We’ve all been there: stuck at our routine day job, fantasizing of packing it all in and relocating somewhere tropical on the cheap, drinking margaritas and stretching the value of the dollar. Retiring or establishing a location independent business may sound attractive in places like Belize, Panama, Costa Rica and Mexico, but “cheap” isn’t the first word that comes to mind.
Those of us only now coming to the realization that living in the world of 9-5, mortgages and taxes might not be for them have fewer choices these days than those who’ve come to the same realization at least a decade ago. While it was possible to buy a beach adjacent property for under 70,000 ($USD) in some lesser known places in Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama (the top three for security, good seasons and accessibility of decent medical care) back in the late ’90s, these days having 200,000 in the bank will make you feel poor when looking at real estate listings in desirable areas.
Briefly, I will go over what’s attractive about each country in particular: Mexico and Panama are both accessible by non-stop flights, both offer 180 days of visa-free tourist stays, easily renewed if need be. Both have a high standard of living, English is widely spoken or at least understood (more so in Panama), US dollar is easily accepted in lieu of local money, modern apartments/homes, public transportation and ability to drive on most roads is much better than other countries.
There are great beaches on both sides of each country, be in the Caribbean or Atlantic coast line. Overall, overwintering or fully retiring here can be a good option, but keep in mind that it’ll cost you at least 2000$ USD a month for comfortable living and some sightseeing. Prices for a 2-Br home rentals start at 1100$/mo in the high season mid-November onwards through the winter), expect to spend at least 600$ on food (if you like to eat out at least a few times a month), add in a taxi or shuttle expense here and there and at 2000$ for 2-3 people that’s your basic budget.
When it comes to Costa Rica, views differ quite a bit. To some, it is the “Pura Vida” paradise they have been searching for; to others it’s an overpriced tourist trap. I guess, you have to be the judge so I will present the facts as unbiased as I possible can: as a tourist, you are given 90 days only and they are somewhat strict about extensions. Flights tend to cost more, simply due to popularity (of course, going off-season and waiting for a deal plays a huge role), so does accommodation. During my research, I found that even the most remote and off-grid places will still charge at least 50 $USD/night for a basic room, trying to romanticize it in any way they can- but a hut is still a hut. Moreover, mosquito nets come highly recommended unless you’re staying in 4-star resorts, even then I would still insist on at least a bottle of bug repellent. Alongside with this, some areas come with their only “shots warning”, meaning regions where your chances of contracting malaria, Chikungunya cases are especially high.
That alone is enough for me to re-consider any sort of extensive travel through Costa Rica… Alas, in the name of objectivity, I continue. Roads are largely non-existent outside the major city connectors, paving and widening is projected but for now, a 4×4 rental is the best means of transportation if one was to explore all the country has to offer. On the bright side, it was the first country to embrace eco construction and many hotels have been “green choice” certified. Water conservation practices, use of sustainable construction materials, donation of profits to many wildlife conservation funds make this destination a “feel-good” one… provided, you have the pockets deep enough to pay for it all.
And lastly, for those of us travelling with pets, Costa Rica has the strictest entry regulations of all other Central America (including a blood titer test, which runs at about 300$-to prove the effectiveness of a rabies vaccine).
This brings me to the “small 4”: the neighboring El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Let me just start off by warning you that these counties have a joint pack that allows 90-day tourist visa, which cannot be renewed by visiting one of the four members. In other words, you are given 90 days to visit all or any of the four countries. Therefore, most people either cross the border to Mexico if you’re in northern Guatemala especially, otherwise renewals can be quite simple (and there are even people who will make a visa run for you, for under 100$).
These countries are notoriously cheap, but there is a reason as to why: the standard of living is not that high, and your personal freedom might be more compromised than in other countries in Central America. In my interviews with former ex-pats of Nicaragua, there seemed to be a common pattern: “the longer you live here, the higher the chances you will get robbed. Everyone I know has been through it at least once”-says A. Not exactly a reassuring thought. In Guatemala, in addition to occasional tourist crime, one has natural disasters on top of this to consider: earthquakes and mudslides to name a few. In Honduras, I personally know of an elderly lady, who, after having lived in a small village for a number of years, suffered a breaking and entering, with all her possessions gone.
All of this has to be taken in a context: each day an average person in the US has a higher chance of being an innocent bystander of yet another religion-inspired shooting or suffering a fatal car crash. You take a risk no matter where you go and the chances are slim, but you still need to keep your wits about you, be vigilant and get out if something feels fishy.
So there you have it! Granted, it is quite generalized for the sake of keeping all the research I’ve done to one post, but it should give you a good idea of where to start (or not).
Feel free to add your comments below on other countries you have a personal experience in that would fit into a “potential places to retire” category!