“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.)
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.
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…
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.
My wife, Suzan, and I have lived abroad for almost 14 years, and we've had several foreign bank accounts. I wasn't allowed to write checks on any of them. Not that foreign banks don't allow check writing—they have all the same services U.S. banks do. But the banks we dealt with in Latin America all seem to be much more serious about signatures than our banks in the U.S.
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.
Beautiful, friendly, perfect climate, inexpensive. There...I've just told you why I think Ecuador is the best place on earth to retire. The mountains and Pacific coast are remarkably gorgeous. The people are about as easygoing as people get. Being on the equator, the weather changes with the altitude, so you can pick any climate you like. And the cost of living can be astoundingly low, especially when you take high utility bills and property taxes out of the budget equation.
I've mentioned before how Ecuador made me a huge fan of mountain living. But it's more than just the mountains that did it for me. After all, there are mountains running the entire length of the Americas, from the far north of Alaska and Canada to the very tip of South America. Almost any mountain range you choose in North, Central, or South America is in some way majestic and breathtakingly beautiful. But—and this is the crucial thing that makes Ecuador's mountains different for me—none of these mountains are directly on the equator. In nearly every other mountain location in the Americas, seasonal changes make living up at a high altitude a part-time thing, at least for a guy who dislikes snow and cold as much as I do.
Like many other folks thinking about moving abroad, my wife, Suzan Haskins, and I thought we knew what we wanted. A tropical beach, of course. During our lives we'd spent incredible days of vacation swinging in hammocks on palm-studded beaches, basking in the sun, and listening to the waves breaking out on some reef.
One of the things my wife, Suzan Haskins, and I have come to value over the years that we’ve lived abroad are well-organized expat communities. We do know some expats who were determined to be pioneers and boldly go where no North Americans had gone before. But for us…and most other expats we know…there are undeniable advantages to having people around you in your chosen expat destination who have already blazed a trail, made the most common mistakes, and learned the ropes.