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


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.

Granada, the conservative sibling amongst Nicaragua’s twin second cities, makes several positive impressions but seldom truly impresses.  It offers authentic colonial charm and the large, thoroughly ingrained expat community that has earned it the moniker  “Gringolandia”.  As a city of over 110,000 people with close proximity to the capital, it offers an array of luxuries that some first worlders aren’t quite ready to part with.

Pros: Cheap, well located in relation to Lake Nicaragua and Managua, safe, low priced produce, beautiful colonial architecture, first world cuisine, affordable and usable gyms, friendly locals

Cons: Hot, streets can be overcrowded with people, vehicles and vendors in certain areas, panhandlers and street vendors can be relentless and destroy any otherwise idyllic setting, IVA (value added tax) is in effect and when combined with automatically included tips your bill can increase 25% beyond the menu price

Distortions:  Our time in Granada occurred around March of 2011.

The Girlfriend and I thoroughly enjoyed our month in Granada. Our rental, a one bedroom house with a central courtyard, high  ceilings and more space than we could even appreciate, was probably the best we’ve had thus far.  Outages were almost non-existent, affordable meals and groceries were nearby and dependable internet access kept us easily distracted for our 30 days, even if the heat made us dread mid day errands.  I’m told it’s not so bad as Leon or Managua, but it’s far from fresh.  Granada more than meets your needs but left us ultimately neutral.  I wouldn’t mind living in Granada; in fact, I suspect I’d enjoy it.  But I found very little to get excited about.

Gringo throngs appear most places you go and gringo involvement is apparent in many of the cities programs.  We lived in a “Nicaraguan neighborhood”, a specificity whose very existence confirms a strong expat presence.  We got on well with our Nica neighbors though the language barrier prevented anything more than casual, friendly recognition and acknowledgement.  The norm was for everyone to congregate in front of their homes after sunset to avoid the heat and socialize.  We also met several travelers, both at our hostel (La Casita) and after moving into our house during visits to Euro Cafe and other restaurants and bars around town.

Though Granada sits on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, the waterfront has no apparent beach and little festive atmosphere.  There seems to be a push to develop this area of the city into something a little more welcoming or interesting, but as it stands now the water access should be viewed as a plus only in that it’s convenient to catch boats to local attractions like the nearby islands and Ometempe.

Pali supermarkets seem to offer consistent selection and pricing across the three towns in which we’ve frequented them.  This isn’t surprising, as they’re Walmart owned and the meticulous application of the economies of scale lies at the heart of their business model.  The now familiar selection of local produce, purchased in the central market or immediate surrounding area, was surprisingly cheap.  I’m not sure what the major factor is, it could be seasonality, proximity to Managua or the vagueries of gringo pricing, but the prices we paid for produce in Granada were noticeably less than what we paid for similar goods elsewhere in Nicaragua.  Luckily we had a spacious and well functioning kitchen that allowed us to take advantage of all this cheap produce.  Beans, rice and vegetables such as peppers, garlic, onion and potatoes dominated our home made dishes, as has become the norm, with a weekly addition of a rotisserie chicken.

I’ve been told in the past that there’s a rum for every budget in Nicaragua, from 25 year old Flor de Cana to something unnamed being scooped out of a bucket in a ceramic mug.  The same seems true of a meal out in Granada.  Vacationers gorge at El Zaguan (with good reason) and other pricey gringo joints like El Garaje and Kathy’s Waffle House, all three of which we loved.  I’ve never seen anything like Kathy’s Waffle House in this region and, as a guy who prefers breakfast to all other meals out, I was overjoyed to have it around. Other favorites like national fast food chain Hamburlooca, which we had come to know in Esteli, and Telepizza, which has endured long enough to have been around during my previous visits fill a niche for more mundane indulgence.  I spent many mornings at Euro Cafe, who’s garden ambiance provided the perfect backdrop to some domestic drip and internet surfing.  Just around the corner and down the street from our rental we had Pimpollo carry-out rotisserie chicken and a sit down place that served nothing but great pupusas and drinks.  The liquor store (named “Insomni@”) around the corner from the theater serves a small buffet of filling, affordable options most nights as well.  My favorite place to eat and/or split a liter of Tona was, hands down, Casa Bohemia.  The restaurant is charming and the food is both delicious and affordable.  Their mole sauce is especially good, but I was happy to sample as many of their menu items as time and budget allowed.  Another recommendation is a Mexican Restaurant whose name, unfortunately, I did not note.  They’re a few blocks West of Parque Central, in the general vicinity of El Club.  Good Mexican food is often frustratingly hard to come by in Central America and it’s places like this that keep me going.  Outdoors, there were few impressive street food options, though we never got around to patronizing the vendors in the park.  There were no fritangas akin to Esteli, which is really too bad, though Nuestro Mundo (on along Parque Central) hosts an approximation on weekend evenings.  Likewise there were few breakfast options (another reason Kathy’s is a god send).  I get the impression there just isn’t much of a local tradition of eating breakfast out.

We only experienced a few outages of any kind, though we heard about more in other neighborhoods.  Some of the roads were rough and lots of the sidewalks outside of the immediate central area were intermittent at best .  Utilities were included in our rental, so we were not exposed to power or water costs.  Internet wise, the town was well wired, with wifi wafting through hostels, cafes, bars and restaurants, often carrying over 1Mb of downstream throughput.  At home we never experienced an internet outage unless it was due to a general loss of power.  I tried several ATMs and all of them charged fees, but none of these were exorbitant.

Granada has one theater which shows one title per week once nightly on the weekends.  The facilities are mediocre and the audio/visual quality of the particular copy of a movie may not rise to even that modest level.  Being a major tourist destination, the town is awash in bars and restaurants. Most of these are clustered down a pedestrian district called La Calzada and amongst them is O’Shea’s, an Irish pub that hosts a weekly pub trivia night.  We placed 2nd. There’s a decent cafe culture with good local beans and espresso machines, including Euro Cafe which I mentioned above.  We frequented a gym near Pimpollo (a few blocks west of Parque Central) that had a strong array of equipment (including free weights) and only cost US$0.77 per visit.  The girlfriend enjoyed one or two of their aerobic classes, which were also very affordable.  Outdoor pursuits include nearby Lake Apoyo and numerous activities centered around the famous and easily accessible archipelago just outside of town.  For a price, tour companies can extend you reach into a wide array of pursuits.  Like I said, this is a tourist town.

While scouting a rental home we looked at 7 places, including an approximation of Hard Rock, Granada; a very nice apartment that we were very tempted by, owned and run by a local club (true loft style with water, electric, AC, internet and possibly maid service included for US$500/month). We opted for a casita that was an easy walk from the market and Pali and it’s probably the best place we’ve had yet. It was US$350/month with all utils, 1 bedroom with large kitchen/dining/living area and a central private garden.  It’s pictured below. We noticed it’s also available for purchase while sitting in a Remax office hunting for other options (asking price: US$50k).  The major downside was the dust (on a dirt road between a woodworking shop and what I think was a lumber yard).  We also saw a rental room from an older woman who’s large home bespoke her devotion to Catholicism every where you looked.  She wanted US$70/week, but using the small galley style kitchen would have involved battling household staff for access.  We found another reasonable house for US$400 with all utilities that became US$420 plus electric when we were shown it by another realtor days later.

By the numbers, Granada cost us US$881.89 for two people including 34 meals out for two (at a total of US$223.21, which works out to an average and median of right around US$3 per meal per person).  We bought US$98.20 in groceries and sundries, US$91.09 in booze (10% of our total outlay) and, again, US$350 in rent. For a bit more detail, see the spreadsheet.  I encourage you to download it and play with your own numbers (up the rent, half the booze, remove the coffee… whatever you think might suit you in a warm colonial lifestyle).

Our place in Granada, Nicaragua vs a slow morning in Panama City

David Byrne Jr, up top, twirls in circles while friends beat drums.  Then he hits you up for cash.  Can someone translate the second photo?  It was a wall around the corner from our place in Granada.

Price of beer in a bar: Dunno.  US$1 for a cold 12 ounce bottle at the hostel, US$0.40 for the same bottle at a convenience store and US$2 for it at a slightly upscale restaurant.
Song currently stuck in my head: Get Some (Lykke Li)

We grabbed a Ticabus in Granada at 7am, crossed the Nicaraguan/Costa Rican Border, made it to San Jose, Costa Rica around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, then sat around until 11pm when our next bus left. I put in my ear plugs, popped a Valerian gel tab and slept surprisingly well until about 5am when we made the Costa Rican/Panamanian border. We sat/stood around for 3 hours in all, chunks of this span punctuated by momentary interactions with border officials. “180 Days, No, I haven’t been in close contact with any livestock,” etc. It was 4 in the afternoon before we made Panama City, pulling into Albrook bus station/insanely huge mall. That’s an eye opener for you; I’ve been in Nicaragua buying produce off of street carts with wooden wheels for the last, well, god knows how many months. Now I see Domino’s Pizza, KFC, Wing City, Popeyes, Mailboxes Etc, and Gouda cheese at the grocery. Calling it culture shock is putting it mildly; more like culture electro-convulsion therapy. The girlfriend read somewhere that PC is “Miami, but with more English.” Well put. Since we’re on the dollar here, we even have “Everything’s A Dollar” stores, though perhaps not by that exact name.

From the bus station we landed at Hostel Mamallena with a private room/shared bath arrangement for US$29.50/night. I can recommend it. The crowd was diverse, the rooms were stuffy but the AC made that a non-issue and the common areas were large and comfortable. A crowd of 20 year old Canadians took to calling me Charlie because they thought I looked like Charlie Sheen. I’ve heard worse.

Panama City is a real budget killer. We didn’t have much hope of finding a furnished short term apartment for under US$1,000, so we’re setup in a guest-house where we’ve rented our room for the month. Even that is costing us US$600 and resulted from heavy searching and relentless walking; US$3.50 knock off crocs aren’t as appropriate for tearing up the poorly maintained city sidewalks as one might hope. I had a few leads from some exats who had set up shop in this town in the past, but in the end the place we chose came right off of craigslist.

The house in which we’re staying has two kitchens, one of them gloriously overstocked with gadgetry. There’s a salad spinner, a Cuisinart, two toaster ovens, a microwave, stove, oven, some kind of plastic resealer, what might be a steamer, a slow cooker, a rice cooker, a blender and doubtlessly numerous items I’ve yet to uncover. Many of the places we’ve stayed up until now didn’t even have ovens. I didn’t really care about the ovens, but I am excited to have a slow cooker and some of the other tools.

Before we left the vermin suddenly started coming out of the woodwork in Nicaragua; we kept finding dead roaches (though I’ve found life/death seems to be more of a spectrum than a dichotomy, really, when speaking of roaches) near our doors and in a couple of other areas. Perhaps the city fumigated (it happens), or maybe it was our neighbor, but after barely seeing any for 3 weeks we started find 1, then 2, then 3 or more a day that had crawled into the open to expire. Also, I finally got a look at the “mouse” that the girlfriend had spotted; I’m going to go ahead and say large rat. I need to email the landlord to let him know; he’s responsive and I have no doubt he’ll have it dealt with promptly.

Speaking of our place in Granada, every time I used to round the corner to our house I expected to hear a whistle or a yell, not at me but to from a lookout to people who had broken into our home in our absence. This expectation is entirely a creation of own paranoia and innate human xenophobia and not to any actual threat in evidence. The landlord said the place has only been broken into once in the last 3 years and that was when someone left and didn’t lock the door appropriately. In the end we never had any security issues at all.

BTW, eat your heart out, Anthony Bourdain. We followed this guy’s rec for El Garaje in Granada and are glad we did.

Granada Cemetery


Here are two shots from a large cemetery in Granada, Nicaragua.