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The world's top retirement havens

by Laura Sheridan
Research by Virginia Hinostroza

For the fourth year running, Panama wins our Annual Global Retirement Index. No surprise to regular readers of these pages, who already realize that this country offers the best program for retirees in the world (for details of the benefits, see the box on page 5). This is not the only reason Panama has taken top honors in our annual survey for four years, though. We consider Panama the world's top retirement haven also because of its proximity to the States, its low cost of living, its real estate bargains , its beautiful landscapes, its appealing climate (especially in the mountainous interior of the country), and its friendly locals. You'll be welcomed here immediately as an expat, and you'll be able to get by without learning Spanish if you wish, at least in Panama City, where most everyone speaks some English.

Cosmopolitan Panama City is another of this country's selling points. It's known as the "Hub of the Americas" and grows more accessible all the time. Copa (website: www.copaair.com/) now flies to Panama City daily from New York City, twice daily from Miami, daily from Los Angeles, and four times a week from Orlando.

Plus, Panama City has all the comforts and conveniences of home. Moving here from the States, you'll forgo little. You'll find every product and service you're accustomed to back home…but at a third the price. High-speed Internet access, shopping malls, high-rise hotel, apartment, and condo buildings, world-class restaurants…as we like to say, it more resembles Miami than any Central American town we know.

Property can be a tremendous value. You can find a luxury three-bedroom apartment downtown, with parking and a pool, for about $100,000. And you have an ocean view from almost anywhere in the city.

In Casco Viejo, the oldest part of the city, with its French, Spanish, and Caribbean influence, the average price for one- to two-bedroom apartments is $145,000. Here, centuries-old homes with decorative iron balconies draped in bougainvillea enjoy unobstructed views of modern Panama City and its harbor. We like this neighborhood so much, we finally, this year, invested in a three-storey building here, which we're renovating into space for our man on the ground, Greg Geurin, and his local Panama office staff, plus three apartments, two for rental. The third, the penthouse, with magnificent views of Casco Viejo, downtown Panama City, and the harbor, will be a Key Club property, available for use by Key Club members only. (For more information on this new venture-the Key Club-go to www.internationalliving.com/agorakeyclub.com)

Valley of flowers and eternal spring
Panama City is lively, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and historic. It's also hot. If you don't like the heat, no problem. Get out of the city. For mild, spring-like temperatures year-round, escape to the interior of this country, to the mountainous Chiriqui region. Specifically, we recommend the little town of Boquete, at the base of the tallest peak in Panama, an extinct volcano called Baru. The surrounding mountains are covered with coffee, banana, mango, palm trees, and wildflowers of every tropical color. This is a lush and verdant hideaway; the Panamanians call it the "Valley of flowers and eternal spring." It's the place for the outdoorsman in you. You can hike, bike, watch the birds, ride horseback in the hills, take a raft down the white water, fish for trout, even tend your own little coffee plantation.

And you can't beat the cost of living here. You can rent a home for $250 to $350 a month, and or invest in your own home in these hills for as little as $80,000.

Quintessential island escape
Not interested in the bustle of city life or a mountain retreat? If your idea of paradise is white sand, emerald surf, and swaying palm trees, Panama can fill that order, too, with both Caribbean and Pacific coasts…plus strings of islands in the Bay of Panama and the Caribbean Sea.

Our favorite beach getaway in this country is the little island of Contadora, part of the Islas Perlas archipelago in the Bay of Panama. This island is a closely guarded secret among the wealthy and famous of Panama…and some of the world's jet set. Still largely off most tourist maps, this quintessential island retreat, with 13 white-sand beaches, two small resort hotels, and a 9-hole golf course, is accessible by regular ferry and plane service from Panama City.

We like to escape to Contadora as often as possible and so have invested in a private International Living community here. Overlooking the island's best beach is a group of 18 Villas, now home, full- and part-time, to fellow International Living readers (and us, whenever we get the chance). This is the best of the Caribbean…at maybe a fifth the cost of more mainstream island paradises.