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House-Sitting in Latin America: A Cross-Cultural Guide.

Welcome to Nomador's Cultural Differences & House-sitting series, where we explore how cultural uniqueness across countries can impact our members’ experiences. In each Country Guide, we also offer practical and applicable tips to more effectively bridge cultural differences as a house-sitter. If you missed the first four articles in the series, be sure to read the series introduction and the first three country guides, which focus on France, Canada, and Australia.

This is the fifth post in the series, and is our first regional guide, focusing on the specific cultural and situational considerations that might impact your house-sitting experiences in Latin America.

While we will provide some general tips for applying to and completing successful house-sits in Latin America, this guide will focus more on the unique aspects of the Latin American house-sitting market, and how they might impact your experience, as well as provide a high-level overview of some of the Latin American countries where house-sitting is most popular.

We hope you find this approach helpful.

Guanajato, Mexico - Photo credit: wandertooth.com

An Overview of the House-Sitting Community in Latin America

Compared to Europe, North America, and Australia, the Latin American house-sitting community is unique in that most (but not all) participants are expatriates. Indeed, the majority of Latin America house-sitting assignments on Nomador.com are for countries in which there is an established expatriate community, and for homes or home-business combinations owned by expats/immigrants to the country, rather than locally-born citizens.

While it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly why this is, we can certainly make some educated guesses about cultural and economic factors that could explain the trend:

  • Broadly speaking, Latin American cultures score lower on individualism cultural dimensions than Europeans, Australians, Canadians and Americans. This correlates with Latin Americans having close-knit family and friend groups, and with members of these in-groups taking on more responsibility for one another than in individualist cultures. Put simply: there is less need to use a house-sitting community like Nomador, because people can simply draw upon their tight friends and family network when they need help.
  • Sharing economy businesses and communities such as Nomador require a high level of social trust. While this varies widely across the region, a Pew Center study found only (roughly) one-third of Peruvians, Chileans and Brazilians agree that most people in their societies are trustworthy. Anecdotal observations suggest this is true in other Latin American countries, too. Lack of trust, as well as lack of knowledge of these services, is consistently mentioned as a challenge for sharing economy services seeking to expand in Latin America.
  • While widespread Internet availability and a strong middle class are both rapidly growing across the region, they’re not yet at the same levels as Europe or North America.

We expect and hope house-sitting opportunities in Latin America will expand and diversify considerably over the next decade, but for now, many house-sitting opportunities in the region are for the homes and pets of foreign-born retirees and working-age expatriates.

What does this mean for you?

  • Most house-sitting opportunities are in countries and areas/cities that are popular with expatriates. There are more house-sitting assignments in Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Argentina than there are in Cuba, Venezuela, and French Guiana, for example.
  • Many house-sitting assignments in Latin America are for private residences and pets, but there are also members asking for caretaking duties, such as property maintenance or managing guests in small hospitality businesses.
  • Some house-sitting assignments require house-sitters to look after locally born staff or helpers, such as gardeners, cleaners, and more. As local salaries are low in many Latin American countries, it’s not uncommon to hire locals to help with property maintenance and care.
  • Some house-sitting assignments don’t have any pets at all, and are posted by owners who require someone to stay on the property for security reasons. Other assignments have rescue pets or feral, outdoor-only pets that require general care and feeding, but not ‘pet parenting.’
  • Each country -- and regions within countries, as well -- have unique challenges, benefits, and factors to consider when considering whether to apply for a house-sit. When it comes to Latin America, you’re equally likely to come across a house-sitting assignment caring for an urban flat as you are an off-grid jungle retreat!

The Most Popular ‘House-Sitting Countries’ Across Latin America

Now that we’ve explored some general differences between house-sitting in Latin America and Europe, North America, and Australia, let’s take a quick look at some of the most popular house-sitting countries within the region. As we can’t cover the entire region, we’ve decided to look at the five Latin American countries in which house-sitting is currently the most popular on Nomador:

  • Mexico
  • Costa Rica
  • Panama
  • Ecuador
  • Argentina

As always, many of these statements will be generalizations, applying to behaviors, circumstances, and cultural norms of most of the people, most of the time. This is meant to simply provide a high-level overview, and not discount the individual personalities, regional differences, and multi-ethnic diversity of these countries and people.

Mexico

Mexico has a large expatriate community, many of whom are Americans and Canadians who live in Mexico year-round and return to their home countries for visits, or those who winter in Mexico and spend the warmer months at home. While safety is unfortunately a concern in some areas of Mexico, most of the house-sits available are in areas with no government travel warnings.

One of the reasons Mexico is such a popular country with expats is the friendliness of the people - Mexicans are very welcoming and warm, in general. Mexico is also a very affordable, and it’s easy to live in many places around the country for less than $1000 per month. Mexico also has good health care, food, infrastructure, and wide availability of American and international brands and shops, and is generally an LGBT-friendly country where public displays of affection aren’t uncommon in cities.

While Mexico is generally hotter year-round than the United States or central and northern Europe, the climate varies widely across the country, depending on location, elevation, and season.

As the saying goes, however, Mexico is a state of mind, and not everyone falls in love with this state of mind. Those who enjoy stringent order, punctuality, and clear-cut processes may find Mexico takes a little getting used to. As a house-sitter, this is unlikely to affect you, unless you need to pay bills, or deal with local contractors or utilities companies. But it’s certainly worth keeping in mind for longer house-sitting assignments.

Campeche, Mexico - Photo credit: wandertooth.com

Costa Rica

Expats who move to Costa Rica seem to quickly adopt the pura vida -- or pure life -- philosophy of Costa Ricans: prioritizing relationships, fun, and enjoying the simple pleasures of life. This approach to life, along with Costa Rica’s wonderful beaches, jungle and mountains, is probably one of the reasons the country is such a popular destination among foreigners. And while many visitors quickly fall in love with pura vida, others find it frustrating when trying to get things done, where the attitude of mañana (a vague reference to sometime in the future) can make things take longer than you’re used to.

While Costa Rica is more expensive than Mexico, it’s still very affordable. Despite the higher cost of living, Costa Rica seems to have more issues with infrastructure: the roads are notoriously awful (something to consider if you plan to drive), and water and power outages aren’t all that uncommon.

Most of Costa Rica also has a distinct wet and dry season. The dry season is from mid-November/December to April, and is considered summer. May to November is the rainy season, and can be more a more challenging time for house-sitting, as flooding is a genuine risk, constant vigilance against termites is required in some areas, and you’re more likely to come face-to-face with Costa Rica’s wonderful nature, when creatures seeking refuge from the rain invite themselves into your house-sit!

Panama

Panama is massively popular with expatriates for its cost of living, climate and geography, relatively simple visa processes, and business climate.

An interesting mix of tropical beaches, jungles, and modern skyscrapers, living standards vary widely around the country: while Panama City, the Gold Coast, and the mountain communities of El Valle and Bouquette offer modern conveniences, the standard of living is very simple in the country’s interior and non-resort coastal areas.

As with Mexico and Costa Rica, Panamanians have a laid-back lifestyle and are rarely in a rush to get places, or to get things done. You may see this as a positive, or a negative, depending on your own culture and what you need help with.

Ecuador

Ecuador is one of the most popular countries for expatriates to retire to in South America, and that makes it one of the most common house-sitting destinations in the region. Broadly speaking, the country is very welcome to foreign retirees and families, and the country has a reputation for having an “eternal spring” climate, rarely getting too hot or cool. It’s also home to the Valley of Longevity (Vilcabamba) known as a ‘blue zone’ for the residents’ unusually long lifespans, and Cuenca, a popular expat spot.

A very affordable country, it’s possible to live in Ecuador for about $1000 to $1200 per month, depending on where in the country you live.

Of course, nowhere is perfect. The biggest thing house-sitters in Ecuador need to be aware of is the cultural attitude toward dogs. ‘Pet parenting’ isn’t a thing among Ecuadorians, and dogs are considered a more of a nuisance or work animal than a loving family member. And unfortunately, intentional dog poisoning is a problem. Before the homeowner leaves you in charge of Fido, be sure to ask them if they’re concerned about dog poisoning, and how to best avoid it. In many cases, it means ensuring the dog isn’t outside overnight, and doesn’t make enough noise (barking) to annoy the neighbors.

Argentina

Argentina is a vibrant country with a unique culture, wonderful food, cosmopolitan cities, and stunning nature. Many who visit Argentina are surprised by how European it feels, and fall in love with the country. Combine that with relatively affordable costs (by North American and European standards), and good quality education and infrastructure, and it’s easy to see why it’s an attractive country for foreigners to live in.

Somewhat of a cultural outlier within the region, Argentines are more individualist, less hierarchical, and less machismo than other Latin American countries. Argentines are also more likely to humanize their pets and act as ‘pet parents’ than some countries in the region, making it a convenient and safe country for pet ownership.

As a house-sitter living temporarily in Argentina, the biggest things to be aware of are the schedule, and the impact of inflation and economic instability. Argentina’s trading hours and meal times have more in common with Spain than some of its neighbors: shops and services close mid-day for siesta, and Argentines eat dinner at 9pm or later. More seriously, the cycle of economic crash and recovery, and corresponding inflation issues, has led to a rise in crimes of opportunity, and you should be careful with overt displays of wealth, and leaving houses unattended overnight.

Buenos Aires Tango Dancers - Photo credit: wandertooth.com

Tips for Applying to House-sitting Assignments Across Latin America

Now that you're familiar with some of the unique factors impacting house-sitting in Latin America, and a few country-by-country differences, consider these tips when preparing your next application for a house-sit in Latin America.

  • Be honest with yourself about what you’re comfortable with, and what sounds stressful. If the idea of listening to a howler monkey outside your window all day and night sounds awful, perhaps a housesit in Buenos Aires or Santiago is more up your alley. If you like efficient processes and punctuality, accept that a long-term house-sit in Mexico may not be the right fit.
  • Ask about cultural attitudes toward pets during preliminary discussions with the homeowner. While Argentines have embraced ‘pet parenting’  at a level similar to Europeans and North Americans, Ecuadorians have not. Point is, cultural attitudes (and the consequences of those attitudes) toward animals varies widely across Latin America, and it is important you understand country-specific issues.
  • When applying to a house-sit in Latin America, you could be introducing yourself to a homeowner from anywhere in the world. To be safe, use ‘business casual’ language that’s not overly formal, nor overly familiar. Keep your communications focused on their home and pets until you know more about their needs.
  • Consider the season and the weather of the house-sitting assignment, and ask if there are any specific requirements for pet and home care unique to the time of year.
  • Of course, be sure to check visa requirements before you apply, so you can be sure you’re able to cover the entire duration of the house-sitting assignment.

Health, Safety & Environmental Considerations

Finally, it’s worth noting that the diversity of house-sitting assignments that come up across South America reflect the diversity of the region. Different environmental, geographical, political and infrastructure factors may impact your experience, and the pets and homes you’re caring for.

Water Safety & Sanitation

Unfortunately, clean and potable tap water is not universally available across Latin America, meaning you may need to boil or purify the water you use for drinking and cooking (and any pets’ drinking water), or purchase bottled water. In some countries and areas, you’ll also need to use purified water for cleaning fruits and vegetables, as well as possibly using a disinfectant on fresh produce.

Also note, many plumbing systems across Latin America are not built for toilet paper, meaning you need to use a rubbish bin, rather than flushing it. Be sure to ask the homeowner about this (and follow their instructions), so you don’t damage the home’s plumbing.

Earthquakes

While the risk of experiencing an earthquake in Latin America exists, the risk of being seriously hurt in one is very small. Many of the most vulnerable countries in the region also have some of the most stringent building codes - Chile has some of the best in the world, and Peru is not far behind. And while simple adobe buildings are quite vulnerable to earthquake damage, it’s also unlikely you’d stay in one of these buildings on a house-sitting assignment.

Take typical precautions, such as knowing how to act in an earthquake in your country (this varies across countries), having an escape plan for yourself and the animals, asking the homeowner where their earthquake kit is, keeping 7 days of potable water and canned food for you and the animals on-hand, and knowing how to turn-off natural gas lines.

Floods

Another one in the ‘very small, but still possible’ category, chat with the homeowner about regional and seasonal flooding tendencies, and how they keep the home and animals safe during heavy rainfall. Some homes have small, quirky vulnerabilities to them, and it’s second-nature for long-time residents to check for these without thinking twice about it.

Be sure to ask the homeowner if there are specific places in the home you should check during heavy rainfall, or if there are any places in the house that have flooded before.

Final Thoughts

One thing that isn’t different about house-sitting in Latin America is the wonderful diversity of assignments. From a beach home in Mexico to a hacienda in Ecuador to an off-grid island in Panama, there’s something for every type of house-sitter in Latin America.

From the top of its ankle to the tip of its toe, the region is nothing if not diverse. Home to the thick jungle of the Amazon, the bone-dry moonscape of the Atacama, the peaks of Patagonia, and the Caribbean coast of Central America, Latin America offers a ‘choose your own adventure’ buffet of different landscapes, climates, excitement and challenges.

We hope this guide is helpful, and as always, would love to hear your thoughts and questions about house-sitting in Latin America.


Katie Matthews
Wandertooth.com

As full-time travellers, Katie Matthews and her husband Geoff frequently housesit as a way to gain a deeper interaction with different cultures, meet like-minded people, and spend some time with furry animals. They have been housesitting since 2013, recently settling in Budapest to focus on their business creating travel-themed adult colouring books and writing their travel blog, wandertooth.com. Holding a Master's of Arts in International and Intercultural Communication, Katie has a keen interest in how culture shapes communications.

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