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Living Abroad in Central America: The Pros and Cons

By in All Countries, Lifestyle on August 1, 2013
living abroad in Central America

D Barefoot

Central America is a great place to call home.  We certainly like it here.  But we also know it isn’t for everyone.

While some of the negatives of living in a developing country can be managed by carefully choosing your specific area, there are others that can never be overcome.  Period.

That’s important to know before you spend valuable time and money transplanting your life and all your worldly goods to a place thousands of miles away from friends and family.  Every year, tons of expats move to Central America only to realize that a life in the Latin tropics isn’t right for them.

We don’t want that to happen to you.

We probably don’t have to tell you all of the many things there are to love about living abroad in Central America. But we’re going to anyway.  We’re going to tell you the not-so-great things as well.

Of course, we firmly believe that the benefits of living here far outweigh any negatives.  But that’s for you to decide.  Here’s a list of what we think are some of the biggest pros and cons of living abroad in Central America.

The Pros of Living Abroad in Central America

1.  Freedom

Sure, U.S. citizens sing about being “the land of the free.”  But, if you really want to understand what freedom feels like, move to Central America.  Theirs is a life lived less encumbered.

Freedom from virtually all government regulation.  Freedom from neighborhood covenants.  Freedom from the rat race and 60-hour work weeks.  Freedom from cell phone tapping.  Freedom from the need to keep up with the Joneses.

There’s nothing like it.

2.  Cost of Living

Particularly in a time when your U.S. dollar seem to be stretching a shorter distance than ever before, the thought of living on between $1000-$2000 per months sounds pretty tempting.  And it’s entirely possible almost anywhere you go in Central America.  And that includes housing.

While costs vary greatly from one location to the next (and are, of course, higher in the larger cities), it isn’t unheard of to find a decent 2-bedroom house for under $500 per month.  Dinner for two at a world-class restaurant, with a bottle of wine, will set you back no more than $30.  You can get a dozen roses for $4 and a four-course lunch for $2.50.

The affordability of Central America is one reason it attracts so many retirees who can live an extremely comfortable retirement without sacrificing anything about their lifestyle.

3.  Affordable Health Care

Almost everything is cheaper in Central America.  And health care is no exception.  It’s so inexpensive that many expats choose to self-insure their medical costs.  However, for those who do choose health insurance coverage, they can get it for as little as $50 per month for coverage that pays 100% for in-network providers.

Doctor visits cost generally around $25, and that includes an extended time with the actual physician who may send you home with his or her private cell phone number.  A specialist costs closer to $50, and an ER visit runs around $100.

Many countries even offer free health care at public clinics and hospitals, although a lot of expats opt to pay for private care.  Most larger cities have hospitals that rival those in the U.S.

A lot of medical practitioners in Central America speak English, and many doctors even trained in the U.S.  As a result, many Central American countries are beginning to emerge on the medical tourism scene, with patients traveling abroad to undergo procedures ranging from heart transplants to facelifts.

4.  Climate

The countries of Central America boast some of the best weather you’ll find anywhere in the world.  There’s really no winter at all, with the only distinctions in seasons coming as a result of a few rainier months each year.

While generally mild everywhere, the climate does vary from location to location.  In general, coastal areas are warmer with higher humidity.  Highs can get into the upper 80′s and low 90′s.

However, you only have to move up to a slightly higher elevation to get a little bit of relief from the heat.   Many areas in the highlands never even reach 80 degrees and have a spring-like climate year-round.

The steady, temperate climate means there’s no need for two separate wardrobes.  With just a light jacket or sweater and an umbrella you’re set for day and nighttime in any season.

5.  Fresh Produce

The perpetual spring-like weather in Central America means that fruits and vegetables can be grown year round.  And they’re like nothing you’ve ever eaten.  Maybe like nothing you’ve ever even SEEN.

Farmer’s markets are loaded with the usual favorites, like plantains and mangoes.  You can also find jicama, tomatillos, papayas, and guava.

Also among the offerings are more unusual options like nopals and prickly pears, respectively the stems and fruit of the prickly pear cactus.  You might also see yuca root, tamarind, and chayote squash.

Fruit and vegetables in Central America are fresh, organic, locally-grown, and widely available.  They’re also affordable.  You can buy a week’s worth of produce for a family of four for less than eight bucks.

And nothing’s ever out of season.

6.  Nature

The countries of Central America are some of the most ecologically and biologically diverse places in the world.  And rather than driving cross country to experience a different climate or ecosystem, all you have to do is drive up or down the mountain.

Central America has it all.  From beautiful beaches to active volcanoes to coral reefs to lush rain forests to mountain waterfalls.  And each of those areas is teeming with rare, and often endangered, species of plants and animals.

The region is home to sea turtles, jaguars, toucans, sloths, snakes, monkeys, and much more.  It also offers great sites for bird and butterfly watching.  If adventure’s your gig, there are also opportunities for jungle expeditions, white water rafting, and some of the world’s best sport fishing.

 7.  Uncharted Territory

For many, Central America represents a place where you can truly find that new frontier that can never, ever be had in the U.S.  With miles of unexplored reefs, untouched beaches, and undiscovered jungles, you can truly feel like a pioneer.

You can explore these areas (often only on foot or horseback), and–if you’ve got good negotiating skills–you might even call them yours.

Whether you want to build a hut and live like Robinson Crusoe, or just spend an afternoon alone on a deserted beach and then call it a day, you can do that in Central America.

8.  Indigenous Culture

Depending on where you go in Central America, there are a number of opportunities to experience the culture of the area’s indigenous people groups or even live alongside them.  You’ll see women washing clothes in the river and drying them on rocks.  Many still practice the religious ceremonies of the Mayans and turn to alternative healers for medical treatment.

They set up booths in local markets to sell their wares: bead jewelry, straw goods, and textiles.  They hunt, farm, and raise livestock.  Many groups wear their own colorful native dress, and there are dozens of indigenous languages spoken throughout Central America.

9.  The Simple Life

We’re not sure how or why, but in Central America the days seem longer.  Things move slower, and there’s time left over for so many more things you could never have fit into your schedule back in the U.S.

The workaholic lifestyle is unheard of here.  It’s replaced with 2-hour lunches and shorter work weeks.  Many businesses still close for lunch.  And, in fact, lunch is often a time that is reserved for families to spend together.

Most of Central America is untouched by consumerism, and there’s less of a need to have more and get more and do more.  While some of the larger cities are becoming increasingly more North American in their practices, a simpler, slower pace of life is easy to find wherever you go.

Cons of Living Abroad in Central America

1.  Crime

While some are certainly safer than others, the countries of Central America present some real concerns in terms of violence and crime.  While there’s the obvious drug trafficking and its related criminal activity, there’s also a gang problem.

Some of the countries in Central America have alarmingly high homicide rates, and tourists often fall victim to burglary and theft.  Many nations are taking great strides in this area, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

The good news is that much of the more violent crime often occurs in areas that aren’t necessarily as popular for expats.  The biggest concerns in areas populated by foreigners are petty theft, pickpocketing, and other scams aimed at gringos.

Our best advice is to use common sense.  Don’t leave valuable items in an unlocked car, and don’t run around flashing wads of cash.

2.  Consumer Selection

While Central America does have ample options when it comes to fresh fruits and vegetables, in some other areas the selection can be lacking.  The more dead set you are on having the same products and goods you enjoy in the U.S., the more disappointed you’ll be in the options available to you.

It’s not that there are a lot of things you can’t find here at all.  It’s just that they might not be the same quality or same brands you’re used to.  However, they will be cheaper.  Imported and gourmet items are some of the only things that could end up costing you MORE in Central America.

So, if you can find a comparable substitute, you’re likely to save considerable money buying the local option.  Likewise, if there’s something you absolutely can’t live without, you can have it shipped to you.  But you’ll pay a pretty penny.

3.  The Simple Life

No, we’re not crazy.  Yes, we realize this was also the “Pro” list.  The reason it appears again here is because the slow, simple pace of life isn’t for everybody.  If you’re someone who thrives on busy-ness, you could actually become bored by the lack of hubbub in Central America.

Likewise you won’t find all of your North American television channels and other conveniences you’re used to.  Certainly the larger cities offer more options and activities, but even there it’s not uncommon for businesses to close early.  However, most areas have a vibrant night life, particularly the more touristy cities.

If the loss of a large social network is your complaint, it’s also easy to find other expats and enjoy regularly scheduled activities such as theater groups and poker nights.

4.  Lack of Sophistication

While Central America offers plenty of culture, it’s often in the form of local culture.  Things like art museums and live music venues are sparse and are usually found in only the larger cities.  Even then, the scheduled exhibits and performers will be few and far between.  They’ll also be mostly local talent.

You can find a variety of cuisines, especially in more populated areas, as well as specialty shops.  Larger cities offer modern shopping malls and supermarket chains.  You can even find movie theaters (some with flicks in English) and bowling alleys.

In addition to the cultural sophistication, many are often turned off by the level of infrastructure in Central America.  Roads are often poorly maintained.  Airports have unpaved runways.  And contaminated water sources can be a concern.

5.  Education

Although it’s not a problem for many expats, particularly retirees, the education system in many parts of Central America leaves a lot to be desired.  While it’s free and compulsory in most countries, classroom sizes are often large, resulting in a poor student to teacher ratio.

Some areas do have bilingual schools.  Private schools are also an option, although they can be expensive.  Many expats instead opt to homeschool their children, giving them more freedom and flexibility to make good use of their time in their new country.

Central America does have a number of good universities and language schools.

6.  Inefficiency

Central America marches to the rhythm of a different drum.  And it’s often a slower and more erratic pace than most North Americans are used to.  It’s very easy for expats to become frustrated at how things are run and how long it often takes to accomplish what seems to be such a relatively simple task.

Government requirements and processes are continually changing.  People are always late, even in business settings.  Contractors often leave work unfinished and never come back.  It can be taxing to say the least.

The only real solution for this issue is to be prepared and set your expectations accordingly.

7.  Difficulty Doing Business

While Central America is a great place to live, it’s a difficult place to do business.  For starters, the type of visa you hold can limit your ability to work.  Many countries protect their citizens by refusing to give jobs to foreigners if there’s a citizen who can do the job.

For those who want to open a business, that’s a whole other can of worms.  The business climate of Central America is very different from that of the U.S.  Combine that with the inefficiencies and delays mentioned above, and it can be a recipe for disaster.

While these pros and cons of living abroad in Central America are general observations, the individual countries and cities offer a variety of other perks and problems.  If you think the downsides of living in Central America are things you could overlook, the next step is narrowing down the specific country you’d like to consider.

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