Quick Guide: Travel Oaxaca Mexico on a Budget

Table of Contents

Why trial retirement?

Travel is one spending that we cannot give up. It is much easier for us to resist the temptation of holiday outlet mall shopping. With travel we feel like we are getting the real BOGO. First, the experience of being immersed in another culture, of being one with locals, talking to them and understanding that there are other ways of living a content life. Second, is taking back one of our most invaluable resource, Time.

This trial retirement in Oaxaca, Mexico is exactly this. We decided that before achieving financial independence, and hopefully retire early, we should try and experience how it is to retire from the regular 9 to 5 grind. But why? Can’t we just stop working and do whatever retired people do? How hard could it be? It may seem strange to some that we have to shape our travel like a retirement internship.

I have read an article saying that there are stages of retirement, and one of the stage is Disenchantment. It is the feeling of disappointment after the high of retirement has worn off. It is realizing that retirement is not as exciting as once anticipated. Retirees can go through feelings of boredom, loneliness, and unworthiness at some point.

On knowing this, I realized that there could be a million things waiting for us at early retirement and we want to maximize our happiness by asking ourselves now what we really enjoy doing.

Questions

This trip was set out to simulate how we want to spend our time once we achieve financial independence. The questions we want to ask ourselves are:

  • Is this the right place for us?
  • What does it look like to not be tied up in work?
  • What activities do we do in our free time?
  • How much will our monthly expenses be?

Our trial retirement fund before arriving to the city was $3520 (see article on how we planned this budget), with flights ($660), rideshare ($60) and Airbnb ($390) deducted we are down to $2410. We aim to survive for a month in a foreign city with this fund. Considering that the average cost of a 12-night international trip is $3251, this might be pushing it. But we are confident in our research, we chose Oaxaca, Mexico knowing that the cost of this trip would be much less than the average.

Today we will explain how we planned and spent the budget for each line item.

Groceries

Budget: $200

Actual Expense: $240

Plan: Buy ingredients from local groceries and markets and to eat breakfast and lunch at home.

Cost: Luckily, we were situated right next to a local grocery and a bus ride to Walmart (Macro Plaza). The typical contents of our grocery carts would be:

  • 5 Gallon water bottle                    $1.25
  • 3 kg of white rice                            $3.00
  • Cooking oil                                        $0.93
  • 1 Loaf Bread                                     $2.50
  • Instant Coffee                                  $1.47
  • Almond Milk                                     $2.20
  • 1 Pack Sugar                                     $0.37
  • 2 Vegan Chorizo                              $1.66
  • 2 Canned Veggies                           $2.44
  • Vinegar                                              $0.73
  • 4 Packs Instant Noodles                $1.08
  • Potato Chips (Ruffles)                    $2.45
  • 4 Rolls Toilet Paper                        $1.47
  • Shampoo                                           $7.45
  • Sunscreen                                          $9.11
  • Bar Soap                                            $0.49

The bulk of our fresh fruits and vegetables we got from a local market called Mercado Sanchez Pascua. Our baskets would usually have the following:

  • Broccoli                              $8.84
  • Bag of Apples                    $1.71
  • Potatoes                             $0.50
  • Bell Pepper                        $0.59
  • Mangoes                            $2.00
  • Avocadoes                         $0.78
  • Onions                                $0.13
  • Zucchini                              $2.70
  • Garlic                                   $1.65
  • Carrots                                $2.02
  • Long Beans                        $1.57
  • Chayote                              $0.09
  • Bamby pan pastries           $1.80
  • Fresh Cut Flowers                $3.00

Tips: Shop at the local market but be mindful not to buy too much. We never had to refill our pantry items and toiletries and we could always get something when we pass by the market. There were a couple of times that we had to throw some of the food away. A $30-bag of produce and groceries will last up to 2 weeks.

Eat Out

Budget: $400

Actual Expense: $630

Plan: Taste traditional Oaxacan cuisine (vegan/vegetarian options). Eat out up to 3 times a week.

Cost: Oaxaca de Juarez has the most amazing cafes and restaurants just about at every corner. We would most often get lost in a street and then find a café or restaurant hidden in plain sight. We were very happy that most restaurants had vegan or vegetarian options. We recommend the following restaurants for vegans and non-vegans alike:

  • Calabacitas Tiernas
    • Vegetable soup                            $5.88
    • Stuffed Chili                                  $12.74
  • Boulenc
    • Mushroom Focaccia                $4.07
    • Vegan Ciabatta                             $3.18
  • Zandunga Sabor Istmeño
    • Empanada                                     $7.10
    • Tlayuda                                          $6.86
  • Las Quinces Letras
    • Creole Squash with black mole   $8.82
    • Ensalada                               $4.65
  • Hierba Dulce
    • Mole Amarillo                                $3.67
    • Ensalada Verde                              $ 3.43
    • Chille Relleno                                 $2.94
    • Empanada                                       $2.94
  • La Campane
    • Taco                                                $5.88
    • Soy Hamburger                           $5.88
    • Tlayuda                                           $3.43
    • Spaghetti                                        $6.37
  • La Matatena Pizzeria
    • Margarita                                       $6.86
    • Chabela                                     $7.59
  • Terranova at Zócalo
    • Quesillo Fundido                            $5.88
    • Quesadillas                            $4.65
    • Pizza Vegetal                                  $13.23
  • Sushi Itto
    • Vegan sushi rolls                             $5.39
  • Café Brújula & Cafébre
    • Hot Drink                                        $2.20
    • Frappe                                             $2.69
    • Cheesecake                                    $2.94
  • Restaurants with tour
    • Buffet                                               $7.35
Hierba Dulce
Zandunga Sabor Istmeño
Cafébre

There were dozens of times when we do not even make it to the restaurants, because there were street food vendors on all the main streets and markets. These are the markets and the street foods we munched on:

  • Mercado Orgánico La Cosecha
    • Memelas                            $1.22
    • Tlayuda                              $4.90
    • Jugo (Fresh juice)             $1.71
    • Empanada                          $2.45
    • Quesadillas                        $1.47
    • Tacos                                  $1.71
    • Tejate                                  $0.98
    • Coffee                                 $2.00
    • Cakes                                  $1.96
    • Bottled Water (1.5L)       $0.73
  • Mercado 20 de Noviembre
    • Chille Relleno                    $2.94
    • Caldo                                $2.45
    • Tlayuda                             $2.45
    • Jugo                                  $2.50
    • 1 kg Jerked Beef               $12.00
    • 1 kg Chorizo                     $8.00
  • Los Sabores de la Chef Buffet                    
    • Buffet (drinks excluded) $2.94

Street Food

  • Zócalo
    • Agua Frescas      $0.98
    • Spiropapas          $0.98
    • Papas Fritas        $1.71
    • Paletas                 $1.37
    • Churros (4 pcs)  $0.49                   
  • La Soledad
    • Nieves                  $1.71
  • El Llano Park
    • Elote                     $1.71
    • Esquites               $0.98
  • McDonald’s food delivery:
    • Mc Patatas         $2.90
    • Sundae                 $1.45
    • Apple Pie             $1.33

Tips: Eating cooked meals at the market saved us more than dining at restaurants. On future experiments we could increase budget, but the current amount should be enough for retirement. We could also be more intentional with our food choices by planning at least one day ahead to not only eat street food all day. It would be good on both the wallet and my love handles!

Transportation

Budget: $60

Actual Expense: $45

Plan: Walk. Use public transportation to visit the pueblos.

Cost: Moving around in the city center is very easy. We can walk across town in about half an hour. If walking is not an option and for spots outside of the city center, we had the following choices:

  • local bus that drives in and out of the city        $0.40 (depending on distance)
  • request a Didi / taxi (like Uber)                          $5.00 one-way
  • ride the Colectivo (shared taxicab)                    $2.00 (depending on distance)
  • tour van that goes to the tourist spots               $5.00

Lessons: It was nice to try out different methods, but our rudimentary Spanish seemed to be insufficient to move around on our own. A little bit of knowledge on which ride goes where will be extremely helpful. Walking goes a long way, but next time we should consider paying for a ride if it is less of a hassle. Getting lost under the heat of the sun, in the middle of nowhere is not worth saving a few bucks.

Activities

Budget: $900

Actual Spent: $1060

Goal: Learn Spanish. Visit tourist spots in or near Oaxaca while living like locals in the town. Take a break and relax.

Cost: Before coming in, we already know 2 activities that we would want to do for sure:

  • Spanish Immersion School              $600
  • Massage and Spa                                          
    • Anahata day SPA
      • Couples Massage             $88
      • Manicure / Paraffin         $19.60 each
      • Pedicure / Paraffin          $22.05 each

Tips: Spanish Immersion School welcomes all levels of proficiency, but we will benefit more if we have the basics covered or if we stayed with them in the compound. Book MAE Massage and Bodywork for massages right away. She is the best in town. Anahata day SPA is good for same day appointments, manicure, pedicure, and other treatments.

Tours

We have researched the tourist spots hoping to hit everything during our stay, but due to the pandemic The Hierve del Agua, Arbol del Tule, Santo Domingo Church and the Jardin Etnobotánico were closed at the time of our visit.

Free Walking Tours

We found that one of the first activity you must do in Oaxaca is the Free Walking Tour. This tour highlights different key locations in the city. A knowledgeable local usually gives the tour in English, in our case it was Raul. There are tours daily at 10 am and 5 pm. The meeting place is the Teatro Macedonio Alcala. Just look for the guide wearing a yellow shirt or carrying a yellow umbrella.

Lesson: The walking tour is highly recommended because during the tour you will have ideas where to eat and which areas to visit again and of course know a bit of history in the perspective of the locals. We tried both times on different days and he took us to different parts of town.

Santo Domingo Church

This is one of the town’s most iconic landmarks. It is the tallest building in Oaxaca. The plaza in front of the church is always bustling with tourists, locals and vendors. In the early mornings during our stay, we would find students and their family posing for a professional graduation photoshoot and in the late afternoons there would be pre-wedding sessions and quinceañera photo sessions. Cafes, bars, shops, and ambulant vendors surround the main complex. There would always be something new to see and try. Each day would visit one store and talk to the shopkeeper about the crafts they sell, learning more about the towns and their very rich culture.


Majority of the material used to build the church exterior is cantera, which is a stone made from volcanic ash and lava, mined exclusively in these parts of the world. This gives the façade its green color. The yellow colors, usually found on the newer side of the complex, are from newly quarried stones

Tips: For great photos with the church, visit the complex early in the morning. To experience the “nightlife” go to the rooftop bars in front of the church. For regional crafts like alebrijes, visit the stalls south of the complex.

Zócalo Oaxaca

The gazebo and park in the middle is surrounded by the main cathedral, the town hall, local restaurants, cafes, and shops that has outdoor seating facing the park. If you want to try street food, there are plenty. We would often buy papas fritas or paleta and wash it down with agua fresca while sitting on a bench under a tree. On one of our tours, we learned that at one time, McDonalds had tried to build a restaurant on one of the buildings surrounding the area, and the locals were not happy. They invited in dozens of vendors to handout free tamales to people in the park, and they came in droves. The success of this is evident why you could not see a McDonalds in the town center.

The Zocalo in Oaxaca Centro was built in 1529. It is a reference point for the city’s new layout. It is where the grand cathedral and the government palace is located

Tips: There are performances done by local artist in the afternoon. On the weekend, kids playing with balloons and their parents would have a family time. Grab a drink and people watch. 

El Llano Park

It is one of the biggest parks and playgrounds in the town center. This place is a favorite spot for joggers and exercise enthusiast in the morning, but in the afternoon roller skaters of every level of proficiency and their families try to unwind at the end of the day.

El Llano Park Dance Crew 😀

Another close to free activity in this spot is the Zumba class. It is an hour or so exercise class by energetic instructors. You do not need to be a great dancer to participate, just follow the instructor, channel your inner Shakira, and let the music take control. We were amazed on how untrained we were compared to the others who can do all the routines non-stop. Class starts 7 am and 8 am south of the park.

Cost: $1 each participant.

Tips: Attend Zumba class every morning. Visit the park in the afternoon, maybe try to skate? Enjoy the food and meeting people. Put the phone away and relax.

Mercado Benito Juárez

This is the town’s oldest market and is home to vendors of various crafts, souvenirs, spices, food, and clothing from all over the state. There are multiple entrances to this market. At our visit during the time of the pandemic, strict measures were in place, and there were people taking visitors’ temperature on their way inside. It is a requirement that you wear a face mask, wash your hands, and be sprayed on by sanitizer before entering.

Cost: We bought chocolate, coffee, horchata and tejate mix on our final week. Hoping we can extend the taste of Oaxaca back home. I must admit that we tried to haggle when we buy a lot of items from a shop, and they are usually very nice to accommodate.

  • Chocolate tablets             $5.00 (500g)
  • Coffee grounds                 $10.50 (340g)
  • Horchata powder             $2.55 (320g)
  • Tejate powder                  $2.55 (320g)
  • Mixed Nuts and Berries  $1.25 (various sizes)
  • Cup of Fruits                     $1.25
Mercado 20 de Noviembre

This market is a block away from the Mercado Benito Juarez. Enter thru the streets of Aldama, 20 de Noviembre or Miguel Cabrera, where the Pasillo de Humo is located. This hallway is lined with rows of meat vendors and barbecue grills thus the name (Hall of Smoke). Upon entering vendors will flock you to encourage you to visit their stall. You then choose the meats you like order sides and drinks while it is cooked. There are also cafeterias just at the end of this hallway where vendors would encourage you once more to see their menus. We ate at a couple of spots, and they made them vegetarian for us. See prices at the food section. This market also offers breads, coffee, chocolate, fresh meats, and dry goods sourced from this region.

Tips: Eat in the market canteens most meals but get there before it closes at 5 pm.

Monte Alban

There were several agencies offering full day excursions located on the main street of Macedonio Alcalá and around the Zócalo. We went with El Andador Tours to take us to Monte Alban. They offer daytrips outside of town and tours in the city. The tour includes a van to travel with other tourists and a tour guide to explain everything that you see in Spanish and English. Prices of admission to Monte Alban and meals is not included in the price. Aside from Monte Alban, they took us to 3 other pueblos famous for their crafts. These were the towns of Santa Maria de Atzompa (Barro Verde), San Bartolo Coyotepec (Barro Negro), and Arrazola (Alebrijes).

  • Daytrip to Monte Alban                               $12.50 / person
  • Tickets to Monte Alban                                $3.43 / person
  • Lunch Buffet                                         $8.00 / person
Zona Arqueológica de Mitla

I saw a post saying that it is possible to go to Mitla cheaper by bus. We are not saying no to that. The archeological site is 28 miles away from the city and is a straight forward ride according to the site. It was harder than we thought. We waited for the bus for about an hour, but we did not see Mitla signs on any bus. I began to realize that the post that I read might be a bit out of date. We walked to the road where Colectivos take passengers, but still not knowing what sign to look out for. I looked at Google maps and trace the bus route as stated on the article. I picked the town Tlacolula de Matamoros hoping that a Colectivo will pass by bearing this sign and one did. One did and he took us right in the center of town, but we still had to walk about 15 minutes to get to the archeological site. The journey home was more walking and more getting lost. We made it though!

  • Transportation (Collective and Taxi)                        $6.50 / person                 
  • Admission to Mitla                                          $3.18 / person

Tips: Spend the money and save time. Just go with the tour.

Shopping

Budget: $400

Actual Expense: $580

Plan: We are not a couple who would frequent outlet malls or shopping centers, but we are on vacation! Although allocations were made in advance to discourage us from buying every shiny and colorful thing we can find.

On our first week we marveled at everything what Oaxaca has to offer. Then we set up a budget around the things that caught our eye. I had much fascination with the alebrijes and my wife designated budget for clothing, accessories and art. These were some of the nice things we brought:

  • 3 Alebrijes                         $157.04
  • 6 Spanish Lesson Books    $54.14
  • Graphic Prints                   $22.15
  • Handmade Bag                 $22.05
  • 2 Sombrero                       $12.50
  • Souvenir T-Shirts              $4.90 each
  • Shirts and Dress               $12.25
  • Contact Lenses                 $34.30  

Tips: Go to the Mercado de Artesanias de Oaxaca and the shops surrounding Santo Domingo Church. They carry souvenirs and most of the crafts that the surrounding towns offer. We found that in these shops it was cheaper than getting if from the town it was made. Stick to the budget…at least try.

Phone Service

Budget: $40

Actual Expense: $37.50

Plan: The initial plan was to get $40 roaming credits on one phone and make it last 4 weeks.

Upon arrival we tried to purchase a sim card from one of the convenient stores, OXXO. We bought a Telcel sim, then activated them on the other phone. That came with 15-days of unlimited call, text, and internet up to 1 GB. Because we are staying for a month, we bought a 26-day plan for another $7.5 and this bumped up our data to 2 GB. Roaming credits only lasted over 3 days before, and so we bought the same plan for the other phone as well.

  • Sim card                                       $5.00
  • Unlimited Package – 26 days       $7.50
  • Roaming credits                           $20.00

Tips: Bring an unlocked phone and load up the Telcel sim. It is cheaper and more reliable. The local businesses mainly use WhatsApp for reservations and online ordering. A good internet connection is worth it.

Medical

Budget: $0

Actual Expense: $295

Unfortunately, I got sick on the 3rd week of our stay. I tried to self-medicate with medications I “know” from a local pharmacy, but it did not let up. After a couple of days of suffering we decided to go to a hospital nearby, hoping to communicate to the doctor my symptoms with the little Spanish that I know. The doctor was very nice, she was able to diagnose and treat me well. She also referred me for Covid testing because my symptoms were respiratory. It came out negative. I had inflamed tonsils.

  • Doctor Consult                $25.00
  • 5 Medications                  $120.00
  • Covid Testing                   $50.00

Tips: Hope for the best but expect the worst. Allocate a portion of the budget for medical expenses. Also, I knew we needed Covid Tests to return to U.S., but forgot to factor it in.

Other Expenses

Laundry:

Budget: $40

Actual Expense: $40

Fortunately, we were also very close to a laundromat. We drop-off on a Thursday and pick-up Friday or Saturday.

  • A kilo of laundry               $1

ATM Fees

Budget: $0

Actual Expense: $15.00

Not all restaurants and shops took credit or debit cards, so we had to get cash a couple of times a week. Although the fees were minimal, we felt that it still diminishes our buying power as the value of the dollar fluctuates daily as well. Luckily, we were able to negotiate some of our bank fees. Here are the banks fees we incurred:

  • Scotia bank fees               $4.90
  • HSBC fees                         $3.52

Tips: Order Mexican Peso from our banks ahead of time. Use credit card for those who will take it. If it still will not cover the amount, take USD, and go to money exchanges. In the city center they are at the back of the Main Cathedral in Zócalo.

Verdict

Is this the right place for us?

Oaxaca Mexico is coming up to be a very good place for us to possibly retire. The people that we met are content and proud of their hometown and we clearly saw why. They were very understanding even if we spoke broken Spanish. But if we had to pull the trigger and live there, it must be in Oaxaca de Juarez. We had been to some of the surrounding villages, and it seems that there is not much to do, and it felt isolated.

What does it look like to not be tied up in work?

Being free from our schedules challenged us a little bit because we had to come up with a plan our own. We feel that when we retire, we must still have some sort of structure that we can follow throughout the day. It could be a simple project or a goal.

What activities do we do in our free time?

After our one week of Spanish lessons. Most of the morning was spent deciding what to do and where to go. The afternoons exploring the town, getting lost (in a good way) and eating until we are stuffed. This is not at all a bad way to do in a new town. We could maybe volunteer, take other lessons or join groups if we stayed longer.

How much will our monthly expenses be?

We went $162 over our budget but we can say that this experiment was a success. Being $162 over will not make or break us. We think that the reason for this is because we are new to town and we wanted to try everything, from food going to tours and to getting souvenirs. If we stayed like locals we could live comfortably in an Airbnb at the center, eat out twice a week and take twice a week Spanish lessons we could still allocate fun and travel funds.

  • Airbnb                                $600
  • Food and Groceries        $300
  • Phone Plan                       $30
  • Transportation                $20
  • Laundry                             $40
  • Spanish School                $160
  • Tours                                  $50
  • Medical                              $100
  • Fun Spending                    $100
  • Total                                   $1400

With this monthly expense we could theoretically retire on a $450,000 (invested in low-cost index funds) indefinitely and not run out of money. We completely understand that there are tons of things to consider here. This is only a rough, back of the envelop calculation.

We still have ways to go before we hit financial independence. This trial-retirement allowed us to see that we really do not need millions of dollars to retire early. That we can live a comfortable life by knowing what we want out of a life not tied to work and by making practical decisions that would take us there.

Have you been to beautiful cities with lower cost of living? How will you plan your life if you can retire early? We would be happy to hear from you in the comments below.

See how we planned and saved up for this trip in our article The Why and How of our trial retirement in Oaxaca Mexico.

For a more immersed experience of our trial retirement in Oaxaca, Mexico visit our channel below to see our adventure.

One thought on “Quick Guide: Travel Oaxaca Mexico on a Budget

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