Central America Costs

At the start of this trip Dana decided to write down all our expenses, so that we’d have some idea how much money we are spending. After a bunch of tedious spreadsheet work, the final statistics are now ready. We thought we’d share them here in case anyone is interested.

Our average cost per day, for two people, was 86.97 USD. The cheapest days, at $56.83 per day, were spent studying Spanish in Xela, Guatemala. Curiously, the most expensive days ($116.87 per day) also occurred while we were studying Spanish, in Copán, Honduras. In both cases the school tuition fee included accommodation with a local family, three meals a day, and some after-school activities.

The breakdown of average daily expenses per country appears below.

Daily budget breakdown (click for larger imager)

Daily budget breakdown (click for larger imager)

Clarifications and disclaimers:

The sample size is rather small. The most time we spent in any one country was 16 days. Therefore, isolated events such as the $90-per-person cave tour in Belize can skew the results quite a bit.

This is far from a minimal budget. We stayed in private rooms for the most part, and usually ate out. Of course you can travel for less, and some people make a point of stretching their dollar as far as it will go, but that was never our concern. To put things in perspective, the lost income from 3.5 months out of work is much higher than the total cost of the trip.

No separate category for booze. Our alcohol consumption was less than one drink a day on average, so here we just lump that expense together with food. Clearly, for some people the “liquor tax” would be much higher.

There are other budget-affecting factors which are not accounted for here, such as local weather, high season vs. off-season, and our state of mind at the time. For example, the Costa Rica leg of the journey coincided with Semana Santa – the busiest, most expensive week of the year by far. The budget in Panama was driven up simply because it was the last leg of the trip, so discipline was becoming lax. The spending on ice cream alone in Panama City was quite substantial!

Finally, these figures exclude pre-trip expenses such as flights, travel insurance, vaccines, and new travel gear.

The authors wish to thank the Israel Tax Authority for sponsoring our trip with a substantial refund :-)

Panama

Some Things You (probably) Didn’t Know About Panama

  • Boquete fairground

    Boquete fairground

    It’s actually not so tiny. Panama looks small on the world map, but that’s partly because of its position (sandwiched between two huge continents) and partly due the Mercator projection. Panama’s area is 75,517 sq km. If it were a U.S. state it would rank #41, behind South Carolina and ahead of West Virginia.

  • The name Panamá is an indigenous word that probably means “abundance of fish”.
  • Miraflores locks, Panama canal

    Miraflores locks, Panama canal

    Panama was founded to allow the canal to be built. Its official motto is “For the Benefit of the World”. More precisely, Panama was founded so that the canal could be built on terms favourable to the United States. Panama declared independence from Colombia in 1903, the U.S. navy prevented the Colombians from sending reinforcements to assert their rule, and that was that. Construction of the canal began the following year.

  • In some ways, Panama is the least Central American of the Central American countries. Besides being historically ruled from Colombia rather than Guatemala, it’s also in a different time zone than the other six nations, and it’s the only country in the region whose license plates don’t read “CENTRO AMERICA” or “C.A.”

Priorities

Casco Viejo, Panama City

Casco Viejo, Panama City

A rafting guide in Boquete told us this story about a recent trip that he led.
A young couple was on the raft, and while passing over one of the larger rapids both of them fell into the river. The guide pulls the woman out of the water, all hysterical, shouting “mi novio, mi novio!” (“my boyfriend, my boyfriend!”). Relax, the guide tells her, and proceeds to pull her man out of the water as well.

Half an hour later, another big rapid, and once again the young couple spills out of the boat and into the river. This time it is the man who is rescued first, all hysterical, shouting “mi sandalia, mi sandalia!” (“my sandal, my sandal!”)

The Darien Gap

Annoying the locals on Isla Bolaños, Gulf of Chiriquí

Annoying the locals on Isla Bolaños, Gulf of Chiriquí

The Pan-American Highway extends all the way from Alaska to Patagonia. All the way, that is, except for an 87-km section in eastern Panama along the border with Colombia, known as the Darien gap.

The Darien gap is some seriously rough terrain. There aren’t any roads, just footpaths branching every which way. The forest is infested with deadly fer-de-lance snakes. Diseases like malaria and yellow fever, which were eradicated elsewhere in the country, are still present here. The human population consists mostly of Colombian guerrillas from FARC who regularly kidnap people for ransom.

Is it impossible to build a road through the Darien gap? Of course not, and the Colombian government is all for it. The Panameños, however, are less keen. Colombia is a country with serious problems, and having a barrier of dense jungle between it and Panama seems like a good idea.

Something to Howl About

Howler monkey, Boca Brava

Howler monkey, Boca Brava

Howler monkeys are common in the forests all over Central America. Often you can hear them long before you see them. Why they are called howler monkeys is a bit of a mystery, since clearly the sound they make is a bark, not a howl. But maybe “barker monkeys” doesn’t sound as exciting.

Making art with local materials, at the bar in Cala Mia resort, Boca Brava

Making art with local materials, at the bar in Cala Mia resort, Boca Brava

Howler monkeys bark (sorry, howl) for various reasons, such as to assert their social status or to warn of danger. People sometimes howl at the howler monkeys to make them howl back, but this can cause undue stress to the monkeys and is not encouraged.

What happens when barking monkeys meet barking dogs? An awful racket, that’s what. Early one morning in Boca Brava, a family of howler monkeys had stationed itself in the trees inside the resort where we were trying to sleep. The two resident dogs were driven completely crazy. They had no hope of climbing the trees, and the monkeys had no intention of coming down. The standoff lasted for hours, much to the amusement of the guests, who didn’t have to worry about oversleeping that day.

World’s Most Boring Career?

Isla Bolaños

Isla Bolaños

We joined a so-called “island tour” from Boca Brava. In practice this meant being intentionally stranded on a remote island beach in the Gulf of Chiriquí for the day, with a snorkel, a book, a sandwich, and a few bottles of beer. There are certainly worse ways to spend your day. But what if this was your everyday?

That is pretty much the case for the boat captain who took us there. He motors out to the island with groups of tourists three or four times per week, then he just sits there for six hours until it’s time to go home. He doesn’t swim or snorkel – perhaps he used to, but it got old. He doesn’t visit the shore, preferring to stay in the boat all day. He doesn’t listen to music, or read a book or a newspaper. He just falls asleep, or sits there looking at the same scenery day after day. We have to admire his inner peace. For us visitors, one day living this lifestyle was quite enough.

Panama City

Panama City's banking district, view from the cinta costera

Panama City's banking district, view from the cinta costera

Of the seven capitals of Central America, Panama City is the only one that’s on the tourist route. Few people really like the others: Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa, San Salvador and Managua all have too much violent crime for most people’s tastes. San Jose is dull, and Belmopan is tiny and sterile. Panama City, on the other hand, is reasonably safe, interesting, and pretty. The ruins of the old town, destroyed by the pirate Henry Morgan, are adjacent to new skyscrapers in the banking district. From the metropolitan park, with its toucans and monkeys, you can look down on the pacific locks of the Panama canal. We spent a lot of time walking around Casco Viejo (the fortified colonial compound), and almost as much time at the nearby fish market eating ceviche out of styrofoam cups.

Ceviche at the fish market, Panama City

Ceviche at the fish market, Panama City

The city is developing fast – everywhere you look there are new businesses, new residents, new ideas. A lot of money is being made. So if you’re looking to make a change, and if you can stand the humidity and heat, Panama City is a good place to go.

More photos from Panama

 

Costa Rica

Pure Life

Ceibo tree, Parque Nacional Volcan Arenal

Ceibo tree, Parque Nacional Volcan Arenal

Costa Rica – love it or hate it. We loved it!

So yeah, with not much indigenous culture and few colonial remains, it’s not everyone’s perfect destination. It has more high-end restaurants than street-food stalls, and way too many SUVs. Some people complain that it isn’t “authentic”, but that’s unfair – Costa Rica is a perfectly authentic Costa Rica, and should be appreciated for what it is.

Playa Chiquita, near Puerto Viejo

Playa Chiquita, near Puerto Viejo

Take your average Central American country. Now solve the massive poverty, educate the population, put an end to the civil wars, and clean up all the trash. The result is Costa Rica, “the best country in Central America” according to an aging Guatemalan lawyer we’d met in Antigua. Democracy is uninterrupted since 1949, corruption is low, the roads are safe to travel, the water is safe to drink, and protected nature reserves are actually protected.

Road to Manzanillo

Road to Manzanillo

The country is not without its share of problems. Much of its “green” image is greenwash: recycling is patchy, plastic bags rule the land, and everyone drives around in large cars. Many rural families still live in improvised shacks, and the capital San Jose is considered dull and not very safe by locals and visitors alike.

Ticos are predominantly white, but they are definitely latinos. They eat gallo pinto for breakfast, they speak Spanish (with their own accent and expressions, including the famous pura vida), they are mostly Catholic and they celebrate Holy Week by going to the beach.

As far as we’re concerned, it’s four thumbs up for Costa Rica. We had a great short stay there, and will look forward to exploring more on a return visit.

The Waitress

Volcan Arenal

Volcan Arenal

We visited a restaurant in Monteverde that specializes in upscale versions of typical regional cuisine. We’d previously been to a similar place in Honduras. They serve the usual chicken-tortilla-rice-and-beans recipes that you’d find in any local eatery, but they pay careful attention to ingredients, preparation, flavouring and presentation. They also charge five to ten times as much as the eateries, but it’s worth paying the premium once in a while to remember how delicious this food can be with a little bit of care.

The waitress came by to take our order. She addressed us in very good English. We read our selections from the English-language menu, and she copied the Spanish names into her notepad in slow, meticulous handwriting. After this was done, we had a few questions. Like, what is you name, miss? She told us her name. And how old are you? Seven, she said. And how long have you been studying English? Two years.

Canopy tour, Monteverde

Canopy tour, Monteverde

When she wasn’t coming by to check if we needed more food, our waitress was bouncing on the chairs and tables all over the restaurant and having a swell time. Normally we are wary of under-age labour in this part of the world, and as consumers we try to make choices that do not reward it. But in this case the child’s schooling seems to be on track, and she also has ample time to play, so maybe it’s okay.

Soundtrack

We finally tracked down the song that has been playing on the radio since the beginning of this journey. It’s called El Verdadero Amor Perdona, by Mexican band Maná. Here is the video below. Not exactly a groundbreaking artistic achievement, but listen to it again and again over three months and eventually it will stick.

Holy Week

Our time in Costa Rica overlapped with Latin America’s biggest annual holiday: Semana Santa (Holy Week), the week leading up to Easter. Families save up all year for the festivities. Up north, in Mexico and Guatemala, Holy Week is marked by processions, festivals, church services, flowers, costumes and the like. But further south, it’s mostly about the beach. Every travel guide to the region will warn you that during Semana Santa, any location close to water will be packed, prices go way up, and places to stay can be fully booked weeks in advance.

Playa Uva, near Puerto Viejo

Playa Uva, near Puerto Viejo

Our war plan for Semana Santa consisted of three stages. First, we hit the pacific beaches at San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, ahead of the onslaught. Then we cross the border to Costa Rica and spend the week as far from the beach as possible – in the cloud forests around Monteverde, and at La Fortuna near Arenal volcano. Finally we decamp to the Caribbean coast at Puerto Viejo once the cataclysm has passed.

Puerto Viejo

Puerto Viejo

The highlands were not exactly deserted during the holiday, but the scene wasn’t anywhere near as hectic as on the coast. We know, because we saw the aftermath at Puerto Viejo when we arrived there in the afternoon on Easter Sunday. A few beach encampments were still in place, the residents having a last dip in the sea before returning home. Food stalls, video arcades, and live music stages were in various stages of disassembly. Mountains of garbage were everywhere, but since this is Costa Rica, the trash was mostly contained in bags awaiting collection rather than being strewn all over the landscape. Municipal employees were combing the beaches picking up the remaining bottles and scraps. By the following day Puerto Viejo had resumed its usual pace, with the five-toed sloths on the ground moving not much faster than the two-toed sloths up in the trees.

Safari

Some of the wildlife we encountered in Costa Rica.

Toucan

This species of toucan is called collared aracari. They were flying back and forth across the Puerto Viejo-Manzanillo road. We also saw keel-billed toucans, the beautiful national bird of Belize, but only in captivity.

Two-toed sloth

These creatures earned their name by sleeping up to 18 hours per day and not doing very much in-between. They visit ground level once a week to take care of business.

Armadillo

Ancient mammal species, looks kind of like a bulletproof rabbit.

Blue land crab

These were all over the place in Puerto Viejo. Watch this clip from The Little Mermaid to learn how to deal with crabs in the kitchen.

Stick insect

These critters try very hard to look like a twig. The lady in the picture was our guide on a nighttime wildlife spotting hike in Monteverde. It’s impressive how she even finds these things… She would make an excellent hunter-gatherer.

Blue morpho butterfly

These large butterflies are very common in the cloud forest. The opposite side of the wing, which can only be seen during flight, is an almost fluorescent blue.

Leaf insect

Nice camouflage. Didn’t fool our guide though!

Tarantula

Everyone’s (least) favourite arachnid, even though as spiders go, they’re far from being the most dangerous. They can fire the stinging hairs on their legs for protection. Tarantulas are eaten in some countries – they’re said to taste a little bit like peanut butter.

More photos from Costa Rica

Nicaragua

A Nicaraguan Fable

Cathedral in Leon

Cathedral in Leon

Once upon a time there was a great forest, green and lush, rich in fruit trees and teeming with life. The forest was ruled by an cunning old lion. Well actually, the real power lay with a herd of elephants living in the nearby savannah, but the lion had all the forest dwellers collecting fruit for the elephants, so they were quite happy with his rule. The remaining fruit that the elephants didn’t want was given over to the lion’s relatives and courtiers.

So the elephants were happy and the lions were happy, but elsewhere in the forest there were grumblings aplenty. The animals figured that since they were the ones collecting the fruit, they should be the ones to eat them too. Finally a pack of young tigers rose up to challenge the lion and his cronies. A great war ensued, and in the end the lion was driven from the forest and banished to a barren desert.

Sandinista banner, Isla de Ometepe

Sandinista banner, Isla de Ometepe

The tigers rejoiced, but the troubles of the forest were far from over. The elephants, furious at the betrayal and concerned that the tigers’ rebellion might spread to the savannah, recruited the remaining lions and other forest dwellers who disliked the tigers, and set them about wreaking havoc in the land. They burned down trees, raided the tiger dens, barred forest paths with rocks and debris, and caused all sorts of mischief and mayhem. The tigers responded with increasing aggression, causing further damage to the forest and punishing anyone they considered too friendly with the lions and elephants.

The vicious cycle continued for quite some time. The residents of the forest grew tired of the disturbance, and eventually so did the elephants. A meeting of the herd was called, and it was decided that harassment of the tigers must stop. But some elephant elders were determined to drive the tigers out, continuing to plot attacks and disruptions in the forest unbeknownst to their brethren. When this was discovered, there was a huge outcry throughout the land, and the elders were forced to quit their involvement. A handful of them were banished to the desert.

Cloud forest, volcan Mombacho

Cloud forest, volcan Mombacho

These days, the forest is free to manage its own affairs, but years of animosity have taken their toll. The once lush landscape is decimated, and the animals find it difficult to cooperate, spending much of their time blaming each other for the sorry state of affairs. At least there is peace though, and the old wounds are beginning to heal. Even the elephants have begun venturing back into the forest, hoping to fix some of the damage they helped cause, and perhaps bring home a few baskets of delicious fruit.

(Note: the above version of Nicaraguan history during the Cold War is oversimplified and unfair to all parties involved. Read up on the real thing – it’s a great story with important lessons)

Currency Rundown

Seven countries in Central America, plus Mexico, makes for plenty of numismatic joy.

Mexico
Currency: Peso. Means “weight” in Spanish.
Symbol: “$”
Yup, same symbol for peso as for dollar, which can be confusing. Some people reportedly take advantage of the confusion to (drastically) overcharge unobservant tourists.
Rough conversion to USD: divide by 100, multiply by 7.

Guatemala
Currency: Quetzal. Named after a much beloved, rarely seen bird.
Symbol: “Q”
Rough conversion to USD : divide by 8.

Belize
Currency: Belize dollar, though U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere.
Symbol: “$” or “BZ” or “BZD”. Usually pronounced “Belize” in conversation.
Conversion to USD: pegged to the U.S. dollar at 2 BZD = 1 USD. An endless source of confusion when prices are quoted. U.S. bills are everywhere, and the locals are very adept at mixed-currency calculations.

Honduras
Currency: Lempira. Named after the indigenous war hero who was ultimately captured and killed by the Spanish.
Symbol: “L”
Rough conversion to USD: divide by 20.

Precolumbian sculptures, Granada

Precolumbian sculptures, Granada

Nicaragua
Currency: Cordoba. Named after the Spanish conquistador and founder of the nation. U.S. dollars are also legal tender, i.e. dollars are accepted everywhere in the country. The dual currency coupled with an unintuitive, fluctuating exchange rate means that calculators are a big industry in Nicaragua.
Symbol: “C$” or “C” or a symbol produced by writing “C” and “$” on top of one another.
Rough conversion to USD: divide by 25.

Costa Rica
Currency: Colon (Spanish rendition of “Columbus”)
Symbol: “₡”
Rough conversion to USD: divide by 500. All prices are three digits and up – a real problem when your Spanish language numeracy is limited to two digits.

El Salvador
Currency: The Salvadorean currency (also named Colon) was phased out in 2001. U.S. dollars are used exclusively.

Panama
Currency: Balboa. Named after another Spanish conquistador.
Symbol: “B” or “B/”
Conversion to USD: pegged to the U.S. dollar at 1 Balboa = 1 USD. There are no Balboa bills, and U.S. bills are used exclusively. There are Balboa coins however.

Fun fact: Nicaragua and Honduras both claim the title of “second-poorest nation in the western hemisphere”. For the moment Nicaragua is winning, but it’s a close call. The number one spot isn’t contested – Haiti won’t be losing that distinction anytime soon.

Here Come the Gringos, Yet Again

Granada and Lago de Nicaragua, from La Merced

Granada and Lago de Nicaragua, from La Merced

In 1524 the Spanish founded Granada on the shore of Lago de Nicaragua, and for the past 500 years they’ve been fighting off one English-speaking invasion after another. Something about Granada seems to attract gringo adventurers and bandits like a magnet.

In 1665 the pirate Henry Morgan sailed into the city with six canoes, emptied the treasury and set fire to the buildings. William Dapier arrived overland in 1685 and burned the place to the ground. British Caribbean forces tried and failed to take the city in 1762 and again in 1780.

Cathedral in Granada

Cathedral in Granada

The most famous incident is William Walker’s 1855 filibustering campaign. Walker, an American, was called in by the rulers of Leon to help fight their rivals in Granada. He sailed into Granada and took it handily, then proceeded to take Leon too and declare himself president of Nicaragua. The following year he tried to expand his rule into Costa Rica, but the governments of Central America had had enough, and a combined force was dispatched to drive him out. Walker’s last act before retreating from his seat of power in Granada was (surprise, surprise) to burn the city to the ground.

The latest gringo invaders in Granada are not as inclined to light fires, unless it’s at the ends of their cigarettes. There’s a higher ratio of whites-to-latinos in central Granada these days than in many parts of the United States. Most are just passing through, but a significant number are there to stay. They’re starting businesses, or consulting, or volunteering, or retiring, or escaping whatever needs escaping.

Old Indians and Iguanas

Making tortillas, in Sutiava, Leon

Making tortillas, in Sutiava, Leon

We took a cooking class in Leon, learning to prepare Indio Viejo (old indian). The name allegedly originates from the time of Spanish conquest, when the soldiers of Spain would see the indigenous people cooking a feast and invite themselves to join in. The villagers, looking to get rid of the unwanted guests, would explain that grandpa had recently passed away, and today the “old indian” is to be served for dinner. That was enough to convince the Spaniards to seek nourishment elsewhere.

A curious sort of stew, Indio Viejo involves boiling beef then whacking it to pieces with a large rock, browsing the garden for pea-sized chillies, dissolving plenty of masa (corn dough) in hot water, and adding plantains, tomatoes, onions and spices. The result is tasty, but it lodges itself in the stomach like a concrete slab. The element of the recipe that we’ll take home is the blend of spices – a combination of sour oranges, mint and achiote (similar to paprika). It’s unique and delicious, and should work well in other dishes too.

Iguanas for sale at the market in Leon

Iguanas for sale at the market in Leon

The other option on the menu for the day was a dish of iguana. It involves buying a live iguana in the market, butchering it at home and cooking the pieces. It would be interesting to try iguana sometime, but we’d rather have someone else do the processing. It was fun to play with the live iguanas in the market though. Iguanas are used for food throughout Central America, and some species have been hunted to the point where they are now endangered, but the ones sold in the markets are commercially farmed.

Getting Wet

Of the seven hostels and hotels we stayed at in Nicaragua, not one was equipped with hot running water. This wasn’t much of a problem in April – everywhere we went was hot and sticky, and the lukewarm water coming out of the shower was just what we needed. But it would have been a bummer in December. Even in this part of the world, an occasional hot shower isn’t too much to ask for. Before Nicaragua, we had hot water almost everywhere.

But while Nicaragua is lacking in the shower department, it makes up for it with plenty of good swimming.

Laguna de Apoyo

Laguna de Apoyo

Laguna de Apoyo

What: a good-sized lake in an ancient volcanic crater.
Beach: mostly rocks and bush, planted grass in some areas.
Water: kept warm by submerged thermal vents. Soooo nice.
Views: blue above, blue below, a strip of green (the crater lip) in-between.
Access: 30-minute drive from Granada. Daily shuttles from hostels in the city.
Amenities: at Monkey Hut, $6 buys lounge chairs, shade, washrooms, inner tubes, kayaks, floating platforms and picnic tables. Drinks and pizza are extra.

Complejo Turistico, Granada

Isletas de Granada

Isletas de Granada

What: Granada’s “if you build it, they will come” lakefront development.
Beach: nice black sand with bits of garbage poking through here and there.
Water: can be choppy, which is fun. Probably not very clean, but doesn’t seem to be toxic.
Views: good view of the lake and volcan Mombacho in the background.
Access: cheap taxi or a quick stroll from the town centre.
Amenities: all the fried fish and overpriced beer you can consume.

P and B’s indoor-outdoor pool, Granada

What: we invited ourselves to stay over with friends in central Granada. Their little courtyard pool is perfect for an afternoon dip.
Beach: upstairs balcony for drying out afterwards.
Water: nice and warm.
Views: cute little tropical garden with glimpses of the kitchen beyond.
Access: must have the right connections :-)
Amenities: hammocks, hot showers, yoga classes.

Playa Santo Domingo, Isla de Ometepe

Playa Santo Domingo, Isla de Ometepe

Playa Santo Domingo, Isla de Ometepe

What: Ometepe’s main sandy beach. Can be crowded on weekends, otherwise deserted.
Beach: soft, clean black sand.
Water: same as Granada but without the sewage.
Views: not one but two volcanoes rising just beyond the beach.
Access: bus service on Ometepe is infrequent and a bit erratic. Time the trip just right, or get a bike or motorbike, or splurge on a taxi, or hitchhike.
Amenities: pretty good fish at pretty good prices.

Santa Cruz, Isla de Ometepe

Volcan Concepcion from Santa Cruz, Isla de Ometepe

Volcan Concepcion from Santa Cruz, Isla de Ometepe

What: an out-of-the way place even by Ometepe standards, but with a few places to stay.
Beach: rocks and tree branches. There’s rumored to be sand nearby, but we didn’t go looking.
Water: same as in Santo Domingo.
Views: wide-open views of volcan Concepcion.
Access: we had to cross a barbed-wire fence.
Amenities: mosquitoes, spiders, perhaps a snake or two if you’re lucky.

Playa Maderas and Playa Majagual, near San Juan del Sur

Playa Majagual

Playa Majagual

What: popular hangouts for surfers and other lazy bums.
Beach: sparkling clean white sand.
Water: could be a bit warmer, but much better than trying to swim the pacific in Canada.
Views: sand and waves and surfer chicks.
Access: 30-minute drive from San Juan, shuttles available.
Amenities: board rentals, burgers, nachos, cold beer.

Town beach, San Juan del Sur

San Juan del Sur

San Juan del Sur

What: dozens of moored boats in front, Nicaragua’s surfing capital behind, massive waves, and a 24-meter Jesus keeping watch from above (specifically, from a hilltop to the north).
Beach: wide and sandy and cleaned daily.
Water: cool and salty. Some waste from the town unfortunately.
Views: great sunsets, good people-watching, and did we mention the 24-meter Jesus?
Access: get to San Juan del Sur and just follow the crowds.
Amenities: not a hint of shade unless you bring your own. Many expensive seafood restaurants and one decent ice cream joint.

More photos from Nicaragua