Last November, we celebrated 12 years of living the expat life. Since we left the U.S. in 2001, we've lived in seven different locations (in Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Ecuador) and spent considerable amounts of time in many, many more -- especially Belize and Costa Rica.
Believe us, we've learned a lot in the past decade!
Importantly, we've learned that it's impossible to compare and contrast the merits or disadvantages of entire countries.
Years ago, we'd talk confidently about the benefits of Mexico versus Ecuador... or Panama versus Costa Rica. But we're finding that we don't do that too much these days.
It's not because there aren't differences between entire countries... there are obvious and, sometimes, major ones. The visa choices and requirements of Belize may be a better match for you than those of Nicaragua. Panama's tax laws may meet your needs better than those of Uruguay.
But when it comes to quality of life -- which is, after all, the thing that most people are looking for when they think about retiring or living abroad -- we find that comparing countries is far too difficult.
For instance, in the last couple of years, we've thought a lot about the locales we'd most consider as a place to really call home... at least for a while. We've talked about what countries we like, but we have been much more dialed in on specific locations within those countries.
When we decided on Cotacachi, Ecuador, as a home base, it was only partly because it was in Ecuador, one of our favorite countries. It was more because of what Cotacachi itself offered... peace and quiet, a very interesting and colorful culture, safety and security, an extremely low cost of living and -- for us -- the perfect climate... not too hot and not too cold. All of these things mattered far more than what Ecuador itself offered as a country.
When you approach the idea of living overseas, you naturally start from a country level, but if you do your research well, you inevitably sharpen your focus on specific locations.
Laidback Lake-Living or Coasting on the Caribbean?
Take Costa Rica... with a bit of research it's easy to see why it's a wonderful place to live and retire. It's an extraordinarily beautiful and diverse country -- truly a place with something for everyone, whatever your lifestyle needs or desires. And health care there is among the best (and most affordable) in the world.
But once you're determined that Costa Rica is the place for you, then you need to drill down and figure out where to live... In a country as diverse as Costa Rica, this can be tough. Perhaps you'd prefer the gorgeous laidback lake country of Arenal... or the urban convenience of the Central Valley... or the tropical splendor of the newly opened southern coast near Ojochal... or even the adventure of the Caribbean coast.
Same with Ecuador or Mexico... are you after the size and excitement of a city like Quito or lively Puerto Vallarta? Or are you after small-town village life in a place like Cotacachi or Ajijic? Maybe you're a surfer... In that case, you might set your sights on Ecuador's Pacific coast near Salinas or Mexico's Pacific Coast state of Oaxaca. Scuba divers might want to check out Tulum on Mexico's Riviera Maya... or even go farther south to Belize.
Like many of our friends and fellow writers for International Living, we have been lucky enough to live in or near many of these locations long enough to have made the jump from being tourists to being locals. That's why you'll often find us writing about specific locations within countries rather than the countries themselves.
Your quality of life can vary enormously from the west side of Mexico to the east, from the north of Nicaragua or Belize to the south, even from one neighborhood of Quito, San Miguel de Allende, or Panama City to the other.
Assessing exactly what you're looking for as a potential expat, then getting past the "Europe vs. Latin America" stage to the "Ecuador vs. Panama" stage and well beyond--to pinpointing a specific location that matches your requirements, will not only save you time and effort, it will focus your thinking on what's most important to you.
A final tip: Taking advantage of the experience offered by those who actually live in the specific locations you're considering is a great way to get the kind of boots-on-the-ground intelligence you need to make your decision about the place that's right for you... Ask probing questions, listen to their advice, and look before you leap.