7 of the Top Places U.S. Expats Are Living in Latin America (and Why)
The U.S. State Department estimates that there are currently 6.32 million Americans living overseas, in over 160 countries. But where exactly are they choosing to reside?
Thanks to a new interactive map that uses migration data from the United Nations Population Division, we can now tell where Americans are living abroad (as well as nationals of any other foreign country).
Not surprisingly, many of the countries that top the list of popular destinations for U.S. citizens are located just to the south, in Latin America. Due in part to their proximity, pleasant climates, and affordability, the countries of Central and South America are a natural choice for would-be expats who are looking to experience something new.
Here are a few of the most popular countries U.S. immigrants choose, along with what makes them such desirable destinations.
849,000 Americans Live in Mexico
With an astounding number of U.S. immigrants (more than twice that of just a decade ago), Mexico is the #1 place Americans go when they leave the U.S. It’s also more than twice that of the second most popular country, Canada.
In fact, you might also be surprised to know that more people from the U.S. have moved south of the border than Mexicans have moved north. And the reasons for this choice are numerous.
For starters, relocating to Mexico is just easy. It’s close. There are plenty of other expats. You can access the country with only a short flight, or even drive across the border if you really want to.
In many places the infrastructure is good, quality health care abounds, and it can all be had at a fraction of the cost of living in the U.S. The long-standing U.S. expat presence has paved the way for newcomers, and there are plenty of the same U.S. franchises and name brands that foreigners recognize.
Yet despite its U.S. influence, Mexico maintains a rich culture that many say has been lost in other expat havens, such as countries in Europe. Mexico’s immigrants claim the country is alive with possibility and a vibrance that just isn’t found anywhere else right now.
39,000 Americans Live in Ecuador
Ecuador continuously battles nearby Panama for top billing as the world’s best place to retire. In 2014 it lost by only .1 of a point, according to International Living’s annual survey. Among the reasons for its consistently high scores are its unrivaled scenery and its extremely affordable cost of living.
A couple can live quite comfortably in most Ecuadorian cities on $1500 to $1800 per month, which includes housing and even luxuries like a part-time maid. That same feat can be achieved elsewhere in Latin America, but it won’t come with the same quality of life.
Ecuador has historic colonial cities like Quito and Cuenca with their cathedrals and Spanish colonial architecture. The weather in the mountains is pleasantly mild, and even on the coast the temperature rarely reaches 90 degrees.
There’s good private health care, particularly in the large cities. Infrastructure is also improving, with enhancements like a new airport just outside Quito and the widening of the Pan-American Highway.
The country’s economy is stable and growing, The friendly and welcoming Ecuadorians are thriving, enjoying better lifestyles than previous generations.
13,000 Americans Live in Costa Rica
For a few decades now, Americans have been flocking to Costa Rica for its natural beauty and the “pura vida” (pure life) atmosphere it offers. Named the world’s happiest country, accordingly to the 2009 and 2012 Happy Planet Indexes, it possesses a lot of factors that contribute to an overall fantastic quality of life.
Both Costa Rica’s locals (called Ticos) and expats enjoy a much slower pace of life than U.S. residents are used to. There are plenty of options for healthy living, including yoga classes and organic food options. The country is also committed to sustainability, and green initiatives abound.
The country’s public health system is among the best in the world (ranked higher than that of the U.S.). After a monthly payment that’s based on income (between $50 and $150 for most expats) residents receive health care that’s completely free and includes routine visits, prescriptions, and even major surgeries. No exclusions apply due to age or pre-existing conditions.
Costa Rica is safe, politically stable, and enjoys year-round warm weather, although the higher Central Valley is even milder than the tropical coasts. There’s also a great pension program for retirees earning an income of $1,0000 or more from an outside source.
12,000 Americans Live in Panama
Edging out Ecuador to take the top spot as the best place to retire in 2014, Panama is a popular choice among expats for its convenience and affordability, as well as its unmatched retirement program. Thanks to some new visa options, it’s also recently become an even easier place to live as an expat.
Its list of conveniences includes easy access, thanks to several international airports, a dollarized economy, widely-spoken English, and a thriving international community. The country is also undergoing a massive overhaul of infrastructure projects ranging from new highways and a metro system to an expansion of the canal.
Few Latin American countries can rival Panama’s variety and value. It has quaint mountain cities flanked by rainforests and coffee plantations, laid-back Caribbean beach towns, and a bustling first world capital city that has a national park within its city limits.
Panama’s pensionado visa has always been a popular choice. It’s available to anyone, regardless of age, who can prove $1,000 per month income from a guaranteed source. For those who qualify, the list of benefits and discounts are too extensive to list.
Much of Panama is more affordable than its Costa Rican neighbor, in many cases with the same or better amenities, making it a great place to invest in real estate or the growing tourism industry.
8,000 Americans Live in Guatemala
Guatemala, known as the Land of the Eternal Spring, has also crept onto the radar of many U.S. expats in recent years. Its popularity is largely due to the fact that it shares many of the same perks as its Latin American neighbors (slower pace of life, beautiful surroundings, close proximity to the U.S.), without being too overcrowded.
It’s also a bit less expensive than some of its competitors, with expat couples claiming the ability to live comfortably on well under $1500 per month. Domestic help, like the services of a maid or gardener, is only $2-$3 per hour. And a week’s worth of fresh fruits and vegetables costs only $6-$10 at the market. Real estate in Guatemala is also on the affordable side.
One of the country’s biggest selling points is its authentic culture, particularly the area around Lake Atitlan, a popular expat destination. Located about 75 miles from Guatemala City, the lake is surrounded by volcanoes and a number of villages where natives still practice their ancient Mayan traditions.
Even closer to the capital is Antigua, which is full of cobblestone streets and colorful flora. Much of the country enjoys a mild climate with warm days, cool nights, almost no humidity, and little need for either heating or air conditioning.
4,000 Americans Live in Nicaragua
Two of Nicaragua’s most beautiful colonial cities, Granada and Leon, aren’t just impressive due to their shady parks and Spanish architecture. They’re also among the hemisphere’s most ancient.
Granada and Leon continually vie for the title of Oldest City in the Americas. Both boast colonial churches and public buildings, as well as plazas that are well-preserved specimens of the area’s rich history.
Equally breathtaking are the country’s two coastlines (one sand, one surf), its jungle and cloud forests, its lakes and volcanoes, its capuchin monkeys and rare orchids. Visually, Nicaragua is a rare gem, having much of the same ecotourism appeal as Costa Rica and Panama, just less discovered, less developed, and less expensive.
In fact real estate, even in some of the developed areas, is quite a bargain in Nicaragua. Land on the Pacific Coast selling at 40-50% below its peak, and a small Spanish-colonial home in Granada can go for as little as $40,000-$50,000. Many developers are quite eager to sell, offering special deals and discounts such as developer financing.
3,000 Americans Live in Belize
Like its Latin American neighbors, Belize offers an amazing climate and an affordable lifestyle. It also delivers stunning natural beauty, much of which is completely unspoiled. Adventurous expats can explore its sandy white beaches, tropical rainforest, ancient Mayan ruins, mountains, waterfalls, and more.
Most notably, the warm waters off the coast of Belize are home to the world’s second largest barrier reef (the largest in the western hemisphere), which makes for excellent diving, snorkeling, fishing, windsurfing, and a number of other aquatic activities.
Also, as the only English-speaking country in Central America (due to its origins as a British, rather than Spanish colony), Belize is an easy place for expats to make themselves comfortable. The country’s system of law is also based on British principles.
Another perk of living and investing in Belize is its stable economy. It has one of the lowest inflation rates in the world and a number of tax benefits for residents and investors. As a result, it’s also a popular offshore banking center.
So, if you’re considering relocating to Latin America, those are a few of the places where you might be most likely to have other expats as neighbors.
But don’t read much into the numbers other than just that. No single expat destination is right for everyone, so a country that draws thousands of new immigrants each year might have no appeal for you at all.
The decision to become an expat is life-changing one. The process of deciding where is the fun part. Start exploring today.