gently between the trees. Giant peaks tower above, one after the other, with names like El Salto, Cerro Tute, El Sapo, and Cerro Mariposa. With an elevation around 1,500 feet, Santa Fe is blessed with year-round cool temperatures, averaging in the 80s F during the daytime and 60s F at night. Clear blue skies yield to misty clouds among the mountain tops and in the low valleys. For nature-lovers, it doesn’t get any better.
I’m on an English-speaking tropical island right now gathering data for International Living readers. The sea and beach views are hard to beat. The island’s surrounded by a fringe of coral reefs, so the water inside the nearby reef is that irresistible aquamarine color. The beaches on this island tell a variety of geological stories. Some are composed of soft, golden sand, with wide, welcoming shores.
Film editor and producer Sarah Tyler was living in New York when she decided she was ready to say goodbye to grueling winters. “I also wanted the experience of traveling abroad and practicing Spanish,” she says. Sarah now lives in Panama City’s Casco Viejo sector, where she feels at home among the cobbled streets and colonial plazas that she loves. “It’s a neighborhood known for its beauty and historical value,” says Sarah. “There’s a great bohemian vibe thanks to the people that live and visit here—artists, wayfaring travelers, investors, and entrepreneurs from all over the world.”
Island time. It’s different from time in most of North America. In North America, time is kept with a smart phone, phablet, PDA, or—for the very hip—a trendy and retro watch…albeit one that also tracks how many steps you’ve taken so far in your day and annoys you into taking more if it senses you’ve been sitting longer than it thinks you should. On the island, time is kept by the sun, the moon, and the tides.
If you love boisterous, colorful celebrations, folklore, and pageantry you will love retirement in Panama. Panamanians work hard and play hard; they have music in their souls. They’re happy, gregarious folks who love to set aside their cares and woes and “party hearty.” You’ll find arguably more formal opportunities to celebrate in Latin America than anywhere else on earth.
There’s a magical mountain town waiting for you to discover it. To get there, you turn off a busy highway onto an easy-to-miss little road that snakes up into the mountains. A couple hours ago, you were in a cosmopolitan capital studded with skyscrapers…but now you’re enveloped in a green rainforest cocoon. It feels a million miles away from the hurry of the city…
So you’re retired (or at least thinking about it): now’s when you finally get to do what you want with your time. And there’s no better place to fulfill all of your hobbies, interests, and need for fun activities and events than Chiriqui Province in western Panama. It’s a popular expat destination and, as someone who lives there, I can attest that its popularity is well deserved. We have lush green highlands, tropical rainforests, and unspoiled beaches all within an easy drive, as well as great shopping, arts, and culture. Whatever you want to do, you’ll find it here.
I’m a Canadian. I’m used to long, cold winters. But a few years back, my husband Gary and I had had enough. I refuse to spend my precious retirement years shoveling snow and huddled in front of my fireplace…not to mention donning layers of clothing from top to toe just to venture outside. And so each and every fall, we say goodbye to block heaters…snow shovels…hats, scarves, and outrageous heating bills…and head to Panama’s warmer climes.
Perhaps best known for its extravagant Carnaval celebration, Las Tablas is the center of Panama’s folkloric culture. Though not well known to North Americans, Panamanians flock here regularly, particularly to the two annual festivals that are held each year to honor the pollera, the national dress. But folklore is just the start of what this friendly little town has to offer. In-the-know expats have been coming here for several years. They come from all over—we’ve met residents from Europe, South America, the U.S., and Canada.
When I started apartment hunting in Panama City almost a decade ago, I thought I knew what neighborhood I wanted to live in: the ritzy International Banking District, where the tallest skyscrapers face the sparkling Panama Bay. The area had undeniable cachet, and everyone I knew was living there. The district is in the heart of downtown, where you’ll find the best hotels, restaurants, shops, and more. Since 2009, new pedestrian walkways, green areas, and recreation facilities line the bay. On any given day you’ll see people jogging, buying fruit, or just sitting and enjoying the pleasant atmosphere.
Orchids, roses, coffee, and vegetables grow in the valleys around. You’ll find high-end resorts and world-class golf, but the beating heart of the town is the Central Market where hawkers wearing conical non la hats sit beside tubs of live fish and crabs, or in front of tables loaded with pungent durian fruit, shoes, and clothing. An average temperature year-round of 57 F makes Dalat a tempting option for some expats, but for most, it’s a place to spend a bit of time exploring the hill villages and escaping the humidity and heat of the lowlands. If you choose to live here, then consider a place on the outskirts of town, which is a lot prettier than the center and makes for better views of the mountains.
Among other benefits, those in the program can import household goods and vehicles (cars less than three years old, a boat, or a light plane) tax-free within a year of approval. They are also exempt from paying any tax on income or investments generated outside Belize. The couple brought in a shipping container’s worth of household goods to start their new life near Bullet Tree Falls Village, just outside San Ignacio, the regional capital of the Cayo District. This region in the interior is known for its jungle, mountains, and agriculture. The couple’s North American-style house, which includes a large courtyard and swimming pool, sits on a double lot near a narrow river. A solar power system, which cost $65,000, enables them to be completely off-grid.
If, like me, you’re hooked on the ocean and the laidback vibe of the Caribbean, you may also dream of living there… But, driven by the tourism industry, rising prices mean that many people feel a slice of paradise could be beyond their budget. Let me introduce you to Grenada, where my husband Michael and I were lucky enough to spend one month last year. (And we intend to go back soon.) We’ve visited many Caribbean islands, but in Grenada we found a true gem that combines terrific beaches and weather with an affordable cost of living and reasonably priced real estate.
One of my favorite places in Panama is a small highland town called Volcan. You’ll find it in the agricultural province of Chiriqui, not too far from Costa Rica. Baru Volcano, which gives the town its name, looms to the east and Cerro Punta, where most of Panama’s produce is grown, rises to the north. The open sky is clear blue this time of year. Blooming bougainvillea bushes of bright magenta and deep purple add a splash of color amid the pine trees. But it’s not just the scenery that draws me and other expats to Volcan. It’s the character of the place and its residents. This authentic farm town is a hub for the surrounding community. While there is often plenty of activity, there’s no sense of hurry. Farmers come to town in their pickup trucks, maybe hauling a load of produce, a few cattle, or hogs. They always have time to stop and chat with friends or to admire a hand-made saddle outside a tack shop.
For me, and plenty of other Americans and Canadians who have scratched the surface, the capital of Chiriqui Province in western Panama is a retirement location that’s hard to resist. If you’re looking for a convenient hub city that’s a manageable size, David should be top of your list. It’s Panama’s third-largest city and second only to Panama City for shopping, healthcare, services, logistics, education, and just about anything else. And, with a population of about 86,000, (the larger district of David has a population of about 250,000), it’s certainly manageable.
The other day my wife and I went out for lunch. We live in a small craft village in the northern Andes of Ecuador, and one of our options is a place called El Convento. It’s in the tidy little tiled and terraced courtyard of a former convent in back of the large church at the center of town. The menu is fixed and changes daily. When we stopped in, our menu started with locro de haba, a lightly creamed soup of fava beans, potatoes, cabbage, and chicken stock with a short pork rib thrown in for good measure. Like most locros served in Ecuador, it came with a side of popcorn and aji, the local hot sauce. Popcorn is a snack and also a garnish here, and the hot sauces are homemade…
Though we moved to picturesque colonial city of Cuenca, Ecuador in 2010, we left again two years ago. That’s right…we left our retirement paradise to try out life on the Central Coast of California in San Luis Obispo where we spent our honeymoon 40 years ago. We were 20 minutes from the Pacific Ocean with its spectacular fireball sunsets and enjoyed some of California’s best beaches, including Pismo, Morro Bay, and Avila. It was our good fortune, to find a 1,200-square-foot apartment on Craigslist—fully furnished—for $895 a month (with utilities and internet it came to $960). It was a bargain.
Within a month of arriving in Costa Rica to live, my wife and I had discovered that we could enjoy one of our favorite Sunday traditions: brunch. Just down the road from our home in Grecia was Atenas, and the famous (at least among local expats) Kay’s Gringo Postres. There were heaping helpings of French toast, bacon, biscuits and gravy (I’ve never seen them anywhere else in Costa Rica)…and never-ending coffee…for $10 each. As we enjoyed these traditional American favorites, we met a dozen or so local expats, mostly retirees but also families and young couples. The more experienced were eager to pass on advice about renting a home or buying a car and to share contact information for great contactors and service providers like mechanics and plumbers. You know, the really important stuff you need to know when you move to a new place. Personal recommendations go a long way.
I’ve been doing a bit of travel around Ecuador recently, and in December I stumbled onto my new favorite city. Restored grand colonial buildings sport fresh bright paint. Tumbling rivers run right through the heart of the city. A growing international expat community and ridiculously friendly locals make fitting in easy and dining options range from traditional local dishes to Chinese, Mexican, Arabic, Japanese, Italian, and even good old Texan fare. By now, you might be guessing that the city I’m describing is expat-favorite Cuenca or the capital of Quito. Those would be fair guesses…but they’re wrong. The city that swept me off my feet is Loja—Cuenca’s little sister to the south.
I love Valencia, Spain’s third-largest city. Many folks overlook its charms in favor of Madrid, Barcelona, and the Moorish cities of the south. But if I were to choose one location for full- or part-time living in Spain, I think my heart would be set on Valencia. For around $2,000 a month, including rent of a chic, centrally located apartment, I could embrace the arts, stroll the beaches, eat out often (and well), and I would be perfectly placed to explore the rest of Europe, too. Let me explain…
It’s a day for dreaming of Andalucia. So I’m letting Spanish composer Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain take me on a musical journey back to Granada—back to the lament of flamenco guitars, orange trees, and jasmine-scented patios with pattering fountains. On my last visit to Spain, I added a Granada side trip. Sheer indulgence as I’d been before, but it’s a city made for indulgence. De Falla’s old garden, just above the Realejo neighborhood, is laden with roses. Gardens have a long history in Spain. For the Moors, a garden symbolized an inner paradise and a reflection of heaven.
Cosmopolitan cities, glorious sunshine, delicious cuisine, and low costs—as a retirement or second-home destination, Spain is hard to beat. The southern province of Andalucia, particularly the area around the Costa del Sol is the epitome of good-value, romantic Spanish living. It has everything: long sandy beaches perfect for strolling on…romantic, white-washed hill towns cling to the Andalusian hillsides…a sunny climate where snow and even rain are a rarity…and a cost of living so affordable you’ll find it hard to believe you’re in a European country.
It’s said “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”…but that’s definitely not the case when it comes to learning Spanish. On the contrary, knowing just a little Spanish is often enough to reach your goal of starting a new life in a Spanish-speaking country. With just a little knowledge of the language, you can express and understand many very basic exchanges. Then, you just keep improving little by little…day by day. You’d be amazed how it can enrich your life. Take getting around in a taxi as an example:
What’s the weather like where you are right now? And what do the upcoming months have in store for you weather-wise? Are cold northerly winds, deadly ice, and heavy, wet snow part of the forecast? (And that’s not to mention the darkness.) I used to dread winter in the U.S.—when the sun didn’t show itself until well after breakfast and then slipped away again before the afternoon rush hour traffic even thought about getting started.
This morning, from my hotel’s terrace, I sat and watched the sun come up over the peaks of the Cordillero Central Mountains. It’s my first visit to Santa Fe, about an hour north of Santiago in Veraguas Province, Panama and I’m excited by what I’ve found. It’s a place where you can’t help but stop to take in its beauty: its angular slopes layered on top of each other, rocky formations jutting out of the forest, and jagged summits reaching into the clouds.
I’m walking barefoot on volcanic sand that sparkles like diamonds in the sun…and the only sound I can hear is the soothing crash of waves on the shore. There’s no music or shouting from vacationers or revelers to break the silence…and I don’t have to step around chairs or towels or anything else. In fact, I have the beach almost to myself. There’s a girl jogging up ahead, and that’s it for today. You see, on Panama’s Coronado Beach, huge resorts don’t line the shoreline. There’s a small one a few minutes’ drive from the water, which also serves as a country club for the golfing enthusiasts who live here. But besides that, there are surprisingly few inns and hotels to be found.
I’ve worked with International Living for 14 years, and I’ve seen a lot of lists of the best places on earth to retire. I don’t remember a single one that didn’t have Panama either at the top or in the top five. Of course, for my wife, Suzan, and me, Panama has some special appeal. We lived in Panama City for a while and toured most of the country. Also, our granddaughter’s mother is Panamanian, so an entire side of our family is there.
Panama’s most popular expat town rests on the eastern-facing slope of the Baru Volcano—Panama’s highest peak, at 11,400 feet—in Chiriquí Province, western Panama. The elevation is a big part of the appeal. For one thing, located at around 3,900 feet, this town enjoys a spring-like climate year-round with average daily temperatures of about 70 F. For another, you’ll find plenty of picturesque views. Boquete (pronounced Bow-keh-tay) is home to thousands of retired North Americans. Apart from the climate they come for the low costs and the natural beauty.
On the balcony of a Swiss-style cottage in Cerro Azul, I’m looking out over the mountains. The air is damp and cool—about 70 F—and there are thin wisps of mist around the hilltops. The land is densely populated with trees, most of them evergreens. It’s surprising, since I’ve just come from Panama City, where you’ll find tropical palms. So far I’ve seen hummingbirds and owl butterflies, smelled resinous pine and exotic jasmine, and heard the roar of howler monkeys in the distance. It couldn’t be more different from the sea-level city just under an hour’s drive from here. In fact, I’m reminded of where I grew up, in Oregon.
My health care experiences here range from routine lab tests to extended hospital stays. Panama, like most other Central American countries, has a dual health care system, with both private and public options. Anyone may use either system, but the public system aims to provide medical services to citizens and residents who are enrolled in the Caja de Seguro Social (social security program). Tourists and expats (including my husband Al and me) primarily use the private system. You’ll find it better equipped and staffed, as well as more comparable to North American standards.
Sitting right at the heart of the Mediterranean, Malta blends the best of southern-European graciousness with one of the best qualities of life to be found in Europe. First-World standards of service and infrastructure, a wealth of historical and architectural treasures (including nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites), world-class golf courses, and the sparkling Mediterranean—all in a country one-tenth the size of Rhode Island—ensures that this tiny island will keep you occupied.
Last year, at the International Living Fast-Track Ecuador Conference in Quito, Ecuador, I spent a few minutes chatting with a woman from Idaho. She and her husband (well, mostly her husband) were thinking of retiring to Ecuador. “Before I got here,” she said, “I wasn’t at all sure about this idea. Heck, I didn’t really even know where Ecuador was…but my husband convinced me to at least come down for a look. And I owe him that.” We chatted a bit about the husband/wife dynamic and about how, when you’re faced with retirement, there are so many decisions, and yes, compromises, to be made.
Recently, I was sitting on a French beach. The sunshine was warm on my back and bathing suit-clad locals and tourists splashed happily in the surf in front of me. A gentle sea breeze blew over the water, as couples strolled the promenade behind me with their small dogs and young children. It felt just like the middle of summer. The funny thing? It was actually November. In fact, that day, Biarritz—the French beach town where I was staying—was officially the warmest city in Europe. It beat even southern Spain and always-temperate Malta to claim the title. And everyone was celebrating the early winter sunshine with a dip in the Bay of Biscay.
Have you ever been to a place so breathtakingly beautiful you never wanted to leave? And once you did, you couldn’t stop thinking about it? Los Frailes is that place for my husband and me. Better yet, it’s one of Ecuador’s best kept secrets…one I am going to share with you… The first time we visited this unspoiled piece of paradise I let out an audible gasp when I caught a glimpse of the beach’s turquoise-blue waters and its white sand. I turned to my husband, Mark, and whispered, “You have to promise me you’ll never tell anyone about this place.” It reminded me of Horseshoe Bay in Bermuda where we spent our 25th wedding anniversary.
In 2007, my wife and I were ready to make a change. We were looking for a more affordable, healthier way of life and there was one country that ticked all the boxes: Panama. Before we moved, we did a lot of research on Latin American countries that we could consider retiring to. Panama’s benefits really stood out. The country is stable, with a literacy rate higher than the U.S., health care is inexpensive, and the country’s diet is healthier. Additionally, the currency here is the American dollar and the culture is friendly and welcoming.