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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Comments
  1. Christine Gilbert

    I rented a two bedroom apartment in Xela, with 180 degrees views of the city for $400. Quetzaltenango (Xela) is a great alternative to Antigua for Spanish lessons too.

    I’d love to live in Panajachel or one of the other communities around Lake Atitlan, but I found internet rather difficult to come by– something that’s a requirement for me to keep working. (Internet cafes were okay, but slow).

    Some folks say that learning Spanish in Guatemala is easier than other countries because there is less of an accent and they speak slowly and clearly (relative to other countries). It certainly was much easier for me to understand than the Madrileno accent I was used to.

    Love hearing Guatemala mentioned! It’s true, most people skip it, but they don’t know what their missing. :)

    • tim

      Thanks Christine! I know from conversations I have with people that half don’t believe me when I give them sample living costs in other countries, so it’s always good to get a real example from someone. Good point that you need to keep internet access in mind when deciding on location. There are plenty of lovely places where you are too far off the grid. I remember our hotel we stayed in on Lake Atitlan didn’t take credit cards because their communication ability was lousy to verify or process the cards.

  2. Car Hire Nice

    Guatemala is probably one of the South American countries that’s always overlooked by tourists and travelers. When people think of South America, it’s always Brazil, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and other major countries.

  3. Mario

    Mr. Car Hire plugger – you might want to pull out an atlas before commenting next time.

  4. Lake Atitlan

    I have lived in Guatemala, as an ex-pat for nearly 40 years. It is a wonderful, inexpensive place to live, with a perfect climate (at least in the highlands near Lake Atitlan). I’d encourage anyone to visit, and form their own opinion.

    • Terrie

      Hi, I am currently living in Buenos Aires and working as an ex pat hairdresser. Plaese can you tell me if there is much demand dfor that type of work where you are.
      Thanks
      Tx

      • tim

        Terrie, the expat women here complain that it’s hard to find a good hairdresser and I’m guessing they’d be willing to pay more to have it done right, so probably. Stake out the scene first though—I imagine there are already plenty in San Miguel de Allende and Ajijic, for example.

  5. Nomadic Matt

    Guatemala is a dirt cheap place to live. Christine said it all!

  6. sonya

    are there any buses that go from Guatemala City, or Antigua…to Nebaj? (other than chicken buses, shuttles) thanks for any help you can give.

  7. Bill Leslie

    I’ve visited the Lake Atitlan area twice in the last five years (San Lucas Toliman); in my opinion, Guatemalan culture is the most interesting in Central America, probably because the native culture is still so strong. I agree with the comment that Guatemalan Spanish is relatively easy to understand; Spanish is a second language to many Guatemalans – maybe that’s why they speak more slowly and clearly. I’m headed to Xela this summer for two weeks of language school at Casa Xelaju.

  8. rickie

    Spanish is a second language to the natives (indians), but not to the Ladinos or Mestizos.

    PS
    Car, please Google Guatemala and Puerto Rico, or if you prefer, take a physical geography class! It will help! I guarantee you :)

  9. Matt

    Hi guys, I rented a very cheap house in Xela for $500 a month completely furnished, two stories, garage, laundry, hot water, etc. This is the website if your interested: http://lunadexelaju.tripod.com/

  10. Faisal

    Mr Car
    besides geography I would like you to research United States of America. Puerto Rico is not a country it is part of United States. Puerto Ricans are US citizens

  11. Raleigh car rental

    OK; I’ll make the math and I’ll decide if Guatemala is the best place for mom and dad. It already meets two important requirements I’m looking for: cheap living and far enough :). I would be also interested about the public safety.

  12. Douglas

    Hey everybody! if anyone is looking to live in Guatemala City or Antigua I have some houses and apartments for sale and rent.

    • STAFFORD COWLES

      Yes, I am very much interested in buying or renting a home in Guatemala.
      Please get back to me as soon as you can. I want to retire in April 2011 and relocate to Guatemala.

      Staford Cowles

      • pau

        are you still looking for a house in Guatemala? I am guatemalan, and need to sell my own house, is near the city, in a small private condo, with beatiful view, and real nice weather, you can go anywhere from here, the city, the volcanos, to antigua, the beach… please, let me know!!

    • kr

      I am wanting to find some of that “cheap”renting in Guatemala….anything within 10 miles of Atitlan Lake? PAU????

  13. Trina

    My husband and our new little baby are looking to live abroad and have heard really great things about Guatemala. How are they towards racial diversity. I’m mixed black and latin and my husband is white. It hasn’t been a real issue on other travels but I’m just curious.

    Thanks

    • tim

      To be honest, the racial outlook is less of an issue in countries with a Caribbean coast and a long history of mixing, like in Belize and Panama. As you probably know, the indigenous Amer-indian people get branded as lower class in many of these places and the people in power are the ones who look more European. It’s complicated and I’m over-simplifying things, but that’s the general case in Mexico and Guatemala. As a foreigner you kind of get a free pass anyway though. You’re not classified in the regular manner because you’re presumed to be wealthy…

  14. Steven

    I have been living in Guatemala City for the past 3 years. I work in a call center here. Most of the call centers require English speaking since the callers and the systems are all in English. The apartment I rent is in an ok area of the city. It is close to some dangerous areas, but for the most part, very safe where I am. I pay Q1300 a months ($162.50) and that gets me a 3 bedroom/1 bathroom apartment with a nice size private yard. Since I work hard and speak English, the call center I work at wanted me to move up the ladder. Currently I am a supervisor lead making about Q8500 a month ($1,062.50). My electric bill runs around Q200 ($25) per month, water bill is a set price at Q55 ($6.88) per month, and I spend roughly Q800-Q1000 ($100-$125) per month on groceries. I have other non-required bills that I pay each month (cell phone, internet, ect) but without those my total cost of living is about Q2555 ($319.77) per month. Leaving me with the ability to save Q5945 ($743.13) per month. Its a great place to live and very affordable.

    • tim

      Thanks for the real numbers feedback Steven. Much appreciated!

    • Laura

      Thanks for the great information. We’ve been thinking about making this move. Do you have a work visa? Is it hard to get a visa to work there? Did you bring your car? Does one need a car? I have so many questions!!! Any info would be welcomed!!! Thanks!

      • tim

        There are great books out there on this subject Laura, starting with Traveler’s Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America. Or ones with obvious titles like, oh, Living in Guatemala perhaps? Spend 15 bucks for knowledge and you’ll be set.

    • Virgil

      Hi Steven
      Is it easy as an American to get a job in Guatemala?

    • Jean Cote

      Hi Steven,
      I’m presently living in SEA since 2005 and I think that it’s time to move on. I was thinking about Guatemala City (Í’m a city slicker) I would like to know about the availability of Serviced Apartmets in the city center like in zone 14, 15. The prices range is between $700. to $1100. per months including electricity, water and Internet. I would like to stay 6 months to start with as a trial and if I feel at ease in that city I could stay for years.

      Cheers

  15. Linda

    Hi I am thinking of building a house in Huehuetenago anynody visited there and / or anyone have any information I would be buying the land and building a house there.

  16. Linda

    Sorry and thanks for any help in advance!

  17. Guaty

    Anyone of the restaurant business industry that would like to work in Guatemala City?

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