Browsing Posts in Cheap North America Travel

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.

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.