“In a recent e-letter and also in your ‘101 Tips for Retiring Happy and Living Well Overseas’ report, you talk about deciding whether to live like a local or to seek out an established expat community when choosing a retirement haven abroad,” writes Susan S. from the United States.
“I hope you will address the pros and cons of each choice in future issue. I’m leaning toward local (I don’t like shopping at Wal-Mart now) but would like to know what I am giving up that possibly I haven’t thought about.”
We moved from the East Coast of the United States to Waterford, Ireland, about a dozen years ago. A friend who relocated his family from the U.S. to the south of France about the same time once remarked:
“You know, I think we’re doing this the hard way. Here in France, we’re scrambling to learn French so we can figure out what’s going on, because we’re always confused. We’re trying to make friends and to find a place for ourselves in a French country community where families have known each other for generations. We don’t understand French cultural nuances yet, so we’re committing one faux-pas after another. And we don’t have any other Americans around to commiserate with, no one to show us the ropes. We’ve really jumped into the deep end of this living overseas thing.
“And you have, too, in Ireland. You aren’t struggling with a new language [in fact, Lief and I would have argued that we were!], but you’re on your own in a foreign community. You’re living and working and sending your children to school among the Irish. You’ve plopped yourself down and are trying to fit in among the local community.
“It’d be a very different experience, I think,” my friend continued, “to move as an expat into an ‘expat community,’ a place like Lake Chapala, Mexico, for example, where you’d be surrounded by other people just like you, other people who’ve already done what you’re doing and who could offer a word of advice when you needed one.”
Indeed, in places like Ajijic, Mexico, and Boquete, Panama, it can be possible to live the retirement life you may have dreamed of for decades, just exactly as you’ve dreamed it, only in a different country. These are places where the American Dream of retirement is alive and well; it’s been fully exported. You could have a beautiful home of your own, brand new, by a lake or on a lush highland. Many houses in these two towns have been built to American standards, even by American builders. You could be an American retiree first, an expat in Mexico or Panama second.
Ajijic and the area around Lake Chapala, Mexico, is the most organized and developed expat community in the world. The Lake Chapala Society reports about 4,000 American and Canadian residents in Chapala proper. The Mexican government, meantime, estimates that nearly 20,000 expats reside full-time in the state of Jalisco, the region where Lake Chapala sits.
In other words, the path has been cut. Moving here, you could slide into a way of life not dramatically different from the life you left behind in the States. You wouldn’t have to worry about learning the local language if you didn’t want to. You wouldn’t have to work to make a place for yourself among the local community, because this isn’t a “local” community. This is an entire community of non-locals. You could wander into the restaurant down the street anytime and find English-speaking companionship, someone to complain to about the bureaucracy at the department of immigration or the challenges of studying to take a driving test in Spanish. Retiring to Ajijic, you could make a comfortable life for yourself in a place that’s also exotic, beautiful, safe, and very affordable.
Friends Akaisha and Billy Kaderli have been living part-time in Chapala for years. They live here comfortably on less than US$50 per day, including housing, food, transportation, entertainment, and in-country travel. They eat well, play tennis, socialize, and travel comfortably. As they put it themselves, they want for nothing.
Boquete, Panama, is this country’s gringoland. According to Boquete’s information and tourism office, some 3,000 foreigners live in this colorful mountain town. Migration continues, and the number of foreign residents in Boquete is expected to increase to 10,000 by 2016.
What’s the attraction? Beautiful setting, good climate, appealing pensionado benefits (for all Panama), yes, but, mostly, the draw, as in Ajijic, is the established gringo community. This is a place to come to enjoy many of the benefits of being retired overseas without leaving behind too many of the comforts and conveniences of American suburban living.
Which is better? Assimilating into the local culture or becoming part of the American Dream abroad? The important thing is to recognize the choice. This is one of the most important and fundamental decisions you must make when planning for your retirement overseas–to go local or not.
For each of our three international moves over the past dozen years, we’ve gone local. In Waterford, Paris, and now Panama, we’ve found ourselves the only gringos on the block. It can be easier, frankly, to go the other route and to seek out a place like Ajijic, where your neighbors would be fellow North Americans, where you’d hear more English on the street than Spanish, where you’d have like-minded compatriots who’d commiserate with you over the trials and tribulations of daily life in a foreign country. Ajijic, for example, could as easily sit north of the Rio Grande as south, so Americanized is the place.
This might be just what you’re looking for, certainly, maybe, as a first step. In Ajijic, the weather’s great, the cost of living is low, and your life would take on a new dimension. You’d be retired overseas, enjoying many of the benefits, but still in familiar surroundings. You could shop at Wal-Mart, meet fellow Yanks for Bridge on Thursday evenings, and never have to look far to find a fellow English-speaker.
On the other hand, your experience of life in Mexico would be different than if you were to settle in a little fishing village or a small colonial city in the mountains where you’re the only foreigner in town. Settling among the locals means you learn what it’s like to live as a local. You have no choice.
Is the thought of that appealing, exciting, and invigorating? Or terrifying? That’s the choice you have to make. There’s no right or wrong answer. The important thing is to be honest with yourself from the start, because the position you take on this question sets you on one track or another, and they lead to very different places.
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