Has life sped up? The days, weeks, and months whip past faster than I can count. I landed in Oaxaca, Mexico in January. Two months later, I’m settled but restless. Does that even make sense? Traveling is a hard habit to break. I bought a coffee cup when I arrived. It was a small concession to settling in one spot for six months. Yet, my mind hums with frenetic energy when I ponder the places I still want to experience. And then I look around and remind myself I’m here. I’m in Oaxaca because I need slow, not frenetic.
Oaxaca’s an easy city. Street food is plentiful. The vegetables are gorgeous. It’s a small enough city that life is accessible. Plus, the old colonial center is all cobbled streets and colorful buildings — you know I’m a sucker for cobblestone! I’ve traveled through swathes of Mexico, and Oaxaca State has a culture all its own. I dig it. This region has the highest concentration of indigenous groups in all Mexico. There are 16 dominant groups, each with unique languages and cultures. Then there’s a whole other subsection of dialects too. It’s this mix of cultures that I find fascinating in a new place. I have fangirled all over Guatemala for years now — another country with an intriguing interplay between the indigenous and hispanic majority. Until now, I hadn’t traveled in Southern Mexico, where a similar dynamic exists.
All this to say, it was a pleasant surprise to find more to learn about Mexico. Before we dive in, many of you have emailed asking for updates and posts via video. I’ve long promised to do more of this, so either read on for the writing, or take a peek at this video. Or both.
On Local Grassroots Tourism
Thanks you to the ALA and Grassroots Volunteering communities for the outpouring of support. I found a wonderful organization here in Oaxaca City. Fundación En Via is a microlending organization working in the Oaxaca Valley. They use tourism to offer interest-free loans to women business-owners. Friends first emailed me about En Via many months ago, when I first floated the idea of basing from Oaxaca. Soon, readers reached out to share their positive experiences with En Via. I had to find out for myself. Now, the more I learn about their work, the more I want to support it.
I wrote a profile of En Via for the WTTC, it shares a bit more about their tourism model and mission. Twice a week, I bus into the indigenous communities in the Valley to photograph the women in the program. I also help in their English language program when they need it. Their network of volunteers help run many aspects of the organization’s many programs and support services. If you’re visiting, or thinking of staying for a bit, I totes recommend their tours and their volunteering opportunities.
Other organizations in town also have some neat projects. In my remaining months, I’ll continue exploring the social enterprises scene. Anyone have any that they’ve visited and loved?
On Work & A Little Adrift
For the first time in many years (a decade?), I have taken a break. I am on a hiatus from the online marketing and SEO work that paid my bills these last years on the road. While some people save up for years to travel, I landed an online job straight out of college. I’ve done that type of work every day since. I took a couple short breaks, once for a Vipassana course, and another to travel through Myanmar. But this is the first time I’m actually taking a sabbatical. Or, a semi-sabbatical. I don’t actually know how to stop working. I told myself I would take a break — I have a small savings that gives me leeway — but I still have one client. And I am still writing a few travel pieces for other outlets.
There are all these articles online about our cult of working; I feel behind when I try to stop. But also, I like my travel work. I like writing.; it’s less like work. My hope though, is to funnel my extra time into career and life projects. With my RSI injury in 2013, I’m careful with my online time. I’m also careful with how I work — this new resource page shares the ergonomic travel system I am using to prevent further injury.
Other things. I took on the task of reading 52 Books in 2016. This page follows that journey with my favorite thoughts and quotes from each book. I’m also committed to spending the spring volunteering as a photographer for En Via. And the final project I hope to accomplish here in Mexico is to expand the site’s helpful resources.
To that end, I’ve launched the first of several ALA-style country guides. These pages will cover places I’ve traveled. They collect all the knowledge and resources you should know before you go. The first handful are up. If you’re planning a trip to Guatemala, Georgia, Thailand, Mexico’s Yucatán, or Cuba, I’d be chuffed if you used them! In addition to basic travel facts, each guide to includes responsible travel ideas and social enterprises to support in that part of the world.
On Current Travels
Balance. This is a struggle and something I’ve written about in the past. One ALA reader gave me an interesting perspective shift when I last wrote about my struggle. I wanted to create a life that includes travel, but also a balance of work, volunteering, and friends. My musings then noted that I was searching for that balance, and for a place where it existed. He reframed it as something I have to create. So I’m trying. It was a good reframe on the situation. Part of my reasons for living in Oaxaca this spring has been to better balance my life. Besides work and volunteering, I’ve loved using Oaxaca as a base to explore more of the area.
My work with En Via takes me out into the villages, but it’s the day trips with friends that are one of the highlights. My friend Jodi is here too. When her mum came to visit, we all hightailed it out to the beautiful Hierve el Agua rock formation. This is day-trippable from Oaxaca and is one of the prettiest spots in Mexico. The calcium carbonate in the rock creates variegated pools of turquoise water. This post from Jodi shares a bit more about the formation of this spot and travel details.
Then there’s the long history of the region, with the beautiful ruins of Monte Alban. These are not Mayan ruins, like those found in so much of southern and eastern Mexico. It was intriguing to compare this site to those I’ve visited in the Yucatán.
On What’s Next
I’m here until summer and I am blocking out next steps. I don’t have a plane ticket yet, just a stamp in my passport with a firm date of exit. Whenever I think of what I’ll do after Mexico, that’s when the frenetic energy creeps into me. I’ve floated the idea of walking the Camino de Santiago in the fall. Should I? Thoughts and advice welcome if you’ve done it. And I’d also love to return to Asia sometime soon. And then there’s this whole issue of creating the balance that I want. As I’ve said before, I recognize immense privilege in the ability to craft my life. I’m grateful for these opportunities. I’m also in a transition out of the style of long-term travel I’ve always done. I don’t know what life looks like when I slow down.
It was the accessibility of both fun and culture that convinced me Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula was an ideal place to road trip with my two nephews. A road trip with kids requires a place with a lot of family-friendly things to do, and it had to be close since I wasn’t keen on a 14-hour flight to Asia for a trip that of less than a month.
Long-time readers will remember the epic homeschooling adventure I undertook with my niece Ana. Hard to believe that we left four years ago. Ana had just turned 11-years-old and instead of entering the 6th grade, she and I spent nearly seven months traveling Southeast Asia. As my two nephews neared that same age, it was time take them on adventures too. In fact, the day my nephew Eric turned 11 years-old, he informed me that it was “his turn” and so what did I have planned? He put me on the spot.
Why Road Trip the Yucatan Peninsula With Kids?
My two nephews, Vic and Eric, are 10- and 11-years-old. What would be a good trip for the three of us? I’m not brave enough to travel with both kids for seven months. But I wanted a place that would—like Asia did for Ana—inspire them to dream of other places and find interests outside of their tiny lives in Florida. Mexico has long been one of my favorite places. The Yucatán Peninsula in particular has a unique mix of Maya culture and ancient ruins. And the region’s miles of sandy beaches are also perfect for two active (and naughty) little boys. I won’t lie, having a lot of kid-friendly activities for them was a big consideration. I was a tad terrified to travel with both kids solo. The plan took shape earlier this year; I passport-ed them both and secured their travel documents before I left for Japan in the spring.
In the weeks leading up to our road trip, I used Google image searches to show them the possible adventures. Both kids exclaimed over the Maya temples, begged to zip-line high over the Mexican jungle, loved the idea of seeing wild animals, and dreamed of swimming in the icy blue waters of the sunken cenotes.
With three weeks and a rental car, my nephews and I spent the bulk of July driving a winding route around the Yucatán Peninsula. We backtracked at points to visit family. We drove two extra hours to return for a beloved pair of forgotten swimming trunks. There were hairy moments when I knew I was crazy to road trip alone with the two kids. But we also had adventures—man, did we have some adventures. A few months out from the trip and I still can’t imagine a better place to have road-tripped with my nephews. Readers often email me asking how I chose when and where to visit—they want to know the reasoning that goes into picking each new place. That question likely goes doubly so when traveling with kids, so here goes. Four main things factored into why I picked the Yucatán for traveling with the two boys:
Everything is condensed and close. Driving days are never longer than three to four hours, and even that long is rare. (Unless you backtrack for beloved swimming trunks… … … :::facepalm::: )
Spanish culture and language are accessible. They both loved practicing the new words and Eric is taking Spanish classes in school this year. Plus, two young kids are hard work and I speak Spanish, so I thought that would help ensure a smoother trip. Places like Japan are fascinating, but add an extra layer of difficulty. I would have dealt with their culture shock and my inability to speak the language, on top of juggling two kids who have never left the country. Mexico—and the Yucatan Peninsula, specifically—seemed like a solid first adventure for us all.
A huge range of cultural and kid-friendly activities. The Yucatán has a well-developed tourism infrastructure. It’s safe and has a diverse range of things to do in every area: swimming, beaches, ruins, wildlife, walkable towns, and even theme parks.
It’s affordable. My nephews live in Florida. It was a quick skip over the Gulf of Mexico, and once we arrived, I could afford to keep us flush in tacos and fun kid-friendly activities.
After my trip with Ana, many of you guys emailed me to say although seven months was too long, that you’d love to do something similar with your own nieces/nephews/kids. Here it is, an alternative adventure. Three weeks of family-style (mis)adventures all through Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. This is more of a photo-journey through our road-trip with stories. We started on the beaches of the Riviera Maya, then wound our way inland to the cultural heart, and ended at a biosphere reserve.
Before we left to Isla Mujeres, I’ll also own to a travel n00b mistake that I can only blame on being totally overwhelmed. It took hours to secure the rental car. It was a headache navigating into the Cancun at rush hour. Once checked in, we headed out to a great park I knew from a previous trip, Parque de las Palapas. I was hungry, the boys were hungry, and they were also humming with excited energy. So we headed to the ATM and then planned on getting food. Sheer chaotic excitement is the only explanation I have for my nephew Vic. He grabbed the cash from the ATM, fanned it out and waved it around the glass booth (which faced the busy street), and exclaimed in sheer elation, “MONOPOLY MONEY.” I was so startled that I left my ATM card in the machine, which promptly ate the card and left me without a debit card mere hours into the start of our road trip. And yeah, if you follow the site, I’ve done that gem before. I can look at this now and see the humor. Mexican pesos are colorful and he’s never seen them before. It’s funny, right? Right? Sob. Anyway, it set the tone for three weeks of shenanigans.
With only the pesos I had just withdrawn and a small safety stash of U.S. cash, I tried hard not to wig out. I was lucky my dad hadn’t yet left on his cruise. Since he’s on all my accounts (precisely for situations like this), he wired me money. Walmart wire transfer is fantastically cheap by the way (#thingsIwishIdidntknow). Schwab, my bank, which I love dearly, mailed me a new card asap and my parents brought it with them since we were meeting up six days later in Cozumel.
Crisis averted. And with an alarming amount of cash in my purse (and a stern conversation with the kids about ATM behavior), we began the adventure.
The Isla Mujeres Turtle Farm was a highlight of the entire trip and it was the perfect way to start our travels. Isla Mujeres is a small island off the coast of Cancun, but it’s a world apart from the vibe of Cancun. Ferries run all day between Cancun and Isla so we ditched the frenetic party atmosphere and ritzy hotel boulevard in Cancun. Within an hour of leaving Cancun, we found ourselves in a great apartment just a block off of the shallow beach waters.
My Seattle-based aunt was jonesing for the tropics, so she joined us at the start of our trip. The four of us golf-carted around the sweet little island. We spent three days sipping coconuts and digging in the sand. We bought two pool noodles; they proved fun and useful as we moved from pools to shallow bays to sometimes more unpredictable waters. My aunt is a swim instructor and it was fun to watch both boys soak up her advice on how to better their strokes and become stronger swimmers. Although we’re from Florida, they don’t have a pool at their house and I’ve long worried about their weak skills. This trip was an invaluable chance for them to spend a lot of time practicing (and in a place where it doesn’t feel like forced practice!). This was an excellent way to start the road trip because the town is small and navigable, and the waters in Playa Norte are shallow for a hundred meters at least.
Much to my amusement, Vic was a little entrepreneur on the island. He is convinced he could have launched a thriving coconut selling business and made millions if we had stayed—he talked one local hammock vendor into buying his coconut for an impressive 75 cents. It was endlessly cute.
Cozumel was the island of fun coincidences and meetups. The boys and I timed our Cozumel trip to meet my parents the morning their cruise ship docked. Having already explored the island for two days, the boys and I took them to a hole-in-the-wall spot for Mexican street food. Together we all wandered through the town squares and capped it off with a snorkel. The time passed all too fast before we brought them back to their ship and waved goodbye. But the fun continued and I owe a big thanks to Tam from Travels with Tam. She is a friend, blogger, and A Little Adrift reader, and she welcomed my unruly gang to her home in Cozumel for the afternoon.
In our days on the island, it was the sea life that won out with the kids. Eric raved about his snorkel north of Money Bar; he saw all kinds of fish and sea-crawlies. In the evenings, we wandered the shores near downtown Cozumel; the boys skipped rocks and dug through all the tide pools looking for snails. I’ll likely never claim it’s my favorite spot in the region, but we found beautiful underwater sea life and had a wonderful time visiting friends and family. As my parents continued through the Caribbean, the boys and I journeyed back to the mainland—we had some Maya temples to find!
Playa del Carmen & Xplor Theme Park
But first, before the Maya temples, we had a theme park to explore. My nephews have spent their entire lives living in south-central Florida—they’re adrenaline junkies. We have a dozen parks within an hours driving distance of my hometown. They live and breathe theme parks. I don’t know where they get it from, I’m terrified of roller coasters. Two things coincided though. They found out I took Ana zip-lining in Thailand years back. And they found images online of the dizzying number of adventure parks in the Yucatán. The folks at Olympus Tours offered to comp an experience for us, all I had to do was pick. I felt confident traveling the interior once we were poking around through Mexico’s small towns and community based organizations—that’s my thing—but I never neared the theme parks on my last trip to the region. Marhuata and Leo teamed up to take my nephews on a day that they continue to recount at speeds a mile a minute.
We headed out to Xplor early in the day, a theme park that plays off of the natural landscape. It’s actually built into underwater rivers and cenotes—with ziplining, of course, that was paramount to the boys. The park was beautiful, more than I was expecting. We paddled through the underground river, sped across the tree canopy on zip-lines, and generally got our thrills out. I’m usually that aunt. The who gives books and educational toys on holidays. So they were justifiably psyched that I agreed to a Mexican theme park. And as a plus, it also scored me a trade-off promise that they would each read age-appropriate information on Maya culture. Win. It was good fun; it’s a fantastic thing to do with kids and the other nearby parks have varying types of activities. I reviewed the park’s rides, pros, cons, etc at Xplor here.
Hidden bonus? They wolfed down dinner and then passed out cold that day. Who am I kidding, I did too. :)
We began to shift the tone of our trip in Tulum. While we spent our early days on beaches and with family, Tulum marks the beginning of the history and culture part of the trip. We could have been on any white sandy beaches in the world in the first week of the road trip. We couldn’t help but know we were in Mexico once we reached the sprawling Maya temple complex at Tulum.
These Maya, they sure knew some prime real estate.
Tulum’s ruins run right up to the water’s edge. Grey stone temple complexes all but tumble into the Caribbean waters.
The boys’ fascination with the Yucatan’s iguanas continued here; but I’d be lying if I said the boys loved Tulum. It was a scorchingly sunny day at the ruins. While I wandered and read about Tulum, the boys camped out in the shade near several massive iguanas and soaked in the vibe. The beach waters were also too rough for them, so we passed through Tulum en route to the verdant heart of the region. Next up was Valladolid and the tiny Mexican towns awash in culture, food, and history. (Side note: Tulum is where we left those beloved swimming trunks I had to backtrack for… I am still doing a facepalm that I actually returned for a pair of shorts. I can only say that after the despair we had over losing a pair of beloved goggles, it just seemed easier).
Looking back now, I wish that I had slowed down one bit more and actually done the Akumal turtle swimming experience, which we would have done between Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Instead, I thought we needed some history in our trip and skipped it. That was a #fail for me. Lesson learned. Perhaps they would have enjoyed the ruins more if we had started with some sea turtle interactions.
Valladolid: Ek’ Balam & Chichén Itzá
The vibe definitely changed when we reached Valladolid, a Spanish colonial town dating back to the 1500s. This is also when we got down with some serious street eats. I was able to find more of the informal food that I usually eat in Mexico. Before that, the beach towns tended to cater to tourists. The good street food was farther from the tourist areas than we could easily travel on foot. But here, we booked a place on the Plaza Central and used this as a base to go temple-hunting and cenote swimming. The biggest site is Chichén Itzá, and we marveled at the echoing acoustics built into the ball court. Vic fixated for ten minutes on mastering the clap that would travel down the expansive ball court and then bounce back as an echo. He was thoroughly impressed when finally managed to get the echo to sound out.
The real winner though, was Ek’ Balam. The site is far less touristed than nearby Chichén Itzá. There are ruins that you can climb up and see high views of the region. The relief work on one of the tombs is also impressive and the best in the entire region—among the best restored in all the known Maya temples. A huge jaguar mouth sits open with carvings on all sides—serpents, winged men, and hellish creatures. This was a hit with the kiddos. It’s been restored, which makes it easier to see and imagine what these temples might have looked like at the heyday of the Maya kingdom. It was a small complex, so we headed to the sunken cenotes after, the water cool and refreshing in the heat of July in Mexico!
Chichén Itzá and Cenote Dzitnup
All of us agree, there is just something special about Izamal and there’s no way to put our finger on it. If we had only used our guidebook, we might have skipped this tiny, sleepy, yellow Mexican town. But I turned to a friend for travel planning advice—he lived in the region for years—and he said this was a must-do. We had planned to spend two days. We ended up settling in and spending four days doing little more than playing with new Dutch friends and eating street eats in the central plaza.
The boys loved it. Horses clomped through the cobblestone streets, the boys understood the small town’s walkable layout, and they loved the nightly pork sandwiches. The photos perhaps say it better than I can express. It’s just a magical little spot in the heart of the Yucatán.
En route to Celestún, we broke up the drive with a horse-drawn carriage ride out to a trio of cenotes. Cenotes are underground cave sinkholes. The limestone bedrock in the Yucatán Peninsula is so porous that all lakes and rivers are actually underground. They are the best way to cool off in the interior. A local community based organization operates the Cuzamá cenote. This CBO ensures that profit-sharing among the families near this rural and offbeat tourist attraction. Getting to Cuzamá is half the fun too. If you hadn’t yet woven through the pothole strewn back roads of Mexico, you will en route. Notable is that there is a scammy business just before you reach the CBO. If you’re driving, keep driving until you reach a sun-drenched and informal spot at the end of the road. Men will be waiting there ready to whisk you to the swimming holes. The horse ride was good fun, and the third swimming hole, Cenote Chacsinicche, was by far the best for the kids. They delighted in cannon-balling from the ledge into the cool, clear blue water.
We came to Celestún for the flamingos and crocodiles—it was all about visiting the Celestún Biosphere Reserve. Eric loves animals, and his one big request for the trip was seeing crocodiles in the wild. We only saw one baby crocodile, but he was so distracted by the flamingos, birds, and swimming holes that he never noticed (I wondered after if we would have had more success at Río Lagartos :-/ ). The town of Celestún is low-key and tiny. I mean little. It’s a Mexican vacation spot more than a tourist spot, so there wasn’t much English spoken. Most of the families (umm, all of them) were Mexicans taking in the summer vibes. The kids had a blast digging deep holes in the sand, and their industriousness attracted the other kids who helped them dig and collect worms from the sand—an activity that apparently needs no spoken words.
The shenanigans continued here, too, lest I paint too rosy a picture of it all. The boys found a small, beached boat and attempted to drag it out to sea while I procured Gatorade for us all. I sent them back to the sand digging, pulled my sunhat lower, traded my Gatorade for a Sol, and was just glad they hadn’t gotten in the boat and headed for Cuba.
One of the sweetest towns in Mexico, Mérida, has a vibe all its own. Each area of town boasts its own central park area, but the main one near the touristy areas is abuzz in activity every night of the week. There isn’t a lot to do in Mérida per se. My nephews were scarcely interested in the museums. They did, however, find the markets intriguing, the parks filled with other children, and plenty of street food and ice cream to keep them chugging along as we toured the various churches and architectural sites. They were little champs most of the time. The three weeks had passed in a blur and Mérida and Celestún were the last stops on our trip. By the third Saturday, we were wheels up on the airplane by 9am and I had them deposited back to my brother soon after. I welcomed the break. Traveling with them gave me a fresh perspective on all the work that goes into juggling two kiddos on the road. But it was a good tired too, for the most part.
On the whole, I had long hoped to share a travel experience with my nephews, and this tripped served in that capacity. With the mix of food, culture, and beach-fun time, it was the perfect place to take two active little boys. Many of my readers have pondered taking a niece, nephew, or sibling overseas, but the logistics can seem overwhelming. In this case, I am so happy I had the chance to show those two kiddos a small part of why I love traveling the world. It wasn’t always easy—they were exceedingly naughty—but I wouldn’t take it back for the world.
For readers who have long followed this journey, you may wonder about where Ana was while her brother Vic and cousin Eric went on an adventure? While we road-tripped across Mexico, Ana met up with Dani, a friend Ana and I last traveled with in Cambodia. Dani and Ana have stayed in touch over the years, and since Ana continues to beg for the chance to explore other places, Dani invited her to NYC for a week. They palled around the city, sending me Snapchats and texts. I was so glad she had her own adventure, too. And I am happy to report that Ana, now in the 10th grade, has stayed interested and curious about the world. I hope, if nothing else, this trip ignited in my nephews a lasting curiosity about the people and places outside their home bubble, and that they continue to use that curiosity to finish school and travel more.
So, whatdya think? I felt crazy at times for going solo with them, but it was an adventure. Do you have any plans to travel with kids/siblings/nephews?
The streets of colonial Mexico pulse with color and life. Before traveling, I glimpsed this pocket of culture and history only through small photographs of sun-drenched cobblestone streets making an appearance in my school text-books. And on a good year, my family visited a museum and I peered at the traditional clothes and colors in the works of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and the other greats to come out of Mexico.
The small town of San Pancho, Mexico is one charmed me — it was cute, tiny, and exactly what I wanted earlier this year. At the end of my time in Mexico however, I realized I had seen very little outside of a small pocket of the country. Three weeks before meeting my dad in Panama, I scoured the scribbled notes and hand-drawn maps in my notebook, each entry scrawled in haste as a new friend gave a passing recommendation. Together this advice formed a rough tapestry across the country, dotting small towns and big cities and showing the phone numbers of new friends in each place keen to share a coffee.
With a route mapped, I shouldered my backpack and traveled overland from Puerto Vallarta to Mexico City with stops in Guadalajara, Guanajuato, and San Miguel de Allende. My bus left the coast and cut inland to small, low-slung towns and a few capital cities. Guadalajara’s size and traffic overwhelmed me (I’m not a big-city person), but the history won me over before I left town. Guanajuato and San Miguel charmed me with unique visual identities and intriguing cultural shifts that come with traveling through colonial Mexico. Gone was the relaxed mix of expats and coastal Mexicans I had lived with for months, nor did I find the trendy, cosmopolitan inhabitants of Guadalajara. Instead, indigenous Mexicans filled the parks and street-side stands selling tamales and fresh tortillas, tacos and fried dough, quesadillas and elotes.
Below are 20+ photos and stories from the tiny, colorful towns of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende; next month I’ll tackle the big cities and sights in Guadalajara and Mexico City.
Mexico’s interior was friendly, open, and a wonderful place to travel. I haven’t yet blogged about the assumptions and fears many people have in traveling to Mexico, but these two pretty towns were a reminder to me that each new place I travel offers unexpected places, people, and friendships.
Quick Tips: Visiting Guanajuato, Mexico
Where to Stay: La Casa De Dante is the best budget accommodation in the Guanajuato, bar none. It’s easy to book on Agoda or Hostelworld, and it’s a gorgeous spot with sweeping views of the city.
What to Do: Wandering the small back-streets and alleys is a highlight of both Guanajuato City and San Miguel de Valle. These cities having charming squares and tiny cafes in shady plazas that are delightful. More formally, you shouldn’t miss Alhóndiga de Granaditas, a museum in the town city. Go early as school children fill the place in the afternoons. You can’t miss the Catedral de Guanajuato, and you shouldn’t. Be sure to wander at different times during the day, as it’s particularly stunning when washed in the yellow late-afternoon sun. Same with Museo Casa Diego Rivera, the exhibits are well done and provide an important background on one of Mexico’s favorite artists. The city has a lot of street food and interesting markets, too. Mercado Hidalgo is the biggest market. You could take a street food tour, or just wander and sample and enjoy. The Mummy Museum is popular, but it’s not my thing so I skipped it, but not visiting horrified many Mexicans that I talked to, who consider it a must-visit. And lastly, you’ll want to get some height and pretty views over the city. If you’re staying at the hostel, then you already have some gorgeous views. Consider taking the funicular to the statue of Pipila, or you could take a hike on foot with water and half a day to explore.
What to Read: The People’s Guide to Mexico is the best alternative guidebook to Mexico and comes highly recommended for the culture and history. You still might want a Mexico Lonely Planet for the logistics if you are backpacking the area ‚ I nearly always have a proper guidebook on me — but the People’s Guide is the hands-down best option for history and better understanding all aspects of the culture. If you prefer story with your history, then Sliced Iguana: Travels in Mexico is a memoir that will explain the culture while wrapped in interesting narrative.
Rain pelted darts of moisture into my skin as we stumbled off the bus into a huddle of quizzical faces. A slice of doubt entered my mind at their complete bafflement, but within moments the bus handler had hurled our luggage under the shelter and sped down the road, leaving Ana, my dad, and me at mile marker 25: Silico Creek.
Barely marked on the maps, Silico Creek is a blip on the tourist radar between Bocas del Toro and Boquete. My dad found this indigenous community while researching interesting things to do in the Chiriquí area and decided that we three would kick off our Panama adventure learning about the origins of chocolate through Urari. This small rural tourism organization is located at Silico Creek, which lies within the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca, a demarcated area similar in function to Native American reservations in the U.S.
From the start, our adventure echoed of the coffee farm Ana and I visited in rural Thailand to learn about fair-trade, sustainable coffee production. If there is one thing that interests me more than coffee, it’d be chocolate, so this journey with my dad and Ana would complete my deep understanding of two of the world’s biggest food commodities. Like coffee, eco-tourism circles bandy about buzz-ish words like “local,” “organic,” and “fair-trade.” Take a trip to the designer chocolate aisle at the grocery store and it’s a veritable test of each company’s ability to find marketable synonyms of these words. But I wanted to know the human story behind the chocolate, behind Urari’s small tourism organization, which was self-started and runs entirely by the community. It seemed like the perfect place to delve into my two great loves: supporting social enterprises and consuming chocolate.
In short, our weekend held promise. We were all intrigued by the chance to live within one of Panama’s indigenous communities … but first, I had to find the place.
I hesitantly questioned the group in Spanish. Smiles bloomed on their faces as they gave encouraging gestures toward the gravel path behind us, nodding as we set off into the drizzling rain.
Two hours later, we had settled into modest wooden hilltop bungalows, consumed hot chocolate, and found ourselves surrounded by members of the community—everyone asking and answering questions in tandem.
Building Sustainability Within the Silico Creek Community
Right away, our biggest hurdle was language … only a few members of the community speak basic English. As guides and members of the community learned that each of us had varying levels of Spanish, mine being passable to communicate, we defaulted to Spanish and spent three days in full immersion, with me acting as translator for Ana and my dad.
Immersion was the name of the game for this trip, so we immediately learned of the community’s history. Silico Creek is a settlement of indigenous people who moved to a fertile northeastern region of the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca in the 1960s. That first family expanded and the 500-person village now includes all the children, grandchildren, and extended relatives.
Urari, I learned, is primarily designed as the community’s homegrown solution to a lack of tourism and income. Much like reservations in the United States, indigenous peoples are given land and the right to operate freely, but in contrast to reservations in the U.S., demarcated regions of Panama are given almost full autonomy and therefore lack government support. This was not always the case though, and after years (decades … centuries) of politics and land issues, modern tourism and the development of a thriving economy is tough for rural communities. Many indigenous peoples operate on a barter system—an internal economy within the community. But the world encroaches on the edges of the reservation land, and land and money within the demarcation has become a commodity for the Ngäbe-Buglé.
As we learned more, I related it back to my time in Thailand studying coffee. Many issues surrounding the global production of coffee are similarly present in Silico Creek’s cacao plantations. Cacao is the primary crop grown by nearly every family, but they sell their beans to a nearby cooperative that, while paying “fairly,” does not generate enough income to support the community. In short, the current avenues for selling cacao outside of the reservation don’t offer livable wages even within their communal living system.
Hence a new focus on tourism.
And in this case, Ana, my dad, and I took part in homegrown tourism at Silico Creek, which means the locals shaped the interactions and the amount of their culture they would offer up to tourists like us. They formed Urari to run tours and overnight stays for foreigners interested in learning more about the Ngäbe-Buglé culture, as well as organic agriculture and cacao production.
Finding Grassroots Tourism in Panama
The largest initiative at Silico Creek of interest to outsiders is organic farming and the production of cacao—the plant at the beginning of all the world’s delicious chocolate.
We spent our first afternoon at Urari learning about the culture and people within the settlement, and just getting situated. As dark settled over the hilltop bungalows, however, we locals offered a cheery wave as the community descended to their homes just below, navigating with cell phones as flashlights since the community does not have electricity.
And then we spent an hour on small pleasures—my dad and I talked on our dark balcony, looking out at moonwashed treetops and discussed the day. Ana hunkered under the mosquito net and read a book inside. At least, she read until I ousted her at top speed to see a flickering tapestry of fireflies breaking up the dark near our bungalows. Until traveling, I had never seen a firefly, so I knew that was Ana’s fate as well. It was magical. Ana and I did a lively rendition of Owl City’s “Firefly” before we all turned in for an early nights sleep.
We woke to the chatter of birds the next morning and the smiling faces of Eduardo and his family as they laid out a full breakfast spread—traditional bread, eggs, and fruit. The meal was hearty enough to get us through the strenuous waterfall hike on the docket for the day.
And boy did we earn that breakfast! The hike was muddy but fun and gave us the chance to chat with Arnoldo—our guide and brother to Eduardo—about the backstory of the Ngäbe-Buglé people, the community’s ultimate goals for Urari, and the impact of Panama’s varied political past on future of Panama’s indigenous peoples.
Oh yes, and we admired gorgeous untouched forests, small villages, rushing rivers, and a beautiful waterfall too. :)
Our second day with the Silico Creek community ended as had the previous day: Many members of the community came to our hilltop bungalows to visit and answer questions. And frankly, to look at us. Ana was a minor celebrity with some of the children who had never previously seen a foreign child in person. Urari’s emphasis on fostering a connection between the tourists and the local community meant we always found new friends to chat with throughout the day.
The Humble Origins of Chocolate
A steady rain drummed on our wooden bungalows our last morning at Silico Creek. The wet earth created deep mud through which we would trek to learn about Silico Creek’s primary cash crop: cacao.
Throughout our visit, our meals included two traditional concoctions of this delicious bean—hot chocolate and chocolate coffee. Although this was a treat for us, chocolate represents more than an occasional treat for this community, and more than simply a crop to sell. Cacao has a cultural significance to the Ngäbe-Buglé and it’s embedded in their spiritual ceremonies. It also happens to be a relatively lucrative crop, giving it even more significance to them in today’s cash-based society.
The plight facing Urari again reminded me of the days I spent visiting the Akha Ama coffee collective in Northern Thailand. It’s a tale of farming, and not a particularly unique one. But farmers have a tough road. Growing such trendy commodities as coffee and chocolate mean growers continually strive to meet international standards, keep the crops healthy, and find a fair outlet for their commodity. And while Akha Ama created a collective to directly connect their coffee to consumers, Urari sells the cacao to a cooperative, taking a small cut of the deep profits made from other parts of the the global chocolate trade. Instead of relying on selling their chocolate solely through the cooperative, which they have done since the 1950s, the families of Silico Creek plan to grow their tourism project and create a direct connection to tourists (and thus a win a slice of the $8.8 trillion dollars travel and tourism adds to the global economy).
We slogged through the dense overgrowth in borrowed rain boots and dodged the heavy cacao fruit hanging low from the trees. Arnoldo and a local farmer guided us throughout the plantation, explaining the history of the crop and the core processes and challenges of growing cacao. We even tasted the ripe cacao fruit—it’s syrupy-sweet like candy.
From the farm, we walked back to the village and sheltered in the home of a woman who processes chocolate throughout the day. Most of the community’s adults, children, and artisans collectively run Urari, and 75 percent of Silico Creek families are directly involved in producing and processing chocolate.
Our guides led us through the roasting process, grinding the beans, and finally a taste of the freshly pressed cacao: nose-flinchingly bitter. That liquid is then packed into bars and sold to tourists; anything not sold directly to visitors is instead sold to the nearby cooperative.
Again we saw how tourism was a profitable avenue for Urari. Beyond just tours, Urari planned to diversify the types of chocolate products it produced, creating more opportunities for direct sales to tourists. Their marketing message is soli: Buy high-quality organic chocolate directly from the source and support Panama’s indigenous people. (We bought two bars and my dad and I tried our hand at a delicious raw cacao dessert!)
The Realities of Sustainable Tourism
I often talk about the benefits of local, sustainable tourism, of supporting the communities working to support themselves. Urari is a clear illustration of the concept. Your travels are richer are when you engage responsibly with locals.
That said, my threshold for getting off the beaten path is different from the average tourist because of my years on the road. Those three days at Urari were really my dad’s first venture into rural tourism, so I was interested in his reactions. He came away wowed at how different he now understood Panama—the place he spent all of his childhood. This tourism project gave him a way chance to see an entirely different side to the country.
Silico Creek hopes expand their initiative in the coming years. Right now, school groups from the states visit en masse several times a year to study agriculture and farming, but casual tourism from guidebooks and word of mouth is still in the early stages.
And to an extent, you can tell. The community has bare basic Western amenities. The outdoor bathrooms are spotless, but there is no electricity. Mosquito nets adorn the beds and you basically drop off the face of the earth while you’re staying at Urari—meals and activities are all arranged through the community and there is no easy access to the nearby towns.
It’s truly full immersion.
And it was great. My dad loved the three days. Although he was very glad for the hot shower in Boquete once we left, he loved having such direct access to the locals—a clear venue to ask questions and investigate his curiosity. This is what I have long loved about local-level travel and it was a success with all three generations of us on this trip—my niece (12 years old), me (29), and my dad (late 50s).
When you step off the path while traveling, you gain insights, stories, and interactions simply not possible ensconced in high-end hotels that bubble-wrap the raw and gritty reality of traveling. It’s these off-the-path adventures that shape my most prominent travel memories. In addition to meeting locals at the markets and striking up conversations with strangers in parks, it’s often by finding sustainable social enterprises that I am able to meet people and learn their story. I travel with a specific interest in social enterprise and non-profit work, and by seeking out these conversations I uncover so much more than is offered on the tourist track around a country.
And for those with just a week or two in a region, using grassroots initiatives allows locals to invite tourists into their communities on their terms and share their cultural, language, and customs. Sometimes travel to indigenous communities borders on zoo-like experiences (notably the Karen in Northern Thailand), but the face of modern tourism does not have to look like that. From Kenya to Thailand to Panama, there are indigenous people setting the terms of how they want tourists to learn more about their cultures and customs.
I asked the community the best way they would like support; Arcadio, one of the brothers noted:
Throughout three days of full immersion, we found new friendships, connected on a personal level with a culture so different from our own, and my family and I did it on terms set by the people directly affected by this tourism: the families that make up Silico Creek, Panama. And that, well, that’s the heart of why I love using social enterprises while traveling.
Quick Tips: How to Visit Silico Creek
Where: On the road between David and Changuinola at kilometer 25. Follow the full directions on their site; this project is best visited in conjunction with a Bocas del Toro trip since they are in that region, within the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca.
How: Their website is pretty basic and great for research, but for the smoothest experience book the a bungalow on Booking.com, then reach out to the Urari community directly to pre-arrange tours and such during your stay.
When: Urari is open to tourism throughout the year, though they have limited capacity to house tourists if a school group is in residence. We visited in June, which is off-season because of the rains, but that did not ruin the adventure by any means. Book via email ahead of time and they will arrange your stay, prepare for the activities you want (waterfall hike, cacao tour, cultural dance, farm-stay, etc). We arrived five hours before they expected us, so of note is that they will try to meet you at the bus stop if you tell them of your arrival time.
Why: Urari represents Silico Creek’s self-started initiative to create opportunities and revenue to sustain their community. Grassroots, sustainable projects are a passion of mine and all three of us loved the chance to immerse in the culture, ask questions, and learn more about the people while funneling money directly to the people.
Tips: Accommodation is basic but the wooden bungalows are very clean. The bulk of the reservation does not have electricity (there is a small solar-powered station I heard about but never saw, so don’t count on using it). Pack wisely. Bring flashlights, mosquito repellant, warm clothes, rain gear in the off-season, and a sense of adventure. Only a bit of English is spoken at Silico Creek (the man on the other side of the email address speaks fluent English), so you should have at least basic Spanish language skills.
A fond thanks and warm thoughts to all the members of the Aguilar family who opened their homes and allowed us a glimpse into their lives and their culture.
I was seven before I accepted that my parents had a life that existed before me, and in that year I remember a whole world opening up because I began to comprehend a world so much wider than what I had seen and experienced as yet in life. Though I am the rare breed of native Floridian, my parents are both transplants. My mom grew up in the Oswego area of upstate New York and my four older brothers were born there. My dad, on the other hand, approached life with the wicked New England accent inherited from my grandmother, but tempered with the 16 years he spent living in the Panama Canal Zone as a child.
In contrast to my rather staid childhood in a suburban neighborhood in the states, my dad spun tales of epic rotten-mango wars with his friends—a fruit so plentiful in the country he said it was impossible to eat them all. I lusted after the freedom and free range he was given to wander through forests filled with sloths, wild animals, and the untold mischievous adventures I knew he glossed over as he recounted them to me. And he got wistful when he talked about racing his mini motorcycle up and down the hills on the far side of the Miraflores locks.
The same hills that we stood on together last month from an overlook, hills now excavated and buzzing with construction work on the country’s new wider canal system.
You see, Panama was a special trip for me because it was a country I’ve heard about my entire life.
And it was special for my dad because it was the first time he’s taken me there, taken me to see the memories, stories, and people from the first 16 years of his life.
For the past three weeks back home in Florida, I’ve been processing the weeks my dad, my niece Ana, and I spent traveling through Panama. Unlike many places I visit, there was so much more to my trip than simply sightseeing or taking in the natural beauty of the country. We did all those things, and those stories will come, but our two weeks were framed by this nostalgia my dad carries with him for a country he left 40 years ago.
There was a warmth and welcome in Panama that I’ve spent my whole life pondering. My dad traveled back to Panama a few times over the years and the surest reason I have always pinpointed was a love for the people still living there who shaped his childhood. For throughout the stories were always peppered the key players in his life there, the two Panamanian sisters who worked for his family, Bernabela and Justina. My dad traveled back there when I was nine years old, and from that trip he brought home photos of him surrounded by people I had never met, everyone beaming smiles into the camera.
And 20 years after I first saw those photos, I linked those faces and stories with huge hugs of welcome. And in the overwhelm of introductions and hellos, all in Spanish mind you, it brought back the same cautious curiosity I had felt at the age of seven—my dad had a life and people connected to him that existed 1) before I was alive and 2) at a deeper level than had occurred to me in the self-focused bubble I walk around in. And these people made up an extended family I had never quite considered.
I preface any future stories about Panama with this one because it most strongly shaped my memories of the country. Threads connect each of us to each other, and I don’t just mean the family bonds, or neighborhoods and cultures that appear on the surface of our lives. The interwoven story of humanity is one I’ve touched on before here, and it presented itself in the days spent visiting and reminiscing. I was connected to a place and a people and there were threads tying us to each other in ways I hadn’t considered. And because of these connections, Panama was so much more than yet another country added to my collection.
I so often travel solo, and I connect with new places over volunteer service or food. I ask for life stories, I consider how history has shaped the culture. My dad’s life in the Panama Canal Zone, and America’s involvement in the country in the ’60s and ’70s, took on a new meaning for me as we traveled to the old military base, and even more as I met the family and faces in the stories my dad had long shared with me over the years.
The majority of the photos in this post deviate from the more traditional travel photos I usually share, but they were some of the more special moments from our last week in Panama with new friends and family, and with a whole lot of laughter since I was one of the primary translators for our mixed group (only Berna and myself could easily navigate the two languages; that made for hilarity as the number of family members grew and translations were needed).
Over the past few months I’ve talked a lot about relaxation, and how it’s one of those pieces of life at which I have not excelled in the past. I spend far too much time on the computer even though I had a palapa full of hammocks just 100 feet from my doorstep for months. But in moving to Mexico earlier this year, I tasked myself with expanding my capacity for relaxation. In this transition phase I wanted to use Mexico to look at what comes next for me—where I am, where I want to be, and any next steps to get there. And I wanted to learn balance. Though I post lots of pretty photos of my travels, I sometimes spend upwards of 10 hours in front of my computer, the perk of travel being that after those 10 hours I got to eat delicious tacos.
Balance though. It’s something we all struggle with; I have yet to meet someone who feels they perfectly balance each aspect of work-life-kids-relaxation-hobbies-etc. This is true for long-term travel as well.
So, relaxation. Living in San Pancho, Mexico was a gift to myself of time and space to process and plan, but perhaps more than that, to simply exist and live in the current moment. I failed at finding balance more days than not, but the successes, the times when I slowed down to enjoy meals and friends, are some of the sweetest memories and sweetest successes of my time there. And I credit most of this positive mental shift to deciding to slow down. I gave myself permission to relax and do less and it pulled me from my funk. And since it was so successful, I thought I’d share the lessons my little beach town taught me, a manifesto on the art of relaxation. :)
Accept the Art of the Hammock
Hammock-time just screams for a good book. I spent a lot of hammock time reading on my Kindle, working my way through a heap of travel books in my queue. While in Mexico I read Behind the Beautiful Forevers, The China Study, The Gifts of Imperfection, and No Touch Monkey, among about 15 others. (Heads up: a review post is in the works for some of the travel and non-travel books I’ve read and loved recently.) The key here was to put everything down and prioritize hammock time, to include it in the list of things that needed to get done, not just the “if I time” list.
Find a shady spot
Hearing distance from the ocean is ideal
Keep an iced beverage within reach for maximum relaxation
Resist any form of sightseeing—just hammock time
Learn the Art of Play
My more new-agey friends term it “getting in touch with my inner child,” and you know … that does pretty much sum it up. I had my time in hammocks these past five months, but I also spent dozens of hours volunteering with the kids at the community center and hours with the playing puppies in San Pancho. I spent my time in laughter and joy. Though I plan to share more about my time volunteering here, the short of it was days of singing songs with them, coloring pictures, and making egregious errors in my Spanish that left us all in stitches more than once. By seeking out those people and parts of life that still have carelessness, joy, and wonder, I could hijack some of that for myself. :)
Hunt down kids or puppies (bonus points for the two together) and volunteer, chase a dog on the beach, etc.
Join a beach volleyball game, they always need another team member
Ride a bicycle—made me feel 10
Embrace the Art of Friendship
The new friendships I fostered by staying in one spot created the best recipe for relaxing and de-stressing. I counted on the faces and friends all over town as a surest way to let go of any anxieties I had (have) over where my life is heading next. During my periods of rapid travel it’s difficult to make the sort of friendships that last longer than the location. These fast friends are fun; they are genuine as well, but they often lack the depth of friendships formed over months instead of mere days. Fast-friends are an integral part of travel—these people who come into my life over a couple of days ensure that travel is rarely lonely. But part of relaxing into a new place is having the time to go deeper than the surface questions “how long are you here for” and connect.
If the surest way to keep stress at bay is by surrounding yourself with good people, I succeeded there. San Pancho is a unique town in that it harbors an eclectic mix of expats and locals. I am grateful to this town for the evenings spent in conversation listening to the wonderful local bands (like Pantera Fantasma and Dos Bertos), beach bonfires, and afternoons sipping hot copomo discussing philosophy, life, and love.
Say yes to meeting up with friends
Set a weekly meetup at a coffee shop
Join expat Facebook forums for your town
Practice the Art of Good Health
If sleep, exercise, and good food are essential I won the battle on two of the three. I loved having a kitchen and I made use of the Friday organic market in nearby Sayulita. It seems counter-intuitive since I always post yummy food photos, but it’s actually hard to consistently eat healthy on the road between the packaged snacks and eating out every day, so markets and a kitchen are ideal for feeling healthier. Now add to that lots of sleep and it’s golden. San Pancho was a cinch on this front because the town closes by well before midnight and the roosters start crowing by 7, so that was a solid block of sleep each night.
Exercise is a tough one. On the upside, I ride my back everywhere. Downside, it’s not a very big town so “everywhere” doesn’t add up to much. My friend Victoria taught yoga in the park—it was lovely but the only word to adequately describe my attendance would be “sporadic” (and she would probably use the word “rare”).
Shut down the computer and do something (anything) active
Integrate more greens into your diet (they really do make a difference, and smoothie-it up if you can’t handle some of them in regular form)
Cut out sugars and packaged snacks
Immerse in Art of the Nature
Travel puts me in direct contact with diverse landscapes—I’ve hiked the tallest mountain ranges in the world and swum in the clearest waters on earth. And it’s in Mexico that I began to practice mindfulness and live in each gift from nature around me. It’s a town tradition here to take in sunset on the beach, and they are doozies. Some of the prettiest I’ve ever witnessed, and each one different from the next. This ritual alone, of sunsets on the beach was my favorite part of the past six months. Finding that connection to nature and coupling it with friendships as we all sat at the water’s edge each night took away some of the last tinges of sadness I had over personal things that happened last year.
Take a hike, swim, or long walk
Just sit somewhere and observe what’s nearby
Be present in the moment by spending some nature time solo
Technology is my biggest failure point. And the same thing for many traveling friends. If I’m not careful, I find myself sucked into mindless hours in front of my computer screen, not always even productive time if I answer the addicting lure of Facebook. So while you think I’m sightseeing in this great place, sometimes I’m actually Facebooking with my other “traveling” friends. And there’s something wacky about that … so in this guide to the art of relaxation, cutting out screen time is a must.
And now that I am home in Florida, I’ve been working on incorporating more of these into my home routine too. In between visiting friends I have actually driven to the beach here. I live 15 minutes from the beach but sometimes it’s years between visits for me, and that’s a shame. I’m working on being more mindful, more balanced. How about you? Anything you struggle with as well in navigating that balance?
I have lived and worked from around the world for more than a decade. Before settling on living in Mexico, I lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand for five months and loved it enough to move back the following year. That was the first time I stayed put in one spot and became a semi-expat. As the months passed, I was so surprised by how affordable living there was that I shared a cost of living post … mostly for the readers in the A Little Adrift community who had written me over the years wondering how they could afford to live or retire abroad. Long story short, that post went viral and a million visitors have read about the $500 baseline costs to live in Thailand.
Clearly the financials are interesting. And Mexico is often the first place American retirees and digital nomads consider when looking at places overseas with a lower cost of living. It’s close to the U.S., the food is both terrific and familiar, and it’s fairly easy to make the move. So, with that in mind, this post below outlines my my expat stints across Mexico—from a tiny beach town on the Pacific coast to the food capital of Oaxaca.
Why Move to Mexico?
First off, Mexico is a big country. It’s located below most of the United States, so imagine driving from Texas to Seattle and you have an idea of what it might take to get to another area of Mexico. This is important to understand, because many of the most popular expat spots are about that far removed from the extreme cartel violence you might read about. Expats, retirees, and digital nomads often love living in Mexico because of proximity to the U.S.—all of the country’s bigger cities offer direct flights to the States, and their affordable too!
Budget, however, is the driving impetus for a lot of expats moving to Mexico. The average annual wage in Oaxaca, for example, is around $10,500—that’s an average and many Mexicans live on less than that sum (particularly indigenous and rural populations). In fact, try this on for size: The Mexican government raised the 2020 minimum wage to about $6.40 per day. I am often emailed a question that’s roughly this: Why are Mexicans fleeing to the U.S. if expats want to live there? It comes down to social inequality for Mexicans and the sheer amount of money available to those who work in the U.S. and send money home. The U.S. minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, meaning if workers can send even a portion of their daily earnings home to family in Mexico it represents a huge sum. Expats have a position of privilege, particularly retirees able to use the culmination of a lifetime of working in a more expensive and better paid economy, and then basically use geo-arbitrage to spend their money and social security checks in a country where the USD goes a lot further. Given that the U.S. has its own social injustices, and given that housing is skyrocketing, many expats look to Mexico as a place where they can afford to live the type of life that feels less attainable in the U.S. right now.
But why Mexico and not other popular places in Central America like Costa Rica or Panama? Both of these countries also offer a low cost of living, but each offers an entirely different culture, food, and also different visa requirements. Americans can easily obtain a retiree visa for Mexico, and digital nomads often take advantage of the automatic six months on-arrival that Americans enjoy when entering Mexico.
Average Cost of Living Across Mexico: $600 – $2,000
My baseline (and total) costs to live in Mexico came in under $745 every month. I’ve also lived in Oaxaca too, and it’s even more affordable (I spent well under $600 per month). Housing is your biggest expense, and even Western-style places are affordable. A single person is hard-pressed to spend more than $1,000 here on a modest budget.
Rent & Internet
Electricity & Water
This post is updated annually with new information. This video shares the costs, style of living, quality of life, and other details about living as an expat in Mexico, with a tour of my studio in a trendy beach town north of Puerto Vallarta:
Cost of a Month of Living in San Pancho, Mexico
This entire post outlines the baseline costs—my fixed monthly expenses for one person living in a beach town on the west coast of Mexico. Living in Mexico is ideal for budget-conscious expats, retirees, and travelers. Those living in nearby Costa Rica or Panama tend to have higher monthly averages, so I found my Mexico living situation ideal. Mexico also has a very generous visa policy—six months on arrival for Americans, which helps keep total living costs low.
The chart shows the basics you’ll need to cover when living in most parts of Mexico. Puerto Vallarta and surrounding communities are generally pricier than spots in Oaxaca, and perhaps on par with places like San Miguel de Allende.
Not included in this breakdown of living costs: medical/health insurance, my plane flight to Mexico, or any expenses I incur outside of living (running this site, insurance, work, etc).
But all the baseline costs are all included in my totals, and really unlike the Thailand post, this total includes toiletries and any expenses inside Mexico that cropped up—I never withdrew more than USD $750 from the ATM each month. And this budget is on the high-end for one person; if I had looked around for an apartment or shared a house with friends my costs would have lowered to $600 (and my friend Earl says that’s about the cost of living in Playa del Carmen on the east coast beaches as well). I also spent less than that easily when shared a flat and lived in Oaxaca, which is an inland city and far cheaper than the coastal towns, so your money goes further. I share a heap of Mexico resources at the end.
One of the high points of Mexico, a clear advantage over living in Asia, is the visa situation. As a U.S. citizen, I receive a six month visa on arrival automatically, and this can be reset simply by crossing a border and coming back … indefinitely. For those considering moving overseas without the chance for a retirement visa, the visa policy in Mexico is a big boon. The visa situation in Southeast Asia is a lot trickier, and although I didn’t include the visa runs into my baseline costs in SEA, it was absolutely a big part of living there for six months and it could add up a lot if you were there years on end.
Right now, the peso is roughly 19 or 20 pesos to 1 US dollar. Use that figure as a guide to the food and transport costs I mention (check that exchange rate here). In the video and these breakdowns, I very specifically quote pesos and not dollars as my costs because the exchange rate may vary, but you will be paying for your life in pesos!
What Did Daily Life Look Like?
The various facets of living abroad are part of what makes one place appeal to some expats while others prefer something vastly different. I’m on the fence between Asia and Latin America, I love them both for different reasons, so rather than compare these aspects of life to each other, below is the food, life, and culture you get for that budget living in a beach town on Mexico’s Pacific coast.
A Light, Airy Studio Apartment
I didn’t look very hard for my apartment; in fact, it’s the first one I came across. I loved the family compound I lived within (they had a separate house with three rental apartments within their lot) and it’s one of the things I value living solo … I like having other people nearby who have my well-being in mind in case something happens. So, the apartment was 4,500 pesos per month ( $375 at the time) which is on the high-end for a studio in my town but the price included all utilities and really strong internet, which is essential for my online work.
A high point of living in Mexico is the fact that apartments and houses come with full kitchens (though mine was minus an oven), this is really great if you’re keen to cook—anything you rent here will likely come with a stove and pots and pans if it’s a furnished apartment. Other than the kitchen, it had everything else you would expect in a studio—full-size bed, counter with stools (where I worked from), closet, and a bathroom (a tour is shown in the video above).
Other places in town rent out as vacation rentals or rooms for anywhere from USD $200 per month on the very low-end (likely no wi-fi) to $500+ for 1 and 2 bedrooms. And one town over, in Sayulita (which is bigger and more touristy has a great beach, a lot more food, bars, etc), the apartment prices are actually pretty comparable—ideal if you like the idea of Mexico but think my town was a bit too small! :)
Delicious Vegetarian Eats
It’s no secret I’m a vegetarian, so for me, a country gets bonus points for not only the accessibility of vegetarian food, but the understanding of the concept of vegetarianism. Mexico’s good on both fronts, though not always great. During high season my little town had just enough options to keep it interesting, and as the seasons shifted I cooked in my apartment a lot more using fresh veggies from the markets, which was fun and gave me a kick toward my goal of becoming a better cook (Asia spoiled me because the lack of kitchens and cheap street food meant I never had to learn to cook these past years).
For costs, a cheap quesadilla runs 15 pesos (just over $1) at one of the stands, a nicer taco costs about 40 pesos (about $3.25), and a veggie meal at one of the handful of restaurants in town runs up to $10 or $15 USD. I was lucky to have friends in town so I could split one of the big pizzas for our weekly Friday-night gatherings, and my friends Victoria and Steve often hosted potlucks.
I also drink a lot of coffee; so although I made my own pot each day, the food budget included many espressos each week. My food budget was pretty generous, so if you cook at home, even adding the cost of cooking meat, I think you could get by on 1,000 pesos each week. I often bought organic veggies (expensive) at the Friday market in Sayulita, so the food budget is generous for a range of eating styles.
Getting From Here to There
One of the perks of living in a one-street town is that you don’t need a whole lot of transportation! That being said, I chose to live on the far end of the main street very close the community center where I volunteered (and about a 10-minute walk from the beach). A mere 10 minutes doesn’t seem like much, but in the scorching heat I was happy to have use of a bicycle from the family compound.
And for leaving San Pancho, Puerto Vallarta is about 45 minutes away and costs just a few dollars each way on the bus—this is the closest big city. Sayulita is a perfectly lovely small town (much bigger than mine though) and it was merely 20 minutes up the road. This ride costs $1 each way on the bus or a quick (and easy) hitchhike ride.
Sayulita was perfect to have nearby if I needed to vary up my food, explore a bit, or just get out of town for a few hours. There are many other beaches driveable, some ruins, old stuff to look at, etc if you’re keen to explore. I worked a lot so my bike took me most anywhere I wanted to go.
Nightlife in San Pancho
I am not a partier. Whew, glad we got that out of the way. Now, when I say that I have a low-budget for alcohol and partying you can adjust it accordingly for yourself. San Pancho is a great town for nightlife if you like a bit of variety but nothing too crazy—no dance clubs, but we did have two great bars and a lot of live music throughout the week. In fact, during high season there was live music at one of the bars or restaurants nearly every night.
One of the things I loved best about the town was that the pace of partying was a lot closer to what I prefer—everyone chilling, talking, listening to music, and enjoying company. Add to that some game nights at Victoria and Steve’s for Jungle Speed (had never heard of this game but it was fun and hilarious to play in a group), beach bonfires, and conversation … I felt like Goldilocks—San Pancho was just right.
Quality of Life in Mexico
This bit surprised me some, I knew that many Americans headed south of our border to live but I never really understood why until I stopped and spent four months on the Pacific coast taking in the truly stunning sunsets, the relaxed atmosphere and the affordable lifestyle. The only thing I expected but never found was the fear and danger.
I’ve honestly discussed the question of safety and danger in travel. Our perceptions and reality of the world are often skewed; that is true of Mexico. While there are certainly dangerous places in Mexico, the country is huge. The people and cultures shift and change with the terrain and there are some surprisingly safe cities throughout the country if you know where to look (look to the blogosphere!).
I really loved the access to affordable healthcare (a bonus Thailand had as well), like-minded expats who I now call close friends, and a pace of life that encouraged me to slow down and enjoy the little moments.
The short of it all is that Mexico proved more expensive at daily living than Thailand, but still at least half the rent I paid living in Los Angeles in my pre-travel days. And the flights to Mexico are far cheaper for North Americans. Although it wasn’t as cheap, I have continued to make Mexico a regular stop on my travels in the years since I lived in San Pancho and Oaxaca. The plane flights are affordable, I speak the language, and I enjoy the culture. It’s a privilege to even have this ability, and I appreciate that Mexico has a lot to offer American expats. And likewise, many of these towns appreciate the influx of money and added services that come with expats moving to town.
It’s the sum total of it all that I love—by living outside the U.S. (I now reside in Barcelona, Spain), I am able to scale back the hours I have to work each week to survive, and instead focus that attention on doing things I love: volunteering in the nearby community center, taking photographs, and having the time to enjoy the friendships I make. No place is perfect, but for $750 a month, nightly sunsets, lots of friends, and tasty tacos … I’ll return to Mexico soon. :)
Read The People’s Guide to Mexico: Even if you’re a veteran Mexico traveler, this is hands-down the best guidebook you should use to understand the various regions, the cultural quirks, and all the reasons Mexico is a fantastic place to travel and live. It comes highly recommended by me, and by heaps of Amazon reviewers too.
Living in Guatemala: This eguide shares the cost of living and what it’s like in one of my favorite spots in Central America, Guatemala. Although different than Mexico’s expat scene, there are some very compelling reasons (great culture and affordability, to name two) to consider moving to Guate.
A Better Life for Half the Price: A Mexican expat breaks down all the major expat spots in the world with costs, quality of living, and resources. I learned heaps and found a couple countries I hadn’t previously considered. It’s worth buying if you’re still searching out which country is best for the life you want to live.
Getting Out: Your Guide to Leaving America: There are a lot of these general guides. The book above, Better Life is about where is a good culture fit, whereas this is the better of the lot of “move overseas” books that covers the practicalities and very hands-on information you need as someone considering living anywhere outside the U.S. If you’re new all the researching, this can kick-start your process. And if you are laser-focused on the retirement topic, versus moving overseas at a different state in life, this retirement guide has great advice.
The Tax Book for U.S. Expats: This is well-priced and unique to expats and retirees filing abroad. It gives a granular look at forms, terms, and sorting out exactly how to file — good for those with complicated tax situations. More recently released, U.S. Taxes for Worldly Americans goes broader and is aimed at younger expats and digital nomads still working and handling how to earn income overseas, pay taxes, and live a nomadic life. It doesn’t explain the terms or niche situations/forms as well as the other book, but instead acts as a guide for younger travelers. Depending on your situation, pick up a copy of one of these guides before you leave so that you will have a tax system in place that maximizes the opportunities to easily file.
Check out a Facebook group called “On the Road in Mexico” is a good place to ask questions of other expats.
And dig through the two solid Mexico expat forums here.
Oaxaca City, Mexico. I haven’t written up this as a full detailed budget post, but I lived in Oaxaca for six months in 2016. The pace of life is different inland, and the city is at altitude (about the same as Denver). There is also a large expat community of snowbirds. There is a rich cultural and food history. I wrote a detailed guide to visiting Oaxaca. Budget-wise, my rent was half of rent in San Pacho and for more space. If you’re looking at long-term rentals (not the three-month apartment rentals that are quickly filled in winters by snowbirds), you can find a two-bedroom on the edge of Oaxaca Centro for less than USD $300. Food is affordable and the city has some of the most famous restaurants in the country.
San Pancho Travel and Visit Specifics
Airport to SP: Cheapest is the bus, by far. Taxis are going to run you a fair bit more. The bus makes a number of stops, but it’s not so bad. I had a friend who luckily was able to pick me up my first day, but after that I frequently made the trek into Puerta Vallarta via bus. Where ever you book for accommodation will also be able to arrange a taxi pick-up (sometimes for less than the going rate if you hail one) if you reach out beforehand. If you are already in the area, the bus is straightforward and takes 45 minutes to an hour from downtown PV.
Finding Accommodation: I recommend arriving in San Pancho before trying to find a place to stay, otherwise you will only find vacation rentals listed. Once you are in town, you can rent a bicycle for the day or walk around town and you will see many signs for rent. You can also talk with local expats and ask around. With average Spanish, you will have no problem finding something in just a few days, especially if it’s low season (get there before November). If you don’t speak Spanish, or you came in high season, pop into the real estate agencies. They handle rentals too and are fantastic resources on any city mentioned.
For where to stay, there are three tiers of pricing, the Hostal San Pancho or Shaka Surf House if you don’t mind a shared-dorm; these are the two most affordable options in town. Above Hostal San Pancho is an affordable, very nice guesthouse called Refugio de Sol—this is absolutely your best bet for private accommodation that’s still budget to mid-range prices. If that’s booked though, other nice private accommodation in the $60 tp $80 per night range include: Verde Luna, Casa Terraza, and Jardín San Pancho B&B.
If you’re in Sayulita, my friends rented a nice place from Villas Vista Suites for three months— I would start there for online hunting. If you’re using Sayulita as your base, consider the Aurinko Bungalows or Casa Pia as a mid-range option and then daytrip over to San Pancho. These all come recommended, and if you plan to move to the area they are a good base.
Working: There are some places that hire expats, though it’s under the table. To get these gigs you will definitely need to be in town and getting to know the people, places, and other expats. I know for sure that some friends worked at the mid-range and high-end restaurants in SP or Sayulita. A few expats also taught English for a small stipend at Entre Amigos, the community center.
Other: For work and living, it really will be so much easier on the ground. It’s a very small town and the expat community is super supportive. It’s a cinch to get the lay of the land once you arrive. Places like Darjeeling have fantastic tea and food, and then live music throughout the week. SP is more low-key than Sayulita, but there is usually something to do two to five nights a week depending on the season, and then you can always go to Sayulita if you need more of a vibe sometimes.
Deciding Where to Live
In response to numerous emails asking about the differences between the handful of towns north of Puerto Vallarta, here’s Cliff’s Notes summary of the differences in case you’re sussing out which is better for you. All three would have similar costs of living. And then I include a couple other towns and thoughts in case you’re looking at other Mexican towns:
Bucerias: Sprawling, no defined downtown area, neighborhoods stacked behind a big road and a beach. Very close to the PV, several big resorts. Less heavy with expats than any other surrounding town. No defined personality.
Sayulita: Very small, beach is very crowded with surfers because the water is good for swimming, entirely walkable within the town. Lots of restaurants, shops, a language school, etc. Touristy but a very clear personality with organic markets, yoga shops, surfers, etc. More of a nightlife than San Pancho (a later nightlife I should say).
San Pancho: Tiny, one main road, a handful of options for restaurants. One, sometimes two, coffee shops. Beach is gorgeous but not very safe for kids swimming (though some do) because of strong waves/undertow. A tight-knit group of expats, can’t leave home without seeing someone you know. Local kids have free reign of the whole town. Lots of musicians and something going on each night of the week in high season at one of the pubs/bars.
Guanajuato/San Miguel: In the interior, these two towns just exude pretty colonial charm. San Miguel del Allende is smaller and more popular with expats, while Guanajuato is a decent sized city with a great vibe, an affordable cost of living, and a decent-but-not-overwhelming expat community.
Oaxaca: I lived here for six months and found it is one of the most affordable expat cities in Mexico. The community is different than what you find in San Miguel or PV, it seems there are more opportunities to integrate into Mexican life. This is the food heart of Mexico, there are many indigenous cultures in and around the city, and the only real drawback is the political nature of the city—there are a lot of strikes and protests from the teachers unions and other groups.
Yucatan: Hugely popular with expats (and spring breakers), a bit pricier than the west coast, gorgeous beaches and diving. Very touristy region in general but convenient and safe.
Mexico surprised me with the hospitality and friends I found when I arrived at the beginning of the year with no real plans and no certain direction for my life. I flew into Puerto Vallarta sure that I would visit with friends who were living near there for a month, and then move onto another region filled with colonial towns. I loved the little town of San Pancho so much that I decided to stay put for four months and live in this small Mexican beach town. Well, at least until it was time to seek out those colonial pueblas at a breakneck pace and make my way to my overland to Mexico City so I could catch a flight to Costa Rica.
I arrived in Costa Rica a few days ago, and my dad and Ana arrived last night. Our plan is to explore a bit here and then travel together to Panama, where my dad grew up living in the Canal Zone. As I end the Mexico portion of my travels for the next while, I wanted to share highlights from my Instagram feed and camera roll over the past four months. One of the things I love about Instagram is that photos often capture moments, angles, or snapshots in a way I don’t usually share on the blog. The entire medium is intended more as a slice of life type sharing and it appeals to me a lot, even as I go in the exact opposite with my own photography (my 2013 goal is to fully understanding manual mode and everything my nice travel camera can do by the end of the year!).
I’ll be offline for a couple of days now as my family and I cross into Panama and go exploring, but I’ll share those adventures via Facebook in the coming days and weeks … and likely in the coming months on the stories since I am a few months (years?) behind on the blog. :)
Photos of Colonial Towns in Mexico
Breakfast in Mexico: scrambled egg burrito topped with salsa picante, mashed avocado, and crema. (That offensive olive was an oversight, I picked the others off).
Fresh coconuts anytime, only alarming part was the number of machetes laying around town. This was a perk to living in my tiny town; tiny specialized shops serviced every small niche you’d need, and it was all close together and walkable.
Sunset and stormy weather; the beautiful ones stacked on themselves and some nights I was just beside myself with how pretty they were. The sunset became a nightly ritual and many people in the town also gather for conversation, drinks, and nightly views like this.
Thanks so much for following the Mexican leg of my journey, I started traveling too quickly over the past couple weeks to share more about the tiny towns I visited on my overland travels after San Pancho, so those will come later this summer. I’d love to connect with you on Instagram if you’re there, I think it’s such a fun way to share more “in the moment” pieces of life on the road. What’s your favorite shot?