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 tropical countries in Central and South America where the living expenses were much, much less.
My husband and I lived in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula from November 2010 – April 2011. After spending 6 months living in Mexico (among the locals and outside of the “hotel zone”), we learned a thing or two about the realities of living in a tropical place.
The Con’s Of Living In a Tropical Location
We’ve come to embrace change as we’ve moved a several times in the last few years, but this was our first time actually living in a different country. There were 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 abroad.
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.
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.
Many Mexicans get 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 isn’t anyone 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.
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. Spiders can get quite big, as well. I was reminded of that after seeing a wild tarantula that was larger than my hand!
Ants are another big problem in the tropics. One of the first things we noticed about Mexico is that people were always cleaning. It wasn’t long before I 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 minuscule 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.
Mosquitoes are especially problematic, and tropical species are notorious for carrying disease. Malaria and Dengue Fever were two illnesses that were possible to contract from mosquitoes where we lived, but neither of us got sick despite numerous bites.
It doesn’t matter where you live or how much you pay in rent; you’ll have to deal with ants, large bugs, and other creepy crawlies.
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, 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. Yep, they just pave around the tree! (again, no joke!). 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 felt more like I was hiking in the woods rather than walking down a busy street in a major city (Merida)!
People in Mexico 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.
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.
Increased Risk Of Illness
Everyone knows not to drink the water in Mexico, and it’s one of the first things that friends will warn you about when you announce a trip (or relocation) there.
For the entire six months we lived there, we bought purified water. It was delivered to our house twice each week in 5-gallon bottles. Most people buy their water because the water flowing through the tap is iffy at best – and can really make you sick. It’s weird to shower in non-potable water, but you get used to it, and you keep your mouth closed when washing your face. I brushed my teeth with bottled water – for six months!
All fruits and vegetables we bought had to be soaked in an iodine or colloidal silver solution to kill pathogenic microbes. It’s a hassle, and a bit unnerving. But we never once got sick the entire time we stayed in Mexico. (We didn’t pre-treat packaged organic veggies that we bought at the Costco or Walmart in Merida – especially the brands that were also sold in the USA.
There is a risk of food poisoning wherever you eat, be it a road-side food stop in Mexico or a sparkling fast food joint back home. Take a few precautions and use your judgement, but don’t be so overly paranoid that you miss out on authentic local experiences and food. I drank green juices sold at roadside stands. Who knows who bottled them and in what conditions, but I never got sick. I never got sick eating from a restaurant.
As I mentioned previously, there is always a risk of contracting Malaria or Dengue Fever from mosquitoes. Now Zika virus is a concern, too. Again, don’t let scary news headlines keep you home, though. The risks are small (for most people) compared to the rewarding experiences that await.
Laid Back Attitude
You would think this would be a benefit but it can be really frustrating sometimes. It often feels like things aren’t getting done until “mañana” (tomorrow) – maybe.
We’ve had to wait three days for our internet to be restored (not the end of the world, but a huge frustration when you make a living as a blogger!).
At our apartment in Merida, we had to have a plumber come out five times in three months to fix a water issue in our shower. 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 drawn directly 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 encountered were 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 loved living in the Yucatan (it’s one of my favorite places in the world) and wouldn’t trade my experiences there for anything.
Here are some of the things I loved about living in Mexico:
It’s hard to complain about anything when the sky is almost always sunny and blue! I once counted 72 consecutive days of sunny weather – a stretch that is unheard of in the Northeast USA.
Plus, it was nice to take a break from the cold and snow that I’m used to all winter long. I enthusiastically greeted 80-degree (Fahrenheit) days in January and February (though I did not like the triple digit temps that started in April).
Everyone that I met was friendlier than I am used to up north. They smiled and said “buenos dias” (good morning) and “buenos tardes” (good afternoon) when they passed me on the street. I can’t remember the last time a perfect stranger smiled and greeted me as we passed each other on a busy street in the US.
In the six months I lived there, outside of the “tourist/hotel zone”, I never once was discriminated against, or made to feel uncomfortable, or like I didn’t belong. Not once did I ever fear for my safety – even while walking around at night in the big city of Merida (never alone, of course).
People seemed genuinely happier and prioritized time with family and living life. They will find any excuse to celebrate or throw a party. They are gentle, hospitable, and welcoming to foreigners. They were eager to help me in a confusing (for me) situation.
I 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, was 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.
In the Yucatan, 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 drove down our street several times each day delivering water, bread, gas, and other goods. You can live in Cancun (outside the Hotel Zone), Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, Merida, and some places in between without a car just fine.
Of course, not all countries have excellent transportation and roads.
Cost Of Living
I talked about this in my previous post, but the cost of living is a huge advantage. Our two-bedroom apartment in an upscale neighborhood in Merida was $500 USD/month. Cab rides start at $1.20 USD. You can eat at a local restaurant or get takeout for less than $3.00. A visit with a dermatologist cost me $50 USD without insurance (that would cost almost $500 back home).
Many people relocate or retire to a less expensive country so that they can live better, or simply afford to live well, with less money.
Things I’ve Learned
Living in the Yucatan for six months taught me a lot about myself and what I want out of life. I learned to truly appreciate what I have. I became very aware of all the things that I took for granted up north and did not have access to there.
Living among different people in a different culture and who speak a different language than I did 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 arrived, and now it is strangely familiar and I’ve come to appreciate it, and miss it, since returning to the United States.
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 enjoyed living in Mexico and I’m looking forward to visiting other tropical places in the 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!