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Opinion

Which Central American Country Is Best For Digital Nomads?

You might be reading this at work. You’re sitting in some cubicle in some office in some northern city in some northern country. There are the month-end figures to do but you’re finding yourself unmotivated – hence the reason you’re sitting here reading this and… and… ugh.

Or you’re reading this on your phone. You’re on a bus or the subway commuting home from your cubicle in some northern city in some northern country and all you have in your immediate future is finishing those figures on your own time because you spent all day goofing off on sites like this. Ugh again.

Some northern city subway / Digital nomads
Some northern city subway / Franco Folini (Flickr) / Commercial use allowed

We’ve all been there. Well, I have at least. (Actually, that’s a lie. I’ve never been there. I have no concept of what the grind is like. Just trying to make you feel better is all.)

You keep hearing about this “digital nomad” thing. As you look around, you see more of these people, more often than not in Starbucks.

In Starbucks, you can’t escape digital nomads – and as you eavesdrop on those conversations your fellow latte lovers are having into their iPhone headphones or as you sneak the side-eye at their laptop screens, you realize they’re not all playing Words With Friends or reading the Costa Rica Post.

Starbucks: Home of digital nomads everywhere
Starbucks: Home of digital nomads everywhere / James Dyde

And they’re not all starving artists trying to write the next Great American Novel either. No. Some of these people are, like, working.

Like in real, busywork.

The thing you do in your northern cubicle when you’re not so unmotivated.

So how come you have to clock in and out of an office and they don’t? What’s the difference here? Well – the difference is they are digital nomads and you’re not. Yet.

After asking why anyone would wish to be a digital nomad in your northern city, in your local Starbucks, you realize that’s not the point.

These customers in a Costa Rican Starbucks may or may not be digital nomads
These customers in a Costa Rican Starbucks may or may not be digital nomads / James Dyde

The point is they are in your local Starbucks because they want to be. Because they can be. But they could also be anywhere else if they wished, and that’s the most important thing. Your job keeps you chained to your city, and theirs doesn’t.

Fast-forward to now…

There are many things you can do to unchain yourself from your city and become a digital nomad. This article is not about that.

This article assumes you’ve figured it out. We’re fast-forwarding from your epiphany in Starbucks and assuming you’re now a bona fide digital nomad. It doesn’t matter how you did it – you did it and congratulations. You’re free!

So now what? Where do you go?

The fact you’re on this site suggests Central America might be on your mind.

And why not? One of the best things about being a digital nomad is being able to work in a place that suits your budget. If you’re paid in a strong currency (US dollar, euro, sterling, etc.), Central America is perfect for you as it’s (mostly) cheap. Your digital nomad lifestyle will give you more bang for the buck in Central America than it will in, say, London or Tokyo.

And the weather’s better too.

What is the best Central American country to be a digital nomad in?

You can, of course, check them all out and decide for yourself. You’re a digital nomad and you’re no longer chained down.

But a handy guide is always, um… handy… and we hope this one will be useful, at least for your first port of call in this part of the world.

Digital nomads in El Salvador
Digital nomads in El Salvador / Steven Zwerink (Flickr) / Commercial use allowed

Below you’ll find the seven countries of Central America ranked in order, from best to worst, for digital nomads.

We’re not talking about physical beauty or nightlife or culture or the quality of the beaches. What we’re talking about is how easy it is for you to plug in your laptop and earn money. We rank each country with a mark out of ten for the following factors:

  • Internet speed and stability
  • Quality and quantity of decent workspaces
  • Other digital nomads
  • Cost of living
  • Visa requirements
  • Safety

The most important of these factors is the internet. A word of warning – Central America is not South Korea and the internet will be slower than you’re used to. Much slower.

Reliability is more important than speed here – how often does it go down? Or how often does the electricity go down? These are burning issues in Central America when you’re trying to work.

Other factors…

The second most important factor is where can you work? Is there a decent setup of workspaces if you don’t want to work from home or poolside?

Next is the question of your peers. Does your country attract digital nomads or are you the only one you know? This, of course, is subjective. You might not want to be around other digital nomads at all and that’s fine. Some of us (I mean them) are insufferable.

For our purposes though, we’re assuming the more digital nomads work in a country, the better it must be for digital nomads. I mean they’re there for a reason right?

The final three factors are more general – cost of living, visa requirements, and safety. They’re important in that they might affect your decision to be in a country in the first place.

And you need to know what the chances are of having your brand new MacBook Pro with touch bar stolen while you’re on your way to your favorite workspace.

Doing digital nomad things in El Salvador
Doing digital nomad things in El Salvador / Steven Zwerink (Flickr) / Commercial use allowed

So without further ado, here are the countries ranked from best to worst for digital nomads:

Costa Rica: 42/60 Total Score

Costa Rica
Costa Rica / James Dyde
  • Internet speed and stability: 8.14 Mbps download/3.10 upload. 7/10.
  • Quantity and quality of decent workspaces: 9/10.
  • Other digital nomads: 9/10.
  • Cost of living: 2/10.
  • Visa requirements: 8/10.
  • Safety: 7/10.

Nicaragua: 39/60 Total Score

Nicaragua / James Dyde
Nicaragua / James Dyde
  • Internet speed and stability: 6.07 Mbps download/3.23 upload. 5/10.
  • Quantity and quality of decent workspaces: 5/10.
  • Other digital nomads: 6/10.
  • Cost of living: 9/10.
  • Visa requirements: 8/10.
  • Safety: 6/10.

Panama: 38/60 Total Score

Panama
Panama / Adam Baker
  • Internet speed and stability: 29.42 Mbps download/5.51 upload. 9/10.
  • Quantity and quality of decent workspaces: 8/10.
  • Other digital nomads: 8/10.
  • Cost of living: 4/10.
  • Visa requirements: 2/10.
  • Safety: 7/10.

Guatemala: 36/60 Total Score

Guatemala
Guatemala / Liliana Rodriguez
  • Internet speed and stability: 6.60 Mbps download/2.63 upload. 5/10.
  • Quantity and quality of decent workspaces: 5/10.
  • Other digital nomads: 7/10.
  • Cost of living: 7/10.
  • Visa requirements: 7/10.
  • Safety: 5/10.

Belize: 33/60 Total Score

Belize
Belize / Fritzcat (Flickr) / Commercial use allowed
  • Internet speed and stability: 8.16 Mbps download/ 6.71 upload. 8/10.
  • Quantity and quality of decent workspaces: 3/10.
  • Other digital nomads: 6/10.
  • Cost of living: 3/10.
  • Visa requirements: 9/10.
  • Safety: 4/10.

Honduras: 31/60 Total Score

Honduras
Honduras / Alexander P. F. Stijlaart (Flickr) / Commercial use allowed
  • Internet speed and stability:  6.14 Mbps download/3.85 upload. 6/10.
  • Quantity and quality of decent workspaces: 3/10.
  • Other digital nomads: 4/10.
  • Cost of living: 8/10.
  • Visa requirements: 7/10.
  • Safety: 3/10.

El Salvador: 27/60 Total Score

El Salvador
El Salvador / Hans Birger Nilsen (Flickr) / Commercial use allowed
  • Internet speed and stability: 6.27 Mbps download/2.31 upload. 4/10.
  • Quantity and quality of decent workspaces: 4/10.
  • Other digital nomads: 3/10.
  • Cost of living: 6/10.
  • Visa requirements: 7/10.
  • Safety: 3/10.

Note: The internet speeds quoted above are for December 2017 and come from the Speedtest Global Index.

Let’s run through which country is best at what. The above list ranks each country based on the sum of all the different factors. But some factors might mean more to you than others, so you’ll find the best for each below:

Best for internet speed and stability: Panama

Panama is hands down the best country in Central America for the internet. An emerging global city like Panama City needs 24/7 connection and so that helps digital nomads like you. It’s still slower than you’re used to, but it’s stable and it works. That’s a good start in this part of the world.

Best for quantity and quality of decent workspaces: Costa Rica

Panama City has the best internet and also plenty of quality workspaces but the problem is – again – we’re only talking Panama City. But Costa Rica is way more spread out. The internet might be a less stable, but you’ll find workspaces pretty much anywhere in the country.

Best for other digital nomads: Costa Rica

This is a simple numbers game. Costa Rica has more expats and tourists than the other countries. More people like you. Again, this could be good or bad depending on your viewpoint.

Best for cost of living: Nicaragua

Nicaragua is the cheapest country in Central America so if you’re on a budget or starting out as a digital nomad and have little going on in your niche – well, you should stay home for a while until you do. If you need to get away though, you can live pretty well for less than a thousand bucks a month in Nicaragua.

Best for visa requirements: Belize

This was a toss-up between Costa Rica and Belize. In reality, Belize got the nod because it Costa Rica won more categories and we felt bad.

In all seriousness, while one can bounce in and out of Costa Rica every three months for years (and plenty do), in Belize you get 30 days to start and then from there you can renew every 30 days for a $25 fee each month for six months, and $50 each month after that.

Or you can go to Mexico or Guatemala. Either way, it ain’t difficult. But then neither is Costa Rica. Or Nicaragua.

Related:

Best for safety: Costa Rica

Costa Rica is the best part of a sketchy neighborhood and the chances of anything bad happening are slim (or slimmer, we should say). As a digital nomad, you will have your laptop with you a lot. You need to be extra careful, there are no two ways about it, but as long as you are you should be okay.

And so that’s a wrap.

Costa Rica is officially the best country for digital nomads in Central America. When we say “officially” we mean it in the loosest terms.

You might live in Belize or El Salvador and think this whole piece is ridiculous. You wouldn’t be wrong – comparison pieces tend to be ridiculous because they’re subjective.

Or you’re slaying every damn day as a digital nomad in Honduras or Guatemala. If you are, let us know.

In the meantime, if you’re still in your northern city cubicle reading this and dreaming, put Costa Rica into your plans.

And then maybe you can think about finishing off those month-end figures.

Recommended Reading:

Are you a digital nomad in Central America? Let us know where you’re at and how you’re doing.

Related: 

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



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