US retirees changing the face of Central and South American communities

In warm-weather locales all over the Americas, the same scene is unfolding: US retirees, marching in lock-step in their all-white orthopedic shoes, are ditching traditional retirement communities and spending their golden years in destinations both less expensive and more exotic. And who can blame them? Prime real estate in these beautiful warm-weather countries– places like Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Ecuador– costs a fraction of what similar land goes for in Florida and Arizona. And we all know the elderly have never been ones to pass up a good bargain.

As legions of retirees decide to retire in countries south of the border, they bring with them an economic boom for places that sorely need it. In recent years, Costa Rica has seen property values skyrocket, greater foreign investment, and a surging economy– much of it due to the migration of the gray-haired masses.

So we know about the benefits. But what about the drawbacks? Indeed, not everything is hunky-dory in these new retirement hot spots. When large numbers of relatively wealthy folks, whether backpackers or retirees, descend upon a previously “undiscovered” paradise, they’re almost always a mixed blessing. Nowhere is this more apparent than in one of South America’s newest retirement meccas, Vilcabamba, Ecuador.

First a little background: Vilcabamba is not your ordinary retirement community. Thirty-five years ago, National Geographic famously described the small town as the “Valley of Longevity” because of its supposedly long-lived inhabitants. Since that time, seekers and searchers from around the world have visited the town hoping to discover the secrets of these modern-day Methuselahs.

While many visitors still pass through the town– it’s now solidly part of Ecuador’s “backpacker circuit”– the past five to ten years have seen an increasing number of older people choosing to make Vilcabamba their home. Because of the town’s unique reputation as the “Valley of Longevity,” these adopted residents lean decidedly towards the mystical, the metaphysical, and the organic. Simply put, these are not people who you’d want to tell about your most recent trip to Wal-Mart.

Last year, I visited Vilcabamba and wrote about it in a journal entry:

“Oh, this town is weird, weird, weird. Or at least the old gringo hippies who moved here are. Carol, the gregarious owner of the Madre Tierra spa/hotel, invited me to sit with her four 60-something friends for dinner. I felt like their son or something. After the where-are-you-from formalities were out of the way, they resumed their conversation about homeopathic medicine, which they were all wildly in favor of (of course).

“The lady next to me, Norie, said, “I went to the doctor for the first time in 30 years because I wasn’t feeling well.” I felt like pointing out a possible cause-and-effect relationship there but bit my tongue. “The doctor said that I was basically healthy,” she continued, “but that I had Epstein Barr, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, nephritis, pesticide poisoning…” and a host of other ailments and maladies, none of which lent support to the doc’s original “basically healthy” diagnosis.

“Later, Walter mentioned that he would soon be having a metal bar rolled over his back to try to alleviate his back pain. Carol mentioned that just having someone do that alone would be unlikely to help. They must first put their energy into the bar, and then roll it across his back. The four others nodded in agreement.

“Then Walter mentioned that he wanted to meet with a local businessman to make sure they were on the same wavelength, and I’m pretty sure he meant an actual wavelength– he wasn’t speaking metaphorically.

“Then the five of them sat around discussing how to change the town in any way they possibly could, implying and even stating flatly that the local folks weren’t intelligent enough to effect change themselves. One could reasonably infer that the citizens of Vilcabamba were waiting patiently in their cribs until their five gringo leaders returned and told them what to do, and breast-fed them, and rocked them to sleep.”

Yes, as I wrote back then, and as I still feel now, the ol’ gringos are slowly taking over. That sounds bleak, but certainly it’s not all bad. They’ll undoubtedly create jobs for the locals, spur further investment, and eventually bring something approaching prosperity to the “Valley of Longevity.” Indeed, there are a lot worse things for poor people than having rich Westerners move to town.

But let’s at least recognize that the town is losing something too– namely its own character and autonomy. These days, Vilcabamba is more likely to be featured in AARP Magazine than in National Geographic— and surely there’s at least something depressing about that.

I guess for every thing a town gains, it loses something.