Let’s do the numbers: how cheap is Mexico anyway?

Not as cheap as you might think, but not bad. To track exactly how much I was spending, I kept a simple ledger of my expenses broken down by category. I’ve included it below for the detail-inclined, especially when it comes to finances (cough cough, Mom! :-)).

First, a quick note on money in general. ATMs and money changers were ubiquitous. When I was there, I saw exchange rates vary from $12.5-11.2 pesos to $1 USD. At touristy places in Playa, and occasionally Tulum, prices were doubly quoted in pesos and USD. Credit cards were seldom accepted at the places I frequented, but I was able to purchase ADO bus tickets, >$50 USD purchases at shops with higher-end clientele, and once a hostel bill on credit.

One thing I was surprised with was the obsession with exact change. Everyone always wanted exact change down to the peso; I can understand this for small items on the street but this was the case in more formal shops and restaurants across the board. It was the rare place that would change a $500 peso note (what most ATMs dispense) at all, let alone without a dirty look!

Over 22 days in Mexico, I spent a total of $1,053 USD for an average of $47.85 USD per day. This is right under what I budgeted; I expected I could make it in Mexico on about $50/day. I heard the minimum for Mexico was $25-30 for a painfully cheap lifestyle and Lonely Planet said budget travelers should plan on $40USD/day for basics and $60-80 for more attractions and incidentals.

My most expensive day: $121 on the last day in Tulum where I bought two expensive things–a pricey first class overnight bus ticket to Palenque and a beautiful mermaid shadowbox. My cheapest days were those without travel and minimal ticketed activities: $19.50 soaking up San Cristobal and $20.50 beach day in Tulum. Notably, my cheaper days were often my favorites.

I was conscious of my money but didn’t scrimp painfully. I slept in dorms, usually ate cheaply/moderately or ate set menus at nicer restaurants but did have one fancy dinner out, went to attractions but did not get private tours, mostly took first class buses and public colectivos instead of taxis, didn’t buy many souvenirs but did make a few “major” purchases (my shadowbox and a dress that will look kickass in the fall with a pair of boots) when I found something I really liked.

Without further ado, here’s the nitty gritty:

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Traveler’s honor code, or lack thereof

There really should be a traveler’s honor code. Print it on the back of everyone’s plane ticket: don’t be a jerk. I hate that people need to be reminded of this. I know we’re all living a transient communal lifestyle, so it is easy to minorly screw each other over without repercussions. Yes, you probably can steal my food and get away with it. But come on. Be better than that.

There has been petty theft everywhere I have stayed. Communal fridges are the worst. In Merida, my cookies and beautiful leftover pollo pibil were both taken. In Villadolid, tortillas, cheese, and vegetables went missing. In Tulum, beer disappeared from the fridge on a regular basis despite the bar twenty feet away. I have yet to store food and not have some of it stolen, usually in a matter of hours. Seriously people. I know you’re not starving or actually that desperate. You seem able enough to buy cigarettes, unless those are stolen too. Grow up and buy your own damn food!

Beyond this, I wish more respect was shown in general. Be considerate and kind. Take care of your things; don’t leave them strewn all over a room you share with other people. If you have a ridiculously loud and frequent nighttime cough, maybe take some medicine or stop chain smoking for a day. (Not just for my sake, but for your own!) Do your dishes. Put away your garbage. These are simple things, and the majority of people do them. But there are also enough who don’t to make it a problem with the hostel culture.

Making the cut

All my worldly possessions for the next three months, grouped by theme.

I’m no Simran, but I do love me a good packing list. I’ve been hunting down items and checking them off a spreadsheet for two weeks now. It’s fun like a puzzle scavenger hunt. Or, more literally, a knapsack problem.

It’s all about multipurpose, light, and edit edit edit. No need to carry batteries (or backup of virtually any normal thing) “just in case”. Money is for just in case. All you really need to travel is your passport and a credit card, everything else is nice-to-have.

I consider myself a pretty light traveler; I’m not the kind of girl who needs a hair dryer in the morning. But I still found this a challenge. It took a couple of rounds of editing, per my own advice, before I got down to the version pictured here. Just a few last minute items and I’m ready! All told, my pack is about 80% full, a little heavier than I would like, but quite acceptable.

Some key/tricky/special items in my pack are:

  • all-purpose soap/shampoo
  • books with high goodness&length:weight ratio
  • mini computer
  • layerable and versatile clothing
  • compressible coat [North Face Blaze Micro Hooded]. Super excited about this, my only major purchase for this trip. It packs into its pocket, is perfect for the temperature range, and weighs 10oz!
  • convertible pants [Marmot Lobos]. Light weight, super stretchy, and actually fit for a girl; I know I’m going to live in these babies. Not the zip off kind, they instead roll up into capris.
  • lightweight shoes
  • sacks for compressing and grouping, making it easier to find items
  • my comfort extras: compressible pillow, sleep mask, ear plugs, gummi bears, favorite pens
Everything compressed down.
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Packed up and ready to go!

Open invitation

I love hearing from people who are reading. Comments are of course very welcome and you can also email me privately at ladyasatramp [at] gmail [dot] com.

Or even better–and I am serious about this–if you are intrigued and want to come join me, I will be traveling until the end of May and am very open to adding on travel partners during the trip. So get in touch with me. 🙂

Itinerary "details"

This trip going to be as flexible, seat-of-your-pants as I can make it. I do have a round trip plane ticket, a rough itinerary for the first six weeks, and two hostel reservations (Merida and Antigua). Don’t know what about this plan will stick; surely it will change on a whim and depend on who I’m traveling with. But it’s a place to start.

On February 22, I fly into Merida, Mexico to get acclimated, chill, and explore Uxmal. From Merida I will move east to visit the Mayan ruins across the Yucatan, hit the Caribbean coast then snorkel my way south down Belize’s barrier reef, do some eco-tourism in the jungle, cross the border west to Tikal, spelunk in central Guatemala, spend Holy Week in Antigua with maybe a spanish class, and hike some volcanos. From there I will meander south (route TBD) until I reach Panama City and fly out on May 30.

Just in there first six weeks there’s a lot to explore (All pics from Google Images):

Chichen Itza
Panuchos in Merida
Great Barrier Reef, Belize
Lunch in Belize
Zip-lining in the jungle
Lake Atitl
Semana Santa in Antigua
Street food: dobladas de papa
Roasting a marshmallow over lava

A sobering topic: safety concerns

This is an issue I am getting about asked often by my friends and family. Yes, I am of course wary about safety while traveling in Central America, particularly as a solo woman. However, I am also conscientious, take warnings seriously, and will be proactive about being safe. I’ve spoken with women who have recently traveled alone in Central America and also read travel blogs, online forums, government travel warnings, and media assessments to get as much insight and advice on the subject as I can. The consensus seems to be that yes there are things to be concerned about, but in most areas common sense practices go a long way towards reducing risk.

Some actions I’m taking include:

  • Connecting with other travelers as either short term or, if I’m lucky, longer term travel partners, and traveling in groups as much as possible. I’m purposefully selecting hostels that look like good place to meet such people. I have confidence in my ability to make friends on the road and think I have a lot to offer as a travel companion; I am hopeful I will find people to link up with.
  • Starting the trip in safer areas; the Yucatan and Belize have no serious safety warnings beyond basic issues a tourist could encounter anywhere. So I will gain my travel legs in the most secure areas in the region and be acclimated by the time I move to sketchier places.
  • Flexing my itinerary to stay out of particularly dangerous areas, in a micro and macro sense. I am keeping up on current situations and will be talking with other travelers and locals on the ground about specific safety warnings. When I arrive in a new city, I’ll ask my hostel staff to circle on a map places I shouldn’t go. I have heard strong enough warnings to keep me out of a few areas altogether–for instance, the northwestern Guatemala/Mexican border, certain capital cities, or throughout Honduras–and will be cautious about choosing where to go or where to skip.
  • Heeding warnings about how and when to travel. Depending on the place, choosing my method of transport based on safety (this varies greatly by region and is something I will have to stay on top of, aka sometimes busses are ok, sometimes not; the most legit type of taxi seems to differ from place to place). I plan to only travel long-haul early in the day so as to not arrive anywhere at night. Night travel is something I will try to minimize in general, and am picking hostels with self-contained bars, hangout areas, and kitchens on site so that it will be possible to have a social night life close to home.
  • Adjusting my appearance to look like a less appealing target. I plan to dress modestly, not display overt signs of wealth (jewelry/electronics/flashy clothing), and not carry valuables. Will likely acquire some clothing there to better blend in. Yes I know, I’m tall and super white, but every little bit helps, right?
  • Registering my trip and estimated itinerary with the State Department. I’ve enrolled in STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Plan) and am receiving current travel/security updates.
  • Being medically prepared too: I’ve got all my vaccinations, malaria pills, insurance, and emergency medication.
  • Maintaining common sense practices about awareness, staying out of dangerous situations, etc, just as I would at home.
  • Continuing to listen, watch, feel, and adapt.

I know safety is serious, and really don’t want anything bad to happen to me. I am taking precautions but I also don’t want fear to dominate my experience. I mean, in San Francisco there are areas I don’t go to at night or alone, but I still live here and enjoy it. I’m not naive, but am optimistic that I can balance this all in a responsible way and still have fun.