- Why the Americas?
- A Few Things I Want You To Know
- #1. Mexico – Largest, Closest, Most Familiar
- #2. Ecuador – Diverse, Beautiful, and Inexpensive
- #3. Colombia – Cheapest and Our Current Home
- #4. Panama – Don’t Let The Small Size Fool You
- #5. Costa Rica – The Land of “Pura Vida”
- #6. Peru – Majestic Center of the Incan Empire
- #7. Paraguay – Your Happy Place
- #8. Bolivia – An Undiscovered Jewel
- #9. Uruguay – European Flavor in South America
- #10. Guatemala – It Is Larger Than It Looks
- Final Thoughts
This is going to be a fun article to write, and hopefully to read. And just to make it clear, these will not be the 10 absolute dirt-poor, cheapest places in the whole world. This article is about the 10 cheapest countries to retire, in the Americas. So Europe and Southeast Asia will have to wait for another article.
Why the Americas?
Here is a list of important reasons to consider Central America and South America – at least those countries that are safe for US Citizens. In our experience, this is a wonderful part of the world in which to live as a US Expat – Retiree.
- Travel to/from the US and Canada is much quicker, easier, and less expensive.
- Because of #1, you will get many more visitors.?
- Only one language to learn – Spanish (This is why Brazil has never been on our list.)
- Cost of Living is 1/5 to 1/2 compared to the USA.
- The weather in the mountains is just right. A/C and heat are not needed.
- For beach lovers, you have access to thousands of miles on 2 coasts. But you will need A/C.
- Good to very good, low-cost healthcare. Total cost is often less than deductibles in the USA.
- Adventure, beauty, lots of new experiences waiting for you.
- In many places, a car is optional. That can save a ton of money.
- Within a year or two, you will have many new, very good friends for the rest of your life.
A Few Things I Want You To Know
I just want you to know that I have no hidden agenda; I have no sponsor paying me to say this or that. The large websites like to alternate the top cities every year to keep all their sponsors happy. That is not what you will read here. And although I will admit to having a clear bias towards Medellin, Colombia, I promise to give you facts, not my opinions.
To write this article, I gathered rankings from 4 different sources. These sources say they consider many factors, of which the cost of living is only one. To write this article, I felt I had to give more weight to published indices that compare the cost of living factors, including rental costs, eating out, etc. The site Numbeo.com publishes data that allows for these comparisons. So I added two more lines of data to determine what I call “The Cheapest, Best places to retire in the Americas.
Living in Central and South America for the past 3 1/2 years has been a marvelous adventure for us. This blog post is designed to share as much information as possible. My goal is for you to have the facts you need to make an informed decision. To the extent beneficial to you, some of this will be based on our experiences or what we have heard from friends. The rest will be from searching for everything I could find. You can decide for yourself.
Since the Table of Contents gave away the order, let’s start with the best and move through to number 10.
#1. Mexico – Largest, Closest, Most Familiar
Mexico is probably the most familiar to people in North America. And it has an incredible range of places to visit or live in retirement. There are destinations with large, active Expat communities, and obtaining residency is very fast and easy. Mexico is #1 of our 10 cheapest countries to retire because most publishers rate it as one of the top 3 places for North Americans to retire. Several of these publishers score it as their number 1, and its Cost of Living + Rent is 4th lowest on our list. So even though it might not be the cheapest, there are other important factors to consider. One of which is how much less it will cost to fly to/from North America.
Mexico’s Best Sites are “Household Names”
You will already be familiar with many of the names because Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas, Acapulco, and Cozumel are all world-famous. But there are also wonderful places you may not know about that are great places to live either part or full-time. Here are a few for you to consider:
- San Miguel de Allende
- Ajijic on Lake Chapala
- Playa del Carmen
Mexico offers every type of destination – Pacific and Caribbean beaches, mountains, very large cities, and places for solitude. And you will not be too far from an International Airport for easy trips to the USA, or other International destinations. And don’t forget the wonderful tacos!
Mexico is very popular with North American Retirees. There are many large and small Expat communities to provide new friends and experiences. And you also have lots of choices for where and how you want to live. If you want a beachfront luxury condo in Acapulco or Cozumel, you aren’t looking for cheap! But in most places, a couple can live very comfortably for $2,500 per month or less. All-in-all, a great choice.
#2. Ecuador – Diverse, Beautiful, and Inexpensive
Ecuador, specifically Cuenca, has been creeping near the top of several lists for a few years. But when you add weight to the economic factors, it rose just enough to edge out number 2. Ecuador’s cost of living plus rent is an astounding 27% of USA/NYC. But surprisingly, this is only 4th best among our countries. If you combine that low rate with no need for a car, you can start to understand how much we saved when we lived there. We did very well on our monthly Social Security.
We have an interesting story to share about healthcare. A friend of ours was visiting Cuenca, and she fell while walking downtown and broke her shoulder in 4 places. Within about 45 minutes, she was checking into the hospital, the surgeon was on his way. The surgery took place later that evening. Eventually, when she returned to the US, she had a doctor double check just to be sure. The doctor told her the surgery was perfect.
Cuenca – Cultural Capital of Ecuador
Cuenca is a beautiful city with lots of history. The culture is also evident everywhere. There are many large open markets that sell fruits, vegetables, meat, flowers, fresh-made bread, and lots more. They also serve hot food, including whole roasted pigs. Many locals eat their meals there. I believe all the markets are named for an important date in the history of Cuenca or Ecuador.
In addition to the markets, there are museums, 52 beautiful churches, most of which are hundreds of years old, and many parades. The area adjacent to the river is a popular stop for locals and ex-pats alike and is decorated beautifully for Christmas. One of the best views of Cuenca is from Mirador de Turi. Check it out here.
Cuenca – Our Experience
We lived in Cuenca, Ecuador for 3 months. We started out in El Centro, about 10 blocks from the main square. Paulette and I created a rule in Cuenca – we walked downhill but took a bus or taxi anytime our destination was going to require an uphill climb. The good news is that we could ride a bus anywhere in the city for 25 cents or less, and taxis generally cost no more than $2.00. Ecuador uses the US Dollar so math was not required to figure out how much we were spending. We had a beautiful 3 bedroom furnished apartment which cost only $650 per month. And I could walk practically anywhere I needed to go. We also had two of the best hospitals in the city within walking distance.
For us, there was only one problem – the altitude. At 8,500 feet, the air was a little thin, and we were cold most of the time. The average temp is between 55 and 75 F). We could not wear shorts. So, blue jeans and long-sleeved shirts with a light jacket became our standard “uniform”. It sounds silly because we were just slightly south of the Equator! Except for that, Cuenca is an excellent place to consider, and many foreigners agree.
Guayaquil and the Pacific
Guayaquil is the 2nd largest city in Ecuador with a population of 2.6 million. It is the main port and is considered the “Commercial” capital of the country. Located on the Bay of Guayaquil, it is not actually on the coast. But once there, you can easily catch a bus to the popular beach communities, such as Salinas, Monteverde, or Puerto Lopez, where you can catch a boat for a day trip to Isla de la Plata, a home for the Blue-Footed Boobie. While in Monteverde, we took some great videos of the red sun sinking slowly into the Southern Pacific Ocean.
Ecuador is a beautiful place to live, and the Expat community in Cuenca was very supportive. We had many opportunities to visit and spend time together. And it is the only place we have visited that has a part of the city called “Gringolandia”!
#3. Colombia – Cheapest and Our Current Home
If you hear the word, Colombia, chances are you immediately think cocaine and Pablo Escobar. The notorious Escobar was killed in 1993, and that was the beginning of the end of the “Cocaine Wars”. Colombia is now a much safer and calmer country. We have lived here for a year, and have never felt unsafe. And Colombia has been seeing both increased tourism and increased new residents from North America as well as the rest of the world for many years.
Medellin, Colombia, 2nd largest city in Colombia is now our home. And we intend to stay here indefinitely. Colombia is number 1 of the 10 cheapest countries to retire in this article. It has the lowest cost of living in all the countries in this post. Cost of Living + Rent is 20% of the USA/NYC. That means your retirement income will go 5 times as far. And that is our experience.
Bogota is 3 times the size of Medellin, and it has a large International Airport with flights to most of the popular international destinations. So even though Colombia is the cheapest, you aren’t giving up modern conveniences to move here.
A few weeks ago, we visited an area called “The Coffee Triangle”. Of course, you know Colombia is the home of “Juan Valdez” and his burro. Colombia grows some of the best coffee in the world. It is a beautiful part of Colombia, and we look forward to many more trips to visit our new home country.
Other Important Information
Obtaining a Resident Visa is easy and very inexpensive. Public transportation is cheap and readily available. The Metro Train system in Medellin would be the envy of most large US cities. For about 75 cents I can ride between the southernmost and northernmost parts of the city with connecting buses everywhere. We do not need or want to own a car. You should put it on your shortlist of places to visit.
Here is a mega-ship passing through the new locks. These new locks were built to handle the much larger ships of today.
#4. Panama – Don’t Let The Small Size Fool You
Panama has been ranked at the top of almost every list for at least the past 10 years. It is #4 on our list of the 10 cheapest countries to retire in the Americas. The tiny country of Panama has been attracting citizens from North America, I guess since we built the Canal over 100 years ago. And there are many good reasons why Panama is so attractive.
The cost of living in Panama is not the cheapest, which is why it is not number 1 on this list. But at a CLI +Rent of only 39% compared to the USA/NYC, living here can still be very affordable. It is an excellent place to retire, and there are many choices available for you to reduce the cost. And one more nice benefit – Panama’s currency is the US Dollar.
Boquete in the Mountains
Boquete, Panama was our first choice both before and after we visited. It is in the mountains (3,000-6,000 feet) which cool things off a lot. Boquete is beautiful, everything grows well there, and it has the most active Expat community of all the places we have lived and visited. It is tiny – only about 30,000 people in total. Having a car is almost mandatory to be comfortable. Those walks uphill can be exhausting.
Panama City on the Pacific Coast
The largest city in Panama is Panama City. There are lots of things to do and see. Also, public transportation is readily available, and there are many more choices for restaurants. It is at sea level which makes it quite a bit warmer than in the mountains. It is much less expensive to live there than in Boquete mostly because of lower rent and not needing a car. But if you intend to travel, it is very convenient. Tocumen International Airport (PTY) has flights to destinations all over the world.
In between Panama City and Boquete are many other choices. Panama is shaped like an “S” lying on its side. This makes for a long narrow country with two long coastlines, so getting close to the water will not be a problem. It also has mountains, including the 11,000-foot Volcán Barú. We lived in Boquete for 17 months and were very content. But our quest for adventure eventually won out.
#5. Costa Rica – The Land of “Pura Vida”
Costa Rica (“CR”) is one of the most popular countries in Latin America. In most years it tops lists of best places for North Americans to retire. However, our focus on the cost of living dropped it to #5 of the 10 cheapest countries to retire without leaving the Americas. Many people compare the Northwest Coastal area with Southern California. The good news is that CR is much less expensive than Southern California. However, it is one of the most expensive countries on our list. We lived in San Jose for a month, and I came away from that experience believing we could live cheaper in Houston than in San Jose. Here is a link to another of my articles about Costa Rica.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. The articles I found said a retired couple could easily live in parts of CR for less than $2,500 per month. An individual could cut that to $1,500. But each couple is different. As always, I recommend an extended visit of 3 months on just your Tourist Visa. Then maybe do the same in a few more places that caught your interest. After a year, you will have much more information on which to base a decision.
Two Coastlines With Mountains In The Middle
CR has two coasts to choose from. The “Gold Coast” is the Guanacaste area in the Northwest part of CR along the Pacific Ocean. Surfing is very good and very popular here. Then there is the Caribbean coast area around Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. There won’t be as much surfing there, but the water should be much clearer and allow for good snorkeling.
There are also mountainous areas. Check out the pic of Arenal Volcano. When we were there, the top was covered with clouds. So you can live at sea level or you can choose higher elevations. Costa Rica is a good choice, but I would check out some others before making a permanent move.
#6. Peru – High Altitude Living
We had never considered living in Peru, but when we visited in 2016, we found several places that could be comfortable. Whether you live there or just visit, you will find breathtaking examples of Incan engineering and construction expertise. At #6 on the 10 cheapest countries to retire in the Americas, it is well worth a visit.
Six hundred years ago, the Incans perfected the art of constructing and living at seriously high altitudes. When you land at Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport in Cusco, you will be at almost 11,000 feet. So you need a day or two just to acclimate to the altitude. Machu Picchu is built at about 9,400 feet. And at one point during our trip from Arequipa to the Colca Canyon, we hit 16,050 feet – on a bus!
Cusco, Peru – Headquarters for the Incan Empire
The Incans are especially well known for the thousands of terraces they built into the mountains. And they built them to last because they are still standing to this day. To support those terraces, they built huge rock walls and they are also standing. The stonework they did is simply amazing. When you see it, you wonder how they could have made such intricate cuts without power tools!
Their irrigation systems were amazing! How did they know how to get just the right amount of water to all those terraces? You will see excellent examples all over the country. Peru is a beautiful, yet stark land and we encourage you to plan your visit soon. Machu Picchu should be on your “bucket list”, but there is much more to see. We stayed for almost a month. If we had not already made our travel arrangements, we most likely would have stayed at least 3 months.
Lima – On the coast, but cooler than we expected.
Lima, on the Pacific coast, is a huge city with almost 10 million residents. The cost of living is very low so it is well worth some research time and possibly a visit. You will not go hungry. We spent a week there, had some great food, and enjoyed the views of the Pacific and the Paragliders buzzing us at the mall. One of our favorite tourist spots was the Magic Water Circuit (see above photo). It is definitely worth your time.
The rent seems quite a bit higher than other places in South America, but that may just be in the most expensive areas. There is plenty to do so you won’t get bored. The best suggestion I can make is to do what we called a “check-it-out visit” for 3 months. By that time, you should know whether it is for you or not.
Arequipa helps make Peru one of the 10 cheapest countries to retire
Arequipa was a total surprise. We had never heard of it, but our friends had selected it for a visit and we tagged along. It is a delightful city with modern hotels, apartments, and shopping malls. Much like Medellin, we had two modern shopping malls within a few blocks of our Airbnb apartment, which was beautiful and comfortable. But again at 8,500 feet average elevation, with desert-like conditions, I’m not sure how comfortable we would be long-term.
We met a wonderful young couple, Kyle and Hannah Shreve. They were Baptist missionaries to Arequipa. Kyle spent several hours with me giving a tour of the Christian School and explaining their mission. We left Arequipa with another great new Christian friendship.
Colca Canyon and the Condors
From Arequipa, we took an overnight tour to see Colca Canyon. During the bus ride, our tour guide mentioned repeatedly how we had to be careful and prepare ourselves for the altitude. The number one suggestion is Coca leaves. That’s right, the basic ingredient of cocaine. They suggest you either chew the leaves or drink a tea made with the leaves. Don’t worry, you won’t get high on the leaves. Just the opposite. The leaves will clear your throbbing head and help you breathe at the seriously high altitude.
On that trip, we had to cross over a mountain chain. At one point, we reached 16,050 feet – on a bus! One of my friends asked if we had to share the oxygen molecule. And during that trip, we saw many more examples of the terraces built by the Incans that are still in use today for farming.
In looking for AirBnB’s in Peru, everyone made a big deal about hot water, as though it was a luxury. With that and the altitude, I would be concerned about living there. And there is also a question about internet dependability and speed. So be sure and check that out.
#7. Paraguay – Your Happy Place
The primary reason Paraguay is on this list is that it is the 2nd of our 10 cheapest countries to retire in the Americas. Totally land-locked, Paraguay has had more than its fair share of political drama. Despite that, Paraguay has twice been voted “The Happiest Country in the World”.
Asuncion is the largest city and the Capital of Paraguay. It is also one of the oldest cities in South America. The weather is quite warm in the summer, so you will have to factor in the cost of air conditioning. The country gets 100% of its power from hydroelectric, which is a very clean source of energy.
The Cost of Living index is a mere 21% of USA/NYC, so your retirement check will cover most, if not all of your living expenses. And if you go, you absolutely must visit Iguazu Falls!
#8. Bolivia – An Undiscovered Jewel
When I started my research, I didn’t think Bolivia would get anywhere near the top 10. But after learning so much more about this large land-locked country, I believe it just might be a place to seriously check out. That is one of the things I looked forward to in retirement – going to a place and staying for several months instead of 1 or 2 weeks.
First, to focus on the title of this article, Bolivia is very affordable. Its COL Index is 23%. The comments I have read say a couple can easily live in one of the major cities for $2,000 or less. Rents, restaurants, groceries, and taxis are all super-low. With the very high Andes Mountains and the Amazon rainforest, you have your choice of weather and scenery.
La Paz is the capital and its metropolitan area boasts a population of 2.4 million. It is located in a valley within the Andes Mountains at nearly 12,000 feet, making it the highest capital city in the world. It is located 42 miles southeast of Lake Titicaca, which Bolivia shares with Peru. This lake is huge, the size of Puerto Rico, and is the highest lake in the world at 12,500 feet. Because of its location and altitude, average temperatures are significantly cooler than many other destinations in South America.
Cochabamba is another city further south. Like Medellin, Cochabamba is called the City of Eternal Spring. But at 8,400 feet it has similar altitude and weather to Cuenca, Ecuador.
Bolivia looks to be a very rugged country that will challenge retirees. I found mixed comments about the quality of life issues. Healthcare doesn’t appear to be nearly as strong as some other countries on this list. And poverty is a serious issue. So I would recommend a personal visit of at least 3 months to be sure it is the right place for you. But you can afford to live there.
#9. Uruguay – European Flavor in South America
Uruguay is very unique. It is much different than any other country on our list. It is located on the Atlantic Coast south of Brazil and East and North of Argentina. Montevideo, the capital and largest city sits at the southernmost point of Uruguay on the Atlantic Coast where the Rio de la Plata flows into the ocean. Over half the population lives there. About 88% of the population is of European descent, mostly from Spain and Italy.
Uruguay is one of the most expensive countries on our list. But its COL + Rent factor is still only 38% in comparison with USA/NYC. It is about half when compared to our hometown of Houston, Texas. So there is still some significant savings in living here, just not as much as many of our other countries.
Another unique fact is there are no mountains in Uruguay. The highest point is only 1,618 feet. It has 4 distinct seasons, where many of our countries have only 1. If you would like more information on Uruguay, you may click this link.
#10. Guatemala – It Is Larger Than It Looks
To prepare this blog, I watched a video titled “10 Things That Shock Tourists”. One point was particularly appropriate. “Guatemala has two mountain ranges and 33 volcanos. It will take longer than you think to get places.”
Guatemala is the last country on our list. But don’t despair. At a Cost of Living Index of only 28% of USA/NYC, your Social Security check will go a long way here. Guatemala City is the largest urban area in all of Central America with a population of almost 3 million. But it is dwarfed by the huge cities in South America.
The two most popular areas for Expats are relatively close to Guatemala City. The first is the historic city of Antigua, only 25 miles from Guatemala City. And Lake Atitlan with its many volcanos and Mayan villages is only 75 miles from Guatemala City. Being that close gives you great access to the best healthcare facilities and the International Airport.
So far, we have not had the opportunity to visit Guatemala, but we want to. All those volcanos have to be worth seeing. And I am a sucker for spectacular waterfalls. And living there is incredibly affordable. So I think Guatemala deserves serious consideration.
I’ve shown you 10 countries where you can afford to live, and which could provide a high quality of life for your retirement. My wife and I have been living outside the USA for 3 1/2 years, and we love it. Give it a try and please let me know. And please add a comment below. Thanks for your visit.
Steve and Paulette Tuggle