Is South America the next Southeast Asia for digital nomads?

We spent 2 years living in Southeast Asia. We’ve spent almost 8 months in South America. It’s time to compare the two.

A quick disclaimer here: your mileage will vary, obviously. Think of this as the 10,000 meter, very general overview based on personal experiences.

To say I love getting off the tourist trail is an understatement. Whether we’re exploring hell temples or local animal markets, there’s almost always something weird around town. When we’re not exploring, however, we’re in an apartment or hotel somewhere around the world. That’s where this ‘South America vs. Southeast Asia’ comparison comes in.

Cost of living

Southeast Asia ends up cheaper than South America the majority of the time if you’re comparing apples to apples. You can definitely find a cheap hostel or a five-star hotel in either area, naturally, and it’s relatively easy to live or travel on a budget or enjoy the high-end side in either area.

Advantage: SE Asia

Language

Southeast Asia suffers a bit here. On one hand, you’ll find yourself pretty well-accommodated in touristy areas without needing to resort to the local language. Once off the beaten place, English becomes rarer and less likely to see. Thai has five tones, a fact that tends to discourage the vast majority of tourists from putting in any serious time to learn it.

With only one major exception in Brazil, you’ll find South America open for business if you have even a conversational level of Spanish — a language you probably learned in high school, and a language that’s easier to pick up than most anything you’ll find in SE Asia.

Advantage: South America.

The rule of law / ethics

Jub from tikitouringkiwi.com says this:

I really love living in Southeast Asia, one of the biggest reasons is due to the lack of ‘PCness’ in the country. You can get away with driving after a few beers — knowing there isn’t a near zero tolerance from the police, you can request what you want to eat at many restaurants and they’ll make it and if you pay a few extra dollars you can get what you want to a point. With so few regulations, it can also be a pain with a higher risk of food poisoning, exploited workers and getting things done takes longer in general.

Southeast Asia is great for being able to rent a scooter without needing to show a local (or any) drivers license, just a passport to put down as a deposit. Southeast Asia is also fairly notorious for being pretty…. flexible… in how the rules of the road are applied in real life. The general lack of regulation is a double-edged sword, which can be a pro and con. You may not need to wear a helmet while meandering around Thailand, and the 500 baht (around $15) fine may not be a huge deterrence. You’ll also have no one but yourself to blame if your college education comes spilling out along a road somewhere.

While my observation on South America comes from only a couple of countries and no traveling via rented motorcycle or car, South America seems to have a greater awareness of the rule of law. There isn’t the same sort of ‘the law is just a suggestion’ or ‘the law only applies to the foreigners while the locals go free’, which was seen frequently. The occasional bus still runs a red light, but the rule of law definitely seems more respected in South America. That means you might not be able to rent a scooter so easily, but that also means no one else can either.

Ethics? While traveling through Southeast Asia, I sometimes felt like I saw dollar signs light up in the locals eyes. It wasn’t always the ‘how much can I get away with?’ look, but caution was definitely indicated with almost every transaction. It wears you down after awhile. It was also Southeast Asia that had animals on display for the enjoyment of tourists, whether it was elephant rides or the like. South America, at least after 8 months and several cities, hasn’t displayed that.

Advantage: slight advantage to South America

Safety

Claudia Tavani at myadventuresacrosstheworld.com says this:

I may be biased, but I love South America. I have roamed all over the continent several times and for months at end, and never perceived any particular danger. I think being Italian and speaking Spanish definitely helps a lot in communicating with the locals. In the course of my time there I learned to appreciate the culture, the way of life and the overall vibe.
Also, there is a lot of difference between the various countries of South America, where Argentina, Chile and Uruguay are much more advanced (and perceived as safer) than the rest. Speaking about South America in general terms may thus be misleading.
This is not to say that I felt unsafe in South East Asia — not at all indeed. But the fact that the culture is so different, the language barriers so strong, and the quantity of people who live there huge made it a bit overwhelming for me. I couldn’t wait to get away!

To be clear, neither Laura nor I are not the type to stay out super-late or stumble out of bars visibly drunk. We both have great street-smarts, and (knock on wood) have yet to have had any serious safety issues while traveling. As Southeast Asia goes, it definitely felt like there were more opportunistic types out and about, especially in the touristy areas. South America? I’ve been annoyed by people selling stuff on the bus, the sidewalks, etc. — but haven’t really felt unsafe in South America.

Your feelings of safety will vary greatly based on the country, the city, the time of day, and plenty of other things — averaging a bunch of things, though, I’ve gotta give it to South America.

Advantage: slight advantage to South America.

Food

Glorious food! Getting past the potential costs for a second, food throughout Southeast Asia is typically fresh and full of flavor. As variety goes, that’s going to vary on which city / country you’re in (bigger cities typically having a greater set of options), but we found tons of options across any touristy city.

South America is no slouch either, especially if you’re a fan of big portion sizes and/or meat. The American corporate franchises have been pretty big in our South American stops, though (Medellin, Bogota, Quito, and soon Cuenca), which has created some ‘me-too’ sort of competition. Mom-and-pop places are still easy to stumble across as you’re walking down the street, of course, but Southeast Asia really has no competition on this one.

Advantage: Southeast Asia.

Startup / business culture

For years, the cool kids and trendy hipsters have taken to Southeast Asian cities for the cheap lifestyle and communities of other digital nomads. Bangkok has become a hub for start-ups and collaborations, while Chiang Mai has enough coffee shops and co-working spaces to suit most anyone. I’ve heard good things about Vientiane, Ho Chi Minh City, and Phnom Penh as well.

South America counters with Medellin, Santiago, Buenos Aires, São Paulo, and a secret weapon — time zones more suited to doing business with people in North America. Observe:

What the US calls EST (GMT-5) is the same time zone as Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Even the ‘worst-case scenario’ (from the US’ West Coast to a country like Argentina or Uruguay) is only five hours off. Whether the North Americans are your customers or your co-workers, being on or near the time zone they live in makes communication easier.

Advantage: slight advantage to South America.

Visas

Assuming you’re coming from North America, Europe, or have another well-regarded passport, tourist visas are generally available on arrival (usually a visa exemption). More than a few SE Asia countries charge a visa fee, and some require being paid in US dollars (easy to get in some cases, less so in others). Worse, tourist visas / visa exemptions typically only good for 1–3 months, and some countries (looking at you, Thailand!) have made staying in the country more expensive and difficult than it needs to be. Longer-term visas aren’t exactly easy to acquire, though in some cases it’s just a matter of throwing money at the correct department.

South American tourist visas have been fairly easy to get, and most tourist visas are good for 3–6 months. The reciprocity fees can be a bear, though. It’s going to vary based on your nationality, the country in question, and even which border you’re trying to cross (some countries charge a fee when entering via airplane, but not when you cross by land or sea). Also, some reciprocity fees have been dropped in recent years (Chile dropped them for Americans in 2014 and Canadians in 2015), so be sure to consult the most recent information you can find.

Advantage: toss-up.

Adventure

When you’re not working on making the next billion-dollar startup, you might be ready to get away from it all. Southeast Asia and South America have plenty going on, whether you’re into water sports, jungle treks, and so on and so forth. South American tours tend to be more expensive, but also more involved.

As weird stuff goes, there was definitely more stuff in Thailand that qualified as weird. We’ve found and enjoyed more than a few weird places in South America, and much of that didn’t involve going way out to the middle of nowhere…

Advantage: toss-up.

Other thoughts

None of this seemed to fit in other categories:

  • Internet speeds have been counter-intuitive and all over the place. Central Bangkok, where all the services claim to have 4G networks? It crawls. Small-town Baños, Ecuador? Was actually pretty good. Landline connections with Ethernet cords in our apartments have been pretty good on both continents, though I noted a correlation between internet issues and when it rained in Medellin.
  • Southeast Asia has plenty of ‘made-in-China’ and knockoff offerings, with the prices and quality you expect. South America has some knockoff offerings, but not nearly as many as I expected. As I type this I’m in the market for a new iPad case — despite looking in multiple markets and malls, I’ve yet to find one nearly as cheap as I could in Thailand.
  • As health care goes, Bangkok has a few world-class hospitals. Chiang Mai, Phuket, and a couple other cities in Southeast Asia have some worthy facilities as well. South America? I’ve seen what look like nice enough facilities on the outside, but thankfully haven’t had a need to check this out first-hand.
  • If climate factors into your equation, Bangkok is statistically the hottest city on the planet. Medellin had what I could consider a near-perfect spring-like temperature. There’s a little something for everyone in South America, while Southeast Asia rarely has what you’d call ‘winter’ with any serious amounts of snow.

Overall

Taylor from www.oncewereyoungtravel.com says this:

For me, Southeast Asia will [almost] always win. If not for the Khao Soi, then for the low cost of living, the exotic landscapes, and the thrill of living in a culture completely inverted from my own. That being said, it really depends what we were looking for! If we were planning to stay long term, you could probably sell me on South America. My Spanish stands a chance while I’m still about 4 tones away from any sort of conversational Thai.

In this post, I count four advantages to South America, two to Southeast Asia, and two toss-ups. There are so many more variables to get into that even a full-length book would have a tough time covering them all.

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Hope you’ve enjoyed this post, which first appeared at Is South America the next Southeast Asia for digital nomads? on One Weird Globe.

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