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Retirement in Latin America — What You Need to Know

The basics on retiring in Panama, Belize and more expat destinations in Central and South America

Dominican Republic Columbia and Uruguay
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When Nathan Lake, a registered nurse and medical website creator from the Seattle area, decided to retire, he began looking for a less expensive country where he could still have a good quality of life.

At first, he considered Thailand and Portugal, two popular destinations for U.S. retirees. Then he found a place that checked all the boxes: Cuenca, a city of 436,000 perched high in the Andes Mountains in Ecuador.

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Lake, who turns 65 in January, loves the temperate climate — “You have a low of 50 degrees at night and a high of 70 to 75 in the daytime” — and the abundance of mom-and-pop restaurants where he can get a great meal for $3. And while the nearly 500-year-old city is famed for its Spanish colonial architecture, there’s also a neighborhood filled with American-style apartments where it’s easy for an expat retiree like Lake to become acclimated while learning Spanish.

Lake is one of the many U.S. retirees who’ve relocated to Latin America, where they can stretch their dollars and find a range of climates and living situations to suit almost any taste. Some countries, such as Panama and Colombia, have sophisticated modern cities with consumer conveniences akin to those in the U.S. and Europe. Others, like Ecuador and Belize, offer a more relaxed lifestyle amid natural wonders.

“Just saying ‘Latin America’ is easy, but each region and each country is going to be very different,” says Lief Simon, international real estate expert at Live and Invest Overseas, a company that publishes books and online guides on moving and doing business abroad.

With the rise of remote work, Michael Cobb, chief executive officer of Belize-based real estate firm ECI Development, envisions Latin America becoming an attractive spot for Americans in their 50s who want to get an early start on a retirement lifestyle. “They don’t have to wait until they’re 65,” he says. “They can move to Belize and keep doing their jobs, and they can go diving on the weekends.”

For Denise Dumont, 68, and her husband Lee Dumont, 70, Boquete, Panama, turned out to be the right destination — a place where a nice home costs $1,500 or $1,600 a month to rent and a whole fresh pineapple can be had for $1. And then there’s the comfortable climate.

“Even the Panamanians like to go to Boquete to escape the heat,” Denise Dumont says.

Margo Murdock, 76, relocated from Macon, Georgia, to San Pedro de Vilcabamba, a small town in the Ecuadoran Andes, when she retired eight years ago. She pays just $200 a month in rent for her home, and “my view is divine,” she says. With weather that’s “perfect all year round,” she grows coffee, mangoes, lemons, limes, grapefruit and lemongrass for tea.

“Life is good,” she says. “Wouldn’t change a thing!”

Here are some of the practical details you need to know about retiring to eight popular destinations in Latin America.

Belize
Ambergris Caye, Belize
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Belize

Wedged between Mexico and Guatemala on the Caribbean coast, Belize is known for its beaches and the natural beauty of its forests, and is the only nation in Central America where English is the official language.

Residency: The Qualified Retirement Program (QRP) allows expats 45 or older with at least $2,000 a month in income from Social Security, a pension or an annuity to become permanent residents. Applicants must have no criminal history, pass a government background check and stay in Belize for at least 30 consecutive days each year to maintain that status.

Buying property: Foreigners can buy real estate without restrictions, though they have to register the land transfer with the Central Bank of Belize.

Health care: American retirees in Belize can receive free care at any of the nation’s public health clinics, according to Claudette Dakers-Norales, information officer for Belize’s Ministry of Health & Wellness. There are also private hospitals in Belize, and it’s relatively easy to travel into neighboring Mexico, which has bigger medical facilities, says Mark Leonard, a former Californian who now lives in Belize.

Popular retirement destinations: Ambergris Caye, Cayo, Corozal, Placencia

Chile
Santiago, Chile
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Chile

Chile offers a dramatically diverse landscape of desert, coast and mountains, and a stable, well-developed economy. If you want to live in a Latin American country where the lifestyle is not unlike that of the U.S., this could be your choice.

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Residency: You first need to apply online with Chile’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a temporary retirement visa. Once you’re in the country, you can apply for a Chile Retirement and Periodic Income Visa.

You must demonstrate that you have a regular source of income, such as Social Security or savings and investments. The Chilean government doesn’t specify a required amount — it can vary from region to region — but a broad rule of thumb is to provide proof of at least $1,000 a month, says Malte Sieber, a travel author and managing partner of relocation consulting firm ContactChile.

Buying property: Americans and most other foreigners can buy real estate in Chile without restrictions but must first get an RUT (Rol Único Tributario), or taxpayer ID number. You will need to have a Chilean citizen or resident act as your legal representative in obtaining the paperwork. Sieber says the process can be completed in a couple of days.

Health care: Foreigners who establish residency can use FONASA (Fondo Nacional de Salud), the public system of hospitals, clinics and medical centers used by most residents. The typical premium is 7 percent of income. Again, it’s necessary to have a Chilean taxpayer ID.

Many expats opt for private coverage available through several companies called ISAPREs (Instituciones de Salud Previsional). These provide access to newer, higher-quality facilities that are more likely to have English-speaking providers, according to Expat.cl, another relocation firm.

Popular retirement destinations: Santiago, La Serena, Viña del Mar

Columbia
Cartagena, Colombia
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Colombia

Retirees in Colombia can enjoy an upscale urban lifestyle comparable to what they’ll find in the U.S., Simon says: “There’s modern hotels, great restaurants, opera, museums, all sort of great activities both recreational and cultural.”

Residency: Apply online for an M-11 visa, the category of migrant visa for retirees. You’ll have to show that you have income that exceeds three times the Colombian minimum wage, which works out to less than $800 a month.

Buying property: Foreigners can buy property without restrictions in Colombia. Live and Invest Overseas recommends finding a trustworthy, independent, bilingual attorney not connected with the seller to assist with the transaction.

Health care: Residents of Colombia are required to enroll in health plans operated by the national system, called Entidades Promotoras de Salud (EPS), but expats can opt out if they show proof of private coverage. Those who opt in for EPS pay premiums based on monthly income.

Popular retirement destinations: Barranquilla, Cartagena, Medellin, Pereira

Costa Rico
Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica
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Costa Rica

Known for its natural beauty, from beaches to mountaintop cloud forests continually shrouded in mist, this Central American country has several expat communities where you can connect easily with other English speakers.

Residency: Costa Rica has temporary residence visas for retirees. The list of requirements includes a criminal record check, birth certificate and proof of Social Security or pension income of at least $1,000 a month.

Buying property: Foreigners can buy property under the same terms as native Costa Ricans.

Health care: When you apply for a visa, you have to provide proof of health insurance. Once you establish residency, you are required to join the Caja Costarricense del Seguro Social (CCSS), the country’s national health system, and pay a monthly premium. Many expats supplement this care at private practices and hospitals that cost more than CCSS-covered care but are relatively inexpensive compared to those in the U.S., according to International Living magazine.

Popular retirement destinations: Central Valley (Atenas, Escazu, San José), Nuevo Arenal, Playas del Coco

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Dominican Republic
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
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Dominican Republic

Just a two-hour flight from Miami, this island nation has 250 miles of beaches as well as mountain ranges and national parks filled with natural beauty. The capital, Santo Domingo, is a cultural and culinary melting pot with a large population of European expats. 

Residency: To obtain a residence visa, retirees have to show proof of pension or retirement benefits amounting to least $1,500 a month or investment income of at least $2,000 a month. The Dominican Embassy in Washington, D.C., has a list of other visa requirements. You can apply by mail.

Buying property: Since 1998, foreigners have been able to buy property without needing to seek government approval. As elsewhere in Latin America, have an English-speaking lawyer look over the paperwork.

Health care: Expat retirees can use the Dominican public health care system’s free clinics and hospitals, or opt for private insurance and gain access to private medical facilities that often offer a higher standard of care, according to Live and Invest Overseas.

Popular retirement destinations: Punta Cana, La Romana, Santo Domingo, Las Terrenas

Ecuador
Cuenca, Ecuador
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Ecuador

On the Pacific coast of South America, Ecuador offers a natural environment ranging from Andean valleys to Amazon rain forest and a low-key affordable lifestyle. Cuenca, a cultural center with cobblestone streets and venerable cathedrals, is an increasingly popular landing spot for U.S. retirees.

Residency: The jubilado (retiree) visa requires proof of health insurance and a retirement income equal to at least three times the minimum wage in Ecuador — currently, that’s $1,275 a month. The website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility has detailed information on how to file.

Buying property: Foreigners can purchase property in Ecuador without restrictions, although you may need to obtain government permission to buy in certain border areas. A lawyer can help you with that process.

Health care: Expat retirees can join IESS (Instituto Ecuatoriano de Seguridad Social), the national health care system, and pay premiums of $75 a month, says Sara Chaca, an attorney with Ecuador Visas, a Cuenca-based law firm that provides relocation assistance. It’s also possible to get private coverage.

Popular retirement destinations: Cotacachi, Cuenca, Quito, Salinas, Vilcabamba

Panama
Panama City, Panama
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Panama

Panama has a big, modern metropolis in Panama City, well-maintained infrastructure and a retirement visa laden with incentives, including discounts on dining, entertainment, transit and professional services. English is widely spoken.

Residency: U.S. citizens don’t need a visa to enter Panama, just a passport. Once you’re there, hire a lawyer to submit your residency application. You’ll need to get an FBI background check and provide a certified birth certificate newly issued by the office of vital records in whatever state you were born in, plus notarized proof of at least $1,000 a month in retirement income.

Buying property: Panama’s constitution prohibits real estate sales to foreign individuals or entities of property located within 10 kilometers (about 6 miles) of national borders. Otherwise, there are no restrictions on property purchases.

Health care: Expats can get treatment at very little cost for routine ailments and injuries from Panama’s public health care system, according to Frank Crosa of Living in Panama, an online property and resource guide for people and companies relocating to the country. He and Simon, who also lives in Panama, recommend private insurance for access to higher-quality care for more serious health issues.

Popular retirement destinations: Boquete, Coronado, Panama City, Pedasí, El Valle

Uruguay
Punta del Este, Uruguay
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Uruguay

A small country tucked between Brazil and Argentina on the Atlantic coast, Uruguay has gained popularity as a relaxed, comfortable retirement destination with a stable economy and pretty beach towns, with the excitement and culture of Buenos Aires just a short plane or ferry ride away.

Residency: You can enter Uruguay with a tourist visa and apply for residency in person at the national immigration office (Dirección Nacional de Migración ) in the capital, Montevideo. You’ll need your birth certificate, vaccination records, a criminal record check and proof of retirement income. All your documents must be translated into Spanish by a certified translator.

Buying property: Foreigners can buy property without any restrictions in Uruguay.

Health care: Expat retirees are entitled to use Uruguay’s public health system, which charges small fees for care. You also can join Mutualista, a private hospital plan that charges a monthly fee of around $100, according to Live and Invest Overseas.

Popular retirement destinations: Maldonado, Montevideo, Punta del Este

Is Latin America safe for retirees?

As in Mexico, the most popular Latin American destination for U.S. retirees, crime, gang activity and civil unrest are problems in parts of the countries listed here, particularly in some cities and border zones. The U.S. State Department recommends avoiding certain areas and, at minimum, exercising increased caution across the region. 

Consult the State Department’s travel advisories and country information pages to learn about particular threats and risky locations in places you’re considering as retirement destinations. You can also see how they rank in the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Peace Index, which rates safety and security in 163 countries based on their levels of violent crime, political instability and other factors. Seven of the eight countries in this article (Colombia is the exception) rank in the top half of the index, ahead of the U.S. and Mexico.

Petty crime can be an issue in tourist- and expat-friendly areas. Take common-sense precautions, such as not wearing flashy jewelry and keeping items like purses, wallets and phones on your person.

Circumstances differ from country to country, Simon notes. For example, the Dominican Republic remains more of a developing country “and you want to be careful there from a security perspective,” he says, whereas Uruguay is "very safe."

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