10 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 lukewarm relationships, the entrenched expats I've met while visiting nearly 150 countries rarely 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 a bit beyond $12,000 a year for a childless person. That won't take you far in Oakland (or even Omaha), but it will buy you a full year of wonders in one of these 10 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 steals, but unless voluntourism is your goal, risky places like Nigeria or 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 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. (And 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.
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.
If you want to splurge: 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: 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. A bed in a bare-bones hostel will run $5 per night, and taking a leashed alpaca for a stroll is free.
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. 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?
If you want to splurge: Mountain biking 45 miles down the treacherous road that connects Coroico to La Paz is a kaleidoscopic 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: 75 cents
What you'll save on: Nightlife, without skimping, in one of the world’s greatest club scenes.
Westerners will be pleasantly surprised by the cleanliness, safety, rambunctious nightlife, and genuinely lovely people in Georgia, a former Soviet republic that gives “cheap” an entirely new meaning. In the capital of Tbilisi, the Old City overflows with cafés and trendy wine bars (a nice bottle goes for $5). Snag a bunk for $8 at Fabrika, a former Soviet-era garment factory that’s been converted into a dazzling hostel and community center, or go for something a bit more upscale at a quaint old city hotel.
At night, the cobblestoned alleys fill with good-time-loving young people who’ll gladly show you the way to the nearest dance club. You’ll also meet your fair share of expats renting apartments for $150 a month. Word to the wise, Georgia borders Russia, which is not a merry conversation topic amongst newly liberated locals. Better instead to debate white versus red in this winery-mad country, with more than 500 grape varietals and only 3.5 million souls to partake.
If you want to splurge: This enchanting land boasts incredible geographic and experiential variety -- sprees you can afford. Puff a hookah in Batumi (the Republic’s shiny vacation metropolis by the Black Sea) or get massaged in Borjomi after a mountain hike leading to outdoor sulfur baths. In mountainous Stepantsminda, you can sip wine at Rooms Hotel Kazbegi while beholding 16,560-foot glacier-capped Mount Kazbek.
Local draft: $1.50, 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).
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 local. Hike jungles, laze on beaches, and just mingle. Dig on the national dish called oil down, so called for 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.
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.
If you want to splurge: 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. 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-ish
What you'll save on: Ev-ree-thing
India has 29 states that cover an unimaginable array of terrain and character. Kerala, situated along the freshwater lowlands of India’s tropical south, has multiple personalities that ascend from a bayou-style “Backwater World” to palm-lined beaches to cool, mountainous highlands further inland. Cochin, Kerala’s coastal metropolis on the Arabian Sea (also known as Kochi), is relatively tame and wildly affordable, and roaming from there to greener pastures is a cinch.
Start by exploring the tropical backwaters. Vembanad Lake is decorated with a fleet of far-out houseboats, mostly old produce-transport vessels restyled into one- to five-bedroom floating manors. Switching to wheels, you’ll cross canals and climb through Kerala’s fertile midlands and rubber tree plantations, before segueing into hairpin-turn-by-turns into the uplands. Here the scenery gives way to waterfalls and fluorescent-green mountain sides where tea, spices, and other cash crops are grown.
If you want to splurge: Up in mountainous tea country, Thekkady’s Spice Village has 52 villas spread across 12 acres, each with full wrap-around porches. Ultra-green is no joke at this earthy resort, which is both TV- and AC-free, with an organic menu sourced from the onsite farm. The cozy campus doubles as an arboretum with more than 100 shady tree species. Add live tabla (mini-bongo) and sitar (Beatles on acid) dinnertime shows, and the peace is unforced.
Local draft: $1.25, with Guns N' Roses soundtrack
What you'll save on: Currency exchange rate fluctuations usually remain on your side. Got a kid? International schools are way cheap. Bad habit? A pack of Winstons costs a buck.
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 soon start walking and talking much slower, and probably learn to cook vegetables better than anyone you know. Get a deep tissue massage or three every day; at $6-$10 an hour, you can afford that here. Look for fellow Americans and Aussies in bars and restaurants in Vientiane, the capital city and party spot.
Need even more peace and quiet? 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 is a comparative break from horn honks. 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 want to splurge: 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. WeAreLao is a dandy intro.
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 a remarkable mountain range separating Adriatic coast with inland capital runs just $7.
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 let loose. Chic nightlife, beach parties, and options for vodka-swilling abound.
For such a small country (it’s roughly the size of Connecticut) there’s a surprising amount of gorgeous coastline to kick back on. You can also head to the mountains to swim in pristine lakes or hike through the many national parks. 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 take center stage. 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 want to splurge: Take in the severe romance of Perast, a soulful, mountain base-hugging village on the Bay of Kotor and a stunning snapshot of local waterside culture. Compared to 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 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.
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 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.
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 intermittent stops to camp on sandy riverbank beaches, go whitewater rafting, or chill in a hammock.
If you need to splurge: 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: 75-cents, enjoyed with a colorful international crew of merrymakers.
What you'll save on: Incredible cuisine (imagine luxe Asian fare prepared by a Frenchified gourmet chef who adores garlic) and the $1 motorbike-taxi ride across town (every passing motorbike can suddenly become a taxi).
Vietnam welcomed a whopping 15.5 million visitors last year, a 20 percent jump from 2017. This place is hot for expats, too -- the country’s infrastructure is finally at the point where it can comfortably accommodate First World expectations, and those looking for a more permanent vacation will find plenty of Western-style establishments to make connections and share tips on work and play.
Steamy Saigon is wild 24/7; Hanoi, the mellower option in the north, enjoys cooler nights and a relative degree of law and order. Vietnam’s cities aren’t big on sidewalks or heeding traffic lights, so getting around feels a bit like a game of Frogger. But once you get the hang of it, relax and enjoy an endless supply of cheap beer, dazzling street food, and diverse landscapes. Cost of living is low. Very low.
Before settling down, a great country-wide introduction is Intrepid Travel’s Vietnam Express Southbound expedition, a 10-day odyssey (from $1,205) that showcases this nation’s ancient and modern charms. The adventure includes overnights in a houseboat and nice hotels in Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An, and Ho Chi Minh City. It hits UNESCO heritage sites, rural open-air markets via motorbike, and Buddhist temples via riverboat.
If you need to splurge: Swing by the luxurious Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi, a woody bastion of French flair that melds history and class like no other hotel. Built in 1901, this place oozes history, and has hosted such notable names as John F. Kennedy Jr., Charlie Chaplin, “Hanoi Jane” Fonda, Mick Jagger, and John McCain. The epic breakfast buffet, accompanied by swing jazz, is worth writing home about.
Local draft: $2
What you'll save on: Bragging rights. Who the hell else do you know who's been here?
Africa's adrenaline capital, the Victoria Falls region, remains 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. Keep your guard up, but don’t close yourself off -- the economy continues to struggle (and use US dollars), but the chance of someone hassling you in the Victoria Falls region is slim. Some parts of Zimbabwe have had issues lately, but throughout the sporadic turmoil in those areas over the last 30-odd years, “Vic Falls” pretty much remains unaffected.
It’s also a great for heating up your adrenaline. The Victoria Falls Bridge crosses the 1,200-mile-long Zambezi river just below the Falls, connecting Zimbabwe and Zambia by both road and rail. The bridge 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 365-ft free fall.
If you want to splurge: 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. Exclusive Touch Africa gets it right.
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