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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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.
The first time I visited the small, colonial town of Las Tablas, I was there for one reason only: to party it up Panamanian style. I’d heard that the yearly Carnival celebration here rivaled Louisiana’s Mardi Gras, and I wanted to see for myself. The festivities did not disappoint. Everything was loud and raucous and colorful…and wonderfully so. Gorgeous Carnival queens danced on floats that had been crafted into big intricate displays. People were dancing in the streets and offering me drinks. Craziest of all, big fire hoses were being used to douse revelers with cool water…so at high noon when the sun shone hot and strong, the party didn’t stop.
Erdi Knezic and her husband were ready for a change. They were both born and raised in Wisconsin. They had a profitable company that made molded plastic parts for cars and successful careers, but they were fed up with the extreme cold weather of the northern states. “I told Jerry if you don’t get me outta here, I won’t make it through another winter,” says Erdi. And so Jerry did just that… First the couple moved to Florida. But “we read International Living and liked the idea of moving overseas,” Erdi says. “We considered Costa Rica. But then we came to Panama and we really liked Chiriquí Province. It reminded us of the rural countryside in Wisconsin.”
When you come from San Diego, California, most people think, “You are already in paradise, why would you ever leave?” But after traveling throughout Thailand and Malaysia, Ron Bond fell in love with Koh Samui, Thailand. So he went home, tied up loose ends, and moved there three months later. Back in the States, Ron had it all: a booming hypnotherapy business, a beautiful home near the beach, and great friends and family. But he also had a severe back problem that left him constantly needing prescription drugs to manage the pain.
Gary lost his job as a producer selling commercial printing after 30 years with the same company. Louise says, “It was terrifying; we went from a very livable income to nothing in a matter of minutes.” Fortunately, as a stay-at-home mom, Louise had set up a lighting business several years before Gary’s job loss. “Gary joined me and we expanded my little business into a very lucrative lighting business. We designed and manufactured the most wonderful, whimsical lighting.”
A little distance away from Ecuador’s famed colonial city of Cuenca lies a small city that you might never have heard of…but which is rapidly becoming a retiree favorite. Just about an hour away from Cuenca, you’ll find Paute, a destination with a population of about 30,000 people—a tenth of Cuenca’s population. It’s fast becoming known as “Little Cuenca” as more “Norte Americanos” are finding their way to the outskirts of the city with its laidback lifestyle. Randy and Karen Kimbler are just two of the expats who are enjoying the slower pace of life in Paute.
For most of history, home was simply where you were born. It was your tribe. Your family. Your community—big or small. It wasn’t really something you chose. But today, you have more freedom to go your own way. You can—more easily than ever—travel the planet and find a place you’re always glad to come back to. In short, in an increasingly-globalized world, home really can be where the heart is—not just where you end up by default. I could delve into the reasons for this—air travel, the Internet, globalization. But you already know the world is getting smaller, easier to travel, easier to navigate.
When I think about my winter in Italy, I think of cobblestone alleyways sparkling with rain, mist-shrouded cathedrals in the “hill country,” days spent with tourist attractions almost all to myself, and a pleasant chill in the air—cool, but not too cold. I based myself, during my five winter weeks in Italy, in the mid-sized university town of Perugia, which is the capital of Umbria, Tuscany’s lesser known but just-as-lovely neighbor. It’s a place of rolling hills, world-famous wines, and postcard-perfect mountain towns. Because Umbria is nestled in between Tuscany (where you will, of course, find pretty, popular Florence, as well as a sunflower-dotted countryside that has inspired writers, artists, and tourists alike) and Lazio (the region that houses historic, grandiose Rome), it was the perfect place to do a little exploring.
It’s hard not to smile a lot when you live in Cotacachi, Ecuador. Take, for example, my walk through the leather-boutique-laden main street this morning. I strolled a total of five blocks and encountered more familiar faces than I could count. Alberto, a local landscaper, greeted me with a “Buenos dias, Señora Wendy” as he zipped by on his well-used bicycle. My Canadian friends Brian and Janette stopped to chat for a few minutes and catch up. As we finished our discussion I heard a shouted “Hola, Wendy.” I turned to see one of my regular cab drivers, Richar, rolling by in his freshly washed yellow taxi, arm out the window and wide grin on his face.
Eighteen years ago along with my whole family, I moved from Colorado to Ecuador. Most people thought we were crazy, but that decision opened my eyes to a beautiful world and changed my life forever…for the better! It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with Ecuador…especially with our new home town of Tena. There is a vibe about Tena, a feeling of youth, fun, and adventure. That atmosphere is contagious and impossible to shake. It’s rather like a hip beach town…except instead of the ocean we have rivers, instead of sand we have jungle, and instead of surfers we have kayakers. The laidback lifestyle is one of my favorite things about Tena and about Ecuador as a whole.
I’ll be honest; Cuenca, Ecuador was not my number one retirement destination—it was Italy. My husband, Mark, and I lived there for six years in our 20s and 30s, our older son was born there, and it was the birthplace of Mark’s grandparents. Yes, I married into one big, loud, happy Italian family. It was the best of times—la dolce vita—a life of pleasure and simple luxuries. And what a life we had there…living in a villa on the Mediterranean…enjoying fresh fish and pasta every day…taking walks along the “lungomare” (seafront)…and watching spectacular sunsets from our terrazza every evening. I desperately wanted it all back when we retired at 55. But then we discovered Cuenca, Ecuador while doing an Internet search for the best places in the world to retire. Mark made his first exploratory trip in February of 2010 without me.
The best ways of life have been preserved in the heartland of Panama. You’ll still see ladies sitting on patios grinding fresh corn for fritters or embroidering traditional dresses known as polleras. And, instead of spending their days in front of the family TV, kids play outdoors in the fresh air. This rural region is like something out of a picture book. The small towns in the area usually boast a neatly whitewashed church, small bakeries selling pastries for 30 cents, and colorful little boats lining uncrowded beaches. One of the best of those towns, Pedasí, is also one of the world’s greatest fishing destinations. In that town, a small expat community is thriving alongside locals who value the simple pleasures of life: Sundays spent wading out into the clear waters of the Pacific…so warm here in the tropics.
As a time to reflect on the past and envision the future, New Year is unrivaled among holidays. Especially in the northern climes, where the holiday coincides roughly with the Winter Solstice and the shortest day of the year, New Year is an important spot on the seasonal cycle. The nights are as long and the days are as short as they’re going to get… It’s all uphill, sunlight-wise, from there on. So it’s a time of hope, of renewal, of looking forward.
Imagine waking up every morning to catch the sun gloriously rising over the shimmering Caribbean Sea…that’s exactly how Peter Nolan, and his wife Lesley, begin their days on Ambergris Caye in Belize. From their second-floor deck, strong cup of tea in hand, they greet each day taking in the sunrise and breathing in fresh, healthy sea air. Any afternoon they can stroll out to the end of the dock near their home and relax under a palapa, with a good book, surrounded by shimmering aquamarine waters. They often meet their friends under the palapa, where they chat and enjoy the cooling sea breeze. On other days they jump right in and enjoy the crystal-clear, 82-degree water and cavort amongst the brightly colored tropical fish…
Love Europe but think you can’t afford it? Think again. I recently spent some time in Portugal and was wowed by the low prices. In Portugal, you can enjoy a low cost of living similar to that in Latin America’s more developed countries…with all the benefits of European life thrown in. For instance, you can get a sit-down lunch for about $15. You can grab a sandwich for less than $5 that’s big enough for two…but why bother? As in many Latin countries, lunch is generally a proper meal in Portugal, and you can get two courses, sometimes with beverage, starting from about $10. Or have dinner in a family-style restaurant for just a little more. Like wine with that meal? No problem. You can get a glass of wine in many restaurants for $4 or so…or half a bottle for about $7. Portugal is a wine-producing country, after all, and the local product is good, plentiful, and inexpensive.
There are many low-cost places to retire to in Panama. For those who enjoy the slower pace of rural living, Chiriquí Province, where I live, offers a delightful climate, easy convenience, and a quality lifestyle in an affordable retirement destination. While the city of David offers all the amenities of a good-sized city and the town of Boquete is a favored expat haven, some of the smaller towns in the area combine access to these desirable features with a lower cost of living. Dolega is one such small town in Chiriquí Province in western Panama. The four-lane highway that runs north and south between David and Boquete runs right through Dolega, so it’s easy to find. A new pedestrian overpass marks the main turnoff into town, at the Municipal Palace, shaded by a gigantic mango tree. Dolega is the administrative seat of the district of the same name, which encompasses a total of nine towns such as Los Anastacios, Dos Rios, Los Algarrobos and Potrerillos.
When it comes to telecommunications and technology, there’s not a country in the region that compares to Panama. This tiny powerhouse has long been recognized as a telecommunications hub, as five of the world’s major fiber optic cables intersect here. Land line and later cell phone calls were top notch here from the get-go, thanks to Panama’s outstanding infrastructure. And when the world entered the age of high-speed Internet, Panama went to great lengths to not only keep up, but be at the forefront.
I’m a beach girl—I love the sun, sand and surf. A few years ago I had a choice: to never be able to retire in the U.S. because it was too expensive, or retire 11 years earlier than planned and live in a tropical paradise, free of stress and close to the ocean, my favorite place to be. Nicaragua called me and the coastal town of San Juan del Sur captured me. In San Diego there was no possibility of ever living near a beach. I’d never have the millions necessary. But here in San Juan del Sur, I was able to buy a small, two-bedroom/two-bathroom house for $132,000…with an ocean view. My friends can’t understand how I keep so busy in a beach town the size of a stamp (the main part of town covers three square blocks), but I’m doing things that I’d never have done back in California.
Ecuador makes it to the top of the list for many people who are considering a move abroad. Climate, cost of living, culture, and ease of obtaining residence are some of the reasons often cited. But an often overlooked benefit is the potential for improved health due to a better diet. Most expats in Ecuador find themselves eating much more fresh produce than they did back home and the reason can be summed up in two words—variety and availability. While Ecuador does have supermarkets, every town has a centrally located farmer’s market. This is where most people prefer to shop, especially for produce. And the reason is simple. The variety of fruits and vegetables is great quality and prices are typically a fraction of what you’d pay back home. In addition, because of the climate, fresh produce is available year-round. This reduces or eliminates the need to buy frozen or canned foods.
So you’ve decided to move to Costa Rica. Now you have to figure out how to get yourself, your stuff, your pets…your life…down to your new home in the tropics. It may seem overwhelming. But keep in mind that this country has been a haven for retirees and other expats for more than 30 years and tens of thousands of people have gone through the process just fine and are enjoying their new lives in Costa Rica. It’s a well-trodden path and there are services in place and strategies that have been perfected over the years…so your transition will be easier than that of the trailblazers who came before you.
If you are thinking about taking a trip to Southeast Asia, and if you aren’t you should be, then here are the 10 most beautiful natural attractions that you can add to your Southeast Asian bucket list. The only people that seem to know about this stunningly picturesque island are Malaysians, and they’d like to keep it that way. Unfortunately I’ve been and I think it’s about time that we lifted the veil and told you about it.
When visiting Costa Rica during a scouting trip, your goal is to figure out which region suits you and your lifestyle best. Even though it’s a small country, about the size of West Virginia, there are many different climates and lifestyles in each area. You might also be trying to determine if the country as a whole is the best fit at all. So you owe it to yourself to get the most out of your journey by gathering as much useful information about your possible new home country. Here are some tips to make for an educational—and fun—scouting trip to Costa Rica.
This year marks the centennial of the opening of the Panama Canal, and celebrations are taking place throughout the year. The first boat to make the ocean-to-ocean transit of the canal was the SS Ancon on Aug. 15, 1914. Most visitors who come to Panama make a point of seeing the canal, usually at the Miraflores Locks just outside of Panama City, or the Gatun Locks, just west of Colon city. Personally, I can think of no better way to honor and enjoy this wonder of the modern world than to see it at eye level and take a boat trip on the Panama Canal. The complete transit takes about nine hours, passing through three sets of locks. There are a number of ways to do this, and no matter which one you choose it will be a memorable experience.