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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

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Here are some pictures of our rental studio at Bocas Condos, now in a somewhat annoying gallery app.  I may change that later.


Not long ago an American couple showed up in Bocas and started quietly killing off and burying locals before stealing the deeds to their land and claiming the victims had sold it just before they “left town.”  Drop that unsettling scenario into a blender with lime, rum, hard partying backpackers, higher end vacationers, a damn good burrito joint and pleasant creole population amid a cluster of inhabit(ed/able) islands and Caribbean beaches and you come out with Bocas del Toro, the preeminent Panamanian Caribbean destination.  The name of the capital, “Bocas Town”, even sounds like something Mark Knoffler might reference.

Pros: Typically commendable Panamanian infrastructure suffers only slightly for having been transplanted to a Caribbean island, many different speeds of life to choose from amongst the different local islands, tourist traffic supports far more entertainment and shopping options than would otherwise be available, warm population of natives and transplants.

Cons: The area has a well deserved reputation as a magnet for con-men and unscrupulous businessmen so even the most trivial transactions must be looked at with scrutiny, island life increases the cost of basic necessities.

Distortions: We visited during August and September of 2011 and chose to live in Bocas Town after exploring additional options on Carenero and Bastimentos Islands, we rented a studio apartment that was well appointed and comfortable but probably would not be suitable for 2 people for an extended period.

Bocas del Toro is a solid Caribbean option for relocation, though not an ideal spot for the complacent.  Roughly 3 hours by road from David, Panama’s second city, and an additional 30 minutes by boat, these islands are a diverse crossroads of enterprising Panamanian Mainlanders, native Caribbean residents, upmarket tourists, backpackers and transplants.  Goods and services come at the typical island markup as little is grown or built locally and nearly everything must be imported from The Mainland.  For clarity’s sake, though “Bocas” or “Bocas del Toro” can refer to the entire province, in this summary it refers solely to the archipelago and predominately to the 3 major islands, Colon, Carenero and Bastimentos.  The mainland portion of the province is seldom touched on here.

We made fast friends with our neighbors at Bocas Condos and they were nice enough to introduce us around town.  After visiting annually for years they finally made the big move and relocated full time just as we arrived.  We found the transplants and locals both warm and welcoming while the vacationers and travelers were only slightly more insular.  There’s a well developed expat scene with it’s own bars and events… the expats in Boquete took every opportunity to mention how “crazy” things were out in Bocas and they aren’t far off.  It’s a sun drenched, sandy footed, boozy kind of crazy that I wholeheartedly support.  Even the local bookstore has a well frequented bar spilling into the street out front.

Though the selection and pricing of groceries suffers whenever you’re on an island, in Bocas town we found plenty to keep us fed.  It was still a far cry from anywhere on the mainland, but there were several groceries to choose from, small and large, with plenty of fresh produce boated in.  Prices varied bizarrely and no one store seemed to offer a consistent price advantage.  The price of a given item might swing 30% from store to store.  One shop would have cheap seco and outrageously overpriced Coke.  The next store might have a decent price on Coke but the seco was twice as much as at the first store.  Clerks were grifty, as I described, and you couldn’t scrutinize your receipts too closely.  Actually getting a receipt often required an argument.  We did find a small produce shop just north of the east side of the park that was dependably reasonable in price and selection.  There was also an upscale import grocery market called Super Gourmet on the South side of town where we purchased a few indulgent items, but the pricing was so aggressive compared to the local food that we had to be very choosey.  Many residents make regular treks to David to purchase groceries and household goods in bulk, either by driver or bus.  There are also a couple of local women who drive to David at least weekly and make purchases on request for a reasonable fee.

Outside of Bocas Town, Carenero had few (if any) grocery options; you would have to boat to town for supplies.  Bastimentos had quite a few groceries that were small by Panamanian standards (though almost a supermarket by Nicaraguan standards), filled with staples and marked up slightly for the trip over.  One of the reasons we decided to stay in Bocas Town was because of how little was available in Bastimentos.  If you have your own boat, this might not be a problem, but if you’re paying taxi rates (US$6/pp roundtrip) to get some fresh produce every few days it can add up quick.

All three major islands (Isla Colon, home of Bocas Town, Carenero and Bastimentos) offer an array of dining options greatly enhanced by the influx of tourist dollars.  We enjoyed local fare like fried dough with ham or sausage from unnamed street vendors and typical plates of a meat entree and sides from Chitre Cafe (an excellent place for coffee and people watching), Restaurante Buen Sabor and an unnamed house along Calle 5a across from the school (at US$2.75/plate this was the best dinner carryout value we found).  There are a handful of transplant favorites, among them Gringo’s Mexican, which served me the best meal I’d had in months; I can’t recommend it enough.  Many of the other favorites were bars first and restaurants second, and they’ll be covered a little later.  There are numerous restaurants that target the tourist dollar exclusively, providing mediocre fare at shockingly inflated prices and then adding fraudulent charges on top.  These are easy to spot as they sit on what obviously appears to be the most expensive real estate: main street, water front.  Often there’s a hotel attached to further clue you in.  Mixed amongst these traps, though, are real jewels like Natural Mystic which has a rotating menu and where we enjoyed an excellent dinner for US$22.15 for two, drinks excluded.

Infrastructure in Bocas Town was pretty solid; power seldom failed and the water ran dependably.  Internet was another story, with outages taking half of island’s wifi out of commission for days at a time.  If you were desperate you could usually find a tourist restaurant with a working up-link (satellite, maybe?) and overpay for a cup of coffee to log in.  We were able to have out laundry done on-site for US$5/load, which is pretty standard pricing on islands, where fresh water comes at a premium.  Cable, internet, power, filtered water and city water were all included in our rent, so I’m shamefully uninformed about the prices of these things a la carte.

The wide variety of boozing options split along some predictable lines; transplant hangouts, Panamanian/Indian bars and vacationer bars.  The first group includes places like The Rip Tide, a (permanently?) docked boat turned into a bar/restaurant with a good crowd of English speaking regulars.  This is a solid option for meeting other transplants when you get to town.  The local bookstore, just north of the park, is another popular watering hole amongst the local transplants.  Out towards Saigon Bay, along the narrowest strip of land on Isla Colon, is an entire district of locals’ bars.  I only visited during some daytime events so I can’t report firsthand on the scene, but it looked pretty similar to a million other Central American dance halls.  I’m willing to bet it’s filled with ear shattering loud, terrible music and surrealistically drunk locals on a Saturday night.  I wish I’d seen it and it will be my first stop when I return.  There’s an Indian (mostly pre-spanish and pre-slave-trade local indigenous tribe called Ngobes) bar in town, a long dock on the main drag.  The prices are right but it’s not a festive scene; mostly passed out guys and bored wives slumped along the benches and seating around the perimeter of the place.  A few of the highlights for the backpacker scene are the bar at Mondo Taitu Hostel, El Barco Hundido (aka “The Wreck Deck”) and La Iguana.  There are additional options on Isla Carenero that we did not explore, Aqua Lounge being the most talked about.  Mondo Taitu often has excellent early evening specials that sometimes include free drinks, making it a great option for warming up early.  Hundido is an expansive property that pulls a good crowd of well-to-do locals and travelers alike, especially on the nights that they have drink specials.  If you’re walking along the main street and a hot girl is walking towards you showing a smile and a lot of skin, she might be about to hand you a flyer for that night’s specials at Hundido.  Iguana is a late night option, opening around 10 or 11, with good specials for the first hour or so but extortionate rates thereafter.  It pulls from the backpacker crown almost exclusively.

Beyond the bottle, Bocas offers everything you look for on Caribbean Islands. There were no gyms to be found in Bocas Town, save a local municipal indoor basketball court, though there were a few yoga studios.  The Girlfriend visited two and preferred the one in Tropical Markets (the building “9 Degrees” is in).  It was just a recurring class with some rented deck space, but she was really happy with the instructor.  She paid US$5/session.  There’s an impressive collection of beaches in the area and everyone has a favorite.  I’ll stay out of the fray, but I will say we enjoyed Starfish Beach on Colon and Red Frog Beach on Bastimentos. Snorkeling, scuba, beaches, boating, hiking and kite boarding can all be had in the area, though we never found any particularly stunning snorkeling ourselves. We overpaid at US$102 for two to go see some dolphins, snorkel and check out some islands.  The majority of that cost is fuel to get out to Cayos Zapatillas, which were nice enough but did not justify the price.  The transplant crowd has plenty of their own events, both public and private, so it’s not hard to stay occupied.  We attended a resort grand opening (literally a day at the beach), a chili cook-off (also on the beach) and countless hours of just hanging out with new friends.

Apartment quality is as much an issue of security as anything else; cheaper places are in rougher neighborhoods and have less physical security.  We weren’t seeing many simple, secure houses in safer areas and when we were they were more appropriate for long term stays (didn’t have dishes or cookware, barely furnished, etc). We looked at rental options on all three major islands and ultimately decided Bocas Town was the place for us.  Your grocery and entertainment options are severely limited on Bastimentos and Carenero has a large, hungry population of sand flies.  We landed in a studio apartment that was a little too small for a multi-month stay but worked well for the time we were there.  For one person it would be ideal.  It had two recliners, a queen sized bed with a great mattress, an entertainment center/wardrobe, a sizable kitchen with eat-in counter and a reasonably sized bath.  It was on the ground floor of a multi-story condo building in town with all utilities, including filtered water, hot water, internet and a night watchman included in the US$450/month price.  High season prices would have been higher.  We found the property through Tyson Merrill at Island Property Management.  These digs were on par with our Boquete housing, which is to say they were some of the highest quality we resided in during our trip.  The standards are simply higher in Panama than elsewhere in the region.

Our other favorite options included a studio with shared kitchen and social area as well ample covered porches and a separate waterfront deck in this building on Carenero.  Some local transplants called this “The Sorority House” though we’re not sure why.  The room was US$400/month including all utilities and internet.  It would be an additional US$50/month for air conditioning.  There was a nice second story building in Bocas Town near the police station for US$500/month without electric, but the price started changing on us and we never worked out a deal.

We looked at a stilted house in Saigon Bay, the lower rent district on Isla Colon, for US$450/month including all utilities but no AC or internet.  The area has a reputation for being rough, especially for gringos, so we took a pass.  Plenty of people have good experiences for years and years in this area, though, so it’s worth considering.  There are certainly deals to be had.

In a class of it’s own is Up In The Hill, a cafe with a guest house on their Bastimentos property. At US$400/month without internet we might have gone for this, but grocery selection is limited out on Bastimentos and this property was far enough off the main drag (and the paved sidewalk) that otherwise simple errands were going to be a chore. For a shorter stay it would have been incredible. It’s fully off the grid, using solar power, tanks of gas and captured rainwater across it’s two connected buildings (bedroom and kitchen/living/bath).

We brought the month in at US$1,196.34.  As always, that for 2 people, rent and utilities included.  You can get a more detailed look here, as well as download and manipulate the figures.  We intentionally loosened the purse strings to enjoy this, the final destination of our fact-finding trip.  As was mentioned before, US$102 of this was spent on a single day trip that we could have done without.  In Bocas, 38% of our budget went to housing and utilities, 20% to groceries, 12% to meals out and 11% to booze.

The spreadsheet is up for our month in Bocas del Toro.  Things are more expensive on islands, but we also upped our budget for a bit of a last hurrah before we returned to the states for a few years.  Roughly US$1,200 bought us a good month.  See for yourself by following the link along the right edge of this page.

1,200 meters above sea level but just a few hours from the Pacific and Caribbean Coasts, Boquete is a mountain getaway and favored expat home with a pleasant climate, low cost of living and a high availability of goods, services and leisure activities.

Pros: Inexpensive, picturesque, wide grocery selection, comfortable climate with consistent temps, world class coffee, expanding tourism offerings, large and active expat scene with numerous organized groups and activities,

Cons: Cool dampness encourages mold, nearby Baru Volcano presents some risk of eruption (4 times in past 1,600 years), rainy season lasting May to November inconveniences some

Distortions: The many micro climates mean that weather can vary greatly between houses 1,000 yards from each other, we visited for 2 months during the rainy season

Surrounded by misty green mountain peaks, this high altitude town is home to an active and well organized population of older expats.  The cost of living is low relative to other popular Panamanian towns, though higher end goods and services are available for those who wish to make use of them. Boquete is a very comfortable transition from first world life with a wide variety of imported goods, a high standard of construction and a fresh, comfortable climate.

Boquete probably has a larger expat community, as a percentage of the local community, than anywhere else we’ve sampled.  The crowd is older, slightly conservative and members are usually from Texas or Florida.  They are much more politically active than other expat communities we’ve encountered and seem to want to benefit the area for gringos and locals alike.  During our time in Boquete we volunteered with a monthly spay and neuter clinic which not only provides free sterilization but actively traps strays in order to provide them with veterinary care (as well as sterilization).  As a result, Boquete had far fewer packs of stray dogs roaming the streets than most other places we’ve visited.  Granted, the locals seldom seem concerned with the presence of strays, but gringo-organized opportunities for a wide variety of community services abound here. A younger transplant scene has coalesced around the staff and students at the Habla Ya Spanish School and backpackers  are lured in significant numbers by the region’s hiking trails.

Romero, the major supermarket in town, boasts the impressive array of imported goods that we’ve come to expect in Panamanian.  While not on the scale of an El Rey, one of the major chains in Panama City, you’ll find just about everything you need.  The one glaring exception is produce, so it’s convenient that the Municipal Market is just across the street.  Fresh, local produce is available amongst 10 or so indoor market stalls at very reasonable prices.  Romero makes a decent loaf of bread, but we preferred the loaves of egg bread from a seemingly nameless bakery just down the street from Romero on the ground floor of a prominent pagoda-like building.  We also did a fair amount of our shopping at a nearby convenience store which offered all of our staples and more.

The longstanding Supermercado Mandarin, opposite The Central Park from Romero, was recommended for better prices, though we didn’t see a significant difference.

Espresso machines abound in Panama, though most of my joe was coming out of giant urns (huge percolators, as best as I can tell) or the occasional Nescafe machine.  The Nescafe cappuccino is well worth a try and a good place to sip one is Central Park, located, predictably enough, along the Central Park.  Like many simple Panamanian restaurants, the menu is overpriced but none of the locals order off it anyway.  Ready made lunches and dinners (“Comida Corriente”) cost between US$2-3 and include chicken, fish, beef or pork and sides. Sabroson is the mecca for affordable plates in town, a buffet layout with plenty of options and modest prices.  When backpackers ask their respective front desks where they can get a cheap meal, they’re directed here.

A quick option when neither of us were ready for a full meal were the US$0.25 empanadas at the bus stop near the fire station.  I recommend a dozen with an envelope of ranchera sauce from the store; there will be leftovers.

Our only upscale dining was at The Rock, which didn’t disappoint. We also heard excellent things about Machu Picchu and Bistro Boquete.

Pizzeria a mi modo (across from tacos y mas) made a solid pizza though expats unanimously voted Papa Riccos the best local pie.  His place was a little far, so we never tried the pie.  Cafe Baru also offered great pizza as well as a lively, popular backdrop and a convenient location on the central square.

Hot water is a necessity if you’re not going to shiver your way through your shower (and beyond). The air temperature is usually comfortable, but the mountain water being piped in is frigid.  We had dependable internet with decent speeds, though power blipped often and occasionally stayed out for 30 or 45 minutes. David, Panama’s second city, is less than an hour by bus and offers good shopping (people come from as far away as Bocas del Toro for goods) and will (supposedly) have an international airport soon.  We had our laundry done at Lavamatica Genesis (near the fire station and next to Tacos Y Mas); no complaints, US$4.50 for a large load (wash, dry and fold).

We spent a lot of time exercising in Boquete.  I joined Pilo’s, a reasonably well equipped weight room with yoga and aerobics classes alongside.  The Girlfriend joined a predominately cardio joint called Getsemani.  Both were easily accessible in town and each ran US$25/month, though Getsemani added a US$10 fee to join.  The Girlfriend also attended the occasional yoga session led by Linda Day.

There are a few notable hiking trails in the area, though we didn’t attempt any of them.  The pipeline trail was recommended as an easy few hours of beauty, the Quetzal trail was accessible or not, depending on who you talked to, as were the nearby hot springs.  We visited the springs twice and enjoyed it, though without access to a 4wd it’s an long and potentially irritating trek.  If I had my own capable vehicle I’d be there at least once a week.  Hiking Volcan Baru (The Volcano) is a popular reason for people to visit Boquete, though we were repeatedly told by experienced hikers that it was considerably more difficult than they’d been led to believe.  No one complained, but they were surprised.

The Panamanian bars, especially the Indian bars, can get annoying due to stumblingly drunk locals who want to converse; much of the mumbling and slurring would be incomprehensible to even a native speaker.  Baru is a good intersection between cost and quality of room.  Zanzibar is overpriced (especially the poorly packed hookahs) but popular with a young crowd. Tica’s, just across the bridge near the community theater, was my favorite middle ground but could be empty with no apparent rhyme or reason. Cabana was always loud and so-so, though they did host some large and potentially fun events that we didn’t attend.  We made it a local dance hall Bar Coca Cola, but it was empty when we arrived and never really picked up; probably just an off night.

Our hunt for rentals was varied, but ultimately the second place we saw was the place we decided on and we didn’t have to look at too many more to know that it was what we wanted.  We got a very nice one bedroom with internet, cable, gas, electric and water included.  We had hot water, window screens and better furniture than we have at any other private rental.  We had a king sized bed and plenty of towels, sheets and blankets, all for US$400/month.  After 8 months of Nicaragua, we were a little in awe. We understand there to be another comparable place nearby for about the same price, so this wasn’t just a one-off, but you have to dig to find these deals.  We saw a lot less for a bit more all over town.

On the upscale end, we saw nice lofts in town, US$900 for a single month w/o balcony, US$1000 with.  Prices go down with longer term rental. These were across the street from Sabroson.  AIP, Boquete Forums and Craig’s List are all useful resources, but the best deals are likely to be word of mouth.  Gringo pricing is in full effect, so you’re encouraged to bargain or find a local (Panamanian or expat) to tell you what’s what.

We brought in our 30 days at US$875.68. As always, that covers two people’s day to day expenses including rent and utilities.  46% (US$400) of that went to rent and the included utilities, 26% (US$228.97) went to groceries and sundries, 10% (US$85.03) went to booze, more than half of which was at bars.  We ate 24 meals out (each person’s meal counts as 1), which came to 6.74% of our spending (US$59.05).  Half of those meals were breakfasts, which come cheap and hardy in Panama.  Dig in to the numbers and do with them what you will.

“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.