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Charts!

11.07.12

I’m re-working a lot of this content into a book (more on that later) and part of the result are these pie charts about how each city’s costs broke down into categories.  Enjoy.

Placencia cost of living breakdown

“Must know”

10.03.11

A friend of mine emailed asking if there’s any information about Central America that I consider must know.  For the purposes of this post we’ll call her “Steph” and this is mostly directed to her, though other people might find it useful (or anger inducing).  She’s already lived in Belize, so I’m leaving out comments about how idyllic Placencia is.

Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are too violent to be of much use right now.

The situation in Honduras has been deteriorating for years, which is a shame because it’s otherwise an incredible place.  The islands are still livable, but even Utila was seeing a serious rise in violent crime (I include muggings as violent crimes, many stats don’t).  When we were there we regularly read stories like “15 factory workers executed in midday”, mostly gang turf disputes in San Pedro Sula.  Are there more peaceful areas?  These days I don’t know.  I do know that routine law enforcement is basically non-existent.  I spent a few months in mainland Honduras in 2007 and even then private security was the only security (and was very, very common).  Things have only gone downhill since (a coup, a devastating series of floods, riots, increased gang activity).

For some reason everyone seems to have agreed to pretend Guatemala is a reasonable place to hang out.  The murder rate was already atrocious (and likely lowballed) before the Mexican gangs got involved.  I swear to god every 3rd backpacker I talked to mentioned either being personally mugged at knife point or knowing someone who had.  Yet they’d still always go “It’s not that bad.”  I spent a few weeks renting a room in a nice house in a gated community a short walk from upscale downtown Antigua.  The owners warned us repeatedly that guys with machetes liked to hide in the bushes and mug people outside the gate.  This was NOT a desolate area and this was a known MO, but nothing was done about it.

I haven’t been to El Salvador.  I’ve heard great things about it, including San Salvador and the beaches, but it’s still a little to dicey for me to take The Girlfriend.  If I were traveling with a few guys I’d risk it.  And while Guatemala and Honduras are on the decline (Guatemala perpetually), El Salvador has shown some signs of significant improvement lately.  Best of luck to them, I can’t wait to see it.

Nicaragua is incredibly cheap and it’s beautiful, though a lot of people are waiting to see how this election goes (how the people react to Ortega’s unconstitutional 3rd term re-election) before putting down roots.

Costa Rica is overpriced and increasingly unwelcoming to gringos.  We didn’t spend much time (just the bus stop layover), many expats we talked to were moving out of there.

Panama is head and shoulders above the rest of the region with regard to standard of living.  Great deals can be found outside of Panama City and Bocas del Toro (too far out for cheap goods to be available), though both of those places are worth seeing too.

Much of the Central American Caribbean is uninviting; it’s often the more impoverished and less secure area.  In Nicaragua you can’t even get there by road, except for one isolated town.  Development sprawls along the Inter-American Highway which runs the Pacific Coast.  That said, there are some real jewels out there, though prices tend to climb since supplies need to be transported so far.  This is doubly true on small islands.

Don’t miss:

Nicaragua: San Juan del Sur and surrounding beach sprawl is right up your alley, though the diving is lame, Leon if you can stand the heat, both Corn Islands (quick flight from Manangua, arduous journey otherwise, either might be your thing, you’ll be glad you went), Isla Ometempe (the two-volcano island in Lake Nicaragua) and Esteli if you can handle the slow life (and it gets slower from there).

Panama: Party in Panama City (if you have the funds), hideout in Boquete to restore your budget and take respite from the heat, see San Blas at least once and check out Bocas del Toro.

If I were going to buy property right now, it would probably be around Laguna de Apoyo, Nicaragua (if possible) or on Bastimentos Island, Panama.

Price of beer in a bar: You usually end up paying US$1.00 or US$1.25
Song currently stuck in my head: Red Eyes and Tears (Black Rebel Motorcycle Club)

Expats here like to drink; not just in Bocas del Toro, but throughout Central America and perhaps throughout the world. The combination of cheap booze, beach town tranquility, lots of time to kill and the oft oppressive heat create a perfect storm of perpetual inebriation. You’ll hear over and over again that “you’ve got to watch it” because even the most casual drinker can easily slip into an unhealthy habit without noticing. Personally, I arrived a heavy drinker (and I was in good company in that respect) and keeping close tabs on all of our spending now allows me to quantify our drinking in a way I never could before. I had to make some estimates for times where the record shows only vague allusions to “several rounds at multiple bars” and such, and I ended up excluding New Year’s Eve all together because the record of it was thin and the margin of error huge, but for the most part I have a solid idea of what we’ve drank and where.

All in, we averaged about 1.94 drinks per person per day (less than I’d have guessed). That assumes that The Girlfriend and I drank the same amount, which is hard to estimate but very close to true. That number comes from US$1,662.85 being spent on 1675.5 “drinks” over the 432 days of our trip. A “drink” was 1.5 ounces of 80 proof liquor, a 12 ounce beer at 5% alcohol or a 5 ounce glass of wine. A 750ml bottle of 70 proof liquor, a common site in these parts, equals 14.8 “drinks”. That comes out to just under US$1/drink. I don’t know how we skewed so high; 750ml of can run as low as US$2 in Nicaragua. I guess those US$2 beers really add up. By city, here is a comparison of our 30 day experiments. Placencia was excluded because our records there are a little too vague; we were still honing our note taking skills at that point.  Drinking, like most things, is more expensive in Placencia, Belize than elsewhere in Central America.

Here are the number of drinks, per person, consumed over the 30 day period and the total cost of them.  This represents a mix of alcohol purchased at stores and bars/restaurants. Click to enlarge.

The amount of booze we ingested was highly dependent on mood, price and the availability of non-booze related activities, but we can draw some broad generalizations.  For one thing, it’s cheap to drink in Central America in general and especially so in Nicaragua.  Also, we drink more in beach towns (and it certainly feels like everyone does).

~2 drinks per day puts us on track with medical recommendations for reducing the risk of heart disease, but our pattern of drinking does not.  I’ve dug for some useful info on this and mostly what I run across is fear mongering (“binge drinking is risky because you might do something risky while binge drinking”) and vague references to numbers.  The best I can figure, and I am not a doctor nor am I dispensing medical advise here, the healthy limit (that’s limit, not recommendation) is 4 drinks per day or 14 per week for a guy like me.  We were right around that 14 per week limit on this trip.

The Girlfriend and I have a loose list of cities and/or regions in Latin America that we might be interested in relocating to. Most of these are places that I’ve been, but seldom for more than a few days. Everywhere I go, whether a business trip to DC or mushroom hunting in Northern Michigan, I can’t help but wonder “what’s it like to live here?” What’s it like to spent a snowed in winter on Middle Bass Island? What would it have been like to get some friends together and put up a compound in immediate post Katrina NOLA?

Now a long weekend in La Paz, Bolivia is an exhilarating whirlwind of witch markets and mescaline but it doesn’t really give you a feel for day to day life. Well, we’ve decided that 4-6 weeks begins to and that’s what we’re doing. In researching this trip I found that “what’s it cost to live there” was the most common question that I ran across and was seldom answered in any useful way. I hope that by posting our meticulous records I’m providing a service to other transients like me. While I’m keeping records of everything that is spent on this trip, the spreadsheets that I upload to this site are tailored to reflect 30 days worth of daily expenses. I exclude items that last longer than a month (for example, if I buy a pair of sunglasses) and I prorate certain items (which are noted on the sheets). Also, I exclude voluntary tipping. I categorize everything so that if you’re, say, a recovering alcoholic then you can easily omit the amount we’ve spent on booze. You can add up all the meals we’ve eaten out and come up with an average cost of eating out in a given city and know exactly what type of meals that money is getting you. You can use similar math to come up with a representative price of eating in. You can do whatever you want; versatility was my goal.

I run a handful of formulas against the data during the month to keep an eye on our average spending and whether or not we’re on track for our goal, but I delete these when I upload the sheets here so as not to over complicate them. I want the posted sheets to be as close to raw data as possible.

I hope they can be of use. If you have any questions about the sheets, their contents or the information they reflect just post to the summary page for that city (located on the top right) or anywhere else for that matter.

Price of beer in a bar: US$1.85/liter
Song currently stuck in my head: Is This Thing On? (!!!)

Water.

We don’t drink the water in San Juan Del Sur, though we often do. We buy 5 gallon bottles of drinking water every 2 or 3 days and use these when we want to drink a cold glass of water. If we’re heating the water (coffee, boiling food, etc), we use tap. We also use tap to brush our teeth and wash our dishes. I’m not sure why, but this appears to be the norm. We occasionally notice minerals in the water after we’ve boiled it, though this hasn’t happened in a long time. The girlfriend frets about a lack of calcium in her diet but eschews the seemingly calcium rich water. Kidney stones are a common problem throughout the region. I think the water was worse (“harder”, I think would be the appropriate term) in Esteli, but we never used bottled water there.

In Utila, the local water was brackish; even the “city” water. You shower in it but no one cooks with it or serves it or ice made with it and you try to keep your mouth shut in the shower. We had to buy a lot more bottled water there, but mostly because the oppressive heat wrung it out of us as quickly as we could put it in.

Placencia city water is fine.

For the last several days in San Juan Del Sur we’ve been largely without city water. An occasional trickle would show up and disappear, a cruel tease of a shower might develop for 30 minutes… that kind of thing. Many of the buildings here have cisterns; big tanks of city water on their roofs used as reserves. We do not and the sudden and massive influx of vacationers for New Years was more than the city water system could support. After the flow gradually slowed and the short outages steadily grew over the days surrounding Christmas, things finally came to a practical standstill. Apparently many of them left yesterday because we suddenly have water again; full stream, glorious, life giving water. I took my first useful shower in about 3 or 4 days yesterday.

I trust everyone had a good New Year’s Eve. We hit a couple of local bars and took in a firework show on the beach. The local tradition is to burn a scarecrow-like figure stuffed with firecrackers, the “old year”, in effigy at midnight. Eat your hear out, Logan’s Run.

This gushing piece is worth a read, though I have issues with much of what’s written. The author writes about the castaway’s paradise cliche. This is, not coincidentally, exactly what I’m looking for, but it has only a passing resemblance to actual Utila.

But then, that’s generally what travel writing in periodicals is.

A bargain Caribbean Island with excellent, cheap diving engaged in a longstanding culture war that looks likely to further chip away at the island’s otherwise considerable charm.

Pros: Relative ease of access by boat or plane, affordability (including cheap eats), world class diving and snorkeling, lively bar scene, large, lively mixture of North and South American and European transplants and vacationers alongside endearing Islanders.

Cons: Island is diving obsessed; few additional leisure options are present.  Grocery selection is limited and imported items come at high markup.  Electricity is infamously expensive and we experienced outages multiple times a week for hours at a time.  Money access can be an issue.  Growing problem with burglaries and muggings.  Traffic is aggressive, tight and seems dangerous though few incidents are reported.  Mainland Honduras is it’s own set of cons that must be dealt with during in-and-egress.

Distortions: As a tourist town, our experience was greatly effected by the recent downturn in tourism worldwide.   We enjoyed pool access at a nearby hotel, which we took advantage of often and which would not necessarily be available to us if we were to stay on the island indefinitely.  We inherited enough cooking gas to spare us the chore and expense of purchasing any.  The observations here apply predominately (really, almost exclusively) to Utila Town.  Living outside of town along the coast changes things considerably.

The Islanders don’t much like the Mainlanders.  It’s easy to see why; Honduras is atrociously run at the best of times and not run at all during the majority of times.  Utila was already culturally distinct from the mainland, a population of deep creole speaking, pale pirate decedents living an enviable life of commercial and sustenance fishing (and later, tourist scuba diving) amongst a Rockwellesque New England motif of clapboard houses and small town sensibilities.  Talking to the older Islanders is like talking to your own aunts and uncles, though the creole can be a little hard to decipher.  About 10 years ago mainlanders started moving to the island en masse, driven by some semblance of job opportunity and a preferable homicide rate.  It’s easy to see each side’s points, which can be oversimplified as “All of our current problems came over with the Mainlanders” vs “They have to understand that this is Honduras”.  I met mainlanders who spoke fluent English but refused to do so with English speaking Islanders because “they need to learn this is Honduras”.  It can get a little ugly and my impression was the Islanders are losing this fight.  With their way of life will go much of the charm that made this island so attractive, so I hope they prove me wrong.

We rented a two bedroom, one bath house away from the main drag but still pretty thoroughly in town for US$400 a month (pictured below).  We opted for more space rather than less after our miscalculation of personal space in Placencia.  The rent included city water (undrinkable even to the locals), a groundsman who patrolled the property at night and may have included Cable TV.  It didn’t work the first day and we never followed up.  Almost all of the places we looked at were in the US$350-US$450 range (many of which were 2 bedroom), including Sandstone, a nice, out of the way set of condos with strong breezes and nice views.  I initially considered it too far from everything else, but looking back that was probably a mistaken first impression.  We also looked at a cramped windowless spot for US$275 (though that did include electricity) and a distant, quiet and slightly ramshackle cabin for US$300 that would require a bicycle at the very least.  Internet was generally included, though we ended up in a spot without it.  Electricity is about US$0.41 per KwH, which is very, very expensive (US average is well under 1/3 of that).  Efficiency was maintained and we didn’t use any AC, save a couple of hours with one of the two window units when The Girlfriend was particularly uncomfortable.  The breeze between the bay and lagoon, along the main drag, was much stronger and we often second guessed our decision not to rent the slightly smaller second floor unit that we considered our runner up.

Traffic is a real issue in town and as an issue it has grown considerably since my last visit 3 years ago, when it was mostly slow moving golf carts and bicycles.   We were reassured constantly that very few accidents happen (though god knows what the baseline is for that), but that’s little comfort when you feel the breeze and then exhaust of 5 motorbikes on your way down the block.  It became a little less nerve wracking as the month went on, but I don’t think I could ever get used to it.  It’s so bipolar for an island billing it’s self to tourists as a laid back Caribbean escape.  To clarify, there are only a few full sized automobiles on the island (mostly pickup trucks).  What you end up dodging is an onslaught of dirtbikes, quads, taxi trikes and mopeds. The only place traffic enforcement occurs is occasionally the police will crack down on the drag racers at the island airstrip for trespassing; I can’t imagine there’s even a concept of moving violation.

Banking in Utila is similar to banking on similarly sized islands in similar countries; it’s easy to get stuck without cash.  Bring your debit card and you can get no fee cash advances (which is, in effect, a withdrawal) from the local bank, even when the ATMs are out of cash.   Your bank will probably charge you 3% for multiplying by 19, which they’ll refer to as a “conversion fee”.  Don’t be fooled, they’ll charge it to you in Ecuador and Panama too, both of which use US$ as their official currency and require absolutely no “conversion.”

You can eat out for about the same price as cooking at home in Utila; even a grocery store clerk (and possibly owner) told us that most of the locals eat out rather than buy groceries.  You can spend more on food, as we occasionally did, but we ate the vast majority of our meals at Thompson Bakery where a super baleada (kind of burrito like) cost US$1.84 and could pass for dinner in the heat.  It was like having our own kitchen staff, which was awesome.

Speaking of cost of living, we brought in our month at USS$1170 for two people for 30 days.  This allowed us a Friday night at the bars, two or three “better” dinners (RJs, for instance, a highly recommended joint serving up good sized plates of seafood and sides for US$5, go early), and a few drinks at one of Mango Cafe’s movie nights each week.   We also rented a kayak for a day, bikes for a day, split a boat trip to a local island to snorkel and lounge and caught a movie at the local cinema.  Booze weighed in at US$175.9, almost exclusively out. See our full expense data here for the big picture.  Feel free to post any questions to the comments section of this post. We weren’t diving; diving is incredibly cheap in Utila (down to, at times, US$19 a tank), but it will still eat into a tight budget quickly.  We did host friends for 2 days toward the end of our stay and they did pick up a number of tabs, however our spending during this period was akin to our normal baseline spending for that period of time.  So that works out well.  Also, many if not most of the “snack- coffee out” entries were obligatory purchases at cafes with internet access; more than a few beers fall into that category as well.

Infrastructure was one the low side of normal; power and, separately, internet outages were common, occurring multiple times a week.  In Utila you often don’t get what you pay for.  Water outages occurred, though the island is well equipped to weather them via cisterns, private wells and private drinking water providers.  Trash collection was provided by the town and in constant operation; a blessing in the tropical heat and hopefully an effective measure to reduce dumping in the lagoons and countryside.

The momentary tourist population on the island sets the nightlife tone, and during our month we found it lacking.  I can’t help but compare my experience this time around to my last visit 3 years ago, when the island absolutely staggered with joyous drunken energy.  I expect that once tourism regains it’s previous numbers this will once again be the case.

Accessibility to the island can be an issue, though the local airlines seem more or less able to minimize this hassle.  Land travel, though, is often anxiety producing.  The majority of La Ceiba is currently still considered safe; we stayed in a private room at an affordable hostel that we can recommend (US$25.11 for two double beds in a private room with a private bath in a secure property with kitchen and additional amenities, well located in Zona Viva, Hostel Guacamayas, most recent LP Hondruas has outdated address).   Any ground travel through San Pedro Sula, the #2 world murder capital of 2009, should be taken seriously and any unnecessary errands (for food, hotel, shopping, etc) should be thought better of.  If you must spend the night in the city, we recommend Dos Molinos.  Luis, the owner, will arrange to pick you up at the bus station, take you to his hotel (spartan but secure and in a good area with cable and internet to entertain you while you stay in for the night) and return you to the bus station the next day, even at 4am.  Throughout Honduras, have locals (like hotel staff) recommend taxi drivers and other service providers.

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