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10 Things to Know Before You Move to Central or South America

By Donald Lee

Summary: Lee offers ten tips for people contemplating a move to Central or South America.

Moving Overseas - Central and South America

I have received many emails over the years from readers of my Blogs who are interested in moving to Central or South America from the US or other 'developed' countries'. The majority of people who requested information are involved in cross-cultural relationships. I have first-hand experience with a cross-cultural marriage. For women, I recommend that you investigate lagringasblogicito and hondurassprouts. These are blogs written by excellent women writers who are married to Honduran Citizens.

Here are some tips that I picked up from years of actual cross-cultural communications as well as first-hand experience, a grand total of 24 years residence in Mexico and Central America.

1. Be informed (Know) before you go. Read! Read! Read! Surf the Internet and purchase up-to-date print Guidebooks, country specific to where you wish to relocate. Talk to as many people as you can who have lived in Central & South America.

Always spend at least 2-3 weeks in your target country, city or region before deciding to make the move. Seeing is believing. Never rely on internet sites, user groups, forums or blogs as your primary source of information. Never arrange to purchase Real Estate abroad from any website nor contract expensive Real Estate & Relocation tours online. One Woman, whom I know, spent $200 USD a day in Costa Rica on 'Real Estate Tours', returned home broke and bitter after a week. If you do not have a friend or relative in your target country who you are able to stay with (try not to stay in a Resort or Luxury Hotel unless on a genuine vacation) take this advice: "I would recommend for meeting locals. You don't have to couchsurf (Stay) with them you can meet for a coffee / drink, local tour or whatever. They'll show you around and you'll get to do things most tourists don't do -- and offer insider information on their area. Also try out Both organizations are non profit boasting thousands of Latin American members.

Start taking some Spanish or Portuguese lessons online and also in frontal classes or with a native speaking tutor at home well before departure. Build a language 'basic' foundation. Stepping up to intermediate and advanced is easy once in a Spanish speaking country. In all Latin American countries, excepting Belize and Guyana, former British Colonies and parts of the Caribbean coasts, only a small percentage of your local neighbors will speak English.

2. Find a cultural mentor. Long term resident or trusted bilingual local. I befriended a couple of younger, less experienced expats during my first years living in Guatemala. Upon arrival to Central America many years ago, I was lucky enough to have a relative and was introduced into a small social network of both expats and locals..invaluable. These people were very gracious in helping me with many day-to-day tasks in the beginning, teaching me to be independent -- step by step and not to rely on locals to 'hold my hand'. A good mentor can and often will point out errors in judgement. Social contacts and personal relationships are very important throughout Latin America.

3. Choose your home and neighborhood carefully. Look for one that will accept you, and where you will feel comfortable. Cheap rent in a poor neighborhood may sound great, but in the long run, you may be robbed or worse. Keep a low profile and never divulge your personal or work information or give out your address to overly friendly strangers.

4. Go slow at first. Don't expect to work at the same pace as you did in the US/Canada/UK, etc.. Things are just simply harder to get done in Latin America. And slower. Always. Often people show up late, very late, for appointments. Never reprimand locals for this unless they are in your employ and have business commitment with you. 'Life in The Tropics' -- Don't take yourself too seriously and keep a sense of humor.

5. Try not to make general assumptions about Latin Americans. Just as you would not want those in the country where you are relocating to assume that every US or Canadian citizen is rich, white, and arrogant, you should not assume that all Latin Americans are alike. Listen to locals and ask questions.

6. Expect a testing period. Friends, contacts and co-workers need time before you are accepted into their trust. Once you are deemed trustworthy, the doors will fly open.

7. Expect life to be a bit annoying in the beginning. Cold showers are the norm in many areas. Air conditioning is most often a luxury. Water and electricity sometimes fail on a daily basis. In some areas Internet Connections are slower than at home.

8. Try not to complain. Accept that Central or South America is different than the US/Canada/UK.

9. Look for the good things in your adopted new country, such as the beautiful mountains, rustic rural national parks or beaches.

10. Be humble. One of my favorite phrases in Spanish, "I don't understand." "Yo no lo comprendo" A humble attitude goes a long way in getting along with co-workers and friends. Even if you feel you 'know', always get a second opinion from a native or long term expat resident friend. Try not to 'one up' or be arrogant with newly arrived expats. I know a woman in my country (from the US) who will break into and dominate any conversation in Spanish. Even though her Spanish is lacking, she tells new arrivals she is 100% 'fluent'. So, if you choose to live in a gated community or 'condos' with other expats from your country, be advised that gossiping and one upping (what a person who feels inferior does to make themselves feel superior) is a fairly common pastime in any and all expat communties, far better to 'go native' and live among locals, if at all possible for you.

I hope these tips help some of you who are contemplating relocation and / or retirement to Central or South America.

About the Author

Welcome to Cinquera in El Salvador -- Rural Eco and Cultural Tourism, Crafts, Volunteer Opportunities. Contact our organization via the site if interested.

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Comments about this Article

Nov 5, 2010 16:47

Great tips, Thanks! There is so much to learn before the big move. But it is exciting. The links will be very helpful, I have been looking for just such a thing. Thank you for taking the time to share.

Nov 12, 2010 14:10

I enjoyed this very much and I definately want to "go native". I hope to be in Cotacachi before Christmas.

Dec 18, 2010 19:32

Many good suggestions. I will not be retiring to Brasil until I complete 4 more years at my job. I have visited 5 times traveling to different areas to find the locals to settle down. I am so far hooked on Porto Seguro, Bahia. I have been learning Portuguese not an easy task. I watch filmes in Portuguese with Portuguese subtitles. Listen to brasilian music, often looking up the lyrics to be able to pick up vocabulary. I also joined Orkut, the popular Brasilian version of Facebook. I play the games to learn language and make causual contacts that allow me the opportunity to read and write Brasilain Portugese.The people of Brasil are amazing. What I most like is the lack of being seen as a "white" person when meeting those of different and mixed racial make-ups. I have had just one negative encounter with a man that hated the US but his behavior appeared to embarass the Brasilians that were also present and many apologized for his behavior.As in the US, safety is common sense. If you get an uncomfortable feeling in your gut listen and act acordingly. There are places all over the US I would not walk alone in, the same applies all over the world.

Jan 26, 2011 21:24

hey my name is kyle and i wouldn't mind talking with you to get a little more information maybe. thanks

Feb 8, 2011 09:11

I will check out the links;I wrote the info down and Belize is likng better all the time..thanks again

Feb 15, 2011 20:47

Very informative. A lot of the advice is good to follow here in the US as well.

May 27, 2011 02:00

Thanks great advice and helpful websites!!

Jun 7, 2011 02:23

Great suggestions. One of the things we found tough was getting our residency paperwork figured out. Check out what we learned about residency papers in Guatemala:

Jun 7, 2011 17:28

thanks, lots of info, added it to my favorites list, Mary

Jun 10, 2011 12:07

Excellent! : )

Jun 21, 2011 22:52

This is awesome!....and very helpful. Thanks for your insight!

Jun 27, 2011 09:58

Many thanks for your comments. My husband and I w/b going to Chile, Paraguay and Argentina in about 2 months. We are scoping out the possibility of living in So. America. He speaks Spanish fluently albeit w/a Cuban accent (he lived in Miami) my Spanish is rusty. Listening to Spanish lessons on CDs to at least have a conversation. I worked @ the Mexican Consulate over 30 years ago, my accent is not bad just vocabulary, thus I have much studying to do. Sheila

Jul 10, 2011 02:43

Beautifully written article and full of wisdom. One more bullet item is: "Speak the Language," namely Spanish, that will get you a long way in understanding the idiosyncrasies of the culture.

Jul 10, 2011 20:24

Thank you for great tips.

Jul 11, 2011 12:50

Hi my name is Sarah. My family and I moved to Cuenca, Ecuador about three years ago. We love it here! Since we’ve been here we’ve started several businesses and written a 14 page report on travel, investment, relocation, and medical tourism. If you would like more information please contact We would love to answer any questions you may have

Sep 11, 2011 19:09

Great information i am planing a move in a few years. Thank You Edward Miller

Nov 9, 2011 22:30

I liked Mr. Lee's advice very much, particularily the "be humble" part. Honesty, modesty and a genuine smile goes a long way in any country of the world. I am retired and my son and I are visiting Belize this coming February for 3 weeks. We'll definitely be staying among the locals. Why else visit a country? Canadian Olive

Nov 30, 2011 13:39

Excellent advice. I travel much of the world and this advice applies everywhere.

Jan 27, 2012 15:55

Very informative, and I thank you for advising us. I am contemplating coming down and looking around Ecuador. have found a nice, nearly new condo (3Units, in the building) that I may amke an offer, on Crucita beach, apparently from pictures, in a nicer area than some. Can you advise me about that area? Also when coming down, would it be smart to get a 1 wy ticket here, then when leaving Ec. to get a round trip ticket so as to utilize the price reduction, since I would qualify for that as I am 71 yrs. young, or is there someway to buy it here in the states and get the discount? Just a couple of things I wanted to mrun by you, and I would certainly be gateful for your reply. Thanks, I am

Feb 19, 2012 15:05

I agree with you 100& on every topic mention here. I have a handycap child and I'm very afraid of the agenda of these powerfull elites. I currently live in new Jersey I'm a American citizen but I was born in S.A Colombia. I'm thinking to move back with my son and parents to our roots. my question would be what information do you have on Colombia? is it safe from NWO in colombia? I did some research but didn't find anything yet. Well here there's no chemtrails the food is less contaminated people here are more fit and healthy.

Mar 14, 2012 16:36

Thanks for your information and your advice. I Hopefully plan to retire and relocate to Guatemala. My girlfriend is from there. I speak fluent Spanish. I'd like to move to a place that has cool weather,as I'm tired of the heat in Miami ,Florida. I'd also like a midsize town to avoid excessive traffic and other stressful things associated with big city life. Can anyone make a suggestion? Thanks and keep up the good work you're doing.

Apr 29, 2012 13:24

Thank you for your imput concerning those of us, who have been interested in relocating to Central America ie. Guatemala.

May 29, 2012 21:36

I'm a Brooklyn native in Guayaquil, Ecuador. If you're ever around the area, send me a message to I'll spot you in the most economical or luxurious hotels in the area. Give you tips on what to wear, not to wear, which taxis to take and which not to take, what water to buy, which restaurants to go to and in which neighborhoods you can hang out in. How to bargain for the lowest prices in your local handcraft shops, souvenirs, etc. Native Bilingual (English and Spanish, written and spoken)

Jul 9, 2012 16:05

Thanks, some good advice. Question, please provide some history (last couple of years)of the "security situation" of say gringas (American), living alone,say in Antigua and travellling alone in Guatemala, riding busses, etc., danger of not only pick-pockets, but kindnapping for ransom. I'm anticipating a two week visit, Guatemala, Antigua, Lago Atitlas, Summer, 2012, and will probably do so alone. thanks

Jul 13, 2012 12:34

Hi Donald: Thanks so much for this site, I found it very inforamtive and helpful. I am thinking of moving to Guatamala either late fall of this year or early spring. I'm 67 yr old female in excellent health, and would very much like to live "native". I have no desire to live in an expat enclave. I want to come and stay at a small inn or something like that first to know for sure I will enjoy living there, and to prepare for permanent return. Is it difficult to get a resident visa? Any other information you would care to share? Thanks, Shari

Sep 27, 2012 02:58

We are now on Facebook, this advice is general in nature and is aimed at the first time traveler to Central America, which is NOT South America neither Mexico!! How your voyage goes depends on you, yes, petty crime is rampant, especially in crowded tourist destinations and markets, so guard your valuables, be aware never paranoid. Violent crime against travelers is rare and most travelers never enter slums of large cities where crime is local upon local. Visit our new group bi lingual /english or Spanish or both welcome!/groups/discovercentralamerica/

Oct 5, 2012 12:38

Thank you for your insight, you were very informative. I also plan to relocate to Guatemala in 5 years if all goes well. I do plan to spend aleast a month in order to get the feel of the land before making the move. So again thank you.

Dec 29, 2012 12:05

Thank you for this genuine article. I recently had an extended visit with my son and his wife currently serving in the Peace Corp there. We trekked through the wilds. I loved the people, lifestyle and diversity. I am planning my move within 6 months. Thanks again, Renee

Dec 30, 2012 15:29

great info., i am considering moving to CostaRico within 12 mo.

Jan 3, 2013 14:22

LOVE THIS!!! Moved to CR with our 4 boys and followed all of this... just reading it now. SO true...every word of it. If you can't follow this advice, please stay in your respective country until you are ready... ;D

Feb 28, 2013 12:59

Went native 20 years ago and still love it... Speak English only with my children...Immerse yourself in the culture, traditions and customs or you might as well stay home!!!!

Mar 10, 2013 21:04

Thank you for your advice. I especially appreciate number 10. Those of us coming in from other countries that move at a faster pace might think we "know it all". Beginning with a humble attitude in a new country is certainly the best way.

May 5, 2013 07:03

I have just returned from Guat..I plan to relocate there.You hit the nail on the head when you talk about expats trying to look superior..I was a bit taken aback at the way they spoke to and about the Mayan people ..My adopted daughter is Mayan..I take it very personal..I would definately go native while living there..Thanks for confirming what I was thinking and feeling .

May 15, 2013 19:38

print this one out and use it, I couldn't have said it better myself. Especially the cultural mentor....a definite must have for any country in Latin America as culture is tied to language, government and business on every level, so a good understanding of their history and culture will take you a llllooooonnnngggg way!

Jun 4, 2013 09:27

From what I read like anything in life, like even getting a new job, it is critical to have a mentor. How do I find one? I am learning Spanish now. I do not like to gossip. How do I find a mentor so I can learn how to live there in peace and find a safe place to live? Thanks, Melinda (Ohio, USA)

Jun 14, 2013 13:39

Loved your article, we are going to Ecuador this week, planning to retire there, your advice was right on the nose for us, we will spend one month looking around , Katie Adams

Aug 7, 2013 16:13

Does Mr Lee have any other letters/notes/information/articles on moving to Central America specifically Belize?

Aug 28, 2013 14:54

It is about time I read the actual truth. These "International Living" consultant/staff writers paint a picture of retiring for $1000USD per month and live like a "Donald Trump". They just want me to sign up for their articles/magazine and give them money. One offer from their staff had me paying somebody $100/hr to take me on a "guided tour" of the city/country plus all their expenses. This above article tells it like it really is. How do I get on a email list where I can get the real truth regarding moving to Central/South America to try and improve my quality of lifestyle? Thank you in advance for any direction you can give me.

Aug 28, 2013 14:56

To Donald Lee: Can I get access to all of your articles regarding any/all relocation? Thank you GH

Sep 11, 2013 15:47

Thanks for the good advice. We plan on retiring in CR soon. I agree that the folks at International Living blow a lot of smoke about how cheap it is to live abroad, when in many cases it is much more costly unless you eat beans & rice every day for every meal. We signed up for one of their advertised tours, were taken to a shot hole for a hotel that was outdated 50-75 years ago. I suspect it was the developers new plan to use the funds for renovations. We canceled on the spot and returned to the SJO airport to get a rental car and took our own tour of the country. Would love to find others in the Samara / Nosara area to share ideas. THX.

Nov 1, 2013 14:33

Thank you so much for all your tips on moving to Latin American countries. I am contemplating on moving somewhere in Latin America when I retire in 2015. My wife is very skeptic about living in Latin American countries. I am Hispanic and she is Caucasion. I ofcourse would fit right in ,Just need to work on her and show her alot of research of different place to live comfortably and inexpensive. Live The Dream!

Jun 21, 2014 10:10

Excellent advise especially #10 however the 'go native' bit, although spot on, is something that 99% will be unable to do, however for those who can life IS good, much better than back in the materialistic cold country. Just remember when you hit a glitch there is always mañana!

Aug 4, 2014 11:02

Thanks, this is great information and it is what other expats have told me as well. Live with the locals! Jim Sault Vermonter

Aug 12, 2014 03:36

excellent advice,!

Feb 18, 2015 04:59

great article not just for expats. but also for each one of us as human beings. Thank youl good read./

Mar 15, 2015 16:37

This is good and valid information, having lived in Paraguay and visited numerous times. The one situation I find myself in is being asked (knowing I am from N. America) is "how much does that cost". What would be a polite answer without discussing cost? BeeGee

Mar 21, 2015 11:17

I thought this was a very helpful, sensible and helpful article. I hope we can meet someone to help us. We are interested in moving to Costa Rica, or perhaps Panama within the next year. We've been reading everything we can get our hands on, but have not been able to make any actual contacts in these countries. I hope we will, and we will be sure to take the advice in this article to heart.

Dec 18, 2015 06:28

Super helpful and disarming. Thank you.

Dec 22, 2018 17:20

My word of advise for anyone planning to settle down in South and Central America is to forever try their best to avoid the local justice,. A simple matter regarding real estate or a traffic violation can last for years - even decades.

First Published: Oct 11, 2008

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