Expat Living in Central America: A Primer
I love Central America!
Many people choose a Central American country for their final ex-pat destination. But there are several basics you really need to know before you take the plunge and move to Central America to join the hundreds of thousands of other American ex-pats already living here.
Central America is the region between Mexico and Panama and includes Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. All six countries have large ex-pat populations. Each has it’s advantages and disadvantages. In general, the further South you go, the more services exist, but also the higher the cost of living.
All of the Central American countries speak Spanish as their primary language, but you will find English speakers very easily. Many people (myself included) settle down in a Central American country without knowing any Spanish at first. If language is a concern though and you would prefer to not learn Spanish, then I would recommend any of the following three destinations:
Roatan, Honduras – This is a Caribbean island with a majority population consisting of American and Canadian ex-pats. English has become the main language.
San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua – This is a nice beach town on the Pacific Ocean side which is populated by a lot of Canadian and British ex-pats. While ex-pats are in the minority here, they are about 30% of the population and run many of the businesses. You can get along very well without learning Spanish.
Escazu or Santa Ana, Costa Rica – In general, there are many English speakers throughout Costa Rica, but Escazu is a large community of American ex-pats with malls, Subway sandwich shops, Outback steakhouse and even has an American classic rock radio station. You can easily forget you are in Costa Rica except that the weather is always nice.
Americans are welcome to visit any of the Central American countries for up to 90 days at a time. Then they must leave for at least 3 days before returning. This can go on for many years and many Americans have lived here for decades without any other form of legal residency.
From Costa Rica, you would generally leave to Panama or Nicaragua for your three days out of the country every 90 days. A popular destination in Panama is Bocas del Toro which is a beautiful set of islands in the Caribbean. You can fly there for about $150 on a small commuter plane from the central valley of Costa Rica.
Or you can take a nice luxury bus up to San Juan del Sur which is just across the border in Nicaragua. From Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, the “leaving” for three days task is a little more difficult. You can’t visit any of the other three countries on that list and have it counted as “leaving” for three days. That is because those four countries are part of the C4 and have open borders with each other. If you live in a C4 country, you must leave the entire C4 every 90 days for three days.
From Nicaragua, this is easy. You just visit Costa Rica for three days. From Roatan, Honduras it is easy to take a charter boat to a Caribbean island nation for three days. Or you can visit Belize or Mexico from the C4 to satisfy your three days out.
Until recently, the C4 didn’t really enforce the three days out part of the policy although they did enforce needing to renew your visa every 90 days. So many ex-pats living in the C4 would just go to the border to get their passport stamped and then immediately return without spending three days outside the country.
That doesn’t always work now. The law is now being enforced sporadically so you may be refused re-entry into the country where you live if you try to go to the border for a “turn around” as it used to be called. So you need to be prepared to spend three days outside the country.
It is also easy to get rid of this requirement for most people. You can get legal residency fairly easily if:
1. You want to invest in a business in the country you choose.
2. You are retired with a reliable pension.
3. You are young and have a baby in the country.
4. You marry someone from the country.
5. You have no criminal record.
Even if it looks like you wouldn’t qualify for residency… go ahead and see an attorney (called an Abogado) once you visit the country where you want to live. They are very helpful and usually only charge $10-$20 per hour for their time. Expensive confusing attorneys are yet another annoyance from the U.S. that you will be leaving behind. Abogados in Central America and inexpensive, friendly and helpful.
See a tax attorney in the U.S. before you leave though. Taxes are NOT something you will leave behind although for most people the amount of tax you will pay will be significantly reduced. Find a U.S. tax attorney to help you.
In most of these countries, you will find excellent, inexpensive hospitals that have a much higher success rate in all areas when compared to the United States.
In Costa Rica, there is CIMA which is excellent. In Nicaragua, ask for “Vivian Palace” (it’s really called “Vivien Pellas”, but everyone is used to calling it Vivian Palace). It is an excellent ex-pat hospital. The doctors usually speak English and were trained in the U.S. Outcomes for any major disease or for child birth are better than the U.S. There is no need to worry about medical care in Central America. It is BETTER than in the U.S. and very inexpensive.
Dental care is the same. Many Americans have been going to Costa Rica for cosmetic dentistry for years now. The cosmetic dentists do a better job than their American counterparts for 1/4th the cost. If you have never been able to afford cosmetic dentistry in the past, you can now.
If you love the beach life, all of these countries have spectacular beaches for relaxing, surfing, fishing and anything else you can imagine.
If you hate the heat, you can live in the mountains in a beautiful setting in almost all of these countries and enjoy almost perfect 70 degree weather year around. In Costa Rica, a vast majority of the local population lives in the central valley with this kind of perfect cool weather. That is where Escazu/Santa Ana is located with it’s “little America” where you can forget you are even in a foreign country with all of the American amenities and English spoken everywhere.
Security is another concern most people have in Central America. They are worried about the safety. If this is you, then Costa Rica is your answer. The people of Costa Rica are extremely peaceful and deplore violence.
They don’t even have a military!
In the other countries in Central America, you will have about the same level of violence you have within the U.S.
But you can afford security in Central America. The average wage in Costa Rica is $600/month and the average in the other countries is less than $300/month. A private guard is a lower paying occupation. So you can now afford your own personal security.
Or you can live in one of the many gated communities and share a guard’s cost with others in your neighborhood.
Although violence isn’t much of a problem in Central America (and especially in Costa Rica), theft IS a problem. Keep your valuables out of sight. Don’t wear expensive jewelry or watches when visiting major city areas. Use common sense.
In Costa Rica, your house will likely have bars on the windows. In any area in Central America where burglary is a problem, you will see the same thing.
You may also have problems with unscrupulous vendors. Watch your change. Taxis are notorious about trying to rip off foreigners. Make sure they start their meter. If they don’t, get out of the taxi.
The other Central American countries do not have meters in their taxis. Before you get in the taxi, negotiate the cost of your trip. They love to negotiate in Central America. Get used to it. It can be fun and you can get some real bargains.
Renting a car anywhere in Central America can be very expensive and driving habits and road conditions make most Americans nervous when they first move here. So use taxis and van drivers. They are very inexpensive.
Once you do get your own car, you will be stopped regularly by the local police. They accept bribes here and that is why they are stopping you. Keep the equivalent of $5 or $10 folded up with your license if you want to tip them. If not, you’ll be fine. They will just talk to you in a friendly way for a few minutes delaying your trip. They generally won’t write you a ticket just because you didn’t tip them.
Your U.S. driver’s license is good as long as you leave the country every 90 days. You just use your state issued driver’s license and your passport with a recent stamp. Getting a driver’s license in Costa Rica is easy, but will take you all day because of inefficiencies at their MOPT (the equivalent of the DMV). It will cost you about $20 when all of the fees are added up. Your first license is good for two years. Your renewed license will be good for five years. You will need a blood test so your blood type can be printed on the driver’s license. You also need to be examined by a doctor, but this is a joke. They generally just ask you a couple of general questions about your health.
They all drive on the proper side of the road (the same side as in the U.S.). Road signs are in Spanish, but use the same shapes as in the U.S. You don’t need to know that Alto means to Stop because it’s a red octagon sign just like in the U.S.
If you like Mexican food, you may be excited about being able to eat Mexican food in Central America. Your hopes will be dashed very quickly. Central American food is very bland compared to Mexican American food. Typical food includes rice, beans, a slab of chicken or fish or pork, some fried plantains (kind of like bananas) and that’s a wrap. Spicy food is a little more common in Nicaragua and El Salvador, but still isn’t nearly as tasty as Mexican food. On the Caribbean side, you can get tasty Caribbean style food.
The cost of living is very low which is why many retire here. You WILL be able to find very nice housing on your retirement income even if your retirement income is very small. The further North, the less expensive. The further south, the more like the United States. In Escazu, you can end up paying almost as much as you would pay in Florida for an equivalent house. In the Honduras, you can get a very nice three bedroom, two bath spacious rental for $300 per month or less. Just look around and you’ll find something very nice and very affordable.
The same goes for all other living expenses. Remember that you will no longer need heating or cooling in most places you would want to live in Central America. The temperature is already perfect. Cars do cost about twice as much in Costa Rica, but there is no need for a car if you don’t want one. The taxi and bus systems are excellent. Cars cost about the same as the U.S. in the other countries in Central America. You can get an older car though because auto mechanics are very inexpensive and have an excellent skill set. So buying an older car than you normally would consider is an option.
If you are willing to change your eating habits to match the locals, then food can be very inexpensive. Even eating out is very inexpensive if you eat at a typical Central American restaurant. A meal with drink and dessert will cost you from $3-$7 on average anywhere in Central America at a typical restaurant. Of course you can go to Outback Steakhouse in Escazu or TGI Fridays and expect to pay about the same as in the U.S.
There are many mail services that will give you a Florida mailing address and then boat your mail down to your country of choice. My favorite is Aerocasillas which operates in every country in Central America except Nicaragua. If you choose to live in Nicaragua, then I recommend picking up your mail in Costa Rica when you leave every 90 days to renew your visa.
The best way to find out if Central America is right for you is to try it out. Take a two or three month vacation and check it out. Less than half of those who think Central America is perfect for them make it through their first year. But those who leave in the first year usually know they will be leaving after about the first six weeks. So a two or three month vacation is perfect to find out if Central America is right for you.
The most common reason for leaving is the slow pace of life. Being late to a Central American is very normal. Taking an extremely long time to do the most basic of tasks is very normal. Expect to wait an hour or more in restaurants to be served. Expect getting your driver’s license to take hours at the MOPT. Expect your house cleaner to take five or six hours to clean your house in the same way you would expect a U.S. house cleaner to perform in less than an hour. Expect it to take months and months and months to get your residency permit if you want to get permanent residency. Expect a real estate purchase to take ten times as many meetings and ten times more time than you could possibly imagine using even the slowest and most incompetent real estate agent in the United States.
That’s just the way it is. Many people grow to love the slow pace of life. I have. Many people can’t stand it. You’ll know which one you are in the first six weeks or so of living here.
The only way to find out is to give it a try. Living in a sub-tropical paradise where everything is inexpensive, nature is beyond beautiful and the pace of life is very slow isn’t for everyone. But maybe it is for you!
Uncle Frank has lived in both Costa Rica and Nicaragua and loves Central America in general. He believes it is one of the best places in the world to escape the United States. You can read more on his blog called “Subversive Uncle Frank Answers Questions” here:
Leave a comment and he’ll answer you personally.