A rough guide to the price of beer in Central America. Which Central American country has the cheapest and the most expensive local beer?
Christmas time means beer time where I’m from. Lots of beer. But I’m thousands of miles from there, and even if I wasn’t, it would all be shut down anyway because of, well, you know, 2020.
But there’s still beer in Central America, and a recent post on the Costa Rica Travelling Tips Facebook group from Shawna Glazier piqued my interest last week:
“Ok, funny question… I’ve heard alcohol is expensive in Costa Rica. Does that mean expensive in bars? Or just expensive to buy in general? Is it sold in grocery stores or are there liquor stores?”
I thought I’d answer her.
“Expensive compared to where?” I asked. “It’s cheap compared to London where you’re looking at at least $10 for a beer in a bar. But expensive compared other Latin American countries where a beer can be less than a dollar. Where are you comparing with?”
A back-and-forth ensued between Shawna, me, and a few others. And it made me realize something I should have realized a long time ago.
Some people don’t know much about beer down here. They don’t know if it’s cheap or expensive, easy to get or difficult, good or bad.
And why should they if they’re not here? Sure, they’ll find out once they arrive, but wouldn’t it be nice to get an idea beforehand?
I mean, if you’re moving to Central America, or even coming for a visit, you might be one of those people for whom beer is extremely important.
Important enough to choose which country in Central America is worth your valuable drinking time.
I know Shawna’s original post said “alcohol”, not “beer”. That’s fine. We can follow up later with articles about wine in Central America, rum in Central America, absinthe in Central America, or whatever your favorite tipple is in Central America.
My favorite tipple is beer, so we’re starting with that. Before we do, though, let me tell you something. I’m not an expert on beer. I’m no connoisseur. Not even close. The beer I like is typical light lager. No craft beers or fancy pants artisanal brews for me.
I like an ice-cold beer you can drink on the beach, not something that feels like a heavy meal of dumplings in your stomach. The lighter and blander the better, that’s me.
So this article will be, for the most part, about the local beers in Central America. The beers you’ll find everywhere that everyone knows.
Let’s begin price comparing the price of regular beers in Central America.
When we’re talking beer in Belize, we’re really only talking Belikin. For all intents and purposes, for better or worse, Belikin is the only game in town. Sure, other beers do exist in Belize, but if you’re here the chances are overwhelming that you’ll be drinking Belikins.
There’s a bunch of different Belikins, too. So if you’re not like me and want something more substantial than a light beer, you don’t need to go all craft in Belize. Belikin provides for all, especially if you like stout.
So how much is this Belikin then? We turned to the good folk at Belize Expats to get the boots-on-the-ground scoop.
To keep things simple across the board, we’ll price everything out in US dollars.
You’re looking at US$1.50 for a Belikin in a local bar to around $3.50 in a general resort, according to one expat. Some fancier places can charge around $5.00.
Another expat says that where she is, a Belikin in a local bar is $2.50, while at a local store you’ll pay from $1.50 to $1.75. If you bring your empties back to the store, they’ll charge you less, around $1.36.
Like Belize and its Belikin, Guatemala also has a dominating national beer, one whose logo you’ll find everywhere. You’ll see that famous rooster head of Gallo beer on t-shirts, and advertising billboards all over Guatemala. And, of course, outside most bars. You can’t miss it.
Gallo now comes in different flavors in Guatemala. You have Gallo Light, Gallo this and Gallo that. This is the norm in Central America nowadays, where national brands diversify themselves.
“In a local store a bottle will be about $1.50,” says www.centralamerica.com contributor Nestor Quixtan in Guatemala City.
“A can is about $1.00. In a cheap diner, Gallo can range from $2 to $3. In a fancy Zona 10 restaurant, it’s in the $3.50 to $5.00 range, more expensive in the higher end hotels and clubs.”
US expat Steve Graham is an internet marketer who lives in Antigua, which is more expensive than Guatemala City.
He says the average price for a bottle of Gallo is about $3.00, or between $4.50 and $5.00 in a high-end place.
“My local is the Sunshine Grill and they have happy hour specials of two 14oz mugs of draft Gallo for Q25 (about $3.20).”
Prices for these beers start at around $0.65 to $1.00 in the supermarket and cheapest cantinas. In other, more regular bars, you’re looking at between $2.00 and $4.00.
Commenter Rickard Cleanmountain got more specific about beer prices on the island of Roatan in the Honduras Expats Facebook group.
“In a gringo bar in West Bay, $3.00 to $4.00,” he said. “Gringo bar mid-island, $2.00 and gringo bar east end $2.00 to $4.00. Prices in local bars range from $1.00 to $2.00. A case delivered to your house is less than $18.00.”
Another commenter, Anthony Perez, said, “I can get a six-pack of SalvaVida for $4.80. Barena, Imperial and Port Royal is the same. At the Quinta Real Hotel in La Ceiba it was about $2 USD a bottle.”
If you’re drinking beer in El Salvador, chances are you’re drinking a Pilsener, Suprema, or Regia. They’re the Big Three, available everywhere. As our contributor Paty Trigueros says in her craft beer article;
“Ice-cold Pilseners are perfect with beachfront conversations. I often choose Suprema as my appetizer before a meal. And I will stick to Regia over the course of a long, meat-on-the-grill-kind-of lunch.”
In the supermarket, you’ll pay less than $5.00 for a six-pack of any of these beers, while looking from $1.00/$1.50 to $3.00/$4.00 in a bar, depending on its degree of fanciness.
You have two basic options in Nicaragua, both from the Compania Cervecera de Nicaragua. Those options are Toña and Victoria, and their different spinoffs (Victoria Frost, Toña Lite, etc.). You’ll see some other beers, but these are by far the most popular.
I’ll hold my hands up here and say my favorite Central American beer comes from Nicaragua. Toña is, for me, better than any other beer on the Isthmus. Always has been. Sorry not sorry.
The standard price for a 330 ml bottle of national beer in Nicaragua is 35 cordobas or, to make it simple, $1.00. That’s what you’ll see around the country, although touristy areas are a little more.
“On Ometepe, it’s $1.00 for a Toña or Victoria Frost in a local bar, and a tiny bit cheaper in the supermarket,” says Yelmer Ingot on the Expats in Nicaragua Facebook group. “For high-end places on Ometepe, 60 cords (about $1.70) is the highest I’ve seen.”
Glenn Graham, who lives in the beach town of San Juan del Sur, says, “I’d say standard price in San Juan is C$50 (about $1.40). Happy Hour is usually C$35 ($1.00). but prices do vary. I’d say within the expat community anything below C$35 would be viewed as a steal and anything above C$50 as robbery.”
A good general guide for Nicaragua could be this:
Supermarket – c$30-35 ($0.86 to $1.00)
Bar – c$40-50 ($1.15 to $1.40)
High-end hotel/club – c$80-120 ($2.30 to $3.40)
Craft beer – c$80-130 ($2.30 to $3.70)
Costa Rica‘s main beers come from the Florida Ice & Farm Company. They produce the national beers, the ones you’ll find everywhere. If you’re not familiar with Costa Rica, those beers are Imperial (with variations of “Light” and “Silver”) and Pilsen (with a stronger “6.0” version). Imperial and Pilsen are the two main brands in Costa Rica. One of these two beers will be on a sign outside pretty much every bar.
A 330 ml bottle of Imperial or Pilsen will cost around $2 or $3 in a regular bar. You could drink in some dive bars or speakeasies in less salubrious areas and get a beer for less than $2, but chances are, especially if you’re a tourist, you won’t be doing that.
In more touristy or high-end areas, your beer might creep above $3, but if you’re paying more than 1,800 to 2,000 colones for an Imperial or Pilsen, you’re in an expensive place. That’s not a bad thing if you’re in a cool spot getting what you pay for.
Nicer hotel bars will charge $5 or more, but if you’re out drinking in those places, you know you’re spending money.
In the supermarket or liquor store, a six-pack of Imperials or Pilsens will cost you between 4,000 and 5,000 colones (around $6.50 to $8.50 give or take a few cents).
The craft beer scene was booming in Costa Rica before the pandemic, and there are plenty of options available around San Jose and in tourist areas/beach towns. You’ll find them more expensive than the regular local beers, but that’s another article.
I always used to be jealous of Panama because they had more national beers than Costa Rica. While Costa Rica had Imperial and Pilsen (and not much else in the early 2000s), Panama had Balboa, Atlas, Panama, and Soberana. My favorite was, and is, Balboa.
Panama still has all these national beers plus the variations (Balboa Ice, Atlas Golden Light, etc) that have sprung up in recent years.
These beers are the mainstay of Panama drinking life, the ones you’ll find on the signs outside of bars. Yes, there’s a healthy craft brew scene in Panama, but again – for clarity – we’re not talking about that.
Aside from craft beers, which can pricy in Panama (from around $4.50 to $5.00 and up), a national beer ranges from $0.75 in a seedy cantina in the type of area you don’t want to hang out in to $6+ in the higher-end hotels. This is according to the Young Expats in Panama Facebook group, and those guys will know.
“At bars in Panama City, I can get a national beer (Balboa, Panama, Atlas) for as low as 75 cents in the areas people consider dangerous or as high as $10 in the nicest of bars/clubs,” says commenter Rob Bie.
“Grocery items are definitely less expensive in Panama than Costa Rica,” says Rob Harper, a US expat in Panama City. “I mean, you can buy a case of 24 beers for $15 at PriceSmart if you just buy the local stuff in cans. I’d say the local craft beer in the grocery store starts at about $1.25 a beer.”
General beer prices are a little cheaper outside of Panama City, although not that much, especially in islands like the Bocas del Toro, where everything is shipped or flown in.
“In Bocas del Toro the average cost of national beers like Balboa or Panama is $0.80 in the store and $2.00 in a bar. Depending on the bar or happy hour prices you can find dollar beers out there and some restaurants are pricing them at $2.50 or $3.00. The only place I’ve ever seen a national beer priced any higher than $3.00 are in night clubs in Panama City; never in Bocas,” says Nicholas Corea from The Bocas Breeze.
So who has the most expensive and the cheapest beer in Central America?
That’s what you really want to know, right? Let’s figure it out.
From the information above, it seems clear Nicaragua and El Salvador sell the least expensive beer in Central America.
To no great surprise, beer in Belize and Costa Rica cost the most, with Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama somewhere in the middle.
In all honesty, none of these countries are expensive if you’re coming from London, San Francisco, or Tokyo. But they might be if you’re coming from Ecuador or South Africa. Like I said to Shawna Glazier, it all depends.
Wherever you are and whatever it costs, enjoy your Christmas beer this year. It’s been a rough year so you deserve it.
James Dyde is the editor of www.centralamerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.