Retirement is One Big Fiesta in Andalusia, Spain

In the province of Andalusia, the ancient land bridge between two continents, sits the Costa Tropical, a stretch of Spain's coast that is little-known, quiet, and truly Spanish. To the west is the infamous Costa del Sol, and to the east the desert-like Costa Almeria (Spaghetti Western country).

The Costa Tropical's position between the brilliant blue Mediterranean and the soaring Sierra Nevada Mountains, rising to 10,000 feet just 62 miles inland, creates a sub-tropical climate where bananas, papayas, and mangoes flourish. The region's climate is not only good for growing things, but for tourism, too. Holiday-makers come for the beaches and scuba diving, using this lovely coastal spot as a base to explore inland Andalusia and the beautifully preserved white villages of the Alpujarras, Granada's Alhambra Palace, and the Sierra Nevada National Park. Plus, Morocco isn't far away.

Sun-seekers and tourists, though, aren't the only ones who would do well to pay attention to what Spain's Costa Tropical has to offer. Retirees dreaming of a Continental beach retirement haven that is also friendly, welcoming, safe, and affordable, should put this region at the top of their lists.

The Costa Tropical has three main towns: Motril, a typical bustling port town with an impressive 18-hole golf course; Salobreña, a pretty, whitewashed village perched on a hill topped by a Moorish fort; and the low-key town of Almuñécar (almoo-nyEAh-car). Of the three, Almuñécar is perhaps the most appealing for the would-be retiree, because it combines the charm of a typical Spanish town with the best of northern European influences and services. The locals are open and friendly, and the expats who've already discovered Almuñécar are happy to be here.

As one foreign retiree puts it, "I chose Spain because it met my key criteria: accessibility, culture, a language I could manage to learn, a lower cost of living, and, most important, a lifestyle, people, and set of values that I'm comfortable with. The Costa Tropical, specifically Almuñécar, became my focused target for its wonderful climate and vegetation, the Mediterranean Sea, the culture of Granada, and the mountains."

Unlike better-known Spanish coastal towns, Almuñécar (population 22,000) has hung on to its Spanish charm. The heart of the old town is laid out with parallel streets radiating from the top of the hill on which the Phoenicians originally built the city. As you walk up the tightly winding streets, you come to the Plaza de la Constitution with its Town Hall (Ayuntamiento), church (Iglesia Mayor de la Encarnación), and, farther on, San Miguel Castle and the barrio de San Miguel. The barrio (or quarter) is mainly pedestrianized (the streets are too narrow for cars) and is a magical place to wander around, peeping through to small plazas and white-washed homes with window boxes overflowing with flowers.

The main commercial center lies back down near the sea, where you'll find banks, offices, grocery stores, and other shops.

A Spanish day is very different from the daily grind in the U.S., the UK, and even in neighboring France. Living here, you'd need to get used to the famous siesta. Most shops and many offices open by 10 a.m., followed by a mandatory long lunch (from 1 to 3 p.m.), a siesta until 5 p.m., followed by strong coffee and the start of the "second day," running from 5 p.m. until late at night. In the summer, most Spaniards don't eat their evening meal before 10 p.m. and often as late as 2 a.m.

On weekends, holidays, and evenings, Spaniards love to stroll, and almost every town, coastal or inland, has a paseo. Almuñécar's Paseo del Altillo stretches for almost 3 miles from the district of Velilla in the east to Cotobro in the west and is wheelchair accessible.

One of the region's biggest appeals is its sunshine. Most tourist information promises "320 days of sunshine" annually. On average, the region sees 20 days of rain a year. There isn't a rainy season, and some years there's no rain at all. However, when it does rain, it's torrential. You'll see gardeners and growers run to collect the precious drops of life and children rush to splash about. The results of the relatively mild climate are easy to see: the market is full of a wide range of delicious local fruit and vegetables, and the first almond trees blossom before Christmas.

The municipality of Almuñécar has about 12 miles of coast and 26 beaches. Some are white sand; others are covered with round, warm pebbles. Some beaches along the craggy part of the coastline can be accessed only via steep hillside paths, some are semi-desolate, and one is for naturists only (Playa Cantarrijan).

When it comes to show, pomp, and partying, the Spanish win hands down over any other European nation. With a calendar chock-full of fiestas, Almuñécar is no exception. Not a month goes by without at least two events. The main ingredients are always music, fireworks, food, and dancing. As well as the fiestas celebrated all over Spain (New Year, Three Kings, Carnival, Holy Week), Almuñécar has a long list of its own, with each barrio, as well as the main town, having a patron saint's day to celebrate.

Andalusian fiestas help you to appreciate the strength and importance of the locals' faith and its importance in the culture here. Festivals are not put on to attract tourists (though they do) but are an intrinsic part of the lives of all generations. If you live in a barrio, you will be expected to take part. It's a great way to become part of the community.

Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter. Her book, How To Retire Overseas--Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.

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