20 Days in Central America for less than $2,500

Barrier Reef - Sailing Tour - Belize

One of the most common questions I receive from friends and readers alike is how do you afford it? The assumption is that a 16-20 day trip abroad must be terribly expensive.  People commonly expect the trip expense to be somewhere in the $5,000-$10,000 USD range.  Which, given the structure and cost associated with most of the vacations Americans take, isn’t unreasonable.  When I tell them that my average trip costs me less than $3,000 most people are surprised, and more than a few don’t initially believe me.

I recently wrote a post explaining how I’ve managed to save for/budget the ~$6,000 I need each year for two 16-20 day trips abroad in my blog post, “Tallying Up the Cost: How I Afford to Travel“.  My goal with this post is to share with you my real world application of the techniques I outlined previously.

A few things to keep in mind: I could have done this trip for several hundred dollars cheaper.  I splurged on food on a regular basis, opted for mid-tier budget accommodation, and took a number of tours which I could have done solo/on my own for half the price.  I was also traveling during Central America’s peak season (December/January) which resulted in a significantly more expensive flight ticket and increased prices for the tours I did.

Barrier Reef - Sailing Tour - Belize

What It Cost

A round trip ticket from Phoenix to Cancun with travel insurance:  $530 USD.

Total Credit Card expenses: $280.29.

Total ATM Cash Withdrawals: $1,461.99.

Misc. expenses (ATM Fees/Reserve USD): $87.

Total price: $2358.81 for everything.

Actun Tunichil Muknal - Mayan Cave

Evaluating the Real Cost

That’s not the end of the story.  It’s important to put that figure into context.  Keep in mind that I was gone for 20 days.  An extended period during which I would have had a number of basic expenses regardless of where I was located.

In a given day at home/work I spend at least $20 on food.  That means that my average food expense had I stayed at home would have been at least $400.   I also go through about 1 tank of gas a week at an average cost of about $40 per tank.  At nearly 3 weeks on the road, I would have spent around $100 on gas in total.  Then add a conservative projection of about $150 total for entertainment expenses (bars, movies, etc.).

The end result is about $650 in expenses that I would have spent anyway, had I been at home.

This drops the real added expense burden down well under $2,000 to about $1,710 for the trip.

Is it cheap? Not necessarily, but is it significantly cheaper than you were probably expecting?  Most definitely.  Is it doable for most people?  Most definitely, IF you’re willing to prioritize and set some money aside.

Thoughts?  Questions?  Comments?  Leave a comment or shoot me a tweet @AlexBerger.  I look forward to your thoughts!

Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) – The Sacrificial Caves

Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave Entrance

**This is the 2nd part of a two-part series covering the Actun Tunichil Munkal Cave tour.  Don’t miss part one [here]***

Actun Tunichil Muknal

I hate to see things like that happen, but was immensely relieved – as it meant that after an incredibly rough start, the trip was finally getting on track and shaping up to be what I’d paid for. Our group of 8 set off towards the cave mouth in the lead, pausing briefly to snap pictures and take in the site’s incredible beauty. The milky blue-green water, moss-covered rocks, and lush jungle served as an incredible backdrop for a somewhat intimidating start to our cave voyage.

We received a brief safety lecture, a quick warning not to get our headlamps wet, and a reminder that we’d be getting wet before moving towards the entrance to the cave. At the lead, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’d been told I’d need to swim across the cave mouth, but was skeptical. I’m 6’4″ – over a foot taller than most of the Mayans. It couldn’t be that deep, could it?

The 78 degree water prickled up my legs. Cold enough for a quick intake of breath, but not quite cold enough to be truly unpleasant. The water was mineral rich, and as a result a murky green. I slowly made my way forward as the bottom gave out beneath me.  I quickly found myself swimming, camera in hand, across a portal into another world.

Once across, I crawled my way up onto a flat area, before stepping aside to watch as the rest of the group followed in my footsteps. Once we’d all gathered, it was once again time to pause for a brief history of the 5+km deep cave. It is believed that the Mayans used the cave in some form or another for over 1,000 years before eventually abandoning it around 1000AD.  After which it sat dormant and unexplored until the 1980s when early explorers re-discovered the ancient Mayan site.

Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave Stalactites

Chomping at the bit, we quickly began to make our way into the cave, carefully – albeit usually quite clumsily – stumbling over rocks, tripping on submerged ledges, and relying heavily on hand holds. Every so often our guide would issue a word of warning. Step here, don’t touch that. Be careful, it gets deep, etc. – messages which we then transferred dutifully down the line to ensure everyone was kept in the loop.

The cave hasn’t been stabilized in any way, shape or form which makes for an, at times, delightfully perilous trip. The only light we had available came in one of two forms: The seldom used, hand-held spotlight our guide had and our smaller hard-hat based LED headlamps.

Actun Tunichil Muknal in Belize

The going was slow, but stunning. We were almost always in water, though the depth of that water ranged widely. Most of the time it ran waist deep, though it regularly plunged far deeper, leaving me walking in chest/neck-deep water or carefully clinging to the side of the cave wall as I scooted along seeking slightly shallower ledges. Unfortunately, my digital camera was locked away in a waterproof bag, however I did shoot video (attached above) on my waterproof flip.

Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave Stalactites

As we wound more than half a kilometer into the cave system we paused regularly to examine stunning rock formations. At times they consisted of odd circular holes carved into the ceiling, other times it was large crystalline sheets which caught, and reflected the glow of our headlamps sparkling like a thousand tiny stars. All the while the roof ranged from mere inches above my head to large cavernous expanses decorated by stalactites and beautiful, folded, begemmed – almost sheet like – rock pillars.

Eventually we reached a long, narrow cavern with a large, jagged, water worn rock. The rock rested next to a sheer, overhanging ledge which stood some 10-15 feet above water level. The distance between the rock and the ledge was some 2.5 feet up, and 1.5 feet out. Just manageable if you were careful, used your height and managed to swallow the sizable lump in your throat that inevitably formed.

One-by-one we made the climb, bridged the small gap, and then scaled another 15-20 feet up along a steep, but manageable rock wall, before settling into a small alcove at the top. There we were instructed to remove our shoes, and don our socks in preparation for the dry leg of the cave.

Actun Tunichil Muknal - a Tight Squeeze

We set off once again, this time through a tiny, narrow crevice that left me bent nearly in two, as I hop-walked my way through, periodically bouncing my head or shoulder off the rock ceiling.  Once up and out things opened up in a large open area.  The ground was a mixture between slightly water warn rock, and much smoother/softer sandstone.

In the larger open areas the ground was a unique mixture of small depressions where water would normally pool and natural retainer walls which were often semi-circle in nature.  The ground looked in many ways like it was dried and hardened mud sediment, left during mild flooding over hundreds of years.  We quickly learned that the sandstone’s delicate nature was the reason we’d been asked to remove our shoes.  Our guide also pointed to several small pieces of red tape laid out on the ground.  He cautioned that those marked artifacts and pleaded with us to be careful.

Mayan Skull in Actun Tunichil Muknal the ATM cave

As we carefully made our way from chamber to chamber – often through narrow/tight/difficult pathways that left me feeling very grateful I wasn’t 6’6″ or 50 pounds heavier – we passed a plethora of old Mayan artifacts before eventually arriving at the first skeletal remains.  Each step we took required total attention.  Constantly on the look out for the red tape that market artifacts, we quickly realized that the tape only marked major artifacts. This forced us to vigilantly navigate between smaller pieces of pottery.  All the while, we carefully avoided stepping in depressions, walking instead along the ridges left between small areas where water had pooled in years past.  These were raised and tended to be more durable than the depressions which also potentially contained submerged/undiscovered pottery or skeletal remains encased in the soft sediment.

Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave Tour

As we paused our guide told us a bit about the skull that rested, badly battered but largely intact at our feet. He shared the individual’s approximate age, sex, and what little had been discovered about the person’s life and social status.  The chamber stretched out to either side, with a largely smooth floor, before slipping up into beautiful stalactites that decorated the cavern’s walls.  The stalactites themselves looked like melted wax, leaving me to ponder the incredible beauty of the place.  I can only image the mystical ambiance the cavern would have held in the dim, wavering light of a hand held torch or small fire.  It’s easy to see how the ancient Mayans – who had somehow navigated nearly a kilometer into the cave, relying only on torches and gusto – would have envisioned the place as a magical portal into the underworld and afterlife.

Alex Berger in Actun Tunichil Muknal

With stories of Mayan nobles and religious leaders, heavily reliant on hallucinogenic drugs, celebrating bloody rituals racing through our minds we continued to wind further into the cave system.  Past small depressions which held skeletal remains.  Small platforms which supported old pottery.  Turtle shells, various other artifacts and incredible stalactites. Eventually we paused in the main gallery to snap a few photos and enjoy the sheer scope of the cavern we were in.  There our guide explained that every single piece of pottery found in the cave had been damaged by the Mayans.  Apparently, after each use they Mayans would leave the pottery as a gift for the dead, punching a hole, or damaging it in some way to free the item’s spirit.

Actun Tunichil Muknal Tour in Belize

From there it was up, through another series of tight, jagged passages that left us muttering soft curses as we carefully picked our way over, through, between and under sharp rocks and small broken stalactites. Eventually we came to a near dead-end: A 10-15 foot set of large boulders.    The boulders had an old aluminum roof latter set up against them, and stabilized with a small rope at the top.  Its wobbly, frail looking nature, especially set in the dimly lit light of the cave definitely added to the sense of adventure.

The Crystal Maiden in Actun Tunichil Muknal

We paused briefly, listening all the while to our guide as he told us what to expect: The Crystal Maiden. A fully intact female skeleton, left as she’d died over a thousand years previous.  Near her feet in a small depression, easily overlooked was a second, small/collapsed skeleton.  Unlike the maiden who appeared laid out, the 2nd skeleton was in a position that left us all wondering if it hadn’t died with its hands and legs bound.  Sacrifice?  Honored burial for respected elders?  Ritual self-sacrifice?  It’s hard to know.

The Ladder in Actun Tunichil Muknal

Eyes glinting in the harsh light cast by our head lamps we paused and reflected before slowly making our way back to the metal latter.   It looked every bit as intimidating as I expected it to…with a resigned sigh, I swung my body weight out over empty nothingness, slowly stabilizing myself against the rocks, before slowly making my way towards the ground, foot by foot, wobbly rung by wobbly rung.

Our Guide during the ATM cave tour in Belize

From there it was back through the winding warren of small tunnels and large chambers to the ledge where we’d left our shoes.  Smiles on our faces and small goose bumps on our arms we donned our shoes and made the difficult descent back over the small gap, down the large rock formation and into the water.  Hours had passed since we’d entered the cave and though we didn’t know it yet, the sun had already slid below the horizon.

Bats began to migrate over our heads, typically staying well clear of us.  From time to time, however, we’d find ourselves started by a gray blur, as it spend past our heads often narrowly missing us and leaving us to start at the quick wash of moving air that tugged at our hair.

The water itself held its own mysteries. As the last three tours in the cave, things were stone quiet.  The air was still, and the animal life was slowly returning to reclaim its territory.  Before long we spotted small catfish, crayfish and even several fist sized freshwater crabs.   An entertaining addition to our group as we waded, swam, and walked back down through the flooded hallways, past ancient stalactites and stalagmites towards the entrance.

Eventually, wet, and slightly cold we reached the mouth of the cave…pausing briefly to make sure we hadn’t lost anyone, our guide pointed to two glowing points along the sheer walls of the cave near the entrance.  The first thing to catch our attention was the stunningly beautiful reflection of eyes – star-like in nature.   Then, as our eyes adjusted, the outlines of massive spiders suddenly sprang into focus.

Eager and slightly anxious, I made my way once more into the deep pool at the mouth of the cave.  This time, careful to stay near the center of the chamber – hoping to stay as far away from the spiders as humanly possible.

Drenched, but thrilled I made my way back over the submerged rocks, dinging my shins every now and then, before scrambling out onto the moss slicked stones that marked the mouth of the cave.  There we spotted another large, freshwater crab, before carefully picking our way up the muddy embankment and back onto the main path.

It was dark.  Long past sunset, with a nearly full moon slowly climbing towards apex. It was stunning.  The sky and moon brilliantly outlined the jungle canopy as it stretched over our heads, allowing slight moonlight to filter down to the jungle floor.   After a quick pause we set off, back to the parking lot and our cars.  We had a 40 minute walk ahead of us, through the dark, in the middle of nowhere, down a small dirt path and across three large rivers.  THIS was the adventure i’d signed up for.

A glowing smile on my face, I began back towards the parking lot, pausing from time to time to let out a sign of amazement.  I mentioned previously that the spider’s eyes at the cave mouth had been impressive.  As it turns out, the jungle to either side of the path itself was home to thousands of spiders.  All of varying sizes, but sharing the same brilliantly reflective eyes.  As the light struck the path, I could not help but feel as though I was on a path through space, with stars to either side stretching out into space.

Careful not to stray off the path we wandered along for some 20 minutes before suddenly stopping dead in our tracks.  Sitting smack dab in the middle of the path was a giant toad.  No doubt feasting on the veritable spider smorgasbord. It stared at us briefly before lazily launching itself to the side of the path, and then off into the thick underbrush beyond.

About half way back to the parking lot my headlamp began to blink.  My battery was dieing.  Luckily, the moon was bright, I still had some battery left, and the other two members of the group still had battery power.

Nervously chuckling and wondering what other animal life was roaming the path, we set back to our trek, before eventually finding our way back to the parking lot where we donned warm clothes, piled into one of the guides’ trucks and set off for San Ignacio.

The trip, which had started out in what looked to be miserable disappointment ended up being one of my favorite experiences in Belize.

If you ever find yourself in Belize, make sure you track down a guide and explore Actun Tunichil Muknal – but hurry! People were not kidding when they said this site can’t last.  There’s simply too much exposure to the artifacts and remains.  The site needs something more than red electrical tape marking artifacts if there’s to be any hope of persevering it.  Add to that the rugged and dangerous nature of the tour and there’s no doubt in my mind that the government will end up shutting it down in the next couple of years.

Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) – An Adventure Begins

I’d spent the previous day exploring San Ignacio and comparing tours, tour companies, and their prices. Everyone I spoke with informed me that the Actun Tunichil Muknal or ATM tour was an absolute must.  I was still hesitant. I don’t especially like organized tours, didn’t know much about ATM and had trouble swallowing the $100+ tour price.  I’ll be honest, I cracked more than a few quiet jokes about the parallels between the $100 sticker price for the day tour and the tour acronym.  Eventually, I meandered into PACZ Tours and surrendered.  The word on the street was that the tour was intense, exciting, and for reason that would later become clear, wouldn’t be in operation much longer.

The office manager of PACZ tours was the very definition of a character. I assume an English expat he had the football game was playing in the small, sweltering office as he went about his business.  Pausing periodically to mutter a husky curse, chuckle, watch a near goal, or light up a cigarette.  A shorter fellow, with old tattoos on his arms he looked the part of a stereotypical soccer hooligan, and no doubt would have been a shoe in said part in any modern movie.

The early morning tour was already booked, but I was informed, there was room on an 11:00 tour the following day.  After another look at the walls of the office, decorated by signed photographs with some of the travel channel’s most famous names: Bear Grylls of Man vs. Wild, Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods and others I decided to take the plunge.   I booked my spot which bought me lunch, transport and a guide.  Bob handed me a slip of paper that outlined what I absolutely had to have for the trip.  Chief among the items on the list: Water poof shoes, socks and a backpack.

Eager to be prepared, and hoping to avoid getting my Keens wet, I stepped into a few of the local shoe stops that dotted the road. After a bit of haggling, and a series of assurances that the shoe wouldn’t disintegrate as soon as it touched water I ended up purchasing a $10 pair of throw away sneakers. Then returned to my exploration of the city.

Path to the ATM cave

A Rough Start

After an early wake-up, I set off to round-up breakfast, pausing at the local watering hole and tourist nexus, Eva’s. From there it was a matter of time before two white vans pulled up in front of the PacZ office.  I piled into the 2nd of the two, and immediately felt a tingle of concern.  I’d booked what I had thought was a rugged, out of the ordinary, slightly dangerous tour suited to young/adventurous travelers.  The people I found waiting for me on the van were a mixture of all ages, and all builds.  Most, however, can best be described as cruise ship types.   These weren’t the young backpackers I’d expected, these were families with young children mixed with near retirees.  Frustrated, I crawled into the remaining seat, sandwiched into the back of the van and began the hour or so ride out of San Ignacio and into the jungle, down a long winding dirt track, across a small river and through several large citrus orchards.

Wading a River in the Belizean Jungle

Eventually we reached a small dirt parking lot, where we piled out of the vans, received a quick briefing and began changing into our water/walking gear.  I’d started the morning out wearing my new throw away sneakers, but also as a precaution, included my usual Keen Targhee IIs.  Good thing I did.  By the time we reached the parking lot the glue attaching the sole of the shoe had come apart, leaving a poorly stitched, cheaply assembled fabric sock behind. As I tossed the worthless shoes back in the car and donned my trusty Keens it’s safe to say I wasn’t a happy camper.

Fording the Rivers in the Belizean Jungle

Fueling the fires of my frustration, there was only one couple in my age/fitness group in the nearly 20 strong group.  To make matters worse, there’d been some sort of mix up, and despite having been promised a pick-nick lunch the company had only packed 10.   Luckily I’d ended up with one of the meals, and set to sharing it with a few of the others.  Then, after a decent delay – we set off into the jungle.

Jungle Mushrooms

I quickly bonded with the other younger couple who shared my frustrations and set off into the jungle, leading the pack.  I was fairly livid, and had allowed myself to slip into a pessimistic mood.  I expected the 45 minute walk through the jungle to take some 10-15, and the time spent wading in water to be nothing more than the 3 times we had to ford across the gently meandering river, pictured above.

Leaf Cutter Ants in Belize

To my surprise 5 minutes passed…10….15….20…25…30…and we were still winding through the jungle on a rough, uneven, often muddy dirt path.  Things were looking up – and my mood began to improve.  The three of us paused briefly at a small line of leaf cutter ants as they carried their heavy loads in a streaming line across the path.

ATM Base Camp

Eventually, dodging under low hanging vines, carefully scaling muddy river banks and keeping an every vigilant eye out for snakes or other dangers, we arrived at the ATM base camp.   The area consisted of a small group of open air palapas, clustered around a fire pit.  The palapas had hooks to hang backpacks or jackets on, tables to prepare gear and a series of hard hats fitted with head lamps hanging from their rafters.

This is where the trip really began for me.  As we waited 5 or 10 minutes for the rest of the group to catch up and arrive, we settled in, and quickly formed into groups of 8.  Each group of 8 had its own guide, and operated individually. The guides were cave guides, and different from the individuals that had ferried us out to the base camp.

Luckily, our group consisted of the younger couple mentioned previously, two middle-aged French Canadian parents and their teen daughter, a middle-aged American, and one intrepid gal who was probably at least in her late 50s.  It’s also where the tour guides told 5 members of other group that he wasn’t comfortable allowing them in the cave for safety reasons.  With a pained look on his face, the guide explained that they shouldn’t have been allowed to book the tour, due to safety concerns and the dangerous nature of caving portion of the trip.  Apparently the person who booked/researched the trip for the group as a whole, failed to properly listen to the safety warnings.

I hate to see things like that happen, but was immensely relieved – as it meant that after an incredibly rough start, the trip was finally getting on track and shaping up to be what I’d paid for. Our group of 8 set off towards the cave mouth in the lead, pausing briefly to snap pictures and take in the site’s incredible beauty. The milky blue-green water, moss-covered rocks, and lush jungle served as an incredible backdrop for a somewhat intimidating start to our cave voyage.

Would you believe me if I told you that this ended up being one of the best tours I took during my trip?  Make sure to read part two as I forge ahead and make my way into the dark, winding maze like cave system of Actun Tunichil Muknal.

Continue the adventure with part two [here].

Travel Tip – International Credit Card Fees

It’s something you don’t hear talked about regularly.  One of those little surprises that the diligent and thorough will discover after returning from an international trip as they pore over their credit card statement.

Most travel blogs and credit card companies warn you about the importance of calling your credit card company immediately before an international trip to notify them that you’ll be out of the country and that it’s acceptable to approve international charges.  What they usually don’t talk about is currency exchange fees, transaction fees, and international ATM fees – all of which add to the cost of travel.

In preparing for my upcoming trip I made a few calls and did a bit of research.  What I have learned  is that all banks have slightly different policies and approaches to international fees and the only way to truly know where you stand is to call and ask.  Luckily, while some of the agents don’t have the rates memorized they can pull them up and let you know quickly and easily.  Just call the service number listed on the back of your credit or debit card.

As I prepared to travel I dealt with my three providers: Citi Bank, Bank of America and Chase Bank. It’s interesting and perhaps important to note that none of the banks were willing to wave or negotiate the fees (and believe me I tried).

There are two different fee structures to be aware of.  One for international Credit Card use.  The other for international debit card/ATM use. These fees are especially obnoxious because you’re probably getting hit in 2-3 areas.

Debit Cards:

Chase told me that international use of their Visa debit cards came with a 3% currency exchange fee and a $3 ATM use fee.  Then on top of that add on whatever ATM transaction fee the international bank chooses to charge for supporting an out of network bank. Unfortunately, I failed to confirm what the use fee was for retail transactions using the Chase Visa debit card. I believe they are at least 3%.

Bank of America was a bit more thorough in providing me with a breakdown of specifics.  A Visa debit card through them results in a 1% currency exchange service fee. The gal I talked to failed to give me the specifics on their out of network ATM fee, which I assume is between $2-$4.  She did note that the  B of A fee is waved if you use one of their partner bank ATMs. Unfortunately there is no escaping the 1% conversation fee. Interestingly, she did note that they have 29,000 “Visa” ATMs and 19,000 “Plus” ATMs in Spain.  If you use your debit card anywhere besides their ATM they charge a 3% currency exchange fee for retail transactions using the Vista debit card.

The only way you can get the ATM fee waved seems to be if you tie it to a rather large bank account. Definitely not an option most 20 somethings will be able to take advantage of, though it is a possibility for families or retirees looking at traveling.  You might also be able to leverage a business account to get the fees waved.

Credit Cards

For convenience reasons when traveling in Europe, I prefer to use either Visa or MasterCard. Unfortunately, Discover isn’t accepted internationally,  and AmEx  seems to have significantly less coverage.  I highly recommend researching what cards are most commonly accepted in the region of the world you’re planning to visit.

In calling, I found that both Bank of America and Chase set their Credit Card transaction fee at 3% on every transaction for their Visa cards.  Contrary to some of the material I’ve read on the web, the 3% fee seemed to be fairly common across the banks I talked to when dealing with Visa cards.  Again, despite raising a considerable fuss about the issue, neither bank was willing to adjust the rate.

I was able to confirm that B of A and Citi both place a 1% transaction fee on their MasterCard credit cards. While not positive, the way the B of A representative referred to the fee it’s set by MasterCard.  Though it’s also probably subject to the individual credit card/bank contract.

My experiences seem to line up fairly well with the following survey done by IndexCreditCards.com which found:

How do the major credit card issuers stack up? Below are the international transaction fees from each issuer (for banks that issue Visa or MasterCard branded cards, these numbers include the Visa or MasterCard fees):

  • Capital One: 0% transaction fee. (Capital One not only doesn’t impose its own fee, but it also eats the 1% fee that Visa or MasterCard impose.)
  • Discover: 0% transaction fee
  • American Express: 2% (Increasing to 2.7% January 1, 2009)
  • Pulaski Bank: 2%
  • Barclays/Juniper Bank: 2%-3%, depending on card
  • Bank of America: 3%
  • Chase: 3%
  • Citibank: 3%
  • GE Money 3%
  • HSBC: 3%
  • U.S. Bancorp (U.S. Bank): 3%
  • Wells Fargo: 3%

I prefer using a debit card for cash withdrawals over currency exchangers or travelers checks, and a credit card for the lion’s share of my other purchases.  For this trip I’ll use my 1% cash back MasterCard which – when the dust settles – should negate the 1% fee they’ll be charging on every purchase.  A side note: Don’t assume that airline miles cards have better travel rates.  From what I’ve seen they’re treated exactly the same as any other card…so as much as it may pain you, you might be better off leaving the Mileage card at home.

Tips, suggestions or additional ideas? Please share them in a comment form below. Was this post useful?  I’d love your feedback.