Cost Of Living In Antigua Guatemala On A $500 Budget

Antigua Guatemala Cost of Living

One question I constantly get via email is how does my family of three manage to keep their cost of living in Antigua Guatemala under $500 a month. No, that is not a typo. In fact, more often than not, our expenses regularly come in lower than that.

Before I delve into how we do it, here’s something I need to clear up right away. Our lifestyles (whether yours or mine) depend on the choices we make and our definition of comfort. You may think we live grand – or live in a dump – based on your definition of happiness. And that’s fine. Everyone has their map of the world that they interpret according to what they see in it.

But let’s be clear about something. Somebody, somewhere, thinks you live like a pauper. So please, unless you’re Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or a child of the Walton family clan, if you’re reading this from your high-horse, please be kind, get off it, and tie it to the post at the front door.

In any country (yes, that includes the US) you can find a broad range of living conditions. Depending on where you live, rental prices in Antigua will seem to be a bargain, or maybe even expensive. It all hinges whether you’re comparing real estate prices to those in Omaha or Manhattan.

In Central America, especially in places popular and readily available to tourists, like Antigua, it’s not difficult to recreate a lifestyle that closely resembles that of the US. Immense houses with beautiful courtyards are not hard to find if you’ve got $1,500USD a month to spare. There are enough restaurants here that you can eat out every day at a different place and not have to eat at the same location twice in a calendar year. That said, not everybody can afford – or wants to – spend money like a drunken sailor.

So, what do you do if you, like me, are building a business on the side, income is tight and have a family to feed? Same thing anyone would do, from Antigua to Zimbabwe, set a budget and live within your means. So how do we do it? Easy. We try to live like most of the locals do and leave the touristy lifestyle to the tourists.

That doesn’t mean we live like recluses, penny-pinching at every opportunity. But it’s far more affordable to live well here than it would be to do the same in a First-World country. The fact that we live near one of the most beautiful, walkable colonial cities in the world is just a bonus.

So, for those of you interested in how to live on a tight, yet affordable budget in Central America, read on.

Housing Costs

Q1,000 ($125USD)

This is the big-ticket item. Most people that come to live in Antigua want to have a place to live before arriving in town – this is usually a mistake. Why? Because most properties marketed online are priced with a loaded foreigner’s fat wallet in mind. The best deals to be had are found not through real estate agencies, but through word-of-mouth and getting a feel for the place so you can bargain accordingly.

Our rent is $125USD. We found this brand-new condo after living here for a year and getting to know the area. Why so cheap? For one, it was unfurnished and in a place tourists, and most expats have no idea it exists. Sure, it’s small, but it suits us fine. Plus, you can’t beat the views of Antigua’s valley. Click to see my video of Antigua’s New Year’s Fireworks here. If you want pictures of the house and community we live in, click here and here (new windows).

New Year's Fireworks Antigua Guatemala-1

View from our Condo on New Year’s Day

If you want to live right in Antigua center, you’ll have to pay accordingly. We don’t mind living less than 10 minutes away to save hundreds of dollars. If being able to walk outside your door and be in the middle of everything is your thing, that’s fine with me. Just don’t expect it to come cheap.

Utilities

Q367.5 ($46USD)

Electricity is expensive in Guatemala. At least compared to what I was used to paying in the US. Fortunately, Antigua, unlike many other highly touted beach-side destinations (think some locations in Belize or Panama) is 5,000+ meters feet (thanks, Tim) above sea level, which is conducive to perfect, spring-like weather almost year-round. Don’t need heating, don’t need air conditioners either.

We switched all our light bulbs with energy-efficient ones, and our electricity bill has yet to top Q100 ($12.50USD) in many months – Q99.59 was the latest one. We don’t have a central water heater – only a shower-head heater – which cut at least Q300 from our previous bills elsewhere. Look into gas-powered heaters if hot water in every faucet is something that matters to you.

Water service, trash pickup, and maintenance fees total Q200 ($25USD). We use a small gas tank for cooking. The gas company delivers a full one when we run out – usually every other month – and the last 25lb refill costs us Q135 ($17USD), which is rather on the high side. We’ve purchased refills as low as Q95, but that varies seasonally. Since gas is a bi-monthly expense, I’ll add half the cost to the budget total listed on the Utilities heading (Q67.50).

Transportation

Q400 ($50USD)

We spent much more on transportation back when I had a V6 Jeep. Gas is expensive here, costing close to $5USD a gallon. These days, we walk a lot more. I can say that finally losing those 40 extra pounds (yes, forty!) has been worth it.

Since I work from home, I don’t need to go out as much, unless there’s a special event, church to attend to, people to meet, or festivities in town. My wife also volunteers regularly at Campos de Suenos. Public transportation is relatively efficient and inexpensive. Fare around town is about Q3 ($0.37) one way. Occasionally, we’ll go down to Guatemala City to visit relatives or for medical appointments. In that case, bus fare is Q10 ($1.13USD) one way. Monthly expenses, give or take a few quetzals are around Q400 ($50USD).

Internet

Q200 ($25)

Most people rely on Internet provided by the homeowner. If that’s not available, you may have to set up your service, through Claro, the local phone company, something that isn’t complicated.

I now rely on one of the infamous Tigo modems, which work out well for most tasks. If I need to do a video interview (like today) or carry on a Skype video conversation, it’s much more cost-effective to head to an Internet café. If I need to do research or upload/download huge files, I head over to the public library in front of the park.

School

Q125 ($16USD)

School tuition varies wildly, and it hinges on your expectations. On the high end, you can expect to pay $600USD a month at a school like AIS or  close to $100 a month at one of the many private schools in Antigua. On the cheap end are the free public schools – often lacking in every measurable metric.

Currently, our daughter is enrolled in a semi-private school, run by the city. It’s only Q100 a month and offers English and computer classes. To be on the safe side, we do our homeschooling curriculum on the side. There are added expenses, like uniforms and books, but spread out over the school year, I’d say it’s about Q500.

Food

Q1,000 ($125USD)

This is the biggest variable. It depends on where you shop and what your diet is like.

We eat fresh chicken, meat, veggies, eggs, and fruits regularly. A whole, a 4-pound chicken, goes for slightly under Q50 ($6.25USD), fresh fish for Q15 (under $2) a pound, pork and beef regularly goes for about Q20-Q25 ($2.50 – $3.00USD) a pound if you buy from the local butcher. Expect to pay more at the supermarket for everything else. We eat tortillas, freshly baked bread, and indulge in the occasional tamale or chuchito. Rarely, if ever, do we go to the local McDonalds, preferring instead to cook up our own, tastier burgers at home. Our coal-powered grill sees frequent use.

To give you a conservative ballpark figure, I’m willing to bet we spend less than Q250 ($31.25USD) a week in food and eating out, all fresh food, nothing canned or junk food. This leaves plenty to eat out at a sit-down restaurant once or twice a month, should we choose to.

Entertainment

Q100 ($12.50USD)

I’m being generous with this one. There’s plenty to do in Antigua and many ongoing activities where one doesn’t have to spend a penny. This week, for example, there was a car show on Calle del Arco sponsored by the BMW Car Club of Guatemala. Free and a good way to spend an hour doing something different.

Antigua Guatemala Cost of Living

Free Car show in Antigua

If you want something to do, entertainment isn’t hard to find, both free and for a fee. If you’re a homebody, you can find movies at the Mercado for Q5 and settle in for movie night. Many cafés (Bagel Barn, for example) and some restaurants have free movie nights. Dinner and a movie can be done very cheaply here.

Medical Expenses

Q200 ($25USD)

This is another one that’s highly dependent on your situation. We don’t have insurance, preferring to pay out-of-pocket for medical visits instead.

A visit to the Doctor will cost about Q200 ($25USD). If I were to set aside that amount a month for medical emergencies, it would just about cover any emergency and then some. But again, this will depend on your situation. Suffice it to say that medical care in Guatemala is inexpensive and of excellent quality, even when out-of-pocket. I’ll add it to the total, even though we rarely spend money going to the doctor.

And the total is:

Being generous with my estimates and wildly overshooting on some (like medical costs), out budget total is $449.50 – this leaves us with $50USD every month to buy clothes (which we don’t have to buy every month), school materials, and other odds and ends. Sometimes the budget will be much less than this, other times it will be more, but $500USD about covers all our regular monthly expenses.

Is this doable for everyone? Of course not. Some people spend more than that on rent alone. Could a single person live here on less than that? I don’t see why not.

If you’ve got the money, you can live here (or anywhere, really), as comfortably as anyone in a First World country. Maybe even better, since maid service is affordable and often costs less than $250 a month for full-time service.

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What’s Your Antigua Budget Like?

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Visa Run: Antigua Guatemala to San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico

san cristobal de las casas mexico visa renewal

They say time flies when you’re having fun. It seems like it was just a couple months ago I had just completed my first visa run to Mexico. Six months later, it was time to do it again, though this time I decide I might as well have fun with it.

On my last border run, I’d chosen Tapachula, Mexico, a somewhat rough border town, on the grounds that it was fairly easy to get to and not far from the Guatemalan border. As far as amenities or my personal interests, it left a lot to be desired.

For the upcoming trip I wanted a more interesting place, which is how discovered San Cristobal de las Casas, a beautiful colonial city in Mexico that looked to be a far more promising destination than Tapachula could ever hope to be.

San Cristobal de las Casas-1

Cathedral, San Cristobal de las Casas

I discovered that to get to San Cristobal, from Antigua, I’d have to either pay for a shuttle or chicken bus myself the entire way. Because I’m a glutton for punishment (or a cheapskate), I chose to make the trek via public transportation. This proved to be a fateful decision since it led to a series of events that made the trip far longer – and agonizing – than it should’ve been.

Here’s a travel tip for all you day trippers out there: While in Guatemala, it’s usually a good idea to check the news before you leave the house, especially if you’re traveling cross-country. Strikes, landslides, accidents, and other occurrences are not uncommon, so it pays to find out if the coast is clear before you leave the house, for when you decide to seek an alternate route.

I learned this firsthand the first time I traveled to Peten, to see the Tikal pyramids, only to find the city of Flores under siege and tanks rolling through town because of a drug-related massacre that had occurred in a nearby ranch. In fact, a local remarked to me what a bad idea it had been to bring the family over, that I should’ve known because it was all over TV and the newspapers that entire week. I was puzzled because neither CNN or Drudge Report had made a mention about any of this all week. I kid…

The second time, on a planned trip to Belize, I avoided getting caught in a massive, workers’ strike-related jam because I turned on the TV before leaving and learned about it before I left the house. Postponing the trip for the next day saved me a lot of aggravation and lost time.This time, I played it cool and figured nothing would happen… But something did happen, or was going to. Turns out there was a massive, nationwide teachers’ strike scheduled for that day, which would block roads at every turn.

Unfortunately, I didn’t give myself enough room to reschedule. Because of reasons beyond my control, I had waited until the last possible day to leave Antigua, on the exact day my visa was about to expire. So I was locked in to make it across the border at day no matter what. I left the house at 7:30 am and didn’t arrive in San Cristobal until 12:30 am, a grueling 16-hour trip that really should’ve been half as long with a little more careful planning.

Getting to San Cristobal de Las Casas from Antigua

The journey to San Cristobal via local buses is not complicated. The real issue is timing.

In Mexico, buses travel at nearly every hour to and from destinations. In Guatemala, it’s the opposite. Many bus routes don’t run after sundown and if you miss a connection, you’re stuck wherever along the route you decide to get off the bus.

Here’s the short version of what buses you have to take to make it there and back as cheaply, safely and efficiently as possible:

1a- Option 1: Antigua to San Lucas (Q5 – 25 minutes)

Catch the Guatemala-bound bus at Antigua’s terminal. Exit it at the first stop in San Lucas, right as the bus joins highway CA-1. Look for the huge pedestrian bridge and cross to the other side.

San Lucas Guatemala

San Lucas Bus Stop

Panamerican Highway, Guatemala

Bus Stopped on CA-1 Because of Roadblocks. Got off and Had Lunch Right in the Middle of the Highway.

Traffic Started Moving 30 Minutes Later and Quickly Jumped Back on Bus.

1b – Option 2: Antigua to Chimaltenango (Q5 – 45 minutes).

Chimaltenango-bound buses leave Antigua’s terminal less frequently and take a little longer. The advantage is that you’ll be a little further ahead when you reach the main highway.  Exit the bus right before it crosses under the highway CA-1 bypass bridge. Cross the two-lane highway on foot and wait for your connecting bus on the other side.

I feel less safe here than at the San Lucas bus stop, but you should be fine if you’re there early in the morning and before dusk. It’ll be Q5 cheaper if leaving from here instead of San Lucas.

2a – Option 1: Quetzaltenango (Xela) bound bus to Cuatro Caminos stop (Q30 – 1:45 hours if leaving from San Lucas, Q25 and about 1:30 hours if leaving from Chimaltenango).

If you took this option, skip to step #3.

Cuatro Caminos, Guatemala

Cuatro Caminos Bus Stop

***Note: You could go all the way to Xela and board a HueHue bound bus there, but you’d be wasting an hour (30 minutes getting into Xela’s bus terminal, 30 minutes getting out). Much better to get off the bus at the busy Cuatro Caminos intersection and take a Hue Hue bound bus to save time. Plus, it saves you Q10 in fare by not taking the direct HueHue bus at San Lucas.***

Salcaja, Guatemala

Because of Traffic Roadblocks, the Bus Took a Detour to Salcaja, a Small Town near Xela – a rare occurrence

2b – Option 2: Huehuetenango (Hue Hue) bound bus to Las Vegas stop (Q60 3.5 hours). If you took this option, don’t go all the way to Hue Hue. Read on to learn why.

3 – Cuatro Caminos to Las Vegas (Q20 – 1:45 hours).

Las Vegas – the name fits in an ironic way – is a dusty, busy triangle-shaped intersection. It’s here where Huehuetenango-bound buses take a detour from the main highway into the city of HueHue. To save time and the inevitable wait for passengers at HueHue, ask to get off at this intersection. For your reference, it’s flanked by a Texaco gas station. Cross the busy highway and wait for a HueHue to La Mesilla bus.

***Note: You won’t see any casinos, pyramids, or Wayne Newton in Las Vegas, Guatemala. Fairly boring intersection, not a neon sign to be found anywhere. The reason you want to step off the bus here is that you’d be wasting an hour getting in and out of Hue Hue, only to come back through the Las Vegas intersection again.***

4 – Las Vegas to La Mesilla border town (Q20 – 2 hours).

This is my favorite part of the trip. Make sure you sit by the window (driver’s side) to catch beautiful views of the canyon and for a glimpse at the life of local Mayans – Mam language is spoken here, which is very different from Kaqchikel (Antigua area) and Tz’utujil (Lake Atitlan area). You may even get lucky and see the men of Todos Santos Cuchumatan, who are easy to spot due to their hats and distinctive red pants.

At La Mesilla terminal, as soon as you get off the bus, you’ll be approached by money changers. Have an idea what the going rate is (check at XE.com before you leave) and change enough quetzals into Mexican pesos to pay for the buses at least. Banks won’t change money, so your best bet once you cross the border are the money changers or ATMs.

La Mesilla Guatemala

Main street at La Mesilla

From Mesilla’s bus terminal, take a right on the main street and walk downhill towards the border. It’s an easy 15-minute walk downhill. Fairly safe too, as the street is lined on both sides with stalls selling trinkets and cheap goods. Don’t worry about the fork in the road when you get to it, as both streets join again a tenth of a mile later.

La Mesilla Border, Guatemala

La Mesilla Border Crossing – Immigration Building Underneath “Have a Nice Trip” Sign

The border crossing is fairly relaxed. Guatemalan immigration offices are next to the entrance into Mexico, in a small building to the left as you walk towards Mexico. Walk in, hand your passport to the immigration of official, and if everything checks out, you’ll be done in less than five minutes (make sure your stamp has the correct date and that it indicated you’re leaving the country (salida).

In Mexico

The Mexican immigration building isn’t located across the border, oddly enough. It’s 10-minutes away (via bus) in nearby Ciudad Cuauhtémoc. No, you don’t want to walk there. And yes, I asked.

Look for a colectivo, small minibusses, which leave every 15 minutes or so, or the orange taxis on the left. The fare is MX$10. Occasionally, one of the orange taxis will take on passengers and you can take a shared ride for MX$10. Make sure it’s a shared ride and not a private cab, which is completely unnecessary and costs MX$40.

Colectivo bus Mexico

Mexico’s Colectivo Buses – No, those aren’t gunshots on the windshield

The bus/cab ride lasts about 10 minutes and you’ll be dropped off at the immigration building in Ciudad Cuauhtémoc. The building, which will be on your right when coming from Guatemala, is quite big and hard to miss. I’m fact, it’s the biggest man-made structure you’ll encounter for miles.

Once here, head into the immigration office, fill out a form and have your passport stamped. There are no fees for stays lasting less than seven days. Paperwork taken care of, it’s time to hit the road. There are two transportation options here.

Option 1: Take a small colectivo bus, which leaves usually every half hour or so, to Comitan, a town that lies roughly halfway between the Mexico/Guatemala border and San Cristobal. This bus costs MX$50 and the ride lasts 1:30 hours. At Comitan, the same colectivo company will drop you off at their private station, where you can take another colectivo minibus to San Cristobal (MX$60 – 2 hours).

Option 2: Take an OCC bus to San Cristobal. The terminal is right across the street from the immigration office. OCC buses are huge tour buses with reclining seats and TVs. Cost is MX$118, plus an MX$8 insurance surcharge. While these buses are comfortable, they’re not really worth the added cost for a short journey. They don’t save a lot of time either, if any, as the colectivo buses run on a much faster schedule.

Antigua Guatemala to San Cristobal Mexico

OCC Bus Arrives at Terminal 1:30 Hour Late – Had bought ticket, so I was stuck waiting.

Once you get to San Cristobal, you’ll be dropped off at the OCC bus station or nearby. From here, it’s a 5-10 minute walk into the center of town.

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Lowest total cost one way: Q70 – Q75 from Antigua to the border, MX$110 (Q50) from border to San Cristobal, for a total of Q130, or about US$19.

From San Cristobal to Antigua

Returning to Antigua is the same journey, but I’m reverse. But with one major caveat.

Unlike Mexico, Guatemala’s public transportation is far less organized. The last chicken bus leaving from Hue Hue to Guatemala leaves at around 5:30 pm. Should you arrive late and miss this bus, you’ll be able to get as far as Xela, where you’ll be able to find reasonable accommodations – unless you don’t mind finding a place to stay in Hue Hue.

Generally, it’s not a good idea to ride public transportation at night in Guatemala. As long as you leave San Cristobal by 7 am and not happen to run into any weird snags, you should be able to arrive in Antigua while daylight still shines. Not a guarantee, but the sooner you leave San Cristobal in the morning, the better your odds.

Other than that, I had a great time in San Cristobal and will dedicate a separate post to my stay there. It’s a beautiful city (designated as a “magical town” by the Mexican government), about 4-5 times bigger than Antigua and with a lot more in the way of entertainment and food options and a decidedly European flair (there’s a Burger King and a Subway in town, though no McDonalds, as the three days of public protests put an end to Ronald’s plans a few years ago, according to a local I talked to).

Here are some San Cristobal pics to give you a small sample.

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Antigua Guatemala to San Cristobal Mexico

San Cristobal de las Casas-1-5

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Have you visited San Cristobal de las Casas?

Did you enjoy the visit?