I was in Europe with my 90 days of Schengen Time about to expire. I wanted to practice Spanish, live in a nice, fun, cultural city, and start teaching English to Chinese kids with VIPKID (use this link to apply to VIPKID yourself – they pay well). What to do? Move to South America of course. A little bit of Googling made Medellin seem like the perfect destination. In a week, I landed in Medellin with the intention of living for 6 months (which is as long as Americans can stay in Colombia per year).
Pollution in Latin America
I read digital nomad blogs. Medellin, Colombia seemed like the perfect fit. It was supposed to have a vibrant culture. It’s safe now. All of my friends from Spain said Colombians speak the best Spanish of Latin America (alongside Mexico). They even have vegetarian restaurants and yoga studios! It’s a big city with plenty to do, just like Barcelona. Right? Hmm. More like Bangkok.
I really can’t survive in polluted cities. In a weird twist of fate, I was stuck in Bangkok for 4 months once and I consider that period my sojourn to hell, largely because of the pollution. Certainly the pollution of the streets. Unregulated emissions are worst for a city than a massive fire in my opinion. But there is also constant noise, light, and wavelength pollution. Wavelength pollution? Maybe I’m a little hippie, but I swear something about the internet and telecomm networks in developing countries are particularly aggressive and we have to remember that those synthetic wavelengths are coursing through our skulls 24 hours a day when we are in these cities.
Well I was in Europe before this and forgot all of the ugliness that cities can hold because European
cities are actually made for people – wild concept! Well upon arriving in Medellin, I was quickly reminded that most of the world does not make cities like Europe. Medellin was far more of a Bangkok than a Barcelona. That is when I discovered this handy little tool – the Real-time World Air Quality Index, which tells you how polluted cities around the world are. I will never move to a city before referencing this again. It would have told me that Medellin’s Air Quality Index is around 70! Most cities in the developed world (NATO countries, Japan, Singapore, etc.) are below 30. Yikes! Well you just can’t live in a city where you can’t breathe. So if you are at all sensitive to pollution like me, or you just care about your health, Medellin may not be a great option.
At this point, I was prepared to move anywhere in Latin America. I got to searching and discovered that this whole region of the world is full of ridiculously polluted cities. Unfortunately, South America has the least pollution data in the world second to Africa. However, most big cities do have data and the results are disappointing. Even San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, the alleged “Switzerland of Latin America” had high pollution.
WHERE CAN I AVOID POLLUTION IN LATIN AMERICA?
There are a few patches of clean in “CITIES” in Mexico, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. These are generally in the smaller cities. Probably there are various other small cities that are relatively unpolluted, but they don’t have data and I couldn’t find any information on blogs or forums about pollution in these cities. Therefore, you’d have to write to a forum asking about pollution well in advance or go and find out for yourself. Something else to be aware of if you care about having a balance between nature and city life is that South American cities are not good at making parks. Expect a patch of dying grass in the sun, perhaps a few sparse trees. Not always, but more often than not. A lush, forest-like experience can be experienced a few hours in any direction from any South American city, but rarely within the cities. Sadly, even the parks feel dead and unnatural. At least the people tend to be lively though.
In general it seems the east coast of Latin America tends to be much less polluted while the west coast is far more polluted. In fact the same trend is true of the US – perhaps flat land and ocean winds on the east and mountains to trap in smog on the west.
There are tons of VILLAGES (pueblos) throughout Latin America that are so lovely! They tend to be more colorful, cleaner, more natural, and the people even friendlier than the already friendly South Americans you’d find in cities. We happened upon the lovely, vibrant village of Guatape on a day trip from Medellin in the midst of searching for new homes. I knew immediately that I could live in Guatape and by chance, five minutes in the village, a guy asked me if we needed a place to live. There was one long-term apartment in the village. He showed it to us and it was perfect. In a few days, we had moved in and were ready to stay for months. As I mentioned, I would be teaching English via video chat. Well, pretty quickly, I realized there was one big problem about this place:
WiFi in Latin America
WiFi coverage in South America is mind-blowingly pathetic. The guy showing us the apartment assured us there would be strong wifi and very strong wifi was available in nearby Medellin. Even if his wifi wasn’t sufficient, I was prepared to buy a pocket wifi. How naive I was.
Even after upgrading to the highest wifi package possible , which is 5mbps, but actually comes through
as a shaky 2-3mbps and getting a mobile data package as a backup which proved to be totally insufficient, there was still the problems of the wifi network completely crashing during storms (which are quite common in Guatape and much of South America) and that the connection was too unstable for a consistent video chat. If I worked as an editor or web developer or something of the sort, the wifi would be strong enough. But if video chats are part of your work, the wifi situation is going to be a problem in the villages. Once again, I was faced with moving, this time for strong enough wifi to work.
That is when I discovered WiGLE, another indispensable tool for the digital nomad. WiGLE shows the
wifi connectivity around the world. Just as I was sorely disappointed by the level of pollution in South America, I was similarly disappointed by the wifi connectivity. Practically all of the strong wifi is concentrated in cities, alongside pollution.
So if you have not yet deduced, I will spell it out. Practically nowhere in Latin America can you find strong internet (consistent, above 3mbps) and clean air. If anyone reading this does know somewhere with good wifi and clean air, please post it in the comments and I will move there within the month.
Finding Housing in Latin America
We were very lucky to find an apartment in Guatape. The benefit of villages is that they have clean air. The problem, along with poor wifi, is that it is very difficult to find accommodation. There will almost definitely be hotels available anywhere. But for monthly rentals, you usually just have to go to the village and ask around.
In cities, rentals are advertised online and are therefore much easier to find and sort through. In Colombia, you can use CompartoApto for the big cities. Every country has their own similar website. Sure AirBnBs are an option, but even with the monthly discount they tend to be far more expensive.
Something that is nice about Latin America is that short-term rentals – a few weeks to a few months – are much easier to come by. I haven’t heard the word lease once while apartment searching and no one has even asked to see my passport. However, it is quite difficult to find a private apartment. Rooms in large shared flats are far more common.
Where are the beautiful places in Latin America?
I had an image of the Caribbean in my head and thought it was an image of most of Latin America. Bright, colorful buildings, colorful cars, colorful clothes. Nothing too big or imposing. palm trees, warm, sunny weather. A fair amount of colonial architecture. I was very wrong. Cities of Latin America are generally hideous. Huge, ugly buildings without any consideration of art or urban planning. Actually very little color. And while this is about beauty, I should also mention that you may be surprisingly cold. I am wrapped up in a blanket with numb, cold hands in spring in Colombia (which is quite far north).
There are some cities with a fair amount of colonial architecture – Cuenca, Buenos Aires, Santiago, and many of Mexico’s cities. But it is not the standard throughout South America. Expect most Latin American cities to appear more like the polluted, industrial, oppressive, and just flat out ugly cities of South East Asia like Ho Chi Minh, Bangkok, or Jakarta rather than the beautiful, manicured, clean cities of Europe.
Where to Live in Latin America
It is way harder to find a suitable city and home in Latin America than it would be in a developed country. Generally, Latin America is much cheaper, but you do in fact get what you pay for. If you want a beautiful village or city with clean air and strong wifi coverage, be prepared to search, for these attributes rarely all come together in one place.
The places I have found from North to South through research that may strike a balance of these factors with some potential pitfalls to watch out for are:
- Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (more expensive)
- Oaxaca, Mexico
- San Jose, Costa Rica (not so beautiful)
- Cuenca, Ecuador (relatively cold)
- Cuzco, Peru (relatively cold)
- Florianopolis, Brazil (may need a vehicle to get around)
- Montevideo, Ecuador (more expensive)
- Buenos Aires, Argentina (more expensive)
- Valparaiso, Chile
- Cordoba, Argentina
This list isn’t exhaustive. As mentioned before, this is a post that could really benefit from your comments. If you know the perfect spots of South America, please comment below.