Monday, January 20, 2014

The Lowest Cost of Living in the World for Expats: South America

article from August 1, 2011
by Julie R Butler

After having given brief profiles of the cities of Central American cities with the lowest cost of living for expats, another group of cities that may be attractive as well as inexpensive are those in South America. These cities are somewhat off the beaten track, being more difficult to get to from the States or Europe, and some knowledge of Spanish is a must.

Quito, Ecuador

Quito is the capital of Ecuador and an important center of Latin American heritage. Quito’s Old City is considered to be the largest in all of the Americas. It is one of the oldest Spanish colonial cities in South America as well as one of the first locations where
the cry for independence from Spain rang out. This city is also known as Luz de América, Light of America.

At about 2,800 meters (10,000 feet) above sea level, Quito’s altitude is a formidable challenge. Additionally, Quito’s location between two high mountain ranges makes for weather that is unpredictable, and changes can be extreme. The weather is one reason why Cuenca, in the south, is more popular with expats, as it is consistent throughout the year and the altitude makes it moderate and pleasant. Another factor making Cuenca more popular is that Quito is in a more culturally traditional region, whereas Cuenca is about a third of the size of the capital, which is home to about 1.5 million people.

Among country’s greatest attractions are its natural beauty and amazing biodiversity, having the coastal plain, the sierra, and the Amazon Basin as well as the Galapagos Islands, all in a relatively small area. Ecuador also has one of the lowest costs of living in South America.

Although Ecuador has been a very popular destination for expats for the past few years, one of the main concerns is political volatility. The Correa administration has made great strides in reducing poverty in Ecuador, but authoritarianism, the expelling of the US Ambassador to Ecuador, and the police coup or whatever that was that occurred in September of last year have not exactly been signs of stability. Another problem to be aware of is growing drug violence.

Asunción, Paraguay

Paraguay is a landlocked nation that sits between Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil. It is defined by the Paraguay River, one of South America’s major river systems, which divides Paraguay into two distinct geographic regions: the largely uninhabited semiarid Chaco to the west and the forested Paraná to the east.

The population center is in and around the capital, Asunción, located on the Paraguay River in the south of the country. It is another of the continent’s oldest Spanish colonial cities, having served as a base from which both colonial expeditions and Jesuit missionaries were launched, a trading port, and after Buenos Aires was sacked by indigenous warriors, the uncontested regional center of power. It is also known as the location where one of the first rebellions against the Spanish arose.

Paraguay’s history, tragically, has been one of the most war-torn in Latin America, which has stifled the country’s economic development. Although the most recent political upheaval was in 1999, Paraguay has continued to face daunting problems caused by poverty due to marginalization of the Guarani people as well as corruption and political uncertainty, and it is a major smuggling and piracy haven.

Asunción is just below the Tropic of Cancer, so the weather is mostly hot and humid, with a dry season from June to September. Typhoid vaccinations are recommended, and mosquito-borne dengue fever is a concern. This city of more than two million inhabitants has its charms, among them, lack of infrastructure such as paved roads, and farm animals wandering about at will.

La Paz, Bolivia

Bolivia is South America’s other landlocked nation, although both of these interior nations do have access to the Atlantic Ocean via the Paraguay River. There seems to be a direct correlation between the astoundingly high rate of poverty – more than 60% of the population – and the large number of indigenous peoples. This country has also had its fair share of military and political upheaval, having lost over half of the territory claimed upon independence from Spain in wars with its neighbors as well as experiencing the familiar destabilizing politics that are common throughout South America. Despite fierce political opposition and pressing economic factors, President Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous leader, has managed to spur growth and induce modest improvements in poverty levels.

Very diverse geographic regions range from the Bolivian Altiplano in the west, to Amazonian rainforests in the northeast, to the Chaco in the east. The administrative capital, Nuestra Señora de la Paz, is located in a bowl at 3,650 meters (11,975 feet) in altitude among the high mountains of the altiplano. Its climate is cool year round and fairly dry, with more rain falling during the warmer austral spring and summer months.

La Paz’s early history is marked with several sieges by the indigenous Aymara people, and yet again, the city lays claim to South America’s first call for independence from Spain. Today, 2.3 million inhabitants live in this metropolitan center in the Andes.

Probably the biggest challenge to living in this, the least expensive major city in all of South America, is dealing with the altitude, which affects not only us humans, but will also ruin computer hard drives that are not specially made for high-altitude use. And, of course, there are the common issues that come with being in such an economically split society. Spanish is a necessity, as is understanding that Bolivia under Morales is yet another Latin American country that does not have good relations with the United States and is lacking a US ambassador.

Julie R Butler is a writer, journalist, editor, and author of several books, including Nine Months in Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). She is a contributor to Speakout at, and her current blog is Connectively Speaking.
email: julierbutler [at] yahoo [dot] com, Twitter: @JulieRButler

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