Your Guide To Traveling Long Term On The Cheap

Sunday, January 20, 2013


It seems every lush jungle, outcrop of volcanoes or tropical coastline has its own special version of the hostel life, an ex-pat community sucked into post-colonial lounging, Cuba Libras and Bob Marley tunes. If you are anything like me, you’ve always looked at the barefoot receptionist or the beach bum tending bar at eleven in the morning and wondered what the hell they’d figured out.

Too often, I found myself on two-week jaunts, a slave to itinerary, admiring the aimless wanderers and dreading my return to work, the adventuring having just begun. Then, I decided to be one of those boozy, schedule-be-damned prophets of hang and settled up a mountain in Guatemala for a year of pouring drinks and picking avocados. In other words: I became a full-time traveler.

I learned the great truth of flower-scented receptionists and rum-soaked bartenders: We were once fairly normal, real-world folk with IT jobs, office dress codes and rent to pay. We were chefs, scientists, students, teachers, marketers and every mundane occupation fading under the sun, but that two-week package was not long enough to satisfy our want for escape. So, we found a way: We learned to travel long on the cheap.

More Than a Dream: Making Adventure Reality

Once you’ve shucked the confines of a job, stuffed your parents’ attic with boxes and gone off gallivanting, it’s easy to shrug as if you’d never had a doubt in the world. Some travelers are filled with an unadulterated wanderlust, but in reality, many a tropical bartender started from a place of it-can’t-be-worse-than-this desperation. Regardless, it is possible to make this decision without throwing all caution to the wind. There are a bounty of routes and reasons to up and leave.

1) Saving up for it makes the choice reasonable, admirable even, and less impulsive. After all, loads of “sane” people save up for the hyper-consumption of summer vacation, spring break or weddings. By pocketing pennies for six months, you’ll convince everyone, including yourself, that you’ve got it all under control. All the working and scrimping is leading up to an enlightening, educational and ethereal experience, which hopefully it will be.

2) Getting out of the rat race doesn’t always satisfy the “responsible” naysayers. Many of us would’ve skipped high school were we given the choice, so why should work be any different? Now, you have the option to leave. Take a break from the drudgery and live what you’ve been working towards: a really long weekend.

3) My friend Scott works stateside as a chef mainly to migrate south every winter and avoid the cold. It began as a one-time excursion. Sick of the Minnesotan icebox, he headed south for relief. Now, he’s turned completely seasonal, earning his nest egg via summer tourism in Alaska then, when the temperature starts dropping, wintering in Guatemala. En route, he stops by Minnesota to see family and friends. Genius!

These are just a few suggestions for those who need to justify our decision to leave. I’ve learned that most good friends will encourage such insanity, while others might question your grip on reality, but the biggest challenge will be persuading yourself. It’s good to have a plan and some sound reasoning to take that first cab to the airport. Having a purpose can provide the necessary push out the door. I volunteered at a local elementary school. Who could object to that reasoning?


An Egg, a Nest, and an Omelet

Nothing says commitment and sensibility like hoarding away chunks of cash. Subsiding for three months, six months or an entire year or more requires a little padding in the bank account (USD$3,000 got me through a year). Even if you aren’t paying rent and are eating three free meals a day, there are costs: tickets, nights out, drinks, souvenirs, visas, etc . . . Here are some ideas to pad that nest egg and what to do once you’ve left home.

1) A funding program is wise. Most of us don’t have a few grand under the mattress. You could work by putting away a small portion of your salary every paycheck, and within a few months, you’ll be set. Or, a quicker option, though a bit too liberating for some, is selling your car, TV, stereo, couch, entertainment center — all the stuff that won’t be coming with you and will be problematic to store. Even the wiliest traveler needs it.

2) Next, you’ll need to find a nest, somewhere to spend all this free time. Central America is gorgeous, cheap and a classic backpacker haven, chock-a-block with hostels which, in exchange for a few hours of “working,” provide free room and board, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Generally, these arrangements, rather informal — meet-and-shake type affairs — are posted around tourist spots and might require two to three months of hanging.

3) You’ll have to break the egg and start traveling. Most places hire in person. Hostels need people who are already in the country, guaranteed to not bail out or turn out to be a knife-wielding lunatic. A will to mingle is a plus, as every couple of days, you’ll be acting host to a new fleet of temporary visitors, ready to soak it all in as quickly as possible. They’ll all want to know how you managed to make this place your home.

My hostel work experience was mostly in Guatemala, however, here are some places I’ve enjoyed and seen the work-stay agreement in effect: Weary Traveler Hostel (Mexico), La Iguana Perdida (Guatemala), Earth Lodge (Guatemala), Rocking J’s (Costa Rica), and Luna’s Castle (Panama).

Many guidebooks give tips, but you’ll learn more by getting somewhere and asking around. In the meantime, find a place to stay for a few bucks a night, and hopefully you’ve got that bank account to keep you afloat.


How to Be a Bum

A friend of mine spends half his year as a Christmas tree farmer, but the other is spent rallying fellow travelers for sangria parties before lunch, contentedly wasting hours balancing things on his chin. He captivates audiences with tales of heartbreak, airport body searches and working at a lakeside pupusa stand. Jeffrey has an inextinguishable ability to fill time, but many of us don’t, especially when we aren’t consumed with work. Therefore, here are some ways to fill that newfound free time.

1) Really consider what it is you’ll be doing with all of this new, idle time. Now would be the opportunity to pursue those bygone interests you’ve lived to regret never doing: the ukulele, a screenplay, surfing, a new language — whatever. Find something cheap to do that will make you feel the journey. After a month of free-flowing booze and irresponsible love-making — think of what you can do that is both worthwhile and character-building.

2) Volunteering opportunities are vast and varied in whatever country you find yourself, ranging from environmentally-friendly construction projects to farming to teaching English. Most hostels participate in community improvement projects, or at the very least, promote them, so getting involved is easy. Also, if the hostel scene gets too toxic, you can check out WWOOFing, which is volunteering on organic farms in exchange for room, board and food.

3) The key to maintaining your travel bum status is stretching those funds you’ve piled up, and the best way to do that is sticking to each place for a while, avoiding the cost of getting to the next destination. Staying put allows you to live locally, really get to know a place, fall in love with its quirks (or tamales) and perhaps even appreciate some of the comforts of “home” as you steer clear of the Americanized cafes and bars.

Having nothing to do is a problem most adults long for, but believe it or not, a month or two of hangover noon-rises and a three-novels-a-week habit can drag you down. This same constant lull creates fantastic jugglers, masters of fire poi, and the reason for the abundance of bracelet makers and bongo-toting writers-in-residence along the backpacker trail. You must learn to be a bum. So, get yourself a hobby or two — maybe a travel blog? — something to balance on your chin.

Parting Thoughts

Though it seems a life of wild risk-taking or untamed free-spiritedness, many people come to be beach bums, mountain dwellers and jungle inhabitants via calculated, conscious and conscientious means. It can be a responsible decision and, for some, much more relevant than saving up for the next car payment, house note or weekend resort blowout. Traveling long on the cheap is, without a doubt, one of the richest experiences I’ve ever had.

The most difficult thing about going is the going. Once you are abroad, life — as always — has a way of sorting itself out, regardless of your initial intentions, fears or struggles (stomach trouble happens, as do bug bites and sunburns).

Ex-pats and travelers are generally pleased to help newbies, provide a therapeutic beer, meal or cell phone in a pinch. We have tents and stories and advice; we have, at least on occasion, Jeffrey to offer up for entertainment.

By Jonathon Engels


About the Author

jonathanengelsbiopicJonathon Engels, formerly a patron saint of misadventure, has been stumbling his way across cultural borders since 2005 and is currently back volunteering in the mountains outside of Antigua, Guatemala. For more of his work, visit his website and blog.

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