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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.

 

Mali travel story

It’s time for the August 2014 issue of Perceptive Travel, where I happen to be founder and editor. It launched in 2006 and is still alive and kicking, so we must be doing something right.

This month we go off the beaten path, waaayyy off in fact. If we were trying to sell magazines on a newsstand based on the places featured on the cover, we’d be in trouble: West Papau, Gürün in Turkey, and some remote hidden villages in Mali. There’s a geography quiz few people would pass.

That’s okay though, because we like good travel stories better than the latest restaurant rundown for some place you’ve already read about a hundred times.

James Dorsey has won quite a few awards for stories he has published in Perceptive Travel and elsewhere and this time he ventures into villages in Mali that are hard to even see from a distance. There he encounters people who claim to be from a distant star in outer space and aren’t exactly the model of hospitality. See The People Who Are Not There.

Marco Ferrarese feared he might be starring in his own version of Midnight Express when a policeman ordered him to pack up his tent and come with him to the police station. But things turned out a little differently in this remote town in Anatolia. See Gürün Prison Blues in Rural Turkey.

paddling West Papau

The photos are a lot prettier when we move from rural Turkey to the South Pacific islands of West Papau, where coral gardens and gorgeous islands are on the itinerary for Micheal Buckley’s multi-day kayaking trip from one cove to another. See Up a Tree, in a Wetsuit in West Papau.

Each month we also review some cool new travel books and some world music worth downloading and taking with you in your travels. Susan Griffith checks out a diverse set of travel books covering Italy, Tibet, and “radical architecture” in poor parts of Latin America. Laurence Mitchell spins some new world music albums from around the globe, all combining at least two cultures to create a new hybrid sound.

Could you use free travel gear?

Pickpocket proof business pantsEach month our subscribers and followers have a shot at winning something useful for their travels. Last month reader Keith W. from Oregon scored a nice $140 STM Drifter pack for carrying all his gadgets and gear. This time we’re giving away the new nylon Pickpocket Proof Business Pants from Clothing Arts. When I wear these around I look good enough to go meet with a hotel manager for my job, but can walk through the diciest looking parts of town knowing nobody is getting to my valuables without knocking me out first. We’re talking layers and layers of frustration for even the craftiest thief.

How do you get your own pair and get in on future giveaways? It’s very easy: subscribe to the monthly newsletter.

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.

cost of living in Hungary

Hungary is not super cheap in every way, but the destination is a good value for people who want to live a good life for less in Europe. Anyone moving to Budapest from a similarly sized city in Europe, North America, or Australia can easily cut their expenses in half. And the rest of the country costs less.

Estimates of how many expatriates live here range from 30,000 to 50,000 and there are enough in Budapest to support a business newspaper in English. So you won’t be all alone if you choose to move here.

Gary Lukatch was earning around $60,000 gross in New Mexico working in the financial industry, after having lived in a lot of other states before that. “When I moved to Budapest and began teaching English, my monthly net earnings after one year were around $600 per month, increasing to around $1,500 per month after, say, five years,” he says. “In short, I took a huge pay cut, but was 1000% happier.”

After teaching English in Budapest for eight years, he is retired, living a much better life than he could elsewhere on what he has to spend. “The cost of monthly house payments or rental, plus car costs alone, would be more than my monthly income, which is around $2,100 net,” he explains. “Here in Budapest, my monthly flat rental, plus utilities, averages around $400, right in the middle of town.” He says public transportation is excellent, so he doesn’t need a car. “I eat out several times a week and I still have enough money to travel wherever and whenever I want; I have now been to 53 countries, with at least five more trips scheduled this year.”

Australians Karen and Neil D. came to Budapest because her husband got a job offer in his industry and they thought it would be a great adventure. They had already lived in Poland and the Czech Republic though, so they and the four kids didn’t have to make a huge adjustment going to Hungary. “Hungary has been the cheapest of the three,” Karen says. They’ve watched the city get easier and easier as the years have gone by, partly through them adjusting but also because the level of English fluency locally has gotten steadily better.

Hungary joined the EU in 2004, but the country still uses the forint, which is a volatile currency. Prices quoted here are based on 220 to the dollar, but I’ve seen it as low as 198 and as high as 250. So check the current rate before cursing my name when you read this because prices have changed.

Eger

Eger, Hungary

The countryside of Hungary is very cheap, but few expats live in the rural areas unless they’re in the wine industry. Most choose to live in Budapest, around Lake Balaton, or in one of the smaller cities like Eger or Pecs.

Hungary got hit hard in the European economic crisis like many other nations on the continent, but has recovered faster. The official unemployment rate was 8% in mid-2014, which looks downright glorious compared to Italy, Spain, Greece, or Portugal. In many ways, this feels like a nation on the rise and the young are displaying something not seen much in the past couple hundred years of Hungary’s history: optimism.

Housing Costs in Hungary

housing costs BudapestThe residents of Hungary give their rent costs in hundreds, not thousands, and you won’t find many single people or couples paying more than $500 a month, even in the capital. When you get into smaller towns, you can get a large house for that. When I was last in Budapest, I asked several locals I talked to what they were paying per month for an apartment and the answers came in between $150 and $300. In the southern wine region I visited on my first trip a few years earlier, there were houses with a nice garden going for the same. I met an expat from New Zealand working for a winery by Lake Balaton. He was paying $210 a month for his two-bedroom apartment with a lake-view balcony.

The site Numbeo.com uses New York City for a price basis and compares costs of living around the world to that, using 100 as the NYC average. For rent prices, Hungary comes up a 10 and Budapest is 12. This will vary greatly by location, of course, but on average you can expect to pay 1/8 to 1/10 of what you would in your current situation if you’re living in New York.

Gary pays a shade under $300 for his apartment in District 5, one of the most desirable and central areas of the city. (If you’ve come to Hungary as a tourist, you’ve been there to see the sites.)

If you decide to buy something eventually, which you can do freely as a foreigner, “a typical apartment in Budapest will cost between 90,000 and 130,000 euros for 100 square meters.” Karen says. It’s a buyers market right now for a very bad reason: a lot of Hungarians took out loans to buy property in the pre-EU days and did it in Swiss Francs because that was a stable currency. Now they owe far more than what the property is worth because of the Swiss Franc’s rise. “So there’s a mass selling of properties because of exchange rate changes,” Karen says. Combined with the high unemployment so prevalent in much of Europe now, there are far more sellers than buyers.

Health Care Costs

In this country the medical care is good, the dental care is great. With the rise of cross-border medical treatment happening in many places in the world, Hungary has jumped on the trend with both feet. Many Europeans come here to have dental work done or to receive good medical care at a discount. I was actually having some dental problems while in this part of the world two years ago and started asking around for prices to get a new crown. I ended up not getting it done because of timing, but prices I was quoted ranged from $250 to $350 all-in. (In the United States, this can easily top $1,000.)

Getting a cleaning and check-up at the dentist is around $30, getting a set of x-rays about that much again.

The one time Gary had to have serious medical work done, the total bill was about 1/10 the price of what it would have been in the USA.

Budapest market

Food & Drink

you can normally have a very fine cloth-napkin dinner with wine for $15. If you eat at more humble places, a soup will be a dollar or two and main dishes range from $3 to $7.

When you shop in the market, prices are at the low end for Europe. You can get rolls for 10-25 cents each or a huge baguette for a dollar or less. Get 100 grams (around 1/5 of a pound) of good cheese for a dollar, 100 grams of good local sausage for $2, and a jar of pickled veggies for another dollar or so.

For a buck or less, you can generally buy 100 grams of any of these things in the market: raisins, peanuts, sunflower seeds, banana chips, or dried apricots. Or you can get a kilo of seasonal fruit or peppers, cabbage, potatoes, radishes, or carrots. I saw a big bunch of white asparagus for about a dollar when I was there. How much do you pay for that in your local Whole Foods?

“We probably spend $80-$100 a week on groceries, not including wine,” says Karen. “In Australia we could spend $300 or $400 a week easily.”

Hungarian wineHungarian wine should be known around the world, but the Soviet occupation days seriously hurt its reputation and the recovery will be a long one. So for now it’s one of the best quality-to-price values in the world. In many countries, expats complain about the difficulty of getting decent wine for a decent price, so if that’s a big priority, put Hungary on your list. (Along with Argentina and tropical duty-free Panama). You can find a decent table wine bottle in a store for $2, something quite good for $4 to $8. If you spend over $10 you might end up with something from a “winemaker of the year” who has adorned Hungarian magazine covers.

This once being part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, you can get a killer coffee and pastry here just as you can in Vienna—but for literally 1/4 the price. After you do a double-take at your low bill in a wine bar, finish with a coffee and dessert for another nice surprise.

Transportation Costs

Getting around Hungary is relatively cheap by bus or train when you want to get out of town. Figure on $10-$12 for a trip of two hours, or $30 to go as far as you can possibly go within Hungary. Seniors and young children travel free. The longest ride on the suburban railway out of Budapest (30 kms) is just $2.50.

Hungary travel by train

Budapest has a metro and while it’s no real bargain on a ride-by-ride basis (around $1.55), a monthly pass that also works for the trams and buses is a good value at less than $50. If you’re of retirement age, you might squeak by for free.

Apart from the ride from the airport, taxis in Hungary are a bargain. In general you can get around the center of Budapest in a cab for $3 to $7. It’s around $2 to start and $1.25 for each kilometer, so it’s hard to spend $10 anywhere unless it’s a long haul. Like much of Europe, this country is set up well for those on a bicycle and some expatriates use a bike as their main means of transport. In Budapest there are lots of dedicated bike lanes and in the countryside there’s not nearly such an abundance of cars as you see in the capital.

Frequent promotions on the train system and Eurolines bus make international travel from here a bargain. If you plan ahead you can get to Vietnna for less than $20 or to beach locations of Greece, Bulgaria, or Croatia for around $60.

Other Costs

If you pay your own utilities they can vary greatly by the season. His utilities vary widely, from $30 to $200 a month. “My place is not the best insulated in town, so I pay more in the winter for heat. In the summer, it’s very low.” Internet is $15 to $30 depending on speed and if you want a great connection, you can usually get it in the cities. The lowest-priced speed is generally 5 mbps, which is fine for a lot of people.

The land of Liszt and Bartok has an abundance of cultural performances going on at all times, from high-brow opera in the capital to an annual festival of wine songs in the south each year. Performances that aren’t free are very cheap by European standards. “The theater is amazing here,” says Karen. “The cost of going to a ballet or opera can nearly bankrupt you in Australia. Here it’s for everyone. Tickets usually start at $5. If you buy really great seats on a weekend for a popular show it might cost you all of $25.”

Budapest coffee pastry

Visas in Hungary

Hungary is part of the Schengen Agreement covering much of the European Union, which means you can’t just stick around here on a tourist visa. You get three months upon entering the zone, but after that you have to leave the whole Schengen area for three months before returning. No problem if you’re only coming for the summer. Terrible if you want to settle down for longer.

To get residency without being tied to a specific employer, you generally have to show you’re doing work a local can’t do, like teaching English, or you have to show that you’re self-supported by income from abroad. You can see a sample of costs and documents needed at this site, which also warns you that requirements may change at any time: http://washington.kormany.hu/entry-for-long-stay

A work visa is good for a year and renewable. Expect to endure a lot of bureaucracy and if you don’t have a college diploma, it’s going to be even tougher. You will have to apply in your own country and will then have 30 days after entering Hungary to get the local paperwork sorted out.

Most people who want to stick around either get a work permit connected to a specific job and company, or a residence permit that’s not tied to one employer. “Americans can only get residency for two years,” says Gary, “then they have to renew.” He’s now looking into permanent residency though, which you can apply for after being in the country for three years. This costs money for a lawyer and requires a lot of additional paperwork. Most of the items need to be translated into Hungarian as well, plus you have to show proof of health insurance or buy into the Hungarian health care plan..

Do you have Hungarian blood? If so, you could be on the fast track to residency. If you have ancestral roots in the country, you can get real citizenship without giving up your original one, making you one of those enviable people with two passports. You have to speak Hungarian, but you can take intensive language courses while you’re living there and collecting paperwork. This is a back door into the EU, which would give you the ability to live elsewhere too.

Hungarian

I wouldn’t count on it…

Downsides

The political winds are blowing strongly to the right as I put this book together, with overt racism, anti-Semitism, and discrimination against minorities all rearing their ugly heads on a regular basis.

Hungarian is an especially tough language to crack, but you’ll often need at least some basics when you get outside the capital.

This is an excerpt from the upcoming book A Better Life for Half the Price, about cutting your expenses in half by moving abroad. Sign up here for updates on cheap living abroad.