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Top 5 Reasons Expats Move to Central America

Betsy Burlingame

Summary: From lower cost of living to affordable healthcare and beachfront living, expats discuss the top reasons they moved to Central America.

Caye Caulker, Belize
Caye Caulker, Belize

Why are so many people moving to Central America? Expats talk about the top reasons they enjoy living in Central America.

Central America offers something for everyone. Some expats in Central America enjoy affordable, beachfront living in towns like Playa Hermosa de Jaco and Tamarindo, Costa Rica; Ambergris Caye and Hopkins Village, Belize; and Bocas del Toro and Coronado, Panama. Others love living in bustling cities like Antigua, Guatemala, San Jose, Costa Rica and Panama City. Inland towns like Boquete, Panama, Heredia, Costa Rica and Lake Atitlan, Guatemala are also popular among expats.

Note: at the time this article was published, the political climate in Nicaragua was volatile. We would not recommend moving to Nicaragua at this time.

The Lifestyle

Expats love the focus on family, slower pace of life and friendly people in Central America. When we asked expats what is it like living in Central America, they replied:

"In San Salvador the capital, there is much industry, dominated by several outlying "Free Zones" dedicated mainly to Apparel and Textile Manufacturing. Ordinarily, lives of ex pats in the City revolve around work. There are also many Americans living or retired here who have married Salvadorian Women and many are engaged in Teaching or running small businesses. There is little "socializing" as compared to areas such as Costa Rica or nearby Antigua, Guatemala or Roatan, Honduras which are basically 'resort towns' catering to ex pats. There is a large US Peace Corps contingent stationed in towns and villages around the country, as well as many volunteer organizations (NGOs) engaged in reconstruction and disaster releif," said one expat living in San Salvador, El Salvador.

"With a high and low class society it is difficult to provide priorities. The favorable sport is soccer (futbol). Family life and extended family life is active in El Salvador, no matter what class. Work ranges from bank employees to street vendors," mentioned another expat in El Salvador.

"The locals work hard and have lots of festivals. They honor the old folks, thier heritage, and way of life. They take time for coffee, for conversation. They are more then willing to show you and teach you and help you to find your place in their society. If you even try to speak spanish they admire you for that and even try thier hand at English or apologize for their lack of. Everyone says hello, waves, nods, gives recognition, an old fashioned thing that I missed in the U.S," commented one expat who made the move to Panama.

"Family life is very important to the Salvadorans. Work dominates during the week and Saturdays for those that have to put in a 6 day work week, but you see families spending time together whenever possible. It's one of the things I like most about living in Latin America. I am very fortunate that I have been dating a Salvadoran for most of my stay. She has a large extended family which I have been adopted into," remarked another expat living in San Salvador, El Salvador.

Lower Cost of Healthcare

Cartago, Costa Rica
Cartago, Costa Rica

The quality and cost of healthcare in Central America varies greatly from country to country, city to city. Living in close proximity to high quality emergency medical treatment and specialists is an important consideration for most people moving to Central America. For more information about healthcare, read our Healthcare & Health Insurance Tips articles for: Costa Rica, Belize, Panama, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

"Yes, Belize City has the three best hospitals in the country. For simple things they are very good and cheap compared with the US, but for cancer that sort of thing people go to the States. You can get private medical insurance as a member of the Caricom, which in our case includes treatment elsewhere, if it is not available here in Belize. People who don't have medical insurance, use Guatemala City, Merida, Mexico, or Panama for medical procedures. For members of the public, using public health centers and hospitals the waits can be very long and the care, patchy. I would not suggest people come here with terminal illnesses, as Belizes not equipped to deal with that," explained one expat in Belize City, Belize.

"The area has several local physicians which offer quality care. Additionally, specialized physicians in the area of dermatology, dental, obstetrics, psychology visit the area once a month from the Central Valley. Excellent medical care is available in the Central Valley 90 minutes from Hermosa and Jaco," said another expat living in Playa Hermosa de Jaco, Costa Rica.

"Yes, Panama has first world medical care but also has third word cares and everything between," commented another expat living in Potrerillos, Chiriqui, Panama.

"A better doctor than I had for the past 30 yrs in Canada runs the FREE clinic in town 10 minutes away. Ambulance in our community 3 minutes away. Good hospitals in San Salvador 1 hour at a fraction of Canadian prices," added an expat in La Libertad, El Salvador.

"My insurance provides coverage at Hospital Biblical, a private hospital with an excellent reputation. It is not close: two buses and a short walk. Or a 6,000 colon cab ride ($11.50). Minor things like colds, infections, etc I go to the pharmacy," said one expat who moved San Jose, Costa Rica.

"Health care is either middle-rate, or world class, depending on how long one wishes to wait, and how much $$$ you have. No Medicare, of course, and Tricare (military coverage) is available, but not widely accepted," explained one expat living in Boquete, Panama.

"There are several English speaking doctors in our area and clinics. The nearest major hospitals are about an hour away in Panama City but there are small hospitals closer to home. My last visit to the local ER cost $31 in total for X-rays, IV meds and Doctor consult. My ER co pay in the US was $75. You do the math," said one expat living in Nueva Gorgona, Panama.

Expats living in Central America interested in expat health insurance should take a minute to get a quote from our trusted expat health insurance partner, CIGNA.


Many of the expats living in Central America are retirees. We asked people why they retired in Central America. They answered:

"I chose Panama because I was stationed in Panama while in the military where I met my wonderful Panamanian wife," said one expat living in Potrerillos, Chiriqui, Panama.

"Panama is beautiful and developing fast. Great infrastructure. Close and easy to get too," mentioned another expat in Panama.

"Better prices (years ago), good medical, warm weather, runs on the US dollar, close to the US for visits," commented one expat who made the move to Panama.

"I could drive here from Canada, cheap housing prices, tropical climate, on the ocean and stable political situation," remarked another expat living in La Libertad, El Salvador.

Central American People & Culture

Casco Viejo in Panama City
Casco Viejo in Panama City

We asked expats in Central America what they appreciated about their new culture. Here's what they had to say:

"People are warmer and will often go out of their way to help, even people I hardly know," said one expat living in San Salvador, El Salvador.

Lower Cost of Living

One of the main reasons people move to Central America is lower cost of living. If you're considering a move to Central America, do your research. The cost of living varies greatly from country to country.

"The cost of living is less than most tourist towns. For example if you own a restaurant in a non-tourist town and your food is not good or overpriced, you will quickly go out of business. Yet many well know restaurants are located in Ojochal. Water is abundant and you never need heat and most don't use AC. The temperature is more temperate than many other areas in Costa Rica, because the largest lowland forest in all of the entire Pacific region starts in Ojochal and continues to the south. The largest mangrove estuary in all of Central America is just to the south as well - so there is lots of clean air. The newest hospital in the CAJA system is located just two towns to the south in Cortez -- so healthcare is close and inexpensive," said an expat living in Ojochal, Costa Rica.

"Cost of groceries is good, especially when buying local produce. Some meats, sugars, and grains are price controlled and can be very inexpensive. Compared to my home area of rural Ohio, food expense is about the same. Cost of electricity at our house is less than $25.00 per month, and we use the air conditioner some mid-days. Usually ceiling fans provide more than enough comfort. Gas tanks are used for cooking, and the one tank we purchased for $25.00 has yet to run out after 7 months of use," commented another expat in Pedasi, Panama.

"As mentioned, it is low for the basics. If you can be happy on a Mayan diet, rice, beans, tortillas, a bit of chicken or pork, eggs, it will cost almost nothing (because the indigenous are a very poor people). If you have to have Campbell's soup or quality tuna fish, you will pay a premium over the prices back home. If you are not an electricity hog, your daily electric bill will be low. Water is not a typical bill as it depends on your source. Internet is pricey and if poor quality. Rents can be found for very cheap. Best to look at Facebook pages for the villages around the lake for a true sense. You can find rustic to luxury. The real estate agents will get good properties but at a high cost (but still lower than 1st World)," said an expat living in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.

Expat Health Insurance in Central America

Expats living in Central America interested in expat health insurance should take a minute to get a quote from our trusted expat health insurance partner, CIGNA.

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About the Author

Betsy Burlingame Betsy Burlingame is the Founder of Expat Exchange. She launched Expat Exchange in 1997 as her Master's thesis project at NYU. Some of Betsy's more popular articles include 6 Best Places to Live in Costa Rica, 12 Things to Know Before Moving to The Dominican Republic and 7 Tips for Obtaining Residence in Italy. Betsy loves to travel and spend time with her family. Connect with Betsy on LinkedIn.

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Comments about this Article

Aug 8, 2018 16:39

I see these people saying medical care is a fraction of that in the US, but who pays retail in the US? you are shielded from the true cost by an HMO oerMedicare. here you pay the whole enchilada, which is often going to be more than your copays back home. For example, I paid $200 copays for a crown and root canal in the US. Here I paid $400.

First Published: Jun 10, 2018

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