Foliage presses up against the perfect, charcoal gray road. Though this time of year is known as the “rainy season” in Panama, the sky in this region is a powerful blue, and the sun is shining hot and strong. It’s quiet, and I pass very few cars…and perhaps just as many horses. For my recent scouting trip I drove the five hours from Panama City to Pedasí, a town of about 2,500. It’s a place that’s been growing in comfort and convenience— slowly but surely—since 2004. Over the past couple years in particular, it has become a burgeoning expat hub. Still, it remains a place where a couple can live on $1,300 a month including rent, and as little as $950 if they own.
I’ve lived in David, in western Panama, for five years. My husband Al and I came for the great climate, the easy living and affordable costs, and the rich variety of things to keep us busy. But as we get older that’s not enough…we also need access to good health care. Well, I’m here to tell you that you can find the best of care at a fraction of what you’ll pay back in the U.S. Your doctors will often speak English, and they are far easier to access than back home, too.
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.
The original Riviera (from the Italian word for “seashore”) sprang up in southern France and the bordering region of Italy. Upper-crust Brits, northern Europeans, and—later—well-heeled Americans flocked here for the beach resorts, casinos, and parties. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald had a villa here in the Jazz Age, although it’s said he was a horrible party guest. The term riviera has been adopted by regions all over the world, in places where the sun, surf, and vacation vibe live on. And when we hit the new-school rivieras in the developing world, expect to get a real bang for your real estate buck.
Recently, I was talking to some IL readers. They’d heard about Panama’s mountainous Chiriquí Province and had a lot of great questions for me. One, in particular, gave me pause. “If you had to pick the one best place to live in all of Chiriquí, where would it be?” asked a retired gentleman from Saskatchewan. “Well,” I mused, “for me it would be about halfway between David and Boquete, because it’s just right.” Take the climate: Boquete, an area that is particularly popular with expats, rests on the slope of the Baru Volcano at about 4,000 feet elevation.
When Harry and Barbara Jones were planning their retirement abroad, they had several countries in mind based on their research: Panama, Costa Rica, Belize, and Ecuador. They scouted Costa Rica first because they had been years ago on a cruise and were impressed with the country. After that first trip, they never made it anywhere else. The warm and friendly people, the low cost of living, and the natural beauty sold them. The couple, from Charlotte, North Carolina, at first looked at property on the beach but weren’t fans of the heat and humidity. So they headed inland and up into the mountains of the Central Valley, specifically the town of Grecia.
A tour of Chiriquí Province will take you from Panama’s highest point, 11,440 feet at the peak of Baru Volcano, to sea level and sandy beaches along the Gulf of Chiriquí. You’ll find 20,000-plus expats living throughout the province. Whether you prefer the beach or the mountains, living in town or out in the country, bright sunshine or cool cloud cover, Chiriquí offers you a choice… For instance,the near-perfect climate is one of the main reasons as many as 12,000 expats now call the town and district of Boquete home. Its elevation of 3,940 feet on the eastern slope of Baru Volcano means normally cool temperatures around 80 F in the daytime and 60 F at night, with frequent misty rain called bajareque.
Although world-renowned for its idyllic Caribbean beaches, Belize has a lot more to offer than just sun, sea, and sand. For a country smaller than most U.S. states, it harbors incredible diversity. Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker define the words “island paradise.” You can explore the exotic jungles of the Cayo District or relax in the thriving expat hub of Placencia. Plus, the country’s growing expat communities makes it easy to make new friends. Other factors play their part: The low cost of living ensures comfort on a budget, daily flights from North America make it easy to get back home, and Belize is English-speaking, meaning there’s no problem mixing with the welcoming locals.
When you imagine how a retiree might spend her time in the highlands of Panama, you probably don’t imagine her opening a gym and fitness center. But at age 64, that’s exactly what Bonnie Jach did when she moved to Boquete in Chiriquí Province. Bonnie’s love of travel and adventure began at a young age. “I’m originally from Wisconsin,” she says. “When I was 20, I joined the Peace Corps. I’ve always loved new and exciting places. Even though I like the States very much, I knew I wanted to live overseas.”
One of the things that Richard Meyer enjoys most about his bakery in Boquete, Panama, is that he gets to be his own boss. “I grew up in Denver and I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 12,” says Richard, now age 47. “As a chef, baker, and pastry chef, I create both sweet and savory dishes, and now I get to decide what’s on the menu.” Richard and his Panamanian wife, Yarina, found their premises for rent on Craigslist.
Ecuador offers sophisticated historical cities…miles of unspoiled, sun-kissed beaches…fertile farmland…and temperate mountain hideaways…and all of it for pennies on the dollar. You can live well for a fraction of the cost of living back in the U.S. And with Ecuador’s official currency the U.S. dollar, you needn’t worry about currency calculations or exchange risks. And real estate costs? They’re among the lowest we’ve found anywhere in the world.
Belize Insider is a way for you to access all the insider secrets of the Caribbean’s best-value buy today.
It’s a place where you can retire that’s just a two-hour flight from Miami. The weather is perfect, the skies are impossibly blue, and the warm sea is a shimmering turquoise…
In Belize… the last affordable destination in the Caribbean, you can ditch your watch, your shoes, your cares. All you really need is a hat, a bathing suit and a T-shirt or two…
What’s it like to win a free month abroad to test-drive your retirement in some exotic location? Mike and Susan Herron know… they’re this year’s winners of International Living’s Win Your Dream Retirement Overseas contest. If you haven’t seen Mike and Susan’s audition tape for the contest you really should… You can see it here. It won Mike and Susan a month in Coronado, Panama on International Living’s dime, and as you’ll hear, they’re making the most of it.
“The first time I saw Chiriquí Province I was enchanted. It felt familiar and was just so green. Although I was born and raised in New Jersey, I’m a country girl at heart and Chiriquí felt like home,” says InternationalLiving.com’s Panama highlands correspondent Linda Card. Chiriquí is one of nine provinces in Panama, and borders Costa Rica to the west. Mostly rural, the landscape is among the most scenic in the country, with mountains defining the skyline. Acres of fruits and vegetables thrive in the rich volcanic soil, while cattle and horses laze in verdant pastures.
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.
Not so long ago, you could pick up properties around my home province of Chiriquí for a fraction of their boom-time prices. In the hills and villages around Boquete, where an estimated 12,000 expats live, spacious mountain-view homes were selling for as much as 50% off. This drop was due to the 2008 financial crisis, which left many North Americans and Europeans with homes in these lush valleys in need of funds.
My husband Will and I have traveled to a number of countries over the years searching for the perfect place to retire—including Mexico, Venezuela, and Costa Rica. Finally one of our trips brought us to the country of Panama…
Call it instinct, call it intuition…whatever it was, from the moment we stepped off the plane, we knew it felt right. We toured several parts of the country in the years that followed as we tried to pin down our retirement plan. The highland town of Boquete was always on the list to visit. There was something about the mountains and the lush vegetation that reminded us of British Columbia and called to us.
Whenever my husband Gary and I need a break from sitting on our terrace watching the iguanas, or doing a myriad of other activities in and around our neighborhood, in Panama, we love to hop in our car and go exploring. That’s not to say we don’t love where we live in Panama’s highlands. We decided a few years back to spend part of the year in the province of Chiriquí, in Panama’s southwest corner—we’re snowbirds, escaping cold winters back home in Canada. We chose Panama as our half-time home because it has the greatest program in the world for retirees, the pensionado.
Ten years ago, I left the U.S. in search of a new adventure with my husband, Al—a decision that led us to the city of David in the province of Chiriquí, Panama. Al and I have spent time in Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Belize, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras since leaving the U.S. but, for many reasons, Panama won out as our retirement destination. Chiriquí Province is beautiful. It’s the country’s farming province, all rolling hills lined with fields where you’ll find pineapples, papaya, rice, coffee plantations, and orange groves.
“We spent about five years researching good retirement destinations before actually moving to Panama,” says Bill Hamilton who moved with his wife Mieke to the country’s capital city. “I’m the type of person to look up every single thing…crime rates, politics, cost of living, real estate, health care…and Panama City kept popping up in my research as the best option across the board.” Though in their 60s and already retired from previous careers, the Hamiltons made the decision to move in order to take a stab at running the Balboa Inn, a nine-room B&B in Panama City.
“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.
Conventional wisdom says that you have to get the travel bug out of your system early; that once you have children you have to abandon your overseas dreams—or at least shelve them until the kids grow up and leave the nest. But it’s just not true…and an increasing number of American families are proving it. Folks from all over the U.S. are bucking tradition and traveling the world with their kids—for a summer, a year, and longer.
After her daughter left for college, New Yorker Judy Ganes Chase began to look at the possibility of moving overseas…and getting involved in a new business venture. She chose a frozen yogurt franchise and is now the first franchisee in Central America for the Chicago-based chain Forever Yogurt. She has two outlets in Panama City. But Judy has gone a step further and purchased the franchise rights for all of Panama. She plans to open five additional locations in the next two to three years.
Getting into retail without having to invest in stock is a great way to cut down on your initial investment and more quickly make a profit. And it can be very easy. Consignment shopping fits right into that mold. And, as a very American concept, there’s not a lot of competition for it in other parts of the world. If you’re gathering what others don’t want—and finding a market for it—you have a good business model for short-term or long-term retailing. Essentially, with a consignment store you offer a space for others to sell their items in exchange for a cut of the money when the product sells.
Not everyone has a knack for languages…and studying a foreign language at the age of 50, 60, or 70 may seem challenging. For some people even the thought of it is overwhelming. So the good news is you don’t have to speak Spanish if you want to live in Panama. In Chiriquí—where I live—there are several thousand expats. Plenty of them are European and may speak multiple languages, but the majority are North American and I would wager that a good 75% of them do not speak Spanish.
To live the big city life for less and enjoy a world-class retirement look no farther than the San Francisco neighborhood of Panama City. I chose to live in San Francisco because of its walkability, its amenities, and just how close it is to the kind of action that makes for a great city life…and from gourmet delis to evenings at the opera, I enjoyed every minute.
This year, Panama holds the number one spot in International Living’s Annual Global Retirement Index. Being a retiree in Panama myself, I agree that it’s a great place to retire. The word for retirees in Spanish is “jubilados.” I’ve always loved that, because to me it sounds like “jubilant” and shouldn’t we all be jubilantly happy in our old age? In Panama, jubilados are treated with respect and receive special benefits due to their elder status.
“I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself,” said the poet Maya Angelou. I suppose she’s right…we all aspire to a certain comfort in our own skin. I’ve always felt travel encouraged it, in fact.
The first time I saw Chiriquí Province I was enchanted. It felt familiar and was just so green! Although I was born and raised in New Jersey, I’m a country girl at heart and Chiriquí felt like home. My husband Al and I had rented a car to tour Panama in our quest for a new place to live. Having traveled throughout Central America, Panama was our pick due to its warm climate, low cost of living, developed infrastructure and economic and political stability. We came back to stay in 2009, made our home in Chiriquí and I’m still awed by the stunning scenery.
When my husband, Al, and I left the U.S. nearly 10 years ago I had no idea I would make my home in Panama. We set sail from southwest Florida to navigate the Caribbean Sea and study the Maya culture in person. With our boat secure at a marina in Isla Mujeres, we explored eastern Mexico for six months, then sailed to Belize and on to Guatemala. In the Rio Dulce we found a community of boaters that embraced us, and a marina to call home for the next three years.
I’ve booked my flight to Las Vegas for the Fast Track Your Retirement Overseas Conference in October. I’m looking forward to chatting with attendees, along with my compañera Jessica Ramesch, about life in Panama.
It was sports that first brought Jim to Panama in 2004. “I lived in Boston and was running a sports-marketing company for American football. I handled recreational events, tournaments, leagues, and celebrity events. “While coaching a start-up flag-football team here, I first met my wife Priscilla. We went back to the U.S. and worked together in sports marketing, but when we decided to start a family in 2009, we returned to Panama and made our new home in Las Tablas. We wanted to be near Priscilla’s family.”
When 52-year-old Michael Druillard first set foot on Panamanian soil, this sunny, Central American country won his heart. It was the perfect country for his needs. Besides the warm climate, it has a stable government, a low cost of living, and varied employment opportunities. Now his life in the warm beach town of Coronado is a world away from shovelling snow in his native Canada.
Any location that finds favor with expats ultimately needs a place for them to hang out. There is a ready market of people who want a menu of familiar food—like burgers, hot wings, or a juicy steak—prepared in familiar ways. Put their favorite music on the jukebox, and they’ll be drawn in. Offer them NFL football or a pool table, and they’ll become good regular customers.
Sarah Booth was only 23 when she bought her first vacation rental. It was a tiny studio in a ski resort village in Canada, but it was the beginning of a portfolio that now includes properties in Panama, Colombia, and Mexico…and an income that allows Sarah to enjoy a wonderful lifestyle from her home in Coronado, Panama. “Ultimately, my rentals have funded my lifestyle and my travels,” says Sarah. “I live for free and enjoy awesome rental yields.”
“Won’t you miss your family and friends if you move overseas?” That’s a question we at IL get asked a lot, and the answer is… “Of course you will.” It’s something my husband Dan and I have experience of. We didn’t think about it too much when we moved to Ecuador back in 2001. With the exception of Dan’s mother, none of our family—my parents and our siblings—lived in the same city as we did.
As International Living’s Panama Editor, I travel several times a year to speak at conferences. Often the image people have is of a country with pretty beaches, plenty of palm trees…and not much else. One of the questions I get most is: “Will I be bored there?” If you’re expecting to take it easy and have a quiet retirement, you may want to think again. Bluntly speaking, it’s nearly impossible to be bored or even inactive here.
Panama is one of the fastest-growing countries in Latin America. And with a steady influx of expats of all ages and a growing middle class, its beleaguered education system has been hard-pressed to meet the growing demand for quality instruction. Public schools don’t prepare students very well for college. So middle and upper class residents turn to the nation’s private schools.
“Plenty of everyday people are choosing to live on the water full-time—in their retirement,” says InternationalLiving.com editor Jason Holland, author of the publication’s new report. “After a bit of training and hands-on experience at home, they’re tying up beside mega-yachts in the Mediterranean, finding large floating communities of like-minded expat sailors in the Caribbean, and island hopping in the Gulf of Thailand, heading wherever their fancy takes them.”
I’m single. And you wouldn’t believe all the questions I get about living abroad on my own. “How do you do it?” people ask, as though there was some secret formula. And, yes, “What’s the secret?” is another question I get. In part I get so many questions because so many singles are thinking of moving abroad. And to them I have one short, sweet piece of advice: Just do it.