Special Advice On Tropical Climates

What you need to know to make sure that the tropical paradise you're contemplating really is paradise

If your preferred destination is a tropical country, but you have never lived in the tropics before, here are some significant factors in tropical weather and climates you need to know about, but of which you are probably not aware.

The tropics really can be a paradise on earth - but only if you know yourself and your environmental preferences, and the microclimate of the spot to which you are moving. It has been my experience that people who don't mind a wide range of temperate-zone climates quickly find that temperature and humidity in the tropics can be a far greater factor in their comfort level than they ever imagined. This is why it is so important to rent in an area before you buy there. So know the factors that can affect the local microclimate:

Tropical climates tend to become cooler with increasing elevation much more quickly than do temperate climates. At 500 meters above sea level, the edge is off of the heat and humidity, at 1000 meters, temperatures can be cool and pleasant with an occasional chill, and at 1500 to 2000 meters, it can be cool to the point of being chilly, and at night, or in certain times of the year or in certain microclimates, it can get downright cold. Figure that average temperatures will drop about one degree Farenheit for every one hundred meters in elevation gain, so if you know the average temperature for a nearby city, you can easily calculate the rough average temperature for that beautiful highlands village by simply knowing the elevation difference - something for which your GPS receiver is useful, so I recommend you take it along.

Tropical climates are also much more subject to microclimate variations than are temperate climates. Even a hundred meters difference in elevation or a half-kilometer of horizontal distance can mean a major difference climate, especially humidity, fog and wind! Temperatures at sea level usually are more moderate than inland and have less variation day to night along sea shores, but microclimates are much more humid there, and constantly so - and the mosquito/bug factor is much more problematic. Inland, humidity is lower, but the differences between day and night are much greater, and on the edge of the tropics in the higher latitudes, winter temperatures can drop into the 50's or even lower at night - making an unheated house rather uncomfortable for days, even weeks at a time, which is particularly burdensome when the weather is damp. Take your winter clothes if you plan to live in such an area - you'll need them.

Variations in temperature are perceived very differently at different altitudes. At sea level, when humidities are high, as little as five degrees can mean the difference between comfortable and unbearable heat or an annoying chill. At high elevations, at three thousand meters or so, such temperature differences are almost unnoticable. This is because at lower altitudes, the atmosphere is much more dense, pulling heat away from your skin or adding heat to it much more rapidly than high up in the mountains. This effect seems to be enhanced in the tropics, where lower altitudes are generally more humid, adding to this effect (for reasons I won't go into here). Therefore, the lower the elevation, or the more humid the climate you are considering, the more important it is for the weather to be close to your ideal year round.

Dry season weather can be significantly colder or warmer than the during the rains , and you need to know what the pattern is and how much the temperature changes. A general rule of thumb for tropical regions is that rainy seasons are about five degrees F. cooler than dry seasons, but that can vary quite a bit - as much as 20 degrees - depending on where you are in the tropics. Another rule of thumb is that the more pronounced the difference in rainfall between the rainy season and dry season, or the higher the latitude, the greater will be the difference in temperature as well.

Fog is much more common in the tropics than it is in temperate climates, and can be a real nuisance. If a microclimate is particularly prone to fog, you will find your books and important papers will have a constant soggy feel to them, and they will deteriorate very rapidly - they can disintegrate in as little as two or three years. Electronics equipment is vulnerable, too, to mildew growth, which can cause it to fail. Highly miniaturized electronic equipment such as iPods, laptop computers, cell phones, digital cameras, etc., are particularly vulnerable. If you are taking a lot of this kind of stuff along, look for the dryest and least foggy microclimate you can find. Otherwise, you will need to keep all of it in a single room and install a de-humidifier - which can be quite expensive to operate. Maritime climates, particularly with those lovely sea breezes, with their constantly damp, salt-laden air, are particularly hard on electronics, and can ruin them in a few months. In latitudes where the trade winds blow (between about 5 and 20 degrees of latitude north or south of the equator), or where cold seas are adjacent to arid or semi-arid tropical lowlands, windward inshore areas often have intense fog at night, virtually every night, making night driving difficult and dangerous, as well as making the weather unpleasantly chilly and damp, even at low elevations - check locally to see if this is a problem, seasonal or otherwise. Just moving to the leeward side of the hills can sometimes get you out of this kind of microclimate, but you still may have to drive through it to get home. This rule applies mostly to the trade winds latitudes, but it can be a problem anywhere that seasonal winds are strong and last during a good deal of the year - particularly where the seas are warm - the Caribbean and western Pacific, in particular. The pattern can vary a lot across the year, too, so you should inquire locally about this problem.

Regional tendencies to seasonal winds vary dramatically over short distances and are something you should investigate. Seasonal winds usually mean the trade winds, but can also occur in other latitudes due to microclimate variations, and can make an enormous difference in your comfort level. Unlike temperate climates, where they typically blow for a day or two, in the tropics they can be quite strong and persistent, being unrelenting for weeks at a time, and almost always blow from the same direction. So inquire locally as to whether there is a pronounced seasonal wind pattern. If you find a lovely hilltop with a gorgeous view, make sure that view is in the downwind direction - you're going to end up planting a windbreak on the upwind side, guaranteed. Additionally, in trade-wind latitudes, and especially in large areas of Central America and the Caribbean, the onset of the dry season can be unbearably windy and downright chilly in exposed locations, especially on that hilltop with the incredible view - look for trees and shrubs that are tending to grow downwind, or that have moss only on one side of their tree-trunks to know if this is a problem. If you see such vegetation, beware - the winds blow long and hard in such places. If you find a hilltop view you just can't resist buying, make sure the view is on the downwind side of the prevailing winds - so that the windbreak which you will plant won't spoil your view.

Tropical storms (hurricanes and typhoons) usually occur in latitudes of between about ten and thirty degrees (mostly, but not exclusively in the northern hemisphere), though they often escape the tropics and can make a mess of eastern continental shorelines as far north as the arctic. So find out how often they strike the area you are considering. Some places that would be a tropical paradise otherwise receive so many tropical storms that life there can be a hell of constant rebuilding and cleanup. Know the pattern where you are going to live.

In terms of rainfall, it is the pattern that matters, not the annual rainfall number. If an area receives an enormous amount of rain annually, don't just automatically write it off as unbearably wet and muggy, or assume that because an area gets relatively little rain, that it is predominantly warm, sunny, bright, dry and pleasant. You need to know what the pattern of rainfall is, and whether and how much fog occurs there along with it - that can make an enormous difference in how pleasant the climate is to you. Fog and the mugginess that accompanies it, often has little relationship to rain - the Namib Desert in Namibia is one of the dryest places on the planet, but large areas of it are foggy almost every night of the year. Same is true of the Atacama Desert in Peru - and it is the dryest place on the planet. The intensity of rain in the tropics can be vastly greater than it is in the States but fall for a shorter period of time, so an area with twice the rainfall can be dryer than where you are living now. It is the pattern that matters. Does it tend to fall mostly at night? Or are the rains highly intense or seasonal? Does it occur mostly as constant foggy drizzle for weeks on end, or in the form of short-lived torrential downpours once or twice a week? Fogginess and wind makes far more difference to the pleasantness of a tropical climate than rain does. I live in a pleasantly tropical area that gets 155 inches of rain per year - twice as much as Seattle - but it is much dryer, sunnier and far more pleasant here than where I lived previously - a place that got only 57 inches. The reason this place is so much more pleasant is that there is very little fog here, not an excessive amount of wind, and the rains are very intense and usually brief, and fall mostly at night. At my previous home the weather was almost constantly cold and foggy, day and night, with a light but chilly drizzle and high wind that would grind on for days, even weeks at a time. That place felt more like the Aleutian Islands than the tropics, and yes, I've lived in the Aleutians, too, so I would know. I found out several months after I arrived in that place that the locals call it "La Penitencia" - the place God sends people to do penance. The weather was horrible, even though the numbers from the weather bureau look fine.

The critter factor. Anywhere in the tropics you go, you are going to find bugs you don't much like. In the African tropics, it's the nasty little tumba fly that lays eggs on clothes hung out to dry - when you put them on, the egg hatches out and the maggot burrows into your skin, feeding on your sweet, juicy flesh. Prevent tumba fly infestation by ironing or machine drying every textile your skin will come in contact with - socks, towels, sheets, everything. You also learn quickly to flick off insects rather than slapping them, because the acid bug can cause a sore that will take months to heal.

In the American tropics, it is the human botfly and the kissing bug. The eggs of the former, a relative of the tumba fly, are carried by mosquitos, and they are more common in the neotropics than the tumba fly is in Africa, but not a serious problem unless you have no screens on your windows or don't use them. The female mosquito carrying the egg lands on your skin, the egg senses the heat, hatches out and the maggot burrows in for a three-week nosh. The kissing bug, spreads Chagas' Disease, a permanent, incurable and debilitating heart condition for which there is currently no treatment. Avoid it by sleeping only in rooms with concrete walls and ceilings and no wood, mud, wattle and daub, or cane paneling, where these creatures like to hang out.

Everywhere in the tropics, it is the malarial mosquito that is the principal nuisance. Though it is controlled in many places nowadays, malaria nevertheless exists everywhere in the tropics, and dengue fever, becoming increasingly prevalent, is also a growing concern. Malaria is best avoided by always sleeping under a permethrin-treated bed net - the mosquitos that carry malaria are active mostly at night. Dengue is best controlled by careful avoidance of areas with standing water or areas strewn with trash, where its mosquito vector breeds. Mefloquine, sold as Lariam(R), commonly prescribed in the United States as a prophylaxis to malaria, is a very dangerous drug, far more than is commonly understood by most doctors, and should be used only with great caution. West Nile virus, spread by mosquitos, has the potential for wreaking havoc in the American tropics, but so far has not appeared there. There is no known prophylaxis or treatment for West Nile.

All these little nasties can be reduced (but not eliminated) only by going higher, cooler microclimates. Going to a dryer climate at the same altitude will only tend to replace lots of critters with fewer but generally nastier, more aggressive ones.

If you are moving to a tropical country, you are strongly urged to rent for at least six months in the immediate area that you are considering settling in, before you buy property and are committed to living there - you need to experience both the dry season and the rainy season to know whether the local microclimate is suitable for you year round - don't just take the word of the locals or expats who may be adapted to the local microclimate and like it just fine, or who may have a vested interest in looking like they live in paradise. Even though I had been given this advice, I came very close to making a serious mistake for not having taken this advice myself - I listened to an expat with an agenda, and locals who wanted to look like they made the best possible choice of a place to live.

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Internet Resources:

If you are planning to build your "dream castle" in the tropics, once you arrive, here is an excellent .pdf file that you should download (warning - 612kb file - may take some time), study, and discuss with your architect before you build. It will also give you some ideas to consider in evaluating any home you may be considering purchasing. It has lots of useful information you may not have thought about, that could make a big difference in just how livable your new home ends up being.

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