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HAS AMERICA LOST ITS WAY?
The decline and fall period of the American Empire manifests as a variety of symptoms on the home front, generally as a lower standard of living for the average person. To those who were around during the “good old days,” this might seem like America having “lost its way” – actually an inevitable consequence of living beyond its means decade after decade.
During this transition period the U.S. dollar still has a purchasing power that goes relatively far in many overseas locations such as in Latin America. But you have to move there to take advantage of that temporary situation. Such a change might end up being for the better – as delineated in this piece – contrary to default expectations.
The “American Way” of the 1950s made sense but the “American Way” of today does not. Whether it is the high cost of living, atrocious medical bills, higher taxes, reduced social services, or lack of employment opportunities, many of us have concluded that America has lost its way.
Find out how a new breed of freedom seekers are living healthier, more prosperous, and happier lives abroad. Here are three examples of real people who took the plunge:
Chuck is a retired biologist from Florida who loathed the idea of wasting away in a retirement home playing shuffle board. Chuck paid a visit to Ecuador and was amazed by what he saw and how he felt. “I felt more energy, I had more time for enjoyment with less stress, and I cut my monthly expenses down to less than half what I pay in the States”. Chuck plans to relocate permanently to Ecuador with his wife.
Mary said “yes” to the adventure when she, her husband and two kids moved from Hawaii to a tiny island off the Pacific Coast of Panama. When her friends and family asked why, she replied, “why not?” Mary feels her kids have received an education their schools back home could never offer. “They’ve learned to appreciate the simple things, and the cultural immersion has broadened their horizons. They’ve sidestepped a lot of the negatives coming from the TV culture back home.”
Karin discovered the lifestyle she always wanted when she and a friend visited Puerto Vallarta five years ago. “Now I spend every winter in Vallarta and I am so happy with all the new friends I’ve made. I can afford to practice my art here, and not worry about paying a mortgage because my rent here is so cheap”.
What do all of these people have in common? They all ignored what their friends said and “escaped” from their boring daily lives. And now more than ever, the benefits of moving overseas are many.
The American Way – Who Really Benefits?
Wall Street bankers were the first to get bailed out by the government as the recession got underway, while the middle class people lost their jobs, their home equity, and a good chunk of their stock portfolio and pension funds. Those who are still employed will carry all the burden of future debt and taxes to support the unemployed, not to mention a government rapidly sinking into mountains of debt.
Rather than promote free market enterprise and limit government involvement, America has gone in the opposite direction by subsidizing the entire mortgage finance industries, the auto industry, and very likely the health care industry.
A Better Life Abroad?
Want somebody to cut your lawn in the U.S. – that will be $50.
How about a massage? $150/hour please.
Would you like someone to clean your house once per week? Here is a bill for $250 per month.
Need a cavity filled? $325 + tax.
Go to Ecuador, Panama or Thailand and the rate for labor drops to under $10 per day.
A full time live-in maid costs $150 per month. A one hour massage is often less than $15 and if you need a hand with your landscaping it will run you about $8 per day.
Best of all, these service providers are happy to do the work and do so with pride, patience, and a smile on their face. They are truly grateful for the opportunity to work and provide for their families.
In the U.S., a fine meal for two will set you back $100, complicated medical procedures often exceed $10,000, and the only thing really cheap is junk imported from China.
In Argentina, Costa Rica, Mexico, Vietnam or Brazil for example, you can anticipate a 50%-75% savings off many common expenses. Many American retirees find they can live well off their social security check without needing to work or worry about making ends meet. Everything from medical care, housing, food, and entertainment are a fraction of the price found in the United States.
Less than 10 years ago, there were many sacrifices to make when moving to a “third world country.” Slow internet, terrible roads, corrupt police and risks of riots or civil war are just a few examples.
However, in the past several years, developing countries have modernized rapidly. High-speed internet is now available almost everywhere and makes it easy to maintain communication with friends and family back home or to continue work or business online. Satellite TV, top-end vehicles, appliances, advanced medical care, and other conveniences are widely available at reasonable prices in nearly every country in the world.
A lot of people ask about crime and security in developing countries. They assume that the crime rates in “those poor countries” must be off the charts and that security must be a constant source of fear and anxiety.
However, the reality is that the murder and crime rates are much higher in the U.S. than almost anywhere in the world. Of the hundreds of people we have consulted for over the years, none of them have felt a greater risk to their personal safety after moving abroad.
Not only is health care much cheaper in the developing world, but people’s lifestyles are healthier (less drug and alcohol consumption, less consumption of prescription meds, lower fat intake, and more exercise).
There is no secret to good health, it is all about lifestyle and not about the drugs your doctor prescribes. Of course, in the U.S., “big pharma” (multinational pharmaceutical companies) are the ones who tell your doctors what to do about your symptoms, but we will not get into that for now. The point is that many people who move abroad feel healthier because their lifestyle has changed for the better.
Well, surely there are no employment opportunities abroad. What could you possibly do for extra income in a place like Panama, Ecuador, Brazil or Chile? On the contrary, we have met with hundreds of people who are putting their skills and educational background to use in their new home – often with far better results.
Due to the economic growth of many countries around the world, all kinds of skills are in demand abroad. No longer is teaching English the only option – opportunities in real estate, construction, tourism, information technology, and health care are immense and in high demand throughout many “paradises” around the world.
We will not even bother discussing this one. We will leave the tropical beaches, the eternal spring like climates, and lack of snow and ice found throughout most of the developing world for your imagination to ponder.
Entertainment and High Society
What about all those snazzy restaurants, social events, artistic expressions and creature comforts in the U.S.?
In countries like Panama, Argentina, and Brazil, there are classy restaurants, world class theater, impressive art galleries and many other cultural expressions in addition to a plethora of local festivals and celebrations.
While political stability is still an issue in some countries, many attractive destinations have very stable democratic governments in place. Even if the government is considered socialist or left wing – let’s face it, the U.S. government now subsidizes the entire mortgage finance and auto industry. It does not get much more left wing than that!
Per capita GDP is not a measure of true wealth. A measure of true wealth is affordable access to healthy food and water that is locally produced, a sense of community spirit and respect for one’s neighbors, and a lack of unnecessary government regulation and taxes. By these measures, the developing world nations are among the wealthiest on Earth.
At the same time, the U.S. is no longer the world’s creditor, it is the world’s biggest debtor nation and owes what is left of its financial stability to the world’s creditors like Japan and China, who lend their excess cash to the U.S. by purchasing U.S. Treasury Bonds.
The financial realities of today’s economic order are already posing a serious drag on the standards of living of those residents who choose to remain in the U.S. through increased health care costs, reduced services offered by the state, higher taxes, and higher insurance premiums.
Education and Immigration
Education and immigration patterns shape our future more than anything. People often forget that it was a dynamic blend of immigrants who built the U.S. into a strong, prosperous economy.
Now immigration trends are beginning to reverse. A recent article by the Associated Press lists examples of college grads who cannot find work in the U.S. and are instead finding better paying and higher level jobs in China. Chinese, Indian, and Brazilian students often complete their college degrees in the U.S. but instead of staying and looking for work, they return to their home countries for jobs and careers.
How To Get Started
With more than 180 countries in the world – where to begin? Well, we have done a lot of the research for you and the reality is that some places in the world are much more attractive for lifestyle and retirement than others.
As a follow up to this article, we will be commenting on some of the best places to live and invest in future issues of Escape From America Magazine.
Is Now the Time to Escape from America?
While the catastrophe scenario outlined below is plausible, the probability of its playing out as feared is harder to assess. Nevertheless the conclusion is hard to find fault with: Be prepared – mentally and financially, we would add.
It was shocking to watch the current events unfold at the United Nations this week. The same man who ordered an airliner to be bombed out of the sky called other nations “terrorists.” This same leader said that Switzerland should be abolished, yes, Switzerland.
Another world leader claimed the Jewish holocaust never happened and Israel should be wiped off the map. The Israeli leader failed to note that Arabs have been in Israel as long as Jews have. They were run off of their titled land at the point of a gun and have been regarded as and treated as second class citizens ever since. Has logic and civility abandoned the public dialogue? What makes this even more perplexing is that these people who are spewing this vitriol have enormous wealth and power. They are supposed to be intelligent. They are the leaders of countries with millions of inhabitants. They sound more like playground bullies that need a good thumping. This does not give me a warm fuzzy feeling that all is going well in the world.
In Washington, D.C. on September 25th thousands of Muslims descended on the mall to recite the Koran and pray. I think it is safe to say that some of them were praying that the United States would become a Muslim theocracy. The leaders of this event have nefarious backgrounds linked to radicals. Their slogan for the event was “Our Time Has Come.” Has the time come for people who are not radical Muslims to escape from America? Can you imagine what would happen if Christians gathered at a prominent political arena to recite the Bible and pray in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan or 25 other predominately Muslim countries? If you do not think the goal of many Muslims is to conquer the U.S. for Allah you are naïve at best.
A secret nuclear facility has been discovered in Iran proving that Iran has been lying about its peaceful intentions. To be objective, Iran should be able to do anything it wants inside of its own borders. However on the same note, if your next door neighbor buys a howitzer and points it at your bedroom window and starts ranting about your parents not being married, and your kids look a lot like the mailman you might get a little concerned.
Tensions are high and Iran is defiant as ever. Many people are not aware of the beliefs of the theocracy that controls Iran. The rulers of Iran believe the Islamic messiah is coming soon and they have a role in it. The 12th Imam or Mahdi as he is known will come and save all Muslims and destroy all infidels. President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cabinet have claimed they signed a “contract” pledging to do the Mahdi’s work. Ahmadinejad believes that he is personally directed by Allah to pave the way for the glorious return of the Mahdi. Google this topic and you will see that this radical tangent the Iranian leadership believes in is mentioned nowhere in the Koran. This kind of theological thinking is even more radical and out of the mainstream than the Wahabbism that Osama Bin Laden adheres to. They think that this messiah will reveal himself only when the world is in a state of complete chaos. Iran is perfectly positioned now to create this havoc. If they start this madness with a nuclear bomb it will be better according to their twisted logic. They have been taunting to pick a fight with the “west” for years. Each Friday at Tehran University the most powerful man in Iran leads thousands of followers to the chant of “Death to America.” This is utter insanity. The UN responds with weak and meaningless sanctions that Tehran has laughed off several times.
It may soon get to the point that Israel has no choice but to attack Iranian military installations and nuclear sites preemptively. This would certainly light a Middle East powder keg that governments have been trying to avoid. The only way a wider war would not ensue is if the strike against Iran was devastating and it was unable to respond with a counter attack. Even if it had the capability Iran would be unable to stage a blanket attack on Israel because there are too many Palestinians intertwined and the collateral damage of Holy sites would not play well in the Arab press. Israel has strategic nuclear weapons and could turn Iran into a smoking hole very easily. They could use tactical nukes (little ones) to make sure there is no response and minimize fallout. However, the tactical fallout could be spread for hundreds of miles and kill people in friendly countries possibly making them hostile to Israel. If Israel used nukes on Iran without the consent of its friends Israel would most likely become a pariah and certain doom would be inevitable. Even then, with a neutralized Iran the Persian Gulf oil flow would be disrupted enough to cause panics in world petroleum markets.
Mixed into this scenario is the big question – how will the U.S. will react? That is uncertain at this point, but it seems that the Obama administration or the American public does not have the stomach for this fight. Frankly, I am not sure what the U.S. gets for its billions of dollars in aid to Israel.
No less than three plots to bomb U.S. cities were thwarted in 1 week in September 2009. Up until now there has been no significant attack on U.S. soil since September 11. It appears that this is going to change soon. If Muslim radicals start bombing office buildings, subways, malls, or sports stadiums in the U.S. how is this going to play out? Will there be a backlash against the 7 million Muslims in the U.S.? Will indignant Americans start blowing up Mosques? Will this trigger an even bigger wave of attacks inside the U.S. from jihadist sleeper cells? One thing is certain, it will devastate and already fragile U.S. economy at a time it least needs it. Jihadists know this and probably think this could be the historical moment to slay the great Satan. On the other hand it could galvanize the U.S. population and being a Muslim in the U.S. could be a death sentence. Whatever way this scenario plays out it will not be pretty. It appears as though things are coming to a boil.
It might be wise to ask yourself what you would do if there was another catastrophic terrorist attack event in the U.S. Are you prepared? Would you rather be somewhere else but are too bogged down with responsibility and commitments? Do you have a place to go if it does get really bad? Will you be able to leave if all flights are canceled? In reality I think most people will go about their daily routines and choose not to think about a terrorist attack. Some will stay in the U.S. and adjust to whatever happens. I would be willing to bet that the majority of Americans are unaware of the events outlined above. Frankly, they probably do not care. There are the ones that simply cannot afford to make a move even if they wanted to. It is the ones that do not prepare that will get hit with the harsh reality if/when their world gets rocked. It is the smart ones that start reacting now and preparing. The wise people are asking when is a good time to escape from America. The sooner you start preparing your escape from America the better. You may be glad you did.
Do you want to be there saying to yourself I could’a, would’a should’a, when it is too late? Makes you shudder – doesn’t it?
COULD IT BE ANY MORE OBVIOUS?
Obvious signs that America’s influence is waning ... and subtler but more telling signs.
While Chicagoans were crying in their beer for having been denied the Pyrrhic victory of “winning” the right to host the Olympics (hosting the Olympics is a huge money loser – they should be celebrating), the U.S. government was quietly throwing in the towel on maintaining its control over ICANN – the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers – and its enormous influence over the internet’s architecture and technology. Other countries had had enough of the U.S., and threatened to create their own parallel internet if the U.S. did not let go.
These two signs of declining U.S. dominance are good, as Simon Black points out. As a more multilateral sharing of influence emerges: (1) It likely means that do-good, ruling class boot-licking Western politicians will no longer be able to impose their agenda around the globe; and (2) nations will be in greater direct competition with each other to attract talented people and capital. And “once the United States sheds its nationalistic superiority complex and begins looking at other nations as peers and partners, America will literally discover a world of opportunity.”
It can’t come too soon.
That was the word used to describe the aghast crowds gathered in Chicago ... upon hearing the news that their beloved city had been passed over for the 2016 games by the International Olympic Committee.
Based on the poll numbers, most Chicagoans (and Americans for that matter) were confident that they would be selected over the other finalist candidate cities – Rio, Tokyo, and Madrid.
Why? Because they were convinced that the international celebrity of Chicago’s favorite son, President Obama, would nail down the deal.
It did not. I am sure Obama’s oratorical passions were well-delivered when he addressed the IOC, but the body’s negative response underscores sentiment echoed around the world:
“The United States does not get to dictate the rules anymore.”
So with the stroke of a pen, Chicago was the first city to be eliminated among the four finalists. In the end, the 2016 games were “awarded” to Rio de Janeiro, which is an ironic BRIC nation follow-up to the 2008 summer games that were held in China. (Fortunately, despite the embarrassing loss, Chicago will be better off in the long run – Olympic games have a tendency to be net negatives for host cities.)
The real irony is that the Chicago rejection highlights to most Americans for the first time that their country’s influence has truly waned.
Sure, the upper echelons of the American bell curve figured this out years ago, but now it is finally becoming obvious even to Joe Six Pack.
U.S. government quietly gives up control of ICANN, the world’s primary information and communication conduit.
And while the talking heads were busy ... trying to determine how Obama could have conceivably lost to that Banana Republic down south, the *real* story of the day was going largely unnoticed:
The U.S. government announced a few days ago that it was ending its decade-long deal with ICANN, the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. If the Internet is a superhighway, ICANN is the Federal Highway Department – it has enormous influence over the internet’s architecture and technology.
ICANN was established by the Clinton administration in 1998 so that one single body could have executive authority in the decision making process of internet architecture. Naturally, it has been controlled for years by the US government.
Russians, Chinese, Arabs, even Europeans have all had enough.
Over the last decade, internet usage around the world has grown dramatically, its fundamental plumbing remains largely American; users around the world who do not speak English or even have a Latin alphabet have to use an anglicized system to access the web.
Russians, Chinese, Arabs, even Europeans – they have all had enough. The Chinese even threatened to build their own version of the internet if the United States didn’t give up control of ICANN.
And so, late last week, while many Americans sat “stunned” from the realization that their greatest international celebrity could not influence a winning Olympic bid, the U.S. government quietly gave up control of the world’s primary information and communication conduit.
Somewhere Al Gore is weeping.
Clearly, similar events which demonstrate declining U.S. influence will continue grabbing daily headlines; realistically, though, this is probably a good thing for two reasons:
First, as more countries take a seat at the table of global leadership, the decision making process will become incredibly congested. I am excited for this because it likely means that do-good western politicians will no longer have autonomy to execute their agenda around the globe.
Perhaps more importantly, though, having more countries influencing the global economy likely means that nations will be in direct competition with each other to attract talented people and capital. In the long run, this means lower tax rates, reduced regulation, and less obtrusive governments.
It is clear to me that Obama already recognizes that America must now share the power that it once held so tightly. With each passing day, more Americans are starting to realize it too.
Yes, it is unfortunate that so many in Chicago had their hopes crushed ... I have always loved the city and rank it as one of my favorite places in the U.S. along with Austin, Miami, Savannah, and the entire state of Wyoming.
But it is probably better that they begin to learn the hard lesson now, along with the rest of the country – because once the United States sheds its nationalistic superiority complex and begins looking at other nations as peers and partners, America will literally discover a world of opportunity.
WORLD’S TOP DOING-BUSINESS HAVEN
Kathleen Peddicord recommends Panama. That is why she is there.
Kathleen Peddicord runs an international publishing company. (It obviously includes Live and Invest Overseas among its publications.) It needs local staff, which is why she is located in “the Hub of the Americas” rather than Paris – her favorite place to live but a total nightmare for running any business involving hired help.
Just to be ultra-clear on the matter: “[F]or a small- to medium-sized international operation, Panama is hands down the world’s top jurisdiction for starting and operating a business right now, certainly the best choice in the Americas.” Details below.
In this Internet Age, you could start an international business anywhere. Local business options can be restricted in some jurisdictions (some countries, for example, protect their retail, legal, or medical industries, meaning foreigners cannot buy or start businesses in these fields), but you could launch a laptop-based, consulting, or Internet business anywhere on earth where you can get an Internet connection.
Given this, if running a business (and thereby generating an income) is part of your live-overseas plan, where should you consider settling down?
I recommend Panama. That is why I am here.
Europe in general is a challenging and expensive place to try to be a business owner. Asia is on the other side of the world, meaning that, if your customers and vendors are in the Americas and Europe, you are going to have to learn to work through the night to stay in touch with them. Look not east or west, therefore, to pursue your entrepreneurial inclinations, but south.
Consider ease and the costs of incorporating, the corporate and income tax rates, the infrastructure, and the local English-speaking labor pool.
When you do, consider these things primarily: the ease and the costs of incorporating; the corporate and income tax rates; the infrastructure; and the local English-speaking labor pool.
It is not difficult or costly to incorporate in most countries, and, if you are running a non-local business, you should not need a business license. Most countries do not tax foreign-source income, so tax planning is an option just about anywhere, to greater and lesser extents.
Nicaragua and Ecuador not recommended for business.
Infrastructure – that is, reliable Internet and electricity – is critical for any business, for a business that cannot communicate with clients and customers is not in business very long. In Latin America, Panama sits squarely at the top of the best infrastructure list, followed by Uruguay and Argentina. The Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Ecuador fall short here. I have started and operated businesses in eight countries, including Nicaragua and Ecuador. I recommend against these last two. In Nicaragua and Ecuador, in particular, you spend an inordinate amount of your time repairing your Internet connection, waiting for the electricity to come back on, and standing in line waiting for your turn to debate and deliberate (again and endlessly) with the local bureaucrats.
The real sticky wicket, though, is local labor law. If your international operation will not require local staff, then your choices for where to base yourself remain wide-open. If you will not have to hire employees in-country, you could operate anywhere. I have a friend, self-employed in an international business that requires no employees. He likes the Cayman Islands. The Cayman Islands is not a budget destination, but cost of living is not an issue for my friend, so he is moving, with his business, to the Caymans. He is delighted. He has managed to find a way to pursue his income objectives in the place where he wants to spend his time.
If yours, though, is an international business that will require local staffing, then the decision-making process becomes all about things like employment law; labor costs; and employer taxes and social charges you would be liable for.
Nowhere in the world does labor law favor the employer as much as it does in the United States.
The most important thing to understand about employment law is that nowhere in the world does it favor the employer as much as it does in the United States. I ran a division of an international publishing company for about 23 years, the first 13 Stateside. Then I moved, with that business, to Ireland, where I came face-to-face for the first time with non-U.S. labor law. My most important lesson: In a jurisdiction like Ireland (the rest of Europe also qualifies), it is not possible to fire someone.
The in-house attorney for the company I worked for in the States reminded managers regularly that that business operated on a hire-at-will, fire-at-will basis. “You can fire someone because you don’t like the color of the tie he wears to work one day,” he would joke. Depending on the state where you are doing business, it can, in fact, be almost that easy to disengage a U.S. employee.
In France, when you hire someone, you hire him for life.
In Ireland, the rest of Europe, and much of the world, I have learned, mostly the hard way, not only can you not fire at will, often, you cannot fire at all. In France, super-small owner – and family-run enterprises are common, because people are afraid to take on employees. In this country, when you hire someone, you hire him for life. That employee becomes your very long-term liability.
Furthermore, that employee (like all employees in France) assumes that you (the employer) are the bad guy. In all Europe, the burden is on the employer to take care of his employees, but, in France, the relationship is more tense. It is not so much parent and child as it is Mean Mister Capitalist and Victim. If you want to start a business that will require local hires, do not move to France. In fact, again, I would steer clear of Europe altogether. Otherwise, you are creating additional and costly challenges and headaches, stacking the deck against your chances of success.
In Panama it is possible to fire someone when you want to ... upon making a severance payout.
In Panama and elsewhere in Latin America, too, labor laws favor the employee, but not nearly as aggressively as in Europe. In Panama, for example, it is possible to fire someone when you want to. You, as the employer, are responsible for making a severance payout according to legislated formulas. As in Europe, the amount of the payout is predicated on the employee’s salary, meaning that, in the Americas, severance payments are not typically enough to break a business’s back, as they can be in Euro-land.
Anywhere in the world, you, as the employer, are liable for social benefits charges and fees, comparable to, though typically more onerous than, Social Security in the United States. Again, though, these fees are predicated on salary, meaning that, in Latin America, while, as percentages they can seem burdensome, as whole numbers, they are manageable.
This gets to one of the key benefits of doing business in Latin America: the cost of labor. It is low. I am right now having flood damage repaired in a house I own in Granada, Nicaragua. The roof was blown off in a storm, and I was negligent in having it repaired. Meantime, the rains came, and, over months, the wood moldings around the windows and the doors rotted away. This is a two-story, 2,300-square-foot house with many large windows. I have just had a quote for the cost of the labor required to tear out and replace all the rotted window and door frames. The quote is for US$450.
English-speaking labor, if you require it, comes at a premium in Latin America.
On the other hand, I am sure the carpenter being called in to replace the rotted wood in my house in Nicaragua does not speak English. English-speaking labor, if you require it, comes at a premium in this part of the world.
Taking all these issues into account, where should you think about basing your international business if it requires staffing? I say again, Panama. It checks every box you need checked. The IT infrastructure is First World and reliable. The time zone is convenient if your clients, customers, or vendors are based in the United States or in Europe. The educated and English-speaking labor pool is big and comes at an affordable cost; the current minimum wage in Panama City is US$3.25 per hour (less outside the capital city). An English-speaking mid-level manager makes US$1,500 a month; you can hire an English-speaking personal assistant for US$800 a month. Call centers start their English-speaking staff at US$500 a month.
Panama is one of the freest economies in the world, with the most developed banking sector south of Miami.
There is little red tape or interference from local authorities in day-to-day business activity, making Panama one of the freest economies in the world. Panama’s is also a stable economy with low inflation (less than 2% per year). The country has used the U.S. dollar as its currency since 1903, meaning Americans have no exchange-rate risk. Panama boasts a developed banking sector, the largest south of Miami. And it encourages free enterprise. Depending on the type of business you launch, you could qualify for important tax and employer benefits and incentives.
If I had no doing-business agenda at this time in my life, I would return to Paris. For me, that city offers the world’s greatest quality of living. However, the international publishing company I am running does need local staff, which is one of the primary reasons we are in the Hub of the Americas right now rather than the City of Light.
If my business required hundreds of employees, maybe I would have to find a bigger city with a bigger labor pool (I would look at Buenos Aires). However, for a small- to medium-sized international operation, Panama is hands down the world’s top jurisdiction for starting and operating a business right now, certainly the best choice in the Americas.
BELIZE, COSTA RICA, ECUADOR, NICARAGUA OR PANAMA?
The quick scoop.
Kathleen Peddicord gives thumbnail pros and cons on five of the more popular candidate retirement destinations. The “say the first thing that comes to your mind before you have a chance to go into details” approach is helpful here. For example, Costa Rica’s “infrastructure has not kept pace with the cost of living, and you get the impression these days that the Ticos just are not that interested in more gringo neighbors.”
She is based in Panama City and seldom fails to mention how hot and humid it is there, but the Panama highlands allow an escape from that.
“My wife and I want to retire somewhere warm and sunny. Our list of possible overseas retirement havens includes Panama, Costa Rica, and maybe Belize. Do you have a chart or a list of the pluses and minuses for these countries?” ...
Let’s create one. In addition to Panama, Costa Rica, and Belize, I would suggest you also might want to consider Nicaragua and Ecuador.
Here is how I would rate and rank these warm and sunny options.
In Belize, they speak English, but you have to hunker down every hurricane season. The country is small, friendly, and welcoming, but the infrastructure, including the health care, is seriously under-developed. Foreign residents typically travel across the border north into Mexico for any serious medical concern. There just is not enough population to support real-world services and products. On the plus side, this is one of the easiest places in the world to establish foreign residency, and, as a foreign resident, you can organize your affairs to live tax-free.
Costa Rica has pulled up the welcome mat for gringos.
The weather in the mountains of Costa Rica, around San Jose, is far better than that in Panama City. That is the only advantage to Costa Rica I can think of. The infrastructure has not kept pace with the cost of living, and you get the impression these days that the Ticos just are not that interested in more gringo neighbors. They have pulled up their welcome mat. That said, friend and Costa Rica Correspondent David Stubbs had good reasons for choosing Costa Rica over Panama when he was looking to relocate his family to this part of the world four years ago. He shares them here.
The living in Ecuador is also more Third World than in the other countries on this list.
Ecuador is the cheapest retirement option in the Americas. The living in this country is also more Third World than in the other countries on this list, including Nicaragua. The infrastructure is limited for the size of the country, and real-world services are limited given the size of the population. This is the most densely populated country in South America, and much of that population is indigenous, meaning that retiring in Ecuador is very much a Go Local experience.
Nicaragua has recently enacted new foreign retiree legislation, making it a more competitive option from the point of view of establishing foreign residency. (Details here.) Daniel Ortega’s re-election to the presidency in 2006 scared away most investors and retirees from this country, meaning the property market is depressed (and local sellers are hungrier than they have been in a decade to make a deal). ...
The big downside to Panama is the weather, at least in Panama City.
The big downside to Panama is the weather, at least in Panama City, where it is hot and humid year-round. Panama offers 14 foreign residency visa options and boasts the Gold Standard program of special benefits for retirees. Also boasts the best medical facilities and infrastructure in the region. Plus, this country is a tax, banking, and business haven. Cost of living is greater than that in Ecuador and Nicaragua.
GUATEMALA: FROM VIOLENT HISTORY TO DEMOCRATIC PEACE
Successive democratic elections after a 1996 peace accord, following 40 years of strife.
Knowledge of history helps a lot in understanding a country’s culture and politics. The U.S. still has a cultural/political heritage of being “the land of the free” based on events which took place over two centuries ago, lack of correspondence to current reality notwithstanding. The Caribbean’s post-Columbus history of subjugation, genocide, slavery and big-power imperial meddling explains a lot about the region’s current-day economics and politics.
Sometimes history is still very much alive. Guatemala featured bloody internecine strife between the CIA-backed ruling class and those outside the insider circle for decades, starting soon after World War II. A peace accord between the confederation of guerrilla rebels and the Guatemalan government was negotiated in 1996 by the U.N. The guerrilla fighters disarmed in exchange for receiving land. The expropriation of unused land, including large tracts owned by the infamous United Fruit Company (now Chiquita), in 1954 led to a CIA-instigated change in government and kicked off the ensuing decades of armed conflict between the U.S.-backed military – with some side help from the notorious paramilitary “death squads” – and the rebels.
Now it has been 13 years since the peace accord. Guatemala has enjoyed successive democratic elections, free trade agreements with the United States and the rest of Central America have been signed – the outside world has changed. And tourists are discovering the Guatemala’s natural and cultural (see Guatemala: Heart of the Mayan World) attractions.
The historic country of Guatemala, officially the Republic of Guatemala, is located in Central America, bordering Mexico to the north and west, the Pacific Ocean to the south, Belize and the Caribbean Sea to the northeast, and Honduras and El Salvador to the east.
Surprisingly, for a pretty much “unknown” country, tourism has become important to the economy. The total number of visitors in 2006 was 1.400,000, and its main tourist attractions are Antigua Guatemala, Lake Atitlán, Tikal, Chichicastenango, and all of its pristine ecotourism sites.
The BBC named Guatemala as the first cultural destination in the world. It is easy to understand why; it has three UNESCO World Heritage sites (Antigua, Tikal – the first in the world to be declared a mixed (ecological and archaeological) site and Quiriguá, and as well the Rabinal Achí a Kek'chí Maya play is also a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Monument.
The first proof of human settlers in Guatemala goes back to 10,000 BC. Although there is some evidence not yet clearly proved that put this date at 18,000 BC, some Obsidian arrow heads have been found in different parts of Guatemala such as Piedra Parada near Guatemala City, Chivacabé in Huehuetenango, Chajbal in El Quiché, Nahualá in Sololá, and other regions. There is archeological proof that early Guatemalan settlers were hunters and gatherers – pollen samples from Petén and the Pacific coast indicate that maize crops were developed around 3500 BC. Archaic sites have been documented in Quiché in the Highlands and Sipacate, Escuintla on the central pacific coast line (6500 BC).
By 2500.BC, small settlements were developing in Guatemala’s Pacific Lowlands, including such places as Tilapa, La Blanca, Ocós, El Mesak, Ujuxte, and others, where the oldest ceramic pottery from Guatemala have been found. From 2000 BC heavy concentration of pottery in the Pacific Coast Line has been documented. Recent excavations suggest that the Highlands were a geographic and temporal bridge between Early Pre Classic villages of the Pacific coast and later Petén lowlands cities.
Recent excavations in the Antigua Guatemala Valley, at Urías and Rucal, have yielded stratified materials for the Early and Middle Preclassic, the first pottery in the Antigua Valley is very well made and not simply a copy of either coastal or Piedmont types. Their paste analyses, however, indicate that the vessels were made on clays from different environmental zones, suggesting to them that these were people from the Pacific coast who expanded into the Antigua Guatemala Valley. There are at least 5000 archaeological sites in Guatemala, 3000 of them in Petén alone.
In Monte Alto near La Democracia, Escuintla some giant stone heads and Potbellies or Barrigones have been found, dated at 1800 BC, the so named Monte Alto Culture, they are classified as Pre-Olmec, letting the door open to the opinion of some scholars, that the Olmec Culture was born in that area of the Pacific Lowlands, although the size is the only relation with the posterior dated Olmec heads, it is more accurate to say that the Monte Alto Culture was the first Complex Culture of Mesoamérica and the Predecessors of all the other cultures.
In Guatemala, there are some sites with unmistaken Olmec style, such as Chocolá in Suchitepéquez, La Corona, in Escuintla, and Tak'alik A´baj, in Retalhuleu, that is the only ancient City in America with Olmec and Mayan features. The renown Archeologist Dr. Richard Hansen, the director of the archaeological project of The Mirador Basin is sure that the Maya at Mirador Basin developed the first True political state in America, (Tha Kan Kingdom), around 1500 BC, although Maize (corn) pollen samples have been documented in lakes in the area dated in 2400 BC, not as thought before that the Olmec was the mother culture in Mesoamerica, he thinks, due to recent finding at Mirador Basin, Northern Petén, Guatemala, that the Olmec and Mayas developed its cultures, separately, and merged in some places like Tak'alik Abaj on the Pacific Low Lands; there is no evidence yet to link the Pre Classic Maya from Petén and those from the Pacific coast, but undoubtedly, they had cultural and economical links.
Northern Guatemala has particularly high densities of Late Pre-classic sites, including Naachtun, Xulnal, El Mirador, Porvenir, Pacaya, La Muralla, Nakbé, Tintal, Wakná (formerly Güiro), Uaxactún, and Tikal. Of these, El Mirador, Tikal, Nakbé, Tintal, Xulnal and Wakná are the largest in the Maya world. Such size was manifested not only in the extent of the site, but also in the volume or monumentality, especially in the construction of immense platforms to support large temples.
Until a few years ago, the Pre Classic, was thought to be a formative period, with small villages of farmers, that lived in huts, and few permanent buildings, but this concept has been proved to be a big mistake, due to recent findings all over Guatemala, such as an altar in La Blanca, San Marcos, some three meters in diameter, dated from 1000 BC; Ceremonial sites at Miraflores, and El Naranjo from 800 BC, near Kaminal Juyú, in Guatemala City, El Portón in Baja Verapaz, The Mural paintings in San Bartolo, Petén, the Stucco Masks and monuments in Cival and of course The Mirador Basin major cities of Nakbé, Xulnal, Tintal, Wakná and Mirador, the Cradle of the Maya Civilization, where, the cities were not only numerous, but very sophisticated, and developed, with architectonic structures from 1400 BC, indeed the two biggest cities of the Maya Civilization (El Mirador and Tintal) are there, with the same religious believes, astronomical, mathematics and writing knowledge that those in the Classic period.
The city of El Mirador, which was the largest city in ancient America, also features the largest pyramid in the world, at 2,800,000 Mt2 of volume (some 200,000 more than the Giza pyramid in Egypt), and was by far the most populated city in the pre-Columbian America. In fact, Mirador was the first politically organized state in America, named the Kan Kingdom in ancient texts.
There were 26 cities, some bigger than Tikal, the Jewel of the Classic period, all connected by huge Sacbeob (plural for highways), or Sacbé (singular), meaning “White Road,” several km long and up to 40 meters wide and two to four meters. above the ground, paved with stucco, that are clearly distinguishable from the air in the most extensive virgin tropical rain forest left in Mesoamerica, thus, these were kingdoms equal in power and culture to those in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, etc.
The Classic is represented by countless sites, mainly in Petén, although there are Classic sites in any region in Guatemala, The Post Classic is represented by different kingdoms like the Itzá and Ko'woj in the Lakes area in Petén that were the last cultures in Mesoamérica to be conquered by the Spaniards on 1697 when Tayasal capital of the Itzá fell; and, by the Mam, Ki'ch'es, Kack'chiquel, Tz'utuh'il, Pokom'chí, Kek'chi and Chortí among others in the Highlands, Izabal, Petén and the Pacific Lowlands that kept the essential believes of the Maya Civilization but do not reach the splendor of the Pre Classic and Classic cities.
The name Guatemala, was derived from Cuauhtemalan, meaning the land of many trees, the name that the Tlaxcaltecs Indians that came with the Spaniards gave to Iximché, the capital of the Cack'chik'el tribe,(Cakchiquel), and generalized to name the country, by the Spaniards.
There were peaceful expeditions, since 1518, and, as mentioned in the “Memorial de Sololá,” a deadly epidemic killed thousands in the country.
During the colonial period, Guatemala was a Captaincy General (Capitanía General de Goathemala) of Spain, and a part of New Spain (Mexico). It extended from the Soconusco region – now in southern Mexico (states of Chiapas, Tabasco) – to Costa Rica. This region was not as rich in minerals (gold and silver) as Mexico and Peru, and was therefore not considered to be as important. Its main products were sugarcane, cocoa, blue añil dye, red dye from cochineal insects, and precious woods used in artwork for churches and palaces in Spain.
The first Capital was named Tecpan Goatemalan, founded in July 25, 1524 with the name of Villa de Santiado de Goathemala) and was located near Iximché, the Kak'chik'el’s Capitol City, It was moved to Ciudad Vieja on November 22 1527, when the Kak'chik'el attacked the city, in September 11, 1541 the city was flooded when the lagoon in the crater of the Agua Volcano collapsed due to heavy rains and earthquakes, and was moved four miles to Antigua Guatemala on the Panchoy Valley, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This City was destroyed by several earthquakes in 1773-1774, and the King of Spain, granted the authorization to move the Captaincy General, to the Ermita Valley, named after a Catholic Church to the Virgen de El Carmen, in its current location, founded in January 2, 1776.
On September 15, 1821, Guatemala became independent. The new Guatemalan Republic included the Soconusco region, and what are now the countries of El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Its 1.5 million inhabitants were concentrated in urban centres.
On October 3, 1821, the Captaincy-General of Guatemala, (formed of Chiapas, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Honduras). Officially proclaimed its independence from Spain and its incorporation into the Mexican Empire. This region had been formally subject to New Spain throughout the colonial period, but as a practical matter was administered separately. All but Chiapas soon separated from Mexico after Agustín I, from Mexico was forced to abdicate.
The Guatemalan provinces formed the United Provinces of Central America, also called the Central American Federation. The capital city remained Guatemala City, which is still today the most populous city in Central America.
A politically unstable period followed, aggravated by the collapse of the world market for añil (indigo), the country’s main export to Europe, due to the invention of synthetic dyes. This prompted each province to leave the Federation, from 1838 to 1840, beginning with Costa Rica, and Guatemala became an independent nation.
Guatemala has long claimed all or part of the territory of neighboring Belize, formerly part of the Spanish colony, and later occupied by the United Kingdom. Guatemala recognized Belize’s independence in 1991, but their territorial dispute is not resolved. Negotiations are currently underway under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS) to resolve it.
Dictator Jorge Ubico y Castañeda was forced to resign his office on July 4, 1944 in response to a wave of protests and a general strike. His replacement, General Juan Federico Ponce Vaides, was later forced out of office by a coup d’état led by Major Francisco Javier Arana and Captain Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán on October 20, 1944. About 100 people were killed in the coup. The country was led by a military junta made up of Arana, Arbenz, and Jorge Toriello Garrido.
The Junta called Guatemala’s first free election, which was won with a majority of 85% by the prominent writer and teacher Juan José Arévalo Bermejo, who had lived in exile in Mexico for 14 years. Arévalo was the first democratically-elected president of Guatemala to fully complete the term for which he was elected. His “Christian Socialist” policies, inspired by the U.S. New Deal, were criticized by landowners and the upper class as communist.
From the 1950s through the 1990s, the U.S. government directly supported Guatemala’s army with training, weapons and money.
This period was also the beginning of the Cold War between the U.S. and the USSR, which was to have a considerable influence on Guatemalan history. From the 1950s through the 1990s, the U.S. government directly supported Guatemala’s army with training, weapons, and money.
In 1954, Arévalo’s freely-elected Guatemalan successor Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)and a small group of Guatemalans (landowners, the old military cast and the Catholic Church, after the government instituted decree No. 900 that expropriated unused land owned including large tracts owned by the United Fruit Company, a U.S.-based banana merchant (Chiquita Banana). The CIA codename for the coup was Operation PBSUCCESS, its second successful overthrow of a foreign government after the 1953 coup in Iran. Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas was installed as president in 1954 and ruled until he was assassinated by a member of his personal guard in 1957.
In the election that followed, General Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes assumed power. He is most celebrated for challenging the Mexican president to a gentleman’s duel on the bridge on the south border to end a feud on the subject of illegal fishing by Mexican boats on Guatemala’s pacific coast, two of which were sunk by the Guatemalan Air Force. Ydigoras authorized the CIA training of 5,000 Cubans in Guatemala’s territory and who were opposed to Fidel Castro. He also provided airstrips in the region of El Petén for what later became the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961. Ydigoras government was ousted in 1963 when the Air Force attacked several Military bases. The coup was led by his Defense Minister Colonel Enrique Peralta Azurdia.
The same year, a group of disaffected young Army officers initiated a guerrilla insurgency movement, known as the November 13 Revolutionary Movement (MR-13). A splinter of this group became the Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FAR, that was supported by the clandestine Communist party, PGT (Guatemalan Workers Party). In 1966 Julio César Méndez Montenegro was elected president of Guatemala under the banner of a “Democratic Opening.” Mendez Montenegro was the candidate of the Revolutionary Party, a center-left party which had its origins in the post-Ubico era.
It was during this time that rightist paramilitary organizations, such as the “White Hand,” (Mano Blanca), and the Anticommunist Secret Army, (Ejército Secreto Anticomunista), were formed. Those organizations were the forerunners of the infamous “Death Squads.” The United States Army Special Forces (Green Berets) were sent to Guatemala to transform its army into a modern counter-insurgency force and made it the most powerful and sophisticated in Central America.
In 1970 Colonel Carlos Manuel Arana Osorio was elected president. The remnants of the guerrilla insurgency moved to the Western Highlands. In the disputed election of 1974, General Kjell Lauguerud García defeated General Efraín Ríos Montt, a candidate of the Christian Democratic Party, who claimed that he had been cheated out of a victory through fraud. On February 4, 1976, a major earthquake destroyed several cities and caused more than 25,000 deaths. In 1978, in a fraudulent election, General Romeo Lucas García assumed power.
The 1970s saw the birth of two new guerrilla organizations, The Poor Guerrilla Army (EGP) and the Organization of the Peoples in Arms (ORPA), who began and intensified by the end of the seventies, guerrilla attacks that included urban and rural guerrilla warfare, mainly against the military and some of the civilian supporters of the army. In 1979 the United States President, Jimmy Carter, order a ban on all military aid to the Guatemalan Army for blatant abuses to human rights. Almost immediately, the Israeli Government took on the job to supply the Guatemalan Army with advisers, weapons and other military supplies.
In 1980 a group of Quiché Indians took over the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City, taking hostage diplomatic personnel. Even though the Spanish government wanted the occupation to be ended through negotiations and strictly forbade an assault on its embassy, the Guatemalan government launched an assault that killed almost everyone inside as a result of a fire that consumed the building. The Guatemalan government claimed that the activists set the fire and immolated themselves.
However, the Spanish ambassador, who survived the fire, disputed this claim, noting that the Guatemalan police intentionally killed almost everyone inside and set the fire to erase traces of their acts. As a result of this violation of international law and human rights, the government of Spain broke diplomatic relations with Guatemala (the only time that such act has taken place between Spain and one of its former colonies in modern times). This corrupt government was overthrown in 1981 when another fraudulent election was not supported by the people and the army. General Efraín Ríos Montt was named President of the military junta, initiating a bloody campaign of torture, disappearances, and “scorched earth” warfare.
The country became a pariah state internationally. Ríos-Montt was overthrown by General Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores, who called for an election of a national constitutional assembly to write a new constitution, leading to a free election in 1986, which was won by Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo, the candidate for the Christian Democracy Party.
In 1982 the four Guerrilla groups, EGP, ORPA, FAR and PGT, merged and formed the URNG, influenced by the Salvadoran guerrilla FMLN, the Nicaraguan FSLN and Cuba’s Government, in order to become stronger. During the “scorched earth” era more than 45,000 Guatemalans left the country going to Mexico, where they were gathered in communities by the Mexican Government in Chiapas and Tabasco.
In 1992, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Rigoberta Menchú, an indigenous human rights activist, for her efforts to bring international attention to the government-sponsored genocide against the indigenous population.
During the first 10 years, the victims of the state-sponsored terror were primarily students, workers, professionals, and opposition figures of all political tendencies, but in the last years, they were thousands of mostly rural Mayan farmers and non-combatants.
The bloody 35-year war of repression ended in 1996 with a peace accord between the guerrillas and the government of President &aAcute;lvaro Arzú, negotiated by the United Nations through intense brokerage by Norway and Spain. Both sides made major concessions. The guerrilla fighters disarmed and received land to work. According to the U.N.-sponsored Truth Commission, government forces and paramilitaries were responsible for over 93% of the human rights violations during the war.
During the first 10 years, the victims of the state-sponsored terror were primarily students, workers, professionals, and opposition figures of all political tendencies, but in the last years, they were thousands of mostly rural Mayan farmers and non-combatants.
More than 450 Mayan villages were destroyed and over 250,000 people became refugees. This is considered one of the worst ethnic cleansings in modern Latin America.
More than 450 Mayan villages were destroyed and over 250,000 people became refugees. This is considered one of the worst ethnic cleansings in modern Latin America. In certain areas, such as Baja Verapaz, the Truth Commission considered that the Guatemalan state engaged in an intentional policy of genocide against particular ethnic groups Civil War.
In 1999, then U.S. president Bill Clinton stated that the United States was wrong to have provided support to Guatemalan military forces that took part in the brutal civilian killings.
Since the peace accord, Guatemala has enjoyed successive democratic elections, most recently in 2003. The current government has successfully signed free trade agreements with the United States and the rest of Central America through CAFTA, and other agreements with Mexico, and Panama.
Let us hope that now peace has reigned proudly in Guatemala for over a decade, that more people will discover this truly unique and beautiful country.
GUATEMALA: A BUDGET TRAVELER’S GUIDE
Probably the best bargain north of Equador, and is without a doubt the Nepal of the Americas.
In order to live safely and cheaply in a country you should first be able to travel safely and cheaply there. Obviously the two experiences are different in countless ways. What is tolerable for a day or a month might be intolerable for years. Not knowing the language and being an outsider is almost expected during a visit, but can leave one feeling lonely and isolated after an extended stay. Lack of access to broadband internet can almost be a relief while traveling, but a deal-breaker for chosing a new home.
We read immediately above that Guatemala has safely put its bloody recent history behind it. Now what? According to the travel writer here, “Guatemala is one of those rare countries that combines very low costs and true, not to be missed beauty. Once you visit you will go back again and again.” Downsides? Some areas are less than safe, some are trashy, and certain lowland areas “including Tikal are steamy and at certain times of the year are almost unbearably hot.”
It is only a very well-traveled individual who would fail to be impressed by Guatemala. Guatemala has no shortage of visitors for this reason and most routes and sights are far removed from virgin ground, but in a country of this size with time and effort it is easy to find yourself a little space.
Here is what makes Guatemala such a deservedly popular destination: major ruins (Tikal and others that can be reached with time and effort are marvels of the ancient world), beautiful colonial cities (Antigua is one of the world’s most beautiful), two coast lines (both distinctly different, far from first class beaches, but nesting turtles and good value compensate), scenic volcanoes plus dramatic mountains (does make transport slow in places, but keeps the climate cool and hides real gems), lakes (both Lago Atitlán and Lago Izabal are again right up there on the global beauty scale) and people (the continuation of ancient traditions and costumes makes for a truly “back-in-time” spectacle – plus some crazy festivals).
There is loads more besides, including a fast network of tourist orientated transport that makes getting around a breeze if you want to use it. On the down-side, as previously mentioned (both here and in connection to the entire region), most routes are extremely well traveled by all types of tourists (both good and bad); in fact many businesses are owned by foreign nationals. In addition crime is an issue to be borne in mind. Nevertheless Guatemala is probably the best bargain north of Ecuador and is without a doubt the Nepal of the Americas.
Antigua (especially Easter Week (Semana Santa) and learning Spanish), Todos Santos Cuchumatan (crazy festivals, beautiful scenery), Tikal (inc. the town of Flores and wildlife seen in surrounding areas) very touristy, but nevertheless fantastic are the weekly markets at Chichicastenango and the climb to the top of the active Volcán Pacaya. More off the beaten track: both El Estor and Lanquín are worthwhile stops.
A trip (even express) to visit Quetzaltenango is recommended. The country’s 2nd biggest town and nearly as nice in colonial aspects as Antigua, the “European Barocco Town” of the Americas. You will find traces of Italian, French, German culture, architecture and life everywhere mixed with the traditional way of life of the Queqchi- and Mam-Mayans still living in that region of the Altiplano. “Xela” (short name of Quetzaltenango) has a high number of Indians involved in work and social life – there is no crime risk at all and you will feel safer than anywhere else in Central America. Tours are much cheaper from Xela than from Antigua too. To climb Vulcan Santa María with a little active Santiaguito beside is about US$20-30 for whole day tour including an experienced guide.
Crime is an issue and can inhibit your freedom of movement in the countryside, such as when walking between villages with all your stuff, for fear of robbery. Such events happen frequently to unguided (even in groups) hikers around Lago Atitlan and volcanoes around Antigua. Lago Atitlán is the country’s major tourist destination (both domestic and national tourism) and as beautiful as the lake can be on a clear day. Panajachel is nothing more than a tucker and trinket emporium. Smaller towns around the lake are nicer, but in the lake itself and surrounding paths/roads, much litter (trash) is notable and as mentioned there has been many cases of crime against tourist walking in the area.
Equally so the Caribbean coast which has a different and interesting flavor to the rest of the country holds a risk of crime especially from beach hut break-ins, and better beaches can be found elsewhere in the region. Another low light is transport. In off the beaten track areas chicken buses are slow and tiring as they wind up and down endless hills.
- Dangers: Crime in Guatemala City, on the Caribbean coast and while walking around Antigua and Lago Atitlan is not a major issue, but one to consider. The foolhardy may fall foul.
- Visa strategy: USA, Canada, Western European, Israel, Australia and New Zealand will all get 90 days visa free on the border. Extensions must be applied for in Guatemala city or you will be fined about a small amount for every day over stayed.
- Typical tourist trail: Antigua to Lago Atitlan with a day side trip to Chichicastenango. Many travelers will then head to either Copan (Honduras) or Tikal (or both). Many also make the trip to the Caribbean coast.
- Hot/cold, wet and dry: Both Antigua and Lago Atitlan plus other highland areas are pleasantly cool. Lowland areas including Tikal are steamy and at certain times of the year are almost unbearably hot.
- Costs: Since “tourist mini-buses” (good quality small private vehicles) provide easy and efficient transport in many places (at a price) the temptation is to take them rather than public buses which are about 10 times cheaper. Equally, fantastic eating options (and bars) in both Antigua and Panajachel provide another temptation. On the beaten track without discipline you can spend between around US$40-50 a day with ease. Eating out can become a major expense. However with discipline and/or in more rural areas this cost can be cut in half. Guatemala is great value.
- Money: The large majority of banks in Guatemala have ATMs, all will change USD cash to quetzals and most will change travelers checks. Cash advances are much easier with Visa rather than MasterCard.
- What to buy: Guatemala, along with Nepal, Bali and Zimbabwe is one of the best places on earth to buy cheap local crafts and textiles. The choice is staggering and the prices fair, even before bargaining. Make sure you have at least a little spare room in your bag.
Tourist geared mini-buses are well out of reach, price-wise, to most locals. These white mini-buses are still however okay value and run several times per day along main tourist routes. These almost always focus around the network of travel agents in both Panajachel and Antigua. Routes to Copan, Rio Dulce, Chichicastenango, Guatemala City and Monterrico are easy to arrange.
To travel from say Panajachel to Antigua expect to pay about US$15, compared to about US$1.50 in a chicken bus.
However your journey will be much quicker and you will be dropped at your hotel.
It is up to you if you use these buses; it will significantly increase your budget, but make things a little easier (and much more comfortable/faster).
Prices to further destinations such as Copan are much higher. In all cases, shop around in Panajachel and Antigua, since many companies under-cut each other and saving a few dollars here and there is easy.
Chicken buses are as much as a national symbol in Guatemala as Tikal. They are a great experience to use and your only option in many cases. They are frequent, slow and always interesting throughout the country.
Getting to/from Tikal
Tikal is perfectly safe to visit and a serious highlight of the region, but transportation has become unreasonable expensive: since TACA is flying the route to Guatemala City with the new Airbus A319, standard price is about US$100-150 (one way) – but you're there in something like 25 minutes.
Higher prices are charged for bigger aircrafts and the cheapest ticket certainly gets you a seat in the cheapest and worse plane. It is possible to visit Tikal in one day by flying if very short of time, but not recommended as Flores is worth seeing. However, you don't necessarily need more than one day to see Tikal. Guatemala: A Budget Traveler’s Guide There is a new overnight bus going to and from Flores which is about 230 Quetzales. You'll get TV, food, cushions and a toilet onboard – the trip takes (via Rio Dulce) only five and one-half to the capital. Of course, there's still the Chicken Bus option, but this takes you whole day or even two, depending on season and luck.
Furthermore there are first- and 'first first' class buses that run to the capital (Linea Dorada y Maya de Oro), which are from 90-125 Quetzales (Rio Dulce – Flores) and up to 250 for Gua – Flores.
Guide book: No guidebook reviewed was particularly brilliant. The Lonely Planet is most popular as always. Footprint and Rough Guide are other okay options. For those who read German, the best guide is undoubtedly: “Reise Know-How Guatemala.” Reise Guides are normally no more than German translations of the LP, but here upon comparison you will notice much greater detail and accuracy.
- Locals: Varied People throughout Guatemala vary from blacks who speak English on the Caribbean coast to many tribes with their own language. On the whole Guatemalans are kind and friendly.
- Other travelers: Many North Americans and as with a few other Latin American countries a massive amount of Israeli travelers. Aside from Americans and Israelis you also have travelers from the world over with many Germans and British as elsewhere in the world. Guatemala has long attracted alternative culture followers from North America in the same way India attracts the same type of people from Europe.
style="list-style: circle" 8/10. Guatemala is touristy, but it is easy if you have the time and inclination to leave most tourists behind by heading off on long bus rides into the mountains. Numerous foreign owned hotels and restaurants are one thing, but it is common to see permanent “hippy-esque” western backpackers selling jewelry on street stalls. This foreign investment is perhaps inevitable and on the whole not a bad thing.
Although one does wonder about the effect to nationals of this very poor country who start a restaurant or bar and then have to compete with flashier foreign investment. Still if there is a market for it. ... It is perhaps the selling of items on street stalls by foreign nationals – always items that could be produced and sold by Guatemalans themselves – that illustrates best the point trying to be made here. Every traveler can exercise his or her right to spend their money as they wish.
Accommodation: Numerous guesthouses and hotels throughout the country to suit all budgets. Brazil style hostels are opening up in Antigua. Away from tourist hubs rooms become more basic and cheaper.
Communications: As Antigua is the hub of Central America, internet and international phone calls are both good value and good quality. Internet is available in most towns any traveler would set foot in.
- Hot water: Only in cooler regions and in better hotels.
- Average cost: US$10-20 (costs do rise substantially during festivals)
Language: Like elsewhere in the region, knowledge of Spanish is incredibly useful, but not essential. Guatemala represents the best opportunity in the region for you to learn with numerous good value schools.
Food: Food is excellent and very western in style within tourist centres as many restaurants are owned by foreign nationals. Quality does come at a price, but options in say Antigua are vast. Off the beaten track food is more basic, but always a bargain. Less flashy non-foreign owned restaurants in places such as Panajachel and Antigua are the best value even if they do not come with a flashy name, menu and decor.
- Books: Good book shops in both Panajachel and Antigua: good fiction, guidebooks and international magazines available.
- TV: If into films come to Guatemala, apart from seeing them in the cheap cinemas that dot the country, in tourist center many restaurants and cafes show films during the day and night. Several hotels and restaurants also have lounge cinemas showing a huge number of screenings per day for a small charge. In Antigua where most of these cinemas are, there are several bars that show live sporting events. Tennis, English/Spanish football and NBA is regularly shown. If following English football, here and throughout the region you can watch a full programme of highlights every Monday night.
Hassle and annoyance factor: Very limited hassle. Some overcharging on public buses, but easy to avoid by asking locals what the correct price is. Like everywhere else in the region, Spanish helps massively.
- Vegetarians: Fine (more difficult off the beaten track)
Women alone: Generally fine. There have been some safety issues at Tikal, but authorities have now changed regulations in order to make the park safer. The same goes for the police escort now offered up Volcán Pacaya.
Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol: The current hippy hangout center is San Pedro La Laguna, a small village (now a backpacker hub) opposite Panajachel on the other side of the lake.
Marijuana is easily available, harder drugs are also around. It is also easy to find Mary Jane on the two coasts in backpacker popular resorts.
Guatemala is one of those rare countries that combines very low costs and true, not to be missed beauty. Once you visit you will go back again and again.
RETIRE TO ANTIGUA, GUATEMALA
“In all, we are spending about US$2,100 per month, and we are well covered and very comfortable.”
Two Live and Invest Overseas readers took in the information in LIO’s Antigua, Guatemala, Retirement Report, one thing led to another ... and now they are “delighted to report we’re now full-time resident retirees.” They go over their budget in some useful detail.
By Wikipedia’s description, La Antigua Guatemala is a city in the central highlands of Guatemala famous for its well-preserved Spanish Baroque architecture as well as a number of spectacular ruins of colonial churches. According to the 2007 census, the city has a population of around 35,000. Antigua “holds a sizeable retirement community from the U.S. as well as Europe as its colonial charm has appealed to many who have crossed paths with this enchanting and romantic town.”
From the Wikitravel page on Antigua: “Due to the presence of the ‘Tourist Police’ Antigua is much safer than any other city in Guatemala. However, the tourist police are only present within the city. During the daytime your risk of getting robbed in Antigua is very small. However, if you leave the tourist-areas or if you walk the streets at night, there is a considerable risk. This is especially true during the time when the night and the morning shifts of the police change guard.”
The weather? From this webpage we are usefully informed: Guatemala can be divided into three climate zones with very distinct characteristics: The tropical climate zone encompasses areas between sea-level and roughly 3,300 feet of altitude. The climate of the lowlands is tropical, i.e., hot and humid day and night, year round. Daytime temperatures can go as high as 40°C (100°F) and nighttime temperatures rarely drop below 20°C (70°F). The entire Pacific coast coastal plain is part of the tropical climate zone, as well as eastern Guatemala, Rio Dulce, and the northern department of El Peten, where Tikal and Flores are located. The temperate zone extends from approximately 3,300 feet to 6,600 feet above sea level. Daytime temperatures rarely exceed 30°C (85°F) and nights are pleasantly cool. Guatemala City, Antigua Guatemala and Lake Atitlan are in the temperate zone. “The weather is agreeable year round, temperature variation is small compared to other parts of the world, and the rainy season imposes very few restrictions on the tours and activities you can do.”
“We send you greetings from La Antigua, Guatemala,” write new Correspondents Frank and Suzanne Millard, “where we’re delighted to report we’re now full-time resident retirees.” ...
The plan began to take shape last December. After living and working the last 35 years in Southern California, we decided to retire. At ages 73 and 74, we were ready finally to cut the cord and said, “No more work!”
We had been researching overseas retirement options for about a year, because we knew our Social Security and modest investments would come up short for a retirement in the United States. Mexico and Central America seemed like the logical choices.
Then we read the issue of Kathleen’s Overseas Retirement Letter detailing the virtues of La Antigua. That set us on a path. We sought out every other report and every bit of information we could find to support the idea of La Antigua.
When we shared our plan with family and friends, they replied, “You are crazy!” Strangers said, “Boy, are you brave.” We paid them all no mind and forged ahead. Our discussions were frequent and long. What to do with the cars, the house, our furniture? We handled the house and the cars ourselves and hired an auction company to liquidate everything except some personal items, which we put into a small rented storage space.
Oh, yes, there were lots of tears and hugs when the loaded truck drove out of our driveway, leaving us in an empty house. But a nice dinner and bottle of wine turned the sadness into a celebration.
A nice two-bedroom house for $800 per month.
In April, I flew to La Antigua to meet with a real estate agent and to look for a rental house. After the third day, I had succumbed to the charms of this city. I rented a nice two-bedroom house for US$800 per month. It has tile floors, a fireplace, a living room, a formal dining room, a kitchen, 1½ baths, and a laundry area, all beneath high ceilings with wood beams. It is completely furnished, walled, and gated, with excellent security.
Next we had to tackle what turned out to be our biggest problem – arranging to bring our two small dogs to Guatemala with us. The airlines did not want to deal with us directly and referred us to a cargo company. That group was wonderful to deal with, but the logistics did not work out well. On flight day, the airlines, could not accept live pets. Our dogs had to be kenneled and fly the next day. When they finally arrived in Guatemala, it took two days to get them through customs, as documents had to be corrected. They were resilient, though, and recovered quickly. They love their new yard and home.
The city of La Antigua is nine square blocks of charm, with bougainvillea and other flowers everywhere and cobblestone streets filled with happy, smiling people. It seems there is a celebration every week. Parades, processions, fireworks, and real happy times.
Our first weeks were exciting as we learned our way around, built up our ability to walk everywhere we wanted to go, and learned the system of the tuk-tuks. These three-wheeled taxis built for two can take you anywhere in the city for US$1.20 to US$1.85. We walk one to two miles each day. It is our exercise program, and, after five months here, we are still discovering new places.
We have the grocery stores and restaurants scoped out. We are able to find most of what we want in the shops here. We have found a driver who takes us to Guatemala City when we want to shop for things not available in Antigua. He is bilingual and charges US$80 for 8 to 10 hours of service. He negotiates discounts on purchases, supplies the van, and knows where to go for everything.
We have a Price Mart and a huge Wal Mart-owned Hiper Paiz store. Restaurant meals are $3.50 to US$4 for breakfast, US$4 to US$5 for lunch, and US$5 to US$10 per person for dinner. The most expensive dinner out in town costs about US$20 per person. Recently we splurged at the Maison Panza Verde, the premier dining house in town. We enjoyed a nice bottle of wine and two steak dinners for less than US$60 total.
Since we have been living here, Suzy has had two bouts of stomach problems and one sprained ankle. The visits to a private hospital for the stomach problems cost US$90, including examinations, lab work, and prescriptions. For the ankle problem, the bill was US$50.
Strolling into the city center and beautiful Central Park, we found that few people speak English. The Mayan culture is prevalent, along with its many languages. Spanish becomes everyone’s second language. So it was off to school for us! After a few weeks at a language school, though, we realized we would be better off with a private tutor. Now, twice a week for four hours at a time, we have private lessons at our house. The total bill for the two of us is US$50. Today when we walk to the park, we speak Spanish to everyone. It is limited, but we make progress each week.
We have also taken oil painting lessons. Six weeks of classes for the two of us cost US$100, including supplies. The fruits of our labor (four framed paintings) are hanging in the living room. This has been the fun part of our new life.
Now for the nuts and bolts. Money!
Our food budget is US$200. Fruits and vegetables are cheap. I can buy all that I can carry at the local mercado for US$3 to US$4; it is enough to last all week. Products imported from the States cost about the same as they do Stateside. Quality wine is available from Argentina, Chile, Italy and Spain. We are spending about US$150 a month on it, as we enjoy a nice bottle with our evening meal. Eating out is one of our big hobbies, as we enjoy the food and the chance to practice our Spanish. We allow US$300 per month for this.
We get most of our medications through our senior coverage in the States. We budget US$25 a month for pharmacy expenditures and US$100 for doctors.
The cost of entertainment is quite reasonable. Last week we attended a performance by a Costa Rican singer. She put on a full stage performance with singers, dancers, and great musicians. It lasted two hours and cost US$7.50. Plan on about US$100 a month for entertainment, and you will be very busy.
Our utilities are averaging about US$190 a month, including Internet, land telephone, cellular telephone, and electricity. We have a maid who comes in on Wednesdays and Saturdays for three to four hours at a time. We pay her US$1.33 per hour. That is the going rate, and it amounts to a total of about US$35 per month.
Expenses for the two dogs are running US$60 per month.
Include US$100 per month in your budget for miscellaneous, because you will always find something interesting to buy.
In all, we are spending about US$2,100 per month, and we are well covered and very comfortable.
We do not feel we have shortchanged ourselves in any way by making this move. We eat out more often, participate in more hobbies, and lack for nothing. If we want the company of English-speaking friends, we have no problem finding it. It is easy to meet expats from the United States and Canada and then to participate in all kinds of activities with them.
The latest e-mail we received from family said, “With you so happy, and everything that is going on in the United States right now, maybe you made the right move after all!”
Would we do it again? You bet!
Tourism Businesses in Latin America Benefit from Sustainable Practices
In celebration of World Tourism Day, September 27, the Rainforest Alliance, an international conservation organization, is releasing the results of a study that examines whether tourism businesses in Latin America benefit from applying sustainable practices to their operations. The study, titled “A Cost and Benefit Analysis of Best Practice Implementation in Tourism Businesses,” was conducted earlier this year with 14 tourism businesses in Guatemala, Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Ecuador.
The data shows that businesses working with the Rainforest Alliance’s sustainable tourism program gained tangible benefits from the application of best management practices for environmental and social improvement, and in doing so they created networks that helped all parties involved establish more responsible relationships with their surroundings. For example, all the businesses surveyed purchase goods and services from small and medium enterprises (SMEs), with an average of 20 SMEs supplying each tourism business; 64% of the survey’s respondents said that this arrangement generates savings for their hotel, and 79% said it results in better security and more respect from the local community.
The survey also found that the tourism businesses lowered their operational costs by cutting their consumption of water and energy, placing bulk orders and improving waste management. For example, 71% of the business owners said they decreased their water consumption, saving an average of $2,700 per year.
“All of the hotel owners surveyed believe that their quality and appeal to tourists has improved thanks to biodiversity conservation. The preservation of natural areas has also made them more competitive and has improved their tourism destinations,” observed Silvia Rioja, a Rainforest Alliance technical manager. She added, “In 93% of the cases, the environmental education we provided resulted in higher levels of responsibility among the hotel’s suppliers and their guests.”
The analysis also describes a series of measures that have increased employee motivation, which results in lower staff turnover. The hotels have taken steps to improve health and security, and as Rioja explained, most of the hotels reported that by contracting suppliers who implement best practices, they have improved the quality of the goods and services they purchase.
The Rainforest Alliance has spent 10 years promoting best manage practices for sustainable tourism on a global level. To date, 320 hotels, 127 tour operators and 43 tourism organizations have earned the right to display the conservation organization’s logo by adopting social and environmental best practices, and the number of tourism enterprises involved in the program grows every year.
New Poll Reveals the Image of America: Wal-Mart All the Way
And half of respondents said that raising taxes on the richest Americans by 50% was a good idea.
What best represents the image of America; Microsoft, the NFL, or Wal-Mart?
According to almost half the respondents in a new CBS-Vanity Fair poll, America is Wal-Mart all the way.
The poll was conducted between August 27 and August 31 by CBS news which called 1,097 random respondents nationwide. Half of all respondents also said that raising taxes on the richest Americans by 50% was a good idea.
On a scale of personal sins, having an extramarital affair lost out with only 2% to politicians taking bribes, which 37% of respondents felt was the worse.
Most men said they would rather change places with George Clooney (26%) than Barack Obama (24%) for a day. But women said they would rather trade places with Michelle Obama over Hillary Clinton by 26 to 16%. Angelina Jolie ranked 13%.
Do the image of America and the image Americans have of themselves have anything to do with how many Americans leave the U.S. each year to live abroad?
Millions of Americans currently live outside the U.S., but their reasons for going are difficult to track. For many, the worsening economic conditions and budget deficit in the U.S. lead the list. In fact, healthcare bankrupts a million or more people a year in the U.S., making affordable healthcare offshore a major factor in leaving the U.S.
Less Really is More – Economic Depressions Lengthen Lifespans
If you needed proof that having more of everything is bad for you, here it is. New research shows that during economic depressions, mortality goes down and life expectancy goes up.
A study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences analyzed the economic growth and population health in the United States between 1920 and 1940, including the years of the Great Depression.
Researchers found that mortality declined and life expectancy increased during the Great Depression, as well as in the recessions of 1921 and 1938, compared with other years during that period. Suicides did increase during the Great Depression, but they made up less than 2% of deaths during that time.
The study showed that during the Great Depression, a year with a 5% drop in the gross domestic product was associated with a 1.9-year gain in life expectancy, while a 5% rise in the GDP lowered life expectancy by about one to two months.
Although the study came to no conclusions about why economic depression would lengthen life, theories include the fact that people tend to smoke and drink less and eat out and drive less often, improving general health. Another theory is that in poor economic times, people come together and support one another more, improving social support and thus affecting health and wellbeing.
“What a surprise,” said Gary Scott, lecturer and author of several health, wellness, and alternative financial publications. “Spend less time working and more time with family and friends and eating home cooking and you live longer. They needed a study to find that out?
“In fact, I know thousands of people who take matter into their own hands and actually improve their lives by creating their own ‘economic depression.’ They simply move to a place where there is less stress, lower cost of living, and better, more natural food. There are places like that all over the world.”
Many Americans have already found the health benefits of more relaxed lifestyle, healthier food, and less economic stress by moving abroad. In addition to the health benefits, the actual cost of healthcare is lower in many places outside the U.S. as well.
Why U.S. Real Estate Is Still Heading South
The rental yields compared to purchase price still stink.
Simon Black values real estate, and companies, based on comparative valuations, replacement cost and income yield. In other words, he is a value buyer. Of those three criteria, you can only spend income. “An investment property was literally worthless if it did not cash flow enough to cover the debt service.”
Fast growing companies can increase income quickly, but “a landlord can only increase rents at a low, linear rate.” Expecting that capital appreciation can make up for negative cash flow is the material from which bubbles are made. In the U.S., and elsewhere, “once the negative cash flow gap had become too wide, the bubble burst. ... In the United States, I still see many local markets where rental yields do not support property prices. Consequently, I believe that U.S. housing prices still have room to fall.”
Years ago, in my early 20s, I had my first taste of investment success. I wish I could dazzle you with a great story about a goldmine in the jungle or negotiating land rights with warlords. ... Unfortunately, no. All that would come later.
Rather, my first deal was a set of very plain brick apartments on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. They were not very sexy, but I was able to pick them up for pennies on the dollar ... and it was a hell of a learning experience.
Over the next several months and years, my property investments grew, until eventually I became a “known player” in my local real estate market. Bankers and developers even started calling me to ask advice or offer deals.
My success was based on developing and sticking to a system for valuing real estate transactions based on three methods – comparative market value, “replacement cost,” and income.
I actually use these same three approaches today to value companies as I run around the world in search of exciting business and investment opportunities.
Of the three approaches, the most important one to me was the income valuation ... to me, an investment property was literally worthless if it did not cash flow enough to cover the debt service – I would have been better off stashing my money under the mattress.
Consider the residential investment property market. ...
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