I came upon this Lonely Planet article a while back, and I absolutely loved the concept and knew it was a topic I wanted to write about. When I first started breaking the news to my friends, family, and co-workers about my planned travel sabbatical, a lot of people asked me how I can afford it. Of course, I had to make good decisions about my finances over the past few years, paying off debt, not buying things I didn’t need, saving money. But in reality, you can live so much cheaper in certain parts of the world, specifically Latin America. And this is one of the things I really want people to know because if cost is what is holding you back from living some of your travel dreams, let’s remove that barrier now.
First off, let me tell you what a dollar has bought me in my temporary homes over the past 12 weeks and 5 countries.
- A drink at the bar: a canelaza in Ecuador, a bottle of Pilsener in El Salvador, a bottle of Tona in Nicaragua.
- Enough groceries for two days of large breakfasts – eggs, handfuls of spinach, tomatoes, bananas – in Quito and and again in El Salvador – eggs with onion and tomatoes, fresh bread, bananas.
- A fresh-squeezed, pure fruit juice (at least 10 fruits to choose from) and a bus ride into the Centro Historico for sightseeing in Quito.
- Four fresh-baked medium-sized baguettes (2 servings each) from a panaderia in La Antigua, Guatemala.
- A light lunch in El Salvador – pupusa with frijoles and a licuado made with milk, banana, and orange juice.
- A round-trip ride on the chicken bus from the beach to the town, 30 mins of internet access,and ½ liter of cold water in El Salvador.
- Dinner of 2 tamales and a Diet Coke in Juayua, El Salvador.
- Organic Salvadorian coffee and dessert at a pasteleria in Juayua, El Salvador.
Because I am crazy and monitor my trip budget like I’m managing a project budget, I recently analyzed my finances to see where I am against my plan. In summary, I was pretty good at estimating the living expenses in each country. In some cases, I’ve been able to live cheaper than expected, mainly by cooking my own food and not going out to bars often. However, the transportation costs are something I did not estimate well. There are two main reasons. First, I’ve opted to take safer, direct transportation when I’m moving several hours between locations. For example, the bus option to travel from Puerto Vallarta to Mexico City would have required me to travel at night about 12 hours. I did not feel traveling at night was a safe option and decided to spend the extra money to buy a plane ticket. Second, I did not account for all transportation costs to get to the next location. For example, when I went from Costa Rica to Nicaragua, I knew the Tica bus ticket was $21, but I did not plan on having to pay $23 for a short cab ride from the airport to the bus station (no options when you land at midnight and need to be somewhere before the local buses start running) and then $19 for a taxi from Rivas, Nicaragua (where Tica dropped me off and told me the local bus was not running) to the beach in San Juan del Sur. Of course the plane ticket itself was the most expensive part of getting to Nicaragua. The bottom line is airline tickets are not cheap, so try to plan your travel to avoid them if possible.
Despite my thriftiness and efforts to bring this project back on budget, I am still over budget due to my little “vacation” to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. (But I would do it again because I had an amazing time.) I planned to spend about $2800, and I have spent about $3400. The transportation costs associated with getting to and from Nicaragua ($800) can fully account for the difference. But it’s good to deviate from the planned itinerary when fun opportunities arise. That is why it is important to live as simply as possible so that you have the funds to do some of the spontaneous things that cost extra money. I believe this is true whether you are living in Ohio or are traveling the world. I am currently deviating from the plan once again to get my open water diving certification in the Bay Islands, Honduras. I’ve never had an interest in diving before (a little afraid of the creatures in the ocean), but now I want to do it while I’m in this part of the world; the Bay Islands are the cheapest place to get certified. In a couple months, we’ll see if living simply has made up for the fun excursions I’m encountering on the way.
When you think about it, living on $3400 for just over 11 weeks is pretty damn cheap, especially because this includes some of the costs of moving between different countries. I am especially pleased with myself for being able to live on under $23 a day in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador (not counting the expenses of getting there), and I’ve still done things like surfing and hiking tours. I could have said the same about Ecuador if I do not include the Spanish lessons. My average cost of food & drink is under $8. My average cost of lodging (removing the all-inclusive resort in Mexico) is just over $7. Can you still say that money is your excuse for not traveling?
Check out the Budget page for more details on the daily costs for each country I have visited and how it compares to my estimates, as well as to see my full budget for the year-long journey.
So back to the topic of what a dollar can buy you. When I was living in the US, a dollar did not mean that much to me. I didn’t have to think much about spending a dollar for a soda or a snack. But I can tell you that I think about every dollar I spend now. I ask myself if it’s worth it because I know how much I can do with that dollar in Latin America. And those dollars spent on eating fast food and drinking at the bar can quickly add up to a day’s living expenses. So tell me… What have you bought for a dollar?