Browsing Posts in Cheap Latin America Travel

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.

Ecuador prices

As I write this I’m in Quito for the fourth time. Every time I’m amazed by how cheap some things are, partly because the prices have barely budged since I first started taking notes in 2009.

dollar bag of applesThey use the U.S. dollar here, so there are no mental calculations to do and no currency fluctuations. When the government made that rash decision at the beginning of the 00s, it was done to tame inflation. Mission accomplished on that front.

Sure, some things go up. As I’ve mentioned before, alcohol. But that’s from massive taxes, not inflation. Fuel will go up eventually when subsidies get rolled back, starting in 2016. Meanwhile, you can get a taxi ride for $2-$6.

I’m posting same random photos I took this week while walking around the historic center of Quito. I arrived around lunchtime and was starving, so I popped into the first meal of the day place I came across. I got a bowl of soup with rice, veggies, and beef. Next was a big plate with chicken, rice, potatoes, and a salad. A glass of juice and a banana came with it. The bill was $2.35.

Later I stopped in a place that had a microbrew on draft—a real novelty in most of Latin America still—and met a couple from Florida who owned an apartment nearby. They don’t live here all year, but they come down regularly. “We bought it on a lark really. It was around $30,000, so we figured there wasn’t much downside to that deal. We put about $20K into it over four years getting it ready. Now it’s quite nice.” They’re walking distance to where I was, which was about two blocks from the Plaza Grande.

Ecuador prices

Quito is a city where you still see apartments (or even whole houses) for sale for less than $50K and decent places to rent for less than $300. Oddly enough, Cuenca costs more than the capital these days for the non-exclusive places because the average income is higher—not just because of the 5,000 or so gringos, but because a lot of wealthy Ecuadorans have moved back from abroad and settled there for a more mellow life.

Get beyond these two cities and (not so desirable) Guayaquil, however, and living expenses are almost sure to be even less. Riobamba, Vilcabamba, Cotacachi, or some chilled-out town in the Andes you find and decide to unpack for a while. There will be a lot more details in my book, A Better Life for Half the Price. Those who sign up for a more comprehensive, ongoing course structure will be hearing a lot about Ecuador. Get on the list for updates here.

yucatan Mexico

There may be a chance, because of how the travel industry conference circuit plays out, that I’ll be in Cancun three times this year. This turn of events is certainly not something I planned, wished for, or ever imagined. So for my TBEX blogger brethren who will soon be wondering how they ended up in a hotel zone that attracts four million tourists a year, here’s my advice: Go west young man/woman.

Tack on some time, because there are a lot of really cool places to see and interesting things to do in the rest of the Yucatan Peninsula, beyond the vacation factories. Here’s a story I’ve been meaning to write for years: The Other Side of the Yucatan.

This one’s a little more personal, with a little more reflection than what I usually write. That’s because the Yucatan has been deeply entwined in my life for the past 11 years. It was the first place we took my daughter after she got her first passport at three and we returned there again and again after buying a little beach house on the Gulf Coast near Merida. Each time we did a little more exploring, plus I’ve been back a few times on my own for writing trips. I could post a hundred photos from there, but I mostly just put up some Mayan ruins, a fun video of a horse-drawn train, and some memories of when my teenager was a cuddly little girl.

Borneo man

In this month’s issue of Perceptive Travel though, that’s just the start. My buddy Bruce Northam is back with a fun story about hanging with a real man in Borneo, the kind of man who does the things we used to do before we got so soft. He catches fish with his bare hands and cooks them up in bamboo tubes. He can whip up a shelter in the jungle in no time flat with a tarp and a machete. See Rent a Real Man in Borneo.

James Dorsey has met up with plenty of wild men himself in the stories of Perceptive Travel and this time he ends up on a baboon hunt with the Hadzabe tribesmen in Tanzania. There’s smoking, spearing, and passing around primate meat. See Last of the Bushmen in Tanzania.

As always, we check out some new travel books so you’ll know what’s worth reading and we review some new world music albums so you’ll know what’s worth downloading. (Oh, okay, what’s worth at least checking out on Spotify.)

We’re always helping our loyal readers gear up for their travels. Last month someone scored some nice $100 polarized sunglasses from Bolle. This month we’re giving away two, yes two gift certificates to buy whatever Samsonite luggage, messenger bag, or travel accessories you need. If you’re on our newsletter list, watch your inbox. That’s the best bet because as you’ve probably noticed, even if you follow Perceptive Travel on Facebook, you’re probably not seeing the feed. That social network has become a “pay to play” platform where fan pages don’t show up unless they’re paying. Sign up here to be sure you can enter.



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