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Bulgaria travel

I’ve had two conversations in two weeks about how great Bulgaria is, with other people who have visited. One was a fellow travel writer who has had serious trouble getting editors to take a story about the place. It’s not trendy, not a hotspot, not a place where luxury hotel chains are scampering to open new properties. But that makes it a great place for budget travelers who appreciate a great value.

I wrote some blogs posts and this article on Bulgaria that won me a few awards after I was there a few years ago. The country is in my World’s Cheapest Destinations book and it’s also featured in the new one, A Better Life for Half the Price. I’m obviously a fan and it’s a place I definitely want to get back to for a longer period. It’s not the bleak, ex-communist wasteland people probably expect to see, if they expect anything at all.

traveling Bulgaria

Last time I was traveling as a guest of Odysseia-in adventure tour company and I would use them again on my own dime when I go back with the wife or whole family. They have great connections and knowledge for the full country and can enable you to get around that whole language barrier thing, which can be serious in the countryside.

Plovdiv street

Because you really do need to get into the countryside to see what makes Bulgaria so great. Sure, Sofia is pleasant enough, but most backpackers go there by default, even though it’s not that great of a city. You’re better off spending the city time in Plovdiv (pictured above) or the great Veliko Tarnovo (pictured below). The latter is one of those places that should be mobbed with tourists, but thankfully isn’t. It’s right on the main train line between Istanbul and Bucharest, so it’s a great place to start or end.

Veliko Tarnovo

You can do hut to hut hikes here like you would in Switzerland, but for 1/5 the cost. The green mountains are surprisingly well preserved and you get stunning scenery along the way. Round a bend and you may end up an a monastery a few hundred years old, then a small village where you’re sure to get a great meal.

hiking bulgaria

That Perceptive Travel story I linked to earlier was as much about the food as it was about the countryside because one of the greatest draws here is what you sit down and eat each meal. The meals are often organic, slow food, made from scratch. That’s not because they’re being trendy though. It’s just the way they cook. If something is in season, it will be on your plate. If you’re there in winter, you’ll be getting stews, pickled vegetables, and aged cheese. And always great bread, great beer, and great wine. I’m salivating just thinking about it.

If you go an love it so much you’re thinking of putting down some roots, it’s not going to cost you much. Check out these home auction prices.

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.