Browsing Posts in Cheap North America Travel

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 Carizilillo 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 Carazilillo 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.

cheapest places to travel

$15 in London, $1 in India

Where are the cheapest places to travel in the world? And how does City A compare to City B? How well does perception match reality?

World's Cheapest DestinationsEvery few years I put out a new edition of the book you see to the right and if you’re about to embark on a year-long trip around the world, it’s the best $9 (e-book) or $16 (paperback) you’ll invest in your journey. It’ll give you rundowns on the best bangs for your buck around the world, as well as a quick overview of why you’d go there. It has real prices on what an average person can expect to spend as a backpacker or mid-range traveler in the cheapest places to travel that are worth visiting.

Beyond that though, if you just want to compare Vienna to Prague, or Chiang Mai to Hanoi, there are a couple of other good resources out there I use as a gut check now and then when working on articles or for media interviews.

Numbeo for Wisdom of the Crowd

The first is called Numbeo.com and it’s a crowdsourced platform where people input costs so the system can come up with averages. It’s not perfect of course since it’s dependent on volunteers to take time out to enter data, but close enough for ballpark numbers. They’ve had nearly 145,000 people put info in as I write this.

What I really like about it is it puts things in a ratio perspective, using New York City as 100. You find out, for instance, that renting an apartment in Nicaragua is a 10 on that scale of 100. So if you live in Manhattan and move to Managua, you’ll probably be able to get a place that would cost your $5,000 a month in New York for $500. On the other hand, you definitely do not want to move to Norway or Switzerland unless you’re getting a transfer and a huge raise:many of their cities are above 150 on the scale. Here’s a rundown from most expensive to cheapest.

This site is to compare living expenses though, so while it’s good to see what you’re in for if you want a better life for half the price, the data is mostly populated by expatriates and residents upper-crust enough to enter info in English. So you get some odd skewed results from people trying to live a first-world life in a country that may not have a huge selection of imported items for reasonable prices. Thus the outliers that look expensive but really aren’t for most people, like Caracas, Venezuela. Go to the other end and 24 of the 25 cheapest cities are in India and after that you start getting into some of the other places featured in my book. like Nepal, Indonesia, and Bolivia.

Take it all with a dose of skepticism though. No way in hell that Puerto Vallarta and Durban are cheaper than Cuenca and Plovdiv. It’s good for getting a general sense though of apartment prices, food prices, and what a taxi will cost you. To give you an idea, here’s the rundown on Medellin, Colombia.

Cheapest Places for Backpacker Travelers

While Numbeo wants to know what a lot of things cost, the PriceOfTravel.com site is aimed at backpackers trying to find the best deal. So here’s the basket of goods and services they used to compare A to B on their backpacker index:

A dorm bed at a good and cheap hostel
3 budget meals
2 public transportation rides
1 paid cultural attraction
3 cheap beers (as an “entertainment fund”)

There are inherent flaws in this one too of course, like the beer cost not mattering if you don’t drink and the “hostel” part being pretty meaningless in a country where most everyone gets a private hotel/guesthouse room since it’s so cheap. Some places you walk everywhere and never need public transportation, others may require expensive taxi rides to get anywhere you really want to go.

Pokhara Nepal

The very cheapest backpacker destination?

Again though, as a basic guide it’s pretty good, with 14 of their 15 cheapest being places I cover in my book. Sri Lanka is borderline cheap from what I’m hearing, but if I haven’t been there, so I could be wrong. Here’s their list, with a daily budget amount.

Pokhara, Nepal – US$14.32
Hanoi, Vietnam – $15.88
Chiang Mai, Thailand – $17.66
Goa, India – $18.25
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – $18.27
Kathmandu, Nepal – $18.46
Vientiane, Laos – $21.38
Delhi, India – $21.38
Luang Prabang, Laos – $21.71
Bangkok, Thailand – $21.78
Phnom Penh, Cambodia – $21.95
La Paz, Bolivia – $22.24
Quito, Ecuador – $22.30
Hoi An, Vietnam – $23.26
Colombo, Sri Lanka – $23.87

There’s a clear focus on cities, as you can see. There are far cheaper places than Delhi in India and far less expensive destinations than Quito in Ecuador, but hey, they’ll be a happy surprise when you get there.

When you click on an individual city, what you get is excellent: not just detailed price ranges, but also weather patterns, attraction prices, and a quick overview. Here’s the one from Budapest.

Like I said at the beginning, my book only features 21 countries and you’ll likely explore destinations that are your wish list that aren’t so cheap. But using these two sites, you can figure out that Australia is going to cost you far more than Canada, that London is more than double the price of Istanbul or Seoul.

traveling in Mexico

The Mexican gangs may not be busted, but Mexican tourism is going gangbusters.

Apparently 23.7 million tourists came to Mexico last year, up 3.5% from their previous record year in 2008. Yes, that was six years ago, so it’s been a climb up after a big drop, but a steady, fruitful climb in the face of tough circumstances at home and abroad. The vast majority of those visitors were from the USA.

I started this cheap travel blog back in 2003, when the word “blog” was still very much a novelty and I knew people still using AOL dial-up. Sometimes I like to go back and look at those original posts to see how much has changed. I may be reading the cues wrong, but it seems like in the past decade, travelers—especially Americans—have gotten a lot better about putting fear in perspective.

Ten years ago I wrote a post called How Safe is International Travel? It was spurred on by my father saying he and his wife were scared to get in an airplane to go to Europe so they were going to drive somewhere instead. That led me to ranting about how much safer you are in a plane than a car. But I was also addressing the larger issue of people watching too much TV news instead of getting the real story from more reliable sources. And not comparing the risk of where they’re going to the risk in their own home town. Fear of the unknown has a huge impact on travel plans.

But maybe, just maybe, it’s having less of an impact than it used to.

Last week I was at the annual Mexican tourism fair called Tianguis, and despite all the fear-mongering that goes on about my adopted home, Mexican tourism officials are very happy right now. They’re seeing steady increases from the traditional markets (US, Canada, UK) but downright dramatic increases from other countries, especially Latin American ones. Specifically, Mazatlan tourism is up 18% in three years, Los Cabos is up 25% in two years, Cancun/Riviera May hotels were running at nearly 90% occupancy levels the first week of May. That region alone hosted 36 thousand weddings in 2013. And on it goes with a dozen other destinations both coastal and in the interior.

Mexico travel fears

Sure, the Ciudad Juarez booth at that tourism fair had one poor lonely girl playing on her phone most of the time and you couldn’t pay me enough to be the tourism PR person for Tijuana. Overall though, considering all the inflammatory bad press the country gets and the constant news stories asking whether it’s okay to travel to this destination, no wonder the Mexican tourism industry is feeling fortunate.

Maybe travelers are getting less afraid of what lies beyond their borders. Just maybe they’re realizing that 81 total Americans killed in Mexico in an entire year–counting Mexican/American citizens in the drugs or guns trade—looks pretty darn good compared to D.C., New Orleans, or Chicago.

Next stop, Egypt…?

Cuetzalan

It’s a strange feeling when you get to a destination that seems perfect for backpackers and there are none of them there. After a few days in Cuetzalan, a Pueblo Magico in the northern part of Puebla state in Mexico, I had the rare feeling I’d gotten somewhere before the crowds, that I’ve discovered that elusive place that really deserves the over-used cliches like “hidden gem.” Cuetzalan is no secret to Mexican tourists, but it sure seems to be with foreign ones.

Puebla street food

There are certain items that typically make a town a magnet for budget travelers. Cheap street food, cheap booze (or drugs), budget lodging, easy navigation on foot, nice scenery, fun excursions to take, and a feeling you’re somewhere exotic. The list could be expanded, but these elements were in place in the 1960s (Kathmandu, Bangkok, Istanbul), the 90s (Pokhara, Chiang Mai, Hampi, Manali, Yogyakarta, Ubud, Luang Prabang, Prague), and today (Sucre, San Juan del Sur, Antigua, Hoi An, Veliko Turnovo, Eger, the islands off Cambodia).

There’s a natural progression in the above examples: cities get bigger and more populated and become a quick stop rather than a hangout place. Prices go up and moneyed tourists move in, thus the backpackers go in search of lesser-known, mellower spots to chill for a while. Or when too many of the wrong kind descend on a place, the townspeople either go upscale (Prague) or revolt (Vang Vieng).

Cuetzalanmagical town was one of the original 10 Pueblos Magicos—magical towns—designated in 2000 as special places to be preserved in Mexico. Over the years the designation has gotten a bit diluted as more and more questionable ones are added. This gets them a little preservation and development money though and puts them on the tourist map. Well, for Mexicans anyway. Since most of these towns are in the interior away from the beaches, most of them don’t see a lot of foreigners.

This one is a special place, a historic town perched on a mountainside, with panoramic views when the sky is clear and clouds moving in and out of the hills at other times. This is a wet, lush area at around 1,000 feet elevation, so nearly everything is made of stone to withstand the humidity. Narrow flagstone streets are between buildings made of rock hauled from quarries on mules. Until the mid-1900s there was no road up here and the one coming from Puebla City is in a constant state of repair the last 40 miles or so. In the middle of rainy season, it’s not uncommon for it to get washed out and closed for a few days. Don’t come here on a tight schedule from June through November.

(If you can’t see this slideshow, complain to a “genius” at the Apple Store and then go here.)

As for those cheap prices, by Mexican standards Cuetzalan is a serious bargain. It’s not Nicaragua, but you can completely stuff yourself on street food for a few bucks. At one stall the three of us bought 11 items—empanadas, tamales, tlayoyos (stuffed corn patties) and it was the equivalent of $2.12. I saw two taco stands advertising beef tacos for 2 pesos each; that’s 6 for $1. Even the nicest restaurants have $2 beers and $7 main dishes. Crops are abundant in this fertile area with varied elevations, so you can buy berries, mangoes, plums, carrots, or whatever else is in season for a buck or two a kilo direct from the people who brought their bounty to town.

Cuetzalan PueblaThe farmers make their own fruit liqueurs in this area and you can order a flight of them at a bar right on the town square for 10 pesos each (about 77 cents) to see which ones you like best. (For me it was vanilla and passion fruit). Then you can buy a whole bottle if you want for $5.

Lodging is a decent deal at the low end, a terrific bargain in the middle to high range. This Hotel Posada Cuetzalan pictured below has three nice courtyards, a pool, and double rooms for $70 per night or less with taxes and a big breakfast. Another we stayed at has doubles for $36. The best place in town (Casa Piedra) starts at $56 a night. I don’t think there are any hostels in the town: the only one listed for the area is $14 a night with tax and breakfast and it’s out by the ruins mentioned below, 10km from town. It’s run by a local indigenous community that cooks pre-Hispanic food. Two or three of you can get a real hotel room though for $15 each or less at the low end by just looking around and making a deal.

Cuetzalan hotel

There is a good museum in town that’s free, some churches and other sites, plus a good range of interesting places to visit outside of town. It takes some patience and a willingness to cram into a truckbed bus to reach them on your own, but it can be done for a few dollars. Otherwise you can book a tour with an agency like Cuetzalan Magico and you’ll have good transportation and a guide.

Puebla state waterfall

This helps in reaching some of the far-flung waterfalls, of which there are plenty in this wet, mountainous region. We splashed around and swam in two of them, but our guide who grew up here said he had been to around 25 waterfalls so far. Ask locally about conditions before setting out though: a nice swimming hole in April can be a thunderous death trap in July. If there’s an admission charge, it’ll be 80 cents ore less. This being Mexico, you’ll have no trouble finding a beer or a snack.

Yohualichan

Admission to the Yohualichan archaeological site pictured above is less than $3 (reduced with a student ID). It’s kind of neat to explore a set of ruins like this, dating back further than famous Chichen Itza in Yucatan state. They haven’t been prettied up, shored up, and reconstructed with lots of cement. They kind of look like sagging cakes, with dirt and vegetation still on them. There were only five other people checking them out the whole time we were there.

The Xoxoctic Botanical Garden with a butterfly enclosure is only a few bucks—or free for guests of Hotel Encuentro (same owner). What’s on display will vary depending on the season, but quite a few exotic orchids were in bloom when we explored the place.

orchid  Xoxoctic

For a tour of the Corales Caverns, it’s around $4 including a helmet and a guide with a flashlight—there are no lights inside.

Getting here takes some effort, as in 4-6 hours on a bus from Puebla City depending on whether there’s road work going on. (We splurged for a rental car, at about $35 a day with some insurance and $12 each way in tolls.) You’re going to want to stay a while after you arrive. Cuetzalan isn’t really on the way to anywhere, but you can continue north to Veracruz state for adventure activities and some Gulf beach time.

For more info, see the Cuetzalan Magico website (in Spanish only for now) or the Mexico Tourism site in English. To look for hotels, the best site is HotelesEnCuetzalan.com.

Guanajuato Mexico

One of the views from my house

I moved back to Guanajuato, Mexico for the second time this past August and as a couple readers have pointed out, I haven’t written much about it on this blog. That and a few consulting sessions lately with people thinking about moving to Mexico has pushed me to do some catch-up on that today.

If you’ve got some time, check out the video below to get a sense of why I liked this small city the first time I came here and why it keeps pulling me back. The aesthetics are great and it’s been here since before any English set foot in America. What you can’t really see in that video are two aspects I also love. First, most of the traffic moves through tunnels under the city, so it’s a very pedestrian-friendly place to live. Second, the weather is gorgeous almost all year. We’re at an altitude close to 6,500 feet here, so it can get a little chilly at night a couple months of the year, but the climate is agreeable enough most of the time that houses aren’t built with heat or air conditioning. It’s usually blue skies, sun, and highs around 80.

I can turn down a bit of the stress in my business here because I’m spending less than half what I did in the USA on basic living expenses. The first time we were here we rented two side-by-side apartments for a total of $800 a month, all utilities and internet included. Now we own a house outright, so we’re pouring money into improvements and furniture instead. Here are some hard numbers though for regular monthly expenses:

- Daughter’s private school is a shade less than $300 per month
- We spend about $100 a month on transportation getting her there & back (it’s not walking distance)
- We average about $50 a month on other local taxis and buses.
- Here’s a picture of one month’s water and electric bills, in pesos. The 114 peso water bill is equivalent to $8.77 and the 324 electric bill is equivalent to $25. Gas comes out to about $6.50 per month.

Mexican utility bills
- Drinking water in 5-gallon jugs averages about $15 a month, delivered to our door.
- Internet is $25 per month for 5mbps. I’d pay more for a faster speed, but can’t get it.
- Mobile phone charges (1 with data, 2 regular) $54 for 3 of us
- Our maid comes once a week and cleans the house top to bottom. That’s $62 per month.
- Food varies wildly, but a liberal estimate is $300 a month on groceries, $200 eating out
- Entertainment and fun $200 per month
- Medical/dental come in spurts, but let’s say $200 per month

Property taxes are paid annually, but would be $16 if paid monthly. Our house repairs, renovations, furniture, and other purchases vary depending on how flush we are that month. But if we estimate $600 per month, that puts the total monthly expenses at around $2,160 not counting travel.

I want to emphasize that this is for a family of three that’s not being all that frugal. We eat out far more than we did in the USA, I don’t hesitate to order a beer or two when we’re out, and we take advantage of things like $6 symphony tickets and $4 ballet performances. You could certainly live here for far less if you wanted and many people do. Considering that we were spending $2,000 a month in Tampa just on rent though and another $1,000 on health care, our Mexican living budget feels like a screaming bargain. We can spend another $1,000 on travel, visas, and shopping and still just be up to what we used to spend on those two items alone.

Guanajuato callejon

Within four months of moving back here I’d lost 10 pounds. I didn’t diet, drink less, or go to any gym. Getting around in this city requires lots of walking at high altitude though and like most people, we need to climb a lot of stairs to get to our front door. Above is the entrance to our callejon—the alley that goes up to our neighborhood. When delivery men brought a refrigerator and stove, they had to carry it up these stairs you see at the right. Walking Guanajuato

My day to day work life hasn’t changed much, which is a bit of a problem in terms of getting better at Spanish. At some point soon I need to break off some time and go back to classes for a while in order to advance. I’m just not using it enough each day because I’m holed up in my home office, working in English. (My daughter is taking middle school classes all in Spanish though, so she’s golden.) I try to take a walk each day or go out for lunch to enjoy where I’m living and I have a glorious view from my office window.

I’ll write more on Guanajuato and living in Mexico later, with more of the hundreds of pictures I have sitting on my hard drive. Meanwhile, if you’re passing through, get in touch! If you want to see the city through my eyes and my stomach, sign up for my Guanajuato street food tour.

Want to learn more about living a better life for half the price? Sign up for the Cheap Living Abroad e-mail newsletter.