Why The World's Top Retirement Haven May Not Be For Everyone

The Retire Overseas Index that my Live and Invest Overseas group published this year ranked Panama as the world's top retirement haven. I'm not alone in this idea. For the past half-dozen years at least, this country has been recognized by many as the best place on earth to think about living or retiring overseas.

However, that is not to say that Panama is the world's best place for all things or for all people. For example: Ecuador is cheaper.

Speaking in round numbers, it'll cost a retired couple $2,000 per month, including rent, to live comfortably in Panama City or about $1,200 a month, again including rent, to live in Las Tablas, one of this country's most affordable places to live at the beach.

Meantime, a retired couple could enjoy life in colonial Cuenca, Ecuador, on as little as, say, $800 a month, including rent. Also cheaper are a number of interesting, exotic choices in Asia, including the Philippines, some parts of Thailand, some parts of Malaysia, Vietnam, and China, all destinations that could be worth a look, depending on what kind of retirement lifestyle you're looking for.

I'd say Panama is best overall, but the weather is better in Medellin, Colombia. Certainly better than in Panama City (which is hot and humid year-round) but better, too, I'd say, in Medellin than in Boquete, which is Panama's top good-weather choice. Boquete can be drizzly, windy, and chilly.

The cost of real estate, considered on a per-square-meter basis (which is the only way you can consider it when trying to draw comparisons), is lower in Medellin than in Panama City by as much as 50%. Property values in Medellin right now remind me of those in Panama City 15 years ago when I first began recommending the Panamanian capital for investment.

Values in Panama City bubbled through 2008, when they settled. But they did not, have not burst, and right now stand at about $1,700 to $2,200 per square meter. In Medellin you could buy in El Poblado, considered the best address in the city, for as little as $1,000 per square meter. In less central, more local neighborhoods, you could buy for less.

The Live and Invest Overseas index ranks Panama #1 generally, but Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, boasts a more developed infrastructure in some ways. In Puerto Vallarta, you aren't buying for someday. In Puerto Vallarta, the would-be retiree can buy into a world-class lifestyle in a region with world-class beaches and ocean views that is supported, right now, by world-class golf courses (seven of them), marinas (three of these), restaurants (dozens), and shopping. The comfortable Pacific beach lifestyle you find today in Puerto Vallarta is available only on a limited basis worldwide. It is a lifestyle that is truly, not metaphorically, comparable to the best you could enjoy in southern California (if you could afford it).

The Pacific coast lifestyle is more fully appointed in Puerto Vallarta than it is anywhere on Panama's Pacific coast, and the Caribbean coast lifestyle is more developed on Ambergris Caye, Belize, and Roatan, Honduras, for example, than it is anywhere on Panama's Caribbean coast.

Panama City is the only real city in Central America, but it's nothing compared with Buenos Aires, Argentina. That sophisticated, eclectic, Euro-chic South American city is a far more cosmopolitan and therefore better choice if what you're looking for in retirement is the best of city life.

In Belize, they speak English. It's the official language. Many in Panama City speak English, too, as a second language, but elsewhere in Panama, you're going to have to learn at least some Spanish or you're going to find life challenging.

Uruguay is probably a safer option than Panama. I'd say Uruguay is one of the safest lifestyle choices in the world. Of course, some (including, frankly, me) would translate "safe" as "dull." Not much happens in Uruguay. That can be a plus for you or a minus, depending on your point of view.

While Panama remains the world's top retirement haven, the overall quality of life is far superior in France. Here, my bias is showing. For me, nowhere on earth competes with the standard of living available in France.

On the other hand, few places on earth are as unappealing as France from the perspective of the tax-payer or the entrepreneur, and on these fronts Panama is tops. Specifically, Panama is the best place in the world today to launch or operate an international or Internet business. And its approach to taxation is as good as it gets for the foreign resident. It's possible to live here, possible even to live and operate a business here, and pay zero local tax.

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