9 INCREDIBLE COUNTRIES WHERE YOU CAN LIVE FOR UNDER $1,000 A MONTH
Travel widely enough, and you’ll notice something about the Americans you encounter abroad. While the people I know in the States are too often shackled to dull jobs or unrewarding relationships, the entrenched expats I’ve met while visiting more than 100 countries never show evidence of boredom, worry, or regret. Nearly all seem to embody what a quintessential Outback man — twice my age and hitching in the opposite direction on an Australian backroad — yelled across the pavement: “Don’t spend time; enjoy it.”
If you’re thinking of starting up somewhere else for the YOLO of it, don’t let cost stand in your way. The US government pegs the poverty line at about $12,000 a year for a childless person. That won’t take you far in Oakland (or even Omaha), but it’ll buy you a full year of wonders in one of these nine countries. In any of these, $1,000 a month covers housing and food, as well as access to adventures that chumps with much fatter salaries can only imagine. The price of a beer, I’ve found, works as a pretty reliable stand-in for almost any cost-of-living survey you care to enlist; those are included here.
This list could dig deeper into hardcore country steals. Unless voluntourism is your goal, risky places like Nigeria and Pakistan aren’t wise choices. And a note on budgeting: If you’re working abroad, you’ll blow less money, simply because you’ll stumble into fewer budget-wrecking hedonistic binges while on the clock. If you’re earning even a few American dollars a month, you can stretch a trip to any of these spots indefinitely. (If you need a handbook for these sorts of life-changing jaunts, A Better Life for Half the Price by Tim Leffel is the bible for bargain-hunting wannabe expats.) Life is short, as they say. So go long.
Local draft: $1.50, served by someone with a PhD
What you’ll save on: A world-class opera runs $6.
Why here? University grads probably speak English better than you do and chess is the national pastime. Their top export seems to be smarts. Fashion and wine run deep; the always-organic produce is ridiculously cheap. Sandwiched between Iran, Turkey, and Georgia, many of the tiny Christian country’s 4,000 epic religious structures are on prime real estate — analogous to where America created its ultimate national parks and resorts. Nearly every monastery offers the option to interact with the chatty, emcee-style resident priests who exemplify the coolness of all Armenians. Like most orthodox holy men, they marry and have families, which seems to give them an enhanced sense of humor — not short on jokes or offering samples of homebrew wines in clay jugs.
Affordable adventure: Armenia’s stairway to heaven — an ascending Grand Canyon-esque road — leads to the mind-melting Noravank monastery. Imagine multihued Moab speckled with ancient hilltop World Heritage Sites.
If you need a hedonistic binge: Armenia’s 300 days of sunshine each year paired with hundreds of denuded mountains above the tree line make it one of the world’s best places to paraglide, either as a beginner or a one-timer flying tandem with a pro.
Local draft: 75 cents to wash down a few of their 1,200 varieties of chilies
What you’ll save on: A bed in a bare-bones hostel will run $5 per night, and taking a leashed alpaca for a stroll is free.
Why here? Landlocked in a corner behind Pacific coast-hugging Peru and Chile, Bolivia remains an even greater bargain than backpacker sanctuaries like Cambodia. La Paz (elevation 12,000ft), the world’s highest capital city, is where frugal long-term travelers crisscrossing South America hang their hats and regroup. Giveaway alcohol prices and all-night dance joints are a welcome reprieve from the city’s hectic street scene.
Here, the mostly Roman Catholic country breaks from tradition with their version of America’s WWE, Cholita wrestling, where empowered Bolivian ladies battle it out for your entertainment. Bolivia has the largest Native American population in South America and they invented the frugal existence. Although less than 10% of Bolivia’s land is flat/fertile enough for growing crops farming is their primary occupation. Yet few Bolivians can afford the biggest crops — in their case quinoa and coffee — because they’re worth far more as an export.
Andean natives never seem to be in a rush, probably because they maintain spiritual links to their 3,000-year-old ancestors. In the past 185 years they’ve had nearly 200 heads of state, so it’s easy to assume that the current presidente on the Bolivian stamp doesn’t have much time left. But in the cosmic sense, who does?
Affordable adventure: Once you stomach the $160 cost of a visa, everything, I mean everything, is ultra-cheap in one of South America’s least-visited countries. If you need a break from La Paz’s buzz or elevation, you’re just a 30-mile drive (passing an eruption of majestic mountains) from sea-like Lake Titicaca where drowsy llama herds graze while cows sip from the trout-filled lake.
If you need a hedonistic binge: Mountain biking 45 miles down the treacherous road that connects Coroico to La Paz is a kaleidoscopic evolution of microclimates, and throws a bit of mud in your face. The aptly named “death road” was cut into the side of a mountain chain in the 1930s by Paraguayan prisoners. It connects the Amazonian rainforest to La Paz. You’ll note that many vehicles have tumbled off the narrow dirt road and met their fates far below. The 11,000-plus-foot drop means riders segue from thin, chilly air to baking humidity. Many outfitters compete for your business. Oh yeah, La Paz has decent hospitals.
Local draft: $1.25, x2 since you’re also buying one for your new buddy
What you’ll save on: A bowl of kava is by donation, your call.
Why here? Unlike the many Polynesian islands in the midst of the Pacific Ocean, dark-skin-Melanesian Fiji’s vibe resembles that of the chilled-out Caribbean. The 10-hour nonstop flight from Los Angeles springs you into a remote patch of the Tropicana ring around the Earth that welcomes backpack nomads, divers, and package-tour types. Fiji’s largest and most populous island, Viti Levu, yields lush resorts and ferries and flights to dozens of other beach-rimmed islands that cater to chic travelers as well as the $20-a-night, thatched hut-dwelling beerchug contestants. Dandy.
If you really plan on living here for a while you’ll have to truly go local — earthen floors and all — to live cheaply. Of Fiji’s 325 islands only about 100 are “inhabited,” and visitors rarely get to know more than a few after landing on Viti Levu. Everyone sees this large island’s intimidating peaks but heads offshore to predictable resorts. Instead, ascend into Viti Levu’s craggy mountain interior and take a hike on the wild side where an invitation from chiefs is required to enter most villages. Then, gather ’round the kava bowl and drink the elixir used for centuries to mend conflicts between warring tribes; a peaceful happy hour. Kava means to Fiji what football means to Green Bay, Wisconsin — a marvelous trance. The buzz recalls a sort of earthy codeine canapé or a Native American mushroom blessing.
Affordable adventure: Get round-wound-sound by enjoying the stirring gospel singing in one of the many rustic Christian churches built in nearly every settlement. Waltz (like you own the place) into one of Fiji’s many plush resorts, play a drinking game or enjoy the amenities. Freed indentured servants brought here from India by 19th-century British colonialists add plenty to these already-multicultural islands — including killer Indian cuisine.
If you need a hedonistic binge: Fiji’s two “cities,” Nadi and Suva, have the usual tourist rundown of places to blow your money, but tighten your belt and you can survive on a budget that would make you cry back in the States.
Local draft: $1, while standing barefoot in sand
What you’ll save on: Exotic spices. Fresh and way cheaper than Trader Joe’s (the nutmeg on Grenada’s flag is telling).
Why here? You’ll find plenty of splendid beaches and nice places to crash on this West Indies paradise. GMT (Grenada Maybe Time) slips away from you as the locals’ songlike accent often needs translating. Keep in mind that this is the Caribbean and to navigate affordably you’ll have to go more native than you might prefer. Keeping the peace is Grenadians’ attachment to British Colonial law — one must bow to a picture of the queen when entering a court. And if you swear, it’s not hard to land there. Locals call this a “church state” because cursing within earshot of a cop can warrant an arrest. At least you don’t need any language but English to get around just fine.
Local joints play upbeat soca music, which gets Grenadians up and bouncing. They call it whining, pronounced “why-ning,” and it’s a carnal dance demonstration: couples swiveling for hours, rarely making eye contact with one another. No doubt you’ll also encounter some of the 5,000-plus international students enrolled in the medical school, perhaps on the dance floor.
Affordable adventure: Hike jungles, laze on beaches, and just mingle. Dig on the national dish called oil down, getting its name from the coconut milk oil residue that infuses the one-pot stew of breadfruit, callaloo, okra, cabbage, fish, dumplings, turmeric, and whatever else is on hand. A lively traffic circle near Grand Anse Beach borders a makeshift outdoor marketplace sarcastically named “Wall Street” because the strip-mall parking area is bookended by banks. Along with being a mini-bus hub, the circle attracts locals who gather to buy open-air-grilled meat and drink beverages sold from ice chests in pickup beds. At night, cars blare music, creating instant parties.
If you need a hedonistic binge: You’ll soon hear distant calypso music filling the barbecued night air. That’s your cue to follow the sound of steel drums and behold this West Indies invention — listening music — that doubles as delivery for satire and political commentary. You can hire a cabbie who’ll take you wherever you want to go for the night, all night, for about $20.
Local draft: $1.25, with Guns N’ Roses soundtrack
What you’ll save on: A handmade bamboo river raft, just $15
Why here? Americans abroad are sometimes met by a level of wariness, but expect Laotians to welcome you warmly, despite America bombing the country profligately during the Vietnam War. Take a rat-race sabbatical to this Buddhist country, and you’ll chill out, and probably learn to cook vegetables better than anyone you know. Once landing here, you’ll soon start walking and talking much slower. The expat scene is equal parts industrious and whacko; look for Americans and Aussies in bars and restaurants in Vientiane, the capital city and party spot.
Affordable adventure: In Laos, currency exchange rate fluctuations usually remain on your side. Accessible only by boat, Muang Ngoi Neua is an idyllic village on an elevated riverside plain cradled by mountains. A refreshing departure from Southeast Asia’s earsplitting transport madness, the little town remains blissfully devoid of motorized vehicles. Here, the vertical limestone cliff formations create a cathedral panorama, and a dramatic setting along the River Ou where unforgettable hiking and rafting excursions await. You’ll also mingle with sexy backpackers from at least 10 different countries.
If you need a hedonistic binge: Get a deep tissue massage or three every day. At $6-$10 an hour, you can afford that here. In this part of the world, they call foreigners falang and they tend to pay double the local price for everything. Every Lao town has a go-to guy or gal who, for a fair wage, can cut the hassles and make travelers’ whimsical dreams come true. On a professional level, they would be called fixers. Hire you an all-purpose wingman and roll big wherever you go.
Local draft: $1.75, served by someone who has no idea they could make a living as a model in the US
What you’ll save on: A two-hour bus ride crossing remarkable mountain range separating Adriatic coast with inland capital runs just $7.
Why here? Free of the Communist hangover that hung in the former Yugoslavian states post-1991, Montenegro is rocking it. The capital, Podgorica, has its share of uniform, sober buildings echoing the dismal Soviet concrete era, but the mannerly hard-working locals make it shine. But this place is not all about work. They also know how to party. Routine vodka-swilling haunts aside, chic nightlife options abound.
Affordable adventure: The mountainous, euro-using country has miles of gorgeous Adriatic Sea coastline, but the real fun happens in Podgorica’s sprawling open-air restaurants overlooking the cooling Morača River, where ethno folk bands with accordions and harmonicas taking center stage serve as the backdrop. Nothing comes easy when a country emerges from a dictatorship into a democracy, but you can afford to live in style here while they figure it all out.
If you need a hedonistic binge: A highlight of the Old World Adriatic Sea side of this country of 750,000 residents is severely romantic Perast, a soulful, mountain base-hugging village on the Bay of Kotor. This stunning snapshot of native waterside culture can be taken in from several waterfront establishments. Versus more touristy parts of Europe (Italy is across the way), Perast is a bargain, full of locals who seem to enjoy Americans. On the edge of town, the Pirate Bar (not a play on words like it might be in California) is the choice for imbibing and snacking while overlooking the bay and mountains, which are all perfectly illuminated by serious sunsets.
Local draft: $1.15, likely in a joint where the walls can talk
What you’ll save on: Gift-giving back home. Nifty local handicrafts cost bupkis.
Why here? Nestled between powerhouses China and India, this hypnotizing nation allows you to travel back in time, which also applies to its cost of living. Kathmandu, with a surplus of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, is one of those big towns (like Ushuaia, Argentina, the gateway to Antarctica) where every traveler is amped to the max since they are either preparing for or returning from one of their life’s most epic experiences in the Himalayas.
Even while living there long-term, you’ll never tire of that adventurous energy. Nepal’s intensity lies in its out-of-this-world mountain scenery, embedded spirituality, and antique temples and villages. This crossroads for meeting down-to-earth (or coming-back-to-earth) travelers is a people-watching dream come true.
Affordable adventure: Just being there. If your job in Kathmandu, likely doing something humanitarian, doesn’t work out, go take a stroll and pinch yourself. If you need a change in village scenery, take the 125-mile bus ride/odyssey from Kathmandu to Pokhara, the country’s second city and an apt place for you to discover your inner hippie. Although damage from the 2015 earthquake lingers, there is more to do than peer from your bus window. Punctuate the hilly, winding, no-guard-rails journey with stops to camp on sandy riverbank beaches, go whitewater rafting, or chill in a hammock.
If you need a hedonistic binge: One of three treks: the Annapurna Sanctuary, the Annapurna Circuit, or the Everest Base Camp Trek, your chance for an encounter with Mount Everest. Upon returning, reborn, you’ll never be the same person.
Local draft: $1.65, in an open-air bar where you’re not embarrassed that your Spanish peaked in 11th grade
What you’ll save on: Surf lessons can be had for less than $10/hour.
Why here? Even the poorest country in Central America — you’ll be humbled by how far $500 a month goes here — is a swell place to assess your coordinates of wonder. When the sun rises here at least four things happen. Hardcore bird lovers and surfers set out on mountain rainforest rambles or big Pacific Ocean wave hunts, and Managua’s gamblers and shady night owls call it a night. Sample all of it, and you’ll wonder why you didn’t get here sooner. In the late ’90s this place was slowly limping out of a war. Now it rivals Costa Rica, the darling of Central American tourism, as the place to be.
The narrow country is flanked by the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean while the landmass separating them is a massive, fertile mountain range. The Caribbean coast is flavored by Creole-accented slave descendants while on the west coast of this triangular country Spanish-descended Latino flair remains in full swing.
Affordable adventure: Off the Caribbean coast is idyllic Little Corn Island, which features economical lodgings and surprisingly swank yoga-focused resorts on an island that doesn’t have cars — and by law will now never permit anything with an engine.
If you need a hedonistic binge: The west coast’s mountains create private Pacific Ocean beach coves, one providing an idyllic and secluded spot for Nicaragua’s first five-star resort. Mukul (pronounced “moo-cool,” meaning “secret” in Mayan) is a totally unexpected, understated presence in the developing country. The posh resort in Guacalito was recently opened by the Pellas family, who, among other things, produces the country’s famed Flor de Caña rum. The new property hosts honeymooners, upscale surfers, and Nicaragua’s elite, none of whom are doing belly shots.
Local draft: $2, accompanied by the scent of wildlife
What you’ll save on: Bragging rights. Who the hell else do you know who’s been here?
Why here? Africa’s adrenaline capital, the Victoria Falls region, is once again open for business. Rafting on Class V rapids, giving a full-grown lion a massage, and beholding the epic Victoria Falls is only a taste. When the Zambezi river tumbles over the Victoria Falls shelf into an infinite gorge, it creates a steamy spray that can be seen from space.
Getting healthy here is easy and cheap. The locals are gracious and dapper, quick to share a smile. One theory as to why: Statistically poor locals raised in non-electrified villages have eaten only organic foods throughout their lives. When visiting places with bad raps, you have to keep your guard up but not close yourself off. The once-thriving economy is now struggling, but the chance of someone hassling you in Zimbabwe is about as likely as a New Orleans cop busting you for drinking a beer on the street.
Affordable adventure: You can also heat up your adrenaline. Built in 1905, the Victoria Falls Bridge crosses the 1,200-mile-long Zambezi just below the Falls and connects Zimbabwe and Zambia by both road and rail. This bridge over Africa’s fourth-longest river is a platform for many adventures, including an entertaining attempt at “suicide practice.” The world’s third-highest bungee jump (New Zealand and South Africa rank first and second) enjoys a 365ft free fall.
If you need a hedonistic binge: Victoria Falls-area safaris cost maybe $1,000 a night, still only half of what you’d pay for similar products (luxury or otherwise) in South Africa. Even if you don’t go full-bore, five-star accommodations in this corner of Zimbabwe carry only two-star price tags and are friendly to the expat and backpacker sets.