International Living Daily Postcards
Each day we uncover some of the most desirable--and cheapest--retirement havens on earth. In International Living's free daily postcards, you'll learn about retirement, property, travel and lifestyle opportunities from around the world.
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You have probably heard of Cuenca. It’s Ecuador’s most popular retirement haven, home to thousands of contented expats, colonial architecture, verdant parks, galleries, museums, and plenty of bars and restaurants. But that’s just the city itself. Since arriving, my work with a local tour company has helped me uncover some of the best day trips:
Mexico is set to become a developed country in the coming decades. We can benefit most from this economic transformation in the beach city of Playa del Carmen. Playa del Carmen, a veritable boom town today, is already a well-recognized name among tourists. But today it’s becoming something more than just a hot spot for travelers.
Lorelei Kusin lives on an island in Panama’s Bocas del Toro province, and in this part of the Caribbean, time seems to stand still. “Our small house is situated on a bay facing the ocean,” she says. After waking to the sound of chattering birds, Lorelei and her husband James enjoy a cup of freshly ground Panamanian coffee, followed by a smoothie using local fresh produce such as fresh coconut water, mango, pineapple, guanabana, and bananas. “Then I often swim or paddleboard before we head to town in our 22-foot boat.”
Vivid colors, countless sizes, the smell of clean wool and the sound of clacking needles…at every turn is another gallery or store where local ladies sit stitching their carpets and tapestries. Nestled in the rolling hills of the Alentejo region of Portugal, Arraiolos is a medieval gem where you can observe an ancient art carried on since before the reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors.
Not long ago I found myself suffering a major sinus infection. My head was pounding and I had a cough that kept me (and my husband) awake all night…I was exhausted. Nothing I was taking over-the-counter was helping. I needed to see a doctor. Unfortunately, I was visiting the States. At the doctor’s office in Omaha, I got right in. I did the interview with the nurse about my prior health history and what my symptoms were.
Pets are a big concern for many potential expats. While the financial and personal advantages of retiring abroad are obvious, it’s not so obvious how to fit four-legged family members into the mix. The mechanics and paperwork for getting Fido or Fluffy from your old home to your new overseas location aren’t overwhelming, but they differ from country to country…and even from season to season.
Sipping my locally grown coffee on the sun-drenched balcony of my house in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I sometimes have to pinch myself. It’s a far cry from the numbing cold myself and my wife Nancy endured during our many winters in the interior of British Columbia. Chopping firewood, shoveling snow, and piling on four layers of clothing…I don’t miss any of it.
The road leading to the town of Santa Fe de Veraguas climbs gently and steadily up the slopes of the Continental Divide, winding past cattle ranches, jungled hillsides and gurgling rivers. The bright blue roof of the Catholic church in the middle of town is one of the first sights you see. This church marks the center of town. Around it you’ll find a soccer pitch, a shaded plaza with benches and a gazebo, and small stores and businesses along the main street.
As the sun set over the Pacific, the silhouettes of fishing boats lined up on the horizon came into sharp relief. Just in front of me, a dozen children clambered through tide pools searching for shells and sea creatures. The strains of reggae from the live band playing at the bar just behind me provided a great soundtrack to this late afternoon on the beach. A friend of mine standing next to me turned and said, “Not bad, huh?”
As I came over the last hill on the road from Tilaran, a small town about 10 minutes from the shore of Lake Arenal, I could see what makes Arenal so special. The stunning lake vistas opened up before me… Most of the land here is forest, pasture, or farm—split by rivers, streams, and rocky waterfalls…natural and unspoiled. And it has that small-town feel, where strangers say “Buenas tardes” as you walk through town or wave if you drive by.
Sipping wine sitting on the deck of his 36-foot cabin cruiser, Fish Trap, John Pasnau takes a slow deep breath of clean, salt air and reflects on his new life. He and his wife, Valerie, are getting ready to cast off for a short cruise to watch another Caribbean sunset along the Riviera Maya. “Retiring to Mexico almost a year ago was probably the best decision I’ve ever made…except for asking Valerie to marry me,” he says.
There is no question that retiring to the right place can dramatically and automatically cut your overall cost of living. Just think about your own monthly budget without the costs of heating, air conditioning, and vehicle maintenance and insurance. Those costs come right off the top of your budget if you relocate to a place with a year-round temperate climate and a good mass-transit system. I know, because I live in just such a place. And it’s wonderful.
The light streams through my window as the birds wake me with their joyful morning chorus. Last night I was lulled to sleep by chirping crickets and the sound of the nearby stream. I peek my head out the window to see fluffy clouds dispersing, revealing another beautiful day in paradise. After getting ready, I grab a notebook and pen and head out the door. The neighborhood fruit vendor senses my morning hunger as I approach his stand. He cracks open an enormous papaya and perfectly ripe mango, and serves me the most delicious fruit salad for just $1.75. “Enjoy,” he says smiling.
If you remember your middle school geography you’ll know that Quito is the capital of Ecuador. It’s also a city rich with history, culture, and amazing features all around. Situated high in the Andes Mountains the weather is cool, the scenery sublime, and the people as friendly as they come. Quito though tends to be overlooked by visitors in favor of Ecuador’s big ticket tourist attractions like the Galapagos, the Amazon Basin, and the Otavalo Craft Market.
My four-year anniversary of living in Ecuador is rapidly closing in and it’s caused me to do a bit of reflecting on my time here. There was so much that attracted my family and I to the country in the first place…and in these last four years that list of positives has only grown. On a gorgeous sun-filled day like today I only have to look out my windows to be reminded of why life here is wonderful. I’ve got four volcanoes showing their stuff right now, one of which is laced with snow this morning and another sports a permanent snowcap.
A cobbled square, an outdoor café, a sky full of stars. Vincent van Gogh’s Café Terrace At Night is laden with the romance of place—I always want to step into the picture and sit at one of the tables…drink a glass or two of wine…join the patrons in idle conversation. Van Gogh painted the picture during his time in Arles—a small city in Provence in the sunny south of France.
Something that we have grown to love after more than eight years of living in Asia is wide variety of street food that is always readily available in this part of the world. Whether strolling the chaotic back alleys of Chinese cities or browsing the numerous markets of Chiang Mai, we have always been able to find an infinite number of inexpensive dishes prepared and served within minutes by friendly street vendors. Each country and city has its own specialties that cater to the locals as well as more adventuresome tourists that are looking for new taste sensations.
The 24-hour media machine fuels this “fear of elsewhere.” Footage of revolutions in the streets and masked gunmen stalking the jungle makes for good TV. Footage of people peacefully and cheerfully going to the market, relaxing on their porch of an evening, and doing the sorts of things normal daily life brings, well, that’s not going to attract the TV news crews, is it?
I’ve lived in Nicaragua for seven years, and I can tell you that this is one of the most beautiful, affordable, and exciting countries in Central America. You can leave your stressful life behind and relax in the tranquility of a liquid gold touched sunset, listen to a gentle forest rain, or watch from your patio as thousands of fireflies make it look as though the stars have descended from the sky. And if you like excitement and adventure, Nicaragua will not disappoint.
And so I nearly always find myself choosing to explore Europe by train, even if it sometimes takes a couple more hours and a few more dollars. I’ve traveled this way for years, both when I lived in the States and visited Europe between jobs, and now that I live here in the Swiss Alps. And I’ve discovered that, even though I love nearly every train ride I’ve taken, a few routes stand a little taller than the rest… they unfold more beautifully and leave attentive passengers more breathless than the average ride through the countryside.
This train ride weaves its way along the coastline of Italy and then France, offering striking views of the ocean, the seaside cliffs and candy-colored towns of the Cinque Terre, tiny harbors, and hillside vineyards and olive groves. Towns seem to tumble down cliffsides into the Ligurian Sea where boats bob at anchor. En route watch out for the chiming towers of Riomaggiore and picture the sleek Genoan war galleys that plied this coast 500 years ago.
How easy is it to adapt to life in a new country?” Well, the answer is going to be different depending on who you are and how adaptable you’re willing to be. I’m a planner by nature. You know, one of those people who likes to make lists, check things off, and know that all is going according to plan. Winging it is fine in certain situations, but when it comes to major life changes I feel better knowing that all of my I’s are dotted and my T’s are crossed.
Climbing ever higher up the Poqueira Gorge, three of the loveliest Alpujarran villages are Pampaneira, Bubión and Capileira. They’re designated as a Site of Historical and Artistic Heritage, so for those day-tripping from Granada city, the trio make a good Alpujarran taster. Although they’re tourist-oriented, there’s nothing tacky about delights such as freshly-baked almond pastries, weaving studios, and jams made from mountain raspberries.
The drive from my hometown of David west to the town of Volcan in Chiriquí Province is one of my favorite scenic routes in all of Panama. I pass cattle pastures, dairy farms, horse stables, and chicken farms framed by rolling green hills. At certain vantage points I look out over the landscape and can see all the way to the Pacific coast. Colorful flowers and a surprising variety of trees and foliage decorate the roadway as I wind my way up the slope of the mountain.
The sound of rolling waves soothes me as I lie on the warm, glittering white and black volcanic sand. Bursts of green palm trees ring the beach, which is dotted with bits of driftwood, coral, and shells. White marine birds complete the scene, standing on spindly legs, looking out towards the sky-blue sea.
Cost of living is one of the major concerns for many retirees considering a move overseas. It’s one of the reasons my husband and I chose to settle in David, the capital of Chiriqui Province in western Panama. Life here is not only pleasant, relaxed, and fun, but super affordable. We average about $1,500 a month for our living expenses. Here is a typical monthly budget for myself and my husband:
Swimming with endangered green sea turtles in Akumal, strolling the cobblestone shopping district in Playa del Carmen, exploring cenotes or ancient Maya ruins or just lazing in a hammock…this is my life today. But it’s a far cry from where my husband Don and I were back in 2008. In the wake of the financial collapse and the deep recession that followed, our comfortable existence was completely upended. At an age when we expected we could begin to slow down, we found ourselves starting over in a very inhospitable economy. Add to that Don’s second heart attack and the loss of his health insurance when his job disappeared, and you have a recipe for real desperation.
One of the many great things about living in Ecuador is that flights to the U.S. are frequent and easy. You can fly nonstop from Quito to Miami in four hours and from Guayaquil to New York in less than seven hours. I’ve just returned to Cuenca after spending some time visiting family back in the U.S. Being in the States got me thinking about how much I spend on everyday items like food here in Ecuador.
After enduring too many cold winters I decided it was time to move overseas. Shoveling snow just to get to work and more shoveling to get back into the garage at night was exhausting. It was adding more time to my work day, meaning less time for relaxing at home. Plus I hated how the cold dictated how and when I did everything. It would take twice as long to get anywhere. And my cost of living was going up and up and my heat bills just kept rising. Then there was the worry about the wear and tear on the car due to the freezing temperatures, frozen pipes, downed power lines, and power outages.
I enjoyed my 18 years working as a veterinarian. It was a stressful, demanding, but very rewarding career helping animals and their humans. The down side was that I had to be at a certain place, at a certain time, on a very regular schedule. Now, I live in Mexico and work on my own time. Over the past year I have lived in two different cities in Mexico…one in Guatemala…and visited every country in Central America. I was able to spend as long as I wanted getting to know the places that I had become interested in over the years.
“I go into my kitchen and look out over my pool to the ocean. I can see all the way to the mountains in neighboring Costa Rica. On my terrace are beautiful potted plants including orchids hanging from coconut trees. I feel blessed,” says Lawrence. Lawrence and Jeanne were living a high-powered life in the Big Apple, working and raising three children.
Having grown up in Chicago, I never thought it would be possible to live in a big, First World city for $1,000 a month. That much wouldn’t even cover my mortgage for a month back home… But when I arrived in Cebu City, which is on the eastern shore of the island of Cebu in the Philippines, I was immediately surprised by what I saw. High rises, malls, fancy cars—a major First World city. Yet, it really is possible to live there for $1,000 a month.
Take a short trip to the Port Honduras Marine Reserve to snorkel or fish. Or spend a few days in the sapodilla Cayes, near the barrier reef. If you time it right, you may encounter a majestic whale shark. ReefCI runs a marine research outpost at Tom Owen’s Caye. You can spend five days there, scuba diving and taking part in marine research, for less than $1,000.
Italy’s Le Marche is a hidden region, its patchwork of rolling hills dotted with stone farmhouses surrounded by sunflowers, olives groves, and grapevines. Here you’ll find the classic Italian lifestyle of good food, great wine, and cultural attractions, all for around $2,000 a month for a couple, including rent. The cuisine is varied and delectable, whether you’re in the hills or on the sea. Here are some of the specialties you should try…
Much of Panama’s pacific coast consists of unspoiled beaches and little communities where you’ll find friendly people and small towns offering a taste of the past. Here authentic Panamanian culture still exists and people treat visitors like welcome guests. One such community is the surf town of Santa Catalina. It’s located in the province of Veraguas, about two-and-a-half hours southwest of the city of Santiago.
The older I get, the more I love technology. It’s supposed to work the other way, I know. The older I get, the more I’m supposed to kvetch and complain about all those dang, newfangled whatchamacallits that were supposed to make our lives easier but ended up making them more complicated and unmanageable. Sorry, but I can’t go there. I love a strong cell signal and a big, fat data pipe that will stream any video and transmit any file I want without a moment’s hesitation. I love having instant access to information about anything, anytime I need it.
I stumbled upon the Italian town of Biassa quite by accident while looking for rooms to rent in the famed cinque Terre— five pastel-colored towns built along the cliffs of Liguria—and I knew right away that the town would be perfect. While I love Italy in the summertime, full of laughter, sunshine, and gelato, I also crave peace and quiet, to get away from the crowds and experience something authentic, something all my own.
I turn off the Pan-American Highway and start up a gentle slope. Well-maintained and brightly-painted homes with gardens full of vivid blue hydrangeas line the fences on either side of the roadway. Mango trees, heavy with almost glowing green and red fruit, loom above. Ten minutes later I’m in the heart of the village. There is a picturesque little white church with a tidy park in front. Children in pressed uniforms file out of their classrooms at the school down the road. Passers-by hail me with a hearty Buenas Tardes as they walk by. I’m in Miramar, a small town in the hills about an hour west of the country’s capital San José. It’s just a 10-minute drive from the Pacific coast. That must be why the garlic seafood dish I ordered at an open-air restaurant in the center of town tasted so fresh…and was just $6.50 for a heaping plate of clams, calamari, fish, and shrimp, with sides of salad and French fries.
Sherry production, horse-breeding, and flamenco…those are the three things Jerez de la Frontera does best. But after recently spending a month in this authentically Andalusian city, I think it should also be known for its low cost of living. Just a 10-minute drive inland from Spain’s southern Atlantic coast, Jerez has plenty of authentic Spanish charm combined with a comfortable, First World lifestyle. The historic center, with its cobbled streets, medieval monuments, and 18th-century buildings is compact and packed with plenty of cafes, bars, and stores. This was where I rented an apartment, so almost everyplace I wanted to visit—monuments, museums, and sherry bodegas—was within a 10- to 15-minute walk of my building. And that building was an 18th-century palace, with marble floors and a peaceful central courtyard. I paid just $800 a month for my furnished, one-bedroom apartment.
I stayed in a jungle paradise recently. Every morning I woke up to the sound of toucans and howler monkeys hanging out in the tropical hardwoods around my simple cabin. If you’ve never heard them, toucans have a sort of high-pitched call that’s a cross between a whistle and a laugh. Howlers…well, they issue a guttural roar much too loud than should be coming from such a small monkey.
Each time I visit Quito, I get to explore new and interesting areas, hear of fabulous events taking place, and meet more wonderful people. Among Quito’s 2-million-plus populace is a large community of international folks enjoying the affordable life and big-city buzz. You’ll find them pretty spread out, as there are neighborhoods and lifestyles to suit most tastes. But they’re all making the most of what Quito offers…which is a lot. Here’s some of my favorite things to do…