Friday, 22 June 2012

Doing things differently to save money while travelling

Mike and I going to Halifax (to see Mike's mom) and Toronto (to see my mom and dad - and Mike's son Matthew) for the first 2 weeks of July.  Our house is still occupied until then and our stay in Canmore is up.  We weren't too sure about spending money unnecessarily right now since Mike is between contracts and we really don't know when the next paycheck is coming in.  But he does have a part-time contract that he can do from anywhere, and we really need to go and see our folks sometime this summer.

So I began looking for inexpensive accommodations, particularly in Halifax where we definitely can't stay with Mike's mom in her tiny assisted living apartment - and we need a car while there, so going to Halifax is not an inexpensive trip for us.  We can stay at my dad's house if necessary, and don't really need a car, so Toronto is a secondary concern.

Here's what I found for our first 2 nights in Halifax for an incredible $50 a night:

The owner wrote to me after I booked it and said we will have the house to ourselves because they are going camping for the Canada Day (July 1) long weekend and would it be okay with me if he just left the key somewhere secret and we let ourselves in!

Airbnb is a very libertarian idea (in my opinion).  Anyone with a spare room or two can list it on this website, charge what they want (without tax) and make a little money without actually starting a B&B business etc.  The prices vary, but the average charge I've seen for Halifax in a modest room is $35.  Some even give you breakfast for that too.

Here is what I found for our next 5 nights in Halifax for $35 a night:

Incredible, isn't it?

Another idea I've been exploring for the future is house sitting.  I joined a couple of website services recently and I am amazed at the opportunities out there to live FREE in someone else's home all over the world.  

Check it out:

We are planning to put our house up for sale this summer.  Our plan after that is to try to find a suitable house-sitting gig in the Calgary/Edmonton area for at least 6 months.  It looks likely that Mike will need to be around here this winter, particularly if things kick into gear with the legal software app and we get funding for further development.  But if not - there are house-sitting jobs in Mexico!

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

What is wrong with us?

This picture has nothing to do with this post - I just like it!  When you are writing
about software and technical stuff, what kind of picture should you use - a company logo or a picture of a computer?  Nope.  Okay, maybe - here goes:

You know, we're crazy.  After ten-plus years of developing and trying to launch a software company we have little to show for it except a LOT of code, some cool logos, a website, and a very long list of failed attempts to raise investment - and consequently, a lot of debt.  Who are we kidding?  We're in our 50's now - people our age don't launch software startups.  It's something young geeks just out of high school do.  

We are presently in the mountain town of Canmore, Alberta until the end of June, waiting for our house to be vacated by our tenants.  Mike is between consulting contracts and so we have a lot of time on our hands.  We are devoting it (in between walks with the dogs in the natural beauty of this place) to a few little projects such as expanding and building our social networks-Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter- for both our consulting and software companies.  It has become "de rigueur" to have a social network marketing strategy for even the biggest businesses, governments and other organizations.  If you aren't visible online, you're nowhere baby.  As a result, Mike is making and re-establishing contacts in the industry for both companies.

On Friday Mike has a meeting in Edmonton with three lawyers and our marketing consultant.  A marketing study was completed this spring, funded by a grant from the Industrial Research Assistance Program of Canada.  Turns out there is a strong interest from the legal field in an application that securely allows the sharing, collaboration, and transferring of documents electronically.  And Canadian lawyers want it all to be kept in Canada and not exposed to US privacy (or lack thereof) laws.  Mike tells me that he can just tweak and build onto the existing code to create such an application.  Now, a marketing plan by the same consultant is in the works.  The meeting is to have these lawyers contribute to the analysis of exactly what this app should do and how much it should cost.  The other benefit is that these lawyers will act as guinea pigs and try out the software when it is done.  When will that be?  Good question.  Further developing and coding costs money - which we don't have.  So the plan is to go back to IRAP for further funding once the idea is fleshed out.

I can't help it - I am taking a huge "wait and see" attitude on this.  I have seen too much and been disappointed too often.  But Mike won't quit, not yet, and, well, I'm married to him so I want to believe.  God help me.

Monday, 11 June 2012

How to live inexpensively in Mazatlan - Part 2

Dining out often is something that anyone with a modest budget can do in Mazatlan - and we do!  Getting together with friends over a meal is a popular activity and big part of the reason the lifestyle here is so enjoyable.  I have found that the quality and variety of restaurant meals has improved quite a bit since 2009.  The prices have risen too, and yet it is still very reasonable.  The salad above is called the Citrus Salad at La Tramoya, an indoor/outdoor restaurant on Machado Square - one of many.  I believe the cost was 70 pesos, maybe 85.  At approximately 13 pesos to the Canadian dollar, you can do the math.  The ambiance of sitting out of the sidewalk under cheerful umbrellas on a sunny, warm day, while a random guy played clarinet just a few yards away, is free.

At the same restaurant in the evening, one can enjoy a delicious and excellently prepared steak in a red wine reduction and roasted onions for 180 pesos - about $15.  While this may not be "cheap", it sure isn't anywhere near what we would pay in north america.

The most expensive thing about this meal is the glass of white wine which was 55 pesos. Some places charge as much as 80 pesos per glass.  While the availability and choices of wine with meals has improved in the last three years, the price per glass is very close to north american prices.  It is much cheaper to be a beer drinker in Mazatlan.  You can, however, buy a decent bottle of Chilean wine at the supermarket for 70-80 pesos.  Mexico does make wine, but I'm afraid its not very good.

The range of choices and prices for meals is wide.  Of course, the least expensive way to go is to eat mexican food where the locals eat.  Taco stands are popular.  A corn tortilla filled with chicken, beef, pork or fish and lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes is a perfect lunch for 20 pesos (average) - and fairly nutritious.  Hot dog stands are also common, but you probably don't want to eat one too often if you value your health. Small kitchen restaurants with a few plastic tables and chairs will cook up tacos, quesedillas, and tostadas - all a variation on a theme - meat or fish and vegetables on or wrapped in tortillas, either soft or crispy.  They won't mind a bit if you grab a bottle of cold beer from the tienda next next door to drink.  They typically offer local beverages or soda, but not alcohol.  Some places may offer more variety on their menu, such as a fish or chicken filet with rice and vegetables for about 30 or 40 pesos.

I think hands down the best inexpensive place to eat for lunch in historic centro is Paulina's Cocina (kitchen) on Sixto Osuna.  In 2009, it was a little "hole in the wall"with a limited menu.  This winter, their premises has been moved just down the street with more space inside and with tables and chairs outside on the sidewalk.  Every day, they offer a lunch special with two or three choices of main dish including salad or soup and dessert (usually home-made rice pudding or flan), along with a non-alcoholic beverage, for $60 pesos.  Come hungry.  They also have a great dinner menu with barbecued ribs to die for, and a full wine and drink list.

Of course, cooking your own meals is the least expensive way to go, particularly if you stick to locally grown fruits and vegetables and stay away from north american items which are much more expensive and treated like "specialty" foods.  Simple meals of fish, rice, tortillas and vegetables are best.  The big gringo grocery stores like Mega are reportedly more expensive than the ones frequented by the locals such as Soriana's.  Fresh fish and seafood can be purchased directly from the fishermen at a couple of spots near Centro.  Shrimp is usually about 80 pesos per kilo.  Dorado or Mahi-Mahi is the most common type of fish filets, and the most inexpensive.

It is possible to live and eat in Mazatlan on a very limited, fixed income such as Social Security.  I know of many people who do.  They don't spend a lot eating in restaurants however, and likely stick to the small local kitchens.  For a somewhat higher budget, life is still very affordable even eating out three or four times a week - something unthinkable for most of us in north america.  I know many retired couples (who are not wealthy by any means) who eat out every single day (at least for dinner) and don't consider it breaking the budget at all.  Mike and I did more dining out this past winter than ever before, but we did try to cook at home at least three or four times a week.  (Really - we did try!)  If we just didn't have the wine habit, and switched to drinking beer, we'd be much less lighter in the wallet!

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

How to find a rental and live inexpensively in Mazatlan- Part 1

This is the outside of the house we rented this past winter for seven months.  We found it by "walking around".  In the spring of 2011, in the last weeks of our stay in Mazatlan, we began looking around for somewhere to rent the following fall.  We walked by this house and saw that it had a little sign on the window.  It said that the house was for sale and listed a contact number and email address for someone in Canada.  On the spur of the moment I emailed the owner and asked if we could take a look at the house, not from an interest to buy, but from an interest to rent.  He replied and said he wasn't really intending to rent it out but we were welcome to look at it.  There was a local acting as live-in caretaker and all we had to do was pull the rope by the door to ring the cowbell (doorbell).  Well, long story short, we looked, we fell in love, we asked him to consider renting it to us in the fall.  After some back and forth over a couple of months, he agreed.  Houses in Mazatlan were not selling well and it was unlikely this one would sell anytime soon.  He said he would give us 3 months notice if and when someone bought it.  The house and two studio suites were fully furnished.

This house was not a "cheap" rental for us at $1000 a month, but we decided to go ahead because it was such a beautiful place and an extraordinary opportunity to experience living there.  We were able rent out our own house in Alberta for the winter, furnished, so in fact our monthly housing costs went down.

Finding a rental apartment or house in Mazatlan can be tricky.  It can be very difficult to discern what a place is really like from classified ads and the pricing tends to be out of whack sometimes.  It is really best if you go there in person to spend a few days to actually take a look at places you are interested in, or if you happen to know people living there, have them take a look.

I got lucky with my first rental, which I found on Craigslist.  It was a 2-bed, 2-bath apartment attached to a house owned by an American.  I really did not know a lot about the various areas of Mazatlan then and although there were pictures on the ad, I rented it sight-unseen over the internet.  It turned out to be a very nice apartment in a quiet mixed residential area called Sabalo Country, close to the beaches, bus line etc.  I paid $600 US for that.  Some people thought I was paying too much, and others thought it was a deal.  There are comparable apartments for less, but they are difficult to find unless you are okay with living farther from the beach and in what some people might consider less-than-desirable areas.  Having said that, I know a couple of single senior women who each rent and live full-time in totally mexican neighbourhoods without even paved roads, and they pay very low rent - something like $200 a month - and are very happy and safe there.

Here are some ways to find apartments and houses:

1. Craigslist
2. Kijiji (in Canada)
3. Several expat websites that have classified ads such as or
4. Join Mazinfo - a bulletin board group on Yahoo.  Many of the members are long-time residents of Mazatlan and very helpful.
5.  Search various Mazatlan real estate websites for rentals, such as (they will find a place for you for a flat fee too) or
6.  Walking around

It is important to keep in mind that it is common for landlords to expect you to take care of any issues such as plumbing or electrical, appliances and other minor repairs or problems yourself.  Also, it is much less expensive to rent unfurnished if you are planning a long term rental.  It is relatively inexpensive and easy to buy used furnishings, usually from other expats.  A good rule of thumb, I think, is that the further inland (east) you go, the lower the rents.

There are several main "areas" of Mazatlan to consider, depending on what your preferences are:

Nuevo Mazatlan or Cerritos - this is the most northern and newest area, dominated by gated and other communities, and high-rise condos, all of which are either on the beach or close to it.  The buses do run out there but it takes about 45 minutes or more to go from there to Centro, which is the southern most area.

Marina - a little south of Cerritos but still dominated by high-rise condos and newer housing developments, all around a marina with inland canals.  Less of a beach area, more of a boating area.

Golden Zone - a little more south, this is primarily a tourist area with hotel resorts. shops and restaurants geared to tourists.  Apartments and homes can be found here in the residential areas just east of the main road.  This close to where I rented my apartment the first year (2009) - it was a little north of the core of the Golden Zone in Sabalo Country.  I liked it there, but I like Centro more.

Everything in between the Golden Zone and Centro - this is about a 10 mile stretch, fronted by the longest malecon in the world along the waterfront.  There are many condo buildings along here and houses and apartments just east of the main road.  There isn't very much in the way of restaurants or shopping, but the buses run down the along the malecon frequently between Centro and Cerritos.  It is about a 10 to 20 minute ride to Centro depending on how far north you live in this area.

Centro - This is my favorite place to live, but it isn't for everyone.  The core historic area consists of the Mercado (market) where you can buy all manner of fresh food, public squares such as The Machado which is ringed by sidewalk cafes and restaurants, the Cathedral, Olas Altas (High Waves) the waterfront section and end of the malecon, which is lined with more sidewalk cafes and restaurants, and blocks and blocks of narrow streets and architecturally beautiful buildings - some crumbling and just waiting for someone to restore them.  It seems no matter where you live in historical Centro, you will have to get used to noise, especially on weekends, and a certain amount of dirt and grime and smells.  Its' charm exceeds all that for me and I wear earplugs at night.

There is one other area a little bit south of Centro called Playa Sur (South Beach) which is a newer residential area, much quieter than Centro but walking distance to it.  It is mainly houses, but there are a few apartments.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive guide.  If any of my Mazatlan friends have anything to add (or correct) to this information, please feel free in the comments.

Next post: Eating inexpensively