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Opinion

Where In Central America Is Best For Expat Millennials?

The conventional image of those moving overseas is not millennials. The image is of someone older. Someone who has retired from the rat race to relax in a tropical place during their twilight years.

They’ve put in the time and saved the money.

Their homes are now empty nests and they’re ready for a fresh start.

You’ll find no end of websites and real estate companies in Central America catering for wannabe retiree expats. That’s natural. The retiring baby-boomer is still the most likely gringo to emigrate to this part of the world. And they’re welcome.

But they’re not the only ones. The young are coming too.

Remote work has never been simpler, thanks to the internet. The digital nomad lifestyle is becoming more routine. More millennials think a simple, tropical, lifestyle as something for now, not the future.

The Great Recession changed attitudes. Many millennials realized they might never match their parents’ success in the rat race. So they considered quitting and starting new lives elsewhere. Does this resonate with you? If so, check out Central America. But where in Central America? This is a big region with seven countries. Which one works best for your average millennial?

Tough question. It’s subjective and depends on your budget and interests. So let’s consider each country and figure out what works best for the younger expat.

Belize

Chilling out in San Pedro, Belize / nateClicks / Flickr / Commercial use allowed

Most expats who move to Belize are affluent or… um… older. Or both. Apart from some younger folk who show up to dive, you’ll find the majority of the expat community is in the “socks and sandals” generation here. Nothing wrong with that at all.

The government doesn’t want people coming unless they can support themselves. If you’re young in Belize, most other young people you’ll meet will be traveling. It is hard to make long-term friends of your own age and you’ll be saying goodbye a lot.

Also, Belize isn’t conducive to working online. The speed and quality of the internet can be frustrating.

But that’s no reason millennials can’t come to Belize. If you love adventure and diving, a great life could be waiting.

Guatemala

San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala / Carlos Adampol Galindo / Flickr / Commercial use allowed

Most expats in Guatemala live in the colonial town of Antigua or in any of the communities around Lake Atitlan. Not saying many don’t live elsewhere, but when they do, it’s more likely they’ll be the only gringo around (not always a bad thing).

Both Antigua and Lake Atitlan are baby-boomer central. And often, these boomers are those who turned on, tuned in and dropped out in the 1960s and 70s. Guatemala is a country for hippies, which is good. A lot of these guys have done great work over the years. They have helped to turn the Guatemalan tourist scene into something special. They’ve given back and done a lot of work with different social programs.

People still retire to Guatemala. But many who are of retirement age have been in the country for decades since they were young themselves. And Guatemala still appeals to the young.

Guatemala is a solid staple on the backpacker trail. The relaxed hippy vibe plus its cheapness makes Guatemala one of the easier ones for young people to visit. Many “forget” to go home.

For the laid-back millennial, Guatemala is an excellent option.

Honduras & El Salvador

Digital nomading in El Salvador / Steven Zwerink / Flickr / Commercial use allowed

Due to the scarcity of expats compared to elsewhere in Central America, we’re covering Honduras and El Salvador together here.

Outside of the Bay Islands of Honduras, you won’t find many significant expat communities in either country. The Bay Islands are like Belize. Beautiful, touristed, but pricey. Unless you love scuba diving, there’s not much going on for young people. Although Utila has a great party scene. Everywhere else in these two countries is like the wild west.

Does that make it bad? No. For the intrepid, Honduras and El Salvador are ideal for a young buck with huevos to come down and make a life. The coast of El Salvador is fantastic if you’re a surfer. And often the surfers are the pioneers in Central America. But you need a devil-may-care philosophy. You need the right stuff inside you.

Knowing you’re pioneering in this part of the world is a powerful thing. In 20 years when you’re an old-timer in what might be the new Costa Rica, you could be the one who made it happen.

Nicaragua

Street festival in Leon, Nicaragua / Adam Jones / Flickr / Commercial use allowed

Nicaragua is already experiencing an influx of millennials. That it’s the cheapest country in Central America makes it a top spot for retirees and youngsters alike. Not to mention Nicaragua is also one of the safest countries down here. Everyone is coming.

You can stroll through the towns of Nicaragua and see young people setting up cool stuff. Cool boutique hotels, restaurants, yoga and wellness retreats, surf camps, and bars. San Juan del Sur is like the United Nations nowadays, and there’s a lot more age variation than you’ll find elsewhere. The boomers are here too, but so’s everybody else.

The drawback is the internet. Digital nomads will get frustrated in Nicaragua. Although that doesn’t make it impossible to work. Coffee shops all over Nicaragua are full of people working on “projects” on their laptops. But it ain’t Brooklyn that’s for certain.

Nicaragua is a young country on the brink of a tourist boom. It’s a great place to be young.

Costa Rica

Hiking in Costa Rica / James Dyde

When I arrived in Costa Rica, I was a twenty-something. And a lot of other twenty-something people were coming too. I remember being part of a community of lots of young expats. Oh, the parties we had. The fun! Maybe because I’m older now, but I can say with certainty the young are no longer coming to Costa Rica on the same scale as around the turn of the millennium. I often see posts on the Costa Rica expat Facebook groups by millennial expats wondering where other foreign millennials are. Back in the early 2000s, this was not an issue. We were everywhere.

But Costa Rica is now expensive. Too expensive, for many, and more expensive than the rest of Central America. Also, other countries have risen in popularity. Nicaragua and Colombia come to mind in Latin America. Retirees still come to CR, but only the wealthier ones end up staying.

Costa Rica still offers more than any other country in the region for young people. It’s safe and easy. The internet is great (well… compared to the other countries) which makes being a digital nomad easy.

For the first-timer to Latin America, Costa Rica is still the best choice. At least until you learn Spanish and get confident.

Panama

Selfies in Panama City / Adam Baker

One could say Panama almost caters for the young expat. In fact, Panama is the one country in the region with a Facebook group just for them.

Panama City with its cosmopolitan atmosphere and glittering high-rises is a city where things are happening. A city where you make things happen. This shouldn’t be a city where one retires. Rather, a city where you step things up a gear. Panama City is hip, and it’s the best city for young people in the region. By far.

Outside of Panama City, you might as well be in another country. Although if you dig wonderful beaches and beautiful nature, who cares how old you are?

Panama, being internet-friendly and cheap (ish), is a great bet for millennials. One tip – stay out of Boquete in the mountains of the far west. Boquete is beautiful, for sure. But the expats are old enough for local wits to nickname the town “God’s Waiting Room”. Although Boquete is also great for adventure activities like hiking, river rafting, and climbing. Other than Boquete, Panama is yours for the taking.

So which country is best for millennials?

Out of the seven countries in Central America, I rank them like this for young expats wanting to live down here:

  1. Nicaragua (cheap and attracts young people from all over)
  2. Panama (dynamic Panama City)
  3. Costa Rica (easiest overall)
  4. Guatemala (for the vibe)
  5. El Salvador (for the surf and the pioneering spirit)
  6. Honduras (for the diving and, yes, the pioneering spirit)
  7. Belize (for the Caribbean vibe for less than Barbados)

So, for me, Nicaragua is the best country for a millennial who’s feeling Central America and wants to do something.

But Panama and Costa Rica are close behind them.

It’s worth pointing out this is an opinion piece, based on my 17 years in Central America. I’ve been to every country in Central America but not every part of every country. So I could be way off. And you know what they say about opinions…

If I’m wrong, tell me where. Please.

Tear this article apart disagreeing with me. If you’re a hotshot twenty-something doing well in Belize. I’d love to hear from you. If you’re regretting your move to Nicaragua, let’s talk. Tell me how you’re a millennial loving your life in Boquete.

Tell me about your life in Central America as a millennial expat.

James Dyde is the editor of CentralAmerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.

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