Nancy A. Kiernan needed only 3 days to know she was in love.

She had spent 2 months travelling around Ecuador, down the Andes mountains, and along the beaches in Salinas, searching for that inescapable feeling in her heart that she had found “The One”. 

She stepped off the plane in Medellín, Colombia, and in less than a week, knew she had found her perfect retirement destination.

“While each of those places [in Ecuador] I visited had something special to offer, none of them resonated with me nor felt like home,” says Kiernan. “Discovering Colombia was the happy accident that changed my life. I like to say that I didn't choose Colombia, Colombia chose me.”

With its year-round spring-like climate, world-class affordable healthcare and low-cost living, Colombia is seen as one of the most popular retirement havens in the world. It ranks 6 in International Living's Annual Global Retirement IndexOpens a new window in your browser.. Five other countries in Latin America make the top 10 in the Global Retirement Index: Panama, Costa Rica, Peru, Ecuador and Mexico.

While Kiernan's story is romantic, finding your perfect match in a retirement destination isn't always as serendipitous.

Consider everything, stay flexible

Latin America lures retirees from Canada and the U.S. who are looking to escape cold winters and make their retirement savings go further. However, a happy retirement is not only about finding 300 days of sunshine or even the perfect destination. It's about having a flexible and open attitude to a new way of life in a new culture.

For most, it requires testing out a location for a few months to see if it fits and carefully considering practicalities such as healthcare options, access to culture and community, and convenient ways to return north to loved ones.

Crossing off the boxes

Kiernan left her job as a healthcare executive in 2012. After downsizing and putting her things into storage, she travelled around Latin America looking for a future retirement destination for 10 to 15 years down the road. Colombia was not even on the list until she got a tip to check out Medellín from an International Living conference in Quito, Ecuador.

Kiernan found that Medellín hit all the points she wanted in a home. The city's “eternal spring” climate certainly was a pleasant change from the colder, harsher North American weather, but it was more than mild weather that added to the big decision.

“For me, Medellín is the perfect balance of lower cost of living and first-world living conditions such as excellent health care, a great gastronomy scene, drinkable tap water and stable utilities,” she says.

Kiernan also cites the cultural things to do, like theatre, concerts, film and shopping, as well as direct flights north from the international airport, as added benefits.

Try out a retirement location first

For Gilles Le Maire, Medellín checked off his most important boxes when it came to retirement and moving from Montréal, Québec: avoiding long Canadian winters, enjoying a higher standard of living at a lower cost and reducing his income tax responsibilities.

Retiring on a pension from the Canadian Federal Civil Service, Le Maire found Medellín during his second go-round for a Latin American retirement home. He had lived in Mexico City 20 years earlier, and so he returned there for the first 7 years of his retirement. But ultimately, he was searching for a more active expat community and found that in Medellín.

Le Maire's advice for Canadians considering a Latin American retirement is to learn Spanish and to try out a city for a few months. He believes that's the only way you can truly get a feel for the environment and see if you can live in a place long-term, beyond the honeymoon period where you’re blind to any flaws. And don't expect the same lifestyle as you had back home.

“It's a different culture — adapt to it,” he says. “Do not expect Canadian standards, such as time and efficiency to be the same, and expect to have to be very patient. Everything is slower when dealing with private or government organizations.”

Already knowing Spanish and finding a trustworthy real estate agent eased a lot of headaches for Le Maire. “There is also a lot of paperwork to deal with, and one little error can send you back to starting all over again,” he says.

He points out that the requirements for someone to become a real estate agent in Colombia are less rigorous than in Canada and the U.S. Since there is no regulatory system for real estate agents, he advises looking for agents with good reviews and asking for recommendations within the expat community.

Find your best match

It also took a couple of tries for Don Murray and his wife Diane to find their perfect retirement destination. They finally settled in Riviera Maya, Mexico, after first trying a coastal town in Ecuador. Moving from Florida and used to year-round sunshine, weather wasn't their only consideration.

While Ecuador offered a low cost of living and temperate climate, after only 2 years the couple decided to move to Mexico for the improved medical care, higher standard of living, and closer proximity to the U.S.

“There is rarely one thing that is the most important, but, like picking a life partner, a number of criteria must be met,” says Don.

While the Murrays were able to move after discovering Ecuador wasn't the best match for them, a postcard-perfect retirement doesn't just come down to the destination, he adds.

“The most important thing to know is that you are the key to your success, not the geographic location you select,” he says. “You must be prepared and even excited to learn a bunch of new things in all aspects of your life from social structure, language, food, currency and new laws and customs.”

Embrace your new home

Jim Santos moved with his wife Rita from Cambridge, Maryland, to Salinas on Ecuador's Pacific coast, where it's possible to own a beachfront home for less than $150,000. There's no need for heating or air conditioning in most of the country. You don't really need a car either, with buses costing 30 cents or less and cab rides for $2 to $5.

Santos recommends couples make sure they are both on board with expat retirement life.

“The successful expat is not running away from something — they are looking forward to new experiences,” says Santos. “It is important to be flexible, and to understand that your life is going to be very different. You have to accept that your new country is not going to change for you, you will have to make some changes yourself.”

Adapt to retirement living

The advice echoed by many of these retirees in Latin America is to embrace the new elements of living abroad versus trying to recreate the life you already had “back home”. And don't forget to factor in home country expenses and long-term expectations of family members, too, says Kiernan.

Remember that your move abroad is also a transition for family and loved ones back up north. Talk to them about your retirement plans early on. Discuss schedules and factor visits back home into your budget. Invite them to spend some time in your new home to see the life you have created abroad.

A perfect retirement location is different for everyone. Beyond year-round spring-like days and affordable real estate, it's ultimately whether you feel like this new place fits you and you can learn to fit it.

As Kiernan says, “The perfect place [to retire] is where you feel like you are home.”