Many people have a dream of leaving their day job and moving to a warm sunny place. I was one of these people. I was intrigued by stories of people who lived like kings in cheaper, tropical countries in Central and South America.
My wife and I are currently living in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. We’ve been here since November 1st 2010, so we know a thing or two about the reality of living in a tropical place.
We’ve come to embrace change as we’ve moved a couple of times, but this is our first time actually living in a different country. There are some pros and cons about living in the tropics that we didn’t anticipate and that aren’t commonly talked about by those selling the dream of living large on $500 month.
This is one of the biggest misconceptions about living in some of the cheaper countries in the world. I’ve heard some people say that you can live for $500 per month in places like Belize, Costa Rica, Thailand, and even some parts of Mexico. In fact, many people in these countries do live on this salary. But they don’t live like kings.
You can live on $500 a month…but would you want to?
Despite what e-books and a few “travel bloggers” (who have never actually lived in these countries) tell you, it will cost more than you think to live abroad, but it’s still cheaper than the USA.
You really would not want to live a $500 per month lifestyle in a 3rd or 2nd world country, but for $1200-$1500, you can live a really comfortable, yet frugal life. There’s not many places in the USA or Europe where you can do that. You still won’t get 100% of the same comforts you’d expect in USA and Canada, though.
The Con’s Of Living In a Tropical Location
Housing: Housing in foreign countries is much different than in North America. Building codes are often not enforced (or nonexistent) and the way things are built might not be what you are used to. Simple things like screens on windows or hot water in your kitchen sink (or shower) might be absent. You’ll definitely have to make a few compromises unless you want to spend a fortune on creating a North American standard house for yourself.
Water pressure can vary from place to place and even with the seasons. Your shower might be full blast one day and a trickle the next. If you rent an apartment and there is a problem with the plumbing, it might take a day or two for the maintenance guy to show up. When he does, he’ll likely jury rig a solution that will only fix the problem temporarily. We had a plumber visit us five times over three months to fix a water issue in our bathroom. There’s no use getting angry or frustrated with this. The vibe is more laid back here. Getting angry and demanding an instant solution to your problems won’t win you any points here, and it won’t fix the problem any faster.
Noise: Mexico (and much of Latin America) does not have the same feelings about noise pollution that we do in the United States. We’ve lived next to people who have roosters that start crowing at 3:00 AM and don’t stop until after midnight. (When do these birds sleep!?)
Music is sometimes cranked full blast and people throw all night parties. Christmas, New Years, a birthday party on a Tuesday – they all usually start at 10:00 PM and can go on until sunrise. The average Mexican gets an early start to the day and it’s not their problem if you were at an all-night party and want to sleep off your hangover. There’s nobody enforcing a noise ordinance (their probably isn’t one) and it would be culturally unacceptable to tell them to tone it down. Earplugs would be a great item to pack if you travel here.
Insects: Bugs grow large where it’s warm all year round. If you live in a tropical country, you’ll have to get used to very large cockroaches who routinely invite themselves into your home as guests. We’ve been fortunate here in Mexico, but spiders can be quite large in other countries and have no qualms about making themselves at home in your shower.
Ants are another big problem in the tropics. One of the first things we noticed about Mexico is that people here are always cleaning. It wasn’t long after living here that we realized why. They have more species of ants than I knew existed. These ants live in the walls and march in long lines across your counters, walls, floors and right up the side of your trash can. They come out any opening be it a power outlet, crack in the wall or nail hole. They will find a miniscule drop of fruit juice that you spill within minutes, and they bring their entire colony to join the party! If your food isn’t sealed in Ziploc or Tupperware, they’ll claim it for themselves.
It doesn’t mater where you live or how much you pay in rent; you’ll have to deal with ants, large bugs and other creepy crawlies.
Infrastructure: Sidewalks, roads and streetlights aren’t in the same state of repair as they are up north. You’re expected to watch where you go here, otherwise you might step into a random 4-foot hole in the middle of the sidewalk (no joke!). A huge tree growing 3 feet into the road isn’t that uncommon either. Streetlamps are much dimmer here than they are up north.
It’s not uncommon to see huge trees that are hundreds of years old growing up out of the sidewalks. These trees tear up the sidewalk with their roots making mountainous terrain out of an otherwise flat surface. It often feels more like I am hiking in the woods rather than walking down a busy street in a major city!
People here aren’t as preoccupied with safety as we are in the USA. Your rental apartment probably won’t have smoke detectors installed and you’ll have to watch where you step as you walk down the street.
Internet: Not every country has reliable internet. It will go down on occasion, often for no reason. In Puerto Morelos, a big truck went by and cut the phone line connected to our cabana. It took three days for the phone company to come out and fix it. Our experience with Internet was pretty positive. We had a fast, reliable connection in Merida.
Laid Back Attitude: You would think this would be a benefit but it can be really frustrating sometimes. In Latin America, the so-called “manana syndrome” is in full effect, much to the exasperation of expats from up north. We’ve had to wait three days for our internet to be restored and we’ve had a plumber come out five times in three months to fix a water issue in our apartment. Each time we ran out of water, we’d have to wait a day or two (the last time it took them 5 days) for the plumber to show up. That meant taking showers with buckets of hot water from our water heater since no hot water would flow from our shower head.
The Pro’s Of Living In a Tropical Location
Living in the tropics isn’t all bad and what frustrations or adjustments we’ve encountered are quickly lessened by the abundant sunshine, turquoise waters, swaying palm trees, colorful birds and easy-going vibe. It’s amazing what you will gladly put up with while living along a postcard-perfect Caribbean beach! I’ve loved living here and wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything. Here are some of the things I love about living in Mexico.
The People: Everyone that I have met is friendlier here than I am used to up north. They smile and say “buenos dias” (good morning) and “buenos tardes” (good afternoon) when they pass you on the street. People here seem genuinely happier and prioritize time with family and living life. They will find any excuse to celebrate and throw a party. They are gentle, hospitable and welcoming to foreigners. They are eager to help me in a confusing (for me) situation.
Fresh Fruit: I’ve enjoyed some of the freshest and most flavorful tropical fruit that I’ve ever tasted in Mexico. The experience of buying fruit from local sellers and growers, many of whom sell from small fruit stands on the side of the road, is much more enriching than buying produce in a sterile supermarket. I don’t think I’ll be able to enjoy the real flavor of a mango in the USA again.
Transportation: Here in Mexico, a lot of locals don’t own cars so transportation is cheap and available everywhere. Most of the things you’ll need are within walking distance and buses and taxis are cheap for the things that are not. People drive down your street several times each day delivering water, bread, gas and other goods. You can live in Cancun, Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, Merida and some places in between without a car just fine.
Things I’ve Learned
This experience has taught me a lot about myself and what I want out of life. I’ve learned to truly appreciate what I have. I’m well aware of all the things I took for granted up north and do not have access to here. Living among different people in a different culture and who speak a different language than I do has helped me look beyond our differences and embrace what we do have in common – our humanity. Mexican culture seemed so foreign and strange to me when I first got here, and now it is strangely familiar and I’ve come to appreciate it.
I’ve also learned about what I want out of my next trip. The more you travel, the more you can focus your experiences to help you grow as a person. Traveling and living abroad is a powerful tool for personal development and discovery!
I’ve enjoyed living in Mexico and I’m looking forward to spending some time living in other tropical places in the near future. If you are planning your own trip, focus on what you want out of the trip (to grow) and be ready to make some adjustments and embrace change. You won’t be the same person when you return home!