Here’s how they did it, and what it’s really like to live abroad
The shimmering waters of a Chilean lake call to the Dorchaks these days.
The American couple — who six years ago retired to Puerto Octay, a village on Lake Llanquihue, the second largest lake in Chile — say that their lives as real-estate appraisers and investors in South Carolina used to involve a lot of running around, but those days are long gone.
“The sun will come out, and I’ll say, ‘Let’s go get our kayaks and go to the lake,’ ” says Lori Dorchak, 55. “Maybe I’ll think, ‘Well, we’ve really got to finish some project.’ But to heck with that, nope, not anymore: We go to the lake. Life is short.” Or, as Jim, 56, puts it: “We don’t get up in the morning unless we want to get up. … It’s a what-I-want-to-do life now.”
Indeed, life in Puerto Octay — a village in southern Chile brimming with traditional German-style architecture — often revolves around the breathtaking nature at your doorstep. Locals and visitors alike enjoy the beaches abutting the deep blue lake, as well as a variety of water sports like kayaking, fishing, sailing and swimming.
The Dorchaks had never considered Chile as a retirement option — and, for that matter, weren’t considering retirement at age 50. But a series of tragedies hit their family, including the decimation of their real-estate business by the Great Recession: “We had this realization that life is short,” says Jim, 56. “Our dream had always been to have a little farm and raise our kids there.”
So when some friends who had a vacation home in Chile invited them to stay there, the Dorchaks jumped at the chance. And what they found, they fell in love with: a stable government, low crime, breathtaking scenery, the ability to live on little money, and “wonderful people who don’t care if your Spanish is miserable,” Jim says. “They will talk to you, anyway.” (They also looked at Uruguay, but found the crime rate too high there, though Jim notes that the food is “delicious.”)
They decided to retire to Chile in 2013 when three of their children were still school-aged (the children attended the free Catholic school in the area, and just the youngest lives with them now), and, to do that, they paid off all their U.S. debts, as well as bought a 6-acre property and a car in Chile and invested money to provide ongoing income, using their savings and an inheritance from Jim’s father.
The cost of everyday life
The Dorchaks say that their monthly expenses typically range from about $2,000 to $3,000, though this can vary a lot. Some of their largest expenses are food, which costs them about $300 to $400 a month (they grow a lot of their own food and raise livestock on their land and can sometimes trade their produce and livestock with neighbors); supplies and hardware at about $300 a month; their phone and internet bill at about $100 a month (they save money on that by using WhatsApp and Skype, which is how we video chatted); and gas for their car, which costs them about $100 a month, as well as for their backup generator (though they try to use that sparingly). Other expenses include electricity, which ranges from about $50 to $150; propane for the cooking stove and hot water at about $75 a month; and firewood at about $75 a month.
They save a lot of money by using solar panels for power, traveling abroad infrequently (Lori hasn’t been back to the U.S. in six years, and Jim has only gone back once in that time; when “you’ve lived in paradise, you don’t want to go anywhere else,” Jim adds with a laugh). And they live frugally. “When we moved here we just tried to simplify life, our needs are not a lot,” says Jim. “We’re off-the-grid homesteaders.”
Though the couple was fully retired when they first moved to Chile, they bring in a little income these days from a variety of projects and their investments. They sell their own barbecue sauce and some of their produce from the farm; they cater some events; they’re getting into real estate again; and through their blog and YouTube channel they have a “pay what you can” donation option where they’ll give advice to people thinking about retiring in Chile and rent out a cabana on their property if those people want to visit.
What’s your favorite thing about living in Chile?
“Most important is that the people here are wonderful and kind,” says Jim. “We have Chilean friends who speak no English who come to dinner. … Everybody knows us here.” They’re welcoming to the Dorchaks even though the couple still struggle with Spanish. “We thought we would learn really easily, but with our 50-year-old brains that didn’t happen,” Jim jokes — though they now speak functional Spanish. And they’re learning more all the time: Three of their sons who attended school in Chile are fluent in Spanish; and one of their sons is married to a Chilean.
What do you miss most about the United States?
“The availability of shopping and goods. We have the basics here, but the U.S. has a better selection of products,” Jim notes — adding that he’d love to be able to hit up a good Thai restaurant. For her part, Lori says: “I miss the craft store.” And Jim says that banking “is the worst thing about living here”.
Was it hard to get residency?
“There is a lot of paperwork,” says Jim — but he notes that even so the couple did most of the work to become residents and homeowners themselves, though “most people get a lawyer in Santiago and pay a lot for it.” This website gives a good overview of how to get Chilean residency.
How’s the health care?
Chile is known to have a solid health-care system: A report from the World Health Organization ranked its system highly — 33rd out of the 191 nations it looked at. The Dorchaks use the national health-care system. (You can see health care details and costs for expats here). Both say that the quality of the care is good and the cost affordable. Jim — who recently needed multiple MRIs (some building supplies fell off his truck and knocked him out) — says his bills for those were under $300.
“Chile is not right for everyone; it is not perfect,” Lori observes — but, for the Dorchaks, it’s just what their family needed. “We are so happy out here on our own. It is beautiful, and we don’t want to go anywhere else.”