The Caribbean holds a special place in the hearts of most North Americans… those sugar-sand beaches, perfectly clear waters, the swaying palm trees…
You could say that the Caribbean represents the quintessential going overseas fantasy—who hasn’t let themselves daydream about life on an island, dozing in a hammock with an umbrella cocktail?
Pesky practicalities always get in the way, though… most notably, the cost.
Aruba… Bahamas… Bermuda… Jamaica… Turks and Caicos… all those dreamy island destinations that have graced the covers of magazines since the ’80s captured our imaginations, but were always out of reach cost-wise…
But fear not. There is hope for those looking for a new life in the Caribbean…
We’ve identified some of the most alluring spots in the Caribbean to hang your hat that won’t break your bank…
The Dominican Republic
If you dream of golden sand and clear, blue waters, small town vibes, and friendly locals, then this Caribbean escape might just be your Shangri-La.
While there are plenty of beach towns to choose from on this island nation, our favorite haunt is Las Terrenas, precisely because it bucks the norms of what you expect when you come to the Caribbean…
Located on the Samaná Peninsula, laid-back Las Terrenas has been sought out by European expats for decades.
The French were among the first to arrive here in the ’70s and ’80s, and their influence remains strong. There are authentic boulangeries where you can buy croissants and cafés au lait. Pétanque on the beach at sunset is a daily ritual.
Nowadays, Las Terrenas is on North Americans’ radar for retirement, and it’s easy to understand why…
Life here is all about outdoor fun. Surf, kite surf, snorkel, dive, kayak, paddle board, hike to hidden waterfalls, or take an ATV ride (the most common mode of transport).
You can relax on soft-sand beaches with sparkling waters or walk, run, or bike along the town’s boardwalk.
The cost of living is another draw. Overall, you could live with your basic necessities in Las Terrenas for about US$1,300 per month. Splurging a little more could raise that to a monthly budget of US$2,000 for a couple.
Santa Marta, Colombia
Colombia’s Caribbean coast is well developed and under-appreciated, with several enviable cities to choose from, including the almost unknown, very affordable Santa Marta…
Santa Marta offers excellent diving, sandy beaches, calm waters, an upbeat and energetic culture, and a collection of diverse and attractive living options.
This is where Columbus landed on his second voyage, and where his crewmen documented the wealth and riches of the local indigenous people. Today, remnants of Santa Marta’s historical past can be still be seen and enjoyed. The city is working hard to refurbish and preserve historical buildings as well as add new development.
The downtown now has an attractive seafront park, plenty of small cafés and bars, as well as coffee shops, boutique hotels, excellent seafood restaurants, and even a cruise-ship port. There’s a 256-slip marina, and new, tasteful condo projects have sprouted up around the entire area.
El Rodadero lies about 10 minutes south of Santa Marta. It’s been the main draw in the area for years, as people sought to avoid the once-seedy historic center. The beaches are far longer, wider, and better kept than Santa Marta’s, creating a giant crescent-shaped shoreline that’s several miles long. Rodadero offers a small-town feel that you don’t find in the city.
On the oceanfront, Rodadero boasts a fine sandy beach lined with palm trees along the warm, calm waters. The palm-shaded boardwalk is filled with people walking and patronizing the kiosks, which sell everything from fresh-made pizza to fresh-squeezed fruit juice.
Weekend nights turn into an impromptu beach party, with families turning out by the hundreds to enjoy (and dance to) the local music of wandering music groups.
We think of El Rodadero as the family destination within the Santa Marta area. It’s bustling with people enjoying the beach, markets, shops, and boardwalk. It maintains a safe, friendly, and laid-back feel…
And thanks to the continued strength of the U.S. dollar versus the Colombian peso, dollar holders enjoy a serious buying advantage right now.
Bocas del Toro, Panama
Bocas del Toro is a province of northwestern Panama that consists of a stretch of mainland plus nine islands that float in the Caribbean.
It stands out from the rest of Panama for its Caribbean-Calypso vibe. The locals are descendants of Afro-Antillean people brought over from Jamaica, Martinique, and other islands during the construction of the Panama-Colón railroad, the Panama Canal, and other projects.
The local language is Bocas del Toro Creole or English with a distinctive Jamaican lilt. This is one place in Panama where you can get by exclusively on English.
A big, diverse group of expats have settled here, especially on the main island, Isla Colón.
They love Bocas for the laid-back Caribbean lifestyle, the camaraderie of expats and Panamanian locals, the delicious fresh seafood, and the daily choice between total relaxation or boating, water sports, and fishing.
Some expats are retired, some are remote workers, and some own small businesses, such as restaurants, mini-supers (corner stores), nightclubs, and hostels.
Most of those businesses are situated in pastel-hued Victorian-style buildings along the main street of Bocas Town, the provincial capital. Reggae music seeps from their open doors and windows as water taxis glide up to the town dock.
A carefree destination with stunning scenery, it’s hard to resist Bocas’ appeal.
Ambergris Caye, Belize
“The good news from Belize is… no news from Belize.”
So said “60 Minutes” correspondent Morley Safer during his 1988 broadcast on this unassuming little Caribbean nation of 400,000 people.
Thirty-five years later, the sentiment still holds true. Aside from a handful of infrastructure upgrades to accommodate its tourism industry, not much has changed in sleepy Belize, and that’s the way people like it.
It remains the perfect place to escape the world’s troubles, and for Americans, that peace of mind can be accessed in as little as two hours of flying from Miami.
Perhaps the friendliest part of this English-speaking country is Ambergris Caye, a 26-mile-long, 1-mile-wide island just off the Belize mainland.
About 15,000 people live here full-time, including about 3,000 expats who get from A to B on golf buggies and motorboats.
Its capital is San Pedro, a quirky, comfortable beachside town with open-air bars and restaurants, art galleries, wine shops, bakeries…
Ambergris Caye appeals to the retiree who wants the Caribbean and who appreciates that this classically Caribbean spot is also affordable.
It also offers a lot for the investor, with a mature tourism market, in a destination that’s best-in-class, in a country that’s world-renowned for its diverse tourism potential.