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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.

 

There’s a lot of chatter in the publishing industry right now about how independent, self-published authors are totally kicking butt and realizing that they can do a lot better on their own than they ever could have done with a traditional publisher. Part of this is because they don’t put all their efforts into a first-week launch and then move on to the next thing. Most of their sales come well after that because they’re still visible and as many have said, “A book is always new if you’ve never read it.”

So in that spirit, many of these books are not brand new and are not stacked by the dozens at the front of Barnes & Noble, but they’re as great as when they first came out. The last one two are new though, if you want to get something hot off the press.

Last Days of the Incas

Inca empire PeruI put off reading this 2007 release for a long time because it’s a really thick, heavy book and I thought it would be a tough slog. I was oh so wrong about that. Last Days of the Incas has all the pacing and character development of an epic novel. It just happens to all be true. Meticulously researched but written by someone who is great at telling a story, this is one of those tales that would seem completely unbelievable if someone made it up.

It’s the story of how a motley band of 168 greedy, low-class Spaniards managed to rout an entire Inca empire that stretched 2,500 miles from northern Ecuador down to the bottom of Peru. Solely because they had horses and steel weapons, they were able to hold off an army of more than 10,000 rebels that tried to take back Cusco. Full of strategic blunders, fateful egos, and double-crossing, it’s the greatest movie you’ve never seen. Here’s an interview with author Kim MacQuarrie if you want to learn more.

Going Clear

While at a resort in Zihuatanejo, I found this on a book exchange shelf and figured I’d educate myself about the wacky cult based in my sometime home of Tampa Bay. Going Clear was even wackier than I expected. It starts with L. Ron Hubbard’s self-embellished, odd life history, then the growth of his “religion,” to the secretive, exploitative compounds and control mechanisms the organization now uses to keep everyone locked in and financially feeding the beast. There have been a few brave books like this by authors who soon get harassed and sued over and over again afterwards, but this one benefits from interviews and stories from very high-ranking officers who left the organization, despite the great personal risk and isolation that entails. This book is fascinating in the same way as a Stephen King book—a terrible horror story you’re glad you can view from a safe distance.

Getting Out & The Expat Guidebook

Moving abroad bookI’ve finishing up my latest book, A Better Life for Half the Price, about cutting your expenses in half by moving to a cheaper place to live. (Get on the notification list here.) To make sure I haven’t missed anything fundamental, I’ve been getting a gut check by reading two in-depth guides to moving abroad. Getting Out makes the case for moving away just to, well, get out. So it’s not focused on costs so much as a better quality of life. And better health care–which you get almost anywhere else you would move to from the USA.

The Expat Guidebook starts out as a diatribe, then offers a solution, then gives you all the answers to the nitty-gritty questions you’ll pose to make a transformation happen. The overall premise is that you can live much better abroad by escaping the consumer-driven rat race. By following author T.W. Anderson’s 568 pages of tips gleaned from living in two countries, you’ll be prepared for whatever the world throws at you.

Travels with Baby

I reviewed the first edition of Shelly Rivoli’s excellent book on traveling with babies, toddlers, and pre-schoolers when it came out. My daughter, who once fit that profile, is now 13, so I’ve just been skimming through this to see how the new one looks. Susan Griffith has a detailed review of it in this month’s issue of Perceptive Travel though, so you can see more there. From what I have seen though, Travels with Baby is the most thorough, comprehensive book out there on the subject and it goes well beyond the little Ziploc bag tricks and Disney ticket advice things you see in most mommy blogger titles. Shelly’s a real travel writer who is out and about with her family more than most and she strikes a good balance between urging you to explore and staying safe and healthy along the way. Good solid advice if you’re a parent wanting to travel with little ones.

The Rules of Travel

Hobotraveler rules of travelI put this little pocket book last because I could be accused of being a little biased: I wrote the forward to it. The Rules of Travel is from my long-time buddy Andy Graham, the Hobo Traveler. If you’ve read the budget travel in Africa guest post he did for me earlier, you know he’s an opinionated guy who doesn’t believe in acting politically correct to keep from pissing people off. Whether you agree with every one of his rules or not, you’re sure to spend a lot less and be a lot safer when you travel if you follow even half of them. I don’t know anyone who has been on the road for a longer continuous period than Andy. Sure, that makes you a bit cynical after a while, but it also makes you wise.

This is not a book you’re going to curl up with in the hammock to keep you entertained for hours. It’s something to pick up, digest a chapter of, and then come back to later. When you’re finished, you’ll be more savvy than 95% of your follow backpackers out there circling the globe.

Ecuador prices

As I write this I’m in Quito for the fourth time. Every time I’m amazed by how cheap some things are, partly because the prices have barely budged since I first started taking notes in 2009.

dollar bag of applesThey use the U.S. dollar here, so there are no mental calculations to do and no currency fluctuations. When the government made that rash decision at the beginning of the 00s, it was done to tame inflation. Mission accomplished on that front.

Sure, some things go up. As I’ve mentioned before, alcohol. But that’s from massive taxes, not inflation. Fuel will go up eventually when subsidies get rolled back, starting in 2016. Meanwhile, you can get a taxi ride for $2-$6.

I’m posting same random photos I took this week while walking around the historic center of Quito. I arrived around lunchtime and was starving, so I popped into the first meal of the day place I came across. I got a bowl of soup with rice, veggies, and beef. Next was a big plate with chicken, rice, potatoes, and a salad. A glass of juice and a banana came with it. The bill was $2.35.

Later I stopped in a place that had a microbrew on draft—a real novelty in most of Latin America still—and met a couple from Florida who owned an apartment nearby. They don’t live here all year, but they come down regularly. “We bought it on a lark really. It was around $30,000, so we figured there wasn’t much downside to that deal. We put about $20K into it over four years getting it ready. Now it’s quite nice.” They’re walking distance to where I was, which was about two blocks from the Plaza Grande.

Ecuador prices

Quito is a city where you still see apartments (or even whole houses) for sale for less than $50K and decent places to rent for less than $300. Oddly enough, Cuenca costs more than the capital these days for the non-exclusive places because the average income is higher—not just because of the 5,000 or so gringos, but because a lot of wealthy Ecuadorans have moved back from abroad and settled there for a more mellow life.

Get beyond these two cities and (not so desirable) Guayaquil, however, and living expenses are almost sure to be even less. Riobamba, Vilcabamba, Cotacachi, or some chilled-out town in the Andes you find and decide to unpack for a while. There will be a lot more details in my book, A Better Life for Half the Price. Those who sign up for a more comprehensive, ongoing course structure will be hearing a lot about Ecuador. Get on the list for updates here.

round-the-world travel

Around 21 years ago, I got on a flight that would change my life. I was on a plane to Japan and would then proceed through Southeast Asia, Nepal, India, Greece, Turkey, and a bit of Europe.My then-girlfriend was with me and since we hadn’t killed each other after a year of being together 24/7, eventually it seemed like a good idea to get married. We did it two more times after that.

Last week I got an e-mail from someone asking for long-term travel advice and she said, “It seems so difficult and scary to just pick up and travel around for a year, much less three times. How did you manage it?”

That’s a funny question because to me it seems like traveling is incredibly easy now compared to what it was like when I first started. Instead of having to search hard for advice, you find a deluge of it. Things that used to be frustratingly difficult and took days are now done with a few clicks.

So that you about-to-depart travelers get a sense of perspective on how lucky you are these days, here are 21 things travelers couldn’t do 21 years ago, when I went on my first year-long backpacking trip in 1993.

1) Send an e-mail.

OK, if you were a real techie you could find a way to send an e-mail back in 1993, but unless your friends were computer programmers, they probably didn’t have an address. Hotmail, AOL, and Yahoo Mail didn’t exist.

2) Find info about a hotel/restaurant/destination/travel site on the web

There was no web, no browser, nothing to look up even if you could. The Netscape browser launched to limited use at the end of 1994, but nobody could really “surf the web” until the following year. And only by dial-up through the phone line.

3) Google something

Nope, no browser, no World Wide Web, not even a rudimentary search engine. Yahoo was incorporated in 1995 and Google didn’t exist until 1998. A world without Google? It wasn’t so long ago.

camel safari

No website, no reviews.

4) Book a hotel/hostel/apartment online

To find a place to stay, you showed up and looked around. If you were really intrepid you could call ahead or have a travel agent do it, but you were flying blind with no photos or descriptions besides what was in your guidebook or that article you ripped out of a magazine. (Incidentally, the backpackers who still do it this way tend to pay significantly less over time than those who book everything in advance. Easier isn’t always better in terms of your budget.)

5) Compare flight prices and book a trip yourself

On our first round-the-world trip, we bought a RTW ticket from an agency specializing in that sort of thing and then carried the physical tickets around with us for a year. When we had to make a change at one point because of canceled flights in India, we had to phone the office in San Francisco from a telephone kiosk in Delhi and they had to get an Indian travel agent to issue us new tickets for us to pick up. The only way to get prices or book a ticket was to call the airline direct or deal with a travel agent.

6) Check in with a confirmation code or e-ticket

On all three of our round-the-world trips, we had to keep bringing a physical ticket to the airport to check in and get a boarding pass. It wasn’t until everyone and their brother had an e-mail address that airlines finally started accepting printed pieces of paper with a confirmation code. And forget about online check-in or boarding passes on your smart phone.

7) Check the status of your flight in real time

It was a big deal when airlines started texting passengers on their flip phones to tell them a flight was canceled or delayed. Before that, you had to proactively call and confirm and if things changed last minute, too bad!

Nobody could tweet this...

Nobody could tweet this…

8) Shop online for travel gear and luggage

We bought everything we needed for our first round-the-world trip at our local Campmor store in New Jersey. Had we been in some small town, however, we would have been SOL. You couldn’t just pull up a Backcountry, REI, Sierra Trading Post, or Zappos site to order the travel gear you needed. Your only choice would have been Wal-mart, Sears, or a mail order catalog. And you didn’t know what was good until you used it.

9) Easily keep in touch with friends and family

My mother would collect our mail and send it to an American Express office along the way according to our itinerary. We’d go to the office and get the bundle when we arrived. Often this meant getting letters about surprise bills or late charges months after the unforeseen infraction happened. If we wanted to communicate with our friends and relatives, we had to pay for an expensive phone call, send a letter/postcard, or send a fax. No Facebook, no Twitter, not even Friendster or MySpace.

10) Bank online

When you went traveling back in the early 1990s, you put all the money you had into your bank account and either wiped out all your debts or had Mom/Dad/Sis/Aunt Sally take care of writing checks for your outstanding bills. You took an ATM card and prayed you’d find a machine somewhere that would accept it. There were entire countries where there were no ATMS though and you had to go into a bank branch to do a withdrawal. This would often require waiting, paperwork, a bank manager calling someone for the current exchange rate, more waiting, and then a stack of big bills you needed to make last until you had the energy to do all that again. So you also carried these things called traveler’s checks that you paid for in advance. No online bill paying, no inter-bank transfers, no Paypal.

11) Post things on a blog

After the birth of the browser, the internet came to the common man. Blogging didn’t really get going until the beginning of the 21st century though and WordPress didn’t launch until 2003.

12) Ask questions on message boards

As with e-mail, there were a few geeks who were logging in and sharing information on online message boards through their dial-up connection, but this wasn’t a widespread practice. There was no Lonely Planet Thorn Tree, BootsnAll, Fodor’s board, or FlyerTalk. The message boards were often real boards instead: big cork things with messages pinned to them in Bangkok or Kathmandu guesthouses.

12) Read reviews on Tripadvisor

Before online reviews came along, crappy hotels could stay crappy and almost never suffer real consequences. Sure, they would get bad word of mouth and people would leave nasty “avoid this place” notes on those physical message boards. People might even write to Lonely Planet or Rough Guides and tell them what a bedbug-infested rathole that place was. But there was no central place to find out what other travelers had to say. Now every hotel needs to be on its toes and even hostels get rated on sites where you book hostels. Apartments get rated where you rent apartments. If a place is terrible, you’ll know it.

travel in 1990s

Never posted on Instagram

13) Pull up a map

If you wanted a map of where you were going 20 years ago, you visited a store that sold maps. If they didn’t have it, then you hoped you could find one where you were going. If you wanted to access one from your (15-pound) laptop, you needed this thing called a CD-ROM. And that didn’t come cheap.

14) Use GPS

Back in 1993, about the only people walking or driving around with a GPS device were Special Ops soldiers and jungle expedition guides. If you were lost, you unfolded a big map or asked for directions.

15) Store your photos digitally

Nobody had a digital camera then. Photos were stored on this stuff called film and you printed them out at a photo shop. We mailed ours home but kept the negatives in case they didn’t make it. When we got word they arrived at one of our parents’ houses, we sent the negatives in the next batch. Sometimes these photos faded, or got mildewed, or stuck together, or got lost. If I want to share them now, I need to dig them out and scan them. We didn’t know if we got a good shot until the developing was done. So two months later, we got this:

Indonesia travel

Landed in town Monday, decided on batik class on Tuesday

16) Share your photos

Unless someone was sitting next to you looking at printed photos (or the old slide projector), they didn’t see what you saw. The only place you could “post” them was on a cork bulletin board somewhere or in a frame on the wall.

17) Carry 40 books in your daypack

Trying to find good books to read on a regular basis was a constant struggle when we traveled. We read a lot of so-so books because they were all we could find. The main sources were used book shops (great in Bangkok, not so great in rural Indonesia), guesthouse book exchanges, and trading with other travelers. Carrying more than two or three at a time meant a lot of bulk and weight. There was no Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iPad, Nexus, or phone screen.

18) Carry 1,000 songs in your pocket

This was the pitch of the first iPod, which launched in 2001: “1,000 songs in your pocket.” Now you can carry 10,000+ if you want, or have an unlimited supply via Spotify. In the early 90s we traveled with this thing called a Walkman and it played cassettes. As you can imagine, there are only so many cassettes you can carry in a backpack. It got a little better when the price of portable CD players came down, but they and the player still took up a good bit of room. And you got sick of your collection fast.

Steripen review

19) Pack a UV wand water sterilizer

Our water sterilizers in 1993 were a little charcoal filter cup we used mostly for brushing our teeth and iodine tablets. Mostly we had to buy bottled water and contribute hundreds of throwaway plastic bottles to the environment. Now you can travel the world with a SteriPen that recharges by USB and have safe water to drink anywhere on Earth. Or this cool Camelbak bottle with a built-in sterilizer.

20) Find a place to crash online

We did a few homestays on our first trip around the world. It was through an organization called Servas. Here’s how cumbersome it was: you paid a fee to join, got interviewed to get approved, purchased lists for the country where you were going, wrote letters to potential hosts, waited for a reply by mail, then followed up by payphone once you arrived in the country. Compare that to the ease of Couchsurfing.

21) Get answers to trivia by IMDB, Shazam, or Google

Travelers used to argue for hours or agonize for hours about who that actor was in x movie or who sang that certain song that was playing on the cafe stereo. Now you just wake up your phone or open the tablet.

All you geezers out there that have been traveling for 20+ years, it’s your turn now. What else can you easily do now that you couldn’t do then?

writer

I’ve got my head down trying to finish up a book called A Better Life for Half the Price, about drastically cutting your expenses about moving abroad. The problem with running your own show though, being an entrepreneur, is that you don’t just clock out at 5:30 and say goodbye to The Man. I am The Man. And I’m a really demanding boss.

So to take a break from coming up with all new material this week, here’s some stuff I’ve published lately and some interviews.

Here’s an interview of me that ran on the blog The Gift of Travel, talking about round-the-world travel, budget travel, and living abroad with a family.

Another in The Franklin Prosperity Report is about getting the most for your travel budget every time.

Here’s one in SmartyCents on how to travel on a budget as a family.

Nora Dunn gave a shout-out to my Travel Writing 2.0 book in this great article about how to earn a living while living abroad.

Machu Picchu

At Global Traveler Magazine, in April I had a feature story about Machu Picchu and in May one about what to do if you have a week in Nicaragua. The latter is still on newsstands, but click the link for the online version.

On Practical Travel Gear, I’ve been writing about travel tripods, carry-on insect repellents, and two under-$100 daypacks from Kelty.

While I go to work, two quick plugs: if you want to travel around the world, you ought to have a copy of The World’s Cheapest Destinations book. If you want to go all in and move abroad, sign up for the Cheap Living Abroad newsletter and I’ll help you make it happen.