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Cost of Living: Part 2

Back in Part 1 I introduced the idea that you can’t just take your back home list of items and see what they cost here. I expect many of you saw the chili sauce example rather trivial. It wasn’t there to get you to change your chili sauce buying habits but to get you to think about alternatives to how you have always done it.

This month I am going to look at utility bills and getting things done locally. I will apply some of last month’s logic rather than just compare basic numbers.


Electrical Line TowerEnergy costs are likely to be the biggest expense. They are also likely to be the best example of how comparing the cost of a kilowatt hour or a B.T.U. is not going to be meaningful. For reference, I see the last electric bill shows a cost of Q2.27/kwh including IVA (sales tax) and the last time I bought propane it cost Q100 for 25 lbs. Now, don’t go off and multiply your kwh usage back in Dallas or Deluth times $.29 (that’s about Q2.27) and have a heart attack. Remember, this is why you are reading this page. If you want to compare that number to typical US rates, ElectricChoice.com is a good place to get the information.

Let’s divide up the energy costs a bit. It doesn’t matter if we are talking electricity, natural gas or oil. The big difference is going to be in how much energy you need to use. Not I’m willing to freeze in the dark kind of need, but what makes you comfortable.

How much energy do you use in cold months to heat your house? How much energy do you use in hot months to cool your house? A friend of mine lives in Houston. She said, “We have nice weather here. Unfortunately, it is only here two weeks a year.” Well, around Lake Atitlan, weather is almost perfect. Closer than practically any other place on the planet.

Am I making this up? No. You see, being at this altitude and in the tropics gets you pretty close. But, there is more here in the form of a huge lake. The water temperature is 22-23C year round. That’s a giant thermal mass that decreases variations below what they would be in a location without a lake. If you don’t believe this, check out http://atitlanlife.com/Weather/ which is our weather station.

I don’t live on the lake but less than one km away. So far, I have seen a low of 14C and a high of 28C. It’s safe to assume there will be a colder night in December and a hotter day in April. But, not much colder nor much hotter. And that’s outside temperatures. In a house with reasonable thermal mass (mine is mostly adobe) and opening and closing windows, it is easy to keep the inside temperature within a few degrees of your personal favorite.

While some people will have a fan or a small space heater just in case, that is the exception. The only place I can think of here in Pana with air conditioners are the banks and their issue has to do with not wanting a bunch of open windows. So, budgeting zero for heating and cooling is totally realistic.

Let me talk a bit more about electricity rates. It turns out that there is a discount for low consumption. In Nicaragua where there is something similar it is very easy to figure it all out. Detailed on the bill is the rate for the first 25kWh, the next and so on. Here I have been unable to figure out what is happening. The rate I quoted above seems to be the highest rate and you then get a discount for low consumption. If I ever decode it, I will post the information here.


The cost of water is interesting. There is a really short answer, Q3/mo. Yes, that’s it. You, whoever you are, pay Q3/month for water. It is not what you expect if you are from a real US city but that’s the number. Call it the do-it-yourself of water.

What you get is a connection to a source of water. Depending on where you are, it comes from streams or wells. But, what you get is just that water. No filtering and, possibly more important for some of us, no chlorine, fluoride and such. Typically with little water pressure as well. Thus, the consumer can do what they want. At my house there is a 2000 gallon underground cistern and a 500 gallon tank on top of a tower. There is a pump and pressure tank and a small filter. The result is semi-clean water but not something you would want to drink. As most places I have lived, bottled water for drinking has been the best choice this is fine.

My neighbor has a full-house filtering system complete with UV lights to purify the water. That means more energy use but he gets what he wants. On the other end, some people will just have a pila and basically does nothing to the water, accepting the general lack of water pressure.

It’s different from what you are used to in Gringolandia but you can get what you want and, in general, the cost is low.


In Panajachel, you are multiple choices for Internet service. Prices are not particularly cheap as there was no dot-com boom to create a surplus of bandwidth. The choices are:

  • 3G/4G wireless service from Claro, Movistar and Tigo. When I looked into it the best deal was Tigo for 8GB/mo of bandwidth for about Q300.
  • Cable from PanaDish. The highest bandwidth is 2.3Mb for, as I remember, about Q400/mo. They offer slower connections at lower prices.
  • Service delivered by wireless links from various providers including MayaNet. Expect prices to be from Q200 to Q500 for unlimited connections. That is, fast when fast but don’t be surprised if they slow down at peak times.
  • DSL from Claro. This, of course, means you also need a fixed phone line. Low-end is about Q200. They offers speeds up to 10Mb. I have a 5Mb connection and pay Q580/mo including the fixed phone line.

Cable TV

PanaDish is the local provider. Unlike most cable systems, PanaDisk delivers Internet and TV over different cables. They offer two options. The basic option is Q105/mo for somewhere close to 50 channels. The complete option is Q140/mo for almost 100 channels. They have a big dish antenna farm in Barrio Norte in Panajachel. Some stations going away during heavy rain is the norm.

The other option is Claro TV. Claro offers packages with telephone, Internet and TV. Being a Claro-hater I try to deal with them as little as possible.

Getting things made

If you come from Gringolandia where a trip to Home Depot to look for something that more or less does what you want is the norm, you will likely need to do some mental adjustment. Labor is cheap here and there are some reasonable skills. Asking around to have someone make what you want rather than trying to fit something standard into your needs can often give you better and cheaper results. Here are some examples.

Shower curtain rod: My house has an apartment upstairs above the livingroom. The structure is mostly round leading to strange shaped spaces. The bathroom and, in particular, the shower is no exception. It has five sides and no right angles. It had no shower curtain rod. After thinking of ways I might be able to make something appropriate I finally decided to think locally. I got some plastic and made a pattern for the base. I took it to a place that makes things with metal.

A couple of days and Q75 later I had a pipe bent to the shape I needed and two mounting brackets to put on the wall. While it fit perfectly, the guy who did it said “it was guaranteed”. That is, if it was the wrong shape, too long or whatever, he would modify it for no extra charge.


My (messy) workbench.

My (messy) workbench.

Workbench: I have too many hobbies to the extent that I probably need a separate house just for hobbies. The good news is that I also have some useful skills which help me provide for the hobbies.

I wanted a workbench for my electronics hobby. I knew what I wanted and the size. A trip to buy some 2x4s, 3x3s, 1x12s, masonite, electrical parts and such was the start of the project. It all went together fairly easily except I wanted to put a strip around the edge of the benchtop to hold down the masonite and protect it.

I didn’t expect to find something made specifically for this but went to a hardware store to see if there was someone creative there. I described what I wanted and the guy smiled. He came back two minutes later with exactly what I wanted. It was the aluminum strip you attach to the walls when installing a suspended ceiling. His thinking outside the box ability got me the right answer.

I don’t remember all the costs and was buying lumber for another project at the same time but here are some basics. As I remember, wood cost Q19 for each 8′ piece, whether it was 3×3, 2×4 or 1×12. Masonite was Q80/sheet. Toss in maybe Q100 for screws and electrical parts.

Partition: In my “office” I wanted a partition to separate it from other parts of the house. My wife was worried that I was going to start drilling holes in the floor and such. I wanted a sturdy but non-destructive solution. My end solution is made from a sheet of masonite. I had a lumber place cut a groove in some 1/x2″ cypress that the masonite could fit in. I made some feet out of left over pieces of 3×3 and attached the whole thing to the back of my desk. Presto, the partition I needed in exactly the size I wanted for about Q200.

Comedor: For those who need furniture but are less of a do-it-yourself person (or more concerned with something that looks nice) there are lots of people who work with wood here. I have bought some low-end tables but we wanted a nice dining room table. The size we want, 6-person, is available in the usual multi-national chain stores (in Pana, that means Tropigas and La Curacao) complete with the fake wood plastic-covered particle board top for around Q6000. We decided to see what a custom made one would cost from all real wood.

The answer seems to be round Q3500. Ana got to pick out the style, the size and the fabric on the chairs. We don’t have it yet but it sounds promising. Next week we will know for sure.

Is there more?

Of course. While I have no specific plans for Part 3 of this series yet, it will happen. If you have any specifics you want me to look at, let me know. While some things are dirt cheap here (corn and fruit, for example) that is not the whole picture. And, yes, if you want food in a can from the US, it will cost more. The real secret is to think local. It will almost always be the least expensive option.

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