The world's top retirement haven? In truth, there's no such thing. There are many appealing options for a new life in retirement overseas. Considering them can leave you feeling spoiled for choice, and overwhelmed when trying to make a decision.
It helps if you can clarify your priorities. When you understand what's most important to you, your best choices will be easier to identify. Here is a guide to the best places to retire overseas in 2013, depending on what you want your retirement life to look like:
Most Affordable Place to Retire Well: Cuenca, Ecuador
Ecuador is the world's best place to retire overseas on a budget. Here you can live better than you do now for less money. The cost of living is low, and the cost of real estate is near rock bottom for Latin America. Specifically, I would recommend Cuenca, a beautiful colonial city with a fresh, spring-like climate 12 months of the year. It's large and growing expat community is one of Latin America's most diverse and well-blended. A couple could retire in Cuenca on a budget of as little as $1,200 per month and invest in a small condo of their own for as little as $40,000.
Also Affordable: Granada, Nicaragua
Geographically, Nicaragua is blessed with two long coastlines and two big lakes, plus volcanoes, highlands, rain forest, and rivers. In this regard, it has everything Costa Rica and Panama have, but it's less discovered and developed and available to adventurers and eco-travelers at bargain rates. Architecturally, Nicaragua is notable for its impressive colonial-era homes, churches, public buildings, and parks. Property values have fallen significantly in this country over the past several years, thanks to Ortega's re-election and then the global recession. As a result, you can buy one of Granada's classic Spanish-colonial haciendas for $50,000 or less. A couple could live comfortably in this city on a budget of $1,200 per month.
Affordable and Exotic: Cebu, Philippines
Manila is too hot and too crowded. However, Cebu, one of the most protected of the 7,000 islands of this archipelago, can be an ideal budget retirement choice. Winter in Cebu (October through February) can be delightful; temperatures are about 75 degrees Fahrenheit and accompanied by gentle breezes.
The two big advantages of the Philippines in general are the cost of living and real estate costs. This is a popular destination among retired U.S. military, because the people are friendly, the health care is good, and a military pension buys a better-than-comfortable standard of living. As throughout Asia, foreign ownership of real estate is restricted, but you can buy a condo in your own name for full- or part-time use, retirement, and rental. The government seems to be on a path to relaxing foreign ownership restrictions.
Expats on Cebu come from all over the world, but the majority are from the U.S., England, and Australia. Some men in their 50s and 60s choose this part of the world as a place to restart their lives with new wives and new families.
Mild Weather Year-Round: Medellin, Colombia
Medellin is one of the world's most misunderstood retirement spots. This is a beautiful and, yes, safe place to be. The Euro-undertones in the city are strong, from the way the women dress to the way people greet you in passing on the street. This is South America, not Central America, and the differences between the two regions can be striking. Medellin is a green city, with trees, plants, and small gardens everywhere. It's architecturally consistent and pleasing. Most buildings are constructed of red brick and topped with red clay roof tiles. The overall effect is delightful, especially when viewed from some elevation (the surrounding mountainsides, for example).
There's no shortage of things to do in this town, both outdoorsy and more cerebral. Medellin is an industrial, economic, and financial center for the country, but also a literary and an artistic one. Newspapers, radio networks, publishing houses, an annual poetry festival, an international jazz festival, an international tango festival, an annual book fair, and, back in 1971, Colombia's answer to Woodstock, the Festival de Ancon, all have chosen Medellin as their base. The main attraction at the Museo de Antioquia is the Botero Collection, which is bolstered by the further collection of 23 monumental sculptures by this artist (a son of Medellin) exhibited in the Plaza Botero, in front of the museum.
Finally, and to the point, the climate in Medellin is about as good as it gets, with moderate temperatures and very low humidity year-round.
Best Place to Escape the World: New Zealand
New Zealand is the world's best place to escape the world. Safe, secure, and remote, this country is also a top pick for part-time retirement overseas. It's not easy to arrange full-time legal residency in New Zealand, but you'll have no problem spending up to six months a year in this beautiful, English-speaking island nation. Six months in New Zealand and six months on the coast of Panama, for example, translates to perpetual summer.
A top lifestyle choice on South Island is this country's garden city, Christchurch, which has showcase botanic gardens, public parks, and nature reserves, as well as community vegetable plots, school planting projects, and well-kept private grounds. The gardens give this city lots of breathing space and provide a backdrop for its many festivals.
Luxury Beach Retirement on a Budget: Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Puerto Vallarta is more expensive than other places where you might consider living or retiring overseas, but in Puerto Vallarta that's not the point. This isn't developing-world living. This stretch of Mexico's Pacific coastline has already been developed to a high level. In Puerto Vallarta, you can buy a world-class lifestyle in a region with beautiful beaches and ocean views that is supported by world-class golf courses, marinas, restaurants, and shopping. This is a lifestyle that is comparable to the best you could enjoy in southern California, if you could afford it. Here you can afford it even on an average budget.
Real estate options in Puerto Vallarta vary from modest to jet-set, in terms of both products available and price points. You could buy a small apartment outside Puerto Vallarta town for less than $100,000, or you could buy big and fancy for over $1 million. Whatever you buy, you could rent it out when you're not using it. The Puerto Vallarta region, including the emerging Riviera Nayarit that runs north from it along the coast, is a tourist rental market with a track record.
Best Caribbean Lifestyle Bargain: Samana, Dominican Republic
The Dominican Republic is an internationally popular all-inclusive resort destination that sees big volumes of tourists every year, thanks to its miles of sandy beaches and balmy temperatures. It's also a top Caribbean choice for would-be foreign retirees. The tourist infrastructure amounts to an extensive network of businesses and services that expats can easily plug into. As a retiree on this island, you have many more choices for the kinds of amenities you might be looking for than you'll typically find elsewhere in this part of the world.
The Dominican Republic is also very low cost, making it one of the most affordable lifestyle choices in the Caribbean. The cost of real estate can be a tremendous bargain, as this country was hit hard by the downturn of 2008 and 2009. You might be able to find a brand-new, one-bedroom apartment about a five-minute walk from a Caribbean beach for $100,000 or less. You could also find multimillion-dollar properties, but even these are a bargain, compared with the cost of similar properties in other Caribbean markets.
Best Place to Retire if Budget is No Object: France
France is the world's best example of getting what you pay for. Its food, wine, architecture, history, museums, parks, gardens, and cultural and recreational offerings make it one of the best places to call home. There are reasons France sees more tourists than any other country in the world, almost 80 million of them annually. To accommodate all those tourists, the infrastructure of this country, from the airports and train system to the restaurants and hotels, has to be top notch and it is.
France would never feature on a list of the world's bargain destinations. Still, outside Paris, this country can be more affordable than you might imagine, and even Paris doesn't have to be hyper-expensive. Much of the best it has to offer comes free. But France isn't about cost of living; it's about quality of life. Paris is the most beautiful and romantic city in the world, and France has much to offer beyond its City of Light. It can be possible to own your own piece of French country life for less than $100,000 (especially if you're up for a renovation project).
Best Place to Pursue A Self-Sufficient Retirement: Belize
Warm and welcoming, yet independent and private. Those four perhaps seemingly contradictory adjectives best describe both Belizeans and their country. Belize is also one of the safest countries in the world, despite what you may read about it. Outside Belize City, crime is nearly non-existent.
Expats and retirees in this country like to joke that: The good news from Belize is no news from Belize. This is a sleepy Caribbean nation with just 330,000 people and three highways. Yet, Belize offers a whole lot of what many retirees and investors are looking for--a chance to start over on sandy, sunny shores. Ideal places for the beach life include Placencia, on the southern mainland coast, and Corozal, on the northern mainland coast. Inland, Belize's Cayo District offers Mayan ruins, caves, rivers, waterfalls, and rain forest. In this frontier, self-sufficient communities are emerging and attracting like-minded folks interested in being "independent together."
Belize is a small country with a small population. You'll enjoy it here if you like wide-open spaces and small town living where everyone knows everyone. You won't like it here if you crave regular doses of culture or first world-style amenities and services. With the exception of Ambergris Caye, where the country's biggest expat community is centered and services cater to foreign retirees, life in Belize is best described as back-to-basics.
Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter. Her book, How To Retire Overseas--Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.