Other Options

I will always admire Canada and respect the Canadian social contract with its people. But I wouldn’t want to live there. Wisconsin has been cold enough for us. Delving into international retirement trends, we learned that many Canadians owned property in Mexico, where they retreated, if possible, to escape the blustery cold.

So, we looked into Mexico as a potential retirement haven. But the stories about traveling through Mexico – especially around towns near the U.S. border – were chilling in a different way: the fear factor. Americans inadvertently (but sometimes deliberately) had been targets of drug cartels and other criminals in the country.

We considered the Lake Chapala and Ajiic areas outside Guadalajara – known for its “ideal climate” and the number of English-speaking expats residing there – but these places, not far from Mexico’s second largest city, also became headlines when Americans were found murdered there.

“They were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” explained people quoted in the news stories. “They should have known better: You don’t go out here alone at night … especially to certain places. You travel only on the major highways and roads. Don’t wander around. You learn that, to stay safe, it’s wise to live in a gated community.”

That wasn’t what we wanted; our dream included late-night strolls along cobble stone streets of old towns with lots of lanes and paths.

Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula – home to cruise ships calling on expansive, intentionally constructed resort destinations like Cancún, Cozumel, and Playa del Carmen – advertised itself as Mexico’s “safest place to be.” Rather than these tourist traps featuring all-inclusive vacations and panhandlers shilling free meals at luxurious spots in exchange for touring the premises and listening to pitches on the benefits of buying their time-shares, we decided to take a close look at the historic city of Mérida and its nearby beaches—especially Progreso.

It’s hot there. Very hot. Hot and humid and buggy. 

We stayed in a charming little hotel in downtown Mérida, on a small street not far from the city’s market. With Walmart, Costco, Home Depot, Office Max, and other U.S. brands, we felt “at home,” although stifled by the climate if not put off by the language.

But Mérida wasn’t where we wanted to be—even its own people looked to escape the oppressive heat by heading to the beaches, not even an hour’s drive away. We headed there, too.

We went there to look at “Big Blue,” a property in Progreso, just two blocks from the Gulf of Mexico beach. The stately building boasted five big bedrooms, five full baths, a separate “casita” with its own facilities, and a heart-shaped swimming pool … all enclosed and private. We’d seen it listed online by more than one property agent based in Mérida, although one seemed to be more familiar with the property and the Canadian family that was selling it. It had been on the market for a while, the agent informed us, and the owners were “motivated” to sell it.

“What does that mean?” we asked. “Come down and look at it,” replied the agent. “I’ve spoken with the sellers and feel sure that they’ll sell it to you for $10,000 less than their asking price.”

The house was truly awesome. But it needed work. And furnishings. Especially if it were to become the bed and breakfast we envisioned. How much would it cost us to have the repairs and updates made, with so many trades – electrical, masonry, plumbing, carpentry – involved? What would we pay for all the new appliances – air conditioners, a commercial kitchen, all the usual suspects – that needed upgrading? And what kind of estimate would be appropriate for the furnishings, especially comfortable new bedrooms and mattresses?

We made an offer—exactly what the agent told us the owners would accept. Leaving later that morning, we waited at the airport for a response, laptops opened and WiFi on. Just before boarding, we received the news: “Sorry. The owners changed their minds. They’ll sell you the house … but want the full asking price.”

Six years on the market. We offered what was recommended before we flew down to check out the property and Progreso. But, now, it didn’t feel right. If we were misled about the acceptable price for the property, what else might be mistaken?

More importantly, where should we consider next?

I engaged all my contacts and connections in seeking a church seeking a pastor. Preferably a Spanish-speaking pastor.  Like the patriarch Abraham long ago before me, I felt a tugging at my spirit urging me to move on to a place whose Spirit would call.

That’s when I came across this mission statement from an international church in Panama serving all people, but especially English and Spanish speakers, which was looking for a new lead pastor: “To be a bridge of cooperation and understanding among religious groups of all faiths; of acceptance of others regardless of social class, race, gender, or sexual orientation; between all of God’s children, mirroring and practicing the love God has for us; of freedom in the study of religion, the interpretation, and the practice of faith; and for God’s love in a troubled world, expressing a generosity of spirit to all those in need.”

Now, that sounded like a perfect fit in terms of my personal beliefs.

I submitted a letter of application, along with my CV, via email.

Within days of completing and submitting the application materials requested, I heard back from the pastoral search committee: “We would like to schedule an interview this coming Monday. Any chance we can hold it at 7pm or 8pm CST?” It would be an hour conversation.

The plot was thickening, but what did we really know about living in Panama? Our only experience with the country was a cruise ship excursion through Panama City, culminating on a boat that would take us through the fabled Panama Canal. But what would it be like to live there? What was its quality of life and cost of living? Even closer to the equator than Jacksonville, Florida, or Progreso and Mérida, Mexico, how hot and humid would the climate be there?

Panama is very, very hot and very, very humid. It is also very expensive, especially the areas around the church. How much would it cost us to move there—including our three dogs? Would the church help defray some of these costs? When did they expect me to start? How long would it take for us to sell our house and our cars? Would the church pay for Russ to join me for a week or so to do house-hunting while I was being oriented to the church? Ultimately, there were more questions than answers forthcoming. And those answers that were provided indicated that the move would be more difficult than either Russ or I had anticipated.

Sadly, I turned down the offer. But I continue to use this church’s mission statement as an example of what I believe a church should be.

We were beginning to become indoctrinated to the “expat” community and decided to consider the possibilities offered by two other countries in South and Central America: Ecuador and Nicaragua.

During a year in high school, Russ’s family had hosted an exchange student from Ecuador. More recently, we were hearing increasingly good things about expat life in this country: Relatively low crime, a large and active expat community, extremely generous homes at very affordable prices, and quite a comfortable climate … even in Cuenca, a beautiful colonial city high up in the mountains, where many expats have settled.

In Ecuador, you can enjoy some of the lowest prices in Latin America on everything from groceries to real estate and domestic help.  A couple could easily live a modest lifestyle on as little as U.S. $1,200 per month, including rent. With less money needed for housing and utilities, retirees have the flexibility to travel and pursue other dreams.  Inexpensive transportation is readily available and makes getting around the rest of the country a breeze.

Ecuador also offers great benefits to its senior residents, with discounts as high as 50% on things like international airfare and entertainment.

Many expats who retire to Ecuador find themselves extremely pleased with the country’s medical system, particularly with the quality of care they receive. Most doctors speak English, and many trained in the U.S.  Hospitals are excellent and equipped with state-of-the-art technology.  Best of all is the cost: Health care can run anywhere from half to one-tenth the cost for the same services in the U.S.

Yes, we’d certainly think about Ecuador.

But we also were being tickled by Nicaragua, especially Lake Granada, a freshwater lake and the largest in Central America. The lake drains to the Caribbean Sea via the San Juan River, making its lakeside city an Atlantic port, although Granada (as well as the entire lake) is closer to the Pacific Ocean geographically.

Other parts of Nicaragua can get disturbingly hot, but Granada and its lake are quite comfortable and its real estate is altogether reasonable.

“Life here [in Granada] has been good to us,” shared one retiree from the USA who was active in one of the Nicaragua online expat groups we had joined. “What you really need to think about is what you will do when you get here. Successful expats reinvent their lives and do things that they have always wanted to do. We do some volunteer work, are active in our church, and pursue interests we didn’t have time for in our former life. We also travel a great deal. Central America is a great place to see. The availability in stores is great, although imported food is expensive. We have found most of what we want. We go to Managua once a month for groceries and to have a fun time,” reported this Granada expat. But another expat living in Nicaragua had these words of warning about Granada:

“You can live here very well on whatever income you have. We live in a middle class neighborhood for a fraction of what it would cost in the U.S. or Canada. Our neighborhood is very safe, our neighbors are friendly and watch out for us, but you must practice common sense. Most of the crime is opportunistic and, if you are walking home drunk and talking on your iPhone at midnight, expect to invite trouble. We also avoid heavy tourist areas like La Calzada, which are magnets for crime. Be just as careful of expats as Nicas. Don’t trust anyone you meet in a bar. Get to know people before you get too friendly.”

Good advice. For everyone, no matter where.

While we had heard through the grapevine that “Nica” was the next best place to invest – because China was planning to spend lots of money building a canal there that would beat Panama’s – there was just something about Nicaragua that made us uneasy. Maybe it was its history. Or, perhaps, it was because of El Salvador, Honduras, and (to a degree) even Costa Rica, its current neighbors, whose citizens were among the “immigrants” fleeing their countries to live in the United States. Whatever the cause of our hesitancy, neither Nicaragua or Ecuador, nor Mexico and Panama, felt right for us to retire there.

None of these places had our names on their welcome mats.

Shared here are personal observations, experiences, and happenstance that actually occurred to us as we moved from the USA to begin a new life in Portugal and Spain. Collected and compiled in EXPAT: Leaving the USA for Good, the book is available in hardcover, paperback, and eBook editions from Amazon and most online booksellers.

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