The 10 Best Places to Live in the World (and the One Thing They All Have in Common)
What makes a destination a great place to live? Is it the place with the most pleasant surroundings? The lowest cost of living? Or even the healthiest and happiest people?
In compiling my list of the best places to live in the world, I took into consideration all of those factors. Plus some others I’ll mention as we go. And the common denominator among all ten of my top destinations is that they’re all in Latin America.
Why? Because the countries just south of the U.S. border have so much to offer in terms of natural beauty, authentic culture, unrivaled quality of life, and a heck of a lot of bang for your buck.
That’s why these ten best places to live in the world are becoming home to an increasing number of North American expats each year. Because when it comes down to choosing a place to actually settle down and dive into the local culture and become a part of the expat community, you just can’t beat these ten destinations.
Panama consistently ranks among the top retirement destinations in the world, taking top billing again in 2014. And Boquete is its crown jewel, claiming more North American expats than anywhere else in the country, with the exception of the capital of Panama City.
Yet even with its status as a top expat hotspot, it still maintains a small-town feel, due in part to its quaint mountain setting and friendly locals. It’s also home to pretty much any type of business or service you could ever need, thanks to a long-standing expat presence.
Surrounding Boquete are cloud forests, coffee farms, rivers, and numerous other natural landscapes that offer a wealth of activities for the adventurous expat. The area enjoys spring-like temperatures all year, with frequent showers that produce almost daily rainbows.
The cost of living is low, although it’s slowly climbing as more and more expats settle in the area. With fantastic infrastructure and a lot of modern developments, it’s still a great value. Panama is also a favorite destination due to its attractive retirement program benefits for those who qualify.
Cuenca is another mountain town with a large expat community, and for good reason. It’s known for its rich culture, which includes its colonial architecture and a lively art and music scene.
Ecuador also boasts one of the lowest costs of living in the Americas. You can plan to spend less on everything from fresh produce to a renovated condo in the bustling downtown area.
Cuenca is home to a number of universities, making it a hub for international students. It’s also a great, safe place for families with its excellent education and health care options.
There are also plenty of great restaurants, bars, shopping centers, and all of the other creature comforts you’d expect to find in a metropolitan city. Yet it enjoys the same slow pace of life you’ll find throughout Latin America. It’s the best of both worlds.
Though it’s recognized for the terra cotta roofs and blue church domes that dots its city skyline, the area around Cuenca is equally breathtaking. It sits at the convergence of four rivers and is surrounded by mountains, offering plenty of opportunities for outdoor adventure.
Nosara, Costa Rica
Nosara is the perfect example of what happens when a city is founded with a plan and the residents remain committed to that vision for decades running. Once used for grazing cattle, the land in and around Nosara has been developed very intentionally, and the results are really remarkable.
No high rise condos block your view of the beautiful sunsets on Nosara’s pristine beaches. Numerous conservation efforts and organizations work to maintain the area’s natural surroundings.
Nosara is known for its surfing, yoga, and healthy lifestyle options. It’s also a great place for families. It’s safe and has several really good schools.
And Costa Rica’s laid-back lifestyle easily adds to the reasons Nosara is one of the best places to live in the world. The locals are incredibly welcoming, greeting residents and visitors alike with the phrase “pura vida” (pure life) that’s become a motto of sorts for the country.
Nosara has a good-sized expat community, as well as the established infrastructure and development you’d expect from such a world-class destination.
The largest of the Bay Islands, Roatan is a great choice if island living is what you’re after. With plenty of development and consumer options, as well as an airport with direct flights from the U.S., there’s little need to ever leave the island.
There you can enjoy every imaginable aquatic adventure. From sailing to sport fishing to kayaking through the mangroves, it’s all possible in Roatan. Just off the coast you’ll also find access to the world’s second largest reef system, which makes for some incredible snorkeling and scuba diving.
Because it hasn’t quite yet reached the popularity of some of its Latin island counterparts, Roatan is still a bit more affordable. However with its growing tourism industry, including frequent visits from cruise ship passengers, Roatan’s appeal is being discovered by more and more would-be expats each year.
Despite its growing population Roatan still offers some off-the-beaten path areas that offer plenty of solitude, including a few villages that still don’t have electricity.
Boca Chica, Panama
Another Panama destination has made the list, thanks to its attractive retirement benefits and amazing investment opportunities. Boca Chica is an island destination that’s still relatively unknown but has the potential for tremendous growth in the coming years.
Located in the Gulf of Chiriqui, it consists of a mainland city and an archipelago of over 50 islands, many of which are completely uninhabited. Residents of Boca Chica can spend their days exploring otherworldly islands covered in rainforests, mangroves, and even white sand beaches.
And because of its convenient location, those same adventurous expats can then take a quick shower and drive 45 minutes to enjoy a first-rate steak dinner in a world-class restaurant in the nearby city of David.
It’s this strategic location, combined with a whole host of ongoing infrastructure improvements, that makes Boca Chica real estate such a great investment.
An airport expansion that’s now bringing in direct international flights is among one of the biggest value-adds the area has seen. Folks can now fly in to David from anywhere in the world and find themselves in Boca Chica in under an hour.
Granada is another colonial city that’s absolutely brimming with culture and charm. Horse-drawn carriages still dot the cobblestone streets. If it weren’t for the freshly-painted tropical colors on the historic buildings, you might think you’d stepped back in time.
Well, that and the modern amenities available in the city, a stark contrast from the wilderness that occupies most of the rest of the country. In what’s a mostly underdeveloped country, Granada offers things like reliable utilities, four-star restaurants, and state-of-the-art fitness centers.
It’s located on Lake Nicaragua, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. It’s also surrounded by several volcanoes, so plenty of opportunities for exploration abound.
Granada is a town that fought its way back from near demise due to bankruptcy and other issues, but you’d never know it today. Instead, modern-day Granada is abuzz with construction projects and up-and-coming developments.
Granada real estate is extremely affordable, as is the cost of living in the country. It’s home to a number of expats, many of whom are involved in humanitarian efforts in the surrounding impoverished areas.
Ambergris Caye, Belize
If you want to feel like you’re on vacation 24/7 then look no further than the island of Ambergris Caye. Due to its status as a tourist mecca, it’s ripe with all kinds of activities and attractions.
There are surf shops and scuba schools, beach-side restaurants and bars, and plenty of flip flops and floral shirts. In fact, most of the island’s inhabitants are foreigners, particularly those who operate enterprises geared towards other expats and visitors.
The large expat community isn’t the only thing that makes Ambergris Caye feel familiar. Because Belize was originally a British colony, it’s the only Central American nation whose residents rely on the British legal system and speak English as their official language.
Among the biggest perks of the island are that it’s an ocean lover’s dream. Thanks to its proximity to the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest in the world, it’s the perfect place to enjoy scuba diving, sailing, and sport fishing. You can also explore the more than 450 other islands that lie off the coast.
If you’re looking for a place that’s a little less popular among expats and tourists, then you should definitely check out Antigua. It’s a well-preserved colonial city nestled in between some amazing mountains and volcanoes, which make for an impressive skyline.
Because it’s not as highly sought after as some of the other destinations on the list, the cost of living in Antigua is probably a little less than in some of its Latin competitors. Real estate is a great bargain, as are essentials like fresh fruits and veggies and utilities.
With the low cost of living, it’s also possible to splurge on luxuries such as domestic help, which at only $2 or $3 per hour is something many expats are thrilled to find that they can afford when they relocate to the tropics.
In addition to the mountainscapes, Antigua is also decorated with beautiful flora and fauna, as well as the cobblestone streets and other charming touches you’d expect in an ancient destination.
Equipped with just the right amount of infrastructure, Antigua is also known for its Spanish language schools.
If you like Belize but aren’t crazy about the gringo-saturated island culture then the mainland city of Placencia is another place worth the title of best places to live in the world. If the islands are like living on a resort, then Placencia is like relaxing on a postcard.
The beaches are wider, whiter, and less crowded than in places like Ambergris Caye. There are still plenty of activities to enjoy, but there are also more places to spread out or even find a secluded spot all to yourself.
There’s also a more authentic Caribbean vibe on the mainland, which many expats prefer. It has an even more laid-back atmosphere (if that’s possible), with not even so much as a paved road anywhere in town.
As opposed to the expat-run businesses on the island, the locals are very involved in commerce in Placencia. They even offer guided diving and fishing excursions to visiting foreigners.
Plus, since Placencia is on the mainland, it’s also close to a number of activities suited for the land lover, like jungle exploration and archaeological sites.
Lake Chapala, Mexico
Understandably Mexico is home to more U.S. expats than any other country. And, other than the border town of Tijuana, the majority of those live in the Lake Chapala area. So suffice it to say that 40,000 U.S. expats would agree that this city is one of the best places to live in the world.
Mexico’s largest freshwater lake, Chapala was once planned as a luxury resort town. It serves as a weekend getaway for locals from Guadalajara and has attracted expats for decades, including Tennessee Williams who chose it as the site from which to write A Streetcar Named Desire.
In addition to the beauty of the lake and surrounding mountains, Lake Chapala offers an ideal climate year-round. It’s also famous for its mariachi music.
Which of the best places to live in the world is right for you?
So if stunning scenery and adrenaline-pumping adventure are your thing, there’s a place on this list that’s right for you. If sustainable living and a relaxed vibe are what you’re into, there’s a destination where you can find those as well.
I’ve done the hard part by laying out the ten best places to live in the world. Now all you have to do is narrow it down.