Puebla at night

Puebla is Mexico’s 4th-largest city, but it only gets a trickle of even the non-beach tourists visiting Mexico.

Mole Poblano in PueblaThose that do pass through are usually on some kind of culinary tour. This is, after all, the land of mole poblano—that luscious and rich chocolate-tinged sauce that goes great over chicken or enchiladas.

I’m doing one of those ephemeral, photo-heavy posts on this city because it’s a real visual treat and I’m still traveling in the state of Puebla right now. One of the most interesting aspects of this city though is the architecture, with impressive, grand colonial structures from several centuries stretching out a couple dozen blocks in multiple directions. This is not some tiny little colonial center. I wore myself out walking around just part of it one day and needed a nap. Thankfully I was here for a few days to really scope it out.

talavera Puebla potteryIt’s especially interesting to check out all the talavera tiles adorning the buildings. That’s the city’s other claim to fame and one with more permanence: this is the land of top Mexican pottery. Tiles and sinks, plates and cups, whole dish sets if you want. There are cheaper, factory-made versions of this stuff, but if you want the real deal to treasure for a lifetime, you get it here.

You can go for schlock or quality in one area, with the main artisan market having 40 or 50 stalls and then the streets surrounding it having shops where you can buy one-off quality items or a whole dining room serving set for 12. (The latter will cost you $800 to $1,200 depending on design. They take credit cards…)

I was here with my wife and daughter, so we spent a lot of time eating. You can get a good sit-down restaurant meal for $10 or less all over the city, including drinks, and we sampled a variety of different moles, including a green one made with pumpkin seeds and a pinkish one made with sesame seeds.

If you’re on a budget, go for a cemita, which is basically a torta sandwich stuffed with lots of ingredients, including avocado, in a circular hanburger-type bun. It’ $3 or less. The other option is chalupas, which are basically soft tostadas: lightly fried small tortillas with red or green salsa, shredded beef, and cheese. They’re less than $1 each and are available at street stands all over the city.

Puebla buildings

We visited a bunch of museums in Puebla and the highest admission charge was 35 pesos—less than $3. Sightseeing won’t set you back much here. The Amparo Museum is one of the most eclectic I’ve ever been in anywhere: modern art in a room next to religious art, which leads to one with pre-Colombian artifacts, then a temporary exhibition area which in our case was a local photo journalist who was famous in the 1930s and 40s. Terrific views from the cafe on the top floor. All of the churches are free to enter, including the stunning main cathedral flanking the central plaza. This view below is a different one though: from our hotel.

Puebla city view

“Enough with the buildings, food, and museums, what can I do at night?” you may be thinking. Well, this is a big city with universities, so there’s plenty of culture and a good range of bars. This is kind of an odd city though in the sense that the historic center is almost all commercial. Hardly anyone seems to actually live there, so the streets can get surprisingly quiet at night.

Poblano street

If you’re here on a Monday though, fork over 70-150 pesos and get your tickets to…lucha libre! Mexican wrestling matches are just as fake as the WWE ones, but with better costumes. And lots of vendors passing through so you never have to leave your seat to get a beer or buy some food. We have lots of photos from this wild night, but most of them share one characteristic with the one below: there’s a net in the way. Only with the most expensive ringside seats ($12) do you can an unobstructed view. That’s because these matches can get heated and things can go flying all over the place. The audience has plenty of projectiles at their disposal from all those vendor items and the wrestlers are baiting them on. The performers are also launching themselves out of the ring on a regular basis. It’s all silly, but good fun.

Lucha Libre Puebla

I won’t pretend to be any kind of expert on Puebla as I was only there for a few days. This All About Puebla blog is a better bet for that. Lots of terrific advice on there. But I liked it a lot and would definitely go back. It’s at 7,000 feet, so it only gets hot for a few hours in the afternoon. It’s easy to get to from Mexico Cit or Oaxaca by bus. It took us seven hours from Guanajuato, at about $54 each one-way on a first class bus for the adult fares.

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.

 

best travel gear  rugged travel gear

Wouldn’t it be nice if you bought something for your travels and no matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t wear it out?

I’ve reviewed hundreds of items over at Practical Travel Gear, last decade on a Blogger site I was doing by myself, then from 2009 on with a team of men and women putting things through their paces. We have been able to screen out most of the duds, but still have run into a few now and then.

Overall though, like the evolution of automobiles, there aren’t a lot of clunkers around anymore. Competition is too stiff. So if you buy a name brand backpack, suitcase, jacket, or pair of hiking shoes, what you spent your hard-earned money on is probably going to last at least a few seasons.

Some items go way beyond that though, living on like The Terminator, unable to be killed. Here are some travel gear items I’ve used so much they should have fallen apart years ago. They’re still around though, still coming with me on a plane. Pay attention to the brands more than the specific items. For the ones I’ve recommended, I haven’t just used one or two things that have held up well. Usually it’s in the double digits.

Eagle Creek Suitcases/Osprey Backpacks

If you’re going to buy a wheelie backpack (not my recommendation, but if you must…) or a suitcase for vacation/biz travel, skip the bargain aisle at Costco or Burlington Coat Factory and buy something good from Eagle Creek. Yes, it’s going to cost you a bit, but you’ll still be using it a decade from now and if by chance something goes wrong because of a defect or maybe even a nasty baggage handler, they’ll replace it for you.

Ditto for Osprey, which also has a terrific guarantee on their suitcases and backpacks. Eagle Creeks seems to have backed off their backpack business to focus on luggage and packing cubes, but Osprey is still going strong and you’ll see plenty of their packs as you make your way around the world. I have never had to take advantage of the warranty for either of these companies. I keep abusing their luggage and packs, they keep on taking it.

ExOfficio Shirts and Pants

I’ve had many a traveler tell me it’s not worth it to buy travel clothing because you can just replace things as you go along. So okay, if a disposable wardrobe is how you like to roll, never mind the quality. If you would like to return from a round-the-world trip thought with pants and shirts you can still pack for the next trip, then head to ExOfficio.com. I have shirts of theirs I have tried my best to wear out but they still look pretty much like they did when I took them out of the package. I’ve got pants of theirs I’ve packed for at least 20 countries and they’re still in peak condition. It’s uncanny. Oh, and they dry in a flash when you sink wash them, which any light packer knows is the key to carrying less.

Craghoppers Shirts and Pants

Take everything I said above and substitute Craghoppers for ExOfficio. These guys even use thin strips of fabric to hold buttons to the clothing instead of thread, so you’re never going to have to replace a button. Fantastic clothing and easier to find on the European side of the Atlantic.

Kelty Backpacks

Kelty backpackIf you’re on a budget and the prices for Eagle Creek and Osprey are scaring you off, go for a Kelty pack and you’ll probably be just fine. Ounce for ounce and feature for feature, these are the best values in the store. I’m still using this one I rode across Missouri with years ago and my family has several daypacks from them we use regularly for travel and also mundane things like going to the market for fresh produce.

Pacsafe Daypacks

How worried are you about security? If that’s high on your list when you’re traveling, you only need to know two brand names: Clothing Arts (makers of Pickpocket Proof Pants) and Pacsafe. These guys are incredibly dedicated to keeping your valuables safe and each year they’re innovating to find better ways to do so. The big change recently is zippers that you can’t jam open with a knife or pen like most of them out there. Their products have an exo-skeleton built in to be slash-proof and lots of cool features that make it next to impossible to get inside your bag.

Ecco, Keen, Wolverine, and GoLite shoes

I think at this point I’ve tried out at least 50 pairs of travel shoes because for whatever reason, footwear companies are very aggressive about getting the word out on their new styles. Either they’re more savvy about online media or they just enjoy some really fat profit margins. Maybe both.

Wolverine hiking shoes

This brand list is not definitive because I really like Cushe, Sanuk, New Balance, and Oboz. And I think Hi-Tec ones are a good value if your budget is tight. But the four brands in the subhead there have proved to me time and time again that they’re built to last. I’ve got some Ecco Biom Grip shoes that I said were pricey when I reviewed them, but a year and a half and 16 trips with lots of walking later, I still pack them a lot. I have a really hard time getting rid of any of the Keens I’ve gotten because they still feel good after lots of wear. My Wolverine hiking shoes were the first ones that didn’t have one single thing I could complain about. And GoLite Footwear makes some really interesting, long-lasting shoes that don’t look like everyone else’s.

Tilley mash-up hat

Tilley Hats

I’ve been challenged in the hair department for a long time and a travel hat is essential when I’m outside in the sun. I’ve been through a lot of hats over the years, but 90% of the time I’m wearing one from Tilley. Again, they’re pricey, but they come with a lifetime guarantee. If you manage to wear it out, they’ll replace it. They’ll probably ask for your story to go along with it. Just be advised that people will automatically think you’re a Canuck when you have one on. In addition to a maple leaf backpack patch and a Roots clothing item, this is one of the essential items a Canadian must pack before going abroad.

Eagle Creek Travel Wallets

This is a small thing, but if you don’t want to be I could be wrong because I have a few of these, but I’m pretty sure one of the Eagle Creek Travel Pouch wallets I loop around my belt is the same one that I was using on my third round-the-world trip in the late 1990s. You only have to cough up $13.50 to keep your valuables safe. No mugger is going to tell you to take off your pants…

SteriPen

I’ve used three different versions of a SteriPen and have never worn one out. I’ve also never gotten sick from the water—anywhere. Neither has my daughter or my wife. And we’ve kept hundreds of plastic bottles out of streams and oceans. You don’t travel with one of these because…?

Any gear you’ve been using for a decade or more and haven’t managed to kill?

 

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?