With the unbearable weather in much of the country, you might be thinking how pleasant it would be to retire where the only ice you’ll see is in a refreshing drink.
If so, the International Living Annual Global Retirement Index, released today, is right on time. Six of its Top 10 countries — ranked based on data and International Living’s correspondents’ firsthand knowledge — are in Latin America, including this year’s winner: Panama. Another three are in Asia and one’s in Europe.
“Ecuador and Panama usually slug it out for the number one position in our rankings,” says Dan Prescher, special projects editor at International Living, which runs a magazine, website and conferences for retirees and wannabees.
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Why Panama Popped
This year, Panama — the southernmost country in Central America — won by recently making it easier to move there. Normally, you can get a Panamanian visa if you receive a pension of at least $1,000 a month; Social Security qualifies. But if you don’t have a pension, you might now be able to gain permanent residency through the fairly new “Friends of Panama” visa. You just need to have a local bank account there with at least $5,000 and either buy real estate, open a business or get a job in Panama.
Other reasons for Panama’s pop: “The weather is great, the value for the dollar is exceptional, the economy is robust and the government is stable,” says Prescher. “If there’s something you can’t get in Panama City, you probably don’t need it. And the rest of the country is just unconscionably gorgeous — it’s a tropical paradise with beaches, jungles and mountains.”
No place is perfect, of course. Panama didn’t score especially well in International Living’s infrastructure category. “Outside of Panama City, the roads are not that well maintained,” says Prescher. And in Ecuador, where Prescher and his wife Suzan live, “if you need your refrigerator repaired, it can take a long time, sometimes. There’s a lot of bureaucracy.”
International Living’s latest Top 10:
4. Costa Rica
5. Spain (up from No. 8 last year)
7. Mexico (down from No. 4 last year)
9. Uruguay (down from No. 6 last year)
(MORE: How to Choose Your Best Place to Retire)
The U.S. News Winners
Panama — more specifically, Coronado, Panama — led the list of U.S. News’ just published list of “The World’s 8 Best Places to Retire in 2014,” too. Those eight, chosen by Kathleen Peddicord, founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group, include locales in four countries that are on International Living’s list and four that aren’t:
1. Coronado, Panama
2. Languedoc, France
3. Ambergris Caye, Belize
4. Cuenca, Ecuador
5. Chiang Mai, Thailand
6. Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
7. Granada, Nicaragua
8. Medellin, Colombia
Prescher concedes that even the International Living list is “at least half” subjective.
“If you don’t like the heat, you won’t like Panama. It’s tropical. And Panama City is a big, noisy place. If you don’t like big noisy places, you won’t like Panama City.”
A Critical Take on Panama
Indeed, two recent Huffington Post articles by George Rajna, of the We Said Go Travel blog, knocked Panama as a retirement haven. After noting that “Panama has serious pluses for potential retirees who desire to relocate abroad to a country with a cheaper standard of living than the United States,” Rajna said Panama City has “heinous traffic” and “crime can be a serious issue in many of the barrios” there. He was equally disappointed by Panama’s mountain highlands and the colonial town of Pedasi.
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How to Suss Out a Retirement Locale
This kind of difference of opinion is exactly why Prescher says people thinking about retiring abroad should first “ruthlessly profile themselves” to honestly assess what they’d love and hate about a place.
“As soon as you leave your country, things will be different," he says. “If you can’t get highly-pasteurized half-and-half for your morning coffee and that would bug the hell out of you, you’re not going to be happy living there.”
To do your research, spend some time reviewing the International Living and U.S. News rankings and their accompanying articles. Also, check out the free calculator at a site called Xpatulator.com, which lets you compare the cost of living in hundreds of countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. (Xpatulator says that in Panama, a loaf of white bread costs $1.36, a summer dress runs $38, monthly internet goes for $34 and the cost for a private-practice doctor visit for an uninsured patient is $49.)
After you've loaded up on stats and other people's opinions, come up with a list of a few places that sound intriguing to you and spend some time in each to see whether you’d like living there. “Find out what it’s like in the worst season for weather and during rush hour,” says Prescher. “See a place at its worst.”
Your experiences and data will ultimately let you figure out which place truly is the best — for you.