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Expat Life

Latin America has become the new ‘Sun Belt’ for multitudes of North American retirees

By Jesse Wilson

After 20 years in the U.S. military, James Cummiskey was divorced and looking for a change. Relenting to his buddy’s request, he flew to Medellín, Colombia, for a visit. He looked, he saw, and, by dinner time, he decided to stay. Permanently.

Panama City’s impressive but somewhat quirky skyline.

“After four to five hours, I was immediately captured by everything I saw,” says the ex-marine, who has lived in 35 countries. He spent the next four months selling two homes, three vehicles, two motorcycles, and one airplane. He put the money aside and decided to retire early.

Now he lives in a posh section of the Colombian city of 3.8 million, surrounded by lush vistas. He married a Colombian woman, started a coffee export business, and seems to get goose bumps every time he thinks about his new life. “I tell you honestly I have had more fun here in the past four years than in the previous 50,” he says.

Cummiskey’s story is being repeated thousands of times – minus perhaps the sale of a personal plane – as more and more Americans retire to countries all over Latin America. Lured by sun-dappled landscapes and cheap living costs, they are settling in culturally vibrant towns in central Mexico, beach communities in Costa Rica, colonial cities in Ecuador, high-rise enclaves in Panama, and mountain retreats in Nicaragua.

Even Medellín, once the drug and murder capital of the world, has transformed itself into something of an urban showcase, attracting baby boomers to a place where cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar used to carry out his ruthless craft.

Medellin, Colombia is also a popular draw.
Medellin, Colombia is also a popular draw.

Though the phenomenon of Americans retiring in Latin America began 25 years ago, it has accelerated in the past five to 10 years. Call the region America’s new “Sun Belt.”

The exodus south is being driven by a confluence of factors. The baby boom generation – the largest in history – is reaching retirement age, and millions are looking for places to spend the next phase of their lives. As the most educated, well-traveled, and adventurous generation in history, many of these boomers are deciding to retire outside the country – including in Latin America.

In addition to Medellin, retirees are flocking to such destinations as Cuenca, Ecuador, which some websites and publications call the world’s best place to retiree. Other popular Latin American locations include San Miguel de Allende and Ajijic, Mexico, Boquete, Panama, and Montevideo, Uruguay.

They’re looking for places that will allow them to stretch their 401(k)s after they lost a lot of money in the last stock market collapse. With the U.S. economy facing new challenges in the trade war with China, and health-care costs so aggressive, retirees want to live where they can afford greens fees and where a trip to the emergency room won’t bankrupt them.

“A lot of people are saying, ‘I’m tired of worrying about my retirement years,’ so they are beginning to ask questions and go in search of great deals … and they are finding them,” says Kathleen Peddicord, founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group and author of “How To Retire Overseas: Everything You Need to Know to Live Well (for Less) Abroad.” She says that many are taking advantage of what she calls the “perception gap” – the idea that countries such as Colombia and Nicaragua are still thought of as countries with huge problems of drug violence even though the violence has largely been erased. One other factor: In the age of Skype and WhatsApp, meaningful contact with children and friends, no matter where one retires, is now only a finger tap away.

While living in Latin America isn’t for everyone – crime, cultural differences, and even phone connections can be problematic – is it any wonder that Naples, Fla., and Flagstaff, Ariz., are no longer America’s only leisure-years Shangri-Las?

Jeanne Mendez was drawn by the views of three volcanoes and the “gentle pace of life.” After her husband died in 2004, Ms. Mendez went on a yoga retreat held on the shores of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. She ended up building a circular home in Santa Cruz, a village that borders the expansive 50-mile lake.

Cuenca's cathedral from an El Centro rooftop.
Cuenca’s cathedral from an El Centro rooftop.

Mendez, who for 20-plus years worked in finance in New York City and then for Microsoft in Seattle, now has to board a small boat to get groceries from a local market, which is part of the charm. “For a person who used Excel spreadsheets for every decision,” she says, “it was an unusual decision [to move here], but it was a powerful urge for me.”

Mendez represents another dimension of the surge of Americans southward: Many of them are settling in countries other than the usual haunts. For years, Americans have been retiring in Panama, Costa Rica, and parts of Mexico. Many still are. But now a growing number are also exploring Belize, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru and other countries not often mentioned in retirement brochures.

What makes Guatemala attractive to retirees, for instance, is not only its enviable views but its cheap costs, even relative to other Central American countries. A house that would go for half a million dollars in Costa Rica or Panama can be found or built in Guatemala for $250,000, according to Armand Boissy, a real estate agent and developer who has lived in the Lake Atitlán area for the past 25 years.

Patricia and David Bibb, both artists in their 60s, decided to settle near Lake Atitlán after searching for places in Belize, Honduras, and other parts of Guatemala. “It was as beautiful as Hawaii,” says Ms. Bibb, who has lived in North Palm Beach, Fla., and Georgia.

The couple renovated an existing home, doing some of the work themselves, since he is a master woodworker and she is a ceramic artist. They have three grown children and three grandchildren in the United States whom they see four or five times a year. But they have no plans of returning. “We consider this our last home,” says Ms. Bibb with finality.

Walter Ames, 57 and a former Silicon Valley software developer, settled in Cuenca in 2010 and continues to work for clients in the U.S. “I’m making a living on the U.S. economy and living on the Ecuadorian economy. It’s a great formula,” he says, adding that the cost of living in Cuenca is less than a quarter of what he paid in Palo Alto, California, his previous home.

Lamarc is not alone in Cuenca, which some sources are called the hottest single expat destination in Latin America a few years back. The UNESCO World Heritage City of 600,000, with a large and charming historic district, has seen the number of North American expats grow from about 300 six years ago to more than 8,000 today.

To a certain extent, the move south by Americans is just part of a larger trend of retirees settling in places all around the world – from France to Thailand to craggy New Zealand. When Peddicord, the founding publisher of International Living, launched the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group in 2008, she had 10,000 subscribers the first year. Now she has more than 300,000.

But Latin America is drawing a particularly large number of expatriates, both because of its proximity to the U.S. and because of the relative inexpensiveness of many parts of the region. While no one knows the precise number of retirees living in the area, signs suggest it is substantial – and growing:

•The number of Americans receiving Social Security checks in Central America and the Caribbean – one gauge of how many people live outside the U.S. – rose 46 percent between 2005 and 2018, to 59,479, according to the Social Security Administration. It jumped 112 percent in Panama and 32 percent in Costa Rica.

•The number collecting U.S. Social Security checks in South America increased 48 percent over the same nine-year period, to 22,019. It rose 97 percent in Colombia and 87 percent in Ecuador.

•Mexican officials estimate that more than one million U.S.-born citizens now live in Mexico – up from 360,000 in 2000.

“There are 20,000 Americans just here in Lake Chapala region and more in Guadalajara,” says Thomas Heller, a real estate agent who grew up in Washington State and married a woman from Mexico he met while studying there.

The Mexican states of Jalisco, Guanajuato, and Baja California have traditionally served as destinations both for tourists and retired Americans. But Mexico City has become a magnet for American migrants, too, as security and quality of life have improved in the city.

While many people are moving to Latin America permanently, others are choosing to live there a few months of the year. For these people – mainly “snowbirds” – the region has become the new Florida.

The biggest recent changes that Ames see in the Cuenca expat population is the growing popularity of part-timers. “When I came down, most people were settling in for good,” he says. “Now, there are more and more folks who spend part of the year here or use the city as a base for travel.”

Ames adds that he is also seeing more Europeans and younger expats in Cuenca than he did when he first moved down.

Retiring outside the U.S. certainly isn’t everyone’s idea of utopia. One of the biggest obstacles is a simple one: managing expectations. Some people think living in Ecuador, Panama, or Mexico will be the same as living in the U.S., only cheaper. It isn’t.

As Zach notes, many countries in the region operate at a different rhythm. A less-frenetic pace can be good for retirees. But it can also mean slower service at a restaurant, notorious bureaucratic delays in getting land titles or driver’s licenses, and scheduled dates with plumbers or carpenters that never happen.

“Mañana doesn’t mean tomorrow,” says Zach. “It means not today.”

Americans are used to good roads, first-rate telephone and Internet service, and reasonable customer service. Moving south can be jarring. “The streets are bad and poorly maintained, there are no lights or signage, and parking spaces are nonexistent,” says Cummiskey of urban life in Medellín.

Crime is a predominant concern. While levels of violence vary widely across the region, and the vast majority of expats settle in communities that are considered safe, retirees caution that it’s important to know when and where to travel. Some thieves prey on foreigners. Drug violence remains a concern in parts of Mexico, Colombia and other countries.

Mr. Coles, the retired firefighter, says that even though Panama is safer than some other countries, violent crime still exists and one has to take precautions. The judicial system, he adds, is notoriously inefficient and ineffective.

Some countries, however, have made dramatic reductions in crime. Ecuador, which ranked 15th for safety in Latin America only 10 years ago, today ranks second, only behind Chile, according to international crimes statistics.

Sara Laing can sympathize with that. Eight years ago, she bought 17 acres of unspoiled land on a mountaintop in Santa Rosa de Copán, a city in western Honduras. Ms. Laing, a savvy world traveler who had lived in 20 countries as a volunteer and mental-health professional, moved because she had tired of retirement life in Sarasota, Fla., which mostly consisted of going to concerts and theater productions.

“I wasn’t living life,” she says. “I was just watching it.”

In Santa Rosa de Copán, she teaches English and other classes at two village schools and enjoys her veranda, which offers stunning views of the woodlands.

But one day two men with guns tied up a man who cares for her home and then ransacked the house while she hid in a closet. The incident, combined with the distance she lives from her grandchildren and the inability to live in Honduras on her Social Security income of $760 a month, is prompting her to return to the U.S.

“I am sad,” she says, “because I love it here, and I do think it is one of the most beautiful countries. I want to see it flourish.”

Language can be another barrier. Many Americans have settled in areas with large expat communities or ones that cater to outsiders, and they can get along without learning Spanish. Newby, for instance, says that most of the American retirees he knows in Mexico’s state of Jalisco don’t speak Spanish fluently.

“They don’t need to,” he says. Most people “retire here because the weather is great, not because they studied Spanish in college.”

For others, learning the native tongue and local customs can take time, but is usually worth the effort. “In your daily life, you can go a long time without speaking Spanish, but it’s much easier if you do,” says Joel Moskowitz, a lawyer from Malibu, Calif., who, with his wife, Anna, moved to Roatán, one of the Bay Islands that is part of Honduras.

Still, for all the challenges of retiring in America’s new Sun Belt, many expats see the advantages far surpassing the disadvantages. Consider Cummiskey and his fondness for Medellín. Or Ames’ for Cuenca.

He likes the city’s predictable climate. He likes the shopping malls, the antique stores, the nightclubs. He likes the vegetation and the views. But, most important, he likes the people.

“They have one of the highest poverty rates in the world and yet the people are not at all depressed,” he says. “They are completely happy all the time and that is very, very cool and appealing to me.”