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Retiring in Latin America Is Easier Than You May Think

Many concerns about relocating to Central and South America are based on faulty assumptions. Here’s the reality.

By Park Wilson | October 3, 2013
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Park Wilson is an American expat living in Panama. He writes about living and investing overseas at Viva Tropical, is developing a private island and is raising four kids.

Did you know that the No. 1 thing keeping thousands of Americans from realizing their dream of retiring in Latin America is their own set of misconceptions?

They think it’s too far or too expensive or maybe just too much of a hassle. Many worry about being away from friends and family or living without conveniences, like department stores or modern medical facilities.

As a U.S. expat now living in Panama, I’ve found those concerns, while valid, may actually be much less of a problem than you think. That’s because most of this fretting is based on faulty assumptions.

Here’s the reality:

Nearby countries offer easy transportation access and wireless connectivity. Carriers, like American Airlines, now offer direct flights to many cities in Central and South America, including Panama City; San Jose, Costa Rica; and Roatan, Honduras. For instance, you can fly nonstop from Atlanta to San Jose for $410.

(MORE: Where in the World Should You Retire?)

Telecommunications are excellent and inexpensive in most parts of Latin America, too. For example, due in part to a long-standing U.S. military presence, Panama has widespread wireless availability. And a broadband connection in Boquete, Panama, will set you back only $19 a month.

Trusted, local professionals can make buying property or obtaining a visa much simpler than in the past. Many areas have large U.S. expat communities that can be great resources for recommendations of real estate agents, attorneys, developers and other pros.

Most countries in Latin America are very welcoming to foreigners. Their governments want you to retire there, buy property and invest in the local economy. As a result, they offer many perks and incentives to foreign retirees. For example, Ecuador lets you import household goods duty-free.

(MORE: How to Choose Your Best Place to Retire)
 
Your retirement dollars often stretch much farther than they do in the United States. While the cost of living can vary from country to country — or even from city to city within a nation — you can frequently live more cheaply in Central and South America while getting the same, or even better, amenities.

For instance, you can rent a furnished, two-bedroom condo near the historic city center of Cuenca, Ecuador, for under $500 per month. Or you could buy a charming Spanish colonial hacienda in Granada, Nicaragua, for around $50,000.

There are also potential bargains on day-to-day expenses, like groceries, utilities and domestic help. A week's worth of fresh fruit and organic vegetables in Panama costs as little as $8. In many Latin American countries, you can hire a maid or gardener for as little as $10 a day. Movies, sporting events and concerts are also inexpensive (sometimes even free) and retirees often score hefty discounts.

(MORE: Thinking About Moving Abroad for Retirement?)

Health care in Latin American countries represents another big savings. Doctor visits range from $15 to $25, maybe slightly more for a specialist. Hospital charges and prescription medications are also as little as one-fourth of what you’d pay in the United States.  

The quality of health care in Latin America might surprise you, too. Doctors tend to provide much more focused, personal attention than most North Americans are used to receiving. And many physicians there are trained in the United States.

Finding the right place is as easy as defining your values. The best way to start selecting an appropriate retirement location in Latin America is by determining your priorities.

Whether you’d prefer a bustling cosmopolitan city by the sea (try Panama City) or a secluded valley high in the Andes (check out Vilcabamba, Ecuador), I bet there's a place that's right for you.

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