Living Frugal in Central America

Living Frugal in Central America
March 21, 2011 Lainie Liberti

Living Cheap & Comfortably Explored

So what do you get for $1000 A Month for Two People?

Child riding bike in a Granada neighborhood

Slow traveling allows us to settle in one location for a period of time. We have had the opportunity to explore living frugally in several countries and several cities. This is an exploration of two of the cities we lived in, as we explore the budgets and comfort levels.

Living cheap and comfortable are separate concepts but are definitely related to one another. Living cheaply in a country is different than living frugally in the United States. However, we take a budget of what would equate living frugally in States and have the opportunity to live richly by experiencing different cultures. As my son and I travel on an eight year around the world adventure, we have settled in many communities and share with you here, the experiences. We live on a small budget and have and have several strategies to keep our expenses down.  Our combined budget for living and traveling for both of us is around $1000 a month, sometimes less  and in all honestly a few months we have spent more. However, this is a budget not possible in the United States. We do live frugally based on American standards, and have managed to maintain that in every country we have visited, so far.

Living Frugally

However the description of living frugally is not really an accurate one because the economic standards are very different compared to the United States and different in each country we visit. So far we have been traveling through Latin America, for the first year and half we were in Central America and now, we find ourselves in South America.
Living comfortably is a different concept all together and if we address standards of living (sometimes equating to products and conveniences) to the United States, you will not be able to reasonably compare. Apples to apples, oranges to oranges. So, what we have done, has adapted to travel with a long term plan which allows us to live in a country as close as possible to living as a visiting local.  What we don’t do is visit a country  like a typical  American tourist. We do not stay in  expensive hotels or condos built for foreigners, dine at expensive restaurants or  take the exclusive tourist excursions. Yes, we may be missing some part of the experience, but we traveling around the world in order to experience the culture, not something you can do if you only opt for the tourist experience.

Nicaragua vs. Guatemala



Miro’s $2.00 fish dinner in Granada.

We found both Nicaragua and Guatemala to be two of favorites, so far, both economical. There were differences between both experiences and both places, however we lived in both long(er) term, one for three months and the other for eight months. In both instances we lived in a quaint colonial towns, with lovely pastel buildings and a wealth of history. In  Nicaragua we lived in Granada, and Guatemala we lived in Antigua. Both places offered a pretty good infrastructure for us, including internet (for the location independent worker), modern supermarkets, gyms, and good public transportation. Also, both had a large population of Westerners living both within the city proper and the surrounding areas.

In Nicaragua, my son and I shared a large private bed room  with each other with a private bath in a hacienda style house with 8 bedrooms total. The house was typical a Spanish style house with all the rooms surrounding  an open garden in the center of the house. The house had many shared living areas from a front sitting room, garden area with hammocks, two dining rooms and two kitchens.  Our monthly rent was $200 but did not include internet or laundry.

My beautiful mom visiting us in our home in Antigua, Guatemala

In Antigua Guatemala, we rented a large 3 bedroom house near the city center. The house has shared 3 walls with the neighboring tenants. Our house was two levels, had a small open air garden, big beautiful kitchen, a main living room, washer / dryer, cable & internet for $650 a month. During the seven months we lived there, we  rented out one the two extra bedrooms on weekly or monthly basis which left our portion of the rent to be on average around  $350 – $400 a month.
There are definitely differences though between the countries and our living experience. For one, Nicaragua is much hotter and the quality of life for the general population was tougher due to the heat. There is fruit readily available on trees through the city which many people eat. There are class divisions for sure in Nicaragua. In the neighboring capital of Managua, you have a few of the very  wealthy and the majority lives in poverty. We found the food was generally bland, a lot of gallo-pinto which was rice and bean, fried fish, and an abundance of chicken and pork was available. There was a low selection of fruit, we still aren’t used to like sour star fruit, jamaica, granadas, to name a few. Interestingly though, all the fruits were not very sweet and neither Miro nor myself grew a fondness for them during our stay. Fresh vegetables were not very abundant other than tomatoes and potatoes. Nicaragua did have a rich history and people especially in the city we lived in were highly politicalized and passionate about improving their lives. Overall, our stay there was comfortable, economical, the weather was hot and the people were passionate and helpful. We would absolutely spend time there again.

Our regular fruit & veggie guy in Guatemala

The Guatemala has two distinct populations, the indigenous or people of Mayan decent and the people with a majority of linage of Spanish decent. The indigenous still lived in villages, the women still wore the traditional costumes and the community functioned much the way it did hundreds of years ago. They did not integrate into modern culture with the exception of mingling for commerce. The Mayans are farmers and from my observation, tend to work well together. In comparison to Nicaragua which has no current indigenous culture, the Mayans in Guatemala filled the markets with exotic  fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, rice and spices all for pennies, by American standards. A trip to the market where I’d purchase produce for the week (we tend to cook vegetarian at home) would cost me about $10 a week. I would buy a large pineapple, and a large papaya to  make juice (liquidados) , strawberries, and black berries. Also included in in $10 a week budget would be tomatoes, spinach lettuce, onions, potatoes, green onions, squash, green beans and black beans and rice. Eating on a budget and health in Guatemala was easy to do.

For a foreigner, the cost of living seems to be cheap from our perspective, but to live in a foreign country, is to live like a ‘visiting local’.

Also, be sure to check out this guest post 10 Things to Know Before You Move to Central or South America


  1. Anonymous 13 years ago

    Thank you for this post. u00a0We are currently in Belize, but have lived in Costa Rica for the past 1 1/2 years, both expensive countries by Central American standards. u00a0We don’t have an inclination to go to Nicaragua, but Guatamala has caught our eye (thanks to you). u00a0The reason for this is the indiginous population, which adds so much more color and culture and is the experience we are looking for. u00a0 u00a0

  2. Marie 12 years ago

    Hello Lainie and Miro,

    Thanks for this website, I’ve just stumbled upon it today as I was searching for single mum travelling abroad stories and love it. I am a single mum too and I lived in Nicaragua for 4 years, in Bluefields on the Carribbean coast, working for an international NGO there.
    I wanted to comment on this article as you write that Nicaragua “has no current indigenous culture”. It might be right on the Pacific side but it is far from being the case on the Atlantic/Carribbean coast. In Bluefields, at least 6 different ethnic groups mix and lives together and all along the Atlantic coast, there are a lot of indigenous communities like the Rama or the Mesquitos.
    Nicaragua is a completly different country when you go from the Pacific side to the Atlantic side… it is worth exploring!
    Thanks again for the beautiful and inspiring website,
    Have a good day and good travel!


  3. You are my HERO.

    I am a single mom (by choice to an 11 month old) and a long time adventure traveler. I was researching Antigua, Guatemala as a first trek for me and my baby.

    I traveled solo a lot before being a mom, but it will be a new adventure to do it with my boy in tow.

    You inspire me so much! Thank you for sharing. Your writing is a gift to the rest of us.


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