Buenos Aires: A Big-City Bargain

Two years ago, Michael and Bettye Weldon joined a growing wave of U.S. retirees heading to Latin America. But instead of choosing Costa Rica's Pacific beaches or quaint hill towns, the Weldons, formerly of Rochester, N.Y., headed much farther south, to a vibrant city of 12 million: Buenos Aires.

There, in Argentina's capital, they found the cosmopolitan lifestyle they love, with world-class entertainment, scores of art galleries and antique shops, and late-night sushi. Sure, they could have gotten that a whole lot closer, in New York City, but not for what they paid—just $175,000 for a 2,300-square-foot, turn-of-the-20th century apartment overlooking a park and a 19th century palace housing the Education, Science, and Technology Ministry. Today the apartment is worth three times that.

The Weldons take full advantage of the big-city amenities. They frequent a seven-table French bistro in their neighborhood where dinner for two, with wine, costs about $40, and Alejandro, the owner, "always greets us with a hug," says Michael, 65, a retired Xerox (XRX ) vice-president. They also go to the theater regularly and recently saw Cabaret in Spanish for $20 each.

Foreign retirees began discovering Buenos Aires in 2002 when the peso was devalued and the greenback's value tripled. The exchange rate is now roughly the same—3.15 pesos to the dollar. "I didn't move here just because it was cheap," says Rick Jones, 55, a retired U.S. Navy Seal officer from Washington. The aspiring French chef was attracted to the fresh-food shops and European-style architecture. He and his wife, Ellen Bryson Jones, 57, an ex-dancer and foundation officer, also like that they can get home delivery of everything from coffee to prescriptions.

Although fluency in Spanish isn't necessary, speaking the language makes life easier. "The grease of life here is personal relationships," says Jones. Through conversationexchange.com, they found native speakers to tutor them in Spanish. In return they help their partners with English.

Retired Americans find ways to integrate themselves into the culture. Bettye Weldon hired two tango dancers to entertain guests at a surprise birthday party for her husband. U.S. transplants are also quick to adopt an Argentine custom: kissing just about everybody on the cheek, from a new acquaintance to your dentist.

Still, Americans are a long way from home. It helps that Internet and phone service together run about $70 a month, and you can find round-trip airfares to the U.S. for less than $1,000.

Medicare doesn't cover retirees living abroad. But health care is free in Argentina, though it may involve long waits for appointments at public clinics and hospitals. Most Americans join a private health plan. Peter Winterble, 64, who retired in July, 2005, from a New York nonprofit that works with prospective parolees, pays about $75 a month for a policy from Hospital Italiano, which "covers everything, including terminal care, with no questions asked."

By Ellen Hoffman

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