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Living Buenos Aires

Many a traveler has landed in Buenos Aires and within less than 24 hours started to ponder the question, “Could I find a way to live here?” Some don’t just ponder it; they actually move to Argentina.

I spoke with Lisa Besserman, who lived in New York City most of her life and was facing the prospect of looking for a new apartment in Manhattan because her lease was up. “The rental prices were absolutely ridiculous, super-expensive,” she says. “My company was going through some changes and my job position didn’t feel stable. I didn’t want to be spending thousands of dollars on rent without being secure about my job. I was up for a promotion though and proposed a deal with my boss where I would work remotely for a few months instead, at the same pay rate, and I would go live somewhere cheaper. They said yes, so I looked at a map for places with a similar time zone and ended up in Buenos Aires.”

She did her three months of work for her old company, then decided not to come back. She left the job and now she runs her own company in Argentina: Startup Buenos Aires.

A large number of people who visit Argentina seem to dream of living there for a while at some point in their life. Buenos Aires is a major tourism magnet, but that’s just the beginning in a country that has more land than Mexico or Indonesia—but with a much lower population density.

The good news is, it’s relatively cheap here, especially if you’re earning dollars or euros somewhere else. “I didn’t want to have to work two jobs and have a crappy apartment back in the U.S.,” says writer and mother of three Cathy Brown. “I can freelance here and make it work, spending a lot of time with my family.” She lives in laid-back and beautiful El Bolson in Patagonia. About two hours south of Bariloche, it’s a land of gorgeous mountain scenery and some of South America’s best microbreweries.

Living El Bolson

El Bolson

There’s a lot of diversity in these landscapes. Up north you have a dramatic desert on one side and Iguazu Falls on the other. There are seasides, cities and farms in the middle, down to glaciers and freezing cold in the jumping off point to Antarctica.

Once you get settled in, prices can be very reasonable, especially if you have a way of bringing in lots of U.S. dollars or euros in cash. That’s because there are two exchange rates in Argentina’s fragile economy: the official rate and the “blue rate” you can get on the street from money changers. The latter is typically 20% to 30% better than the official one and both are printed in the local newspapers. Getting to your money electronically is almost like a hobby here though: many banks limit ATM withdrawals to around $150, so you end up hopping from one bank to another or using a service like Xoom to take out larger amounts of pesos. Hold onto your home country Paypal account because the banks here are too unstable to work with that service locally; the best bet is to get a debit card you can use to pull money from in Argentina using your original country account.

The Argentina Visa Situation

They’re not real big on rules in Argentina and that includes visa rules. It will probably cost you a lot to enter for the first time because this is one of those countries (like Brazil and Bolivia) that has a retaliatory visa fee policy. Whatever Argentines pay to enter the country on your passport, that’s what you’ll pay to enter theirs. It’s good for 10 years or the life of your passport, however, so after that you can come and go without paying again. Many renew their tourist visa indefinitely, leaving the country every three months for a short hop to Chile or Uruguay.

People who have come to work for an international company tend to get a work visa, but many others just leave four times a year. If something happens and they overstay their visa, it’s not the end of the world. “Argentina is one of the most lax countries for visas,” Cathy says. I don’t want to do anything wrong because I’ve got kids, but I’ve heard from a lot of people that if you overstay your visa, you just have to pay 300 pesos (less than $40 at the official rate)—whether you overstayed a day or five years. They sign off and you’re on your way.

If you’re only going to stay six months at a time, you may be able to renew your tourist visa locally without leaving the country. That’s generally only going to work once though, so it’s best for people not planning to spend the whole year here.

Getting a business visa requires a letter from an employer, a specified time period, and the employer’s acceptance of financial responsibility for the traveler. For obvious reasons, they have to really want you to make this happen. If you get one though, multiple-entry business visas are valid for four years.

Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires

Housing Costs

As in many countries, living in the biggest city is going to cost you more than living in the countryside. For Lisa though, coming from Manhattan made this country seem like a screaming bargain. “I pay $700 a month for my duplex apartment in Palermo Hollywood, a great neighborhood, and it’s a doorman building with a pool. If you transplanted this place into Soho in Manhattan, which is a pretty similar kind of feel, it would easily cost $10,000 to $15,000 per month.”

Naturally the prices drop when you settle in a smaller city or town. While $300 to $500 a month is a good deal in the capital for an apartment, that will get you something furnished and modern in Salta, Mendoza, Cordoba, or Rosario. Where Cathy lives in Patagonia, $350 gets her a four bedroom, two bath house on 15 acres, beside a river.

Lining something up ahead of time is quite difficult though; hardly any agencies list prices online. The best plan is to rent a short-term apartment or stay in an apart-hotel at first so you can take your time looking around. Get recommendations from others (both locals and expatriates) on which agencies are trustworthy and look at plenty of apartments to assess what’s a good value.

If you’re going to buy a house or condo here, figure on paying the whole amount in cash, in dollars. People literally bring bags of money to a closing. In theory you can get a mortgage, but with interest rates running at 18%, you probably don’t want to. You can’t find the bargains here you could 10 years ago since Argentines view real estate as one of their reliable investments and there have also been buyers from Brazil coming in too. If the financial system collapses again though like it did in the early 2000s, who knows?

living in Salta

Other Costs

Leigh Shulman and her family live in Salta, Argentina. They own their house outright and other costs average out to $1,500 a month. “One of the biggest expenses is medical insurance, which is about $300 a month for good care. If you pay $60 more a month that includes plastic surgery once a year!” Private school costs around $100 a month and “we pay our maid far more than the market rate,” still $12 or so a visit.”

Thanks to subsidized electricity, Argentina has some of the lowest monthly utility costs in Latin America. Lisa pays $5-$8 a month for her apartment of around 1,000 square feet. “I thought it would go up a lot when we were running the air conditioning in the summer, but it was only a couple dollars more,” she says.

Cathy Brown pays even less in her small town. “My last electric bill was around $4,” she says. “And that was for two months.”

Leah Shulman and her family live in a large house they own in Salta, but still only pay $10-15 per month in electricity and $8-$10 per month for gas and water combined.

Cable and internet together are $15-$18 per month depending on the package. “In New York City I paid $150 per month for about the same bundle,” says Lisa.

If you like a good steak dinner accompanied by a nice bottle of wine, you’ll be in heaven here. They take their grilled meats very seriously in this country and it’s considered a God-given right to sip wine with every meal. Prices are quite reasonable on both, to the point where a group of people can go out and eat to their heart’s content for $10 a person or less. The things Argentines do well they do very well: barbecued meat, wine, Italian food, coffee, ice cream, and pastries.

The recent financial problems have wreaked havoc with prices and supplies though. When the peso fell by 19% in January of 2013, many store shelves were bare and prices for what was available skyrocketed soon after in local currency terms. The country is a financial basket case and inflation is very high. Who knows what will happen in a few years or even a few months. This is probably not a country where you want to swoop in and buy a place without knowing what you’re getting into. But if you have the kind of job where you can earn hard currency elsewhere and spend it here, this is currently one of the world’s great arbitrage opportunities.

The bottom line? If you’re able to exchange dollars for pesos at anywhere close to the street rate, you can live pretty well in Argentina as a single person on $800 or quite comfortably for $1,000—even in Buenos Aires. If you’re sharing a place, it’s even easier. For a couple or family, $1,500 a month will put you at the upper range of middle class here.

travel booking companies

Why is it important to get travel advice (and prices) from different sources? Because almost every source is flawed in one way or another.

The “truth in travel” magazines that brag about not accepting freebies purposely sell special advertising sections meant to fool you into thinking ad copy is really editorial. You won’t read a bad hotel review or negative cruise story in them because they get millions a year in hotel and cruise advertising. They do fashion shoots disguised as travel pictorials because the jewelry and clothing companies pay them even more. They put Italy on the cover twice a year because newsstand sales are highest when they do.

Travel + Leisure and Departures magazines are owned by American Express. Think they want you to travel within your means on a budget? Or would they rather you aspire to be rich and pull out the plastic, cost be damned?

Travel bloggers who are writing about a new country every week or two are generally not paying for that themselves. They wouldn’t be moving around so quickly if they were. They’re on press trips hosted by tourism bureaus or private companies. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that (travel writers’ earnings are generally pitiful), but the reason it seems like “everybody’s going there” may not be because it’s the best place to go. Only that they’ve got a healthy media budget.

SmarterTravel, TravelPod, and VirtualTourist are all owned by TripAdvisor, which also owns SeatGuru, CruiseCritic, AirfareWatchdog, and others. So naturally, they recommend each other a lot as a source you should be checking out. They’ll send you to an associated site for a booking—they’d be crazy not to. But just understand that’s going on.

Expedia brands

That parent company used to be owned by Expedia, the largest online booking service by far. Expedia still owns Hotwire, Hotels.com, and Venere. Thus the “Also check rates on…” prompts that are really just sending you to the same company.

The hotels appearing at the top of city searches on these sites paid to be there. Understand that and search by price or neighborhood instead.

If someone is recommending a product or service, do they/did they use it themselves? Or are they just plugging an advertiser or putting up an affiliate link to make money?

Most of the stories on the front of Huffington Post, CNN.com, Yahoo, and the like are not the most important stories or the best-written articles. They’re the ones that are getting the most clicks. Dig deeper or subscribe to The Economist.

Not an Agenda, Just Suspect

People who write hotel reviews for no compensation are people who have a lot of time on their hands and need a hobby. They often haven’t traveled much either, so when they tell you a hotel is “the best in town,” how do they know? I’ve had hotel owners beg me to write a review on Tripadvisor. Others I know have been offered cocktails or meals if they’ll do so before they check out. And if you pay enough, you can get someone to write anything you want.

Ditto for your social media circles. It’s great to ask for recommendations, but consider the source. Do they travel like you do?

The best advice? Consult multiple sources, trust who has earned your trust. And verify.

 

Budapest train

What’s the biggest perception difference between an experienced budget traveler and one planning to take off around the world?

The first has learned what really breaks the budget over time. The latter generally has it all backwards.

Here are some paraphrased quotes from people who have sent me e-mails or asked questions on message boards I’ve been on.

- “Yes, I know we’re going to a lot of expensive places in Europe, but we’re going to sleep in hostels.” (Person who had Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, England, France, Spain, Italy, and the Greek Islands on their itinerary.)

- “We’re on a tight budget, but we really want to hit all every continent except Antarctica on our trip.” (A trip that was just 12 months long.)

- “I’m trying to find a cheap round-the-world flight that includes South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia but I’m not having much luck.”

These statements are inherently at odds with traveling on a budget. They’re hoping for a magic bullet answer that is the equivalent of defying the laws of physics. If you don’t tackle the big budget items, you had better have lots and lots of money saved.

You can ignore most of the “Top-10 Ways to Shave Your Travel Costs in Europe” articles that are meant to be click bait. Most of the time they’re just about messing with the margins, the small stuff. It’s like trying to fix the U.S. deficit problem by cutting funding for the arts. To really make a difference we would need to reform social security, truly fix the health care system, or cut defense spending. All three at once to achieve anything dramatic.

hostel prices

For the price of a hostel bed here, you get a really nice hotel room for 2 in a cheap destination.

Location

Budapest is a fantastic bargain. Nobody will ever call Oslo a bargain, or even London for that matter. You can buy a round of drinks for all your friends in Hungary for the price of one in Norway.  The price of a hostel bed in Copenhagen will get you a spacious hotel room for two almost anywhere in Eastern Europe. One nice restaurant meal in Switzerland will feed you for a week in Portugal.

Now take that further and go to Central America, Southeast Asia, or the Indian Subcontinent. Prices drop in half again, for almost everything you could possibly spend money on. So don’t think of how you can shave costs by self-catering and staying at hostels. If you cut the entire “basket of goods and services” cost by 2/3, messing with the margins isn’t necessary.

And as I’ve said often, getting out of the big capital cities will usually help no matter where you are.

long-term travel

Did you really leave home to do this every day or two?

Velocity

The more you’re moving around, the more money you’re going to spend every week, every month. It’s not far-fetched to say that someone visiting 24 countries in one year is going to spend twice as much as someone visiting 12. The one visiting 8 will spend even less.

If those 24 countries are on multiple continents that require long-haul flights, bump the budget up by thousand of dollars. Even in places where transportation is cheap, being on the move a lot requires constant spending on some kind of tickets. If you’re in one place for a month though, it’s just your feet and local buses or subways. Plus when you get to know an area, you don’t have to throw money at hurdles because you’re in a hurry. You can figure out cheaper/better options for everything from lodging to groceries to bus options for leaving town at the end.

Many people setting out on their first round-the-world trip act as if their life is going to end the moment they return home. They have to do it all, see it all, on this one grand adventure. Hey, you’re 28 years old; is this really the last time in your life you’re going to get on a plane and go somewhere? On my three round-the-world trips, I never even set foot in Latin America. Now I’ve been to a dozen countries in Latin America. They didn’t disappear from the map. I still haven’t been to New Zealand. But I think it’ll wait for me.

round the world flight

This route STARTS at $7,250.

Distance

I’ve written a few articles related to my book on traveling in the cheap clusters of the world. This one is getting a bit dated, but apart from Turkey getting more expensive it’s still pretty accurate.

The idea is, you take a long-haul flight to a cluster of cheap countries, then go overland from there. The most common one is to get a flight to Bangkok and then you can hit a half-dozen other countries without getting on another long-haul flight. You can get a cheapo flight from Singapore to Indonesia or a not-so-bad one from Bangkok to Nepal or India, which is the start of another cluster. The cheapest cluster option from the U.S. or Canada is to fly to Mexico or Guatemala and then make your way south by land and boat. For the Brits, a cheap flight to Budapest or Prague can then turn into lots of jaunts by train and bus to the least expensive parts of Europe.

The easiest way to ratchet up your long-term travel budget in a hurry is to try to check far-flung places off your list on one trip. Sure, you may have always dreamed of visiting Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Israel, and France, but if you’re trying to find a ticket hitting all those areas, it’s going to be the price of a used car, no way around it. Save some for later.

What lesson did you learn the hard way between planning and actually traveling?

carnitas-mexico

Want to get a tour of Guanajuato with me and chow down on some good Mexican Street Food? Follow that link and sign up if you’re heading my way.

The problem with having a job that you can do from anywhere is that you end up doing your same job everywhere. A big reason my family ended up in Guanajuato is that most of the tourists are Mexican tourists and we actually use our Spanish regularly. It’s also a beautiful place to walk around, with weather that encourages you to be outside almost every day of the year. When I’ve got my head down cranking out articles and blog posts, however, dealing with freelancers and advertisers, sometimes I look up and go, “It’s Friday already?”

sope GuanajuatoSo if you come to Guanajuato and want to get a tour that mixes some sightseeing, market tours, and lots of chowing down, come get me out of the house. We’ll get some buns from a bakery and see where they make them. We’ll tour a local market and then later a larger covered one. We’ll sample carnitas, gorditas, tamales, and more, washing it down with fresh-squeezed juices.

We’ll ride a funicular up to a lookout point and walk down the alleys where people have only one way to get to their home: on foot. Then we’ll have some street stand ice cream and go our separate ways for a siesta.

chorizo tacos

I’ve taken out three groups so far and I’ll post some testimonials on the site later with their impressions of my tour guide and food fact-quoting abilities. Hopefully by now I know a thing or two about the highlights of my adopted town and the best vendors to buy from. Check the rest of the site out here for details: Guanajuato Street Food Tours.

Hasta pronto!

international travel

Take the leap!

If you live in the UK, Holland, or Australia and you tell people you’re going to go backpacking around the world for a year, you’ll get a lot of nods and slaps on the back. If you say you’re moving abroad somewhere, they’ll probably ask when they can come crash at your place. You probably won’t be looked at as a loony.

In much of the USA or even Canada, however, it’s still a different story. It’s more accepted than it was when I first took off in the mid-90s for a year and then did it twice more, but it’s still an oddity. The first step in making plans to make the leap is to understand that a lot of people just aren’t going to get it. Here are a few reasons why. Maybe if you understand these you’ll be able to just say, “Excuse me, there’s someone over there I need to talk to” when someone starts criticizing your plans instead of getting red in the face and telling them off.

1) They haven’t traveled much.

Most people who don’t understand why you would take off around the world for a year or move to another country haven’t spent much time outside their own country. (In many cases, that’s a good thing for the rest of the world.) You’ve probably seen a map at some point of which states have the most passport holders and which don’t. Here’s one drawn from 2013 figures. If you’ve seen a red state/blue state map, a diversity map, or  college education percentage map, it’ll look pretty familiar with just a few exceptions. As Richard Florida said on CreativeClass.com, “There are stark cultural differences between places where international travel is common and those where it’s not, and we can see them playing out in the cultural and political strife that has been riving the country over the past decades.”

passport holders by state

I’ll go out on a limb and say if your favorite TV news network tells you every day that America is the greatest country in the world and every other place out there is screwed up and scary, you’re liable to look at foreign lands in a more negative light than others.

Here are the extremes, by passport holder percentage. The highest are California, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Delaware, and oddly enough, Alaska. The lowest are Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

If you live in San Francisco or Seattle, making this big announcement will be no big thing. If you live in Natchez, MS, different story.

When I left on my first trip around the world, I think some of my relatives sincerely thought I’d come back in a body bag. Now that I live in Mexico, they’re waiting for the news that I’ve been beheaded.

2) They don’t believe you can do it on the cheap

You could buy some people The World’s Cheapest Destinations, send them blog posts with prices, and pull up hotel sites to show them rates in other countries and they still won’t believe you can travel for cheap. As I said in this post, to many Americans, travel means a trip to Disney World, Cancun, or London—or a Caribbean Cruise. They simply can’t fathom that you could eat a nutritious meal for $2, get an hour-long massage for $5, or find a decent double room anywhere for $12. To them, traveling to a foreign country and spending less than you would at home on bills each month just does…not…compute.

Kathmandu hotels

3) They’re envious because their own boring life is all mapped out.

“Going on an adventure” is a depressingly rare event for nearly all the adult population of my home country. Vacations are strictly planned, time off is a too-rare commodity that can’t be spent spontaneously. The race for more stuff and more money to pay a bloated health care and university system saps the life out of most people who have managed to land a good job and keep it. Ask them how their life will be different in five or ten years and they may not be able to think of anything. Or they’ll just say something weak about a hoped-for promotion, retirement, or their kids going to college.

They’ll say, “I wish I could do what you’re doing” and will have plenty of the usual excuses as to why they can’t. It’s all mapped out, pre-ordained, set in stone.

For a majority, the closest they’ll get to an adventure is having an illicit affair with a co-worker or staying up all night “getting crazy” at the next convention in Vegas. They are slaves to routines, commutes, the kids’ activity schedules, and the big-screen TV. You represent a threat because you’re showing them it doesn’t have to be that way. And that’s as scary as the revelation in The Matrix.

international travelers

Hmmm, that does a little more interesting than Paducah…

4) If you’re leaving, that means this place is not perfect

If you’re in some kind of club and people start dropping out, that makes you wonder. If the star performers in your company start taking jobs elsewhere, you’re going to think that’s a bad sign. You feel like a sucker for still being there.

If someone tells you they’re moving away from where you live and that they think this whole lifestyle they’ve been living in your town is not the best they can do, how’s that going to make you feel? Some will just think you’re nuts (see #1). Some will feel envious and maybe a bit bitter (see #3). Others will start wondering if this club they thought was perfect may not be so great after all.

You don’t want to hear your mother say “You’re an idiot for doing this and you should feel guilty for leaving me.”

But then again, hearing “We’re so happy for you” while seeing a dark cloud pass over your friend’s face is not so great either.

Understand that your radical decision (in their eyes) can spur heavy emotions and soul-searching, no matter how much that person knows you’re going to have an amazing time.

But it’s your decision and it’s a good one, so lock the storage shed door and go!