The travel bug first bit me when I decided to put my Spanish major to good use and study abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Since then it has never been too long between trips to Latin America; I've had the opportunity to travel to 11 different countries in Latin America alone, and spent significant periods of time in many of them.
It’s a common assumption that many countries in South and Central America are largely the same (and, similarly, that tacos and guacamole are prevalent all up and down the Americas), but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Each country and region is very different—and each affords its own opportunities to help you reach different travel goals.
Here are my recommendations for the best expat experiences in Latin America.
The best places to learn Spanish (or Portuguese)
One of my happiest accomplishments since moving to Ecuador has been finally becoming fluent in Spanish; it’s a skill that I’ll take with me long after my time here comes to an end. If you’re looking to learn another language while in Latin America (which I highly recommend), consider countries that are known for their easier accents, well-known language schools, and opportunities for cultural immersion.
Moving to a place like Cuba or Argentina may make your language learning experience more difficult, as these countries have accents that are notoriously difficult to master and a high usage of country-specific slang. Quito, Ecuador and smaller cities in Bolivia are known to be great places to master Spanish, and Spanish-speakers in these countries tend to speak more slowly and have fewer slang terms.
Salvador and Florianópolis are good Brazilian cities to learn Portuguese, as they are a little less touristy than Rio de Janeiro, which means more opportunities for immersion.
The best places for cultural immersion
Another cherished aspect of spending time abroad is getting to know a new culture, learning about its traditions, foods, songs, and finally being able to feel comfortable in your new home. Resist the temptation to take refuge in a local expat community and instead push yourself out of your comfort zone and spend time with the locals. This will be a lot easier if you choose a smaller city or a more rural area of a country to call home.
While you’ll be able to immerse yourself in a new culture anywhere you go, some great places are Puebla, Mexico; or Antigua, Guatemala. Try a short homestay placement when you first arrive, or join a local club or organization based on your interests, and you'll soon have local friends that will be excited to show you their country and share their traditions with you.
The best places for further travel
Living abroad creates a springboard for exploring an entire region. When I was living in Buenos Aires, I visited no less than six countries in six months and had the chance to get to know a lot of South America. It can be a challenge to balance time in your new home with wanting to travel to other bucket-list places, but you’ll surely have time to enjoy both.
Lima makes a great home base to explore Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, while Santiago is also a centralized location with tons of flights and buses to places like Patagonia, Uruguay, Buenos Aires and Argentina’s wine country. Remember that bigger cities often mean bigger travel hubs and will likely position you better to travel around the country and the region.
The best places to further your career
Working with a major company or organization in Latin America is becoming a common choice for those looking to head abroad, and is particularly easy if your employer already has an international branch.
If your current job doesn’t give you such a luxury, start job searching in cities like Bogotá, Colombia; Buenos Aires, Argentina; or Santiago, Chile. Having job experience in an English-speaking country is a big draw for firms in these cities and in other international business hubs in the region. Working with a big organization in Latin America is also a good way to network and an impressive resume booster if you ever head back home in the future.
The best places for rest and relaxation
After living in New York City for four years, a slower pace of life was one of my top priorities when I decided to move abroad. Latin America in general is known for being mellower that the United States or Canada, but many of the region’s big, sprawling cities can make you wonder how true that generalization can be.
Instead, head to a smaller city if you’re still looking for cosmopolitan flare while also enjoying a slower pace. Córdoba, Argentina and Cartagena, Colombia are great options and beautiful “second cities." They have all the benefits of their larger cousins, Buenos Aires and Bogotá, but with much less traffic and stress. If you're looking for a total change of pace and some serious rest and relaxation by the ocean, the coasts of Colombia, Costa Rica and Uruguay have some of the best beaches in Latin America.Add this article to your reading list