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


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”


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.

Market Prices


Here are two price lists from the local market in Boquete, shown in US$.

More Boquete


The top photo is an unfinished house outside Boquete, the second is a stand at the local market.

Price of beer in a bar: US$0.75 for 12 cold ounces of Atlas
Song currently stuck in my head: Two Princes (Spin Doctors)

One thing I’ve learned while traveling is that you never discard a clean shirt. Every extra day between laundry loads is a gift. When clothing reaches the point that even a backpacker has to let it go, you go through several stages of denial. For me one of those steps has been “I’ll use that shirt for the beach”, which is kind of the attire equivalent of the funeral before the internment. The beach means dirt and sweat, but most of all it means lots of sunscreen, which, when later put in contact with laundry detergent, discolors clothing in unfortunate ways. You don’t want to wear an otherwise viable shirt to the beach.

I now have about 4 shirts for the beach, meaning they aren’t really suitable for public interactions that take places out of the sand. Here in Boquete there’s no beach, so these are getting filed away for use in Bocas del Toro, where beachwear will probably be fine all the time. And you never discard a clean shirt, especially when you’re on an island, where water prices tend to make laundry especially expensive.

The cycle that keeps me from putting a given shirt or pair of pants in the trash goes like this: Well, it’s clean, so I’ll wear it. You never throw away a clean shirt when you’re traveling. Well, it’s dirty, I’ll just put it with the dirty clothes and decide later. Well, it’s laundry day, I’ll just do the whole load and figure it out later. Well, it’s clean…

It’s time to reevaluate my clothing.

The Girlfriend and I have now taken two trips to the local hot spring baths, one the hard way and one the easy. The hard way was a bus at 10:45am from downtown Boquete to the turnoff about 45 minutes away for US$2 per person, then an hour or so of walking down a country road and then up and down hilly and confusingly marked terrain. After the road becomes a trail it will become a yard and there you can find the caretaker to pay your additional US$2 per person to use the springs. There are 3 small shallow pools to lounge in, each in 3 different temperatures and each described in Celsius so I have no idea what they were other than “nice and hot”. You can also jump in the large river right alongside the property to cool off between shvitzes and in preparation for the one hour walk back to catch the last bus at 4pm (I’m not sure if that’s when it leaves it’s origin or passes the turnoff where you’ll be catching it) which should cost you another US$2 per person and take you back to town. We ended up caught in a torrential rain on the walk back that made footing very difficult on the inclines, though we did get a ride in the back of a passerby’s pickup. He took us out to the turnoff, but no further because riding in the back of pickups is illegal for some people in Panama. The bus we got was heading toward David, not Boquete, but kind of misrepresented that to get our money. Those routes have overlap, so we weren’t heading the wrong way, but we had to catch another bus to make it the rest of the way.

While The Girlfriend had a friend visiting we hired a “tour”, which meant for US$30 or US$35 per person someone with a 4X4 drove us within about 10 minutes walk of the springs and drove us back. It was considerably more leisurely.

We also took a half day trip rafting near the Costa Rican border. It was great fun, about a class 3 run, and I fell out of the boat twice, once being then run over by the second boat in our group. I had a moment’s worth of thinking to do when I noticed the other boat was nearly on top of me; do I grab a hold and ride or just bounce my way under? It went something like this: Helmet. Depth. No rudder or propeller. Fuck it. It was an exhilarating decision, though hardly an uncommon occurrence in that sport. I didn’t even lose my sunglasses.