Sunday, January 1, 2012

6 Months in Central and South America for the Price of a Car

Crimson-fronted parakeet eating mangos in San Jose, Costa Rica.
We sure do miss waking up to parrots.
Happy New Year! As we're coming up on a year since the start of our 6-month journey volunteering and traveling in Central and South America, we wanted to reflect on our time away. When we've talked with friends, family, and strangers about our trip, they often wonder how we did it. So we'd like to share a few of our thoughts here on why and how we managed to take 6 months off to explore, along with a graphic of how the costs worked out, percentage-wise. This is longer than our usual entries; we wanted to go a little more in depth.

When we began this blog, we mentioned a little about our motivations for taking this trip. It was very difficult deciding to leave jobs we loved for an uncertain experience far away from home, friends, family, and our two cats. The timing was far from perfect, but we realized we would never find an ideal time to leave: this trip wasn't something that would fit naturally into our lives; we needed to carve out a place for it. We spent plenty of nervous nights figuring out whether we could handle it financially, wondering where to go and for how long.

Economical Program Choices

Once we started seriously looking into volunteer bird banding opportunities, it became much easier to envision our trip. We found Fauna Forever Tambopata and Kekoldi Indigenous Reserve, both of which were very appealing.

Fauna Forever was intriguing because we'd been thinking about visiting the Peruvian Amazon for a long time, but the cost of going as a tourist is eye-popping. We felt that the hands-on banding experience would be great, and the website made it seem like a fun organization (nice work, Dave!). The program costs for a month and a half were far lower than we'd have spent on even two weeks as tourists.

Kekoldi seemed like a neat opportunity for as many months as we liked of hands-on experience, in an area of Costa Rica we'd never visited. Program costs were extremely reasonable, with excellent economies of scale for longer stays like ours. We liked the idea of learning more about the Bri Bri people's way of life and supporting local efforts to conserve their forests and bird species... and we'd already been thinking of making Costa Rica a large part of our trip, since we love the country so much.

While we were excited about the prospect of many months in the field with birds and other wildlife, we knew that we didn't want our time abroad to be all "work." We knew we wouldn't be able to afford a whole year away from home, but felt that some amount of time beyond our programs would be doable. We ultimately decided on a full month-and-a-half "phase" at Fauna Forever, three months at Kekoldi, and 6 weeks of travel to make our trip exactly six months.

House Concerns and Other Money Matters

We're pretty good savers, and make saving a priority (thanks for the skills, parents!). Food and travel have been our main splurges...along with our 2007 home purchase (no thanks, economy!). So spending a portion of our savings on a one-of-a-kind travel experience didn't overly intimidate us, but the idea of leaving our home either A) empty and accruing ungodly mortgage payments, or B) inhabited by strangers who might cost us even more in damages, was not at all palatable. We initially tried dealing with a real estate agent to list our place as a furnished, short-term rental, but that went nowhere and left us feeling uneasy, since our departure date was fast approaching.

Here's where our Massachusetts bird banding friends came in and introduced us to our then-tenants, who are now good friends, Barrett and Marcela. Barrett wrote A Bird-Finding Guide to Costa Rica, which became indispensable for us there and in Panama as well, and Marcela is a Tica--we were thrilled to meet her mother while in Costa Rica. Finding Marcela and Barrett was an incredible stroke of luck for us: our trip coincided with their need for a temporary place to live, and as soon as we met them, we knew our house would be in great hands with such nice people.

Aside from the monthly mortgage expenses not covered by rent, we paid many of our travel costs before we even left: both programs, gear, and our roundtrip, multi-leg airfare (BOS-LIM-SJO-BOS).

Airfare, as you'll see from our chart, was one of our largest expenses (and our largest negative environmental impact). We tried not to fly too much; aside from our main tickets, we needed to book a flight from Lima to Puerto Maldonado, the jumping-off point for our Fauna Forever program. The trip to Brazil from Costa Rica could have been done more efficiently and cost-effectively if we'd planned further ahead; as it turned out, that airfare was almost exactly half the cost of our total airfare.

Our combined program expenses came in second place, but by comparison, take a look at our time traveling in Costa Rica, and to a lesser extent, Peru and Panama, as *budget* tourists: 4.5 months of programs providing meals, lodging, and meaningful experiences, vs. a quarter of that time sightseeing and taking some guided tours: similar costs.

Brazil, another substantial expense, was a special case. We knew it was an unnecessary expense, but we realized (thanks to your help, poll-takers) that we might not have another opportunity in the near future to return to the Pantanal, which we'd loved in 2009, to spend time with Ailton, and hopefully see jaguars and other amazing wildlife. This turned out to be one of our best decisions of the trip, and we don't regret the cost at all.

And now, after much fanfare and exposition, we give you our pie chart of trip expenses. We won't go into exactly how much the whole thing cost, but we will say that for the same price, we could have gotten quite a nice new car. Honestly, we're happier with the way we spent the money on the experience.

Expense Chart

By way of further explanation, the house costs in the chart are our out-of-pocket costs after rent (the rest of the mortgage, the water bill, insurance, etc), and the gear includes the replacement for our poor, broken (now fixed!) Nikon D300s. Most of the gear we bought consisted of hiking shoes, clothing, and one new hiking pack; we'd actually already had a bunch of gear from previous trips. "Travel" includes hotels, lodging, food, bus fare, laundry, and other travel costs, and "incidentals" are the things we realized we needed/wanted while traveling. A note on our hotels: in general, we stayed relatively inexpensively, but found that we generally can't deal with the noise of hostels, making our trip considerably more expensive than if we'd gone that route.

Have you thought about taking a combined volunteer / tourism trip? We'd love to hear about it and live vicariously now that we're missing ours. And we're happy to offer more of our thoughts on any of the places we've been either as tourists or volunteers. Hope you have some fun adventures in store for 2012!


  1. Health insurance & medicine was only 1%? You certainly weren't in the U.S.!
    Also: what is a Tica?

  2. Well, it was really more like "emergency travel insurance." The list of excluded conditions was quite long, which is why it was so inexpensive. It's a good thing neither of us became pregnant. :) Luckily, the time that I (Emily) went to the doctor, the visit and the medicine came out to maybe $40 out of pocket (under the insurance minimum deductible), but I might be exaggerating. Contact lens solution, however, was outrageous at $15ish per bottle. That's rolled in somewhere in "incidentals," though.

  3. And thanks, Ubermonkey, for your explanation of Ticos/Ticas!