Paradise Lost? The Realities of Working Abroad

The Allure of Working Abroad

It was near the end of 2014 and I was at a crossroads in life.  I was running my own creative agency in San Diego at the time, One3 Creative, and was beginning to question the wisdom of leaving my comfy, safe desk job with benefits for the great unknown.  Sure, being your own boss will be great I thought, set your own hours, golf before lunch, and never miss a sunset on the beach.  Why not take a stab at it? Mind made up, I was going to open my own Digital Agency!  

Fast forward a couple years, 2014, business was good, but gleeful days of walking around the golf course were a distant memory.  In the famous last words of Groucho Marx: 

“This is no way to live!”


I needed a change of pace, I had been a victim of my own success and reached burn-out. Without hesitation, I immediately began strategizing and searching for a solution.  I had always loved to travel, I spoke Spanish fluently and had toyed with the idea of living abroad.  Was this my opportunity? Was it time to pull the trigger? PULL THE TRIGGER!!!!  Before I could answer I was at 13,000 feet faster than a cat lapping chain lightning, and headed due south, destination: Central America!

The Journey Begins!

I soon found my way to Bocas del Toro, Panama, an archipelago on the Caribbean side of Panama. It was a pretty poor place, lots of trash, ramshackle buildings, but it was beginning to become a significant tourist destination, in fact, I had a few friends building houses there.  Once settled in, I met with my people, acquired a feel for the sleepy island town that was bracing for high season and immediately started prospecting.  Naturally I did a little networking, found a reasonable place to set up camp and picked up a couple consulting gigs within a week. I was also managing three accounts in the States; social media management mostly, not only did it easily cover my bills but it I learned how indispensable my Macbook Air really was, you couldn't rely on the local economy!

Exploring Central America

After about two months, I had my Panama accounts under control, so I figure I would hop on the chicken bus (camioneta de pollos) and see where I wound up.  For those of you that have never had the pleasure, imagine over a hundred people packed into a souped-up school bus from LA County Unified, the drivers are crazy, you stand for hours and no AC! This story from The Surly Bartender in Antigua, Guatemala describes it well. 


I ended up hitting every country in Central America over the next 2 months, I picked up a Brewery in Managua, Nicaragua and a Tattoo Shop in Santa Theresa, Costa Rica.  Overall it was an amazing run, I proved that I have the skills to basically live where ever I want.  However, it was hard fought and I came with a skill-set. Oftentimes when I hear people talk about moving abroad, they seem to think it's the end all be all. Their problems are solved. I've got news for you, not even close.  Life is life wherever you go, even though it is paradise, it certainly has plenty of challenges. Not to mention backpacking solo, it takes some moxie to get through places like El Salvador.  Not for the rookie at all. 


Is This a Life for You?

I have broken down a few considerations you should think about before taking the plunge down south:

The Bad

  • If you are from the U.S., you still pay taxes: proof
  • The pay is low, hours are long and transport can be enduring. If you don't have remote work you're gonna make $10-20 per day plus tips and MAYBE a meal.  
  • If you don't speak at least decent Spanish you're going to miss out on a lot.  Every country has a slight difference in their vernacular. 
  • You will never be a local, you'll always be a Gringo, you're a magnet for theft.
  • Getting money in and out is tough, even though Panama is on the peso, they aren't on the same credit clearing exchange, so you cannot use a US account for a Panamanian business. 

The Good

  • For the curious and entrepreneurially minded traveling abroad provides an opportunity to share ideas and work with a diverse group of people. 
  • You will receive an education unlike none other. Nobody comes back with the same perspective on the world.
  • The obvious: You get to work while you're on vacation!

In Closing a Few Tips

I would suggest saving enough money for at least a months living expenses.  prior to going to South America and just traveling if you choose. Get a feel for the different countries.  It's rural and ndeveloped for the most part, but once you hit the major cities, especially Panama City and Guatemala City, you almost feel like you're back home.  The people are friendly for the most part, I made a ton of great friends and business contacts.  Ideally go down, travel, talk to everyone you can, expats love it when other westerns are around and can do freelance work, I still priced about 1/2 of my going rate.  

In closing, there is no reason not to go for it, but if you take your time, feel the market out, learn each country's visa and work permit rules, you can live an exciting life on the go!

Oh, one more thing:  Cold showers every day, rain every day and bugs nonstop. Buenas Suerte!! 

Feel free to contact me via LinkedIn for any more questions.