Cheapest Places to Live: Guatemala

You read a lot about people retiring to various countries in Central America or setting up shop there as an expatriate, but you don’t hear much about Guatemala in the mix. It’s worth taking a look at this country though, especially if you’re just going to rent an apartment and not try to buy property. It’s close to the U.S., it’s cheap, and it’s got a lot going for it, with a unique culture and plenty of activities.

What it doesn’t have going for it is retirement incentives, which is the main reason it seldom gets mentioned in International Living or in magazine stories about moving abroad in your golden years. Destinations such as Panama, Honduras, and Belize have rolled out the welcome mat to foreigners with money in the bank, but Guatemala has sat on the sidelines. There was a civil war going on there for 36 years, so they had bigger issues to ponder until the peace accords in 1996. Some of the problems that led to all that violence are still being sorted out and crime is still higher than it should be, so property buyers have been understandably skittish. Outside of Antigua real estate, most of the money has gone into tourism projects rather than residential development. Plus the waterfront restrictions are even more onerous than they are in Mexico: here you cannot buy property on any waterfront: you only have the right to lease it and the period is 20 or 30 years. So all the desirable land around Lake Atitlan, on the Pacific coast, and along any river is off the table for purchase.

But if you’re renting, none of this matters. You’ll have a pretty tough time finding a cheap apartment on the fly in super-popular Antigua, but in most other areas of the country it’s far easier to pay half or less what you would at home. For guidance on navigating the market and preparing to move there, pick up this great new book pictured here: Living Abroad in Guatemala. It’s written by Al Argueta, who also did Moon’s guidebook to the country and he knows Guatemala inside out. This was not written by some desk editor or a beginning guidebook writer who only had a few weeks to research everything. It’ll tell you most everything you need to know and plenty of things you didn’t realize you needed to know—like what the abbreviations mean in Guatemalan newspaper classifieds.

So besides the easy to get to location, why move here? Well, the price is right, first of all. Again, Antigua is kind of pricey because its jammed with tourists and students, but even there you can find great deals on food once you get outside the central core. Here’s my “what you get for a buck or less” part of The World’s Cheapest Destinations book for Guatemala: 15-20 bananas, a local breakfast, a rum & Coke in a bar, two great cups of coffee, 15 rolls, two pounds of potatoes or tomatoes, at least a half hour of Internet access, four local bus rides, a short tuk-tuk ride, 10 miniature Maya dolls.

It won’t cost you much to learn some Spanish either. My wife, daughter, and I had 20 hours of private lessons each over a week in Antigua and paid a shade over $400 total—including the homestay (with meals) with a local family. That’s private lessons. Group classes are even less.

Here’s an old post on travel prices in Guatemala, and from what I’m hearing these are still pretty close. The U.S. dollar is actually stronger now against their currency than it was when I was last there two years ago. Here’s a Guatemala family travel piece I wrote for GoNomad and a nice article with great photos of Guatemala in Perceptive Travel. To see what expats are experiencing costs-wise in this country and others, your best bet is a subscription to International Living.

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