How to Find Health and Happiness on a Budget in Latin America

Over the past year and a half of traveling in Latin America, my wife, Johanne, and I have found a way to live a very healthy lifestyle within a modest budget. Here are a few of our proven secrets.

As full-time house- and pet-sitters, not only do we live rent-free, but our assignments usually provide us with a well-equipped kitchen. As much as we enjoy dining out, shopping locally and cooking at home can also produce delicious and nutritious meals.

By searching out the local markets, we are able to buy bags of fresh and healthy fruits and vegetables. While shopping at the community stalls, we learn about new and delicious foods, plus we support the local economy. The vendors are friendly and patient, and they enjoy helping us with our Spanish. We always exchange smiles and laughter.

A trip to the market is always an outing to look forward to. The secret here is to go with an open mind and be prepared to ask questions: What is that? How do we prepare it? We find people most accommodating when you use common sense and good manners. Also watch what locals do and buy, and try to follow their lead. Do they line up patiently, or is it a free for all? Can you buy a small portion or do you need to buy the whole thing?

We are usually able to find fish and seafood whereever we go. When we are in coastal villages, we try to buy directly off the fishing boats. Find out what time they come in; it doesn’t get any fresher than that. It is fascinating to watch the fishermen haul their catch and tend to their boats. This is a great opportunity to learn about what is in season and how they catch it.

Always make certain that you have small change; do not expect to be well received if you have large bills to break up. Our little trick is to never withdraw even hundreds from the ATM. If you need 8,000 pesos, what about getting 7,900? That way you have instant pocket money. I have a small wallet with the folding money and Johanne is in charge of a change purse. Make the correct change as often as you can. You don’t want to be leaving the country with several pounds of foreign coins. Plus, you’ll get to practice your Spanish numbers.

In cities such as Mérida, Mexico, we find that there are so many options for eating out, we are able to dine out two or three nights a week and still stay well within our budget. We have discovered many hidden gems by asking people living there where they go. We usually find ourselves in restaurants busy with local people and that is generally a good omen. Again, ask lots of questions and lead with a smile.

We much prefer to walk whenever possible. Just remember: pedestrians always yield to cars in Latin America. Pick your route based on the widest sidewalks and the best-lit roads at night. Please keep your head up—leave the phone in your pocket!

Don’t forget the water bottle; we seldom set out without it. Dehydration can ruin a day and it is completely avoidable. The symptoms of dehydration are: a dry mouth, dizziness, and headache. Replenish with fluids (and no, beer or coffee does not count!). Respect the heat of the day.

If we are on the ocean or near a lake, expect to find us in or near the water. Of course, the exercise is wonderful, but in the heat of the day, where else would you be? Frolicking in the surf is a wonderful, healthy pastime, good for the body and soul. These days, we avoid the more extreme activities; surfing is out, so is skateboarding down volcanoes.

It has been 18 months and we have never been healthier. We have abundant energy and are able to explore and discover as we wish. By making healthy choices, we are able to enjoy our continued happiness.

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