As one of the most expensive countries to visit in the Caribbean, and 2020’s most expensive country in the world in which to live – how can visitors make their money go further in this little tropical paradise?
I have been a resident of the Cayman Islands (on and off!) since 2013. I know as much as anyone how expensive it can be to visit and to live here. Indeed, it is no uncommon that I get asked by guests on the boat; ‘How do you guys afford to live here? Where do you eat that’s cheap?’
Through lots of trial and error, years of experiments, and simply getting to the know Grand Cayman intimately, I can share with you my top ways to make this a competitive and viable option among the wealth of options available for a Caribbean vacation.
1. Understand the Currency
The official currency of the Cayman Islands is the Cayman Islands Dollar (KYD) – or known locally as simply ‘CI.’ (Pronounced ‘see-eye‘ – eg: “I am selling my car for five thousand CI.”)
The CI Dollar is pegged with the US Dollar at a rate around USD$1.00 = KYD$0.80. (Or KYD$1.00 = USD$1.25) However, the bank rate is often more favourable with KYD$1.00 often being worth only USD$1.20 – USD$1.22. If you have a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees – then it is worth using that for expenses here to get more favourable rates. Credit cards are accepted widely with the exception of local eateries and markets.
Alternatively, visit an ATM at the beginning of your trip and get out a wad of local bills. (Remember: Although ATM’s dispense USD, if you pay with US cash, you will lose out on the favourable exchange rate offered by the bank!) Crime, and in particular, violent crime such as muggings are astonishingly rare here, so don’t worry too much about having cash on your person, and you can always keep the excess in your hotel safe.
The local bills are very colourful and are adorned with pictures of native flora and fauna.
Although US dollars are accepted everywhere, (In almost seven years I have never had USD refused, even at the smallest little vendors and markets), with very rare exceptions, the advertised price is in CI Dollars. If you pay US dollars – except change back in local currency. Unlike many places internationally, you will never be ripped off and given the wrong change intentionally or a poor exchange rate as so often happens in other places. (Mexico is a particularly notable example)
2. Eat like a Local
Prices in touristy restaurants can be sky-high. (Fortunately – so is the standard of cuisine!) Plenty of visitors to the islands have plenty of money, and are not afraid to splash the cash in this playground of the rich and famous. But, if you are looking to avoid having to re-mortgage your house to pay off the credit card bill from your indulgent vacation, you can eat really well on a much more modest budget if you know where to look!
Jerk chicken is a popular dish carried over from the islands’ close ties with Jamaica, but don’t leave without also trying local specialties such as Cayman Style Beef, BBQ chicken, Festivals, Mahi Mahi, Conch Fritters, and more…
Please note, that if you are into seafood, make conscious and sustainable choices to protect the delicate marine eco-systems. Avoid reef fish such as Grouper and Snapper, instead choosing pelagic, open-ocean fish such Mahi and Wahoo.
Here are three really good options to get you started…
Capt. Herman Fish Fry. East End.
Captain Herman conducts fishing charters on his little boat from the dock of a local resort, and his catches go on the grill at this beautiful restaurant with outdoor seating to be sold to hungry locals and visitors alike. I tend not to eat much seafood myself (despite loving it), but they also do a fantastic curried goat which I have eaten more of than I care to admit!
Over the Edge Café. Northside.
Over the Edge has to win the award for most hidden gem in the Cayman Islands! With low ceilings, wooden floors and plenty of non-tacky, nautical themed treasures such as old maps and anchors – the place has a real sense of atmosphere and without a doubt is one of my favourites. Not to mention the outside decking and seating area that overhangs the water itself – giving the place it’s name. Expect to have to chase your napkin as it blows away, especially in winter time when the north-east trade winds pummel the island from November through April.
Singh’s Roti Shop. Georgetown.
Although Singh’s Roti Shop is actually Trinidadian fare, this place is bumping with locals getting breakfast and lunch on weekdays. It is not much to look at, but the food is great and super cheap. For breakfast – you should get the doubles. (always written in the plural, even if it’s just one – i.e. – “May I have one doubles please?”) Curried chickpeas sandwiched between two pieces of traditional Trinidadian flatbread. At only $2.00 a pop, I always eat about four!
For lunch, I usually get the curried beef or chicken, again wrapped akin to a burrito, but with Trinidadian Roti bread in place of a tortilla. It’s also only $8.00, and it’s almost too much to eat.
Alternatively – cook at home. Many hotels and condos on the island have at least basic kitchens or kitchenettes, why not cook at home instead and enjoy cheap beer too! (See next point) Local grocery stores are still more expensive than you may be used to, (remember – everything has to come in by ship and is subject to import duties) but are still more economical that eating out every day.
Fosters is the biggest (and cheapest) local chain of supermarkets, followed by Hurley’s in the mid-range, and Kirks at the top-end.
3. Drink Local!
I once paid CI$7.50 a single bottle of beer in a bar on Seven Mile Beach! That’s almost $10 American! For one bottle!
Why not visit the Cayman Islands Brewery instead? They have tons of beer varieties including Lagers, Pale Ales, IPAs, Bocks, Stouts, Red Ales, Wheat Beers, and more. All made locally. They may not be life changing beers that deserve international recognition, but are perfectly drinkable and way cheaper than import beer. They are available in bars and restaurants island wide. If you want to drink at home – swing by the brewery itself. I have picked up some amazing deals – like a case of 24 for CI$30. Way cheaper than paying CI$7.00 each!
4. Get a sweet package deal at a resort!
Getting a package deal directly through a dive resort maybe of particular interest to divers, aspiring divers, and their entourages! Summer (low-season) rates can be especially good as it is very quiet on the island. Even better, the weather is usually great for diving with less wind and warmer water! (Although it can be rainy, hot and humid – but, that’s even more reason to go dive!)
A good example, (although I am biased as it’s the dive shop I work for!) is Compass Point Dive Resort on the East End of Grand Cayman. Their 2020 package rate for example for two people, staying five nights in a beautiful, fully equipped condo, with four days of diving AND a rental car works out at only a peep over USD$1100 per person! Bargain!
5. Do one of the multitude of cheap/free activities that are available.
Walk, swim, run, play, sunbathe, sleep, paddleboard or build sand castles on one the many beaches that the islands are famous for.
Visit the Queen Elizabeth II botanic gardens – only $10 entry per person. It’s beautiful and you can easily spend the entire morning/afternoon there! Not to mention this is where the Blue Iguana (endemic to Cayman) conservation project is based!
As I wrote this post, it became apparent to me that narrowing down the various ways to make your money go further in this ‘oh-so-expensive’ island paradise to just five was almost impossible.
I will endeavour to create some future posts that explore each area a little more in-depth. More budget places to eat, cheap activities for everyone, what products are cheaper vs more expensive here, and more.
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