Best Places to Retire to That You've Never Heard Of

Homes, weather, culture draw boomers off the beaten path to Ajijic and Marfa.

May 14, 2010 — -- Everyone retires to Florida, right?


Baby boomers' changing tastes and crushed property markets in traditional retirement spots such as Florida and Arizona, are redefining where older Americans want to spend their leisure years. A growing number want to get off the beaten track.

To help the more adventurous ones in their quest for a cheaper, more interesting and, perhaps, healthier retirement, we've compiled a list of five hot retirement spots that you've (probably) never heard of.

Ajijic, Mexico

It's not easy to pronounce (hint: Ah-hee-heek), but American retirees love this quaint Mexican village set between lush mountains and a sparkling lake.

"It has a spring-like climate year round, it's not too far from Guadalajara, and it's pretty," says Margaret Wylde, CEO of retirement consulting firm ProMatura Group. Because there are many Americans already living there, the town offers most amenities you could find at home.

Retirees join one of the dozens of English-language clubs ranging from the booming Lake Chapala Society, with its English-language library, to the American Legion or the Lakeside Little Theater.

"They have everything that an American might need," says Daniel Prescher, editor of special projects at International Living magazine. "You can get a can of Campbell soup if you really need one."

At the same time, Ajijic and neighboring San Miguel de Allende do not get flooded by drunk college students during spring break, and they also offer cheap medical services -- which local experts say rival U.S. standards.

The Mexico retirement boom is only likely to grow: the Mexican government recently launched a national initiative to attract more foreign retirees and is working with developers to build more senior communities.

Marfa, Texas

You've probably never heard of Marfa, Texas and its neighboring town Alpine -- for good reason: Although they're close to Big Bend National Park, they're actually several hours away from most major airports.

Marfa, population 2,000, is a "funky little arts community," says Mary Lu Abbott, editor of the magazine Where to Retire. The scenic town became known after the minimalist artist Donald Judd bought a ranch there and set up the Chinati Foundation, a world-class art museum that draws fans from around the world.

"In the last few years, as more big-city folks are discovering it, it has become a foodie scene too, with everything from gourmet to the trendy street food from a mobile lunch truck," says Abbott.

She says tourists have been drawn to "Marfa mystery lights" -- unexplained lights that sometimes appear at the horizon after dark.

Although the city doesn't have many retirees, its culture and manageable size make it an ideal retirement spot. Abbott says more baby boomers have started to buy second homes there recently.

"It's a great place to live," says Joni Marginot, director of the Marfa Chamber of Commerce, noting that the city has plenty of art galleries, theater and recently held its third annual film festival. "We have a low crime rate, we don't have a lot of traffic, you can walk just about anywhere and the weather is beautiful."

The only down side is that the nearest hospital is about 30 minutes away in Alpine. Marfa's only medical facility is a clinic run by a physician's assistant.

Cuenca, Ecuador

This southern Ecuadorean city of Cuenca is a favorite hot pick for savvy American expats. The city, Ecuador's third largest, topped International Living's list of places to retire last year.

"It has a little bit of everything," says International Living's Prescher. "It's big enough for all the services you need, but small enough so you're not overwhelmed with traffic and pollution."

Perched in the Ecuadorean Andes more than 8,000 feet about sea level, Cuenca has one of the healthiest climates in Central America. It's also close to the equator, which means the temperate weather doesn't change much throughout the year.

There's also some culture. Cuenca's historic downtown has been turned into a UNESCO World Heritage Trust Site -- and the country's biggest airport in Quito is just 45 minutes away.

"There's a growing expat community here, and it's pretty easy to stay in touch with the U.S.," says Prescher.

Cuenca has a "nice" hospital, and more serious conditions can be treated in one of Quito's world-class hospitals, according to Prescher.

The biggest bonus may be the prices.

"It's very affordable," says Prescher. "Compared to living anywhere in the U.S., it's remarkably affordable."

Lunigiana, Italy

Most people hear Tuscany and lament they're not rich enough to afford a multi-million villa overlooking olive groves, or patient enough to fight off busloads of tourists. But parts of Tuscany are virtually undiscovered, making them not only affordable but refreshingly authentic.

"There are incredible deals," says Dan Prescher, special projects editor for International Living.

Lunigiana and its surrounding green hills are peppered with castles, churches and stone-built farm houses.

Compared to better known Tuscan towns where homes cost millions of dollars, retirees can buy a restored house with exposed stone walls and beamed ceilings for $100,000 or less, according to International Living.

Living in Italy offers the additional advantage of culture, easy transportation and excellent medical facilities. If you're looking for a retirement spot where you can spontaneously drop in on open-air opera performances, take a safe late-night bus home without selling of your family jewels, Lunigiana might be for you.

Deadwood, South Dakota

Retirees drawn to raw nature and motorcycles can find their bliss in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

"The buffalo still roam out there, and so do retirees now," says Abbott, editor of Where to Retire.

The Black Hills, set off from the Rocky Mountains, offer breathtaking scenery of tree-covered granite mountains and national parks including Mount Rushmore.

The Old West town of Deadwood, which became an economic hub after gold was discovered there in 1876, is now a national historic landmark known for its gambling halls and Wild West history. Its downtown area has been meticulously restored with turn-of-the-century streetlamps and Victorian architecture.

The nearby town of Sturgis is best known for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which has been taking place each year since 1938 and draws thousands of bikers each year.

Retirees who decide to take a chance on the Wild West won't be alone. Almost half of the population in Deadwood is above the age of 45, with an unusually high 16.8 percent older than 65.