4 Easy, Established Expat Havens to Live In

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Couple taking a selfie on a boat in Saint-Tropez, France
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Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared on Live and Invest Overseas.

A friend who relocated his family from the United States to France about the same time that we moved from the States to Ireland 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,” he said.

“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.”

The Deep End of Overseas Living

Retiree in Paris, France
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“We’ve really jumped into the deep end of this living overseas thing. And you have, too, in Ireland,” my friend continued. “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 suggested, “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 or support when you needed one.”

Which is better? Assimilating into the local culture or becoming part of the American Dream abroad? In fact, it’s not a question of better … or of right or wrong.

As with so many things to do with relocating yourself to another country, it’s a question of what you want. This is an entirely personal choice and one of the most important and fundamental ones you must make when planning for your new life overseas.

Should You Go Local … or Not?

Mexico City, Mexico
ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com

If you decide you’d like to take the idea of living overseas for a test spin by settling — at first or maybe long-term — in what would be very familiar surroundings, here are top options.

Ajijic, Mexico

Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico
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Ajijic and the area around Lake Chapala, Mexico, are home to the most organized, developed expat community in the world. The Lake Chapala Society reports about 20,000 American and Canadian residents in Chapala proper.

The Mexican government, meantime, estimates that nearly 30,000 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 living 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. You could connect with the big and welcoming community of nonlocals.

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.

A Comfortable Life in Ajijic

Senior men playing tennis
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Retiring to Ajijic, you could make a comfortable life for yourself in a place that’s exotic, beautiful, safe, and very affordable.

Our friends Akaisha and Billy have taken this path. They’ve been in Chapala for years, where they live comfortably on $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.

Don’t misunderstand. Ajijic isn’t a retirement village. This isn’t Sun City South, at least not formally.

This is a legitimate Mexican town that, over decades, has attracted such a volume of expat retirees that it offers the opportunity for a low-impact transition to a new life abroad.

Boquete, Panama

Rainbow in the mountains. Volcano Barú, Boquete. Panama.
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Boquete, Panama is that country’s gringolandia. More than 10,000 foreigners call this colorful mountain town home at least part of the year.

What’s the Attraction?

View of valley and town of Boquete, Panama
Alfredo Maiquez / Shutterstock.com

Beautiful setting, good climate, straightforward pensionado residency rules (for all Panama), yes, but mostly the draw in Boquete, 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.

In one private gated residential community development I know in this region, for example, amenities include a golf course, stables, even a small central town created specifically for foreign residents.

Construction, for both the shared amenities and the individual homes, is to U.S. standards, with U.S.-style finishes, fixtures, and fittings.

In Boquete town itself, shops and services catering to the ever-growing foreign retiree population continue to open. In the U.S.-style restaurants serving American-style menus (featuring scrambled eggs for breakfast and cheeseburgers for lunch), you’ll hear all-English conversation at the tables around you and all-American music on the speakers.

People you pass on the street greet you with a wave and a hi or a hello, assuming that’s how you’d like to be addressed and that you’ll reply in kind.

Ambergris Caye, Belize

Belize. Sunset on San Pedro Town, Ambergris Caye Island
WitR / Shutterstock.com

For many, the retirement dream is all about the Caribbean, and nothing else will do. If your overseas retirement fantasies are similarly aquamarine and sandy, put Ambergris Caye at the top of your list.

The diving and snorkeling, the color and clarity of the water, and the abundance and variety of sea life in Belize are unparalleled. This is quintessential Caribbean.

A Simple, Relaxed Life

The Caribbean Island of Ambergris Caye, Belize.
james bommarito / Shutterstock.com

On Ambergris Caye, you’d live a simple and relaxed life by the water. There are but a handful of streets and very few cars on the island; people get around primarily by golf cart or their own two feet.

At the same time, the established and growing expat community, one of the biggest in the Caribbean, continues to import services, products, and amenities to make life here more comfortable.

The biggest and best known of the cayes offshore from mainland Belize has evolved over the past three decades into the home of the biggest American expat community in the Caribbean.

Life on Ambergris is all about the sun, the sand, and the sea, and the U.S. and other expats and retirees who’ve chosen to base themselves here couldn’t be more welcoming of like-minded beach-loving expats who make their way to this island to join them.

You could show up on Ambergris any given morning and have a dozen expat friends in time for happy hour that afternoon.

Cayo, Belize

The Macal River and town of San Ignacio in Cayo District, Belize
1427503013 / Shutterstock.com

Not interested in the beach life? Then head inland to Cayo, the heartland of Belize.

An American friend living in Belize once told me, “A country never escapes its origins. The United States was founded by Puritans. Belize was founded by pirates.”

Most people you meet in Belize have two common characteristics. They are hospitable, and they are fiercely independent.

The average Belizean, including those who’ve adopted this country as their homeland, would choose to live in a humble home and off the land and sea rather than be beholden to someone.

This country operates according to an old-school mentality that many of the world’s more developed nations seem to have forgotten.

What to Expect in Belize

Bird in Belize
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Belize is a nation of thinkers and doers, a country where you make your own way and where, while you’re doing it, no one, including the Belize government, is making any attempt to thwart your efforts. This is a poor country. The government doesn’t have enough money to get up to any real trouble.

All of this is nowhere more apparent than in Cayo, a district in western Belize with many parks and ecological reserves. Cayo is a land of and for pioneers, a place where residents, both local and expat, make their own way and mind their own business, while at the same time being willing always to lend a hand to a neighbor.

San Ignacio, Cayo’s biggest town, is a kind of Mayberry in the rain forest where everyone knows everyone and life is simple, slow, and sweet.

When you arrive in Cayo, it doesn’t take long for any other reality you’ve brought with you to fade. In this frontier land, your mind and your body are occupied with challenge and discovery from sunup until you fall exhausted into your bed each evening.

All with the support of very like-minded company.

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