Browsing Posts in Cheap Latin America Travel

Argentina travel

When I put out the first edition of The World’s Cheapest Destinations at the end of 2002, Argentina was one of the best travel values in the world and it stayed that way for quite a while. Reeling for a huge banking collapse and currency crisis, the local peso went from parity to the dollar to a rate of three to the dollar when the dust settled, without any change in prices.

After a while though, even though the exchange rate kept widening, inflation galloped even faster. As tourism picked up and hotels were able to fill their rooms, rates for those went up as well. With an inefficient and pricey airline system, combined with very long distances for buses, eventually Argentina drifted out of budget travel territory and I had to drop it from the book when doing updates.

This is a country that can’t get out of its own way though and you can almost bet money that every 10 years they’re going to be in trouble again. That time is now. They have defaulted on debt, robbed the public pensions, strangled international business, and practically outlawed a whole range of imported goods. It keeps getting messier and nothing is working as intended though.

tango dancers

Another Collapse, but When?

The prevailing wisdom from people who live there is that one of two things will happen before the next election at the end of 2015.

1) The government and economy will collapse, the opposition will come in and make rescue moves, and in a few years they’ll get all the credit for the turnaround. The current government won’t regain power.

2) The current government will somehow keep limping along and will stay in power long enough to hand the whole mess off to the opposition, then the old guard can blame the whole mess on the opposition since it will take a while to turn things around. Then eventually the pendulum will swing and they’ll be back in power.

Either way, few are predicting good news on the horizon anytime soon. There are so many red flags right now that it’s hard to see anything positive to point to.

There’s one big red flag though that’s really a gold one for travelers: a dual exchange rate for those with dollars.

Official Rate vs. Blue Rate

Nobody wants to call the real exchange rate a “black market” rate, so they’re calling it a “blue rate” to make it sound prettier. The official rate is a little more than 8 to the dollar. The real rate you’ll get on the street is more than 15. This rate is so open that it’s printed in the newspaper and you can look it up online each day.

What this means for you the traveler is this: cash is king. Forget the ATM, forget using your credit card. For both of those you’re going to get the lousy official rate. You can almost double your spending power by bringing cash.

Blue rate Buenos Aires

Your Argentina-bound carry-on bag

Yes, I know this goes against everything you’ve learned about safety, theft prevention, debit card back-ups, and the like. But really, you are better off acting like a mobster and coming in with rolls of $50 and $100 bills (clean and recent of course) than you are trying to use plastic. Then you simply exchange these dollars for pesos and use those pesos to pay for your now-much-cheaper hotel rooms, restaurant meals, and bus tickets. Use those pesos to shop for now-cheap leather goods and to buy good wine for cheap.

If you do this, you’ll be copying what the wealthy Argentines are doing now. The country has slapped a 35% international travel tax on anyone leaving the country to try to stem the outward flow of money, but it’s not keeping the rich from traveling. That’s because they can easily justify it as a business expense: they’ve stowed their money in Montevideo, Panama, or Miami. So it’s a banking trip. It’s also the only way they can shop for items not made in Argentina: the import restrictions have gotten so tough that most of the best-known international brands have pulled out of Argentina. The ones who stayed are having to buy buildings to have something to do with their profits since they can’t get them out of the country.

In short, its a big mess. But when there’s upheaval, that’s often the best time to visit. You have a hard currency in a land where that hard currency is extra valuable.

Just be advised there’s one big expense you can’t get around: the hefty reciprocity fee to enter the country. Chile dropped it recently, but not Argentina (or Brazil). You need to apply in advance and pay $160 per person if you’re American, $92 if you’re Canadian, and $100 if you’re Australian. Stay a while to make up for this tax on tourists.

Huaxteca.com

In two days I rafted through a canyon, jumped off six waterfalls, rappelled down a cliff, and intentionally swam right up to a place where several tons of water a second was cascading down. I did all this in a place you’ve probably never heard of, San Luis Potosi.

If you’ve spent any time on Buzzfeed or Upworthy, you will recognize the style of the headline above. It’s called “clickbait” by those of us who publish content and actually care about whether we have a real audience or just eyeballs. But I put that up because I wanted to talk about travel, sharing, adventure, and FOMO. (For those of you, like me, raised before there was texting, that’s “fear of missing out.”)

I run a whole plethora of travel websites and go to a lot of industry conferences to do business and report on travel trends. There’s been a major shift since the advent of the smartphone and wireless data uploading where people are constantly sharing—okay broadcasting—their adventures. There are a lot of unsavory aspects to that, like one-upsmanship, narcicissm, and “I’m here, you’re not” posts just meant to inspire envy. In the luxury world, this sharing has become another on the list of bragging rights. It’s not just enough to stay in the best suite in the fanciest hotel. You also have to show you’re having some special experience nobody else is having.

Rafting Mexico

I’m looking at the silver lining of that though and thinking this can only be a good thing for undiscovered gems like the Huasteca region of San Luis Potosi in Mexico. This inland state that’s one up from where I live in Guanajuato recently hosted a pre-trip for some attendees of the Adventure Travel Mexico conference. I’ve had my eye on this area for ages, thinking it would be a blast, but I was incredibly impressed by how much fun it was it and how authentic it felt in this spot where very few foreigners arrive. And it wasn’t just me. There were a few adventure travel agents on the trip and other writer friends potentially as jaded as me, like Juno Kim, Karen Loftus, and Cathy Brown. “Wow, this totally exceeded my expectations” was the common summary.

The whitewater rafting trip that kicked off Day 1 was one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever been on, and at this point I’ve been rafting at least 20 times. It wasn’t as bone-pounding and death-defying as the one I went on in Nepal one time that was like a two-day roller coaster ride. It was just fun, exciting, and enhanced by gorgeous scenery. The equipment and guides from Huaxteca.com Adventures were both top-notch.

The next day we went waterfall jumping. That’s a real thing. Waterfall jumping.

Huaxteca waterfall

It sounds crazier than it really is. Sure, you put on a helmet and a life jacket and you need to wear water shoes or at least some old sneakers with some tread. That’s because you have to walk over rocks that can be a little slippery before you make the great leap into the air. The landing part is mellower than you would expect though: the water is churning below so it’s a pretty soft landing. Still, you have to hold hands sometimes to walk in a line to get to the edge and that first jump takes a bit of courage…

waterfall jumping San Luis Potosi

Later we got some lessons in how to rappel down a cliff and…we just did it. I can’t say I’m in any hurry to do it again, but I made it. Again, the Huaxteca guides were really professional and patient.

Then we visited a hotel next to this waterfall below. We had a nice meal and hung out a bit, but just looking at it roaring nearby was not enough. If you’re at this Huasteca Secreta Hotel, you are next to a giant eddy between two waterfalls. So you can jump in the water with a life jacket and you drift toward the waterfall. Just before you get to the point where it would pummel you, there are some places to climb out of the water onto a ledge. After catching your breath and trying not to freak out, you swim across the current quickly and then drift down away from the waterfall back to where you started. Crazy sh*t but loads of fun.

Huasteca Secreta adventure

Did I mention that we went scuba diving in a clear lake the next day? Or that I have zero experience in how to scuba dive?

This is just one adventure area of Mexico nobody you know has heard of. If you get away from the coast there are dozens of others in multiple states. If you’re looking for bragging rights and photos that nobody else you know has posted, you don’t have to go very far. Head south and find some real adventure.

crafts Oaxaca

Why do people rave so much about Oaxaca? Sure, it’s a nice colonial city with some beautiful buildings and a shady zocolo central square. You can say this about a whole slew of cities in Mexico though. What makes this one special, besides all the great food, is what’s around outside the city when you go exploring. We rented a car for two days of our trip and struck out in several directions.

We were lucky enough to be in Oaxaca during the Guelaguetza festival. In this case, high season was definitely the right season. Normally there’s a decent selection of handicrafts from the state in the shops, but in late July many of those villagers come to the city and set up a booth in an artisan market to sell direct to the crowds. We wanted to strike out on our own anyway though, hitting some sites and strolling some real village markets.

Monte Alban

The city of Oaxaca sits where three valleys converge and each of those valleys has long been populated by indigenous people who farmed the land (there’s evidence that the first corn crops started here) and created beautiful handicrafts. They also built some amazing structures, the most famous being dramatic Monte Alban. The Zapotec people flattened a mountaintop by hand and built a series of grand temples. The city is older and thrived for much longer than most Mayan headquarters, active from around 500 BC to 700 AD. This may have been the first place in what is now Mexico with written records and a calendar.

Mitla

Mitla

The panoramic views from the site give it some extra drama and it’s easy to see why this location was a tough one for rivals to attack—especially by surprise. You get the usual Mayan temples, a ball court and a grand plaza with good acoustics. There are a few oddities here though, like tunnels leading from one platform to another, probably so the priests could give the illusion they had the ability to magically disappear from one and reappear on another. There are also large flat stones carved with pictures of deformities and births gone wrong, with the baby coming out feet first. There was a hospital here and these were probably used as teaching materials.

The second major site in the area is Mitla, which is a very different kind of place. The setting is also beautiful here, with mountains rising up in the distance, but what makes Mitla notable is the series of 14 geometric designs made from individually cut stones fitted together. Well, that and the fact that was a place for human sacrifices.

worm saltThe market towns around Oaxaca are a lot of fun, especially Ocotlan on Fridays and Tlacolula on Sundays. People come from all the nearby villages to sell their homemade mezcal, their vegetables, and items that are a big hit locally but are not very popular with foreigners. Fried crickets coated in spices are sold by the bucketful and you see people munching on them and putting them in tacos. You can also get some worms served up too, or buy worm salt like you see here. We passed on both, but I did buy a glass of pulque (fermented maguey juice) as you don’t see that very often anymore in a lot of places in Mexico.

We also had a great mole lunch in the market at Ocotlan. If Frida Kahlo had made it to old age, she probably would have looked like this woman running the stall.

Ocotlan market

Handicraft villages

Different villages in the valleys around Oaxaca are known for producing specific things. If you visit them on a tour or with a guide, you’ll probably hit one of the workshops and maybe a local market if you come on the right day. If you take a bus or come by rental car, you can just wander around on your own on foot as none of them are all that large and you’ll find workshops on nearly every block.

San Bartolo Coyotepec is the place that cranks out all the black pottery from Oaxaca you see for sale all over Mexico. If you get it here at the source, it’s amazingly inexpensive.

San Martin Tilcajete produces many of the fantastical alebrijes that are brightly painted wood figures. The two at the top of this post are now sitting on a shelf in my house. Very cool. The wood carvers in this area are quite talented. Look at the custom order this guy at the Jacabo & Maria Ángeles center has been working on for months:

Oaxacan wood carver

I didn’t feel flush enough to buy any carpets, though maybe I will next time I visit because they’re really beautiful and well-made. If you visit the Isaac Vásquez Gutiérrez workshop in the weaving center of Teotitlán del Valle, you can see the looms in action and see what kinds of plants and minerals are used to make the natural dyes.

Oaxacan carpets

If you want to try a variety of mezcal, you’ll find the biggest concentration of distilleries in Matatlan, where the surrounding land is filled with spiky maguey plants. Mezcal is not nearly as popular as tequila, so most of the distilleries are quite small. The owner or master distiller might be the one pouring you a sample. You can find plenty of others all around the state in different villages though, some sold off a guy’s front porch in recycled bottles with a hand-scribbled label.

Tule largest tree

About That Big Tree…

There are a lot of trees that are older and taller than the Arbol del Tule in Oaxaca: if you want to see them all you can check them out at ILiketoWasteMyTime.com (seriously, that’s a real site). This giant cypress tree is the largest by girth though. It is 11 meters thick at its base and is believed to be 1,500 years old. It’s a pretty impressive thing to walk around and there’s a smaller one nearby that is on deck to take over I guess if this one croaks in 500 years. The town of Tule is only about 15 minutes from Oaxaca City.

See more on the region at the Oaxaca Tourism site.

 

Guelaguetza Oaxaca

When dishing out budget travel advice, I usually tell people to avoid going somewhere when it’s high season. There’s a whole chapter on timing in Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune about finding the sweet spot of shoulder season where you’re going. When crowds are at their peak, prices are bound to be at their highest.

Sometimes it’s worth it though. Sometimes it’s high season not just because of vacation schedules, but because there’s really something fantastic going on. That’s what I’m experiencing right now during the week of the Guelaguetza Festival in Oaxaca. We didn’t even know this was going on when we first planned our vacation; we just lucked out. But now that we’re here during prime time, I’m really glad we made it when we did.

tamale festival

Woman making “tejate” drink at the tamale festival

I was originally going to call this post “Mole and Mezcal in Oaxaca” since we spent the first morning here at a tamale festival (many of the tamales featuring different kinds of mole sauces) and the next afternoon at a mezcal fair. In both cases we got to try a huge variety of them in one place. The tamales were less than a dollar each and the equivalent of $3 got us into the Feria de Mezcal where we could walk around sampling them or buying bargain-priced cocktails for a few dollars each. Both of these events were unique to the Guelaguetza week and would not be going on other times during the year.

The same goes for all the artisan stalls taking up the whole rest of that park, with each booth listing the Oaxacan village that artisan came from. You can buy direct from them at this time, with no middleman and no traveling out to some remote town and finding the workshop behind an unmarked door. Two other artisan areas were set up in different parts of the center, also temporary, coming down in a few days.

mezcal festival

But what’s Guelaguetza? It’s an incredible dance performance featuring groups from different villages around Oaxaca. It’s an elaborate affair in an amphitheater overlooking the city and was far more spectacular than I had expected. There were 16 dances in all, over several hours. That sounds kind of excessive, but it never got boring because they were all very different. My daughter was also more into it than I thought she’d be too due to one key factor: at the end of each dance they threw things into the audience. So besides the hat, seat cushion, fan, and t-shirt we got upon arrival, gifts were flying through the air every 15 minutes or so. We scored some things like cool little baskets, woven fans, fruit, rolls, chocolate, and packets of coffee.

Guelaguetza Festival dance

Guelaguetza is the reason to have lots of other things going on in Oaxaca the same week though. We saw Lila Downs one night in that same amphitheater and it was quite a production with all the extra dancers in town.

We had already planned to do some shopping to buy things for our house in Mexico, so we had a lot to choose from with all the artisans in town. Thankfully we’re taking a bus back instead of a flight because we have loads of extra stuff to carry.

Oaxaca City

There was one downside to being here in high season: we couldn’t rent an apartment to stay in near the center, so we ended up in a hotel. The hotel, Las Golondrinas, didn’t jack up its rates though and we paid 780 pesos a night for a triple. It’s a decent deal. We got into restaurants fine and no place felt packed out. This is a tourist city anyway, so Oaxaca can absorb the traffic okay. So in the end, I don’t think we paid a premium at all for being here during high season, despite renting a car for two days too. Everything was just more crowded than it would normally be.

For more information, see the Oaxaca Tourism site, where they’ll have info posted on the 2015 Guelaguetza Festival far in advance. See their festivals page in Spanish for others or get a good guidebook. You can also trust what you see on the About.com Mexico site because the writer Suzanne lives in Oaxaca and also works as a guide.

 

Puerto Escondido

There are cheaper places to sit on a beach in the Americas than Mexico, but it can still be a great value one country down from the USA. Many travelers visit one of the big resort areas and presume that’s how much things cost throughout the country. Those are oddities though, bubble places full of foreign tourists who fly in for vacation, spend freely, and then fly back out.

I just spent five great days in Puerto Escondido. This is a town discovered by, and still very much filled with, surfers. That makes it different from Tulum, a place that was once full of backpackers but is now full of moneyed tourists trying to act like backpackers while spending big bucks for a designer yoga retreat with no electricity.

This has happened in other spots too to some extent, from Sayulita to Loreto to Zihuatanejo—all destinations the budget travelers latched onto first. Mexico has a lot of sandy coastline though and even if the government would like to turn every pretty bay into a mass market tourism destination, it’s not going to happen. There are just too many places even if the numbers doubled.

So don’t worry, if you ask around and do some research, you can still find a nice beach spot in Mexico where you can chill for a week on a reasonable amount of money. Here in Puerto Escondido, prices are geared to surfers, backpackers, and average Mexicans. As in double hotel rooms right across from the beach advertised for 400 pesos ($30) and hostel beds for 80 ($6.25). All over town there are 2-for-1 cocktails (“happy hour all day long”) and two beers for $2.30. Food at the beach restaurants is reasonable and if you head into the center, everything is just as cheap as it would be in any other town in Mexico. You can get a meal of the day or a plate of tacos for $3 and a kilo of fruit for a buck.

Carazilillo Beach

Apart from the seriously overpriced rates at the airport if you fly in from somewhere, taxis are far cheaper than in places like Cancun and Ixtapa. We went from Carrizalillo Beach where we’re staying to La Punta at the far end on the other side of town and it was about $3.25. All the other rides have been $2. We bought tickets in an express passenger van up the long and winding road to Oaxaca City and they were about $16 each for seven hours.

I’m here on vacation with my family, so we’re in a rental apartment that’s $100 a night with all the fees, a few minutes walk to Carrizalillo Beach pictured above. There are only three of us, but the place can sleep six and there’s a huge TV with cable, a swimming pool, hammocks, and a full kitchen. Like a lot of places here it’s not air-conditioned though, so it’s deathly hot in the afternoon. Don’t underestimate the heat at a Mexican beach at the end of July. Or how fast you’ll get sunburned.

Carazilillo Puerto Escondido

We’ve tried to stay in the shade much of the time on the beach by renting chairs and umbrellas from one of the restaurants. The thing is, you don’t really have to rent them as long as you order something to eat and drink from the accompanying restaurant. They say 100 pesos each (about $7.80) but they’re pretty low-key about it and you can hang out there the entire day. If you want to gorge on seafood you can spend a lot, but you don’t have to: beers are two bucks and a plate of fish tacos about $5. With a gorgeous view of the water and surfers or learning surfers. But of course you can just plop on a sarong or towel for nothing. Bring a cooler if you want.

I’ve been buying a good cup of coffee in the morning for $1.60 and really good gelato from Italian immigrants for $2 or so a pop. Overall the prices here are pretty similar to what you find in central Mexico where I live, which means they’re a great value.

I’m off to Oaxaca City after this and between the mole, mezcal, and Monte Alban it might be a while before my next post, but I’ll be back with a report on that place then.



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