Travel has many problems yet budgeting isn’t one

We’re asked on a not so regular basis how we manage to control and check our travel budget. It’s a fair enough question and one that I’m always more than happy to answer.

I’ll preface this post by saying that, a) I’m a project manager by profession which meant that, b) from the outset of deciding to travel I knew I’d have that whole budget thing hanging over me constantly if I didn’t plan on how I could monitor and control it. 

By controlling and monitoring the budget in a simple way I could then put it to the back of my mind and focus on the important things like lobster meals, snorkelling with sea turtles, mountain hiking in Peru, finding lost cities, driving through deserts, etc, etc…

Here’s how we’ve put our travel budget to the back of our mind:

1) How Much Dollar Do We Need?

We decided on our approximate daily budget range and decided on how long we wanted to travel for. We then simply multiplied x by y to give us the golden number of dollars we’d need to save up before heading to Nicaragua on March 12th 2015. Yes, the harder part was saving and, for us, this happened over many a moon.

2) Find A Tool To Rule Them All

The project manager in me thought, “there must be a simple application or online tool that someone else smarter than me has built to make my job easier by removing all the arduous admin work involved in keeping track of expenses and our budget.” Or something to that effect.

Thankfully, the answer was a resounding “Yes Matt, there is.” And there was much rejoicing. By me. Quietly. On my own. 

Cynthia by this point had delegated this entire budget monitoring project to me to ensure she could focus properly on googling “how long is too long to spend at a beach in the sun?” Followed closely by “Is there ever a ‘too long’ to spend at a beach?” She’s yet to find the answer.

Anyhow, THE tool. We use the incredibly easy to use Trail Wallet. It’s an app created by travelers for travelers and I cannot recommend this enough. 

3) Learn To Use And Set Up Trail Wallet

This step is pretty straightforward because, well, the app is just so perfectly easy to use.

  • First, watch the helpful video on the Voyager Apps website to get to know all the features of Trail Wallet.
  • Then, go to your newly installed app and add a new trip and give it a name!
  • Then, if you have your magic budget number already you can enter in a start and end date and then enter in your total trip budget. Don’t worry, you can edit all these at any time so if your trip goes on further then you can extend that end date. If you win the lottery and your budget increases, you can increase it!
  • You can then enter in currencies. We started with Nicaraguan Cordobas and then added new currencies as we moved onto different countries. We also used Canadian Dollars as this is our home currency. (p.s. When you’re connected to WiFi, you can update the exchange rates.)
  • Exit out of there to your home screen and then click on your trip. The next screen is where you’ll have all your information handy to you.

Once we completed all this, we were trained up and ready to start tracking expenses and therefore ready to begin monitoring and controlling our year-long travel budget! Waahooo!

4) Start Tracking Those Expenses

Yes, for this gem of an app to work and for you to end those sleepless nights wondering how much money you have to spend per day today and how much you have left in the piggy bank… You do need to enter in EVERY expense.

Just simply go to your trip homepage, click the plus sign, enter in the amount, ensure its the correct currency (hint: don’t mix up those Colombian Pesos for Chilean Pesos!) and, if you like, select a category (see below) of expense and add a note. 

That’s it. It’s quicker than writing it down on putting it in your notes. Plus, the app will subtract the amount from your trip and daily budget and it will tell you what your “adjusted budget” (see below) is now. 

So, so easy yet nice and effective.

5) Keep On Repeating Step 4 So You Can Monitor at your Leisure!

That’s right, we enter every expense so that now we can still see our daily budget as it was at the start of the trip yet now we can also see our adjusted daily budget (if you tap on your budget that appears on your trip home screen) to see how it’s increased over time because of all those days that have come under budget, again, waahoooo!

In settings you can add, edit and remove categories. We like categories because we can use the apps built in charts function to see precisely where our money has been going. We use big catch all categories like “accomodation” and “food/groceries/water”. We’re up to 12 categories now and it’s no surprise that accomodation and food is where most of that money has gone.

——————–

So, that’s how we do it. We found and downloaded an app and we use it on a daily basis. 

The project manager in me is content because I can monitor and control our budget very very easily. And Cynthia and I can always sleep without worrying about unanswered questions surrounding money when traveling. We’ve always got the answers in our Trail Wallet

— Matt

Desert Love [Video] – Wanderlust Adventures to Punta Gallinas, Colombia

The relentless wind, the whipping sand, the never ending bumps in the desert road, the waves that made it impossible to swim where the desert meets the ocean, all things that could have tainted this 3 day desert trip. But they didn’t.

At all.

In fact, it was the harshness of the environment – the relentless wind, the whipping sand, the never ending bumps in the desert road, the waves that made it impossible to swim where the desert meets the ocean – that opened up my heart.

  
The desert, I think, has a way of humbling you that no other environment on earth can. Every sip of water you take makes you realize that the desert could swallow you up in a heartbeat.

Despite the lack of freshwater, the lack of shelter from the wind, the lack of shade from the beating sun, people were living there. I was and still am in complete awe of that.

  
My heart swells when I think of our trip to Punta Gallinas in Colombia. For me, it was a sort of pilgrimage to the most northern point on South America, a spiritual awakening, I suppose you could say.

  

Our desert adventure started in the wee hours of a dark morning. I watched the most beautiful sunrise I’d ever seen. 

The Sierra Nevada mountains were cloaked in mist. A huge grapefruit pink sun slowly burned the mist away and set the sky ablaze. Against the fiery pastel sky, the mountains stood tall and proud. 

The native Kogi people call these mountains the Heart of the World. In that moment, I knew why.

I felt like every part of the trip was like that – a gift from nature, herself. Gorgeous landscapes, towering sand dunes, cliffs falling into the sea. 

  

 

  

  
But enough of my words and explanations, they’re failing us here, you and me.

Matt put together a charming little video, showing you the best parts The Guajira Desert as we made our way to the extreme north ofSouth America – Punta Gallinas.

As I wrote home after the trip: We drove through the desert for 3 days, slept in hammocks, swam where the desert meets the Caribbean Sea, showered under the brightest stars I’ve ever seen, bribed indigenous people with bags of water to let us pass through their land, played soccer with a little boy who lives in the desert, made friends with German girls who became our translators, found skeletons of various animals, saw tons of desert goats, learned about the illegal trafficking of Venezuela’s gas in Colombia, climbed sand dunes, got pelted by sand during a wind storm, got sunburnt and windburnt…

…and finally, finally stood on the most northern point of South America.   

 

If you want to go to Punta Gallinas, we highly recommend going with Expotur instead of going alone.

– Cyn and Matt 

It’s hard to put this trip into words. Since mid-June, I’ve been struggling to find an appropriate way to tell you about – a way that describes the feeling inside of me. That trip changed me.

Why We Chose Expotur and Didn’t Go Alone to Punta Gallinas, Colombia [Video]

Punta Gallinas. As soon as we decided we weren’t going to go to Brazil, a place we’d never heard of suddenly became a focus for our South American travels. We decided that our new mission was to travel to the most southern point in South America.

And to round it out?

We’d start at the most northern point in South America. And that point happens to be Punta Gallinas, Colombia.

Getting there would be a mission. A 2 day through the desert kind of mission to be exact. And of course, we’d need one day to get back. 

so windy, sandy, and hot!

It’s possible to get to Punta Gallinas independently. You can find the directions on Trip Advisor. A guy at a tour company in Santa Marta told us exactly how to do it and let us know the transportation costs. 

If we DIYed the trip, it would cost us each roughly 320.000 COP to get to Punta Gallinas. That’s strictly for transportation and thus didn’t include accommodation or food or water. 

Water which:

(a) we need to survive 

(b) is scarce in a desert

(c) would be extremely expensive to buy because of point b.

We’d needed to bring water with us. And I don’t know about you, but we couldn’t carry enough water for 3-5 days.

We started shopping around for a tour company that could take us. One that we went to said 650.000 COP per person (nearly $250 USD) — and they needed a minimum of 8 people. Insane! Currently they had a whooping zero people signed up to go. No wonder, eh?

Ultimately we found Expotur, a tour company in Santa Marta that would take us to Punta Gallinas for 450.000 COP. And if we booked the Lost City trek with them (something we were going to do anyway), they’d give us a discount on the Punta Gallinas trip. We negotiated a little more and ended up with a price we were really happy with.

Honestly, we probably saved money or at the minimum broke even compared to if we DIYed the trip.

We decided to go with Expotur to do the tour to Punta Gallinas because:

  • they gave us a great deal
  • the woman we were dealing with (Heidi, if I remember correctly) was really professional and nice to us
  • the group would be small (only 6 people including Matt and I)

 You can get a great deal for the tour to Punta Gallinas considering it will include all food, accommodation, transportation and side trips, and a guide. 

Plus, having 24/7 access to a jeep meant that we could bring water from Santa Marta – running out of water was a huge worry for me. 

Was it worth doing a tour? 

Absolutely!

As we watched independent travellers laying in their hammocks for hours on end to escape the blistering desert sun while willing the day away so they could leave the next day, we piled into our jeep and headed out to a salt water lake and played desert football with a little kid. We wouldn’t have had that experience otherwise. So for us, the tour was worth every peso – there was never a dull moment! 

 

Punta Gallinas, the most northern point in South America, is definitely as much about the journey as it is about the destination. We had an amazing time and are so glad that we chose to go with Expotur.

— Cyn

Hanging Out With Pablo Escobar’s Associate

San Agustín is a pretty small town in southern Colombia. We made the 4 hour dirt road journey from Popayán so that we could see these super old and mysterous things.

Aside from the Anthropological Park, one if the best ways to see these mysteries is on horse back. 

So we set about trying to figure out how to rent a horse. In these parts, it’s not as simple as following a sign that says “horseback riding this way”. We wandered around the little town, trying to find a tour agency or anything that looked remotely like it might offer horseback riding tours.

We couldn’t find anything.

not the hill to Casa de Nelly, but a nice view of the surrounding countryside
 
So, back up the hill to our hostel. A little defeated, but vowing to figure this out – somehow.

When we were walking back up the big hill to Casa de Nelly’s, a man appeared out of nowhere. 

He introduced himself, said he worked with/for/at Casa de Nelly and was talking to us (in Spanish) about horseback riding and renting his horses. 

It’s like that saying, it’s always in the last place you look! Or in our case, it appeared out of thin air as soon as we stopped trying. 

Things were progressing nicely in the horse rental area. Or so we thought.
All of the sudden the guy whips out a little black book.

He opens his little black book to a random page and holds it out for us to read. So I start reading and see that it’s full of testimonials from travellers.  They said things like:

“Thanks so much for taking care of us. We had a great time!” — Lucy and Steph, from Canada.

I was lost for context. I thought this man told us he was the chef at Casa de Nelly. How good was his food? I mean, I’d heard the dinners were good…but the food must be freaking unbelievable if this is what people were saying.

I didn’t get it but whatever. I just wanted to rent 2 of his horses. 

And try his food now. 

So I said that’s great, very cool.

We were all back to talking about horses when all of the sudden the guy says (in English) in a near whisper, “I used to work with Pablo Escobar.”

What?!?!

As a refresher, Pablo Escobar was a notorious Colombian drug lord, affectionately known as The King of Cocaine. He’s basically the reason why older generations might think we’re mental for going to Colombia in the first place. 

Really, we said to him, neither of us having any clue what that had to do with renting his horses. Unless…in Colombia they call drug mules something different…something like horses?

Jokes, that never crossed my mind. But it wasn’t the greatest character reference, was it!?

Oh jeeze. What were we getting into.

Then he clarified (not that we asked  – the conversation was over as far was we were concerned). 

Did we want to do a special tour with him? He could take us somewhere secret where we could make cocaine. 

OOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHHH it’s all coming together now. When I thought he said “cocina” (kitchen) he actually  said “cocaina” (cocaine). And those testimonials in his little black book weren’t talking about his cooking…nope, not at all.

No thanks, man, we’re good. And we definitely don’t want to rent your horses either. You know, just in case they’re stuffed full of drugs.

As an aside or an afterward or just cause we’re not the type of people to do stupid stuff like make or do drugs anywhere on planet earth…here’s what we think about it:

The special tour is really stupid to do!

First of all, you don’t make cocaine. It takes at least a week to make it – not 4 hours like the tour leads you to believe. 

Secondly, you look like a fool for paying so much money for a phony experience and few pinches of cement-laced chacha. 

Thirdly, by taking part in the tour you’re exacerbating corruption (the police know about this tour and are bribed to keep it going). Why would you want to consciously do something that makes every day life for every day Colombians really freaking hard?

Fourthly, it’s illegal! So if those bribes don’t get paid, guess who goes to jail? You do!

Fifthly, the guy taking you on the tour didn’t work with Pablo Escobar. It’s a lie to help make the sale to you. You look like a fool if you do it to everyone but your drug riddled self. 

In the end, Harry (the awesome guy who works at Casa de Nelly) found us different horses to rent. 

The next day, we went horseback riding through the countryside, visiting different archaeological sites. I had an amazing time. Matt had a good time too, though it was a little painful for him.

  
You see, when we were getting assigned our horses, Matt was told to “no touch the side of the horse because he no like.” This brief but perfectly clear explanation was accompanied by a disctinct bucking motion.

So, Matt spent about 4 hours riding his horse like he was riding a Harley Davidson: legs straight out in front of him. No matter the speed of the horse trotting, Matt never moved his legs for fear of pissing off his horse. So he ended up just helplessly bouncing around in the saddle. I almost died laughing! Actually, I’m laughing again as I write this a month or so later. Why he got that horse is beyond me.

Our horseback riding tour was our first up close and personal introduction to the mysterous statues and tombs of the mysterious pre-Columbian people in San Agustín. It served to only pique our interest. 

 — Cyn

Who Were Those People? Mysteries in San Agustín, Colombia

For a long time, I felt that there was no more mystery in the world. That everything that could ever be known was, well, known. And thanks to the internet, everything was just a few Google searches away.

San Agustín proved me wrong.

San Agustín is a little town in the south of Colombia. It’s not extrememly popular with backpackers but it does tempt some people. Basically, there are 2 types of travellers who go to San Agustín:

1) Those who are there to do the not-so-secret “special tour” which I’ll tell you about another time 

and

2) Those who are there to visit a UNESCO archaeological site.

We went for the archaeological site to see the mysterious monuments left behind by an even more mysterious group of people.

And it’s there that I was reminded that yes, there’s still plenty of mystery in this world!

in the museum
in the archaeological park

There are hundreds of these statues. And none of them are the same.

Get this: nobody knows who made these rock carvings! Despite having left behind a plethora of evidence of their existence, an entire group of people — an entire Andean culture that existed from the 1st to the 8th century — is completely unknown to the modern world. 

How cool is that?!

Personally, I think it’s incredible. How is it possible that nobody has a clue who these people were? It makes me feel giddy, almost childlike with wonder! 

  

The town itself is tiny, but we managed to keep ourselves busy, hanging out, horseback riding, and visiting the Parque Arqueologico with our new friends Steve and Laura from The World is a Playground. 

bottom left: Steve and Laura — Middle: random family that wanted a picture with us — Right: Matt and Cynthia

In the picture above, we’re hanging out on top of a children’s burial site. Typing that out loud makes me realize how morbid it is, but at the time, it was hilarious because…

…a random man came up to the 4 of us and said something about a picture. None of us understood what he was saying, but Matt thought the guy was asking if we wanted him to take a picture of us. Matt said no. We weren’t doing anything spectacularlay interesting that warranted a picture at that point in time. 

Then the guy said something else and held out his camera. All of the sudden, his big ol’ family appeared. 

It was then that I realized he wanted to take a picture of us with his family! Ha. I said sure because why not, eh?!

Though this seemed like a pretty normal thing for them, it was weird for us. I felt like a zoo animal, an attraction if you will. We all did. 

Then I flipped the tables and asked the man to take the same picture but with my phone. He looked at me like I was mental. LOL

We like to think that we’re framed and hanging on his wall. 

About San Agustín Archaeological Park

“The largest group of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in South America stands in a wild, spectacular landscape. Gods and mythical animals are skilfully represented in styles ranging from abstract to realist. These works of art display the creativity and imagination of a northern Andean culture that flourished from the 1st to the 8th century.” – From UNESCO.org

So there you go, we went looking for mystery and found it in more ways than one! We’ll never know why that family wanted a picture with us — but maybe one day someone will figure out who the tribe was that left all those monuments. 

— Cyn