Five Top Expat Havens to Move to Overseas

If the 160% surge seen today in searches for terms like “move overseas” and “expats overseas” is any indication—Americans are looking in ever-greater numbers for other, better-living options beyond the U.S. borders.

In the wake of the presidential election results, the trend already underway of retirees going overseas for better-value living, more affordable healthcare, and warmer weather appears to be poised to accelerate.

Already the Social Security Administration sends 660,528 payments overseas… and anecdotally, according to the editors of International Living, the number of U.S. retirees receiving Social Security benefits abroad is likely higher than that, as many simply continue to bank in the States while living outside the country.

While Canada seems to top the list of target destinations for many potential escapees—in fact, that nation’s immigration website reportedly crashed on election night—the editors at International Living recommend havens where the climate is milder and the cost of living lower.

Below are three of their most popular overseas retirement haven picks… plus two more still flying below the radar screen, for now anyway…

 

Mexico

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

As many as a million U.S. and Canadian citizens already call Mexico their home, with more joining them all the time. In terms of numbers, Mexico is the most popular expat destination for North Americans in the world. This should come as no surprise—Mexico has a lot to recommend it.

Stately Spanish colonial cities in Mexico are steeped in tradition, and soaring baroque church spires overlook gracious squares. Here you can dine in elegant cafés, and browse upscale shops on the very spots where the heroes of the Revolution declared independence from Spain and forged a new country.

For all these reasons, and many more, Mexico is one of the world’s top destinations for those dreaming of a relaxed and romantic new life abroad. America’s closest southern neighbor consistently makes International Living’s list of the best countries to live in.

Many expats choose to live in Mexico’s Colonial Highlands. Three popular towns in the region are San Miguel de Allende, Querétaro, and Guanajuato. Each have a colonial centro histórico—UNESCO World Heritage sites—where grand colonial homes have been converted to hip restaurants, chic boutiques, hotels…or sometimes just tiny mom-and-pop corner stores or simple eateries where you can get a meal for a couple of dollars. And, of course, many of the colonials have also been renovated to become homes.

In San Miguel de Allende you’ll enjoy a comfortable climate, rich cultural life, charming historic architecture, and low costs. Guanajuato and Santiago de Querétaro (usually called simply Querétaro) are off the radar but quite livable. Mexico is a big country, with colonial villages and towns all over. But this trio is clustered three to four hours by car or bus northwest of Mexico City, and you can travel from one to the other easily in about an hour ($5 to $7 for a first-class bus ticket).

Money-wise, it’s a great time to be anywhere in Mexico—the exchange rate today is 20.07 pesos to $1. Combine that with already low costs for real estate, food, restaurants, entertainment, and transportation, and you have the spending power to live very well on around $1,800 a month for a retired couple.

“The peso’s going down, the dollar’s going up…it’s been great,” says Mike Wolfe, 67, a retired New Yorker, in Querétaro. He lives on about $1,250 a month, including $276 in rent for his one-bedroom apartment with all utilities and internet service. “If I still lived in the U.S., I would have to work. Here I don’t have to work anymore.”

After rewarding but long careers in the U.S., Chris and Rex McCaskill moved to San Miguel de Allende four years ago.

A lower cost of living was one motivation for retiring in Mexico.

“In Austin, we were paying $700 a month for heat and air conditioning. We were paying property taxes of $12,000 a year and now live comfortably with taxes of $200 a year,” says Chris. “Here in San Miguel, economics and lifestyle go hand in hand. We spend money on quality of life things, not air conditioning or taxes. We can take our money from Social Security and our quality of life is pretty darn good.”

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Costa Rica

Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico

It’s not surprising that expats, especially Americans and Canadians, are attracted to Costa Rica. With one of the highest standards of living in Latin America and a variety of different climates to suit all tastes, Costa Rica is the perfect retirement destination.

You’ll find the tropics along the Pacific and Caribbean Coasts, while most of the Central Valley is cool and breezy. If you find it difficult to choose which climate you prefer, you will be glad to know that the mild temperatures of the Central Valley are just two hours by car from the tropical beaches of the Pacific Coast.

Expats are attracted to Costa Rica for numerous reasons, which include the low cost of living, excellent healthcare, modern telecommunications structure, beautiful beaches, rainforests, lush valleys, and cool mountains…not to mention the theaters, art galleries, and fine dining.

There are more than 50,000 expats living in Costa Rica and many well-established expat communities.

Costa Rica’s lake region of Arenal is a popular expat haven in the country. Not surprising… It’s stunningly beautiful. The weather is near perfect. The community of locals and expats is welcoming and friendly. You have a choice of great restaurants to eat in.

The lifestyle here is natural and relaxed. Some explore the landscape on horseback. Or go boating, wind-surfing or fishing on the lake.

“The living is very easy here,” says 68-year-old Lynda Henry. “It’s a much different pace. More like the 1940s or 1950s. You can be as social or as alone as you want.”

Lynda and her husband Tim, 67, live in a home up the hill from the lakeshore. Their porch, full of hummingbirds, offers a 180-degree view of the lake. A huge picture window in their bedroom (they put the bed facing it) and another by the bathtub means they can see the lake from almost everywhere in the house.

“We wake up every morning grateful to be in this country and happy to be here,” says Lynda. “You have to get used to waking up and not having an agenda. Having breakfast at six…or 10, or maybe start reading first. After a busy life with work and kids, that really does take some getting used to.”

 

Panama

Boquete, Panama

Panama offers a very comfortable live overseas solution, in part because the nation is much more developed than most visitors expect. Many are shocked by the modernity of Panama and the clusters of skyscrapers that define Panama City’s skyline. All of the amenities you could wish for are readily available.

In Panama, you will enjoy the benefits of a developing economy where you can still take a taxi across town for a buck or two, get your haircut for a couple of dollars, or enjoy dinner for two with a bottle of wine at one of the finest restaurants in Panama City for a mere $40.

There are also lots of activities for you to enjoy, from jazz clubs to art openings to English-language theater performances. You may be wondering what you will do when you retire…but in Panama, you will never find yourself bored.

Outside the city you will find the true treasures of Panama. There are beautiful beaches everywhere, with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Pacific on the other. There are rolling green tropical mountains, fertile farmlands, lush rainforests, and small towns where foreign visitors are made to feel welcome.

The town of Boquete is a popular expat retreat in the highlands of Panama’s Chiriquí Province. Its lush green hills, flowing rivers, and spectacular waterfalls make it one of the most unspoiled retirement retreats in the world today.

“The future of the U.S. was looking bad,” says Nancy Young of the decisions that led her and her family to find a new life in Boquete. “My husband was going to retire on beans, with no benefits…not enough for us to live on. Every winter in Missouri I dreaded getting our electric bill, and in the summer there were a few days you could open your windows to let the air in and not have to use air conditioning, but the air was so dirty that everyone had allergies. We had to make a move.”

Now Nancy, 63, has nothing but good things to say about Boquete. She and her husband Don, 61, moved here from the Kansas City area in 2010 with their two sons.

“Our lives are so much better here. We are healthier, we are happy, we have a social life, and we have lots of activities to enjoy. Life is richer and filled with great experiences. I love the Panamanians and their culture,” she says.

 

And Two Countries You May Not Have Considered:

Belize

Ambergris Caye, Belize

As a Caribbean destination, Belize is quite affordable and the country offers some big advantages—economic stability, a strong retiree program, and a wonderful climate, if you like the tropics. This Central American country has a beautiful coastline, where the sunbathing, swimming, snorkeling and diving, fishing, and sailing are among the best in the world.

Moreover, Belize is an English-speaking country. If you feel you are ready to move abroad but don’t want the hassle of having to learn a new language, Belize could be the ideal place for you, and the perfect place to start a business.

To a growing number of expats weary of regimented, high pressure lifestyles at home, free-wheeling, casual, affordable Belize has proved almost irresistible. Here, you are blissfully free from commuter crush, 24-hour news, and workaday stress. It’s a country where you can explore and develop, and there’s room to breathe, with a pervasive, heady sense that almost anything goes.

International Living’s Belize Correspondent, Ann Kuffner, has lived in Belize with her husband Mike for since 2008. They have settled on the Caribbean island of Ambergris Caye.

Ambergris Caye is a popular offshore caye that’s located 35 to 40 miles southeast of Corozal. In 2013 and 2014 it was voted the world’s best island by Trip Advisor members. The nearby World Heritage Mesoamerican barrier reef and stunning azure Caribbean waters enchant visitors and expats alike.

“Belize first attracted me because of the spectacular Caribbean seascapes and the vibrant offshore barrier reef teaming with colorful, diverse sea life…the laidback lifestyle…affordable cost of living…and the friendly Belizeans,” Ann says.

“But after moving here another advantage became apparent. Maintaining a healthy, happy lifestyle in Belize is easy. As a matter of fact, many expats who move to Belize remark that they have lost weight, are in better shape, and feel better than they have in years…”

“Belize also has plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, fish, shellfish, and chicken. Much of the country’s produce, chicken, and cheese come from Mennonite farmers. So the food and produce are fresh, not tainted by the chemicals used at corporate farms in North America. The fish and lobster are freshly caught from the Caribbean Sea. The standard Belizean diet includes plenty of beans and produce such as sweet carrots, zucchini, avocados, sweet potatoes, peppers, squashes, papaya, oranges, grapefruit, limes, bananas, and chaya, all of which are tasty…and healthy.

“Most expats here have embraced this healthy, active lifestyle that Belize offers. Of course, the added bonus is that they have little stress in their lives here compared to living back in the States.”

 

Peru

Arequipa, Peru

“Peru is not on many people’s radar. It’s not on any top 10 retirement destinations lists; it doesn’t get much press at all, really. Mention ‘Peru,’ and most people think of the wonder of the world, Machu Picchu, and…llamas. But during my recent visit, traveling the country, experiencing life there, and speaking with expats who call it home…I think I’ve discovered one of the world’s best-kept secrets.”

This was International Living editor Jason Holland’s report of Peru after he recently returned from a scouting trip to the country.

“Food is cheap—and very tasty. Rents are affordable even for those on super-low budgets—$200 to $400 gets you a nice place in a great neighborhood. The climate is comfortable…the people friendly…there are modern services…and the vibrant mix of music, festivals, indigenous culture, and colonial history is evident everywhere you turn. It should be an option for anyone considering a retirement in Latin America.”

In Peru, your cost of living will, of course, depend on your lifestyle. But many expats report spending about $1,500 a month, all in.

Arequipa and Cusco are two of the most popular towns for expats to live.

Arequipa is built around a UNESCO World Heritage site, a district of well-preserved Spanish-colonial homes and churches. It’s known as Peru’s “White City,” as many of the old buildings are built from sillar, the white volcanic rock quarried in the nearby mountains.

Here you can enjoy a low cost of living, stunning scenery and 300 days of sunshine in which to enjoy it.

“I fall in love with the city every time I walk through it,” says Californian Bill Connors. “It is a very romantic city. At predawn and at night the sillar shines—it’s very beautiful.”

Bill, 65, has been living in Arequipa for about a year. He lives in the Bustamante district, a modern area within 20 minutes’ walk of the historic quarter. He’s also found it very affordable to live here.

“Outside of the tourist area, you have very cheap restaurants. I spend about $30 a week on food, mostly going to the market,” says Bill.

Cusco, the old capital of the Inca Empire and later a major city of the Spanish colony, is a place that breathes history. The colonial quarter, surrounding the showpiece Plaza de Armas, is full of narrow cobblestone streets, cathedrals and churches, quiet courtyards, and vibrant plazas. It’s a booming city of 500,000 people, with red-brick homes and apartment buildings extending to the edges of the valley and up into the surrounding hills. Despite their both being colonial cities, Cusco has a more homelike and historic feel than Arequipa.

Tony Ballantine, 58, has been living in Cusco for three years. Originally from Scotland, he’d been living in the U.S. for many years before moving to Peru.

“You can live very cheaply here,” says Tony, who pays $450 a month for a four-bedroom house. He says his other costs are much, much lower than what he paid while living in the U.S. and Europe. “And it’s even more reasonable outside the centro.”

Despite the gleaming shopping malls, modern services, and international restaurants tourism has brought…not to mention the charming historic district…there is still much to get used to.

“You have to let go of First World expectations. It’s not just ‘mañana.’ It could be next month or never,” explains Tony. “It takes a while to integrate. But I now have many Cusqueño friends who would do anything for me.”

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