When I was in Nicaragua in 2011, I had a friend who was renting a room with her boyfriend in Managua. They each paid $25 per month for rent. The bus ride to their job cost 10 American cents. Point being: There are places in the world where your dollar can go a very long way.
This is important. If you’re a traveler, it correlates directly to how much traveling you will actually be doing. I’ve also spent time in places like Australia and New Zealand, where transportation costs alone can drain you. Petrol is expensive. Car rentals. Sure, you can hitchhike, but the truth is you’re just not going to travel as much because everything is so expensive.
If you’re a writer / photographer / filmmaker, as a lot of Matadorians are, then keeping living costs as low as possible is a major priority. Look at the Beats: Paul Bowles hiding out in Morocco penning novels, the same with Burroughs in Mexico City. Even Rolf Potts has said he prefers to write in countries where his money goes as far as possible.
These places do exist. And they’re quantified — quarterly — by the website xpatulator.com. These guys compile cost of living data into nice little lists like “Cheapest Cities in 2013.” They also have a thing called “hardship,” which looks at how much different the place is going to be from somewhere like the US — or how big of an adventure, depending on how you think about it.
Here are the 10 cheapest as of April, 2013.
Bhutan sounds cool. You could trek the Himalayan Mountains, immerse yourself in Buddhism, and adopt the clean life, since cigarettes are illegal and alcohol is expensive. Xpatulator ranks all other costs as “very low,” however.
The country’s constitutional monarchy continues to take creative and unique approaches to solve the problems of their people and the planet. It was their king who coined the term Gross National Happiness, which led to a whole new economic paradigm now called “subjective well-being.” They also plan to ban pesticides and be the first country to go completely organic.
If you’ve been following reports from the Arab Spring movement, Tunisia might seem dangerous. Tunisians ousted their government in 2011, which led to revolutions throughout the Middle East, including the ongoing conflict in Syria. The US has issued a travel warning for Tunisia, citing a violent attack on the US embassy last September.
But if you’re reading Matador, you’re probably aware of the difference between ground-level truths and AP headlines. According Chris Barfield, American expat writer, Tunis is livable and fun:
There is political uncertainty here, but I don’t think any aggression or frustration is directed at expats — the events at the American embassy in September notwithstanding. I never have felt unsafe in Tunisia. There is a reasonable amount of harassment, especially for women, however.
On nightlife, he emphasized that “Tunis is a totally fun city to live in,” and recommended this story on the club Le Plug in Tunis. He also commented that healthcare is “especially cheap.”
Nicaragua is attracting literally millions of tourists these days. They come to hike the volcano on Isla Ometepe, for the colonial architecture in Leon and Granada, and the consistent surf on the Pacific. There are also humanitarian jobs in Nicaragua, and the Peace Corps have a program there.
As a word of caution, Transparency.org, a site that indexes countries based on their perceived level of corruption on a scale from 0 to 100, with 100 being least corrupt, scores Nica at 29.
Bucharest is the Romanian capital of two million and the 11th largest city in the EU. Alcohol, groceries, and healthcare costs are “very low.”
Contemporary Romania is a melting pot of disparate cultures past and present, from the Ancient Romans, to Saxons, Turks, and Slavs, in a kind of East-meets-West motherland. Among other inspiring events in Romanian history, this was a place where demoralizing execution methods led to the legend of Dracula.
Learning Romanian should be easy, according to Anne Merritt.
Bulgaria is Romania’s like-minded southern neighbor. They both became EU members in 2007. And they both have lots of outdoor activities, whether that’s tanning on the Black Sea, skiing the Balkan or Pirin Mountains, or fishing the Danube River.
Political and economic instability has left Algeria relatively untraveled by outsiders. The US Department of State issued a travel warning for Algeria in February due in part to government inefficiencies and corruption (CPI score is 34) and continued activities of extremist militants. This is an “extreme hardship” area.
Recent attempts have been made to stabilize the government and economy and focus on attracting tourists. And there are great things to see there, like seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
India is the land of variety: over 400 different languages, 500 varieties of mangoes. Here are a few things you can do in India: Snowboard the Himalayas, ride rivers, visit Tikam Chand, go clubbing in Calcutta, get an ayurvedic massage, skateboard, surf.
Grocery costs are “very low,” though a significant percentage of Indians live in extreme poverty. Calcutta is actually one of the less impoverished places. Read Jed Purses’ budget travel experiment to learn how cheap it really is. And check out these books.
Nepalese is the official language, but many others are spoken (Maithili, Bhojpuri). 80% of the population is Hindu. Kathmandu is the capital, with 990,000 people. One quarter of the population lives below the poverty line; the unemployment rate was at 46% as of 2008. This is another “extreme hardship” area.
Check out these photos of the people and place by Matadorian Will Manley. All things considered, Nepal would be amazing.
There’s no denying Pakistan would be an awesome place to live — in a few years. Right now, maybe not.
The US issued a travel warning for Pakistan last April, citing the presence of “several foreign and indigenous terrorist groups.” The Kashmir region is the site of the largest and most militarized territorial dispute to date. 2.9 million Afghan refugees live in Pakistan.
Hyderabad: the city of pearls…and slums. 23% of Hyderabad live in slums, according to estimates from the census of India (Calcutta comes in at 6%), which makes me wonder why Xpatulator ranks household accommodation costs as “average.”
Hyderabad would be eye opening to the lives of what Henry Rollins called the “intolerably and unacceptably poor.” Hardship is “high.”
Are there stories or insights into the places listed you’d like to share? Any other places you think are super-cheap to live? Where would Burroughs go?
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Evan is a writer currently based in New Zealand. He is originally from North Carolina and has traveled through Mexico, Nicaragua, Australia, and Indonesia.
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