I always thought I'd work in Latin America.
I loved the countries and the cultures so much that I figured I was destined to earn my keep south of the border.
So, I went down every Internet rabbit-hole I could find to try to figure out how to live and work in Latin America: teaching English, hostel work, international corporations, hotels, sales, transcription, writer, bartender, house-sitter, etc. I was open to anything.
As some of you know, I eventually settled on an online income through writing and proofreading - it was the only way I knew to leverage the skills I had, while giving me the flexibility to live in the places I wanted.
But now that I'm pursuing a career change (so to speak), I've started to look for other opportunities. And having now lived in Central and South America for the better part of two years, I've met a lot of foreigners working in different capacities. I've discovered that there are actually a lot more ways for an expat to make a living in these countries than I originally thought.
I figured it was time for an article.
I'm going to talk about the different ways a foreigner can make money in Latin America. Some of these ways will be legal, others will be...well, a bit grey. Regardless, what follows should help you get a better idea about the pros, cons and complications of earning a living down here.
Let's get it going.
The 3 options that everyone considers
Approach a foreigner that wants to work down here. Ask them what they're are thinking of doing. 95% of them will give you at least one of the following responses:
1) Teaching English
2) Hostel Work
3) Working Online
This is largely because most of these individuals don't have marketable skills (I'm not hating, I didn't either...you could argue that I still don't 😅).
Let's go through these jobs one by one and give them a rating from 1 to 10 based on how good these options are for a foreigner.
1) Teaching English ~ 5/10 ~
This is far and away the most popular option for expats that want to stay in Latin America. As you might suspect, that fact in and of itself makes this a bad choice. Here's why. To get hired by a somewhat reputable firm teaching English, you will need a TELF or CELTA certificate. If you want to get the higher paying jobs, you're best bet is a CELTA. The intensive course will run you almost $3000.00, and it's full-time for four weeks.
The good news is that, with a CELTA, you'll almost be guaranteed to land a job somewhere.
The bad news? The pay.
One friend I know with a CELTA and a Master's degree was offered 50 pesos an hour to teach English in a mid-sized city in Mexico. At the time, that was about $4 an hour. Now, keep in mind that the pay will be more in bigger cities...but it's still not really enough.
Another friend took his CELTA in Mexico City and landed a job there that paid decently by local standards: $995.00 a month. Considering he's working at one of the more prestigious private institutions in the city, I have to imagine this is at the upper-end of the scale for someone with a bachelor's degree and a CELTA. His job is a regular 8-4 type of gig, but his commute takes two hours thanks to the city's infamous traffic. That's 4 additional hours to get to and from his house. In other words, he basically dedicates 12 hours each day to earn less than $250 a week. Does that sound like a good gig to you?
Or how about my friend in Medellin? With a CELTA and a bachelor's earning $700 a month.
Now, to be fair, I've met some people making decent coin through teaching English. One has a master's in education from Oxford and teaches at the best private school in Mexico. He's got his own apartment in one of the nicer areas of town. He's doing alright...as long as you don't consider the opportunity cost of getting a master's from Oxford in order to earn $50,000 a year.
The other is a former teacher who is now the director of a school. She's doing alright, but she's in her forties - i.e. it didn't happen overnight. She probably earns about the same as an entry-level nurse in a small American city.
Of course there are ways to make English teaching work for you in Latin America, particularly if you start your own business. You can target corporations and teach business English to get paid more. However, you have to really love teaching. If you're just looking for a way to make ends meet, you'll probably get discouraged by the endless cold-calling and rejection.
2) Hostel Work ~ 2/10 ~
I once lived in a hostel for a month. I also used to stay in them pretty often, but have since outgrown the backpacking life. During this time, I got to know a lot of foreigners working in hostels. I'll make this short: don't do it. Most hostels don't actually pay you. Rather, they give you a dorm bed for free to sleep in and will give you one meal a day...two if you're lucky. You can fuck a metric ton of slutty backpackers in a dorm bed, but if you see this as an upside you need to reevaluate your life.
I'll throw it a 2/10 just due to easy access to pussy.
3) Working Online ~ ?/10 ~
Working online is sold as the solution to all of life's problems. Low overhead, complete freedom, pristine beaches and exotic women.
HOW TO MAKE $10,000 IN ONE HOUR
HOW I WENT FROM $10 TO $1,000,000 IN ONE YEAR
FROM CORPORATE DRONE TO INTERNATIONAL PLAYBOY.
As you guys already know, most of these claims are bullshit. I mean, there are many people out there making real money online, but I guarantee you that there are many more people lying about it. No one making $10,000 or more a month on the Internet is going to waste their time writing a book or a blog post telling you how to do it.
Think about it. Would you do that?
In a nutshell, here's what happened over the past 15 or so years.
From the year 2000 to about, I would say, 2007, it was much more possible to achieve the claims you see being made today about making money online. Basically, you could find a Chinese supplier online for, let's say, backpacks, pay for a shit load of Facebook and Google ads, write some simple SEO'd articles and a sales page, mark up your items to western prices and find yourself rolling in money.
...OK, not quite that easy, but severalfold as easy as it is now.
Literally everyone wants to work online in some capacity. The market is saturated as fuck.
These days there is an entirely industry based around simply selling the dream of working on the Internet. This market is also saturated as fuck.
Freelancer websites are a race to the bottom in which everyone competes on price, and small e-commerce sites can barely keep their head above water because of giants like Amazon.
That being said, working online is still one of the best options for someone who wants to live in Latin America.
The silver-lining of everyone now looking for online work to make a living is that most of them are idiots - it's not particularly hard to stand out from the crowd. And, with freelancer sites being a race to the bottom, what better time to hire freelancers to build your empire? Not to mention the exponential growth of online purchases. Whether it's services, informational or physical products, everyone seems to be buying shit online now. Anyone can learn sales and copywriting. If you do, the opportunities on the Internet are endless.
Not to mention that you can live a pretty good life on $1000 a month in a lot of Latin American cities. It's not hard to earn more than $1000 a month online. I was able to do it in less than a year. As I've mentioned, that's more than most full-time English teachers make down here.
Most people get discouraged when they try to make an online income because of high expectations. The Internet makes it seem like you're a loser unless you're pulling 5 figures a month from your computer. In reality, the people that are doing this are in the top 5%.
And most of them aren't writing ebooks and blogs.
If you're perfectly happy with an income of $1000-$4000 a month- an income which is more than enough to get by in Latin America - you'll find that there are plenty of ways to do so on the Internet. As long as you don't give up in the first year and give it some effort, you'll figure it out. I guarantee that.
Other, Lesser-Known Options
Out of the many expats I've met living in Latin America, I was regularly surprised to find out the range of industries they worked in.
Here are the ones that seem to be the most represented.
There are a lot of foreigners working in finance in Latin America. Many of the world's largest banks have a presence or partnerships here. Scotiabank (Canada), HSBC (UK) and Citibank (USA) all operate extensively throughout the region.
If you have a degree in finance, economics or anything of the likes, you may be in a good position to find work in Latin America. Or, if you have been working for a major bank in your home country for awhile, there are usually opportunities for a transfer.
Getting an entry-level position in finance here is possible, but keep in mind that if you are just starting out in the game working in Latin America will not give you a competitive edge. If you want to climb the ladder fast, the USA, Europe and Asia are the best places for work experience.
You get quite a few people with master's degrees in policy/development down here doing paid internships. What the fuck they do I'm not really sure. Probably a bunch of bullshit.
Anyway, I've met a few. So if you're the book smart type, think about enrolling in a master's program in Latin American Studies in Georgetown or something. They might send ya down here to conduct research on why things are so fucked up.
Probably represents the biggest number of foreign workers around these parts. Some notable companies with a presence in LATAM include Google, Cisco, SC Johnson, Monsanto, PricewaterhouseCoopers and British American Tobacco. The great thing about being sent down here by a large corporation is that they usually hook you up. They'll pay your rent, car, school for your kids and sometimes even your maid service. Not a bad set-up if you can swing it.
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to land a corporate gig from within your country of choice, even if you have experience. The majority of expats working for corporations are sent from their home nations.
This is an interesting option, but you may have to get creative. A guy I know working in sales here got the gig through a connection in China of all places. He basically travels around Latin America selling security systems to large companies. The pay is good - around $5000 a month with expenses covered, including rent and commission.
The other is a girl selling financial products. It seemed sketchy, in fact, she didn't even really know what she was selling, but again the pay was good. A lot of shady companies, particularly one's having to do with finance, conduct their operations in places like Latin America for reasons I'm sure you can guess. I'm not sure how she landed such a gig, but her degree had nothing to do with it.
There are many startups and smaller companies that are trying to do business in Latin America. Makes sense, the middle class is growing here. The good thing about pursuing a sales-type position with a smaller company here is that these jobs are usually slightly easier to get than jobs with large corporations. The bad news is that these smaller/startup companies may not be able to subsidize your living expenses or sort out a work visa for you. This means that your pay may be under the table, which could result in legal difficulties.
But sniff around. If you talk to enough expats down here, an opportunity should eventually present itself.
A career in mining in Latin America will take you to the most dangerous places. Not sure why, but everywhere in Latin America where the mining industry is active also seems to have an inordinate number of guerrillas and narcos hanging around. Pay is usually solid though, I've seen many positions advertised for $100,000+. This is a particularly good option if you're Canadian. Not everyone knows this, but Canadian mining companies are mining the shit out of Latin America right now.
The majority of these positions are for engineers, but there are also several opportunities for bilingual PR people - probably to help ease tensions between locals and local governments. But keep in mind that if you go this route, don't expect to be living in a major city. More than likely, you'll have to reside in a dangerous shit hole with the constant threat of being kidnapped.
Met a few foreign engineers. Didn't talk to them too much.
I don't know too much about this field but there do seem to be work opportunities for the more adventurous geeks out there.
A route I thought about going down many times before good sense got the better of me. An old roommate of mine in Mexico City is a photojournalist, so I was able to meet a few foreigners down here working for news and/or photo agencies. As you may know, it's hard as hell these days to carve out a living via journalism, so I'd only suggest this route for the highly passionate; the people who couldn't imagine doing anything else.
The good news is that, even if you don't manage to get hired by an agency, you can still come down here and write stories and take pictures and sell them as a freelancer. The bad news is that, if you attempt this, you won't have a work visa. More bad news is that you won't make a lot of money. Most of the foreign journalists I met here were just skimming by - borderline alcoholics that would always disappear when it came time to pay the bill. Many are also highly delusional about how dangerous their jobs are and sickeningly narcissistic (although some are legit). So keep in mind that this is the company you'll need to rub shoulders with if you hope to make a go of it.
I met one young journalist who seemed to be doing quite well. He had articles in Forbes, New York Times, Global Post and the likes. But I later found out that his parents were rich New Yorkers, so I think he got there through connections.
In short, this route is a slog. If you go freelance, expect to pay for all of your own trips and live off ramen and boiled water for the foreseeable future.
P.S. If you want to follow legitimate journalists doing great work in Latin America, check out Ioan Grillo, Hanna Drier, Alexandra Ulmer or Girish Grupta.
Some interesting alternatives
Maybe you're like me. Maybe you don't have the experience to work a corporate gig, the education to get into policy, engineering or mining or the stupidity to get into journalism.
How can you work in Latin America?
Well, here are a few alternatives to think about.
Airbnb is an excellent way to earn a bit of extra cash in Latin America. A friend of mine is doing well at this. He bought a house in a smaller, touristy Latin American city, divided it up into 3 different apartments and takes in about $3000 a month. He didn't need citizenship or anything; just found a trusted real estate agent and paid cash.
If you can't afford to purchase property just yet don't worry - you can do this while renting. Find an apartment with or three bedrooms through a local apartment rental site, and throw the rooms up on Airbnb. I've found that the best area of any city to do this is on the border of an expensive and less-expensive neighbourhood. For example, if you're in Panama City, you could rent something in El Chorillo on the border with Casco Viejo. You'll pay less and therefore be able to charge less than your Airbnb competition, and your place will be in high demand due to your proximity to a touristy neighborhood. The same logic applies to the border of Doctores/Roma and Escandon/Condesa in Mexico City. Chances are that you'll be able to at least cover your rent. You could even make money if you stay in a hostel and rent out the whole apartment for a week or so at a time.
You'll want to be careful that your landlord doesn't find out about this, though. Use your judgement to figure out if he/she is the type of person who would check Airbnb listings for this sort of thing before taking this path. Worst case scenario you'll get kicked out and have to find a new place.
E-commerce has just started to catch on down here. And it's the best time to jump into the game because no one seems to have any idea how SEO or online advertising works. Many popular businesses still don't even have a web presence. But I can assure you that in the more developed Latin American countries like Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Chile, Panama and Argentina, latinos are buying shit on the Internet in rapidly increasing numbers.
Unfortunately there are several complications with starting an online store here, mainly legal ones. You can register your online business in your home country and sell your products/services in another country of course, but keep in mind that you may be required to collect and submit the VAT fee depending on where you are selling. There's also the matter of collecting payments. Services like Stripe and WooCommerce make it easy to accept online credit card payments, but here's a little known fact:
Almost no one in Latin America uses PayPal.
This is largely because it isn't possible to link your bank account to your PayPal account in most Latin American countries. For this reason, most people use a PayU account, Latin America's version of PayPal. Unfortunately for you, you'll need to have a residency card or citizenship and bank account in the country that you want to use PayU in if you want to accept payments as an individual. And if you want to accept payments as a business through PayU, that business will have to be registered in the respective country.
Also, many people here still purchase online through EFTs (Electronic Fund Transfers) so, again, unless you have your business registered in the country you're selling in and have a bank account in said country, you're going to run into hurdles. Keep this in mind if you want to target customers in LATAM.
As a foreigner, you'll immediately notice inefficiencies and market gaps down here. Why not take advantage? For instance, a quick Google search will reveal that there is a lack of event planning services in many Latin American cities. In Mexico, there is a woman taking full advantage of this. Major foreign corporations will hire her to find a venue, handle catering etc for numerous events. She is only one person. The reason that they don't use a larger service is because there simply aren't many that have their shit together. Things are even worse in smaller Latin American cities.
Google "Event Planning in Bucaramanga Colombia" ("Organización de Eventos en Bucaramanga" and see what comes up. Tell me that you couldn't blow away the competition.
Similar to a service-based business. One niche that immediately comes to my mind to fit the middleman/broker definition is the expat community. If you could manage to find a way to help expats find furnished apartments, maid services, childcare, help them set up a bank account, get a transit pass, cell phone, etc., you will make money. With the recent explosion of digital nomadism, people will want a service like this. Your business plan can be as simple as reading every expat Facebook group in your chosen Latin American city, making a list of all the questions that are most frequently asked, and rolling all the solutions into one service. Charge a fee, of course. Best of all, you'll be dealing with expats so you can easily accept payments through PayPal and not even bother registering a business (not to mention, your customers will be less likely to fuck you over).
Another thing you could do is set up an "Expat Club" or "Tourist Club" that organizes events and tours throughout the city. Arrange transportation and meals for day-long culinary, bar and/or museum tours. Hire a cheap, English-speaking guide, but handle the marketing and promotion aspects yourself. The truth is that foreigners and expats are a lot more willing to spend money if they know a fellow foreigner is running the business.
Trust is built in.
Not talking El Chapo or Pablo Escobar style here. There are plenty of legal (or sort of legal...) ways to make money as an importer in Latin America, but they are often overlooked. Many people go the other direction - they buy cheap items from Latin America and sell them at a markup in the United States or Europe. However, there are many things in Central and South America that can be bought much cheaper in the United States or China. And shipping costs from companies like AliBaba to LATAM are surprisingly reasonable.
The top 10% of people in big Latin American cities are very fucking rich. And most of them have kids and wives that spend their money like you take a piss.
I've met some smart, social media savvy locals that are beginning to figure out that all it takes to make more money than their neighbors is 50,000 or so purchased Facebook and Instagram likes to build authenticity, some sexy marketing and a sleek looking store...given that they have the right product.
I won't give away what these people are selling but I can tell you that they are all targeting female customers. And their markup is massive.
Your problem as a foreigner will be figuring out how and where to sell these products. Since I'm guessing you won't want to or be able to register a business and rent a shop, you'll have to be careful and get creative. I'll touch on this in the next section.
Before you laugh me out of the room. No, I don't think it's a great idea to have your name openly linked to any business down here. As a foreigner (i.e. a rich person to them), I realize you're asking to be shook down by cops or criminals. It may be fine in a handful of cities, but certainly not everywhere.
But it's an even worse idea to put the business in your wife's, girlfriend's or friend's name...unless losing all of your money is something you're interested in.
So, what can you do?
One option is renting an apartment or house and having your physical store located inside your place of living. This option never would have occurred to me if I hadn't met someone in Lima who does just this. In 5 years of business, he's never had any issues with robbery, theft etc. I'd suggest a place in the best part of town, with a doorman and having your store complete separate from your living space if you choose to go this route.
However, keep in mind that if you're off the books things will have to be cash only (unfortunately, POS services like Square or PayPal Here won't work abroad so you won't be able to accept credit cards). Also, if you go this route keep in mind the kind of customers that you'll want to attract. This is your house, after all. For that reason it's better to sell things like children's toys or women's underwear than knives or gangster paraphernalia.
NOTE: It's pretty easy to open a bank account as a foreigner in Mexico and Panama. If you're able to get a Santander account in Mexico for instance, you can link it with the POS credit card processing app iZettle and possibly accept "personal" online payments on your cell phone or iPad without being a resident and registering your business.
I realize this option will seem too dodgy for some, and they will want to open a little shop in the city instead. That's OK. Aside from the bureaucracy, it's actually not to difficult to do in many Latin American countries. But you'll need a cedula/residency card that gives you permission to work in that country, and you'll need to find a trustworthy lawyer to handle the paperwork.
Again, before you laugh me out of the room, I'm not suggesting a blog for making money. Rather, for making contacts. Start a blog about the city you're living in, and chances are that other expats living in that city will find you. Befriend them and you might find that they know of job opportunities. Think of it as a resume of sorts.
I've had expats who are running businesses in Latin America reach out to me through this blog and invite me for a drink if I'm ever in their city. These kind of contacts are invaluable.
What's Not On The List
Many wide-eyed foreigners dream of starting a hostel. Most never do of course, and those that try usually fail. I got to know a hostel owner while living in one for awhile. Trust me, it isn't as glamorous as it seems - there is a bunch of bullshit you have to deal with and it's extremely difficult to turn much of a profit. Also, the kind of people who stay at hostels are often the worst kind of people. Cheap and parasitic motherfuckers who will eat 10 slices of free bread and drink 5 cups of coffee in the morning. Do these individuals sound like the kind of customers you want to try to please?
I'd stay away from this one.
Likewise, many foreigners dream of opening a bar in Antigua or San Miguel de Allende or (insert picturesque town here). Again, generally a bad idea. Unless you have experience in both managing a bar and in doing business in LATAM, I'd stay away from this one. The costs will end up being more than you expect and you'll have to deal with drunks every night. People don't often think about that when they dream of running a bar.
If you decide to go this route, I'd suggest at least $75,000 to put into it. I'd also suggest leasing a place first before deciding to construct anything. Random "permits" will come out of the woodwork once they find out a foreigner wants to build something. Leasing initially will be cheaper and also give you a feel for whether or not you're really interested in owning a bar down here.
Same rules apply as for the bar. I'd only suggest this option if you have ample restaurant experience. It's often more work and money than people think.
As you can see, being an English teacher is far from your only option. With a little creativity, you can carve out a decent living down here. Of course, if you want the flexibility to travel the world, you'll want to conduct your business online. But if you know what city in Latin America you'd like to make your home base, there is a world of options at your fingertips.
If you have any additional ideas, thoughts or concerns, leave a comment!
And if you have a business idea of your own, shoot me an email. I may be interested 😉.
Until next time,