Save Money by Traveling in the Third World . . . Or Not?

I just got back from a trip to Guatemala. I was expecting that aside from my plane ticket and all the money I spent on travel vaccinations, I would be spending almost no money while I was actually there since I was staying with a friend and Guatemala is a third world country. Wrong!

Third world country though it may be, all the tourist attractions, sites, and restaurants are priced for tourists. The two touristy Guatemalan restaurants I ate at in Guatemala City in the part of town where all the American hotels are (Holiday Inn, Westin, Marriott, etc.) cost me about $25 per meal--about the same as I would have paid in the U.S., if not slightly more. The hotels I stayed in when I wasn't staying at my friend's place were $100 and $120 per night. And the private motor boat trip across Lake Atitlan was about $70. I'm not sure if that would have been the price no matter what, or if that was the price because there were 4 people. For one person it would be kind of expensive, but for 4 people it was a great deal. I also got some typical Guatemalan sweets, which cost about twice as much as the Indian sweets I like to buy at home.

Where was I able to save money? Well, by the end of the trip when I was feeling a little more adventurous about my eating, I went to a nontouristy Guatemalan restaurant off the beaten path and had a semi-all-you-can-eat lunch for about $5. The food wasn't amazing, but it was a lot better than a value meal at McDonalds. It was basically alongside the highway from Panajachel to Guatemala City, which is lined with expensive tourist restaurants, but by going just one street off the highway we were able to eat for cheap. I also saved money by traveling with a small group, so we were able to share the cost of the boat trip and one of the hotels.

I could have saved money on the hotels if I had been willing to stay in a hostel or even a less nice hotel but I'm kind of feeling too old for that. You can get a hostel room in Antigua for just $10 a night. I prefer to stay places where I can have my own bathroom and lock the door when I'm sleeping, though. I wouldn't say the hotels we stayed at were nicer than what we would have gotten for the same price in the U.S., but they did have more character and beautiful interior courtyards.

My transportation was free since my friend drove everywhere and even paid for gas. Otherwise, I could have taken a public bus, but I wouldn't have. They are cheap, but you get what you pay for--an old American school bus absolutely stuffed with people both sitting and standing. There were very few upscale tourist busses on the roads.

The next best option, though it wouldn't have been cheap at all, would have been to rent a car. Since my car insurance only works in the U.S. and Canada, I would have had to buy the rental company's insurance (but I would have wanted to anyway with the way they drive in Guate). Much like the U.S., private car seems to be the fastest and safest way to get around in Guatemala.

I also got a haircut, manicure, and pedicure while I was there, figuring it would be cheaper than what I normally pay (or rather, don't pay--I hate getting my hair cut and I also hate paying for it) but it cost about $66 for all three, not including tip, which wasn't nearly as cheap as I was expecting. I also learned that there is really no reason to pay for manicures and pedicures--I can do them just as well myself for free. (Nope, I'd never had a professional mani/pedi before.)

A few other things I learned on my trip: the travel vaccinations that I spent $150 on really didn't seem necessary. Maybe if I had been eating at food stalls on the street or dirty restaurants, but I was careful to eat only at places that seemed safe, to not drink the tap water and to avoid fresh fruits and veggies. It paid off--I did not get sick once. So I'm not upset that I paid more for food than I probably had to, and I don't think I was at any significant risk of getting typhoid of hepatitis A. I didn't take malaria medication since I was only in areas that didn't have mosquitoes, but I felt the need to bring deet and spray some clothes with permethrin before I left--turns out neither was necessary at all as I only saw one mosquito the whole trip.

Also, Guatemala takes its tourism business seriously. The people there are so nice, even the ones at the airport. It probably helps that I speak almost fluent Spanish and am not your typical gringo tourist, but I was still impressed by how genuniely friendly and helpful people were. The U.S. State Department would have you believe that Guatemalans are a bunch of kidnappers and theives, but I never experienced or saw any crime or even felt unsafe on my trip. Again, I'm sure it helped that I had my own native Guatemalan tour guide and escort. I saw a lot of poverty for sure, but never felt I was in danger of being mugged, kidnapped, or carjacked.

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