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Retirement in Costa Rica v Ecuador: A comparison for potential expat retirees

Arenal Volcano, seen from La Fortuna

Both Costa Rica and Ecuador have much to offer retired expats. I will start with the northernmost of the two: Costa Rica, which is much smaller, is more modern in North American/European terms.

Retirement in Costa Rica

One of the great attractions of living in Costa Rica is that the medical care is excellent, yet if needs be, Miami and Houston are only a couple of hours away.

Another major aspect that many retirees may find advantageous is that one does not have to know much Spanish, because nearly everybody speaks English to some degree in Costa Rica.

Mother Nature is at her best in these latitudes. The Caribbean side of the cordillera receives almost 200 inches (5 meters!) of rain every year, which leads to frequent road closures from San Jose to Limon, but the result of all that irrigation is amazingly lush and green. Elsewhere, climates range from the relatively dry Guanacaste Peninsula to the shrouded cloud forests of Monteverde to some of the densest rainforests in the world, home to uncounted species of animals.

Although Costa Rica lies in the tropics, the mountainous terrain creates a huge variety of microclimates. The period of May to November is the rainy season, whereas December through June is drier. The same natural splendor that attracts so many tourists to Costa Rica also makes it an excellent retirement location for those who enjoy outdoor activities – from nature adventures such as river rafting, surfing, and sport fishing, to hiking and horse-back riding, to lazing on an exotic beach all day or soaking in a natural thermal spring on a cool mountain eve.

Mountains of Costa Rica surrounding San José

Most retirees tend to congregate in the central valley, close to the capital, in places like Alajuela, Cartago, Santa Ana, and the various other smaller towns that make up the greater San José area. The capital itself has much to offer as well, as long as you remain careful and are aware that petty thievery has been refined to a science here. Not many retirees live in San José proper, as it is a bustling city and somewhat polluted, but just 15 minutes to half an hour away, there exists another world. The hills to west of the capital present breathtaking views of the central valley, along with a wide variety of housing, everything from gated communities to condos, houses, and apartments are available, from the pleasantly simple local-type constructions to the finest luxury.

As far as Real Estate in Costa Rica goes, don’t expect any bargains, the last of those were had at the end of the 70’s, yet very nice properties can still be found at fair prices.

The climate in the central valley negates the need for air conditioning, and tropical ceiling fans are sufficient to keep you comfortable during the day, with a very few exceptions when a combination of heat and humidity may make it a little sticky in the daytime. But nights are usually cool and comfortable, particularly in the dry season.

Another less costly option is in the south, on the other side of the Cerro de la Muerte, in the region around the lovely, clean town called San Isidro del General, or just San Isidro. It is in an agricultural region where many of Costa Rica’s vegetables are grown and land is more affordable. The incredible Pacific Beaches of Dominical and Quepos, another half hour north, are accessible, while you can live in a more comfortable climate. In the other direction is Chirripo National Park, home of the tallest mountain in Costa Rica. Near the entrance to the park is the town of San Gerardo, a cute little mountain town that is about 45 minutes away from San Isidro and has a very healthy climate, where at night it can get downright cold. If you like this alpine climate, you can find lots, houses, and farms for sale. You will also find fresh dairy and cheese production here, hot springs very close to town, and a small expat community that has existed for over 30 years and is slowly growing.

San Isidro has also grown quite a bit in the last few years, and has a sizeable expat community that meets continuously at the Grand Hotel Chirripo, which is located on the main square. It is a very peaceful and quiet town, halfway between San José and Panama, with very good medical facilities, banks, internet, telephones and just about everything you may be looking for, including a sizeable community of Northern and European retirees who shun the hot climates of the sea level areas, enjoying many get-togethers, social events, potluck dinners, and outings.

Another very popular area for retirees is in the north of the country, around Arenal, where you have a large lake, active volcanoes and a large influence of Europeans, particularly Dutch, German and English. It must however be stressed that Volcano Arenal is very active, and has in the recent past caused some serious damage, as well as contributing to constant seismic activity. The area is relatively remote, and if you decide to settle here, be prepared to spend a lot of time on your own. Recently, a couple of developments have sprung up, which provide a more neighborly feeling.

As for gaining residency, one can qualify for Costa Rica’s pensionado status by fulfilling three requirements. The first is to show proof that you receive at least US$1000 per month from a qualified pension or retirement account or from Social Security (this will cover both yourself and your spouse, unless you are a gay couple). You must then change at least $1ooo a month into colones and live in Costa Rica for a minimum of four months out of the year. Costa Rica used to exempt pensionados from paying import taxes on belongs brought into the country, but this exemption was rescinded back in 1992, and now you are required to pay the taxes on most items. Another important item of note is the fact that it is now mandatory that all residents be members of Costa Rica’s socialized medical system.

Immigration law in Costa Rica changed significantly as of March 2010, causing a great amount of confusion. But one of the new requirements is that you must have an official representative. Expect to pay around $1000 per couple to complete the entire residency process.

Hiring an experienced immigration specialists/attorney who knows not only the ins and outs of the process but the bureaucrats involved is also a good idea for Ecuador, as well, and will be well worth the US$500-700 for saving you the copious amount of time and hassle it takes waiting in lines, notarizing paperwork, etc. The basic requirements for residency visas for retired persons in Ecuador are proof of $8000 per year, and you must not leave the country for a minimum of six months.

These laws are subject to change at any time, so I strongly advise that you get the most current information from the respective Consulate or Embassy in your home country. They can also inform you on which documents you will need notarized by them before you can start the process of retiring in the country of your choice. For example, in both instances, you will need to provide a criminal background check as well as certified proof of income. There are other options besides the retired person’s visas, such as coming in as an investor by buying a certain amount of property. So do your research.

Retirement in Ecuador

Guayaquil, Ecuador

Now let me go on to sing the praises of Ecuador, a country that has much to offer as well, stating with its native population, many of whom still speak their ancient Quechua language and wear their traditional trajes (traditional tribal costumes).

The rich culture of Ecuador is steeped in its colonial past, with an intriguing blend of indigenous and catholic traditions that is so unique to Latin America. While this atmosphere is alluringly charming, and it also means that the culture is much more conservative than that of Costa Rica. Learning Spanish is a must, if only in order to not be taken advantage of. The security situation is similar to Costa Rica’s, where one must remain vigilant and be aware of your surroundings, particularly at bus stops and in taxis. Perhaps this is easier to keep in mind in a country where poverty is more prevalent, and, in fact, this may be one of the biggest differences between Ecuador and Costa Rica.

Climate wise, the two countries are similar in that Ecuador also has a surprising variety of climates, due to the Andes Mountains. Although it greater in size, the population centers are concentrated in the protected valleys in the Andes and along the Pacific Coast, while the nearly half of the country that lies in the Amazon Basin to the east is home to less than 5% of the country’s total population. Being right at the equator, there are no seasonal changes to Ecuador’s weather.

When it comes to food available in regular everyday restaurants, Ecuador beats Costa Rica without a doubt. While the Tico’s (the residents of Costa Rica refer to themselves as such) national dish is something called Gallo Pinto, which is rice and black beans, sometimes with fried eggs or platanos, a type of cooking banana, regularly served 3 times a day, is quite palatable and you get used to it, Ecuador cuisine offers a lot more variety and takes advantage of the large selection of fabulous seafood that is available.

Ecuador does have reasonably good hospitals, emergency rooms, doctors, and pharmacies, particularly in the cities, although only some are bilingual. Public healthcare is free in many places, or extremely economical. However, they may not be the best services or the most secure. There are also private clinics and prepaid medical plans that offer a higher quality of services.

I should mention the general health situations in the two countries, here. Both having tropical climates, there are also tropical diseases to be wary of, namely, dengue fever and malaria. These diseases are carried by mosquitoes and are more of a hazard at lower altitudes (below 1500 m, 5000 ft, for dengue). Use of mosquito repellent is highly recommended in those areas where they exist, and other methods of avoiding mosquito bites includes lighting mosquito coils, using netting, and covering up, especially around sunset.

Hygiene standards are higher in Costa Rica, where the water is generally safe to drink, with the exception of a few remote rural areas. Ecuador’s water, on the other hand, is unsafe, food borne illnesses are common, and the milk is unpasteurized, so dairy products can be problematic. Ecuador’s Amazonia also carries the risk of typhoid and yellow fever, for which one should be vaccinated, while Costa Rica is not plagued by these diseases. And finally, note that Quito’s high altitude and other locations in the high Andes take some getting used to.

The cost of living recently has gone up quite a bit, since the currency is now tied to the US Dollar, which has lost 20% of its value against SDR’s (special drawing rights, based on a basket of currencies), whereas the Canadian and Australian Dollars and Swiss Franc  have appreciated considerably against the Dollar, by as much as 20%. Retirees who want to be relatively comfortable should have an income in the range of US$2000 to $4000 per month. Of course, you can always get by with a little less by eliminating foods that are imported and using public transport as opposed to owning a car. The prices for property, just like in Costa Rica, have adjusted themselves to the foreigners who are shopping for them. Depending on where you are looking, raw land to build your home is still relatively affordable, and building costs and labor remain quite reasonable.

There are also many houses and apartments available, to rent or buy, something to please almost all tastes and budgets. You might want to take the cautionary step of hiring a lawyer to make sure things are on the up and up. The city of Cuenca seems to be a favorite for retirees, due to its mild climate, along with the availability of social activities, due its growing anglophile expat community. Part of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, featuring many fine colonial buildings. It is at an altitude of roughly 2500 meters or 8250 feet, and is surrounded by mountains that protect it from the worst of weather. Night time tends to be cool, while the days feel as if in perpetual springtime.

Of course, there is much more to living in Ecuador than Cuenca, its fourth largest city. There is the capital of Quito. Located at an altitude of 2800 m (9200 ft) at its main plaza, this cultural gem was actually one of the first cities to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The high altitude and proximity to the equator give it a regular climate year round, with daytime highs of around 65°F and overnight lows of about 50°F. There are roughly 2 million people in the greater metro area, but the main plaza, in the Old City, is the heart of the city, where the café culture is alive and well. Quito features a very good urban transport network, so getting around is quite easy. One of the greatest advantages for expats in Quito is the presence one of the South America Explorers clubhouses, which provides all kinds of information and discounts on travel and leisure activities, as well as organized tours and Spanish classes.

Quito, Ecuador

Ecuador also features a Pacific Coastline of about 1000 km (650 miles) that reaches from Peru to Colombia. The climate here is generally hot and muggy, (we’re talking about being right on the equator, after all), but not really much more so than Costa Rica’s Pacific or Atlantic Coasts. There are many resorts and developments that cater to foreigners, so if you need coconut trees and Mai-Tais served to you in your hammock, or you value great surf, this would be the place to check out. The country’s largest city, Guayaquil, home to over 4 million people, which serves as its main port, is also located here, as well as a whole string of towns where an abundance of excellent seafood is to be savored.

I have compiled a list of items that will be of interest to you, and have made it alphabetical, ranking it from 1-1o, 1 being unacceptable to 10 being super!

Costa Rica                            Ecuador

Cost of Living                                  7-8                                         5-8

Climate                                             5-9                                         5-9

Crime                                                3-8                                         6-9

Education Level                              9.5                                          6-9

Freedoms of the population         10                                           8

Ease of gaining residency             8                                             8

Health Care                                     6-10                                       5-9

Historical Sites                               3-6                                         8-10

Inflation                                           5                                             5

Political Stability                            9.5                                          2

Public Transport                            6-9                                         7-9

Quality of life                                  9                                             9

Safety                                                7.5                                          8

Shopping                                          5-9                                         7-9

Real Estate Choices                                   8-10                                       7-10

As there are different parts of each country, ranging from sea level to over 10,000 feet, and from urban to rural, some of the ratings are multiples such as 4-6, because not all locales are the same. For instance, if you live in the country, medical care will not be as good as if you lived near a big city. Public transport is divided as well, as the local service scores higher than long distance service.

In the overall comparison, if I had to make a choice based on today’s circumstances, I would probably choose Ecuador, mainly because of the culture and colonial architecture, as well as the ever present natives and the public markets offering a wide variety of oh, so fresh fruits and vegetables. But having spent years in Costa Rica, it would be a very close second, because in that country, I am familiar with so many out of the way places that are so scenically spectacular, and all along the Pacific Coast, the lights twinkle late into the night, inviting you to stop by and meet other expats. Both are very friendly and alluring countries with much to offer.

About the Author: Jamie Douglas is an Adventurer, Writer and Photographer with an amazing array of Nikon equipment, and a lifetime of experience traveling and documenting. He is always available for assignments and new adventures. [Send him an email]

For lots more free articles and resources on living in Costa Rica or living in Ecuador visit the dedicated pages on EscapeArtist.

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19 Comments

  1. Victor March 27, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    Very detailed and informative article, well researched !

    I wonder though why it did not include a comparison with Panama .

    Really enjoyable article !

    • Susan Beverley April 2, 2011 at 8:06 pm

      Victor,

      Thank you for taking the time to write with your comment.

      The article was written in direct response from a reader who wanted a comparison on retiring in Costa Rica vs Ecuador and so for this reason Panama was not included.

      If you would like to see a particular topic covered, write to me and I will do my best to meet your requirements.

      Regards,

      Susan Beverley
      susan@escapeartist.com

  2. Alvaro May 22, 2011 at 6:13 pm

    I was born in Quito, Ecuador and I considered this article very interesting, but it contains some imprecisions. There are places and places all around the contry. In poor areas and in some beach-front cities you have problemas with water, specially in dry seasons. But almost all of the country, specially higland you do not have any water problem.

    As well, problems with mosquitos and dengue are more common in poor areas. You do not see that problem in middle or high class living areas.

    Ecuador is a beautiful developing country and would be very interesting to see as a retirment one.

    Thaks,

    Alvaro

  3. whatsupelsal May 30, 2011 at 11:19 am

    A nice, concise and focused overview. Obviously both countries have pros and cons. The entire Latin America region is rediscovering itself and growing up. Some good and some bad is coming from that of course. El Salvador in particular is on the verge of rediscovery. it is a frontier that is opening. But all throughout Central America you see a lot of these changes. And remember that there is crime and danger everywhere.

  4. bill June 8, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    I lived four months in Quito, and can say that the weather is very mild there. Rain was light and happened precisely at the same time of day, 2pm-7pm! The prices for food are very reasonable, and they use US money denominations.

    No, mosquitos can’t fly that high–it’s almost two miles above sea level–so many diseases aren’t there in the city.

    The people adore the western lifestyle of the northerners, so females are very receptive in first meetings. Also they’ll allow a conversation in poor Spanish, whereas the Argentines would quickly end a conversation of unequal ability in Spanish. The Ecuadorans will stay talking until everything is understood, that’s nice.

    In border areas north and south, things get dodgy quickly. Some of the poorest parts are in the north, so bus travel is probably not the best for safety. Both Colombia and Ecuador do not have friendly relations or direct air travel.

  5. Joe January 28, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    The article was interesting, but hard to believe some of the claims. Claiming that it would cost 2000-4000 dollars per month to live in Ecuador? I have studied Ecuador for years and have never seen anything that would support that claim. Can you please elaborate on this point?

    • David Pettitt February 29, 2012 at 8:29 am

      Joe,
      I’m with you… I just got back from Ecuador and traveled extensively. First time I have a surplus in my checking account. I think they must have added a zero… they meant $200 – $400.
      Seriously, its not free, but it sure comes close!

  6. Jay March 17, 2012 at 11:40 pm

    I have heard of people living under $1000 in Ecuador.

  7. Joshua April 29, 2012 at 2:22 am

    I agree with Jay, Ecuador is not as expensive as you make it seem. You don’t need as much money as you mentioned to live a comfortable life.

  8. Brian July 24, 2012 at 11:45 am

    Wow, WAY off regarding Ecuador. Where did you get your information? Ecuador does have places where the water is great (like Cuenca, Ecuador), there are LOTS of colleges in Ecuador so there are plenty of well educated people, the milk that you’d buy in a grocery store IS pasteurized, the crime is no worse than Costa Rica, and a couple can live well for about $800 to $1200 a month depending on where they live. For $2000 you would be living large! The cost of living is much lower in Ecuador, most people in Costa Rica do *not* speak English and as of July 2011 you can easily obtain residency in Ecuador without a lawyer.

  9. Spencer September 29, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    Thank you for sharing your experience relative to these two countries !
    I am sensing a ‘call’ to Ecuador and find your site most helpful. Also exploring volunteer opportunities.
    Thanks and peace,
    Spencer

  10. Ed Holm October 3, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    There are different ways of obtaining a resident visa in Ecuador, as examples:

    a) A person that represents an Ecuadorian Corporation or a Foreign Corporation domiciled in Ecuador,

    b) A person who receives a pension overseas of at least US$800 per month,

    c) A person who invests in Ecuador in businesses at least US$30,000 or in a certificate of deposit at least US$25,000.

    The resident visa allows an individual to do business and work in Ecuador.
    – - –
    Source: http://www.expat-blog.com/en/guide/south-america/ecuador/3320-resident-visas-in-ecuador.html

    You’re all right she has wrong figures at least when it comes to Ecuador.

    Thanks Brian for the info, anyone knows about where the best medical facilities are in Ecuador?

  11. Ab November 8, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    Hello everybody!

    I was considering Ecuador as my top retirement destination, but now I have to reconsider: I simply cannot afford spending $2000 – $4000 (assuming this is a cost of living for a single person), as this very informative article states: “Retirees who want to be relatively comfortable should have an income in the range of US$2000 to $4000 per month.” Very unfortunate: my budget is only $1200 – $1300…

    Now I have to look elsewhere and would appreciate any suggestions, please.

    Sincerely,
    Ab

    P.S. My GP strongly suggested I should stay at the sea level, which limits my choices considerably, I am afraid…

    • Guy Ellemberg November 9, 2012 at 3:48 pm

      Hola,

      I think this article is right in some way when you consider Costa Rica as been develop several years ago.
      On the other hand Ecuador is starting to become more and more touristic.

      It is the best time to invest and live in Ecuador.

      We would like to invite you to visit our website and contact us for more information.

      1 866 283-8622
      http://www.holaecuador.ca

      Thank you for your interest.

      Guy Ellemberg

    • Steven June 28, 2013 at 5:55 pm

      AB,

      Your budget mentioned is more then enough to live comfortably in Ecuador!

      • RD July 2, 2013 at 12:52 pm

        This website is closer to “actual” than I have seen. Good job Jamie.

        I have lived here almost 3 years (this visit). My Ecuadorian girlfriend was educated (Masters (plus) in the states). She went to Temple and Purdue for her degrees. She and I are both 63. We do not sugar coat Ecuador.

        The budget for 1 to 2 people in Ecuador begins at $2,000.00 if you want to live in fair comfort with a 24 hr security. You will need the security. There are robberies in gated communities also. Take a good look at the place during the day and at night. An apartment for $200 won’t get you any security (if you can find one). Doubt it, not livable. You can also get a place in the USA for $200.00. Take a look at those before you come here expecting to find a great place for that money.

        Many sites indicate that you can live in Quito, Cuenca or Guayaquil for $1,000.00. You sure can! But you won’t like to go out at night, you won’t even like to go out in the day time.

        I have lived in Cuenca, Quito, Playas and now live in Guayaquil (Samborondon 5km north of the airport). My apartment is unfurnished 2 bedroom and in a secure complex. I pay $1,000.00 plus utilities/internet/cable plus security for a total of $1,200.00. My cleaner comes in 2 days a week for 6 hrs a day for $42.00 week. I could get one for $6.00 less but not too good. You have to train them. Culture isn’t the same here.

        I have openly challenged websites to show me an apartment for $200 month that (they) would live in. I have challenged a few of the websites to list nice apartments for $450 month. They refuse. These websites also have offers of books, videos and more for a price. They also have tours for you. The sites want you to visit so they can take your bucks.

        A nice apartment in Ecuador will cost you $550 min. A luxury apartment starts at $1,200.00 and that is small. Expect to pay equal to 2 months deposit. You won’t get it all back unless you sue them. That happens. Try to sign a 2 yr agreement if you really like the place (and it is secure).

        Shopping in Megamaxi and Supermaxi can get expensive compared to the USA. A bottle of Jack Daniels is $55.00. Tequila is $45.00 each per fifth. You can find reasonable vegetables and fruits and shrimp at the local mercado (market, get there early). Shrimp is $3.00 pound for medium size. Pork is good and reasonable. Beef is good if it is bought from the popular meat stores. Chicken is about same as USA but better quality here (usually). Sure tastes good. Probably due to the feed. The texture is also better.

        Clothes are very expensive. Electronics are very expensive. The cost of an ipod is double. Taxi service is fair, don’t tip them, that is included in the cost of the trip. Never tip them. They laugh at you. Some drivers don’t even accept it! True. Negotiate the price from the airport. Take about 30% off but ask for 50% off.

        New cars are very expensive. The banks want 30% down to finance for 2 years. Houses are 30% down to finance for 10 years. A nice house is $120K. Furniture is reasonable if it is made here. Do not buy “Mabe” (a brand name) products mfg here. Appliances are expensive.

        The key is simple. You probably want to live as comfortable here as you do in the USA. Come here and look. Look at the prices and don’t waste a lot of time on the tours and conferences websites have to offer. They answer very few questions honestly.

        Look in the local newspapers for housing. They have photos and prices. But remember that a photo doesn’t necessarily represent the actual quality of the house. They have sites similar to Ebay also.

        After you are here for two years things smooth out. But when you get here open an account with the bank immediately. Most banks require you to open a savings account and have it open 6 months before you an have a checking account. Don’t write a bad check!

        Good vet service for you pet is hard to come by. Emergency service for your pet may be tomorrow depending on the day and hour you need it.

        Restaurants are not cheap! Sushi is very expensive. Steaks are the same. Small mom and pop restaurants are pretty fair. But expect to pay more then the gringo sites tell you.

        There is a double standard. If you are a gringo you will pay more even if you can speak Spanish. A small beer on the beach is mostly $2.00 for gringos. Locals pay 70 cents.

        Most medical here is very good. If you can get into the social security system it is almost free! Many people find a “job” so to speak. They don’t work, but they have an employer that says they do! For instance. If your salary is $400 month you will pay about $85 each month for SS which includes medical. CT’s and MRI’s are cheap. Buy the contrast at the local drug store for half of the price the hospital charges.

        Emergency admittance to a hospital requires a credit card or approved insurance. Insurance that the “hospital” recognizes. Use caution. Check when you get here. Recently “Kennedy Clinic” in Guayaquil (Samborondo) refused a man that had a knife wound. He died. The hospital was closed down for a day or two by the government. Kennedy refused to send the ambulance to get the man. The hospital violated the law. Know the law and ask questions. A bag of cash won’t get you much either.

        Prescription drugs are fair and some drugs they just don’t have. Most drugs do not need a doctors note. Ambien does and psychotropic drugs do. Just depends. Doctors visits are $20 to $30 for general practice and $80 for a cardiologist, first visit. EKG cost $25.

        The National Police wants your visit to be free of problems and safe. Don’t test their judgement. Pay the fine. Don’t cause a scene. Don’t walk out on a food bill. Just don’t argue. Be kind.

        If it sounds too good to be true it is. Enjoy Ecuador.

    • Steven June 28, 2013 at 5:56 pm

      AB,

      Your budget mentioned is more then enough to live comfortably in Ecuador!

    • Dave July 24, 2013 at 3:40 pm

      Hi,

      I just wanted to make a strong statement regarding the budget that some people think are needed to live in Ecuador. Certain parts of Ecuador are indeed a little more expensive, like Quito, Cuenca and Guayaquil. But the fact of the matter is even in Quito you can get a darn nice apartment for 6oo or 700 bucks a month.
      If you want to live on the coast in one of the smaller villages, your cost goes down by half. My wife and I are living comfortably near the village of Puerto Cayo for around $700 per month. Even gated communities such as Mirador San Jose nearby people can still get a lot for under $10,000 and build a very nice home there for under $100,000 USD.
      If you are curious, you could visit the website for more information. http://miradorsanjose.com
      I think there is a lot of misinformation around. You need to do your research folks and find out for yourself by talking to the locals, and expats in the areas that you are interested in.

  12. Charles P October 31, 2013 at 6:47 pm

    This article sounds very ill towards Ecuador and very favorable to Costa Rica… I recommend to search for more information about these two country and not rely on the information provided here to make a major decision. This article seems to be based on very old information… For the past few years Ecuador has been the number one spot for retirement in the world. I am taking a closer look to the information that comes from expats that already are in those countries as well as several international organizations. Best wishes on your retirement.

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