We all dream of one day retiring to a tropical paradise, buying a second home in a quaint beach town where it's summer all year round, or relocating our lives to an island in the sun. But it can be more than just a dream…your tropical island or beach life can be a reality.
If you like the idea of getting away from it all on an island surrounded by crystal-clear waters, where the pace of life is slow and the lifestyle affordable…or would like to be near a beach that has all the amenities you could wish for…or perhaps you’d like a tropical climate where you can throw away your winter clothes and live year-round in a sunny paradise. Whatever your dream looks like, there are plenty of destinations that can match it.
In countries like Belize, Uruguay, Panama and the Dominican Republic you can live an affordable lifestyle. In these tropical paradises, your dollar will go further and you can live a better life for a lot less that you might imagine.
Find out more about tropical destinations around the world—where you can be by the beach, enjoy perfect weather, sip cocktails while swinging in your hammock, and generally lead a laid-back and stress-free lifestyle. Sign up for IL’s free daily postcards in the box below and we’ll also send you a FREE REPORT: The World’s Best Island, Beach and Tropical Retirement Destinations. (We value your privacy. You can unsubscribe at any time.)
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Just south of the busy beach resort town of Jaco on the coastal highway is one of Costa Rica’s hidden gems. Esterillos is a quiet community (there are actually three sections: Esterillos Este, Esterillos Centro, and Esterillos Oeste) that a small but significant group of expats have come to call home. Laid-back beach living is the name of the game. No big hotels, no tall condos…not much development at all, although it is a popular weekend destination for Costa Ricans who live inland. You can walk the beach for miles and not see many other people. During the week, your only companions will likely be surfers and fisherman.
Her hands move in a rhythmic, soothing motion across my back, releasing any tension or stress, and loosening tight muscles. I lay face down on the massage table in a deep state of relaxation. “Ahh, this is the life.” After our massages, my husband, Fred, and I stroll through Nosara, a coastal town on the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica, and stop off to eat some fresh fruit from a local stand and a hearty meal of local fare—chicken, rice, and beans—at a small street-side restaurant. Our feet take us in the direction of the beach. Shoes come off, toes dig into warm, soft sand. They continue moving until bathed in the bath-water warm waves of the Pacific Ocean.
Eighteen years ago Penny Sue Leonard visited Belize for the first time, on an assignment to teach nursing practices at hospitals. She was so impressed that a year later she left Orlando, Florida, and permanently moved to Punta Gorda in the south of Belize. “Something drew me in. The fact that it is so far off the beaten path. I fell for this part of Belize. I already loved the whole country, but Punta Gorda just pulled at me.” While she was initially attracted by Belize’s beauty and the warm waters of the Caribbean, another big draw for Penny was that English is the primary language. And the lifestyle in Punta Gorda is affordable. “It is so much less expensive to live here than in the U.S.,” she says.
With spiraling costs compelling more and more North Americans to retire overseas, retiring abroad has never been more attractive. But finding the right location among the myriad options available can be daunting. That’s what our Annual Global Retirement Index does. Using input from our team of correspondents on the ground all over the world, we combine real-world insights about climate, health care, cost of living, and much more to draw up a comprehensive list of the best bang-for-your buck retirement destinations on the planet. Keep in mind that, even though only 25 countries feature on our list, all of them are worth your attention. We selected them from among all the countries in the world for their qualities as retirement hot-spots, so even the lowest-ranked nation on our index is still very much an option worth considering.
“Rio de Janeiro.” The name alone conjures up images of broad beaches populated by impossibly beautiful people. But while everyone has heard of Rio, far fewer know that “The Marvelous City” lies in a state of the same name. Rio de Janeiro state, though small in size, is geographically quite diverse. Mountains parallel the coastline, sometimes veering down into the sea. Broad swaths of the original mata Atlântica (Atlantic forest)—one of the most biodiverse areas in the world—still blanket the hillsides. Scores of lakes and lagoons lie within sight of the shimmering South Atlantic. Majestic beaches stretch literally for miles; others lie sheltered in secluded coves, accessible only by boat. Tantalizing palm-studded islands, most uninhabited, await the more adventurous.
Located on Spain’s popular Costa del Sol, Málaga is clean and bright, with a pedestrian-only city center and a revamped harbor. The city is brimming with museums, great dining, and plenty of shopping to suit all tastes and budgets. The best of “old” Málaga is well preserved. The city, with its miles of seashore, is cheerful and vibrant, oozing trademark Andalusian charm. Year-round the sun shines and winter temperatures are balmy (days average 63 F in January). Sea breezes blow off the Mediterranean, cooling the hotter summer days. “Málaga remains a very Spanish city, even in the prime tourist areas. Here you can enjoy big-city life with laidback charm,” says InternationalLiving.com editor Glynna Prentice.
The low cost of living in Belize means a couple can live well on $2,000 to $3,000 or less a month. Established expat communities make for a ready supply of new friends, and it’s English-speaking, even if it’s the second or even third language for many locals. (I spoke only English during my time there and had no issues.) Plus, it’s easy to get to from North America, thanks to daily flights.
Punta Blanca is a beautiful, exclusive area on Ecuador’s southern Pacific coast. Only about a four-hour drive from colonial Cuenca, where I live, Punta Blanca has a super-convenient location 30 minutes north of Salinas, the country’s most developed resort area, and 30 minutes south of the always happening party town of Montanita. Because Punta Blanca is residential, you need a vehicle to get there and to get around, as there are no stores or restaurants within walking distance. Rentals are available, and visitors are treated to a gorgeous and isolated beachfront experience with lots of activities and amenities nearby.
Costa Rica is a small country, about the size of West Virginia. Overall, you’ll find a low cost of living (many retired expat couples I meet live well on around $2,000 a month)…top-notch, low-cost medical care…friendly people—the national motto is Pura Vida, which translates to “life is good”…and bargain real estate—you can rent from $300 a month and up and find North America-style homes for $150,000 or less. But tiny Costa Rica has a tremendous variety of climates, lifestyles, and landscapes within its borders: bustling beach resorts, quiet fishing villages, high mountain towns, vast farmlands, looming volcanoes, lush rainforests, isolated rural areas…
Scott and Michelle Lyons planned to move to Mexico when their kids went to college. But when Michelle went on a cruise that stopped in Belize…their plans changed. “When I discovered that English was the language in Belize, I knew I had found something that would work for us,” says Michelle. The impossibly blue waters, soft sandy beaches, and wonderfully warm climate of beautiful Belize also helped win the couple over. From the sparkling sea filled with palm-lined islands to the verdant jungles teeming with wildlife, Belize beckoned with an enticing blend of relaxation and adventure…a tropical paradise.
This postcard is a special delivery, direct from Belize’s Placencia Peninsula. I’m on an editorial assignment in the Stann Creek District and I have to admit, life seldom is sweeter than this! After spending the better part of Monday flying and driving, I arrived at my destination—near Maya Beach—anxious to settle in and check out our friends’ beach home. Also prominent in my mind was which of the many recommended restaurants we’d pick for that night’s meal. But we’ll return to that topic later… The next day, after a solid night’s sleep, I walked out onto our bedroom veranda to behold a cloudless, brillian t blue sky, the sun’s rays reflecting off a sea surface as smooth as glass. In other words, the perfect day to explore the beach…
Belize’s Placencia Peninsula is 17 miles of white sands, blue Caribbean waters, and gently swaying palms. The paving of the road the length of the peninsula has opened it up for development, with homes and condos ranging from luxury to affordable.
At 2,800 years old, Málaga is one of the oldest cities in the world. Founded by the Phoenicians in about 770 BCE, it’s been inhabited by half-a-dozen major civilizations since then. As a result, it offers plenty for the history buff. Just past the Roman amphitheater is the Alcazaba, the medieval Moorish quarter. And you can take a bus up to the Gibralfaro, the Moorish-era fortress sitting above the city that offers one of the best views around.
Costa Rica is one of the most popular and well-known vacation, second-home, and retirement destinations for North Americans. Though a small country, Costa Rica’s regions offer a wide variety of climate, lifestyle, and landscape. And renting in Costa Rica is a great way to experience day-to-day life while looking for your own place under the tropical sun. Much of Costa Rica’s lush tropical forests and sun-splashed shoreline has been designated as national parkland or reserve. Costa Rica is rapidly approaching carbon-neutral status in energy production and emissions, and its health care system is one of the most affordable and highly rated in the world.
Happily, the best of the “old” Málaga remains, as well. The sun still shines, there are miles of seaside, winter temperatures are balmy (days average 63 F in January), and sea breezes still blow off the Mediterranean, cooling the hot summer days. And Málaga is still cheerful and vibrant, oozing its trademark Andalusian charm. Best of all, it remains a very Spanish city, even in the prime tourist areas. So if you enjoy big-city life with laidback charm and a side of seashore, give Málaga a whirl. You can even get by in English.
Bill Schuler spent a good 20 years working as a tech consultant in and around Minnesota’s twin cities. After devoting much of his life to his career and dealing with frigid Midwestern winters, Bill decided it was time for a change. In July 2012 he left his U.S. home and planted his feet in Ecuador. “I love mountains and was looking for that type of environment, and I was getting pretty tired of the cold winters,” says Bill. These days he doesn’t need a snow shovel, and his life of retirement in the northern Andes gives him just what he was looking for. He has daily views of majestic volcanoes, with a rocky river running through the gully below his house. Snow is nowhere to be found.
I’ve never seen such blue water as the Caribbean in Belize. I couldn’t keep my eyes off it, whether I was cruising around by boat, watching tiny islets fade into the distance… swinging in a hammock strung between two palms on the beach…or beating that tropical heat with a cold Belikin beer in the shade of a palm frond-roofed beach bar. Belize has a lot to offer those seeking a new life abroad. The low cost of living means a couple can live well on $2,000 to $3,000 or less a month.
I wasn’t asking for much when I went in search of the perfect place to live. All I wanted was white-sand beaches giving way to crystal-clear tropical seas. For variety, I wanted a choice between a beachfront café, with mellow music playing in the background, and an empty beach where the only sounds are birds chirping and waves lapping against the shore. Oh, and the beaches had to be within easy reach of each other, and I needed to be able to live well on a small budget.
Better weather and a low cost of living makes Ecuador a great option for retirement, and recent improvements to the immigration process now makes it even easier to gain residence in Ecuador. Ecuadorian lawyer Santiago Andrade says: “President Correa’s administration has improved many of the bureaucratic processes, and business and immigration is not the exemption to this change. I have seen an improvement in the timing of the residence visa process. In the past a visa took around 30 to 45 days to be approved; now it takes two to three weeks.”
Born in snowy but beautiful New Hampshire, as a child I spent many cold and unpleasant winters in northern New England. Like most other kids from the area, I spent a lot of time stuck indoors, watching TV during those long winters… Hardly surprising that, by the age of 18, the palm trees of Hollywood started looking good to me. But in reality, it wasn’t the place for me; the Pacific Ocean in Southern California and neighboring Baja was still a tad too cool for my tastes. Eventually the tropics beckoned me further south. After exploring the magnificent mountains of Colombia, and both coasts, I was hooked on Central and South America.
Ron and Debbie Goehring consider every single aspect of their lives better in Nicaragua than in their hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “We eat home-grown food, exercise, volunteer in our local community, and live a simple and fulfilling life immersed in the local culture. We have never regretted our decision to retire in Nicaragua.” Both teachers, they were travelers from the start. “Throughout our married life, we explored the U.S. and traveled abroad extensively. When it was time to retire, we wanted something quirky, inexpensive, and adventurous, with a simplified lifestyle—abroad. Nicaragua fit the bill.”
With 4,655 miles of coastline, Brazil boasts scores of lovely beach towns. One of my favorites is the small city of Cabo Frio (pop. 200,000), which lies in the Região dos Lagos (Lakes Region) northeast of Rio de Janeiro. Cabo is a popular getaway for residents of Rio, which is quite a recommendation. Cabo is located two hours by good roads from Rio and Galeão International Airport. Sandwiched between the South Atlantic and Araruama Lagoon, Cabo offers a range of water activities, from laid-back to exhilarating. The principle beach is Praia do Forte, or Fort Beach, named for Fort São Mateus at its extreme eastern end, built between 1616 and 1620 to safeguard these waters from the French and other interlopers. Praia do Forte sprawls wide and unbroken for more than four miles.
I’ve never seen so much green…and in so many shades and variations. The tall, jungle-covered mountains of Costa Rica’s Southern Zone dominate the landscape. And many locals and long-time expats say they enjoy these mountain views even more than the ocean, thanks to the lush vegetation that covers them. This region, on the southern Pacific coast, is a land of empty beaches, wild Pacific waters, those tall mountains dropping to brief lowlands before turning to a strip of sand, and then blue ocean.
When it comes to the ideal beach lifestyle abroad, many expats look to Koh Samui in Thailand where the palm-lined beaches, azure ocean, year-round tropical weather, and affordable costs make for ultra-easy living. Just an hour-and-a-half flight from the Thai capital of Bangkok, this popular spot offers something for everyone, whether you dream of a tranquil seaside retreat or prefer frequent nights out on the town. You can access quality health care, where a basic doctor’s visit costs as little as $20, and there’s plenty to keep you busy—from yoga and Pilates to salsa dancing and bridge club—when you’re not soaking up the sun on one of the island’s many beaches.
Ecuador offers the world’s best climate choices in its four distinct regions, from Amazonian rainforests in the east (El Oriente) to warm coastal lowlands (La Costa) in the west and the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles offshore. The Andes Mountains cut right down the middle of the country from north to south, and in this La Sierra region you’ll find the temperate weather patterns that give Ecuador its status as the “Land of Eternal Spring.”
After years of working hard, I’ve traded Michigan’s four seasons for Belize’s two (wet & dry)…and I’m loving it. Now, I’m enjoying Belize’s year-round greenness, the chance to be by the water all the time, and the joy I’ve found in simplifying my life. In Michigan, I worked for 20 years as a consultant for our state’s educational department. Before that, I worked for Michigan State University. When I left, I gave away a closet-full of suits and I’m reveling in the freedom of wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops for nearly every occasion. No more ironing, no more dry cleaning, and no more bundling up for me!
It isn’t hard to understand the love affair expats have with the little island that I’m happy to call home: the blue skies and turquoise seas, the endless sunshine, and lush, jungle-covered hills. It’s a love affair that continues to suck more North Americans and Europeans into its vortex. Those expats who live on the island of Roatán will tell you they couldn’t stand another harsh winter, or another day in their fluorescently lit office, or yet another advertisement telling them what else is missing in their lives. Roatán offers an escape from all that.
There are many reasons why people choose to move from the U.S. to sunnier climes abroad. Often, it’s for health reasons…sometimes for pure economic necessity—stretching retirement dollars as far as possible. But my wife Ann and I are fortunate enough that we are here in Salinas, Ecuador just because we want to be. We met in 2009…and quickly knew we wanted a new adventure overseas. Both widowed and with our adult children all married and raising their own children we figured life is precious; why not try to do something a little different?
Before settling in David in western Panama in 2009, I lived aboard my sailboat, Carina, for 16 years. My husband and I sailed the western Caribbean and we still have many friends among the cruising community. Although Panama has miles of coastline, it has few marine facilities for small boats. If you’re looking for a safe harbor to dock your boat in Panama, here are the stand-out marinas to visit.
Costa Rica is a great place for retirees for many reasons. Think warm weather year-round, bargain real estate (foreigners have the same property rights as locals), friendly people, the Pura Vida (life is good) vibe, and low-cost but high-quality health care. Plus, it’s easy to qualify for residence as a retiree with the pensionado program. All you need is $1,000 per month per couple from Social Security, disability, or a pension.
Twenty years ago, when I first visited Málaga, it was the ugly stepsister of Spain’s Costa del Sol: a little scruffy and down-at-heels (though with gloriously sunny weather and a seaside location). So it was pure pleasure to return last summer and find it transformed into a Cinderella: one of Spain’s most livable—and affordable—cities for coastal living. Today’s Málaga is clean and bright, with a pedestrian-only city center and a revamped harbor area that is a joy to stroll. The city is brimming with museums, great dining, and plenty of shopping to suit all tastes and budgets.
In Ecuador, you’ll not only be in the middle of the world, but you could be on top of it. That’s because thanks to its location on the equatorial “bulge,” the peak of the country’s 20,564-foot Mt. Chimborazo is the point on the Earth’s surface that’s the farthest from the Earth’s core and closest to the sun. There truly is something for everyone here. Mountains, beaches, rainforests, cities, and small towns…all with a price tag nearly anyone can afford. By the way, Ecuador’s currency is the U.S. dollar—no currency conversions necessary.
I’ve never seen so much green…and in so many shades and variations. The tall, jungle-covered mountains of Costa Rica’s Southern Zone dominate the landscape. And many locals and long-time expats say they enjoy these mountain views even more than the ocean, thanks to the lush vegetation that covers them. This region, on the southern Pacific coast, is a land of extremes. Empty beaches, wild Pacific waters, those tall mountains dropping to brief lowlands before turning to a strip of sand, and then blue ocean.
It was 10 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. I had just finished drinking a cappuccino with a friend at a local café. Now, I was going to meet a client and spend about an hour getting them set up in their vacation rental. Then I would go back to my home office to spend another 30 minutes or so answering emails.
A relatively small town (about 10,000 people) set on a grid, Corozal is mostly a collection of small shops, restaurants, and simple homes. But this is a bustling burg, with walkways and parks lining the vast, turquoise Corozal Bay. The bay gives it that Caribbean feel. Locals lounge in the shade of the town square, and in the small farmers’ market you’ll find oranges, potatoes, carrots, and succulent mangoes. You can walk away with a week’s worth of fruit and vegetables, plus dry goods and any imported must-haves available at local grocery stores, for under $50.
“My dream was always to live on the beach with palm trees,” says Peter Ottinger. “And here on Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula the climate is an endless summer.” A far cry from snowy winters back home. “When I first moved here, to Santa Teresa, it was a very small community. In the beginning there were hardly any foreigners. But since 2004, it’s grown a lot,” says Peter. “Now we have a very international community.” It’s a booming haven of backpackers and even mainstream travelers in search of a laid-back and bohemian off-the-beaten path beach destination.
Everyone loves the beach…the feel of warm sand between your toes…the sound of waves lapping on the shore…happy people laughing, playing, and relaxing all around you. Some folks love the beach so much they can’t bear to leave. They want to head down there every morning and spend each day close to the ocean. All very well, you say, but you have to do something to pay the bills, right?
Water taxis, essentially small high-speed ferries, are a great way to travel from mainland Belize to the offshore islands, Ambergris Caye, the most visited spot in the country, and laid-back Caye Caulker to south. You can also travel to remote spots around Ambergris, between islands, and even as far as the town of Chetumal, in Mexico. Travelers often fly in to the international airport in Belize City, take a cab to the ferry landing of one of the two major companies Caye Caulker Water Taxi and San Pedro Belize Express, and then motor over to the islands.
“We were frustrated with extremely long, cold winters, high Canadian taxes, and we were weary of the rat race.” So says Denise Patrick, who—along with her husband Neil—moved to the beach community of Coronado—just 90 minutes from Panama City. The couple first fell in love with Coronado when they spent a vacation there in November 2010—so much so, in fact, that they decided on the flight home to sell their house and belongings.
We were sitting in a rustic beach bar in the small town of Puerto Morelos on Mexican’s Mayan Riviera sampling what the bartender promised was the best margarita in town. The temperature was about 85 F and the ever-present sea breeze was wafting in from the Caribbean. Shore birds were circling overhead in a cloudless blue sky.