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My husband, Dan, and I will soon celebrate 11 years of living the expat life. We've lived in seven different locations (in Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Ecuador) and spent a considerable amount of time in many, many more - especially Belize and Costa Rica.
Believe me, we've learned a lot in the past decade!
Importantly, we've learned that it's impossible to compare and contrast the merits or disadvantages of entire countries. And if you're thinking about retiring to a foreign country, that's probably not the approach you should take.
Years ago, we'd talk confidently about the benefits of Mexico versus Ecuador...or Panama versus Costa Rica. But we're finding that we don't do that too much these days.
It's not because there aren't differences between entire countries... there are obvious and, sometimes, major ones. The visa choices and tax requirements of Belize may be a better match for you than those of Panama. Perhaps the low cost of living in Nicaragua meets your needs better than Costa Rica right now.
But when it comes to a good quality of life-which is, after all, what we're all looking for-Dan and I find that comparing countries is far too difficult.
For instance, in the last couple of years, we've thought a lot about the places we'd most like to live. Certainly, we've talked about what countries we like, but we've been much more dialed in on specific locations within those countries.
When we decided on the small village where we now live, it was only partly because it was in Ecuador, one of our favorite countries. It was more because of what the town itself offered... peace and quiet, an interesting and colorful culture, safety and security, an extremely low cost of living and - for us - the perfect climate...not too hot and not too cold. All of these things mattered far more than what Ecuador itself offered as a country.
When you approach the idea of living overseas, you naturally start from a country level, but if you do your research well, you inevitably sharpen your focus on specific locations.
Take Costa Rica. With a bit of research it's easy to see why it's a wonderful place to live and retire. It's an extraordinarily beautiful and diverse country - truly a place with something for everyone, whatever your lifestyle needs or desires. And health care there is among the best (and most affordable) in the world.
But once you're determined that Costa Rica (or whatever country you choose) is the place for you, then you need to drill down and figure out where to live...
In a country as diverse as Costa Rica, for instance, this can be tough. Perhaps you'd prefer the gorgeous laidback lake country of Arenal...or the urban convenience of the Central Valley...or the tropical splendor of the newly opened southern coast near Ojochal...or even the adventure of the Caribbean coast.
Same with Ecuador or Mexico... are you after the size and excitement of a city like Quito or lively Puerto Vallarta? Or are you after small-town village life in a place like Vilcabamba or Ajijic - both known for their perfect weather and healthy environment? Maybe you're a surfer - in that case, you might set your sights on Ecuador's Pacific coast near Salinas or Mexico's Pacific Coast state of Oaxaca. Scuba divers and snorkelers might want to check out Tulum on Mexico's Riviera Maya...or even go farther south to Belize.
Much of it comes down to ruthlessly profiling yourself, and in my next article I'll give you some tips that will help you do just that.
By assessing exactly what you're looking for as a potential expat, then getting past the "Europe vs. Latin America" stage to the "Ecuador vs. Panama" stage and well beyond -- to pinpointing a specific location that matches your requirements, will not only save you time and effort, it will focus your thinking on one question: what's most important to you?
Photo by Suzan Haskins