Expats in Central American come from all over the world and in all manner of guises. But we’ve narrowed them down into seven broad categories. Are we correct? Here’s a light-hearted look.
A while ago I went to an expat bar in Escazu, Costa Rica.
Now that’s nothing new. I’m an expat who enjoys an occasional beer with other expats.
Sometimes I enjoy hanging out in a place where people speak English.
So I’m in this bar to hang out with a few of my fellow expats in Escazu. A game was on, and I fancied football banter and gossip with some English mates.
Sitting at the bar, Imperial Silver in hand, I realized the guys I assumed would be present for this game, were absent.
Now I wasn‘t meeting anyone, so it’s not like I’d been stood up. But I found it strange that no-one else I knew was in the place.
I assumed they would be around as, to be honest, they are always around. They’re those types of expats.
Which got me thinking about types of expats. What are the different types of expats in Central America?
As I studied the other expats in the bar, I noticed they were typical of what you’ll find in Costa Rica and elsewhere in Central America.
I collated them into eight categories, summarized below. Nine if you include the “wanted/unwanted” people.
I’m generalizing here, but any article talking about “types of” anything will generalize, won’t it? Expats in Central America are not above stereotyping each other any more than Central Americans are.
One of the initial expat cliches I heard down here was, “expats in Central America comprise two types of people – the wanted and the unwanted.”
Or words to that effect.
The premise is you either move down here because you’ve given up on life up there or because you’re on the run from something or someone. Maybe yourself.
I’ve heard the same cliche in every Central American country. Expats in Nicaragua, Belize, and Panama say the same thing, chuckling to each other like they’ve discovered a secret – “unwanted or wanted, hehehe…”
That’s not to say this part of the world doesn’t get its fair share of dirtbags.
Central America attracts a certain person, and it’s no fluke many gringos here work in sweepstakes scams, dodgy gambling rackets, and the rest. They know who they are.
But apart from them, who else shows up here? Who leaves their comfortable lives in North America or Europe and comes to a region renowned for civil war, poverty, drugs, and crime?
Well… These people do. We do.
New Age Types
You know the saying “Throw a rock in the air and you’ll hit someone guilty”? I think it was from a U2 song. Anyway, down here in Central America, the version is “throw a rock in the air and you’ll hit a New Age Type”.
Make sure you throw the rock hard. Only kidding.
But seriously, everywhere in Central America you’ll find gringo yoga teachers, meditation studios, and practitioners of reiki, chakra realignments, aura reading and goodness knows what else.
Many are good people, but a lot arrive with sticks up their asses and are some of the most humorless, uptight individuals you’ll ever meet.
Like that myth about no-go areas in Europe where Islamic vigilantes cruise the streets, looking for drunks and girls in skirts breaking Sharia law, it’s the same in Central America. There are now no-go areas in certain expat enclaves where the wrath of hell will rain down on you if you’re caught eating a cheeseburger or not doing yoga.
Namaste, people. Namaste. Love and light.
Real Estate Moguls
Wherever gringo tourists exist, there are gringo realtors ready to swoop in like vultures over a dead hyena.
One good thing about being a realtor in this part of the world is that, except for Panama, you don’t need a license to operate. In fact, you need no credentials or qualifications at all.
You can call yourself a real estate agent and you are one. How cool is that?
A real estate agent in Central America will tell you about “turnkey opportunities” while neglecting to tell you that selling a property in this part of the world is about as likely as man colonizing Jupiter within the next decade.
But if this sounds like the life for you, you are definitely not the first and you’re in great company. Make sure you go where the expats are going. You won’t have much luck in Zona 18 in Guatemala City, for example.
Entrepreneurs and Digital Nomads
Lots of people move to Central America to retire. That’s fine. But in this age of “digital nomad-ism”, a hot, sunny, tropical place sounds perfect.
And it’s also cheap down here – unless you’re in Belize or Costa Rica, but that’s a different story.
Central America provides plenty of opportunities for entrepreneurs and those wishing to make a crack at something.
Living down here isn’t all old farts bullshitting into their beers. Stuff is happening and not everyone here comes down to sell real estate, teach yoga, or scam people.
I know travel agents, writers, video producers, chiropractors, animal rescuers, freelancers, shipping brokers, and many other expat professionals.
Are they all rich? Nope. But they’ve all created some kind of niche for themselves down here. You can too.
The Ex-CIA and Astronaut Brigade (Barroom Bullshitter)
There‘s a guy in your local bar. Yeah, that dude. You know him. Maybe you are him. He holds court, telling everyone about his life, which is more amazing than your empty, unfulfilled existence.
Well, down here in Central America, that guy is everywhere.
He multiplies and spawns and every expat bar is full of him (it’s almost always a man). But unlike the guy in your local bar, who limits his bullshit to the time he high-fived Muhammad Ali, the guys down here think bigger. Their bullshit is more exaggerated.
If you never met a retired astronaut, CIA agent, crocodile wrestler, racing driver, Gambino Family enforcer, dope smuggler, or motorcycle stuntman, you’ve never been to Central America.
We have them all, and they’re happy to tell you all about themselves. Just buy them a beer and hunker down for the ride.
They’ll tell you all about that ten-billion dollar deal with Pablo Escobar. Or about the time back in the 70s (it’s always back in the 70s or 80s) when they were Texas’s most prolific rodeo star.
They all think they’re some kind of Barry Seal figure.
This last one is an actual story I heard. You couldn’t make it up. Well…. this guy could. But it was an excellent story, so respect is due.
The fact is most of these guys are retired mattress stuffing salesmen from Wichita. That’s beside the point. They are finally free to be whoever they want! Don’t cut their buzz.
Socks ‘n’ Sandals
When you reach your autumn years, thoughts often turn to sunnier climes.
After working hard all your life, it’s now time to spread your wings. You’re an empty nester and no longer have any need to rattle around that big old family house.
You represent most expats living in Central America. I refer to you as the “Socks ‘n’ Sandals Brigade”, for your penchant for wearing, well, socks with your sandals. You also like safari suits and the occasional pith helmet.
You spend time on Facebook telling everyone how you’re living in paradise in your gated community full of other retired gringos. Or you spend time on Facebook telling everyone how much it sucks down here.
A Socks ‘n’ Sandal-er can also be in any of the other groups listed here.
For example, the Barroom Bullshitter is almost always Socks ‘n’ Sandals. But there are New Age Socks ‘n’ Sandal-ers, entrepreneur Socks ‘n’ Sandal-ers, realtor Socks ‘n’ Sandal-ers, and so on.
Good on them. Central America is a place to start over, no matter what your age.
Looking for Love
It might not be polite conversation, but Central America is full of gringos looking for, ahem, love. People coming down here to get laid. Sorry, but it’s true. Everyone knows this.
These types come in a few different guises.
First, you have the archetypical sex tourist. You know, single (or not) older men looking for working girls.
Prostitution is legal in Central America. Most of these guys congregate in San Jose or Jaco, Costa Rica, and to a lesser extent, Panama City in Panama.
The hooker thing aside, people, both male and female, come to Central America for some Latin loving.
They come to party and hook up with locals or with each other. San Jose, Costa Rica and Panama City have always been easy places to meet people. Most beach towns, too.
Women have it easier. It’s not uncommon to see North American and Euro chicks with some hot rasta, surfer dude or dive instructor in any Central American beach town. Just know, ladies, that a lot of these guys make their livings off foreign “girlfriends”. Have fun, but don’t be naïve.
That goes for guys, too. Take care with the ladies. Central America has lots of gold-diggers, chicas waiting for all those dollars in your pocket by simple virtue of your nationality.
Many people get cleaned out down here, and there’s no fool like an old fool.
I’m not talking about real political refugees here. You know, people from Nicaragua and Venezuela who migrate across the region to escape oppression and seek to make better lives.
We should welcome those people, and anybody else fleeing persecution.
I’m talking about American “political” refugees. Yes, they exist in Central America, banging on about US politics to anyone who will listen, either on social media, or, heaven forbid, in real life.
When George Bush won the US Presidency in 2000, liberal Americans came down and spent the next eight years bitching about him.
In 2008, Barack Obama won and conservative Americans did the same.
Rush Limbaugh even threatened to move to Costa Rica if Obama’s healthcare act passed. I’m glad he was as full of crap about that as he is about everything else. But whatever. A lot of Rush Limbaugh-alikes still came down even if the man himself did not. Ugh.
And again the pendulum swung back, as it always does, and Donald Trump, won the White House.
This provoked tons more frightened liberals to come down, and it’s often these guys who call themselves “refugees”. Something so offensive to real refugees, it boils my blood. These people get as much a contemptuous “ugh” from me as the Obama-haters.
When you believe that Trump offending you places you in the same category as a Venezuelan who’s lost everything or a Nicaraguan escaping imprisonment or death, you’re an idiot. You‘re a self-absorbed snowflake.
Either way, liberal or conservative, it doesn’t matter which country these people move to. They don’t care themselves as all they do all day is post crappy political memes on Facebook instead of going surfing or hiking.
They are all as bad as each other. A third “ugh” for them all.
Many years ago when I first arrived in Costa Rica, I shared a house with this guy from North Carolina, Tripp. One of us found the other through a house-sharing ad or something like that.
Anyway, when he moved into the house, I was out, probably humping my ass around San Jose, teaching English for a pittance. The landlord let him in and he was there in the living room, beer in hand, when I returned after a grueling day.
What I remember most about our initial meeting is that we spoke to each other in Spanish. I don’t know who started it, but we sat there for a while talking in slow, chopped-up español like two middle-school kids doing their oral exam. It was ridiculous and after about 30 minutes, I was like, “dude, where did you say you’re from?”
“Carolina del Norte el los Estados Unidos” said Tripp in his full southern accent.
I switched to English. “So what the hell we doing speaking Spanish then?”
The ice broke, we both laughed, and years later, we’re still great friends and still in Costa Rica, which is a miracle in itself.
The point is, we all know expats like this, and for 30 minutes back in the springtime of my life, I was one of them. Boy, I’m glad I wised up.
Those expats who refuse to speak their native language to other people with the same native language. Or they think their maids or gardeners are their best friends. They hate their native countries and get annoyed if you remind them where they’re from. They’re quite insufferable.
Being in this part of the world doesn’t mean abandoning your own culture. No-one respects you for that, least of all the locals. You can learn the language, assimilate, start a family, marry, make friends, do all that stuff.
You should do all that stuff.
But know that you’ll always be a foreigner, an outsider. That’s fine. If you accept and even embrace that, you’ll do much better here, I promise.
For a more in-depth viewpoint, I strongly recommend Vance’s article on going “full Latino” in his My Latin Life Blog.
All this is tongue-in-cheek and you shouldn’t take it too seriously.
I’m dying for you to tell me some other expat types you’ve noticed in this part of the world. Or to tell me which type you are, just for fun.
Whatever type you are though, if you’re happy doing what you’re doing, that’s cool. Another expat cliche I always hear is “wherever you go, there you are”.
And if you were in that bar that day, you have my apologies for my shameless judging.
James Dyde is the editor of CentralAmerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.