One of the first questions to ask yourself when considering the idea of retiring to another country is: How local do you want to go?
“Going local” means living among and like the locals, shopping where they shop, eating what they eat, and speaking whatever language they speak.
The more local you go the lower your cost of living. At an extreme, truly local living—in Otavalo, Ecuador, for example, or Chiang Mai, Thailand, two of the best choices for this lifestyle right now—can cost as little as $700 or $800 per month.
However, in addition to usually requiring you to learn a new language, retiring local can also land you squarely in the developing world. Life in the developing world is not for everyone.
The opposite of going local is settling in a place where lots of other expats have already retired. These are destinations where the American Dream has effectively been exported and where the day-to-day living can closely resemble what you left behind back home.
It’s like retiring overseas with training wheels. You can enjoy many of the advantages—lower costs of living and of health care, better weather, and a chance to chase adventure at this stage of life, for example—without the hard work that going local can mean.
There’s no right or wrong way to take your retirement beyond U.S. borders. The important thing is to make the move in a way that makes you happy and comfortable.
If you’re tempted by the idea and the benefits of retiring to another country but not up for serious culture shock, here are three destinations to put at the top of your list. These appealing locales, home to some of the world’s biggest and most welcoming expat retirement communities, qualify as the easiest places to retire overseas.
Top Expat Retirement Community #1: Boquete, Panama
Boquete, a small town in Panama’s Chiriquí province, sits at 3,600 feet above sea level and so enjoys a more temperate climate than sea-level Panama.
Boquete is known for its cool temperatures, which average 70 degrees year-round, and its big population of foreign retirees. You won’t have to seek them out. Boquete’s 3,000 North American resident retirees and the many restaurants and shops that have been started both by and to cater to them are ever-present. More English is spoken on the streets of Boquete than Spanish.
The big U.S. expat presence is thanks to an American developer who, in 1999, targeted Boquete as the site of the full-amenity gated community specifically intended for American retirees he wanted to build. That forward-thinking entrepreneur set out to recreate, in these Panamanian highlands, small-town life in America in the 1950s, and he seems to have hit his mark.
The mountains, valleys, rivers, and waterfalls of Boquete are beautiful, but the real attraction of the place is how turn-key a foreign retiree’s life can be here. More than 2,000 other foreign retirees have paved the way and are standing by to answer your questions to do with everything from choosing a place to live and setting up utilities to opening a bank account and finding company on a Sunday afternoon.
A retiree’s life in Boquete is convenient, comfortable, and supported by all the infrastructure you’re accustomed to, including an English-speaking chiropractor and a library stocked with English-language books.
Top Expat Retirement Community #2: San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize
The biggest and best known of the cayes offshore from mainland Belize is home to the biggest American expat community in the Caribbean. Life on Ambergris is all about the sun, the sand, and the sea, and the U.S. expats and retirees who’ve chosen to base themselves here couldn’t be more welcoming of like-minded beach-loving expats who make their way to this island to join them. You could show up on Ambergris any given morning and make a dozen expat friends in time for happy hour that afternoon.
This is quintessential Caribbean, still relatively undiscovered (despite several seasons of “Temptation Island” and “Survivor” having been filmed here). Life is simple, relaxed, and low-key. Everyone speaks English because that’s the language in Belize.
There are but a handful of streets and few cars on Ambergris; people get around primarily by golf cart or their own two feet. At the same time, the 3,000-strong expat community continues to import services, products, and amenities to make their lives here ever more comfortable.
Retired in San Pedro, Ambergris’ only town, you could stop for specialty coffee on your way to the health club for your morning workout then meet friends for lunch at a deli featuring imported wines and cheeses and homemade artisan breads.
No shortage of flip flops or floral shirts either, and Jimmy Buffett, Janis Joplin, and the Rolling Stones jam from most speakers.
Top Expat Retirement Community #3: Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Until the 1950s, Puerto Vallarta was an unremarkable fishing village along a bay on Mexico’s Pacific coast. Then, in 1963, John Huston filmed “The Night of the Iguana” in Mismaloya, a seaside village just south of Puerto Vallarta. The film’s star, Richard Burton, was involved with actress Elizabeth Taylor at the time. Taylor followed Burton on location, and the paparazzi followed her.
Suddenly Puerto Vallarta was all over the news and on the world map.
Burton and Taylor both eventually bought houses in Puerto Vallarta and attracted other jet-setters to this coast. About this same time, the Mexican government began investing heavily in infrastructure in the area, including improved highways, roads, and public utilities, making Puerto Vallarta more accessible.
Today Puerto Vallarta is one of Mexico’s most cosmopolitan beach resorts and home to one of the world’s biggest expat retirement communities. Many of the 10,000 expats and retirees living in Puerto Vallarta came on vacation, fell in love, and resolved to find a way to be able to return.
Half the local population works in the tourism business, meaning English is widely understood and spoken, and the old city offers a full menu of cultural activities from plays, films, and jazz and classical concerts to gourmet restaurant festivals and gallery openings.
Life in Puerto Vallarta is both convenient and fully appointed thanks to the city’s world-class golf courses, marinas, restaurants, and shopping.
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