From War-Torn to Wonderland
U.S. Expatriates Flock to Central American Nations Once Beset by Fighting
Wednesday, September 29, 2004
ROATAN, Honduras -- Jeff Sanders, 46, was a Type-A Washington policy wonk, feverishly working for the Office of Management and Budget and later the Senate before landing a job in the private health care industry. But last year the father of two small children did something radical about his long work hours: He quit and moved his family to this pretty Honduran island.
Now Sanders is surrounded not only by sand and surf but also by more people like him as Honduras and other Central American countries once embroiled in war have become hot markets for affordable beachfront property.
"We wanted an adventure in a different culture and to be on a beach," said Sanders, who now has a grand home on the Caribbean with a pool at a fraction of what it would cost in the United States.
Associations of Americans abroad, Internet sites for relocating U.S. residents and real estate agents catering to U.S. citizens who want to buy foreign property all report rising numbers of Americans moving to Central America. The buyers are attracted by the cheap land and household help, the sunny climate, the easy flights back to the United States and the improving infrastructure.
"What is interesting now is that people are showing an interest in countries other than Costa Rica," said Ruth Halcomb, who runs LiveAbroad.com, a Web site that links expatriates. Costa Rica has the largest and most well-entrenched U.S. presence in Central America, but now, Halcomb and others say Nicaragua, Panama, El Salvador and Belize are drawing Americans.
Officials at the U.S. embassies in Honduras, Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua said a total of about 60,000 Americans have formally registered with them, but that the actual number is far higher, and growing. For instance, in Costa Rica, 20,000 people registered, but groups of foreign residents in the country say the actual number is double that.
"The numbers are off the scale," said Roger Gallo, an American expatriate who lives in the growing U.S. community in Panama. Gallo, founder of an online magazine called "Escape from America," said the interest in moving abroad skyrocketed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"That is when it started going bonkers," agreed Steve Jazakawiz, 58, a lobsterman from Massachusetts who owns Rick's American Café on Roatan, this 30-mile-long island off the north shore of Honduras. Almost every night someone is popping open a bottle of champagne, celebrating the recent purchase of property.
Americans here retain their U.S. citizenship but get a significant U.S. tax break because they live abroad. And Honduras, like most Central American countries, does not tax them on income they earned in the United States.
Still, said Jazakawiz's wife, Mary, the move abroad was not without difficulties. "What do I miss? Family, friends, Chinese food and the sales at Filene's," the storied Boston-based department store, she said.
Sanders, the former Senate staffer, said the phone service was spotty, the risk of malaria prevalent and the hours-long waits in bank lines trying on anyone's patience. But all in all, he said, he would rather be catching mahi-mahi than testifying before a Senate committee.
Don Bradley, who studies retirement and migration trends at East Carolina University, said the current traffic of U.S. citizens to Mexico and Central America is akin to the phenomenon of North Europeans migrating to sunnier, more affordable Southern Europe. In general, people describe the motivations pulling them as "the climate, the pace of life, the lifestyle," he said.
These moves are no longer just for the hardy, he added, because in this ever more globalized world, so many conveniences, from the Internet to cheaper air travel, are available.
Among those buying property overseas are scores of the United States' 77 million baby boomers, said Steve Slon, editor of AARP The Magazine. Slon said because the baby boomers, now ages 40 to 58, are finding the U.S. Sunbelt increasingly expensive, some are looking farther south.
Roatan offers $40,000 cottages, $800,000 luxury homes with private beaches, and much in between. Other parts of the Honduran coast such as La Ceiba are considerably less expensive. U.S. residents in Central America tend to cluster together near the shore or in picturesque mountain villages such as Boquete in Panama, far from bigger urban areas and their crime and traffic problems. Though people usually move after their children have finished school in the United States, some real estate agents said younger Americans are also arriving, looking for bilingual schools for their children.
Tomas Borge, president of Nicaragua's national tourism commission, said his country has always been a beautiful place of volcanoes, lakes and beaches but that Americans overlooked it because Nicaragua had a reputation of being unsafe.
Borge epitomizes the change in this region so wounded in recent wars. He was a founding member of the Sandinista armed revolutionary movement that ruled Nicaragua through the violent 1980s, but now he is working to attract foreign visitors and residents as a way to lift Nicaragua out of poverty. U.S. retirees, as well as growing numbers of semi-retirees in their forties and fifties, are desirable neighbors because they bring foreign income, tend to spend a lot, hire help and do not compete for jobs.
On Honduras's Roatan, there are now about 1,300 Americans, triple the number of five years ago, said Jerry Hynds, the mayor of Coxen Hole, the biggest town on Roatan, a former British colony where many people speak English. Given the current interest, he said he believes the American population will soon near 5,000. "They come here, build nice houses, hire people and pay them well," Hynds said. "We love them here."
Barry Jackson, who grew up on Roatan, said the recent influx from the United States has caused a hike in prices for land and food, among other things. The wealthier newcomers are fencing off more stretches of the beaches where locals used to have picnics, he said, but still, the dollars and jobs that are coming with the Americans are welcome.
Bob Johnson, 57, a business school professor from Decatur, Ill., said he moved to Roatan last year because he wanted to quit his career and open a bar. "Florida was too expensive and I wanted something different," he said. So in April, he opened the Blue Parrot off the island's main road. "I love America first," he said. Leaving had nothing to do with being un-American. "I'm a true-blue American, but I wanted a 180-degree turn."