Real estate for Expats - A Comparison
Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, Belize and Nicaragua
Costa Rica has a large middle class, not much poverty and great socialized medicine. They have preserved the environment and continue to do so, with 27% of the country now national park or protected land. They produce nearly all their electricity from renewable resources, mostly hydroelectric and wind. They are much more educated than either Panama or Nicaragua and it clearly shows. Costa Rica has no military and is neutral on war issues. The largest trading partner of Costa Rica is the US, Intel (the computer chip company) is the largest manufacturer in the country and tourism is their largest source of income. Costa Rica is more expensive than either Panama or Nicaragua but you get what you pay for in terms of things like accessibility, health care, etc. You can also drink the water almost anywhere in Costa Rica.
There is a lot to do in Costa Rica, great tourism infrastructure and many great places to visit with good hotels and restaurants. They had over 2 million tourists last year including many from Europe. There are more eco climates, rain forests, mountains, active volcanoes, hotels, restaurants, tourism infrastructure and airlines that fly there. Costa Rica does not have much of a drug use issue. All of their land records are in an online data base and title insurance is widely available through US firms like Stewart Title and First American Title. Costa Rica has a good government and little corruption, they have a good credit rating by firms like Moody's and Standard and Poor's and they have very little public debt. We found Costa Rica to be over valued in the northwest (Guanacaste) and undervalued in the southwest. We did not like the east coast Caribbean side due to higher drug use, the higher humidity and temperature, more mosquitoes, more crime and the Caribbean culture. Social security in Costa Rica is a subject of great importance in the history of the country. After the abolishing the army in 1949, resources that were used for the military were redirected towards education and health. This has allowed the country to boast the best health indicators of all Latin America, and comparable only to those of developed countries. Besides the National Public Health System, the country has a strong private health system, with hospitals and clinics of great prestige and reputation.
Costa Rica is the poster child for gringo retirement. This is because they have more 1st world infrastructure -health care, roads, utilities etc. than most of their Latin American neighbors. It also has a very temperate climate in the central highlands. Clearly Costa Rica has greater political stability.
On the minus side, as a result of Costa Rica's popularity, they've eliminated most of the tax incentives that once existed to entice in Expats. The Costa Rican government realized that they no longer needed tax incentives to attract retiree money. Recent changes in residency laws have clearly shown that Costa Rica is not looking to be a place for poor expats to retire, but middle class expats will find their cost of living is still much less than the US. The huge influx of US investment did push prices up and it is not the deal that it once was. There are still some great values however, especially in the Southern Pacific region. We are also seeing some discount pricing in Guanacaste now as a result of over development and excess inventory. As the southern region has opened up, many expats are leaving Guanacaste for more southern areas.
Mexico has great culture and Mexicans are proud of their heritage. There are great festivals and celebrations and many traditional events of interest. There are great places to visit, incredible churches, great tourist activities (especially on the coast) and a rich heritage and pride. .
Although it is in close in proximity to the US, Mexico has a number of economic and political issues affecting the health and safety as a destination for expats. Some 290 people have been killed in Tijuana so far this year. In 2008, there were more than 2,500 drug killings across Mexico and there have been more than 1900 so far this year this year. According to Expatexchange.com Within the last year, American expatriates living throughout certain states in Mexico have experienced an increase in home invasions, armed assaults, and vehicular attacks. Many have reported that the attackers were dressed as police officers and initiated the attack by conducting a police like function. Kristina and I liked the central highlands of Mexico, especially Guanajuato but the disparity between rich and poor was unsettling and the drug wars were too scary for us. I have visited most areas with an expat community including Cuernavaca, San Miguel Allende, Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, Cancun, Cozumel, Playa Del Carmen, Merida and many others.
There is also a fair amount of Machismo among males and more intimidation than most of Central America. Corruption is widespread and many police will seek personal gain from expats, especially transito (traffic) police.
Nicaragua is cheaper but riskier. Nicaragua is the second poorest nation behind Haiti in the Americas. There is a lot of poverty, high debt and corruption as well. Nicaragua is trying hard to change this reputation. They re-elected Dan Ortega in 2007, the former head of the Sandanista's, who the US helped remove from power in the late 80's. This was a major set back in the eyes of most expats. When I visited Nicaragua last year, there were rolling power black outs for at least 4 hours every day I was there. The power would be out in Managua, the capital city, as well as in the countryside. They have not done much to improve the infrastructure in Nicaragua and their health care system is not great. They also have a history of title issues and have expropriated land from expats without compensation. When Dan Ortega was recently elected, he tried to seize an Exxon Mobil oil storage facility but was convinced otherwise by the international investment community. The geography is not as nice in Nicaragua as Costa Rica and there are many less flights and airlines flying there. You can own beach front property in Nicaragua and Panama though you can not in Costa Rica. The cost of living is less in Nicaragua but there are many less Americans there and it is pretty third world. Leon, San Juan Del Sur and Granada are popular with expats.
The people were friendly in Nicaragua but there was not much in the way of tourism infrastructure except in the well known tourist destinations. Many of the Pacific coastal developments for expats are many miles from basic conveniences like large grocery stores, banks or health care facilities.
Kristina and I did not really like Panama, fun place to visit but we wouldn't want to live there. Panama City has a fair number of expats but the ocean front there was very polluted. We aren't really interested in living in a big city and there were a large number of high rises under construction, too many if you ask me.
Panama was also really hot. Panama cut down much of the rain forest since it was easy to put it on a ship in the Panama canal and send it elsewhere for profit. I suspect there were American companies helping to do so. Trees help regulate temperature. The Panamanian people also seem less motivated than Costa Rica since the canal earns nearly 2 billion US per year and there are only roughly 3 million Panamanians. Land degradation and soil erosion are causing siltification that is threatening the Panama Canal. Panama has only one international airport and not many carriers service the country. Panamanians did not seem friendly to Americans, a big issue to us. I suspect that since the US had controlled the Panama canal for many years there is some resentment toward Americans. Panama doesn't have much in the way of tourism infrastructure, not many hotels outside of Panama City and not many restaurants or stuff to do. They have great roads and great telecommunications but not much else. Panama only allows foreigners to visit for 30 days on a tourist visa, making it tough to decide if you want to live there in the short time that you can stay there without being a resident. Panama has a ton of excess inventory of unsold housing, condos and apartments in Panama City, which has kept prices low if you want to live in Panama City but outside the city in the areas that Americans have been preferring, like Bouquete, El Valle and Bocas Del Toro, inventory is low and prices were much higher for similar property than in many parts of Costa Rica. Boquette, El Valle and Boca Del Toros were all more than four hours from the nearest international airport.
Some of the people I know who had moved to CR have actually moved on to Panama while some in Panama have moved to Costa Rica (seems the grass is always greener somewhere else). The former longtime presence of US workers on the canals and soldiers at military bases has left a legacy of widespread English speaking in Panama and like CR it is more 1st world than most other Latin countries with good healthcare, shopping etc. The big negative in my mind is that most of the country is at lower elevations than CR and that makes it much hotter, though that doesn't seem to stop gringos from buying up much of the coast of Panama and Costa Rica for that matter.
Belize was formally British Honduras until gaining independence. Belize became a soveriegn nation in 1981 but Guatemala was still disputing Belize independence up until 1992. Belize is English Speaking and uses the US dollar for currency. This tiny nation has a bit more than 300,000 inhabitants. On February 7, 2008, Belize elected its first black prime minister when the United Democratic Party (UDP) lead by Dean O. Barrow won 25 of the 31 Seats of Representatives. The UDP ousted Said Moses and the People's United Party, who had been in power for over 10 years. Barrow inherited a heavy debt load, growing social problems, increased violence, an agricultural sector damaged by hurricanes, a sluggish economy and a government tainted by ongoing scandals and rumours of corruption. The coastal area in Belize, especially along the chain of Cayes has suffered significant damage from hurricanes over the past 10 years. There are a fair number of Amish and Mennonites residing in Belize, the dominant leaders in agriculture.
Most expats in Belize live on Ambergris Caye located offshore on the barrier reef chain that flanks Belize's coast. It is the second largest barrier reef in the world. San Pedro, located inland, also has a sizeable expat community. Though Belize has the lowest population density in the Americas, it has the highest birth rate.
You really need to study, investigate and decide which place has the best balance of things for you rather than rely on short answers here. You can retire much earlier in many cases with trhese proven money saving strategies to lowering your cost of living while increasing your quality of life. The slower pace of living helps to reduce stress and gives more time to "smell the roses". To learn more about the advantages and opportunities from living abroad, two excellent sources of info for Central America and the rest of world are www.internationalliving.com and http://www.escapeartist.com/