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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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“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.

800 meters above sea level and 2.5 hours outside Managua , this medium sized, cheap, safe and comfortable Nicaraguan agricultural hub is a solid option for laying low with a bottle of Flor de Cana, a locally grown and blocked cigar and a cup of coffee.

Pros: Downright cheap, wide selection of fresh local produce available from multiple outlets, local cigars, coffee and domestic rum cover your vices, largely walkable with affordable taxis, safe, activities abound, clean local water, comfortable climate, genuinely friendly locals, modest array of restaurants and shopping, and gringo pricing seems nonexistent (as of yet).

Cons: Dusty even during our rainy season stay and said to be worse in the drier months, evenings can be a little sleepy, and though there is music and dancing nearby at clubs along the highway it offers little variety.  The cinema is closed, at least temporarily.

Distortions: We rented a room in a shared house rather than an apartment, which spared us the hassle of arranging utilities and gave us access to the local expertise of the landlord (apartments are said to be available at similar prices).  Spanish school ate up a lot of our time, though we were able to fill our subsequent weeks without becoming bored.  We washed our clothing by hand, which was fine for a month but would probably become tedious after much longer.  Municipal water service was uncharacteristically spotty due to recent flooding in the region.

Esteli, a city of over 200,000 people, is a thriving metropolis relative to the towns we’ve become accustomed to.  Our previous outposts received supplies only by extended bus trips or expensive boat rides, but Esteli is the origin of many goods and a major distribution point for others.  There are many medical and dental clinics, pharmacies, restaurants, bars, shops, vendors, festivals, and more.  Even though it’s easy to organize various tours, from cigar production to forest preserves, this was the least tourist oriented town that we’ve stayed in and, not coincidentally, the cheapest.  And for a city it’s size it’s surprisingly safe.  Locals and transplants, including lone women, walk home confidently in the late hours without incident.

Esteli serves as a hub for local agriculture, ensuring a steady supply of produce from a variety of sources including two sizable grocery stores, mobile vendor carts wandering the streets and loudly chanting out there inventory, a large daily central market, a smaller weekly market along the central park and an assortment of small stores.  We patronized all of these, to varying extents, and were generally happy with the meals that resulted.

Lunch became our daily meal out and we quickly developed some favorites.  Delicias Loco (“loco” as in “express train” not “psych ward”) across the street from the central park and Licuados Ananda about a block away top the list, each offering terrific plates of food for about US$2.30 and juices for an extra US$0.46.  Street food was the norm for dinner; large, delicious plates of wood grilled chicken, rice and beans and salad, usually carried out and costing as little as US$2.55 (sweet plantains extra).  As our month was winding down we finally made it out to Mocha Nana,  a coffee house and (reputedly a) local intellectual hub.  It was empty when we were there, but I don’t doubt it packs up and it was easily the best US$1 cappuccino I’ve ever had (though most of the competitors in that division come out of Nescafe vending machines).  Nonetheless, that shit was delicious.

No discussion of food and coffee is complete without a mention of Cafe Luz, one of the many businesses and programs administered by our landlord, a British transplant and 10 year Esteli resident.  Cafe Luz is the cornerstone to many travelers’ Esteli experience and draws a varied mix of locals, transplants and travelers with a solid, fresh menu and damn good coffee.

Plenty of activities are available, including yoga and dance classes, volunteer opportunities and good hiking in the nearby natural reserves.  At least two gyms operated within easy walking distance of our place, though the one that I visited was a little to crowded with equipment (and therefore short on space to move) for me to ever actually enjoy my workouts.  I never made it to the other, but it seemed less packed.  So while it’s very easy to spend hours trying to master Spanish via the subtitles on the english language reruns of Law and Order,  it’s also no chore to find more constructive diversions.  The average monthly highs range from 78-87 and lows from 59-66 degrees Fahrenheit; the kind of eternal spring” that makes air conditioning unnecessary and a good night’s sleep easy to come by.

By the numbers, we brought the month in at US$700 for two people, excluding the cost of Spanish class but inclusive of all else, even housing.  Eating out was cheap enough that we never had to cook, groceries were affordable enough that we could cook as much as we wanted.  We spent almost exactly 10% of our budget on booze, a significant decrease over past months.  This reduction is due to cheaper booze and less drinking, which doesn’t feel as mandatory out of the heat and away from the energetic vacationing crowds.  My Spanish teacher estimated that the average (median?) resident of Esteli spends US$300 per month for everything including rent.  She also said US$150/month will get you a 2 or 3 bedroom apartment in town and roughly US$7 will get you a 3-day week of housekeeping, with or without cooking.

Verb Wall

11.12.10

This is one of our study aides, created by The Girlfriend.  It’s a constant reminder of some common Spanish verb tenses and their corresponding conjugations on our bedroom wall.

I’m still hopeless.