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Tim Leffel podcast

Want to give your eyes a rest and hear some audio chats about traveling on a budget and international living?

I’m preparing my long annual post on the cheapest places to live in the world, so that’ll be next up. Meanwhile here are a couple recent podcast appearances.

Nathaniel Boyle is the host of The Daily Travel Podcast and he had me on the show recently to talk about traveling on a budget and making it permanent. We actually met in Athens while at the TBEX Europe convention and ended up in the same bar way too late in the evening after more Greek beers than I can remember. This time the conversation was more coherent. Get it on iTunes, Stitcher, or streaming on the website.

Leffel budget minded travelerJackie Laulainen, host of The Budget Minded Traveler podcast, was at that same event in Greece and it was obvious within two minutes of us meeting that we should be connected. We talk about my two books, working abroad, and visas in this episode. Stream it there or download it on iTunes.

So about those pics…

The one at the top is by my Guanajuato buddy Katie Clancy and was taken about two and a half years ago, before my daughter became a teenager. The one on the right is on the Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia.

In the Media

I’ve also been quoted in a few articles lately, including this one on what’s going to be more expensive in 2015. I’m bringing the bad news that airfares and biz hotels will cost more, but apparently the hipsters are to blame for a rise in bacon and bourbon prices. Bummers all around.

In Budget Travel, I’m talking strategies to get the best deals on Priceline.

FlipKey put me on their list of the top 25 Budget Travel Bloggers to follow.

I’m not really the best smartphone-addicted guy to be asking about the best travel apps, but maybe the other 41 experts in that article will help you go beyond the obvious ones I use regularly.

 

living in Bulgaria

I’ve talked before on this blog about how Bulgaria is one of the cheapest places in the world to travel. It’s also one of the cheapest places to live, a real bargain by European standards. It has a starring role in two of my books. But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s the scoop from Maria Stoynova, a blogger who actually hails from there. Take it away Maria!

Bulgaria is the small Eastern European country you’ve probably never heard of. This is a country with high mountains; great sea resorts, and cute, cozy little towns you will crave to visit once you see them in pictures. This little known Balkan gem has a lot to offer its visitors. There are two main reasons to re-shuffle your travel plans for 2015 and put Bulgaria on the list. #1. It’s unbelievably beautiful and charming and #2. It’s ridiculously affordable. The first one is obvious through the pictures you may have seen. It’s the second that I want to tell you more about.

Accommodation

The minimum wage in Bulgaria is around 170 Euros but the actual average wage is around 400 Euros a month. Bearing that in mind it is obvious that the accommodation costs should not exceed that amount. For a decent one-bedroom apartment in Sofia’s city center you can pay as much as 220 Euros a month. Outside of the center the rent decreases by around 50€ and if you venture further out the accommodation is even cheaper. The average monthly utilities would not exceed 50 Euros which includes electric, heating and water.

Tryavna Bulgaria

Transportation

TetevanIn the big cities there are plenty of transportation options to choose from. One-way tickets usually cost around 1 lev which is around 0.50€. In Sofia, the capital, you can find a metro system which has 2 lines and is again 1 lev. If you’re staying for a while a monthly pass costs around 25€ and you can use it on all means of the transportation system.

Taxis in Bulgaria are also fairly affordable, for a good 15-minute drive they will charge you no more than 5-7 Euros but usually it’s around 3-4 Euros.

If you’re staying a little longer in Bulgaria and plan on buying a vehicle you can find a decent used car for as little as 1500 Euros. The cost of running a car is also fairly cheap by European standards, with one liter of gasoline coming in at around 1,20€.

Eating Out

If you‘re coming to Bulgaria make sure you pack some bigger jeans because for really reasonable prices you’ll get a lot of food. Eating out is very affordable. Bulgarians love having “banichka” and “boza” for breakfast, which costs no more than 1 euro for both. Restaurants, taverns and pubs are not only a local’s favorite place for socializing but are also very easy on the pocket. A nice three course meal in an inexpensive restaurant will cost you around 10 euros and with a large beer in Bulgaria costing only 1-2€ you can be wined and dined for very little money.

shopska salad

And let’s not forget the famous “shopska” salad, which recently topped European Parliament’s campaign “A Taste of Europe” (getting around 20,000 Facebook likes). This will cost you around 2€.

Social Life

Bulgarians love to have long coffee breaks with friends that can sometimes last more than 2 hours. It’s great to catch up and take our time indulging in doing things like going to the cinema which only costs around 3 to 5 euros. If you’re feeling like doing something a little fancier a ticket to the theater can be found for 5 to 10 euros.

Sofia theater

There are a lot of night clubs in Bulgaria simply because Bulgarians know how to party. The clubs are full every night and on Fridays and Saturdays it’s almost impossible to find a seat. If you want to experience the Bulgarian nightlife you should budget around 10-20 euros.

This is a guest post by Maria, a travel blogger from Bulgaria, who also shot the photos. She blogs at Travelling Buzz where she shares her stories, tips and tricks on budget travels and destinations such as her home country Bulgaria. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Berestagi Sumatra travel

It’s time for the year-end issue of Perceptive Travel online magazine, home to great travel stories from book authors on the move. We’ve got some demon dancing, some extreeeeme adventures (say it like an ad announcer for full effect), and some village touring in the land of scowls. Plus some good and bad new travel books as well as some old and new world music.

Marco Ferrarese finds himself in the middle of a bizarre street festival while visiting the town of Berestagi in Sumatra, Indonesia. He’s warned not to look anyone in the eyes and is transfixed by demonic creatures putting people in a spell. See Street Walking Demons in Sumatra.

Huasteca adventure

I wrote before on this blog and posted some pics from a crazy adventure travel trip I went on during the summer in the seldom-visited state of San Luis Potosi, Mexico. That was a dashed-off blog post, but now you can read a more literate narrative with some different photos. Check out Taking Adventure to the Next Level in Hidden Huasteca, Mexico.

James Dorsey often writes on Perceptive Travel about interesting tribes and expressions of spirituality, but he finds little of either in modern-day Russia, where even a celebration day is dour and devoid of life. See A Grim Commemoration Day in Modern Russia.

Susan Griffith takes on the book reviews again this month, with one she wished she’d never read and one most parents of gap year kids should probably avoid. See the December travel book reviews.

Laurence Mitchell spins a batch of world music albums, from a dub Christmas to a classic Cuban collection to a mash-up of India and the Sahara. See the December world music reviews. Steripen Freedom purifier

As always, we’re giving away something cool to one of our regular readers and this month it’s something I’ve used and preached about a lot: the SteriPEN Freedom water purifier. I’ve kept hundreds of water bottles out of the ground and streams by using this in countries where you can’t drink the water and this one is both small and USB rechargeable. Sign up for the monthly newsletter to always be sure you get the announcement. Or act like your in Vegas and follow us on the Facebook ad generation platform. You may see our newsfeed one day after that if you get lucky and can enter.

Africa travel

There have been times in my travel life where I’ve practically had a location to myself.

Tens of thousands of tourists canceled trips to India when I was there the first time, in the mid-1990s, because a plague had broken out in one city of one state and it was on the cover of every news magazine. Hotels for foreigners were suddenly empty across the whole country, even though a total of 52 people died over two months (in India!) and it never spread beyond one region.

The normally popular area of Tana Toraja on the island of Sulawesi was empty in 1998 after riots hit Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta, more than 1,500 miles away. We found a terrific hotel for cheap and every tour of the sites was a private one.

My family had our pick of empty hotels in normally packed Playa del Carmen back in the summer of 2009. Drug cartel violence was making the news from incidents near the U.S. border, more than 2,000 miles away. There was a swine flu scare at the same time keeping people away, even though more cases had been reported in the United States than in Mexico by that point.

Remember when people canceled trips to Vancouver and Banff in 2003 because of SARS disease in Toronto, more than 2,200 miles away?

Ebola is to Tanzania as a Raven is to a Writing Desk

Now we have the Ebola scare, which has led to a massive drop-off in tourism to all of Africa, even though this is a giant continent and the virus is concentrated in one portion of West Africa. Africa travel map

As this Epidemic of Ignorance article points out, “Those stricken West African countries are closer to Madrid, Paris and London than they are to safari hot spots, such as Kenya, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Tanzania.” They’re blaming it all on the map-challenged Americans, which is fair criticism, but it can’t just be my countrymen if business is down 70% like some are saying. Surely people besides the Yanks travel to Africa to see wild animals.

But anyway, the panic is surely unjustified as even travel to the nation of South Africa has taken a dive. Even though “There are no Ebola cases reported in South Africa and the country is 3,300 miles from the nearest outbreak in West Africa.”

safari female lion

I find it kind of ironic though that CNN has an article out called Ebola Fears Crippling Africa’s Safari Industry. This is especially rich coming from CNN as lately people have nicknamed it “The Ebola News Network” for pounding the story into the ground day over a 24-hour period day after day. Gee, I wonder why people are scared? Maybe because your whole business is built around scaring people regularly?

Apparently wealthy people are smart enough not to watch cable news networks. “Rose Hipwood of the Luxury Safari Company says the top end of Africa’s safari market hasn’t been hit as hard by Ebola fears ‘since many of those clients are international travelers and can look at the situation sensibly.'”

Be a Contrarian Traveler

If you’re well-traveled and can read a map, you can make out like a bandit in these situations. If you see that the panicked masses are heading one direction, you can scoop up some amazing bargains in the places they have deserted. And those who run businesses there will do their best to make sure you’re happy.

Zihuatanejo beach

Scary Zihuatanejo

This is a great time to get a deep discount on a safari trip or a flight to Africa. Ixtapa and Zihuatenejo beach resorts in Mexico are probably going to be cheap this winter. They’ve got the bad luck of being located in the state of Guerrero, where 43 protesting students disappeared from a town in the interior and are probably dead. Roatan in Honduras is probably the cheapest place in the world for a dive vacation now since one of its two largest cities (114 miles away by plane) has been declared as having the highest homicide rate in the world outside of war zones.

Hey, I’m not saying to book a trip to Syria or Afghanistan. But if the troubles you’re hearing about are nowhere near where you’re really planning to go, filter out the noise and benefit from the fact that most people won’t bother.

 

Panama blue oceanIf you ask people what they think of Panama, the ones who have never been will generally stumble, shrug, or bring up some negative like the rude taxi drivers in the capital or (generally) boring food. It’s not a country the uninitiated generally have on the bucket list unless they’re the type that geeks out about The Panama Canal or they’re lured by the retirement benefits.

I’ve written about Panama before though since I’ve been there three times, including on the advantages and costs of living there. There are many aspects to this varied country. In the capital the main tourist impressions are glitzy high-rises, hip boutique hotels, and luxury digs. I’ve written about exploring by small ship, doing coffee tours, and checking out the adventure travel options.

This is a bigger country than most people expect. It’s not all that wide, especially where the canal cuts through, but if you wanted to drive from one end to the other on the Pan-American Highway it would take you a few days even if you drove all day and didn’t stop. You probably wouldn’t want to do that though. There are, after all, 477 miles of Caribbean coastline and 767 miles of Pacific coastline to explore. That means lots of hidden beaches like thisPanama hidden beach

And this:

Panama Pacific

The big tourism draw here though is the wildlife. This is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world and one look at a map of the Americas will show you why. This little strip of land is the only connection between two continents, so a good number of the 900-some species of birds in Panama are migrating one way or the other and stopping here to rest a while. birdwatching Panama

Of course there are a lot of tropical birds that don’t go anywhere, whether it’s the Resplendent Quetzals I spotted on Mount Baru or the sea birds I always saw in abundance anywhere near the coasts, like this one just strolling along on Coiba Island.

The diversity extends to the plant life as well. Visit a market and you can see the wide bounty of food that can be grown here—from berries to coffee to pineapples to nuts.

cashew nut on fruitThis photo is a cashew on a tree: you can eat the fruit part, but that one cashew nut that clings to the bottom needs to be individually processed to remove the poisonous skin on the outside. (It can burn your fingers.)

They also grow sugar cane, which means there’s local rum. Ron Abuelo has been around since the 1930s and like most anything you eat and drink that’s domestic, it’s a bargain. (See this earlier post on boozing it up for cheap in Panama.)

If you go hiking in the highlands of the Chiriqui region, you can spot all kinds of wildlife and get a crash course in botany. Lots of orchid varieties you’ve probably never seen grow here, like this:

Central America orchid

And this:

Panama orchid

If you’re near the Pearl Islands or Coiba Islands, you can see hammerhead sharks under the water while scuba diving or go fishing for marlin and sailfish. Near the shore you will certainly see swarms of hermit crabs stripping coconuts clean and maybe a lizard like this cruising by your boat:

wildlife

The souvenir shopping here is much better than in neighboring Costa Rica, where there’s not much handicraft history to speak of. Here you’ve got more indigenous people creating interesting basket and the famous molas like you see here:

molas

The Panama Hats are actually not from Panama. They were just used here by canal workers and the name stuck. They’re really made in Ecuador. The woven hat that’s really from Panama looks like the array in this guy’s shop. He and his family make all of them that they sell.

real Panama hat

Some other countries in Central America get more adventure travel press, but there’s enough to do in Panama to occupy you for weeks. Even if you don’t surf. Around 25% of the land in this country is protected or is a national park, so there’s no shortage of opportunities for hiking. Pick from lowland jungle areas filled with howler monkeys or volcanoes like Baru where you can spot rare birds, butterflies, and maybe a jaguar. (We saw fresh tracks anyway on my hike.) You can also climb that mountain for the sunrise and see both oceans.

hiking Baru

One perception many people have is that the Panama Canal is just a man-made narrow ribbon going across the land. In reality, ships cross Lake Gatun in the middle, in an area that was flooded to make it deeper. There’s actually an incredible amount of wildlife around that lake and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center is on one of its banks. If you book the right tour, you can go kayaking in this area and spot 50 different birds without trying.

kayaking Lake Gatun

There are many tribal people who have mostly shunned the modern urban world. The Kuna people live on the San Blas islands and are known for their colorful embroidery work. The Embera Cocoe groups near the Darien Gap have traditionally tended to not wear much clothing at all. They’d rather cover their body with tats, like these musicians.

musicians

So…if you’re planning an overland trip down through the Americas or a spin through Central America, you might want to kick back for a while in Panama. It’s not the cheapest and it’s not the easiest, but you haven’t already seen 5,000 pictures of it already and it will probably surprise you on a regular basis.

Also, Copa Air has their hub in the capital city and they’re part of the Star Alliance for cashing in points. For guidebooks, my favorites are the Footprint Panama Handbook by Richard Arghiris and the Moon Handbook by William Friar.