Four Wrong Beliefs You Have About Mexico
by Chuck Bolotin of Best Places in the World to Retire (with permission)
There are very few data points that can change your understanding of a place more profoundly than actually living there and seeing for yourself.
That’s how it was with my wife and me before we embarked on our eight-month road trip through Mexico and subsequently living here for almost two years afterwards.
We had the wrong idea about so many things that I am constantly reminded of that great quote by Mark Twain, himself an enthusiastic traveler: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
And it’s not like there are no consequences for our wrong beliefs about Mexico. Mexico is a geographically huge country with more than 125 million inhabitants, right next door. As a country, we make political choices, and on a human level, wouldn’t it be good to know the truth?
A few weeks into our road trip, concurrent with my personal and ever-increasing “eye-opening” into the realities of Mexico, we ran into a group of American vacationers having a great time in a small, spectacularly beautiful fishing village in Baja California. They were fishing and enjoying the food and the lifestyle for about a quarter of what such a vacation would cost in the US and had been coming down to approximately the same place and enjoying themselves in approximately the same way for more than ten years. Yet, about half of their family and friends refused to join them because they believed it would be terrible, for all sorts of inaccurate reasons.
It was then that it dawned on me that there are two groups of people in the world:
1) those who know the truth about Mexico, who were in “The Club”; and,
2) those who labored under false conceptions, who were not.
Those in The Club, including these vacationers, were having a great time, while those outside the Club were not. The only difference was their knowledge. With this article, after another quote by Mark Twain, I will give you the knowledge to join The Club, if you choose to.
Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
In the past, the superior health care in the U.S. compared with places like Mexico was one very good reason never to move to Mexico. This reality is now completely reversed. In recent years, for most U.S. citizens, health care costs have risen dramatically, access has been reduced, and the quality has suffered. In Mexico, for expats, costs were always low, and access was always great, which leaves us to discuss quality.
From personal experience and after speaking with literally hundreds of expats and having conducted a research study on expats’ view on the health care they receive in Mexico, I can report that in the vast majority of cases, expats report not equal, but better health care quality in Mexico than in the U.S. Very well-trained doctors (many of whom studied in the U.S. and speak English) use the most up-to-date equipment and techniques, will routinely spend an hour with you, give you their cell phone number and make house calls, all for a $30 out-of-pocket / no insurance office visit. On a personal level, my health insurance premium was reduced from over $1,200 per month in the U.S. to around $225 per month here for much better insurance, and I’m thrilled with the care we receive.
It would be easy to believe, just like the friends and family of those repeat vacationers to Baja, that you should be afraid for your personal safety in Mexico. Before embarking on our road trip, we were warned by very well-meaning and (as it turned out) very misinformed friends not to do it for this same reason.
They were all wrong.
Of course, there is very bad drug cartel-related violence in Mexico and there are places in cities it would be very unwise to visit, but isn’t this the case in the U.S. as well? Personally, I don’t get involved in drug dealing or drug use and I don’t walk down dark allies of large cities at 2 a.m., so this violence doesn’t affect me.
Here in the well-known expat destination of Ajijic, on Lake Chapala, we have many hundreds (maybe many thousands) of senior citizen single women walking around by themselves, with no concerns at all. I know. I see them all the time. (They’re in The Club.)
Never once in our two-plus years of traveling through and living in Mexico have we ever felt concerned for our personal safety. Not once.
That’s even lower than I had dared to imagine… and a nice surprise.
Just like the other items on this list were a surprise… until, like Mark Twain predicted, we had traveled here.
Like most Americans, my experience with Mexico prior to the last few years we actually lived here consisted of short trips across the border, cruise stops and one-week visits to the more common beach vacation places. As such, it would be easy to just assume that Mexico was continually hot and that most of the important places were near the beach.
Not even close to correct.
Almost all of the places we most associate with Mexico (Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, Cancun) barely even existed 40 years ago and even today, hold a small portion of the overall Mexican population.
Most of the Mexican people live in the mountains. As we drove through the body of Mexico, we saw countless miles of gently rolling agricultural land, pierced by soaring volcanoes (many times, snow-capped), huge valleys, more mountains and more high plains. Then, a city would emerge, such as Guadalajara (next to where we live at Lake Chapala; 5,100 feet elevation and about 5 million population), San Miguel de Allende (popular expat destination at 6,200 feet elevation), or even Mexico City (7,300 feet elevation, 9 million population). For comparison, Denver sits at 5,200 feet elevation.
With all this elevation comes cooler climates than at sea level. For example, we live near Ajijic, which also has the advantage of being on the largest lake in Mexico, which further moderates the temperatures. Here, the average high/low in Fahrenheit August is 79 / 61, in December is 73 / 54 and in April is 84 / 59.
The weather in the Mexican Highlands (i.e., most of Mexico) is actually great and quite moderate.
The Cost of Living
I left this one for last because many Americans would already think that Mexico has a low cost of living. However, the extent of the difference doesn’t really dawn on you until you live it away from the major tourist traps.
I’ve already mentioned health care costs, which, for the same or better quality, are about a quarter of what a typical American would pay. Dental care is the same, in ultra-modern facilities. If you live in the Highlands like we do, you don’t really need air conditioning or heating, so we don’t have it and subsequently, don’t pay a dime for it. Water is provided free of charge to us as part of our homeowners’ fees, which are about $100 per month for water, trash pick-up, access to tennis courts and pool, and security. Property tax is about $200 per year (that’s right; per year) for a 3,000 square foot home. Going out to dinner would cost you about 60% less than if you were in the U.S., and you can have your house cleaned and garden worked for the equivalent of about $3 per hour.
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Comparing Life in the US with Life in Mexico After Living in Mexico for Two Years
They were big, open questions— the “elephant in the room,” the large, unavoidable thing I was a bit afraid to confront honestly and directly.
The background is that I was born and raised in the US, where I spent almost all of my 59 years before, two years ago, moving to Mexico. The elephant was these series of questions: After these two years, how would I respond upon returning to the US to visit and retrieve our household goods to bring down to Mexico? Would I find life in the US so much superior by comparison that I would be unhappy in Mexico? Would I even decide that moving to Mexico was a mistake and decide to move back to the US?.
Life is too short to live a lie (especially when you’re 61 years old— I’ve done the math), so I resolved that, whatever happened, I would respond honestly.
It was with this trepidation that my wife and I boarded the plane in Mexico for Tucson, Arizona. We had lived near Tucson for 12 years before selling, giving away or putting into storage everything we owned that couldn’t fit into a big white van, and with two dogs, launching upon a grand adventure and experiment—we would drive through Mexico to visit the most popular expat destinations, to see if we liked it. Our trip through Mexico was amazing (see: “Our Year on the Road & Living in Mexico,” available for free download), but a long trip is not the same as day-to-day living. After our road trip was over, for more than the last year, we had settled in one place in Mexico, living a stationary, day-to-day life much as we would in the US.
So now we could compare.
The airport in Tucson was very nice, not unlike the airport we had just left in Mexico. The area around the Tucson Airport and where we took the Uber to pick up our U-Haul, quite frankly, is pretty seedy by most any standard, so I certainly didn’t yearn to live in that part of town.
However, arriving at the vacation rental in the very pre-planned community about 25 miles from the airport and near where we lived in Oro Valley was quite a bit different experience than being in Mexico. Like many other pre-planned communities in the US, it had broad, perfectly maintained streets, and what very little traffic it had was extremely orderly. I’ll have to admit that it was a struggle to change the habits I had developed in two years of driving in Mexico (see: “Tips and Observations About Driving Through Baja California, and the Release of Your ‘Inner Mexican’”) to view stop signs and traffic lights as commands, rather than off-handed suggestions. Constantly reminding myself of how much it would cost me if I got a ticket, both in terms of time and money, I forced myself to trade the “barely slow down ‘rolling stop’” I had perfected in Mexico for the “full, count two seconds before proceeding stop” they taught us all in Drivers Training.
After finding our vacation rental, I searched for a way to remember where it was. With eyes after two years living in Mexico accustomed to the wild and often chaotic diversity of buildings, houses, streets and landscaping one lives in there (not to mention smells and sounds), in this part of Arizona, every cluster of buildings looked absolutely identical to me, with absolutely no discernable characteristics. Luckily, we had two vehicles, so we could keep one outside to mark the entrance to our vacation rental. Other than that, for any organism other than a carrier pigeon or a salmon returning its ancestral home, it would have been nearly impossible to distinguish one building from another.
The next morning, I took an early walk, to check out the neighborhood. Again, I experienced the same mind-numbing monotony. Everywhere I looked, I saw the same purplish rocks, the same house and building color, the same architecture, the same plants arranged in the same landscaping. It was like a Chinese water torture of sameness. From my new, Mexico-influenced perspective, it was stunning, and frankly, I didn’t like it. In a phrase, it was “agitatingly boring” —like being inserted into the land of pod people in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. I could almost imagine one of these Oro-Valley Arizona residents coming up to me and pointing me out with that terrifying screech they used in the movie.
However, unlike most places in Mexico, there was zero trash (and I mean, zero), the roads were impeccable, there were no stray dogs, no horses, no burros or cows, very little density, no street vendors selling food or those in cars hawking gas, and, from a Mexico perspective, an absence in the air of an appreciable amount smells or sounds.
We had visited the Arizona Wal-Mart the night before to stock up. Along with a side trip to Trader Joe’s, my wife Jet hungrily stocked up on products she either couldn’t get in Mexico, or were too expensive, like Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, kosher dill pickles, apple, pecan and peach pies, and chocolate. Other than these types of items, the prices were interesting. Some were lower than in Mexico, while others were higher. On average, leaving out the “only reasonably available in the US” items, we probably paid about 20% more in the US for comparable items we could buy at our Mexico Wal-Mart, while Jet assured me that if we had gone to the 99 Cents Only Store, the prices for many items would be much less in Mexico.
Shopping for home goods (not coincidentally at the store named “Home Goods”) was a delight for Jet, a particular emotion attached to shopping she hadn’t felt in Mexico. While Mexico does have very good prices on Mexican-manufactured and Mexican-style home goods, it either has very high prices on everything else, or they’re just not available at all. Jet also found the same thing shopping for clothing in places other than Wal-Mart but below Neiman Marcus (think Ross, TJ-Max, etc.)— the big advantage goes to the US.
In thinking about this, it became clearer to me why I used to see so many Mexican nationals driving across the border to Tucson to do their shopping. The parking lot at the Tucson mall is filled with license plates from the Mexican state of Sonora. Also, I don’t consider it any coincidence that the Cielo Vista mall in El Paso, Texas (next to where we later drove to deliver our car) is located what seems to be about a 10 minute light jog from the border with the Mexican city of Juarez. Just like Jet, Mexican nationals who can afford it are drawn as if by gravitational force to US retail.
After a morning of giddy shipping, we arrived at a restaurant we used to go to often when we lived in Arizona. Even though I was mentally prepared for it, emotionally, receiving the bill was still shocking… and I must admit, not in any way pleasant. Also, unlike the charge for restaurants in Mexico, in Arizona, diners are treated to another unwelcomed event—sales tax. It’s 8.6% in Arizona but included in the total you see on the menu in Mexico, so the total, without tip, for our very modest meal was about $18. In Mexico, it would have been slightly less than half of that amount. When you’re the one paying for it, restaurant food tastes much better when it’s more than half off.
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In the past, it could have been said that the only way you could directly enjoy US media culture would be to live in the US, but this is no longer the case. In Mexico, I can and do listen to US radio stations and watch US TV. The difference, of course, is the cost. In the US, a company I really didn’t like (OK, I’ll say it: Comcast) charged us around $185 per month for 10 Mbps Internet, phone, and a very moderate selection of TV channels. Here in Mexico, I pay about $30 for the Internet, use my cell phone, and get our TV on-line. Like food, watching TV is just a better experience when you pay so much less, and unlike in the US, in Mexico I don’t have to spend two hours on the phone every six months arguing with Comcast when they raise my bill due to the most recent “promotion expiration” I had “negotiated” six months earlier.
While I’m on the topic of costs, I should mention that the one-way flight from our airport in Mexico to Tucson was $170, while the flight from Juarez, Mexico (just over the border from El Paso and about the same distance to our home in Mexico as Tucson) to our airport in Mexico was an almost unbelievable $37. I had to check the price several times before giving my credit card number, with almost the same unbridled, giddy joy that Jet experiences when she walks into Home Goods, but for entirely different reasons.
I recognize that I’ve talked a lot about costs and that low costs alone are not enough of a reason for anybody to move. If you hate where you’re living but are paying less for it, that’s not a good choice. As I wrote above, life is too short for that. However, at least for me, lower costs lead to all sorts of other happy circumstances, and a significant lifestyle upgrade that we see expats enjoying every day in Mexico. It’s really nice.
If this lower cost (it’s like having a coupon for 60% off on life) would be enough for you would depend in large part on if you have unlimited funds and if you are the one paying the bills. The person who trades part of his or her life to earn money (i.e., working) to pay for things will generally have a different attitude towards the lifestyle importance of a significantly lower cost of living than one who isn’t. With no cost constraints, I would probably prefer to live in a place like Maui or Monaco, but I live in the real world—the one with constraints and trade-offs. (Maybe you do, too.)
Life is just so much better when you know that you can easily afford a lifestyle you really like. You’re not worried, or as they say in Spanish, you’re not “preocuparse”; you’re not “pre-occupied.” You can live life in the moment.
I can’t say that I missed that much in the US, but as they say at the end of all those advertisements for investments: your results may vary. Are there things that I don’t like about living in Mexico? You bet. The electricity goes out more often, as does the Internet. Except for downtown areas in the US, in Mexico, there is generally more trash around, as well as poorly cared for dogs. And there are other things. I made a list of them in “The Top 7 Worst Things About Living in Mexico”. And for some people, any of those things may be enough to keep them in the US or Canada.
One of the things that occurred to me on our trip back to the US is that all other things being equal, as one gets used to the routine of a new place, stress goes down, thereby providing emotional room for enjoyment and appreciation. The longer you live in a place, the easier living there becomes, sort of like breaking in a new pair of shoes. At the end of a year, we had developed a routine and knowledge about how to live where we were in Mexico, so our metaphorical shoes were nice and comfortable.
One of the main stressors of being in a new place is having to think through even the littlest things—where is the light switch, where are the items I want to buy at the supermarket, etc. After a year in Mexico, we knew where the light switches were, and we knew exactly where the goods we wanted were located at the local Wal-Mart and all the other little family-run businesses that are so much fun to visit. We also knew where to get our sewing done, where the best restaurants were, how to get the water to work properly and that we could trust our housekeepers and gardeners. After a year or so in Mexico (or in any new place, in the US or anywhere else), these questions are largely answered, so we could stop thinking about them… and relax and enjoy ourselves.
And speaking of relaxing and enjoying ourselves, within the first week of our return to Mexico, my wife and I enjoyed:
- One-hour physical therapy: $35
- A one-hour session at the podiatrist: $12.50
- Very clean house, organized just like we like it (it takes a while to work with your housekeeper, and ours do a GREAT job, to the extent of lining up by size all the items in the bathrooms; nice touch): $2.50 per hour
- Very manicured garden (like housekeepers, it takes a while to get your gardener to know what you want, and ours now does): $3.00 per hour
- Haircut (for which I overpay, but… she does exactly what I want): $6. (If I were near Puerto Vallarta in Lo de Marcos like on our road trip, I could repeat my experience of getting a very good haircut for $2.76. You can see the YouTube here.)
- One-hour facial: $17.50 (dermabrasion included)
- Free exercise classes (our neighborhood subdivision provides them)
- 72 – 85-degree weather (it was 100 when we were in Arizona and in the high 90s in New Mexico and Texas)
- Breakfast buffet on the lake, complete with waiters and white tablecloths: $6.50
- Timing belt replaced on the car we brought back from the States that would have cost over $1,100 to fix there, fixed here for about $200.
- Health insurance premiums of about $800 per month less than in the US.
To those who look at that list and accuse me of being shallow, I plead… guilty, but with this proviso: all these things I mentioned serve to reduce stress and increase a sense of well-being, so that, if you are a much deeper person than you would suspect I am from looking at my list, you would have the time, the money, and the attitude to pursue those more meaningful activities. This is a big deal.On a personal level, I must tell you that I missed the friends we had made in Mexico, so it was good to see them again.
It was also great to see our dogs and the happy faces our housekeepers graced and rewarded us with when Jet gave them the gifts we got for them in the US, which is priceless.
Back in Mexico, there is a guard named Narciso whose job it is to ask for your membership card upon entering the club in our subdivision where I go to work out or play tennis (all included in the rent at no extra charge- ha ha ha). I have gone so often that he knows me on sight and therefore, I don’t have to show my card every time. The first time back from our trip to the US, I walked up as I normally do.
“Buenos dias, Narciso.”
“Hola, Senor Chuck,” he said heartily, just like he always does, smiling broadly and waving me through. “Pasale (go on in).”
The water aerobics class was about to start, and my friends were already in the pool.
I was home.
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by Chuck Bolotin of Best Places in the World to Retire (with permission)
If you’re like me, you’ve got a song in your head pretty much all the time. Sometimes, you know why it’s there, and sometimes, you don’t. Sometimes, you don’t even know where you heard the song.
That’s exactly what happened to me towards the end of our stay in the Ajijic area, as I was walking back from the corner store with some pastries. If you’ve read my first two stories on Ajijic and the Lake Chapala area, you know how I feel about it. In my head, I kept on hearing the beginning of the song from Porgy and Bess, “Summertime, and the Livin’ is Easy.”
Odd. Why would that song be playing in my head?
Then, it hit me.
Ajijic… and the Livin’ is Easy! It’s a prefect match!!
The reason is that the livin’ in Ajijic is, indeed, very easy, so much so that I was able to come up with pretty much all of the parody lyrics while completing the five minute walk back to our rental home and then sharing a flakey breakfast with my wife, Jet.
Fairly quickly after that, just by asking around a little bit, I was introduced to a real musician, Paul Brier, who had written and performed professionally for several decades. This being Ajijic, of course Paul would work on our song by polishing up the lyrics, adding music and then perform it live with his band, The Great American Songbook, at The Bodega, a local expat hangout. Within a few days, three accomplished, professional musicians, Paul Brier (keyboard, vocals), Jimmy Bartow (trumpet), and Francis Dryden (drums) were soulfully vocalizing “Ajijic and the LIvin’ is Easy” live to a raucous, enthusiastic expat crowd. You can see the video, “Ajijic and the Livin’ is Easy” here. I placed the lyrics at the end of this story.
Coincidentally, in addition to music marking the end of our visit to Ajijic and the Chapala area, the beginning of it started out musically as well—at the Lake Chapala Woodstock Festival and Dance, on the very beautiful, garden grounds of the Lake Chapala Society, in Ajijic. Of all the popular expat locations we know, none have an organization as historied, comprehensive, well supported, well run and effective as the Lake Chapala Society. Upon paying a very modest membership fee, new and existing expats have access to what I’m told is the largest English library in Mexico, no charge exams for your eyes, ears and skin, you can listen to lectures, engage in workshops, attend seminars, meet with the US consulate, watch movies, etc., and most of all, be warmly welcomed into the community and made to feel at home. It’s a great organization… and it’s easy.
While it’s true that many of the expats at Ajijic and the Lake Chapala area are older, many are not, and, judging from what we saw at the dance, irrespective of age, all know how to have a good time. The band, brought in from Guadalajara, was excellent, the food was great, and pretty much everyone participated and everyone had a good time. You can see the Lake Chapala Woodstock Festival and Dance 2016 video here.
The weather is one of the primary characteristics of Ajijic that makes it so easy to live there. It’s pretty much perfect. As a joke, Jet and I would sometimes try to determine whether the temperature should be warmer or colder. Almost always, the answer was the same: it’s perfect as it is; we wouldn’t change it one degree either way. With the windows open and the breeze coming in, it was almost like a gentle
The hiking around Ajijic isn’t easy for everyone, but many aspects of it were. It is difficult not to notice the verdant, tropical mountains just yards away from the town, so for someone like me who likes to hike, it would be natural to ask for the location of the trails. The first person I asked gave me the name of the street I should walk up to join one of the trailheads, which turned out to be right next to the house we were renting.
Now that was easy.
I put on my hiking boots, walked out our gate, made a left to walk across the Carretera (main road), and within 7 minutes, I was walking on a dirt trail alongside a stream in the jungle, but of course during 74 degree weather.
I was stunned by how glorious it was. The trail was impeccably maintained. As I walked past vines and tropical plants, I could smell the jungle, not as intensely as in Nayarit, but pretty close. Other than hearing the gentle waters of the brook below as it meandered past smooth stones and a few fallen branches, it was silent; just as you would expect if you were surrounded by thick vegetation.