Way before I embarked to live in a foreign country, apart from my adopted homeland, The United States, I used to travel profusely. From weekend trips to Tijuana to random weeklong trips to Southeast Asia, I loved it because traveling provides freedom and freedom is something we all yearn for.
And I loved every minute of being abroad. Never did I have a feeling of how great it is to be back, and how great being back home is; being comfortable was never my thing. So it was a natural thing to travel, but traveling gets old quick — living is where it’s at.
Living — and I define it as being in a fixed place at least 3 months (preferably 6) — gives you intangible benefits that you cannot obtain while simply passing through. You learn the language, the culture, the customs, make new connections, and best of all learn to “get” the place you’re in. When you’re ready to leave, you will have an unshakable understanding of the city/country that can influence your decision whether to come back, and also be used for comparison with future domiciles.
So without any further ado, here’s my list of top cities to live in Latin America in no particular order.
1. Buenos Aires, Argentina
Buenos Aires is referred by many as the Paris of Latin America. However, I consider it as something as a cross between Madrid and Rome, alias with more aging architecture and cheaper prices. Overall it’s a great first time destination for someone completely virgin to Latin America. The biggest reason for that is because it’s not really Latin but more European due to the mostly European descendants, portenos, who call Buenos Aires their home to the European-influenced architecture and everything in between.
It’s a very livable city, and a good way to jumpstart your Latin American living dream.
There are other cities that deserve a look such as Cordoba and Rosario in the north of Buenos Aires. They’re nice and all but I would make Buenos Aires my home base, and only then venture out to nearby destinations.
2. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
After arriving on a one-way ticket, my initial plan was to spend 3 months living here, but due to many factors, I left 2 years later. It’s an amazing city in a country that really is in a continent of its own. The city is nothing like any other city in Latin America, which makes sense, because Brazilians don’t really refer to themselves as Latinos.
One can use Rio as a stepping stone to getting to know the rest of Brazil, so making Rio a homebase makes sense. Keep in mind that Rio is an island in Brazil in terms of culture, people and even language dialect. I found that out when just about I was leaving the country, I decided to travel for a month and discovered that other cities are very different and do deserve special considerations as well.
I would recommend at least solid year in Rio. A year would facilitate learning Portuguese, understanding the culture, and consequently provide a feeling of comfort in this wild but complex city that is so different than its sister-cities in Latin America. I could even go as far as saying 2+ years would even make more sense, but I realize Rio is not a city for everyone. On my first visit to Rio in 2003 for 3 days, I felt very out of place, was speaking Spanish to everyone and thought I would never return. My girlfriend felt the same, preferring Buenos Aires to Rio. Undeterred, I returned and after 2 solid years, found new respect for Brazil and Rio.
3. Medellin, Colombia
This is an odd choice because there’s nothing special in the city. Nothing touristy apart from some cable cars that to go up into the mountains. The city is landlocked so you don’t have beautiful coasts and boardwalks to admire. And you’ll probably never see this city on any tourist brochures. So what makes it such a cool city? Precisely the things I just mentioned: it’s a very normal city and very livable city.
This city makes sense to visit after you’ve seen the first two cities and want to settle down to a more regular day-to-day life. It makes sense for those wishing to strengthen their existing Spanish or learn it from the beginning while having a routine such as an online job that’s so prevalent among digital nomads. Having routine here is important because the city doesn’t have much to offer in terms of tourism and diversion. What you do get back in return is — unlike the previous two — a true Latin city with salsa, reggaeton, all packaged up in a fairly inexpensive hassle-free living
I recommend 6 months here or one can easily substitute another city like Bogota or Cali, if that’s more to your liking.
4. Florianópolis, Brazil
After many years of traveling and living in Latin America, I thought Medellin would be my last living city, but I decided to add another city to the list. Even though I lived in Brazil a while, 99% of it was in one city, and Rio is not representative of Brazil as a country. I made a short weekend visit to Florianópolis and found the city vastly different than Rio with people that looked and talked completely different than the cariocas (Rio residents). Southern Brazil (Rio Grande do Sul, Parana, Santa Catarina) is a region that I eagerly want to explore and understand and Floripa (as the residents call it) makes a perfect homebase. The downside is that it’s not a tropical city; winters can be a bit chillier than tropical Rio.
I would recommend at least 6 months here (but a year or more in Brazil total).
Some notable mentions go to Mexico City (where I spent 6 months), Belo Horizonte (where I spent 1 month). Both are great, but Medellin is a bit more digestible than Mexico City, and Belo Horizonte could be an option for someone who finds Rio too shallow.
I believe living in the first three cities would give you a well rounded view of Latin America because each city represents something very different: Buenos Aires is very European, Medellin is very Latin, and Rio is another continent all together.