The Earth Awaits: Where in the World is Our Family Going to Go?

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[PoF: The following is a guest post from The Frugal Vagabond. After I saw his excellent new site, The Earth Awaits, I asked him if he would like to showcase the site while doing some deep digging for me. I am not necessarily interested in retiring abroad, but would like to spend a year with my family in a true Spanish immersion situation.]

Despite the differences in our lives, our professions, and families, PoF and I have a lot in common. We aspire to FIRE, or at least downshift, because we recognize that time is the most precious commodity we have. We’re lateral thinkers who love travel and adventure. We want our children to grow up with a rich set of experiences that includes exposure to other cultures and ways of life.

A few weeks back, PoF issued me a challenge: could I find a place abroad where he and his family could spend a year honing their language skills, living the good life, all on a reasonable budget and meeting a few basic crime and pollution parameters?

Anyone who knows me won’t be surprised to hear that I practically leapt out of my seat and shouted, “Yes! Of course!” My sincere belief is that the world is filled with places that tick all the boxes, if only one has the means to discover them.

Retirees with limited means, families or individuals wanting to live abroad, those aspiring to a very lean early retirement— all of these scenarios played in my mind when I began to develop The Earth Awaits, my tool to build custom budgets based on every individual’s budget, family size, housing needs, and other important factors.


The Challenge


Here are the parameters that PoF asked me to use when hunting for a place to live abroad:

  • Spanish-speaking country
  • $5,000 per month maximum budget
  • Relatively comfortable/luxurious lifestyle to allow some further activities and travel
  • Safety is a top priority
  • Family of four (two adults, two children)
  • Three-bedroom apartment (city center or outside)
  • Near to a school (public or private) for the children
  • Low crime rate
  • Average or lower pollution levels
  • Prefer an area without blistering heat


Impossible? Not even close!


I knew that there were some great options out there that would fit the bill— mostly in Spain, but possibly in Mexico and South America, too. Full disclosure: this challenge did force me to up my game and add a primary language filter to the site, so everyone has PoF to thank for that feature! [PoF: You’re welcome, world.]

With the new primary language filter added, I performed a search on The Earth Awaits with the following parameters:


I opted for a city center apartment to minimize the need for a car. Though the PoF family may end up using one, being in the center reduces those costs, improves the availability of services, shopping, and entertainment, and generally would keep the family steeped in culture and activities.

According to PoF’s request, the crime rate is set to low and pollution to moderate, which is average pollution or lower. I chose a lifestyle of opulent, the maximum allowed in the search, to allow for some serious overhead in the budget for things like exploration of the local area, family activities, and to partially account for the costs of school, which we’ll cover later.


The Result

Despite the somewhat strict search, The Earth Awaits still returned 12 great candidates.


In order of Quality of Life index, from high to low, they are:


These results give a great range of costs, geographic location, weather, and lifestyle. Roughly speaking, this list of results can be divided into “Spain” and “everywhere else.”

The Spanish cities have the advantage of being safe, adjacent to other wonderful European destinations, well-developed, and filled with great education options. The cities in Ecuador and Mexico are much less expensive (freeing up funds for private school tuition) and close to home, but there’s a tradeoff in level of development and education opportunities.

Though it’s not the primary aim of this post to discuss all of the possibilities, there are a few destinations here that are extremely interesting.

Córdoba has some of the richest history in all of Spain, having been traded back and forth between pre-Christian, Catholic, and Moorish cultures several times. The old city of Córdoba is the world’s largest urban UNESCO world heritage site. The city is driving distance to the sea, and the budget lies on the upper-middle end of the range, leaving a little bit extra every month to put towards tuition. On the downside, Córdoba has Europe’s highest daily average temperature during the summer. It’s hot!

Sevilla is the capital of Andalusia in southern Spain. It is cosmopolitan, full of things to see and do, and would be an easy place to immerse oneself in language and culture. The tradeoff is that it is among the most expensive locations on the list.

Las Palmas is one of the Canary Islands. That means it comes with all the advantages and disadvantages of living on an island. Limited opportunities for travel, education, and exploration, but great beaches and a more relaxed lifestyle. Because everything must be imported, it is the most expensive city on the list.

Querétaro, Merida, and Playa del Carmen are all expat enclaves in Mexico, making them comparatively safe. Each has a sizable community of English speakers. This might be helpful when feeling homesick, or a hindrance when it comes to truly immersing oneself in the language. Merida has a beautiful old town, Querétaro has incredible geographic diversity (from deserts to rainforests), and Playa del Carmen is an extremely popular tourism beach town. All are inexpensive compared to some of the better options in Spain, leaving plenty of room in the budget.

Cuenca is one of the most notable retirement destinations in South America, and there are plenty of English-speaking expats. Its location in the mountains means it is cool and seldom gets punishingly hot. Ecuador uses the US dollar, eliminating the need for a mental or actual currency conversion. It’s also very, very affordable. However, it’s somewhat remote, and the options for education are more limited than in large cities in Spain.

Ecuador! We've been there.

Ecuador! We’ve been there.

Ultimately, each of these cities would make a great destination for a year of study and experience abroad. Because of PoF’s specific needs, there’s one item in particular that may weigh more heavily than the others.

The Wildcard: Education


The cost of education in each of these cities can vary from almost nothing to extremely expensive, depending on whether the family chooses to opt for public or private education. Schools like the British School of Córdoba and St. George’s of Sevilla can range from 6,000-10,000 Euros per year, per child. There are some private schools that discount a second child, and some which are a comparative bargain, but private education in Spain is bound to account for a huge portion of the budget.

That said, Spanish public school is predictably far better than public schools in the other locations on the list. Assuming the PoF family enters on a visa that allows them to use the public school system, and assuming a certain level of Spanish preparation before the first day of school, the “public option” may be viable.

In Ecuador and Mexico, private education is far less expensive, but also far more necessary. It’s unlikely that the PoF family would want to use the Mexican or Ecuadorian public school systems. In Cuenca, CEDEI, Colegio Santana, and the German School are the most common private institutions used by American expats. Their monthly tuitions are in the low hundreds of dollars per child, rather than nearing a thousand.

Broadly speaking, for the best cultural and lifestyle options, spending the year in Spain is probably the best bet from this list. For the best options that strictly respect the budget while allowing for a quality private education, Ecuador or Mexico may be a better bet.


Moving Forward


Of course, it’s not possible to calculate a decision like this on a purely numerical basis. The family’s experience can’t be summarized in a list of pros and cons, or derived into an equation. There’s so much research and reading to do before making a move, but I’m excited about the options available to PoF and his family. With such amazing destinations, it’s really tough to go too wrong.


I can’t wait to see where they decide to go!


[PoF: I can’t either! This adventure is a few years off, so we don’t need to nail down any specifics just yet, but it’s great to know that this resource, The Earth Awaits, will be there when the time comes. By then, I imagine it will be even more robust.

While the query results above gives us plenty of options, there are some places we would consider that didn’t make the cut. Places like Costa Rica, Argentina, and Chile. Tweaking the search parameters to allow for “moderate” crime or pollution would open up quite a few additional possibilies, including those nations I mentioned.

Do I want to live in a place with a moderate crime level? Not particularly, but those statistics are city-wide. Chicago’s got a decent crime rate, but there are many parts of the city where I feel quite comfortable. The same could be said for most medium to large cities around the world.



looks safe enough from up here


Would you consider retiring abroad? If not permanently, perhaps for an extended stay? We’re looking at spending one school year abroad while our boys are in middle school. Until then, we’ll continue to practice our Español, using Duolingo and other resources.]

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  • The Green Swan

    Very awesome tool, FV! I’ve had the chance to play around with it a bit which is very useful considering I may have the opportunity to move to either Dublin or London. Thanks again for the impressive work on this!

    • The Frugal Vagabond

      Thanks, TGS! It was a lot of fun to build, and feels less like work when you find yourself daydreaming with your own tool for hours at a time 🙂

  • Very cool tool. While not looking to retire abroad we have decided to do 6 months to a year of recreational vehicle type living in different regions of the world. That being said I expect the kids to be long gone by then. Kids education creates an interesting conundrum but don’t forget there are also online public schools here in the us or home school as potential solutions.

    • Great point, FTF. The site has been described as a retirement search, but works just as well for consideration of an extended stay.

      The online / home school might be an option to cover subjects not addressed at our “away school.” Good tip!

  • We lived overseas for 4 years and LOVED it! We would totally consider doing it again, if the right situation arose. Even a 6 month or 12 month stay in a home base would be a lot of fun. Looks like we just need to keep building that passive income. =)

  • We want to do an extended stay abroad, but our choice of locales is quite different. Mrs. SSC is set on Italy (ka-ching) and I think SA, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Ecuador, etc… could be fun. I’d also be down for Southern France (ka-ching) but Mrs. SSC has no desire to visit France. oh well…

    I have played around with that site to get some out of the box places we could do extended abroad stays or possibly live and it was neat. It was cool to get some varied options across the globe for places to live.

    • Those sound like great options, SSC. The good news is, with your FIRE plans, you don’t have to choose between locations. You can do them all!


      • The Frugal Vagabond

        Agreed! One of the other things some people might consider is alternating between low cost of living places and expensive ones to improve the average spending over time. My wife and I have talked about doing SE Asia and some of the more expensive countries in Europe, for a net low-moderate cost.

  • Eric Lancaster

    Would love to check out The Earth Awaits but looks like the server is down.

  • Good guest post, and very interesting. One question I had was: why a Spanish immersion experience? Why not another language? The world has many options why limit it to Spanish speaking countries?

    • I should have asked The Frugal Vagabond to find us a place where Latin is the primary language. Really put his site to the test!

      Honestly, for our family, Spanish is the most likely foreign language we’ll encounter stateside or abroad, at least in the Americas. Also, my wife and I have at least an introduction from high school Spanish classes.


  • VagabondMD

    I loved this blog and the The Earth Awaits. I plugged in my data, for a few years from now when the kids are in college and the Mrs. and I are (hopefully) retired or location indie, and my favorite city (Florence, Italy) was happily on my list, amongst many other European destinations. (I was surprised that there were not more Italian cities.)
    In fact, I expect that we could probably live virtually anywhere in Europe (with the possible exception of a large apartment in center city Paris or London) if we wanted. Yea! The site is a great source for ideas and a starting point for future exploration and discovery.

    As for PoF’s choices, I would narrow it to one of the Adalusian cities on the list. Southern Spain is rich in natural beauty and history and would be an excellent base for the visit of lots of great European cities and regions.

    • The Frugal Vagabond

      Thanks, VagabondMD! I am so glad you had some fun with it.

      There are currently 30 Italian cities in the database (though of course it’s possible to filter some or all out of your results if you have strict enough requirements). There are probably some notables that could be added– Siena, off the top of my head– so if you find that cities with say, 50K people or more in Italy are missing, drop me a line and I’ll see what I can do to add them. As long as I can get a full record constructed and the cost of living data is complete, I am happy to add them.

  • Wow, fantastic site! I’ve never thought about retiring abroad – very interesting. Unfortunately the only other language I’m fluent with (Chinese) have limited geographic coverage. Will have to figure out where to go. Thanks again for introducing us to this awesome tool and for this fantastic guest post!

  • financialibre

    Fun post! The Earth Awaits is a really awesome site that I’ve enjoyed poking around on – definitely a great planning tool, but lots of fun at the same time. Thanks for the overview here, and thanks for hosting this cool guest post PoF!

    PoF, I like your parameters, and y’all ended up with a nice list of spots to consider (or at least explore sometime). We’ve spent a lot of time in the Andalucia region of Spain, where some of your “hits” are from. I noticed Spain’s cities rank well in crime generally in the EA tool, which is consistent with my experience there – and healthcare, education, cleanliness, etc. in Spain are top-notch. So if somewhere in Iberia ends up being where y’all head to for that immersion course, we’ll gladly be your unwanted houseguests for awhile – no charge!

    • Thanks for the tips, Libre! Schooling will be very important, of course. I’m glad to hear you found the education to be top-notch. It will be interesting to see what the economy is like there in a few years. There has certainly been turmoil in recent years.


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