The Dangers Of Being An Expat In Latin America

January, 2012

“Things are going really well for me,” he said, sipping his coffee. “I’m making over $2000 a month!”

John was from Texas. He had moved down to a small, touristy town in Central Mexico about 10 years back, and was now working as a tour organizer/driver, transporting Americans and Canadians around to various historical and cultural sites in the region. He was about 50 years old.

Wow, I thought. You could live like a king in this town for $2000 a month.

Through John, I was able to meet a number of foreigners living in this Mexican city.

There was George, a 30-something English teacher at the local university, who banged his students and earned about $15 an hour.

And there was Lewis, a 19-year-old from San Diego with perfect Spanish, working under the table as a waiter for about $5 an hour (plus tips, as he’d always remind me).

I was fascinated. For the next couple weeks I racked my brain wondering how I too could live in Mexico and spend my days eating tacos and drinking tequila and my nights with young Mexican girls.

But in my heart I knew that I couldn’t stick around. I had a job, a girlfriend and my family in Canada and I needed to go back to them.

At the airport I made a promise to myself. I vowed to come back to the city and find a way to make a living. As a waiter, chef, technical writer…whatever. I spent most of the flight back home jotting down ideas in a notebook, trying to figure out ways to make it happen.

That was 6 years ago.

I’ve done some growing up since then. I’m more focused on creating a better future for myself than I am on 19 year old Latinas (although that hasn’t completely evaporated from my priority list either…).

But today something reminded me of that time in my life and I started thinking…

How would things have been different if I decided to settle in that small Mexican city?


Expat Life in Latin America Is Too Easy

This is something that expats refuse to acknowledge. If you ask them why they’re living down here you’ll get a myriad of answers: the weather, the women, the food, the people. Rarely will they say it’s because they don’t want to work as hard as they would have to back home in America, but this is often the case.

English teachers getting drunk 5 days a week.

Trust fund kids talking about their plans to do a start-up (which of course never gets off the ground).

Stoner freelance designers who do just enough UpWork gigs each month to break even.

Now, before you accuse me of being arrogant, I’ll admit that I’m guilty of this too. As a freelancer/contractor, I can basically work as much or as little as I want.

About two years ago, a lot of projects were rolling in. So, out of curiosity, I decided to see how much I could make in one month if I worked as much as I could.

I cleared $5000.00.

Guess what? I haven’t worked that hard since. And it’s simply because I’m lazy, and because I don’t have to – most of the places I live in or travel to you can get by easily on $1500.00 a month.

It’s tough to admit, but it’s the truth.

In my defence, my main motivation for spending time down here is not because it’s cheap, but rather because I’ve always been interested in Latin American countries and the culture (I couldn’t have kept this blog up if I wasn’t). I’m sure that if I’d always been interested in Norway, I’d find a way to live there as well.

That being said, as someone who isn’t naturally highly motivated, and as someone who hasn’t placed any priorities on making money until very recently, the low cost of living in these countries makes it particularly hard for me to find inspiration.


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How to Avoid the Trap

Remember John, George and Lewis? They were caught in the trap. I just couldn’t see it at the time – all I could see is what they saw: good living, easy ladies and perfect weather. All for the incredible low cost of $1000.00 a month!

                                                                     The trap

                                                                     The trap

But it’s important to ask yourself: what will this look like when you’re a 40 year-old man?

Just to clarify, there is nothing wrong with living full-time in Latin America as an older dude – hell, I plan to do this myself in the future (or at least 6 months on/6 months off) so I’m in no position to play Judge Judy. But there’s a right way to do it.

For instance, I would never try to raise a family in one of these countries unless I was earning at least $70,000 a year (net). I’d want my kid homeschooled or, at the very least, in a top private school. And I wouldn’t mess around with living anywhere but a nice neighbourhood.

If I am older and single, I’d settle for making $45,000 (net) minimum. More if I’m in Brazil, Chile or Uruguay.

So…how do you stay motivated to make more money in places where you can easily get by on less?

Here are some tips that have helped me.


1) Multiple Streams Of Income

There are many ways to make money in Latin America. But whatever you decide to do, it is important to diversify. If you’re making money online, have several clients, products or niche sites as opposed to just one. You never know when things going to dry up. For instance, at one point last year I had 5 different income streams. I’m now down to just 2.

It happens.

If you are working as a teacher or an employee in a company down here, you’ll probably notice that you have a load of free time. Use that time to build up a freelancing portfolio or an online business. If you’re a more hands-on type of person, search expat groups for in-demand products that aren’t available in your city. Start making those bars of soap, natural peanut butter, sugar free gummy bears or whatever the heck it might be and sell it to them!

Even if you have trouble thinking of ideas, don’t worry! The point is to keep your brain active and eyes open for opportunities. This will at least put you in a better position than the foreigners who spend the better part of their days drinking beer in hammocks.


2) Wake Up Early

I’m not very good at this, but it’s important. On the days that I manage to get up around 6am, I’m way more productive. Something about waking up with the sun gives you a burst of natural energy. Not only that, but it many Latin American cities this is the only time of day where there isn’t a cacophony of car horns, gas salesmen and knife sharpeners harassing your eardrums. It’s simply a much better time of day to get work done.

I’ve found that how I spend my mornings sets the tone for the rest of my day. If I get a lot of work done before noon, with a small break in the afternoon, I can tend to keep the momentum going. If I sleep in until 11am, I’m usually scatterbrained for hours afterward.

Although there are the same number of hours in a day regardless of whether you get up at 6am or 12pm (a common excuse for waking up later), I can almost guarantee that the earlier you get up, the more productive you will be during the day.


3) Gym

It’s important to stay active and have some sort of routine if you don’t want to turn into a slob while living in Latin America. The gym accomplishes both of these things. It gives you a reason to get out of the house if you work from home, and can serve as a pillar for which to structure your day (e.g. gym at 10am every morning). Without structure and health, you can easily burn all of your goddamn days down here not doing much of anything.

If you’re not a gym person, at least take the time to do some bodyweight exercises in the park or go for a run around the track.

Another, lesser known effect of keeping in good shape down here is the connections you can make. Latin America is very superficial. If you are more attractive and dress better than your expat peers, opportunities will flood your way in terms of women, getting invited to exclusive social events and, in some cases, making money.


4) Write and Study the Language Every day

It’s important to write every day, even if you don’t make money with your words. This can be a daily journal, business ideas, an article, sales letter, to-do list. Whatever. The point is to form a habit and clarify your thoughts. Whenever you think of an interesting idea, thought, observation or way to solve a problem, jot it down on paper. Review your notes at the end of the day while enjoying a drink. Many of my articles about cities, dating, women or the culture in Latin America have been a result of my notes.

Also, study the language every day. Down here, it will be Spanish or Portuguese (or one of the many Indigenous languages if you’re hardcore). I wish I had kept up with my studies in Spanish and Portuguese – I could only imagine how skilled I’d be now if I had. Instead, I simply reached a proficient level of Spanish, where I could understand about 65-75% of everything being said to me, and stopped. This is what most of the expats here do. I know a woman who has been living in Mexico City for over 20 years and her Spanish is still pretty weak. It’s important to be better than that.

I’ve realized recently that I am nowhere near the level I should be with Spanish. I still get lost in certain conversations, there are many words I don’t know and my accent is terrible. I also used to be familiar with Portuguese but now I can’t even spit out a sentence. Humbly, I’ve taken to studying again. If you want access to women and opportunity down here, a solid command of the local language is an absolute must.


5) Keep Most Other Expats at Arm’s Length

This will be difficult to do at first, especially if you only speak English. But it’s important not to rely too much on the expat community in these countries. Among the expats I’ve met, I’ve noticed about a 20/80 split: 20% are driven, motivated and good to bounce ideas and thoughts off of. 80% are idiots and/or just want someone to get drunk with. If you find a group of the 20%, it’s great. If not, it’s just a serious time suck.

Ideally, you want to flip the norm on its ear: 80% of the expats you hang out with should have their stuff together or at least be trying to get it together, and 20% of them can be degenerates (these people can be good for fun and connections). Just limit your interactions with them to one or two nights every few weeks.

It’s imperative that you have some local friends as well. You’re in their country after all, so don’t live in a bubble. Locals will be able to give you some insight into their culture, and you’ll be able to experience parts of the city that you wouldn’t otherwise have known about (expats down here usually stick to one or two neighborhoods in any given city).

The worst thing you can do down here is be a loner, or only hang out with girls you’re seeing. As an introvert and somewhat antisocial person, I have fallen into this trap. It’s important to have a few guy friends – locals or expats – to hang out with/hit the bar on occasion. If I don’t have this, I get stuck in my own head a lot and wonder just what the hell I’m doing in country X, what I’m doing with my life, etc. It’s important to have fellow men to talk to and bounce this kind of stuff off of.

I get depressed pretty quickly if I don’t.



It takes a bit of mental gymnastics to remain motivated in countries where a good standard of life can be had by working 20 hours a week earning dollars. You have to trick your brain into creating a sense of urgency or need that doesn’t really exist. Longterm goals can work, but in many cases they are too abstract to care about as a young man.

For me, what works is aiming to achieve short-term goals, but through longterm solutions. For instance, what’s motivating me right now is My Plan To Visit Asuncion. A one way flight from my home city is over $1000, and I expect my living expenses to be higher there than they were in Mexico or Peru. Because I don’t want to reduce my standard of living here in Lima, rather than skipping meals or nights out to save money, I’m thinking about how I can make more money to enjoy my next destination. It’s a small goal, but it helps me stay focused.

Likewise, I’d like to live in Brazil for awhile. But I’m not allowing myself to do it until I’m earning $1500 in passive income and at least $2000 in non-passive income. It’s mostly an arbitrary goal, but it helps keep the fire burning.

Also, John, George and Lewis are never far from my mind – they serve as reminders for what I don’t what to be.

Thanks for listening,



Have questions?  Skip the guesswork…

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