For this article, I’m going to assume a few things about you.
You don’t speak Spanish or Portuguese.
And you have never been to or have very limited experience in Latin America.
Just to keep things simple.
Because when I talk about finding the ideal Latin American city for a beginner….
Well, that is going to depend on so much based on the individual.
I have no idea what your budget is…
Or what type of climate or city atmosphere you prefer…
So I’m just going to assume the two basic things above.
This article is for you then if you fit that category.
And maybe it will help you even if you do speak some Spanish perhaps.
But let’s get started.
Thinking about what cities I would recommend to someone who is completely new to Latin America with limited Spanish.
Where would I go personally if I was in those shoes?
Well, as I wrote here, the very first place I ever travelled to in Latin America was to an indigenous village in Chiapas, Mexico.
So maybe I’m bad at taking my own advice…
Because, while no disrespect to that village, I have doubts that most of my readers (all 4 of you!) have interest in going there.
So where then should you go and why if you are new to Latin America?
Starting in no particular order…
Number 1: Mexico City
Though I’m not going to do this list in any particular order…
I do feel that Mexico City should be right up there when it comes to cities to start out in.
For a few reasons.
First, it’s easy when it comes to visas.
You walk in with permission to be in the country for 6 months…
Then you can just step outside of the country and come back in a few days later for another 6 months!
Not every Latin country is that generous.
It really will make things easier on you to pick a country where visa runs are possible if you plan on staying down here for a while.
Second, Mexico City is one of the best deals I have seen anywhere in Latin America as of this writing.
It’s relatively modern, very cheap for what you get, very close to the US and Canada, etc.
With enough locals who have a solid enough command of the English language if your Spanish happens to be weak.
All around relatively comfortable for a solid price.
But Mexico City is quite large…
And not everyone prefers the large city life.
So let’s look at other areas in Mexico….
Number 2: Puerto Vallarta
Disclaimer: I have never been to Puerto Vallarta.
So I can’t recommend Puerto Vallarta on a personal level.
But I included Puerto Vallarta in this list as simply an example of something else you might be looking for.
Where maybe you want a life that is still relatively comfortable and where you have enough local expats and locals who speak enough English…
With that ability to do a visa run every 6 months.
But instead of doing all of that in one of Latin America’s biggest cities…
You can enjoy all of that on a beach instead.
The reason for why I haven’t ever been to Puerto Vallarta is because I’m simply not interested in going to the beach.
But I can see the appeal so I included it here.
A calmer place in Mexico with many of the benefits of living in Mexico City but in a calmer environment.
Other beach towns would be Mazatlan, Tulum, Cabo San Lucas, etc.
And while I could recommend other cities in Mexico that are not beach towns but are still relatively calmer than Mexico City…
Like Cuernavaca, Querétaro, etc…
It’s time to move beyond Mexico.
Number 3: Buenos Aires
Another solid option would be Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The capital of the most amazing country in the whole world!
Don’t cry for me Argentina, don’t cry for meeeee….
Well, in all seriousness…
Buenos Aires is a pretty solid choice.
I spent some odd months ago long ago and it was a relatively nice place.
In fact, I would argue Buenos Aires was even more comfortable to live in than Mexico City.
Though, in those days, it was relatively more expensive than what I pay to live in Mexico City right now.
But I’ve heard that the USD to Argentine peso exchange rate has crashed these days so it’s apparently quite cheap to live there.
In that sense, a similar deal in terms of getting a comfortable life for a reasonably cheap price.
And being one of the more modern cities in Latin America..
You can for sure find people who speak English there and plenty of other expats also.
Plus, Argentine food is some of my favourite food in all of Latin America.
Another good thing I liked about Buenos Aires was the jazz scene.
One of my favourites in Latin America.
For those who like jazz also…
It was the ideal place where I could sit on my balcony late into the night with a wonderful Brazilian woman waiting for me in bed as I sip some fine Argentine wine listening to the most elegant South American jazz music and writing the next Great American Novel.
Having said all of that…
There are some negatives to Buenos Aires.
First, it’s quite a flight away if you are American or Canadian.
Well, same for Europeans also actually to be fair.
But speaking as an American, it is more inconvenient to get there in terms of flight prices and the time of the flight itself.
On top of that, from my understanding, you can only be in the country for 3 months.
Then you got to leave and do a visa run.
Granted, if you live in Buenos Aires, the visa run is relatively easy.
You simply hop on a boat to Montevideo, Uruguay and spend a few days over there.
I took that boat trip once as you can read here.
It was fine!
But those are some of the bigger issues I’d have with Buenos Aires.
Still, nothing is perfect.
But if you don’t mind the longer trip down south…
Then the next option might be reasonable for you also.
Number 4: Santiago in Chile
Santiago, Chile would be another good option that I would recommend to anyone who is getting started.
For basically many of the same reasons above.
Enough locals speak English and you have plenty of expats also.
You can do visa runs in the country also.
On top of that, Santiago also offers quite a few hiking trails nearby also.
Which I quite like.
Compared to Buenos Aires, which I found lacking in terms of nearby hiking trails close to the city…
Santiago, Chile actually does very well when it comes to this.
Of course, Santiago also has a few of the same negatives as Buenos Aires does.
Longer and pricier flights to get there.
It’s also one of the more expensive cities on this list.
And you can’t stay for 6 months in the country before doing a visa run.
Which is unfortunate.
At any rate, I think it’s a solid choice.
But what if you want to practice some Portuguese instead of Spanish?
Number 5: Rio de Janeiro
As you can see, I’m mostly aiming for large urban cities in Latin America that simply have a lot more tourism behind them.
Since those are the places that will likely have more English speakers…
With more local opportunities also to enjoy life.
Rio de Janeiro is no exception.
Though, as a disclaimer, I haven’t been to this city just yet in life.
So I’m making an assumption here to be fair that you’d have better luck at finding English speakers here than in other Brazilian cities.
At any rate, it has plenty of entertainment to offer.
Though, as you can read in this article here, you are not capable of doing visa runs from my understanding with Brazil.
Mix that in with the fact that Brazil is also far away and is one of the pricier cities on this list..
It definitely has its faults.
But I’ve never heard too many people say they had a bad time in Rio de Janeiro.
In fact, I’ve more often heard glowing reviews of this place.
Makes me want to stop by actually!
Just today some guy posted in a chat I’m part of about how he loves Brazil and can’t see himself leaving.
So I’ll include it in the list despite its faults.
And speaking of other Brazilian cities…
Number 6: São Paulo
Here is one that I do know a little more briefly in person.
São Paulo is another very large city in Brazil and is part of some of the largest cities in the Americas.
Between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, I’ve heard that Rio de Janeiro is a bit better when it comes to everything.
In terms of nightlife, people, dating, local entertainment options, etc.
Both cities being relatively more expensive than most cities on this list.
Both fairly far away compared to most Latin cities.
And you have that visa issue I mentioned in the section under Rio de Janeiro.
Either way, I felt like including it on this list also for many of the reasons above.
I personally enjoyed São Paulo when I was there.
And definitely have plans to go back and spend more time there in the future.
so I’d recommend it for many of the reasons above.
But let’s say you want to be a little bit closer to home if you happen to be from North America…
Number 7: Medellin
Medellin is another city on this list that I haven’t personally been to.
I hesitate a tiny bit to put it on this list because I know it gets hyped up so much by other foreigners who live in Latin America.
If I was to go back to Colombia personally, I’d definitely take a visit to Medellin just to see what the hype is about.
But, being honest, I’d personally prefer staying either in Pereira area or around Barranquilla or Cali.
However, I’m less inclined to recommend those cities to “the beginner” to Latin America.
Because even though you can find English speakers in those cities…
They do tend to be a little bit rougher around the edges.
And less touristy all around.
Less pavement for the new tourist with no Spanish to walk into.
But you could go to those areas also.
If you prefer the beach, go to Barranquilla.
If you prefer a calmer and smaller city with plenty of amazing hiking trails nearby, definitely go to Pereira.
But as I said, this list is for the absolute beginner.
No experience down here.
Because of that, I’m very much inclined to recommend places that are much more established on the gringo tourist trail.
Medellin fits that perfectly.
It’s had a ton of foreigners travel there and still does.
One of Colombia’s most popular cities.
Infrastructure is much better there.
From what I heard, hiking trails nearby are decent.
And you can definitely find enough other expats living there and a lot more locals who speak English.
All around, Medellin is taking a spot on this list compared to other Colombian cities.
Of course, Colombia as a whole has a similar issue to Brazil in that, from my understanding, you can’t do visa runs.
So that is a problem you’ll have to keep in mind.
Though if you have the money…
Then you could also spend half the year in a place like Brazil or Colombia and simply rotate your time between one of those countries and another country.
Maybe 6 months in Colombia and 6 months in Mexico City.
Or 6 months in Brazil.
Or maybe go back home during those months.
Whatever you prefer – it’s definitely an option also.
But what about if you do prefer a place where rules around visas are not as strict?
Number 8: Panama City
Well, Panama City isn’t the most friendly place either.
But you can argue it is friendlier than cities in Colombia or Brazil.
According to this article here, you can do visa runs in Panama but only if you leave the country for 30 days.
While that isn’t exactly like a visa run…
It’s a little bit nicer than having to be outside of the country for 6 months, let’s say.
And given how tiny Panama is and the neighbouring countries like Costa Rica or Colombia close by…
Well, it wouldn’t be too difficult to run off to another country for that time period.
Plus, Panama City has many of the benefits of the other major cities above.
Plenty of local English speakers and other expats…
Relatively more stable and developed.
Fairly close to the US and Canada also.
Plenty of good local entertainment options also.
Though it is relatively more expensive to live here than say Mexico City for example.
Nothing is perfect.
Either way, I recommend it.
Number 9: Cuenca
Compared to most cities on this list, Cuenca is a bit smaller in size at about over 329,000 people from what I can see on Google.
So if you prefer a smaller Latin American city that is not as chaotic as Buenos Aires, Mexico City or Rio de Janeiro…
Well, Cuenca can work right for you.
It’s not as far away from North America as a few of those cities above.
And it’s fairly well developed for the new beginner to Latin America with a ton of expats who live in the area.
Plenty of services for expats also.
Though, according to this article here, Ecuador is not very friendly when it comes to visa runs.
“If you want to stay in Ecuador legally you MUST get an extended visa, otherwise you are only allowed in the country for 90 days per year. If you leave, you won’t be allowed back in until one year after you first entered.”
Because of that, Cuenca wouldn’t be high on my list either a place to go to unless you are looking to get that extended visa.
Which you could.
It’s simply a process you got to go through.
But let’s finish this list anyway with at least one more city where a visa run is possible.
Number 10: Jacó
I picked Jacó in Costa Rica for a few reasons.
First, it’s located in Costa Rica and you can apparently do a visa run from Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is also generally seen as safer to most beginners to Latin America.
That might make them feel more comfortable to visit.
On top of that, it is fairly touristy and has enough English speakers to work with you.
Finally, as I said before, most of the cities on this list tend to be some of the larger cities in Latin America.
Jacó is the exact opposite with nearly 12,000 people living there.
And it happens to have a beach nearby for those who prefer more of a calm beach life.
So in many ways it is a bit different from other areas on this list.
A little bit of a nicer contrast to the other options I’ve listed here.
In short, enjoy the information in this list but take it lightly.
As I said in the beginning of this article, I have no idea who you are.
Nor your budget or what you prefer.
The big city life or the small beach life or a small town with a nice climate?
I prefer the biggest of the biggest cities for myself personally.
As a result, this list largely reflects that.
Though I did try to help out with a few non-big city options!
And options at large that I feel would be a relatively decent fit for anyone who literally has no experience in Latin America and who has no local language skills.
Decent options for getting your feet wet in the water with life down here.
First we go to Medellin and then maybe afterwards you’ll want to take that trip to Pereira or Barranquilla.
Baby steps into a new world down here.
At any rate, if you have any options you felt were good but not included on this list…
Drop them below in the comment section.
Got any questions about picking the right city?
Drop them below in the comment section.
I’ll try to answer anything sent my way.
And follow my Twitter here.
Thanks for reading.