NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Thinking about moving to Central America but worried about quality of health care or your personal safety? Let me assure you, those worries are completely unfounded and you might want to move there, if you want a better quality of life during your retirement, that is.
In reading the comments about an article I recently wrote about why North Americans are moving to Panama, Belize, or Nicaragua, I realized that people had the completely wrong impression about what it's like to live there, starting with commonly held beliefs that are just plain wrong.
So, here are four myths about living in Central America -- debunked.
My views here come from conducting interviews with over a thousand expats, the results of a study, Expats: Expectations & Reality, and from the more than 5,000 answers to questions about living overseas provided by more than 400 expats on my Web site, Best Places In The World To Retire.
1. "The health care is terrible."
The U.S. still sets the worldwide standard for high-end health care, and specifically in certain specialties. However, for the vast majority of people who don't need high-end health care in these specialized areas on an ongoing basis, there are many places in Central America where you can find extremely good health care, at a small fraction of the cost as in the U.S. Just two examples:
- Hospital Punta Pacifica, in Panama City, is affiliated with Johns Hopkins, which calls Punta Pacifica a "state of the art facility." Locals agree, adding that there are at least two other hospitals in Panama City that are at least up to big city U.S. health care standards.
- Hospital Metropolitano Vivian Pellas, in Managua, Nicaragua has gotten rave reviews. Seizing a business opportunity, the hospital has developed a department to facilitate medical tourism, targeting patients from North America who want very high-end medical care at costs so low that they can work an extended vacation into the deal and still pay less overall.
Both hospitals have Joint Commission International accreditation, which is the oldest and largest health care standards setting and accrediting body in the United States.
It is true, however, that, as you leave the major metro areas in Central America, the quality of healthcare decreases. So, for example, if you live on Ambergris Caye, Belize (population 13,381), there is very little good health care on the island for serious situations. How different is this, however, than living on a resort island in the U.S. with a similar population?
On a larger scale, the entire country of Panama has only 3.8 million people (about the same as Oklahoma), so, with approximately 1.2% of the population of the U.S., it would be silly to expect Panama to have the same number of hospitals as the U.S.. Expats say that their health care strategy is to look at health care from a regional perspective, just like we do in the U.S.
Dr. Ric Winstead (an American born in the Panama Canal Zone, who lived in the U.S., and is now living in Panama) worked as an physician in rural Washington State, where the medical facilities were not comparable with the Mayo Clinic (or Panama's Punta Pacifica, for that matter). When there was an emergency situation that they couldn't handle in rural Washington, they stabilized the patient, and got them to the appropriate major healthcare facility in a metro area, just like they do in rural Panama.
In our survey, 42.6% of our respondents told us that they achieved not equal, but "better access to less expensive, quality healthcare" abroad.
2. "It's not safe."
Expats say that the most likely crimes abroad are crimes against property (like having your smartphone stolen), as opposed to violent crimes against your person. Certain areas are safer than others. So, just like you wouldn't characterize the crime rate in the entire U.S. by what it is in Chicago or Baltimore, it would not make a lot of sense to judge the crime rate in all of Belize by the crimes in the south side of Belize City.
In general, the crime rate where expats live tends to be quite low. One of the reasons is that these countries want expats (and tourists) to feel safe, because tourists and expats are so important for their economies.
John-Marc Gallagher, an expat from California living in Granada, Nicaragua for 16 years, wrote that safety is not a measure of statistics, but rather, how you feel. "Granada is home to so many single, middle-aged women I have lost count. I can name about 25 personally and that speaks volumes about how safe it is. Older, single women would not be retiring here, building homes, starting businesses and hanging out at the outdoor establishments if it wasn't safe."
Some 20.1% of women reported a fear of moving to an unsafe place before they moved, only 2.0% reported the reality of moving to an unsafe place after they moved, an enormous 90% drop.
3. "If it's so great down there, why are all of 'them' trying to move here?"
People move in order to make their individual circumstances better, and not everyone's individual circumstances are the same.
For example, a poor migrant worker in Mexico may come to the U.S. in order to get higher paying work, better working conditions, etc., than he could get as a poor migrant worker in Mexico. The situation for a U.S. citizen retiree is completely different. A U.S. citizen retiree living on $3,000 per month may go to live in Central America because living on that $3,000 per month in the U.S. is a struggle, whereas, in Central America with a budget of $3,000, she could get a home on the beach, with full-time live-in help, and still have money left over for travel.
Also, not all countries south of the U.S. are Mexico, and not "all of them" are trying to move here. In Panama, for example, the economy is doing so well (according to the World Bank, GDP growth for Panama in last four years is over 50%, while in the U.S., it's just under 13%), that many Panamanians who had moved to the U.S. in the past are now moving back to Panama.
4. "You will miss your family."
If you live very close to your grandkids and see them pretty much every day, moving would mean you would lose this contact wherever you went, even within the U.S.
However, for anyone who lives far from their loves ones, Central America is as much an option as many other places in the U.S. To get from Belize to New York City takes four-and-a-half hours. Panama to Miami is less than three hours.
Kelly German (from Canada, living in Ambergris Caye, Belize) says that many grandparents have told her that rather than trying to talk the grandkids into spending two weeks with them in Akron, Ohio, for instance, where the they would be glued to their iPhones most of the time, it's much easier to talk them into visiting them overseas, perhaps to go zip lining in Panama, scuba diving in Belize at the second largest barrier reef in the world, or racing down a volcano on a snowboard in Nicaragua.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.