A Budget Traveler in the Bahamas

My husband Tim and I spent years traveling cheap. Not your travel magazine or guide book's definition of cheap. I'm talking sleeping in fields behind gas stations or abandoned buildings with nothing but a sleeping bag and a backpack. I can't title this entry how to visit the Bahamas for cheap, because when it comes to my definition of cheap - this is nearly impossible. The Bahamas are just an expensive place, especially when flying from the West Coast, and when we decided to visit we were lucky to have a nice chunk of cash to blow however we wanted. While planning our trip I tried every variant of "how to see the Bahamas for cheap" on Google and nothing came up. Not even a blog entry of travel tips by a regular ass person (like this post here), so I figured this might be a good topic to write about (plus I get to also share my pretty pictures). Here I will explain the best way to see the islands we visited and what was worth the cost.


Thanksgiving night 2017, Tim and I left for Nassau for our honeymoon. All we asked for in terms of wedding gifts was for honeymoon money. We got a good amount, which we could have used to travel cheap somewhere for longer or further away, but since this was happening right after our two years of travel and moving back to San Diego temporarily houseless and jobless, I wanted a luxury vacation. I wanted to sip drinks on the beach and island hop. I wanted an overpriced resort spa massage. We went back and forth about where we wanted to go. The Maldives look beautiful, but those awesome Pinterest-famous hotels on the water can often cost up to $1000+ a night. Plus that flight would be a little long, taking away time we could be spending on vacation. Hawaii we've done before. Belize sounded nice but we would have to jump around from Mexico to there on buses. Eventually I was set on island hopping the Caribbean, but this also seemed difficult unless we did a cruise (which neither of us wanted to do). After lots of internet research we decided on the Bahamas.


We looked up hotels and prices, read about the cays, and decided to stay three nights at the touristy Atlantis hotel in Nassau, New Providence, followed by five nights in George Town, Great Exuma. No matter where we wanted to stay, it seemed all of the hotels started around $200 a night. There was Airbnb but I didn't really look into it since we wanted more available amenities.


The town of Nassau is the capitol of the Bahamas. It is known for being a cruise ship port and tourist trap. Yachters and cruise-takers tend to call its downtown area dangerous, a vibe I didn't really get. We decided to do our tourist duty of seeing Nassau and its mega-casino-waterpark-marine wildlife-adventure-resort, but planned to spend the majority of our trip in the "out islands." A group of 365 cays called the Exumas were the first to get my attention, because of the amazing boat adventures and snorkeling in the area, as well as it being described as one of the most beautiful places in the world. If you've seen the viral images of people swimming in crystal clear ocean water with pigs, that's the Exumas. Although I believe there is another pig island above New Providence.


Nassau


We arrived at Atlantis a few hours before check in, but the staff let us put our backpacks in a luggage room while we drank fancy cocktails at an outdoor bar surrounded by shark pools. The minute we walked from the lobby outside toward the beach we were surrounded by sharks, sea turtles, sting rays, and large aquariums, all sandwiched between more pools and pool bars than I could count. An underground shark tube took us to our outdoor bar, and near it were rope bridges over waterfalls going into pools filled with gigantic hammerhead sharks. I was impressed. We wandered the grounds, grabbing drinks along the way until we got to the dolphin encounter, then turned back and walked inside through the casino, past fancy restaurants and shopping areas. FYI - the marine animals at Atlantis are part of a separate non-profit project geared toward wildlife rescue and rehab. So that was awesome to learn about when researching the hotel.

Image Source: https://www.nassauparadiseisland.com/stay/atlantis-paradise-island

We were staying in the Coral Towers, which was the cheapest option. They were a bit of a walk from other areas of the resort, but when you're walking through fish tanks and fake caves near hidden bars, who could complain? We spent the first night dressing up for a fancy dinner (reservations required), the second day and night exploring downtown Nassau, and the third day enjoying the pools, waterpark, and spa. Every morning we drank hotel coffee on our private balcony over the ocean. Yes you read that right, we spent each day next to the ocean, without actually going in it. It felt bizarre, but there was so much to do it was actually hard to make time for the beach.

Downtown Nassau was a quick ferry ride across the water from the island we were technically on (Paradise Island). We walked everywhere we could, seeing the Straw Market, government buildings, Queen's Staircase, and then ending the night at Fish Fry. Tim and I were somewhat fresh from backpacking eighteen countries in Europe, so we had our guard up, assuming another new country meant the usual scammers and pick pockets that target tourists. When we reached Queen's Staircase a local approached us, attempting to tell us the history of the historical site for tips. He started talking and it was hard to avoid him, so Tim and I stayed to listen. The man ended up being so friendly we gladly gave him a few bucks for the stories he had to share, as well as a cold bottle of water. Everywhere we went the locals were friendly. We even got "nice catcalled" when a man nicely yelled "welcome to Nassau" to us out of his car window while waving. Even a stray dog came up for pets and to lick my leg. It was impossible to find anyone in a bad mood.

Many towns in the Bahamas have an area called Fish Fry. Fish Fry is usually a cluster of colorful little shacks on the beach serving food and drinks. Some have nice restaurants, some have dance clubs, dive bars, or family restaurants. Fish Fry is the gathering place for locals and tourists alike, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. It is definitely the way to see the Bahamas right, especially if you are into trying the local food - which is mostly fish and conch dishes.


After a night at Fish Fry, we woke up the next morning ready to run a few errands before hitting the hotel's water park. We were told groceries in the Bahamas were expensive, but the prices will drastically increase once you get to the out islands, due to everything needing to be imported even further. The next day we would be taking a small plane to Great Exuma, so we prepared by finding a small market to stock up on cheap non-perishable food and snacks to bring out there with us. The market in Paradise Island was incredibly expensive. We just grabbed snacks like Top Ramen and tortillas and ended up blowing quite a bit of money. By the time we returned from the market and were in our bathing suits ready to swim half of the day had already gone by. We started by floating in the beach-side pool water while sipping on frozen drinks at the pool bar. When we reached the water park we had less than two hours before we would have to leave to make our massage reservations. This was the biggest mistake we made, not giving ourselves enough time to swim. We did one waterslide through a tube inside of a shark tank, Tim did another steeper shark waterslide while I watched our stuff, and then we did one round on the rapid river. It was like a long lazy river but with rapids. There was also a regular lazy river, which I later found out passes through aquariums. I was sad we missed it. The massage was worth it, but once it was over the pools and waterslides were shut down for the day.

Queen's Staircase

The Exumas


In the morning we took a cab to the airport to board our small plane to Great Exuma. From there another cab took us to our hotel. We had planned to stay at the quirky and well known Peace and Plenty, right on the water's edge in George Town. As we walked through the hotel's doors, itching to get off our feet and into the beach bar, we were instead greeted by walls of plastic sheeting, paint buckets, and workers renovating the hotel. The hotel was completely under construction. Not a couch or bed existed in the place. A concerned woman came out of a messy office to introduce herself. "Are you supposed to be staying here?" She asked.

"Um... Yes." We said, confused.

"Oh no." The last words that you want to hear from hotel staff. "The past owners didn't tell you the hotel was sold? They were supposed to cancel all reservations months ago. This is bad. I wonder how many other reservations they didn't cancel." Tim and I looked at each other speechless. "There aren't many other hotels on the island, but let me start calling around to see if there is something available nearby in your budget. I am so sorry this happened to you." She called three hotels a mile or two up the road and found two next to each other who had open rooms for around the same price. I was disappointed, but at this point I just wanted to know we would have somewhere decent to sleep. I wanted to be off my feet and having fun instead of rushing around all day long. It was also concerning since we had planned to stay five nights straight, which could have made things a lot harder to find available last minute lodging. After calling the two other hotels and confirming their availability for us, the new manager of Peace and Plenty and her business partner drove us the one mile down the road in an attempt to make up for the unfortunate confusion. We exchanged thank you's and apologies one last time in the parking lot before they drove away. The two neighboring hotels let us roam their small properties to check out the amenities, then we checked into the one we liked best, called Augusta Bay. We were within walking distance of Great Exuma's Fish Fry, which we walked over to after the sun set for drinks.

We spent the next day walking George Town and exploring the beach. As we were walking the two miles from our hotel to the tiny downtown area, a woman pulled over and motioned for us to get in her car. "We don't have any money for a ride." Tim said, apologizing. Like I mentioned before, we were used to traveling places where people often did things for tips, and at this point we would rather save the last of our spending money and just walk.

"I don't want your money! I am giving you a ride! This is how we do things around here, now get in!" The woman responded sternly. Tim and I laughed and climbed into her back seat. Not only were people in the Bahamas the nicest people ever, they were demandingly nice! We introduced ourselves and the woman told us she owned a restaurant at Fish Fry. She said she had worked her way up to chef from working at hotel restaurants and eventually opened her own, which had become a well known tourist destination on Trip Advisor. We had actually seen it the night before and it was the only little restaurant with a line out the door. We thanked her for the ride and told her we would stop in to eat at her restaurant.


We stopped into a small grocery store to see what George Town had to offer in terms of cheap snacks, and of course everything was less than half of the price we paid on Paradise Island! Despite the dire warnings about high import fees, often just getting out of the tourist areas will bring the prices back down to normal!


The following day we had booked an eight hour boat trip with Robert's Island Adventures. First thing in the morning a large van picked us up at our hotel and drove us to a dock toward the northern end of the island. The large group waiting for our reserved day trips were split into two and loaded onto two small boats. Robert was driving one of them, which was more like a speedboat pontoon with a loud sound system. We got onto another fishing-style boat driven by a local who worked for Robert's company and his helper nicknamed Muffin. Even though we saw the other boat in the distance most of the day, they purposefully avoided visiting the same cays at the same time to make them feel less crowded. We did end up meeting with the other boat for lunch.

Muffin waiting at the boat

Robert's employees were very nice and helpful. They offered us a snack plate and the Bahamas' famous Goombay Smash mixed drink. We were also allowed to take on our own beer, snacks, water, etc. We visited a cay covered in iguanas, a secluded white sand cay (we were supposed to go to a sand bar but the tide was too high), the cay with the swimming pigs, a cay where you could swim surrounded by nurse sharks, and the most beautiful snorkeling spot I had ever been to - Thunderball Grotto. We also zipped along the clear blue water next to dolphins and private islands owned by celebrities. It was an amazing trip and an exciting day. The trip was $185 per person, but for such a long trip where we got to go to so many spots you would never see without your own boat and knowledge of the Exumas' never ending cays, it was worth every penny. Plus with free drinks, provided snorkeling gear, and fun hosts, we definitely felt we got our money's worth out of the day.



Thunderball Grotto Image Source: https://www.gonewiththewynns.com/silly-sailors-swimming-pigs-scandal-exuma

As the two boats unloaded passengers we stood in a parking lot in wet bathing suits being eaten alive by mosquitos (in our experience only this swampy north end of the island had mosquitos) waiting for the vans to return to bring us back to our hotels. The sun was setting and I was not looking forward to the 45 minute ride crammed into a stuffy, crowded van. Just then Robert yelled over to the group of us to ask if anyone was headed toward George Town and would rather take a ride with him in his fancy pontoon. Tim and I met eyes, and without saying a word new our answer. Of course we did. We immediately grabbed our things and walked toward Robert. Everyone else just watched us, not moving an inch. "No one else??" Robert asked confused. The crowd remained silent. Tim and I climbed onto the boat as Robert shrugged and handed us beers. He took off into the sunset and started bumping the stereo. The first song to come on was It Was A Good Day by Ice Cube. I couldn't even make this up. We watched the sunset from the ocean, sipping drinks with the wind in our faces, until Robert dropped us at our hotel's own little personal wooden dock. It was definitely a good day!

At this point we had two days left in Great Exuma. Thirty minutes south on the one main road was a bridge that connected Great Exuma to Little Exuma. Our plan was to rent a moped and ride to Little Exuma to see Tropic of Cancer beach and William's Town. We asked our hotel front desk for directions to the nearest car rental place and the only one nearby ended up being less than a block from our hotel. The name, Thomson's, sounded familiar. It was the same last name Robert had. We walked inside and there was a man who looked and sounded just like Robert. We asked him if they were related and he said they were brothers. Unfortunately a large family rented every single moped so we were stuck renting a small car.

Tim drove and about two miles in it started pouring rain. It poured for about five minutes then stopped and the sun and blue skies came right back out. "I guess maybe it was good we didn't get a moped." I laughed. Tim was nervous since it was his first time driving on the other side of the road, but quickly he became used to it and we were on our way to the beach that lay right on the Tropic of Cancer. We spent the day lounging in the sun drinking Kalik and dipping into the crystal clear blue ocean. It was perfect! We ended the day having another beer and snacks at Santanna's Bar and Grill, a colorful little beach bar on the ocean in William's Town. We chatted with the people working the bar and heard stories about which islands they grew up on and what brought them to Little Exuma. We had finally put down our guard and opened up to the locals. You just have to in the Bahamas. It's a requirement! Everyone was so nice it was very rude to not be just as nice back. The woman running the bar told us that every evening they throw the fish scraps into the ocean for the sharks, and that if we look close enough we will probably see one waiting at some point. This excited me. I took my Kalik and drank it along the water looking for sharks. Next thing you know a small blacktip reef shark appeared! I was in heaven.

I was definitely sad waking up the next morning. It was our last full day in the Bahamas. We decided to take a short ferry trip across a one mile stretch of water to Stocking Island. The only real thing to do on Stocking Island seemed to be visiting another restaurant and bar on the beach. I figured we could at least spend the day swimming. The small ferry boat dropped us at a little wooden dock surrounded by boat moorings on the seven-mile-long cay. The water was turquoise and beautiful, but the island itself seemed to be filled with mostly brush and small camping and picnic areas. We found a picnic bench to sit at and were instantly greeted by a little orange cat that wanted nothing more to do than rub on us and get pets. Our new friend even followed as I walked down to the water to dip my feet in. It was pretty cute. Tim and I each splurged on an ice cold Goombay Smash and drank them exploring the water's edge. Three large sting rays made their way through the clear water toward the edge of the beach. They were acting as if they wanted to be near us.

"The people running the restaurant's barbecue will give you fish scraps to feed them with!" another tourist informed us. My eyes lit up. "I'm doing it!" I told Tim. I walked back from the restaurant with a small Styrofoam bowl filled with fish guts. I got into the shallow water on my knees and was instantly bombarded by all three wild sting rays, the biggest having about a three foot wingspan. I laughed but instantly stood up to get some distance from them. It was nearly impossible to stay away from their tails since they would spin in circles, moving back and forth to get closer. I had no idea if their stingers only punctured you when they feel threatened or if it could happen if you even brush against it at all. I stuck my hand under one of the smaller of the sting rays, letting it gobble up the fish but then instantly stood to avoid their swinging tails, just in case. I couldn't stop laughing. I was so happy. I don't know why, but I've always loved sting rays and bat rays since I was a kid. I got a little more confident and started feeding the big guy. One of the times it bit me! I yelled out and then started laughing even harder since it had no teeth. I would feed one and then use my other hand to hold onto its slippery wing. They were so soft and awesome. Since neither me or the few other people in the water were getting stung, I ended up submerging my whole body in the water with them to swim along, gently grabbing their wings as they floated past.

Not only was the beach cat rubbing on me but the sting rays too

Without thinking I dumped the last juices from the empty tray of fish into the ocean as I got up to throw it out. "I wonder if that was a bad idea?" I said to Tim. Almost instantly a small blacktip reef shark appeared looking for food. Tim was ecstatic and frantically chased after the shark to get a better look. We spent the remainder of the day ordering beers from the beach bar then drinking them under the sun in the shallow water with the sting rays. It felt euphoric and perfect. Looking back on my life, this is one of my favorite days I have ever had.

I honestly thought the Bahamas would be a tourist destination that I could take or leave when it came to finding the time and money to travel somewhere tropical again in the future. Not that I thought it would be bad or boring, just for the money I figured it would be similar to other destinations. I assumed I would think back and yearn for its beaches and relaxing environment, but it probably wouldn't be somewhere I would try my hardest to re-visit. After all our big vacations were now going to be few and far between, and visiting friends or family usually took top priority. If I had only visited Paradise Island my expectations would have been more accurate, but after visiting the Exumas I have completely changed my mind. The Bahamas is one of the most beautiful places in the world with the friendliest strangers I have ever met. Even just experiencing its ocean life was something truly magical and unique to what I had seen before. It's not just a playground for the rich. If you love the ocean and drinking beer in shacks on the beach, then the Bahamas is a heaven on earth.


© 2020 Bridget MH

Travel Writing & Photography

San Diego, California