Cole and me, on a mission exploring the world for retirement
Cole and me, on a mission exploring the world for retirement

An American woman’s journey to a story book life in the Algarve

Why Portugal?

I remember exactly when my retirement planning frenzy started. A financial planner was pitching me to handle my investments.

He told me that I needed at least 80% of my current salary in retirement, I shouldn’t take my pension until I was 70, and I had to live off 4% interest to leave my son all my money. And I needed to buy an expensive life insurance policy, because my son would surely throw my ashes in a shoe box if I didn’t.

WHAT? I was thinking I had maybe five years until retirement and this clown is telling me I have 15 more years? I want to spend my last dollar on a martini as I slide broke into the grave. But the only one who could figure out how I wanted to live, and therefore when I could retire, was me.

I LOVE to travel. I traveled for work and explored the world on brief vacations. I read a publication called International Living. They put together an annual Global Retirement Index, a fabulous spreadsheet ranking the best places to retire around the world. I poured over the 10 different variables they rank each country on – everything from cost of housing to climate to healthcare to how easy it is to fit in. Brilliant! (A new British term I have learned here).

I noticed that a few countries always made the top 10 and came up with five countries I wanted to test as possible retirement destinations. Let the games begin!

My son was in med school year-round at the time, with his only time off at Christmas. We had done a crazy mother/son trip annually for many years, from fishing for piranha on the Amazon to rafting through flooded caves (guano – yuck), to almost being eaten by a leopard in Botswana. The retirement test trips seemed relaxing in comparison, and hey, I was getting a bit old to sleep on a tarp with tarantulas in the rain forest.

My son Cole hugging a sloth in Panama
My son Cole hugging a sloth in Panama

Off we went to Panama, number one on the Retirement Index. It was touted as having modern infrastructure, fabulous climate, welcoming people … and then we arrived. We were in our rental car driving to our AirBnB when we noticed lots of garbage bags along the road. Did a garbage truck tip over? Did a tsunami wash all the garbage out of a dump? That’s when an arm extended from the car in front of us and “plop” went another garbage bag along the side of the highway. Wait a minute, there was no index for “amount of trash being eaten by starving dogs along the side of the road”.

This was the beginning of a disastrous trip, only redeemed by hugging a rescued sloth. We discovered the Panama described in the magazine when we stayed in a pristine, fenced and guarded expat community. As one guard waved us in at the gate with a big welcoming smile, other guards were basically strip searching a couple of locals trying to get in to clean their streets. All they needed was a moat and some crocodiles. Maybe perfect for some people, but scratch Panama for me.

Second Christmas, second country – off we went to Malta. What a truly beautiful place. The sun, the food, the villa on the hillside we rented with a view over the sparkling ocean. Wow, could this be it? It really was a stunning place to visit. But the first three days, we literally couldn’t step outside without being plastered up against the wall of the villa. The wind was that bad.

And driving there was an adrenaline rush. These huge buses would come racing around blind corners on narrow streets. They didn’t bother to check those big mirrors to see if anyone was coming. Malta was fun, we liked the people and, once the wind subsided, we had a great time. But at the end of the trip, I realized living for years on a small island would drive me bonkers. Nix the island life.

On to Christmas three and the amazing Costa del Sol in Spain. I’m sure a lot of you have been there. It’s wonderful, right? I speak enough Spanish to get by, and everyone was kind. The food was terrific, the weather was good – check, check, check. We stayed at some lovely AirBnBs all along the coast. We ate 12 grapes at midnight in a festive town square filled with happy locals. My son gave it the thumbs up for the “hot girls” variable. I might have noticed a few hot men. I went home thinking that Spain could be it! Did I even need to test the last two countries?

The last on the list were Costa Rica and Portugal. My son and I had been to Costa Rica on a memorable trip that involved boa constrictors and giant spiders, but we hadn’t been to the more civilized areas. I’d never been to the Algarve, but I’d loved a barging trip I took with friends in the Alentejo, so I thought, why not try the southern coast of Portugal?  We could always buzz over to Spain if we didn’t like it.

And you can guess the rest. We stayed in the marina at Vilamoura, popped a cork on the beach at New Year’s in Albufeira, and simply fell in love with Lagos. The people, the weather, the food, the wine … the answers we all give people who ask “why Portugal?”. My son remembers it as his favorite Christmas Day ever because a seagull deposited a HUGE load down the back of my hair on the beach. I was so enchanted by Portugal, not even that evil seagull (who, come to think of it, resembled my old boss) could stop me from living my story book life here in the Algarve.

By Glenda Cole
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Glenda Cole retired as the VP of Marketing at a luxury mall developer. She and her partner, Glenn Ellison, have created a YouTube channel about their experiences in Portugal called The Glenn and Glenda Show. Check out episode one below: