Retiring abroad can offer a host of advantages over buying a condo in Florida. Living expenses can be cheaper, cultural experiences richer and the lifestyle more satisfying. But picking the right place to retire for you can be tricky: Climate, cost of living, ease of traveling to the U.S. and access to adequate health care all need to be weighed.
We took those factors and others into account in making these picks. As part of our research, we consulted three experts on overseas retirement: Betsy Burlingame of ExpatExchange.com, Kathleen Peddicord of Liveandinvestoverseas.com and Jennifer Stevens of InternationalLiving.com. We also looked at International Living's Global Retirement Index, which ranks the 22 countries most popular with American retirees on eight categories ranging from entertainment options to infrastructure. Ecuador ranked highest overall on the index; the Dominican Republic came in 22nd. We focused primarily on the cost-of-living component of the index.
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The hypothetical monthly budgets we provide for a retired American couple include the cost of housing in a desirable neighborhood and monthly living expenses such as food, entertainment, utilities and local transportation. Actual costs will vary widely. Buying a sprawling villa vs. renting a small apartment will affect living expenses significantly, for example, as will eating out nightly vs. preparing most meals at home. We hope the hypothetical monthly budgets are useful as a starting point for your planning.
1. Medellin, Colombia
Population: 2.4 million
Climate: Springlike year-round, the average temperature is a pleasant 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Because the city is in the mountains, nights can be cool and humidity isn't an issue.
Proximity to major airport: Jose Maria Cordova airport is located 19 miles to the southeast of Medellin's city center, in Rionegro. There are nonstop flights to Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Access to health care: Five of the top hospitals in Latin America are located in Medellin. Affordable, high-quality health care has made the city a popular destination for medical tourism. (Note: Medicare does not cover overseas medical care.)
Cost of living: Colombia tied for 16th (with the Dominican Republic) out of 22 countries in the cost-of-living component of International Living's Global Retirement Index. The top-ranked nation has the lowest living costs, while the 22nd-ranked nation has the highest. A retired American couple could live comfortably on $1,500 a month in Medellin. A small apartment in the center of the city costs about $75,000.
The draw: Much has changed in the 20 years since drug lord Pablo Escobar was killed by Colombian soldiers here. Today, Medellin is known more for its growing tourism industry and architectural renaissance than cartel violence. Parks, libraries and museums abound, thanks to a decade-long urban revitalization effort that's earned international acclaim, and a modern metro and tram system connects far-flung neighborhoods. Hometown artist Fernando Botero's corpulent sculptures adorn many of the European-influenced public spaces. Unlike other popular retirement spots in Latin America, Medellin isn't overrun with foreign expats, so real estate is still relatively affordable. On a final note, while Colombia's second-largest city is vastly safer than it was a decade ago, crime (including violent crime) is much more prevalent than in the U.S. American retirees should heed State Department warnings on travel and safety.
2. Dubrovnik, Croatia
Climate: Seasonal. Temperatures range from the mid 40s in January and February to the low 80s in June and July.
Proximity to major airport: Dubrovnik Airport is about ten miles from the city center in Cilipi. Expect to make one or two connections (possibly in Zagreb and then in a major European city) to reach the U.S.
Access to health care: General Hospital Dubrovnik, a full-service hospital, is located in the center of the city.
Cost of living: An American couple could live comfortably on $2,700 a month. Croatia wasn't ranked in the Global Retirement Index.
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The draw: Old World charm. Sandwiched between mountains and sea, Dubrovnik's geography is breathtaking. Those in search of culture, history, and architecture will find it in abundance in this medieval walled old town, which is home to a 14th-century monastery. Not only can retirees soak up all the history and attend cultural events such as the Dubrovnik Film Festival, they can also enjoy beaches and island-hop along the coast. A steady influx of tourists means you'll find at least some English spoken at shops and restaurants. Known as the "Pearl of the Adriatic," Dubrovnik is one of the pricier locales in Croatia, but it's affordable compared with better-known Mediterranean hot spots.
3. Salinas, Ecuador
Climate: Mild and dry. Temperatures average in the 70s during the day and fall into the low 60s at night. The mercury can climb into the 90s, but that happens about as rarely as it rains.
Proximity to major airport: It's about two hours by car or three hours by bus to Jose Joaquin de Olmedo International Airport in Guayaquil, Equador’s largest city. From there, you can fly nonstop to the U.S.
Access to health care: Just 20 minutes away by car are several clinics in La Libertad and Santa Elena. There's even a local doctor in Salinas, popular among expats, who makes house calls. The charge: $30 per visit. Retirees will find top-notch hospitals two hours away in Guayaquil.
Cost of living: Ecuador came in fourth — and number one for Latin America — on the Global Retirement Index for lowest cost of living. A retired American couple could live well on $1,500 a month.
The draw: Miami living without Miami prices. Jutting out into the Pacific, Salinas is Ecuador's largest coastal resort town, with great oceanfront condos, open markets and upscale restaurants. A jetty, home to the Salinas Yacht Club, separates trendy San Lorenzo Beach from the quieter Chipipe Beach. Retirees can live a high-end beach lifestyle on the cheap; this is one of the least-expensive beach resorts in Latin America. That explains the growing expat community. The $1,500-a-month budget for an American couple includes dinner out most nights.
4. George Town, Malaysia
Climate: Hot and humid. The average temperature is a muggy 80 degrees year round. Located in northwest Malaysia, George Town gets its fair share of rain, particularly in April and October.
Proximity to major airport: Penang International Airport is 11 miles south of George Town. At least one flight connection is required to reach the U.S.
Access to health care: Foreigners routinely travel to Malaysia for affordable, quality medical and dental services. There are several hospitals and clinics in and around George Town.
Cost of living: Malaysia came in third, behind only Thailand and the Philippines, in the Global Retirement Index in terms of lowest living costs. An American couple can get along extremely well on $1,500 a month.
The draw: British colonialism on the cheap. Over the past decade 19,488 foreigners, including 815 North Americans, have taken advantage of a program called Malaysia My Second Home, which offers retirement incentives such as long-term residency status and breaks on car imports and purchases. Applicants must meet strict financial requirements. But there is a charm and bustle to George Town, the capital of the Malaysian state of Penang. A Unesco World Heritage site, Malaysia's oldest city is known for its rich history but also for its street food and intriguing architecture. It's populated mainly by ethnic Chinese, but English is spoken, thanks to the country's historical tie to Britain.
5. Bilbao, Spain
Climate: Mild year-round. Typical temperatures range from the mid 50s in winter to the high 70s in summer. July and August are the warmest months; January, the coolest.
Proximity to major airport: Bilbao Airport is located about seven miles north of the city center, or about 15 minutes by taxi. There are connecting flights to the U.S.
Access to health care: Bilbao has modern hospitals and clinics. There are numerous pharmacies, including some that are open 24 hours a day.
Cost of living: Spain isn't cheap, but it's cheaper since the real-estate market went bust. The nation tied for 12th place, alongside Brazil and Honduras, on the Global Retirement Index for lowest cost of living. An American couple could live comfortably on $3,500 a month.
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The draw: Bilbao, located in the Basque region of northern Spain, is surrounded by forests and mountains. France and the Pyrenees lie due east. Bilbao is one of Spain's biggest cities and has undergone an urban rejuvenation. It's home to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which with its titanium panels and striking architecture that draw tourists from around the world. There's an efficient, cheap public transportation system, along with miles of parks. The beach is less than an hour away. Bilbao is a draw for foodies as well as art lovers, thanks to the plethora of restaurants serving everything from traditional Basque dishes to innovative cuisine, such as molecular gastronomy. Whether ordering dinner or asking for directions, a little Spanish goes a long way, though many locals tied to the tourist trade will speak English.
6. Coronado, Panama
Population: Less than 10,000 (estimate)
Climate: Hot and dry year-round. The average temperature is 86 degrees.
Proximity to major airport: Tocumen International Airport serves Panama City, about an hour away from Coronado. There are nonstop flights to the U.S.
Access to health care: The San Fernando Clinic, which is affiliated with Panama City's San Fernando Hospital, is located in Coronado. Other affordable and well-regarded hospitals in Panama City are all about an hour's drive away.
Cost of living: Panama ranked seventh (in a tie with Portugal) in the Global Retirement Index for lowest cost of living. A retired American couple could live comfortably on $1,200 to $1,300 a month.
The draw: Easy luxurious living for expats. Located on the Pacific coast, not far from Panama's eponymous canal, Coronado, once the playground of wealthy Panamanians, is now home to many foreign retirees. English is widely spoken, and the U.S. dollar is widely accepted. The Coronado Country Club offers beach activities, fine accommodations and dining. U.S. retirees continue to flock to Panama because of its top-notch health care, dollar-based economy and a "pensionado" program that grants residency and other perks to financially qualified retirees.
7. Galway, Ireland
Climate: Rainy and cool. Temperatures range from the mid 40s to the high 60s, with rainfall pretty much year-round.
Proximity to major airport: For nonstop flights to the U.S., the best bet is Dublin, three-and-a-half hours from Galway by bus or three hours by train. A closer alternative is Shannon Airport, which is about two hours from Galway by bus.
Access to health care: Galway University Hospitals runs two local facilities, University Hospital Galway and Merlin Park University Hospital, in the city.
Cost of living: Ireland came in 19th out of 22 countries ranked on the Global Retirement Index for lowest cost of living. Only France, Italy and New Zealand have higher living costs. An American couple could live comfortably on $2,500 a month.
The draw: Bad luck of the Irish. Like Spain, Ireland has experienced a crushing housing bust. The good luck, for retirees at least, is that the dramatic drop in real estate prices has put Ireland within reach for those who otherwise couldn't afford retirement in Western Europe. Yes, the weather can be dreary, but Galway's pluses outweigh that minus. The city, located on the western coast of Ireland, is safe, welcoming and walkable. English is universal, of course, and many of the foods and traditions will be familiar to Americans. Expats will find beautiful beaches, verdant countryside and the cobblestone streets of a city center filled with restaurants, bars and shops. Galway is also known for its festivals, which celebrate everything from oysters to horse racing.
8. Tlaxcala, Mexico
Climate: Always mild. The high elevation keeps the city's average temperature at around 60 degrees. Summers are rainy, and winters are dry.
Proximity to major airport: Nonstop flights to the U.S. are available from international airports in Puebla (an hour away from Tlaxcala) and Mexico City (about two hours away).
Access to health care: There are multiple medical facilities within the city, and major hospitals can be found in Puebla and Mexico City.
Cost of living: Mexico ranked tenth in the Global Retirement Index for lowest cost of living. An American couple could live modestly on $1,500 a month and very comfortably on $2,500.
The draw: Undiscovered Mexico. Located in the mountains about two hours from Mexico City and an hour from Puebla, Tlaxcala has a much slower pace of life than its bustling neighbors. And unlike some other parts of Mexico, Tlaxcala hasn't been besieged by drug-related violence. The city retains its historical charm thanks to brightly painted colonial-era buildings. An architectural highlight is the large, tree-studded Plaza de la Constitucion, which features fountains, statues, 28 archways and colorful murals narrating the history of the state. Volcanoes dot the horizon, including Malintzin, one of the tallest in Mexico. While Tlaxcala attracts tourists, it hasn't been overrun by expats. That keeps prices in check but also means you'll find far fewer fellow American retirees as you would in, say, San Miguel de Allende.
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