How to Make a Travel Budget

How to Make a Travel Budget

When I left for Mexico years ago, all I had was a few thousand dollars, a desire to learn Spanish, and a vague dream to live and work in a country other than the United States. However, I had no specific strategy for implementation. I needed a plan.

My plan came in the form of a budget, a travel timeline of six months, and an end goal of steady income in Mexico.  My idea was to start in Mexico City, and head south through the country until an eventual arrival in Xela, Guatemala, a place renowned for its glut of language schools.  My itinerary was flexible, though it was the formation of a budget beforehand that allowed me to maximize my time in Mexico, and turn my vague dream into a definite reality.

Pre-Trip Costs

First, consider pre-trip costs, such as the flight to your destination. Depending on where you are going, this can be anywhere from $100 to $1000 USD. Save accordingly.
Consider additional pre-trip costs: visas, travel insurance, immunizations, a decent bag. This can set you back another $200-400. For Mexico, a tourist visa is given upon arrival ($20) and is valid for six months. To renew, you just need to cross the border out of Mexico, either into the U.S. or a Central American country.

Setting Your Budget

Your budget is determined by the kind of traveling you will be doing. Will you be staying in hostels or nice hotels? Do you prefer private cars or public transport? Do you pay top dollar for western cuisine or do you thrive on local food? In Mexico, I lived well on $35 a day. I rented private accommodations, used public transport, ate local fare, and took frequent day trips.

What to do in Chiapas - Palenque
Palenque, Chiapas

Below are cost estimates based on different styles of travel for destinations such as Mexico, South America, and North Africa. To see cost approximations for other countries, check out the crowd-sourced figures from or

  • Budget (hostels, local food, day trips): $35/day
  • Mid-range (private rooms, western meals, frequent activities): $50/day
  • Luxury (nice hotels, lavish meals, private transport): $100/day

Regardless of lifestyle, building a travel budget is the same—begin with the number of days you would like to travel, then multiply that number by your daily cost estimate. For example, say you want to travel for six months, or you want a six-month financial cushion while you acclimate, travel, and network on your way to find steady work. Based on the estimates above, a six-month financial cushion for a “budget” lifestyle is $5400, “mid-range” is $9000, and “luxury” is $18,000. However, if needed, there are several ways you can reduce these numbers. That’s where I come in.  Below I offer a budget plan and savings tips for Oaxaca, though this advice can be applied to almost anywhere with a similar cost of living.

Cutting Costs – Accomodation

Accommodation can add up, especially if you value privacy. Shared rooms go for $10-25 a night and private rooms can be twice that much. If you pay $25 a night, you will be spending over $750 a month on accommodation alone. A great way to reduce this cost is to rent a room in one location and stay for a while.

Staying in one location allows you to use your “home” as a jumping off point for day trips and comes with the added benefit of community involvement. You are able to immerse yourself in the local culture, meet your neighbors, and glean information

Whenever I visited a new town, I would stay in a hostel while I scoured community boards in coffee shops and other tourist havens—oftentimes, there are plenty of advertisements for rooms to rent. In Oaxaca, especially, there were three coffee shops with endless information: Café Brujala, Café Nuevo Mundo, and Lobo Azul Tostadores.

Using those community boards allowed me to find a room in Oaxaca for $150 a month, including utilities.  This apartment was a twenty-minute walk from the city center, and while it was sparsely furnished, it was in a safe area, with a rooftop terrace, and all the amenities (i.e. bed, kitchen, bathroom, internet) I would need.

How to set a travel budget
My home in Oaxaca

By living in my Oaxaca apartment for two months, I was able to keep my spending to a minimum with a daily budget of $35. My private accommodation was $5 a day and I did the majority of my eating at home, buying fresh fruit and vegetables from the nearby ferias and mercados.  Local food is cost-friendly and is also an essential part of the authentic gastronomical experience.  However, I wasn’t overly strict—once or twice a week, I would eat out with locals, expats, or other travelers I had met.  Three meals a day, including superfluous drinks and treats, cost roughly $10-$15 a day.

Food and accommodation was half my daily budget, and the rest was free to spend how I pleased. The remaining $15-$20 a day went to Spanish lessons, special events, and trips (Hierve el Agua, Mitla, Monte Albán, Mazunte, San José del Pacífico, etc), or I saved what I didn’t spend.  In this way, one could live and travel comfortably through Oaxaca and beyond for six months—without working—for $5400.

However, I lived in Mexico for six months starting with only $3000.  How did I do it? Hostel Work and Volunteering.

Additional Ways to Save

Hostel Work

Aside from reducing daily expenses, another way to save is to work in a hostel.  Many hire travelers for reception, cleaning, or bartending in exchange for free accommodation and/or a stipend.  Websites such as Hostel Jobs and Hostel Management lets you find work before you go.  I secured a job in charming San Cristobal de Las Casas at the Iguana Hostel for two months, saved money on accommodation, earned $400, and had a fun and unique experience.

travel in Mexico
Iguana Hostel


Those two months at the Iguana Hostel allowed me to find other opportunities in San Cristobal—volunteer work.  For one month, I volunteered with La Casa del Pan, an organic restaurant located on one of the main tourist drags in San Cristobal.  My compensation was free accommodation and two meals in exchange for six hours of light farm work, five days a week.

Traveling through ChiapasHomestays

At the end of my time in San Cristobal, I rented scooters with some friends I had met while working in the hostel and we traveled through Chiapas.  After a couple days, we ended up at the border of Guatemala, where we parted ways. I headed towards Xela and they returned to San Cristobal.

In Xela, Guatemala, I ended up at the Spanish Language School, El Portal  where they set me up with a home-stay with a Guatemalan family.  A week’s worth of four hours of one-on-one language instruction a day, plus accommodation and three meals a day was around $150.  It was a great way to save money and learn Spanish.  I stayed for one month, dramatically advanced my Spanish, and was able to frequently travel the area (Lago Atitlan, Salcajá, Fuentes Georginas, San Andres de Xecul, Los Vahos, etc) all for less than $1000.

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Fulfilling the Dream

My financial plan played a huge role in my success in Mexico.  By utilizing a daily travel budget, I was able to live comfortably for six months with limited funds while I explored Mexico and Guatemala.  At the end of that period, I had made contacts from all over the country and found steady work in Mexico City– first as a private English teacher, then as a copywriter for a pineapple company, which in the end, launched my current career in freelance writing.

The rest, as they say, is budgeted history.


Guatemalan Graveyards

Guatemalan Graveyards

El Calvario

Homo sapiens have been burying their dead for at least 100,000 years.  Every culture has their own way of dealing with death, and the graveyard is key in laying the dead to eternal rest.

El Calvario Xela Guatemala

El Calvario is one of the oldest cemeteries in Guatemala.  Located in Quetzaltenango (or Xela), El Calvario is a lush, green hillside, dotted with colorful slabs, Roman-style tombs, and Gothic, Baroque, Classical, and Neoclassical mausoleums and sculptures. From the graveyard you can see the Santa Maria volcano in the distance, encased by clouds.  It’s beautiful, eerie, and fantastic.

Guatemalan Graveyards

El Calvario Cemetery in Guatemala

Guatemalan cemetery decor

tombstones in central america

colorful graveyard

Vanushka Guatemala Cemetery

Xela graveyard

guatemalan graveyards

cool cemeteries

Hiking El Volcán Chicabal

Hiking El Volcán Chicabal

Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

If you find yourself in Guatemala, go to Quetzaltenango (which shall henceforth be referred to as the locals do—Xela).  This walkable little city is marked by twisted streets, Gothic architecture, a good selection of restaurants, and hundreds of Spanish language schools.  When people visit, they stay for a while.

But this post is not about Xela; rather, it is a post about one of the many places you can get to from Xela.  This is about La Laguna de Chicabal.

hikes near xela guatemala volcan chicabal
Photo Courtesy of XelaWho

About the Magical Laguna Chicabal

Laguna Chicabal is a crater lake nestled at the summit of  El Volcán Chicabal.  Volcán Chicabal is a caldera which stands at 8,920 feet (2,720 m) in the midst of a cloud forest.

The lake itself is 1090 feet (331 m) deep and the backdrop of the cloud forest makes a perfect habitat for native birds such as quetzals and pink-headed warblers.

This magical place is considered a sacred place of cosmic convergence by the Mam Maya.  It is a place for regular ceremonies and offerings—evidence of such is shown in the altars positioned at different points along the laguna’s shores.

Because of this,  Laguna Chicabal is preserved as a sacred site, and visitors are asked to respect the lake and grounds and not go swimming in the hallowed waters.

travel to xela guatemala laguna de chicabal
Altars around Laguna Chicabal

Getting to the Volcán

If you are staying in Xela, it is relatively straightforward to get to the base of El Volcán Chicabal.  The volcán itself is located in the municipal boundary of the pueblo San Martín Sacatepéquez,  an 45-minute bus ride away.

map of quetzaltenango xela guatemala

To catch the bus, go to the Minerva Terminal in Xela and hop on one of the many buses to San Martín Sacatepéquez (cost: 5Q).  The buses run every day from 6 am-5 pm, though note that they run with less frequency on Sundays.

Once the bus passes into San Martín, you will see a large sign for Laguna Chicabal Park — this is where you get off.  If you are nervous about missing the stop, tell the driver you are going to Laguna Chicabal and most likely he let you know.  The starting point for the volcán is in the center of tiny San Martín, and the road winds through its small neighborhoods before heading up the slopes. This allows you a peak into the life of the local population of San Martín; the majority use the lower slopes of the volcano for agricultural purposes.

Hiking the Volcán

The hike to the entrance station of La Laguna Chicabal Park is approximately 1.5 hours from the center of town.  These town roads can be convoluted and confusing, so if you get lost don’t be afraid to ask a local to point you in the right direction. Very quickly the trail heads uphill — make sure you pack water, snacks, and a sweatshirt.

When you reach the entrance station you will see an open field and some buildings. This is where you pay the entrance fee of Q15 and you will often see families picnicking or playing fùtbol.

Entrance to Laguna Chicabal Xela Guatemala
Entrance to La Laguna Chicabal

From the entrance to the edge of the crater is another 45-minute walk.  About two-thirds of the way up you’ll reach a fork, where you can either go right to head directly to the water’s edge, or left up to the miradores (lookouts), and then down 600+ wooden steps down to the edge of the lake.

Once you are by the water’s edge, you will see a path that circumnavigates the lake.  This tranquil trail  is less than a mile long, and the beautiful, peaceful environment allows for a reflective and profound experience.   As mentioned before, you can usually see leftover altars, camp areas, and fire pits.

camping around laguna chicabal xela

If it’s a clear day, you’ll be able to see several large Guatemalan volcanoes from the miradores.  If it’s foggy, the only thing you’ll be seeing from the miradores is the inside of a cloud.  When I visited, the entire hike up was shrouded in fog, but dissipated by the time I reached the water’s edge.

Returning to Xela

Walk back down the way you came, and once you get back into San Martín, just go out to the road and wait for a bus returning towards Xela. If you have doubts, just ask, “Xela?” as you board the bus and the driver will let you know.


Entering the Fog

Entering the Fog

Yesterday I hiked a volcano and I thought it would be a nice outing with the sun and a steady-but-not-too-steep-incline ending with a lake and a pretty  view of water and land. 

I needed that.  Life was getting away from me, and I had been feeling confused, foggy. I wanted some peace, some water, some time to think.

It was almost all  those things but imagine if they were dipped in the Eternal Fuck You and then laid out to dry in the Continual Yes. Two hours of upward pain broken by moments of reverie. A man and his child touting wood.  A cow meandering along the path.  The cry of a bird.

hiking to laguna chicabal guatemala

At the summit, I walked directly into a cloud and could see nothing. I was standing above the cratered-lake but couldn’t see a thing because nature doesn’t give a fuck about vistas or your plan, and to tell you the truth, it didn’t really bother me because at this point I am finally getting used to hurricane beaches and cloudy viewpoints and who am I to complain when the clouds decide to swoop in? Hiking endorphins just made me happy to be there, breathing hard and deep.

I descended billions of wooden stairs to the lake’s edge and it felt like Loch Ness — all fog and monster. I decided to walk around the lake because I was there and it was so tranquil and quiet and creepy. I knew I had to.

Laguna Chicabal Guatemala

I started walking and the fog was oscillating between thick and thin and I could see Mayan altars in the water… it was beautiful and eerie and I had no fear of anything.  For the first time in a long time, I felt happy and mystical and lucky.

Maya Altars Laguna Chicabal Guatemala

I continued walking around the lake and as I did, there were more altars on the shore and the fog and clouds were rising and thinning and going and by the time I finished my circumambulation, they all had lifted and I could see across the lake and into the sky and it was  gorgeous and clear and if that’s not a metaphor what is?

Guatemala hiking laguna de chicabal xela