By the staff of InternationalLiving.com
Retiring abroad is easier and more affordable than ever before. These days it really is possible to spend your days relaxing beneath palm fronds on a Caribbean beach, enjoying farm-fresh produce in a mountain haven with year-round spring weather, or wandering the storied streets of a historic and cultured European city ... or all of the above.
But with so many choices available, finding the right one can seem daunting.
Enter International Living's Annual Global Retirement Index.
Researched over months with the help of our ever-growing team of correspondents, editors, and contributors all over the world, this Retirement Index is the ultimate resource for helping you find your ideal retirement haven.
Below we reveal the top retirement havens in 2016 and take a look at some of the big hitters in each category. You can read the full article here, which includes the scores for the top 23 retirement havens in the world in the Index.
Panama Earns the No.1 Spot in This Year's Index.
"We're healthier and living a better lifestyle here than we ever did in the U.S.," says expat Mitzi Martain, who has lived on her farm near Santa Fe, Panama for nearly nine years now. "And our Social Security income covers all our monthly expenses."
Mitzi and her husband Bill are two of the approximately 50,000 U.S. expats who have found their piece of paradise in this year's winner -- Panama.
"We are so blessed to live where we do," say Connie and Mikkel Moller, who have called Pedasí, Panama, home since 2012. "Our stress level is 10 percent of what it used to be."
Panama has long been a favorite of retirees. You'll find them along both Caribbean and Pacific coasts, on white-sand islands, living contentedly nestled in mountain valleys, and along the glittering promenade of Panama City. Panama has hands down the best package of retirement benefits in the world. Pick your climate -- tropical or temperate. And it's close to home, just a three-hour flight from Miami.
"It is definitely cheaper than the U.S.," says Maureen LoBue, who enjoys a beach life in San Carlos. "Water is included in my rent, so I just pay electricity, which last month was $16. My satellite internet service is just $15 a month. And when I buy produce at the local market down the street, I can fill a bag with fresh veggies for less than $5."
"In Panama's capital I have the best of both worlds," says International Living's Panama Editor Jessica Ramesch. "There's a growing cultural and arts scene. I collect flyers of all the fabulous activities there are to do here. Opera showcases, art exhibit openings, and handicraft festivals...there are so many new restaurants every week, I stopped trying to keep track."
And the healthcare? Panama's cities are home to world-class hospitals and many medical professionals trained in the U.S. A Pensionado visa can further lower your costs by providing discounts off the already low fees for care.
The 2016 Annual Global Retirement Index -- Results by Category
This year, we scored each country across 10 categories used to compile our most comprehensive Index yet. Here's a breakdown of the big hitters in each category. (We also take a look at some of the criteria used to score each section of the Index.)
1. Buying & Renting
In this category, we look for the best bang-for-your-buck real estate to rent or buy abroad. How easy is it to find a rental? And how affordable is it to buy if you want to settle down?
Ecuador tops this category in the Index. In the colonial city of Cuenca, you can rent a two-bedroom apartment for $500 or less, while the same property in the popular mountain town of Cotacachi will set you back $450 to $600 a month (although you can find rentals for much less if you shop around).
Right across our beat, though, you'll find fantastic real estate deals. Take Nicaragua, for example. "Back home in San Diego, I never dreamed that I could afford to own something with an ocean view," says International Living's Nicaragua Correspondent Bonnie W. Hayman. "There you can pay $1.5 million for something like that. Yet in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, I own a two-bedroom, two-bathroom house, on an acre with an ocean view, which cost just $132,000."
2. Benefits & Discounts
There was only going to be one winner in this category.
With the Pensionado Visa, Panama offers the best retiree benefits on our beat. All you need to do is prove you're receiving a pension of at least $1,000 a month and be over 18 years of age.
You'll be eligible for 50 percent off entertainment (such as cinema tickets, concerts, plays, and the like), 25 percent off electricity, 25 percent off restaurants, and 25 percent off airline tickets bought in Panama. You can also get 15 percent off hospital bills, 20 percent off medical consultations, and 10 percent off prescription medicines, among many other goodies.
3. Visas and Residence
The process of acquiring Panamanian residence is both cheap and easy, making it simple for you to become a resident in the country.
"The Pensionado Residence Program is the most popular option for potential expats for many good reasons," says International Living Panama Editor Jessica Ramesch. "It is highly effective in drawing people to Panama because, in addition to providing a permanent residence solution, it also entitles retirees or Pensionados to a host of money-saving discounts."
Mexico also offers easy residence for North Americans -- if it didn't, how could the nearly one million U.S. citizens who live there do it? With a visitor permit, you can spend nearly six months in the country: plenty of time to suss out great retirement spots like Tulúm and San Miguel de Allende. If you want to stay longer, Mexico's residence visas are extremely popular and straight-forward.
4. Cost of Living
From groceries to utilities, from rent to transport -- every expense involved in living a comfortable retirement was factored in here.
Of all the countries in the Index, Cambodia won for having the lowest cost of living. And when you hear some of the prices being quoted by expats there, it's not hard to see why.
"Apartment rentals in nice areas are available for as little as $250 a month," says expat John Grady, who lives in the capital of Phnom Penh. "But what really amazed me was the cost of eating out. You can fill yourself with barbequed meats, grilled fish, or Khmer soup and endless bowls of rice and noodles for under $5."
Also finishing strongly was Nicaragua, which overall is among the most affordable countries on our beat. Here you can live a great retirement for $1,200 a month. This includes renting within a short walk of stunning Pacific beaches for only $400 a month, and great food (fish, pizza, lasagna, Mediterranean salads...you name it) for less than $10 per dish.
5. Fitting In
What really makes for a great expat experience is the friends you make in your adopted home country. This category looks at how easy it is to integrate into your new home, whether you're retiring as a couple or flying solo.
The small Caribbean island of Roatán -- as well as being home to a mostly English-speaking population -- has a large and concentrated expat community. And it offers plenty of social gatherings you can get involved in. As a result, making new friends isn't hard here, and that's why Roatán comes out on top of the Fitting In category.
"The community is tight, but there are constantly new people coming and going as well," says International Living Roatán Correspondent Amanda Walkins of the island's expat population. "This makes for a fun place for expats, including singles; there are many single expats here."
Belize, with its English-speaking population and established expat communities also makes it easy for new arrivals to fit in. Lynn Ann Snellman and Tony DiPiazza, from Michigan, found this out when they moved to Placencia. "We socialize with both expats and native Belizeans. We have many more acquaintances than we did in the States. In Belize it is easy for neighbors to become friends.
6. Entertainment and Amenities
"I crave variety, and here I have it all," says International Living Panama Editor Jessica Ramesch of her home, Panama City. "Past weekends have found me enjoying live jazz at the Danilo Pérez club in historic Casco Viejo, English-language plays at the Ancón Theater Guild, gourmet cuisine at renowned restaurant Maito, and even hand-rolled cigars at The Country Store, in the former Canal Zone."
Panama and Malaysia shared honors in this category ... for good reason. Both are foodie havens with great opportunities for indulging your taste buds. There's no shortage of fun cultural events and activities to keep you occupied, as well as terrific beaches and verdant rainforest for those who prefer the great outdoors.
"It [Malaysia] has everything that Canada has to offer but at a fraction of the price," says expat Jim Herrler of his exciting new life with his partner Ellen Ma in Southeast Asia. Here, they can catch movies in English from only $3 and browse through ritzy shopping malls.
"The local food is simply outstanding, and we discover new places every week," says Ellen. "A round of golf back home was $72, whereas here it's $30. A tennis pro could cost up to $100 an hour back home, whereas here it's $15 ... another reason why I'm taking lessons twice a week."
As healthcare costs in the U.S. continue to spiral upward, one of the main questions any aspiring expat asks is, "Can I get great healthcare when I move overseas?"
Colombia and Malaysia are neck-and-neck in this year's index, providing the best healthcare of any South American or Asian countries on our beat. In both countries, you'll find clean, excellent hospitals, highly-trained doctors, and very affordable care.
"Medical tourism is booming here," says expat Lauren Brown, who lives in the Colombian city of Medellín. "Not only is the care inexpensive, but the equipment and hospitals are state-of-the art. A full dental cleaning with x-rays and checkup only cost me $30."
8. Healthy Lifestyle
"We eat food with a lot less preservatives. The water doesn't have fluoride in it. We walk a lot more and get more fresh air. It's been great for our health," says expat Rob Evans. Rob has lost 50 pounds since moving to Costa Rica's Central Valley with his wife Jeni in 2014.
Finding a healthier retirement abroad is a key consideration for many expats. And while many countries on our beat scored strongly in this regard, Costa Rica earned top marks.
"We eat a lot more fruit and vegetables here rather than the processed food we bought in the States," says expat Greg Seymour, who lives near the town of Grecia with his wife, Jen. Since settling in Costa Rica, Greg has taken to exploring the mountains and forests around his home, and feels all the healthier for it.
"Easy access to the U.S. is another huge bonus of living here," says expat Lauren Brown of her new home, Colombia. "Direct flights from Medellín to U.S. cities are now frequent. In fact, I often find cheaper round-trip flights from Colombia to the U.S. ($350) than what it used to cost to fly from San Francisco to Boston to visit my family (often $400 to $600)."
Unsurprisingly, European countries like Spain, Portugal, France, Ireland, and Malta came out on top in this category. All of these enjoy modern road networks, extensive public transport coverage, and internet service comparable to that in the U.S. But closer to home, Latin American countries like Panama have invested heavily in infrastructure -- and it shows.
"The weather in Cuenca is perfect for me," says expat Bill Riordan of Ecuador's welcoming climate. "I don't like hot weather. I went to a party at the home of a Cuencano family I know; for the evening, I put on a light sweater and was very comfortable. The winter months of July and August are cooler, but compared to the harsh winters in Connecticut, the climate here is just fine."
Bill's sentiment is mirrored by many expats in Ecuador, a fact that has seen Ecuador top the Climate category in the 2016 Index.
Although resting on the equator, the highlands of Ecuador (home to popular expat destinations like Cuenca, Cotacachi, and Vilcabamba) also lie at several thousand feet above sea level. This combination guarantees a year-round spring like climate--never too warm, never too cold. In Cuenca, for instance, the high's rarely reach above the 70s F while lows scarcely drop below 50 F.
Read the full report on the World's Best Retirement Havens in 2016 here: The Best Places to Retire in 2016.
Here are the 10 highest ranked countries by the Retirement Index