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Huaxteca.com

In two days I rafted through a canyon, jumped off six waterfalls, rappelled down a cliff, and intentionally swam right up to a place where several tons of water a second was cascading down. I did all this in a place you’ve probably never heard of, San Luis Potosi.

If you’ve spent any time on Buzzfeed or Upworthy, you will recognize the style of the headline above. It’s called “clickbait” by those of us who publish content and actually care about whether we have a real audience or just eyeballs. But I put that up because I wanted to talk about travel, sharing, adventure, and FOMO. (For those of you, like me, raised before there was texting, that’s “fear of missing out.”)

I run a whole plethora of travel websites and go to a lot of industry conferences to do business and report on travel trends. There’s been a major shift since the advent of the smartphone and wireless data uploading where people are constantly sharing—okay broadcasting—their adventures. There are a lot of unsavory aspects to that, like one-upsmanship, narcicissm, and “I’m here, you’re not” posts just meant to inspire envy. In the luxury world, this sharing has become another on the list of bragging rights. It’s not just enough to stay in the best suite in the fanciest hotel. You also have to show you’re having some special experience nobody else is having.

Rafting Mexico

I’m looking at the silver lining of that though and thinking this can only be a good thing for undiscovered gems like the Huasteca region of San Luis Potosi in Mexico. This inland state that’s one up from where I live in Guanajuato recently hosted a pre-trip for some attendees of the Adventure Travel Mexico conference. I’ve had my eye on this area for ages, thinking it would be a blast, but I was incredibly impressed by how much fun it was it and how authentic it felt in this spot where very few foreigners arrive. And it wasn’t just me. There were a few adventure travel agents on the trip and other writer friends potentially as jaded as me, like Juno Kim, Karen Loftus, and Cathy Brown. “Wow, this totally exceeded my expectations” was the common summary.

The whitewater rafting trip that kicked off Day 1 was one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever been on, and at this point I’ve been rafting at least 20 times. It wasn’t as bone-pounding and death-defying as the one I went on in Nepal one time that was like a two-day roller coaster ride. It was just fun, exciting, and enhanced by gorgeous scenery. The equipment and guides from Huaxteca.com Adventures were both top-notch.

The next day we went waterfall jumping. That’s a real thing. Waterfall jumping.

Huaxteca waterfall

It sounds crazier than it really is. Sure, you put on a helmet and a life jacket and you need to wear water shoes or at least some old sneakers with some tread. That’s because you have to walk over rocks that can be a little slippery before you make the great leap into the air. The landing part is mellower than you would expect though: the water is churning below so it’s a pretty soft landing. Still, you have to hold hands sometimes to walk in a line to get to the edge and that first jump takes a bit of courage…

waterfall jumping San Luis Potosi

Later we got some lessons in how to rappel down a cliff and…we just did it. I can’t say I’m in any hurry to do it again, but I made it. Again, the Huaxteca guides were really professional and patient.

Then we visited a hotel next to this waterfall below. We had a nice meal and hung out a bit, but just looking at it roaring nearby was not enough. If you’re at this Huasteca Secreta Hotel, you are next to a giant eddy between two waterfalls. So you can jump in the water with a life jacket and you drift toward the waterfall. Just before you get to the point where it would pummel you, there are some places to climb out of the water onto a ledge. After catching your breath and trying not to freak out, you swim across the current quickly and then drift down away from the waterfall back to where you started. Crazy sh*t but loads of fun.

Huasteca Secreta adventure

Did I mention that we went scuba diving in a clear lake the next day? Or that I have zero experience in how to scuba dive?

This is just one adventure area of Mexico nobody you know has heard of. If you get away from the coast there are dozens of others in multiple states. If you’re looking for bragging rights and photos that nobody else you know has posted, you don’t have to go very far. Head south and find some real adventure.

cheap hotel

This $10 Mexican hotel is NOT on Expedia!

I get asked a lot about how to save money on travel and while I can guide people to one of my books or this cheap travel blog, I don’t really have one easy-to-skim post on it though. So here are a few websites, apps, and methods I tend to go back to time and again. Some of these are affiliate links where you’ll buy me a pack of gum or a beer if you buy through them, but the cost is the same to you whether it’s one of those or a straight-up link.

Airfare Deals

Getting a good price on a flight and figuring out the total cost is still far more difficult than it should be, mostly because the airlines like it that way. Especially the crappy U.S. legacy carriers (and even worse Spirit Air), who seem to thrive on being hated. Packing light helps, as does avoiding peak periods. So does being flexible.

On that note, I really like Google Flights as a place to start. They took the old ITA Software program and added one key function: the ability to search fares from any airport, to anywhere, for any dates. It’s all right there on an interactive map. So if you live in Orlando, you can also check what it costs to go anywhere from Miami or Tampa. You can see if it would make sense to fly to an alternate airport where you’re going or to leave two days earlier. You can then click through from there or book elsewhere.

Flight searches

From MEX, Montreal is cheaper than Dallas, but Chicago is $292 round trip!

For international fares, I use Vayama a lot as they seem to figure out multi-airline combinations better than the others. Always shop around! There’s no one website (including the airfare’s own) that always gives you the best deal. On the go, it’s useful to have Skyscanner and Kayak on your phone. But remember that many budget airlines don’t feed into those booking systems. You need to go direct for those.

This assumes you have to actually pay for your flight. If you can build up miles and use those, even better. If you’ve got the time to peruse the blogs over at the Boarding Area or by using other ones you’ve read before, you’ll get plenty of free advice. FlyerTalk is great too if you can decode the frequent flyer geek speak. Otherwise, it can be useful to sign up for the Travel Hacking Cartel and get it all spoon-fed to you in a pretty package.

Hotel Deals

This is easier than flights because you don’t have to go many places to shop around. If you’re wanting to book a specific hotel, go to Trivago and see a whole bunch of prices from different booking sites in one place. Where that’s usually not enough is parts of Asia (use Agoda to drill down to more options), in much of Africa, and in Latin America south of Mexico, where you have to really do some digging around sometimes.

The oldies but goodies Hotwire and Priceline bidding still work well in allowing you to save a bundle on unused inventory. Search for a message board like this one to get the inside scoop on what others have paid where you’re going. If it’s last-minute, you might get a good deal the same day from the HotelTonight app. Or go old school and just start wheeling and dealing—in person or on the phone. Nobody likes to let a room sit empty if there’s a way they can rent it to you. But you have to get to someone who has the power to make a decision, which is usually the front desk manager or owner.

Hotel Tonight App room

A $68 place from HotelTonight

Remember one key thing, especially for international trips: a LOT of hotels and inns are not listed on the big booking sites. That costs them money they don’t have, so you have to find them through internet searches, guidebooks, message boards, and TripAdvisor. Or look at HostelBookers, which has more than hostels if you go to the “private room” option.

Of course maybe you don’t need a hotel at all. Between vacation rentals, couchsurfing, house-sitting, and home exchange, there are lots of other ways to get a place to crash. Often they’ll have more space too.

Rental Cars

Enterprise is one of my advertisers at Perceptive Travel, so lately I’m using them (and their National and Alamo brands) a lot. But unless you have some kind of loyalty consideration or status, again Hotwire is your best friend. I’ve routinely gotten cars for half price through them and did it matter any on the booking or pickup? Not that I can remember. Otherwise shop around, check your favorite airline site for mileage bonus earning opportunities, and book the smallest car you can tolerate: half the time you’ll get upgraded to something bigger. Also make sure you have a credit card with rental car insurance perks, Then you can safely ignore all the sales pitches for domestic rentals. Internationally, you’ll probably want to cough up some money for insurance to be safe.

Lisbon tram

Local Transportation

In some countries, taxi fares can kill you in a hurry. In places like India, central Mexico, Nicaragua, or Ecuador, it’s a few dollars to go anywhere in town. The ride from the airport is usually the big expense though, so if you can find a way around that, go for it

Local transportation passes can save you some money, especially if you’re in a city with a good subway/tram/bus system that will get you everywhere you need to go. Some of those tourist cards have a transportation pass included too, but use a calculator to figure out if they’ll really save you anything. Sometimes you’d have to be on a whirlwind museum tour just to break even.

If you have a student ID of some kind, whip it out every time you buy any official transportation. You can often get a discount. This is true for seniors and teachers as well.

Your Turn

What app, website, or hack have you found that has saved you big bucks on multiple occasions?

vacation rental

Sure beats a cheap motel

The first time I went to Salt Lake City for the Outdoor Retailer market convention, I was in a crappy Econolodge motel with stained carpets, intermittent Wi-Fi, barely working heat, lukewarm hot water, and a lumpy bed.

This time I stayed in a pristine room with a heavenly mattress, in a craftsman bungalow house in a quiet location. The Wi-Fi and hot water worked flawlessly and I had a table I could work at.

The interesting thing is, the latter was cheaper.

There are plenty of times a hotel is the best bet for where you’re going and the good ones can be excellent spots to roll into to get some work done or be right in the center of the action. If rates are at their peak though and there are not many empty rooms, you can really pay a premium. That’s how I ended up in someone’s spare bedroom in Salt Lake City two weeks ago: when a big convention comes to that city like the one I was attending, even the crappiest places like Motel 6 and Super 8 will raise their rates to $150, $200 or more per night.

I used AirBnB for that crash pad (with some lovely hosts) and got a beach rental place through them the month before in Puerto Escondido. We paid less than we would have for a very basic hotel, but had two bedrooms and a pool to ourselves.

They’re not the only game around though and when you’re looking outside of the United States, there’s often another dominant player or two you should pull up as well. In some Mexican towns, for instance, you’ll find more listings on the traditional sites like VacationRentals.com. When we still owned our beach house in the Yucatan state, you could rent it for $250 per week through there.

If you’re headed to Europe, HouseTrip has more than 300,000 places to choose from and is active almost anywhere you would want to go. They can save you some big bucks when you’re in an expensive European capital, or just give you some more space and a kitchen if you want to keep your expenses low and have more room to spread out. Unlike some of those rotten chain hotels, the owners aren’t going to charge you to use the internet signal.

Athens rental

Kitchen of a 47 euros per night European apartment for 4

I pulled up their Athens listings because the Travel Bloggers Exchange Europe–where I’m going to be a speaker—is happening there in October. I checked out what’s available for four people and there are some terrific values. Plenty of apartments are under 100 euros a night and there are quite a few that are half that. If you get a larger place for more people the cost per person would be getting a real apartment for less than a hostel dorm bed.

I like hotels a lot and my job has me reviewing a lot of them. When I’m with my family though, it gets old when all of us are sleeping in the same room, sharing the same bathroom. Renting two connected rooms can be inexpensive in some countries, but often not. When we went from a cramped Bangkok hotel room to an apartment we rented on one trip, the price was about the same but we had three times as much space.

How about you? Where have you found terrific vacation rental deals?

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.

 

budget Galapagos tough

A bit over a year ago I wrote this post on building splurge money into your shoestring travel budget. Sometimes you have to throw that $40 a day budget out the window. While I’m a big advocate for going to cheap destinations where you can get a lot more for your money, even in those places you have to drop some serious dough sometimes if you want to get the full experience.

I got an e-mail last week from someone who was flabbergasted at how expensive lodging was in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. But he was going in July, the peak of the peak season, and going to the most popular spots in Peru. I gave him some advice on shaving costs here and there by staying in some towns that wouldn’t be so mobbed, but there’s only so much you can do. It’s the same story in Ko Pha Ngan, Agra, Bali, or Pokhara if you come at the very peak. That may be a good time to be there weather-wise or event-wise, but understand that the laws of economics still apply.

There are other cases though where you are paying a lot because the place or experience just plain costs a lot. Because of a writing assignment, I just took my second trip to the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. If you search around on the web, you can find articles on how to “do the Galapagos on the cheap,” but really it’s all relative. You have to spend a few hundred dollars to fly out there in the first place, you’ll pay $110 in fees after arrival into a conservation fund, and then virtually everything on Santa Cruz Island is going to be twice the price as the mainland while you’re lining up a tour.

marine iguana

Once you do get some kind of bargained-down tour, it’s still going to cost you north of $150 a day per person most likely to just take short jaunts to see the nearby islands. That’s cheaper than going with a well-known tour company where people are happy to pay $500 to $800 per night, but it’s not exactly shoestring travel territory. That’s because of a lot of good regulations that are in place to keep the environment from getting degraded. Guides must be trained and licensed, plus only around 100 ships are authorized to ply these waters with passengers.

Captains also have to be licensed and must undergo training on, among other things, how and where they can dock and send passengers to shore. They don’t really have a say in their itinerary. For good reasons, you can’t just hire a fishing boat captain in the harbor and say, “Show me some boobies!”

Galapagos OwlThat guide you’ll get at the low end will be the kind of guy who can’t get hired by any of the real tour operators paying a good salary to real naturalists. After he struck out with all of them or got fired because of a string of guest complaints, he has ended up with you. It’s a pretty safe bet he won’t be able to lead you to the hard-to-spot creatures like this owl who hunts in the daytime. He probably won’t be able to explain why this bird is so strange and how it got that way.

I’m using this fragile Galapagos ecosystem as an example, but all around the world there are spots like this where governments have in purposely put hurdles in your way for a good cause. If you want to go to Bhutan, be prepared to pay $300+ per day. There’s no budget tour to Antarctica. Visiting Petra is really going to cost you, so suck it up and overpay. If you want to go deep into the jungle almost anywhere, be it the Amazon, Borneo, or Sumatra, you’re probably going to have to pony up some cash to do it right.

If nothing else, this is all a good reminder than you don’t have to cram everything in on your first trip around the world. You can do that river cruise down the Danube or the Amazon later when grandma is paying for it. You can do that tour up the coast of Brazil when you’ve got a good job later and are making the big bucks. You can go scuba diving on the barrier reef of Australia when you go there as a vacationer rather than a backpacker.

Traveling on a budget means understanding that you can’t do it all, whenever you want, wherever you want. You’ve still got a thousand things to pick from. Save the most expensive ones for later instead of trying to do them half-assed on a limited budget. Even with climate change and economic growth going full-tilt, those experiences should still be waiting for you…



cheap living abroad