In 1999, when I was 20 years old, I flew into Mexico City with my friend Abigail. Between the two of us, we carried $1000 in cash. Our plan? Travel from Mexico City to the Yucatan, spend a month hitting all the major sites of interest and then return to Mexico City. Our budget was based on very vague calculations on my part: I’d spent the previous winter camping on a beach on the Pacific coast, and it’d cost me $300 a month.
“How much do you think a month in the Yucatan will cost?” Abigail had asked.
“Uh, I don’t know…Maybe $500 or $600?”
In retrospect this is hilarious: I added an extra $200 for hotel rooms and bus fare, not taking into account that instead of renting a palapa and staying put, we’d be traveling and staying in hotels. I also didn’t bother to look into cost differences between the Yucatan and the Pacific Coast, which can be vast.
Needless to say, we burned through our money fast. Instead of the pleasant thatched bungalows and crumbling Colonial hotel rooms I’d imagined, we ended up renting a couple of palm trees in a grove near Tulum. We weren’t equipped to camp, but we made do: we bought hammocks, as well as a tin bucket, which we filled it with ice and buried in the sand for a makeshift beer cooler. We subsided on bolillos, avocados, and the occasional stray taco. I ended up back in Mexico City with exactly enough cash to buy a bus ticket to the Pacific Coast, where I knew I had a (meager) People’s Guide royalty check waiting.
Those days are behind me: our most recent trip was a fairly well-planned 6,500 mile odyssey, and I’m happy to say that we returned home with (a little) money in our pockets. I guess I can say that over the last fifteen years, I’ve learned a thing or two about planning a budget trip.
Our recent trip was amazing, but I missed my usual style of travel, which is sedentary. Although bus travel in Mexico is reasonable, reliable, and comfortable, the cheapest way to get to know the country is to find a good spot and just hang out for awhile. This may seem counter-intuitive: If you’re going to pay for an expensive plane ticket, shouldn’t you see as much of the country as possible? If you have the time and money, sure. But sometimes less is more. If you stay in one spot, you have a better chance of making connections and friendships with locals, which will mean seeing places you’d never see if you were just flitting through town for a few nights. Renting a room for a month is vastly cheaper than the nightly rates you will pay at hotels, or even hostels.
Here are my top five “extended stay” picks for thrifty bon vivants. I’ve selected these cities because they are historically interesting and attractive, yet their sightseeing and educational potential is bolstered by cool modern culture.
San Miguel de Allende
When it comes to bohemian credibility, San Miguel has an illustrious pedigree (it was a hot spot for Mexican movie stars in the 1930s and a hippie mecca in the 60s and 70s) but these days the colonial jewel is more associated with Texas oil money and gringo retirees. That said, if you know where to look, the town is still highly entertaining and you can find good deals on housing if you don’t insist on living in the town’s historical centro, which is preserved in its colonial glory. As with many Mexican locales, nightlife in San Miguel doesn’t really start to swing until after 10:30 PM. Although mezcal bar El Tinieblo looks like it was decorated by well-heeled Portland hipsters, the mezcal is pretty good and the bartenders are really nice. If classy is not your oeuvre, head over to the legendary dive bar, La Cucaracha (only open on weekends), or check out Manolo’s, presided over by the excellent Kique and attached to Casa Payo—a quality, if somewhat spendy Argentinean joint. Speaking of food: San Miguel is a great town for eating. Cuisine leans toward the international (I feel sheepish admitting that one of my favorite restaurants in a Mexican city is Italian), but you can find cheap, excellent food at the market and at hole-in-the-wall torta joints such as Torta Mundo and El Tucan. When you’re not eating, lazing about, or enjoying the people watching at the famous zocalo, there’s plenty to see in the area: hot springs, desert hikes, the botanical gardens, the nearby town of Dolores Hidalgo, and the beautiful Sanctuary of Atotonilco, which, like San Miguel itself, is a World Heritage Site.
Yes, Mexico City, aka el Monstruo, is intimidating and gigantic—the greater metro area houses about 22 million souls. But that fact alone makes it a perfect choice for an extended stay. It could take years to properly explore the city (you could spend weeks in the world famous museums alone), so you won’t run out things to do in a month. If you’re a shopper, Mexico City is your mecca, from sprawling redolent mercados to entire neighborhoods selling nothing but Italian ankle boots. If you don’t have much of a budget for shopping, most museums are free on Sundays and Chapultapec park is enormous and interesting. Rent can be pricey in the trendier neighborhoods, but you can find deals if you know where to look, and some funkier hotels offer weekly and monthly rates. Food is cheap if your tastes runs toward tacos, jugo, licuados, tortas, and flautas. I don’t even know where to begin when it comes to Mexico City nightlife, but trust me: if you can imagine it, you can find it somewhere in the byzantine mazes of the Distrito Federal.
Hermosillo is not exactly a famed tourist destination, but for a large rapidly-industrializing city of 780,000 people, it’s remarkably pretty. Located in northern Sonora, the city has a rich history, an attractive historical district, and a surprisingly cool urban culture, which includes dive bars, such as La Verbena, La Bohemia, and Pluma Blanca, where locals drink cheap beer and talk music and politics, hipster night clubs, and a weekly (Wednesday) critical mass bicycle ride called “Beers and Bikes” that ends at a different bar each week and a party with (on the night we were there anyway) cheap beer, burlesque-style performance art, surrealistic paintings, and Djs—worth checking out, though the pounding house music drove me crazy. (I’m more of a norteńo kind of girl…)
Spilling down cartoonishly steep hillsides, the stacked facades of Guanajuato are as colorful and seemingly haphazard as a child’s pile of wooden blocks. Small hoards of foreign Spanish students do not kill the muy Mexicano feel of this busy colonial city. At night, locals gather in basement pubs to listen to rock music and split giant micheladas, but like most Mexican cities, Guanajuato is dotted with tiny squares and other outdoor hangout spots, where the populace lurks for free, studying, gossiping, flirting, and watching the endless parade of life. If you are a student and curious about studying abroad in Guanajuato, the blog Kelsey in Mexico will give you an idea of daily life for an American student .
Oaxaca is a no-brainer, and as such you’ll find it has a healthy population of young, hip gringos. But there’s still plenty of funky, authentic flavor, and the city’s hundreds of cool bars and coffee shops feature a healthy mix of local intellectuals and artists and their foreign counterparts. The great feature of an extended stay in Oaxaca is that there’s so much to see in the area: from the mineral springs of Hierve el Agua (don’t forget to stop and check out the mom and pop mezcal distilleries) to the ruins of Monte Alban and Mitla, the environs of Ciudad de Oaxaca have got to be one of the most interesting places on earth. And don’t forget to eat at Mercado 20 de Noviembre…
If you know Mexico, you know this list is just the tip of the iceberg. What are your favorite spots for extended stays in Mexico?
photos by Felisa Rogers and Chelsea Mcalister