Ajijic becomes the favorite.

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Sunrise  over Lake Chapala from the Ajijic malecon, or boardwalk. Views of the lake from the hillsides north of town are stunning.

We have a new leader! Leslie and I think Ajijic is now our first choice for a “permanent” retirement home, with San Miguel de Allende a close second. We still have other places to experience, but this area is quite desirable for a number of reasons. For example:

  • Ajijic lies at 5,020 feet above sea level, so the days are mild to warm (hot in May, they say) and the nights are cool but not cold. Ex-pat friends have told us they have a fire in their fireplace maybe eight to 10 nights a year.
  • People are more friendly here. Maybe it’s the small-town vibe. Almost all the locals will greet you on the street with “buenos dias” or “buenas tardes.”  And many speak at least some English.
  • There are a lot of gringos here but they seem much more warm and helpful than those in some of the other places we’ve been.
  • Excellent, affordable health care is readily available in the Lake Chapala area, and construction is to begin soon on two new hospitals. If the local docs can’t handle your problem, Guadalajara’s Johns Hopkins-affliated teaching hospital is just an hour away.
  • Organizations such as The Lake Chapala Society offer many ways to meet other ex-pats. They sponsor Spanish classes, tai chi, yoga, health screenings, line dancing and bus trips to Costco in Guadalajara, in addition to advice on legal and insurance matters, as well as tips on immigration. Here’s a complete list. There’s also Ajijic Newbies, a FaceBook group that allows new residents to get recommendations from Lakeside veterans on things like finding a doctor or where to get a great pedicure.
  • We found a strong faith community in St. Andrew’s Anglican Church and have already made friends there. They even made us permanent name tags!

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    Parishioners gather after the service for coffee and cookies. They’re pretty sure we’re coming back. They even made permanent name tags for us!
  • There are volunteer opportunities at the church and in local not-for-profits. We spent some time earlier this month with Don and Dale, who founded a resale shop that is plowing thousands of pesos back into the community.
  • The Guadalajara international airport is less than an hour’s drive away, with direct flights to lots of U.S. cities, including Chicago (Midway). And to reach San Diego, we can take a cheaper domestic Mexican flight to Tijuana and walk across the border.
  • Lakeside towns are small — Ajijic has only about 15,000 residents. So you can enjoy a small-town feel while being a short drive from U.S.-style shopping malls and big-box stores (Costco, Home Depot, etc.) in Guadalajara.
  • Sweeping vistas, of Lake Chapala and parts of the Sierra Madre Mountains, both north and south of the lake. Granted, the mountain views are better in the rainy season when everything is green.

There are some downsides, of course:

  • In the centro, streets are cobblestone. Makes driving difficult there. And parking is sketchy at best.
  • Walking in the centro is a challenge, partly because many sidewalks are in poor condition and partly because there are lots of street dogs, and nobody cleans up their messes. At least one person, though, told us the street dogs keep the rats out of the central city. That’s their job!
  • The area is becoming more popular with ex-pats, and that may drive rental prices up. Or it may not — jury’s still out.
  • We would need a car to live here, which you could say about almost anywhere. But Lakeside is a bit more spread out than other places we’ve lived. For instance, San Miguel is much more walkable, and there are taxis and buses everywhere.
  • Cultural opportunities are a bit more limited here, although Guadalajara has a symphony orchestra and other fine arts. That, however, requires a trip to the city. Lakeside does have the annual Northern Lights Festival de Febrero, which is Feb. 16-March 3, 2018. The festival features young classical and jazz musicians. In contrast, ProMusica in San Miguel has a much longer season.

This is not a final decision, and we’re still surprised that we’ve found Mexico to be so attractive as a retirement home. But the climate, the cost of living and the proximity to friends and family in the U.S. make this country highly attractive.  There are other places we want to see, and a European location still might win the day. But we’ve already put some feelers out to find a rental here in Ajijic, starting about this time next year, for at least six months.

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The sanctuary at St. Andrew’s Anglican. One of this church’s most impressive missions is to provide Sunday School for local children. Volunteers pick up the kids and bring them to the church, where they get a meal — which they might not get at home — and a Sunday School lesson. They all come into the service for communion, going down the aisle right behind the choir. They reach out to us to shake our hands as they move toward the altar. Very moving.

For now, it’s on to San Diego! Leslie and I have always known that it’s possible we will — at some point — need to be closer to our daughter Stephanie, or that she will need to be closer to us. Even closer than here in Ajijic. So we’re trying out San Diego, partly to see if we can afford the high costs there. We need to do our due diligence. And it lets us spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with Stephanie.

Besides, last Christmas Stephanie flew for over 24 hours and changed planes twice to get from San Diego to Malta. This year is her turn to stay home. We’ve rented a condo in the East Village neighborhood just three blocks from her place. And we’ll be taking a look at nearby communities like Temecula and Oceanside, even as far north as Irvine, where Steph works three days a week.

So we leave Ajijic saying not adios but hasta luego! And if you haven’t seen this video on Leslie’s FaceBook page, take a look. It’s fun, and it gives you an idea of how the ex-pats down here view their Mexican home.

Next post from NOB (north of the border)!

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The patio of our Ajijic home seen from the mirador next door. We often had lunch at the table under the red umbrella. Thanks, Anita and Ken! And goodbye to Racer, Bean, Audrey and Doris Day.
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The parroquia, largest Catholic church in town, near Ajijic Plaza, And yes, the sky really is that blue most days!

Low cost of living is a big plus for Ajijic

Monday, Oct. 16, was Leslie’s birthday. We celebrated at one of the top-rated restaurants in town — Ajijic Tango. Varied menu, but the Argentine steaks are stars of the show. We had the filet mignon for two — 26 ounces of mesquite-grilled beef, medium rare. We each had half a baked potato and a glass of red wine. We finished off by having two cups of descafeinado (decaf coffee) and splitting a piece of flourless chocolate cake. Total bill with tip was 664 pesos — $35 USD!

Lest you think we made pigs of ourselves with that huge chunk of beef, we did a para llevar (doggy bag) on at least half of it. We had steak on our salads at lunch the next day, and steak-and-eggs for breakfast another morning.

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It tasted as good as it looks!

That’s just one indicator of the Lakeside cost of living. Eating out is so inexpensive we often pay cash, especially at lunch.

I got a haircut a few weeks ago. I recall paying 200 pesos in Playa del Carmen. At Joe’s Barber Shop, just down the street, the haircut was only 80 pesos. With a tip, I paid a little over $5 USD. Leslie found a good place for a pedicure, which was only 160 pesos. That’s less than $9 USD. She’s gone back twice for other things.

Groceries, as usual, come from several different places — just like back in the U.S. One favorite spot is Super Lake, known for having lots of items popular with Americans and Canadians but with prices a bit higher than other stores. They have the best selection of gluten-free items. From our receipts, prices in USD:

  • Silk almond milk, 947 ml, $2.23.
  • Orowheat bread, $2.30.
  • President unsalted butter, 200g, $2.99.
  • Schar gluten-free bread, $5.47.
  • Filippo Berrio olive oil, 750ml, $6.79.
  • Pasta, gluten-free, 1 lb., $6.55.
  • One dozen brown eggs, $1.83.

Closer to home is Supermercado El Torito. We were told, “That’s where the Mexicans shop. The gringos shop at Super Lake.” One reason the locals shop at El Torito: lower prices, especially on meats. The grocery selection is not as good as Super Lake or Wal-Mart, but we saw a number of gringos shopping there. We got 1.82 pounds of ground beef at El Torito for $5.25, and two pounds of chicken breasts was about the same.

Tony’s is the best carneceria in our area. For example:

  • About a pound of ground beef, $2.78.
  • Nearly two pounds of chicken breasts, $4.26.
  • Just over a pound of smoked bacon, $3.50
  • A one-pound pork tenderloin, $2.35.

All our fruits and vegetables come from the Wednesday morning tianguis, where the real savings is. You’ll see lots of locals as well as ex-pats.

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These folks always have fresh produce.

We have no idea what individual items cost at our favorite vendor. We put everything into a round plastic bin, they weigh everything individually and we pay the total price. Last week it was 180 pesos, roughly $10 USD, and we got:

  • Eight carrots.
  • One head green-leaf lettuce.
  • Four medium tomatoes.
  • One bunch cilantro.
  • Three white potatoes.
  • Two sweet potatoes.
  • One medium red onion.
  • Two small heads broccoli.
  • One poblano pepper.
  • One-half pound (approx.) green beans.
  • Five large portabella mushrooms.

At a different vendor, we got eight pints of fresh locally grown blackberries, raspberries and strawberries for 170 pesos, or $8.95. And to make my special pico de gallo, I got three medium jalapeños for 5 pesos, roughly 25 cents.

Shopping at the local markets saves money, as you can see. But it’s also a social event. We’re starting to see people we know at both the Tuesday morning organic market and the Wednesday morning tianguis. The organic market is great for home-made hummus, specialty chorizos, nuts, free-range eggs and chicken, and prepared foods such as tamales and tortilla español. It’s a little more expensive than the tianguis.

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Unlike the tianguis, the Tuesday morning organic market is inside a large “eventos,” a hall where people often have large parties. Lots of great stuff here.

Let’s leave food now, I’m getting hungry while typing. The other big expenditure, no matter where you live, is housing. This area, like most we’ve encountered in our travels, has a wide range of available housing for sale and for rent. You can easily buy a nice home here for under $200,000 (all prices are USD), but if you want to be up the hill and have a lake view, that will cost closer to $350,000. Rentals range from less than $500 a month to well over $2,000. The good news for us is that there are rentals with views of the lake that fit our budget.

And unlike other places we’ve lived, Leslie and I have seen a number of homes here. Some on the market and some owned by new friends who’ve been showing us around. Most of the real estate companies have a free home tour once a week. We went on an Ajijic Real Estate tour of five homes. Two were in Racquet Club, a gated community in the San Juan Cosalá neighborhood. They were $269,000 and $349,000. The lower level of the more expensive one could be closed off and rented as a casita, so there was income potential. We also saw a nice 2/2 slightly closer to Ajijic for just $187,000, but the view was not as good.

On our way home from the tianguis one Wednesday, Leslie and I spotted an “open house” sign, so we wandered in. It was a new 3/2.5 in a gated compound. Dwight, the agent on duty, said the price had been reduced to $249,000. It was nice, but the only lake view was from the mirador on the third level. Many Lakeside homes have this feature. It’s usually a small area above the roof where the view is good and you can enjoy a glass of wine and watch the sunset. But in this condo, the mirador was a huge terrace complete with wet bar. You could have a party for 100 people easily!

Prices tend to be lower in the town of Chapala and other surrounding communities, but we prefer Ajijic. Here’s a sampling of what’s on the market right now, all in Ajijic:

  • A 2/2.5 in West Ajijic with lake and mountain views from the mirador. $117,500.
  • A 2/2 with casita (which makes it a 3/3, technically) in Upper Ajijic (north of the carretera, where homes are generally newer. Big yard and view of Lake Chapala. $212,000.
  • A 4/4 in tony Raquet Club on a double lot with a private pool, mirador and casita. $639,000.
  • And for the high rollers, there’s this one in Upper Chula Vista. Stunning, and only $850,000. Unfortunately, it just sold.

If Leslie and I were to choose this area, we would definitely rent for at least a year, and if that works out we would most likely try to find a place with a three- to five-year lease option. The rental market is good right now, but lots of gringos are coming to Lakeside, so prices may go up.

Rents vary by area and whether or not there’s a lake view. We know someone who’s renting a 2/2 just off the main road in San Antonio Tlayacapan for $350/mo. It’s small and not in a subdivision, but it has a gated carport and a nice mirador. You can also find luxury properties on the hillside that rent for $2,500/mo. or more. Other possibilities include:

  • A 3/2.5 in Upper Ajijic (north of the main road) with a small view of the lake. $700/mo.
  • A 3/2 in San Antonio Tlayacapan close to Wal-Mart and other shopping, but no views. $950/mo.
  • A 2/2 with study in Los Sabinos. No lake view but great outdoor space. Taxes, HOA fees, utilities and gardener included. $1,500/mo.
  • A 2/2 in Puerta Arroyo with lake and mountain views, a nice lawn, great patio, and a jacuzzi. $1,750/mo.

All that stacks up well with the other Mexican cities we’ve lived in, and in some ways Lake Chapala costs are slightly lower. Of course, it’s all less expensive than living in Chicago’s western suburbs.

Last post from Mexico coming up soon!

Hasta luego!

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It’s best to get to the tianguis early. I took this a little after noon, and the crowds have already thinned out.

 

 

Exploring Lakeside

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Many thanks to those of you who wished Leslie a happy birthday (Oct. 16) on her Facebook page. Here, we’re celebrating at Ajijic Tango, an Argentine restaurant in the centro. Perfectly done steaks and great chimichurri!

I know it’s been awhile since the last post. Leslie and I have learned a lot about Lakeside recently. For example, there’s a lot to do here! You can be as busy or sedate as you like. We’ve been busy.

We made “history” recently. We rented a car, which is something we have not done except for the brief time we were in Illinois over the summer, but that doesn’t count.

Why a car? Ajijic centro is walkable but there’s a lot more to Lakeside than the centro, and some things require a car or a generous friend with a car. For example, we’ve been attending St.Andrew’s Anglican Church in the Riberas del Pilar neighborhood of San Antonio Tlayacapan (tuhlay-ah-kah-PAN). On our first visit we took a taxi there and got a ride home from our Canadian friend Libby, who lives right around the corner from us. She graciously picked us up the next week. But she did not plan to attend the following Sunday, so we had to make other arrangements. Also, the Tuesday organic market is a few miles west on the carretera, or main road. We took a taxi one week and managed to catch a bus back, but it took longer than expected and we missed an event at The Lake Chapala Society that we had planned to attend.

Taxis are less than dependable here in Ajijic. You cannot hail a cab as you can in most other Mexican cities in which we’ve lived. Here you must call or go to the sito (taxi stand) in Ajijic Plaza. We could use the buses. They’re only eight pesos per person and fairly dependable. But not all bus stops are clearly marked, and you often have to wait 15 to 20 minutes for a bus.

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It’s not a Cadillac, but it’s kind of fun to drive.

And there’s a lot to see outside of Ajijic, like Chapala and Jocotepec (ho-KOH-teh-peck), for example. You need a car to reach those towns, or to get to Costco in Guadalajara. So we got a little Nissan March for a couple of weeks.

One of the first things we did with our new wheels was to take a Saturday drive east to the town of Chapala, which is the largest Lakeside town and the seat of government for the Municipality of Chapala. It’s like a county or a township in the U.S. The Chapala municipality includes Chapala, Ajijic, San Antonio Tlayacapan and smaller towns, but not Jocotepec, the westernmost Lakeside town.

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Part of Chapala’s malecon, with restaurants and shops. The green stuff at the water’s edge is called liria, and it’s not good for the lake.

Chapala has more than 21,000 residents. Its malecon, or boardwalk, is longer and more commercial than Ajijic’s malecon, which is mostly a park. There’s a pier and a restaurant or two — that’s about it. It’s a quiet place to jog in the morning, or to walk your dog. In Chapala, though, we saw lots of vendors selling food and other items (ice cream!), and there were a number of hotels and restaurants with nice lake views. There are also small boats you can hire to take you out into the lake to visit one of the small islands.

Leslie and I were excited to see sailboats on the water at Chapala. The only watercraft near Ajijic are small fishing boats and kayaks. Leslie, who grew up in Tower Lakes just north of Barrington, Ill., remembers lots of Sunfish and Butterflies on a dramatically smaller lake. So it was good to see sails. A few days ago we learned why the sailboats steer clear of our end of the lake — it’s too shallow. The lake is deeper east of the town of Chapala.

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This statue of Christ as a fisherman, “Jesus Pescador,” is just off the Chapala malecon. It looks back toward the town.

This fact, and many more, came out of a program at The Lake Chapala Society called “Introduction to Lakeside.” Our leader was Rachel, who is Australian but came here from Canada seven years ago. She speaks Canadian with an Australian accent! Here are some other tidbits:

  • Mexicans celebrate a number of religious festivals, most of which involve fireworks at odd times, like in the middle of the night. The message: If late-night/early-morning noise is a problem for you, find a house that’s nowhere close to any local churches!
  • Health care in Mexico is highly rated — as good as, or better than, the U.S.  Most Mexican docs graduated from the University of Guadalajara Medical School, which is affiliated with Johns Hopkins. Not too shabby.
  • The total population of Lakeside (from Chapala west to Jocotepec) is about 110,000.

Speaking of health care, we got yet another chance to experience health care in Mexico, and it is very good. Leslie’s eyes were irritated and the problem wasn’t responding to normal home treatment. She saw Dr. Rios, an ophthalmologist who said the problem was environmental — there are a lot of allergens floating around right now. He gave her two medications and will do a follow-up just before we leave town. The exam was 700 pesos — about $36 USD. That’s not the co-pay or deductible. That’s the total cost of the exam. We paid another 1,000 pesos (about $52 USD) for two medications, and that’s less than if we had gone to a farmacia. She’s already improving.

And it’s not just people health care. Last weekend, we had to take one of “our” cats, Doris Day, to the vet because she also appeared to have an eye infection. Total bill was 460 pesos — 150 for the examination and 310 pesos for eye drops. That’s less than $25 USD total,  and the exam itself was less than $10 USD.

Sunday, we spent a terrific afternoon with Dale and Don, new friends from St. Andrew’s. They have a beautiful home with great views in the Puerta Arroyo subdivision on the western edge of Ajijic. Dale showed us some other houses in their neighborhood, including one under construction, then took us on a tour of other subdivisions she thinks we might consider renting if we come here permanently.

Are we leaning closer to Lakeside as our “permanent” home? Maybe.

Next time: Cost of living.

Hasta luego!

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Inside the parroquia, the main church in downtown Chapala. We just missed a wedding!
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In Chapala’s parroquia , we noticed circular windows that can be opened and closed by pulling on a rope, which hangs down just to the right of the pillar. See it?

Is this the place?

Leslie and I came to Ajijic partly because it has “the best climate in the world.” So far, so good. Since we arrived on Sept. 15, we’ve had temperatures in the mid- to upper-70s or low 80s during the day and the low 60s at night. The house we’re renting has fresh air flowing through all the time.

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Sunset over Lake Chapala. Most of the Driscoll’s raspberries and blackberries you buy at Jewel are grown on the other side of the lake.

Most homes in the Lake Chapala area (known generally as “Lakeside”) don’t have heaters or air conditioners. They’re not needed. If we lived here, I would never have to pay those $200-plus Nicor Gas Co. bills in February! One person told us the lowest temperature ever recorded in Ajijic is 40° F.

There’s roughly a month left in the rainy season so it’s a little wet at times, and slightly more humid than we would like but still not like the Mexican beach towns we’ve tried. Here, it’s as high as 70 percent after a storm, but usually 50 percent or less. And most of the rain is at night when we’re sleeping. In fact, one big storm woke us both up around 3 a.m. The lightning was pretty amazing.

We also came here because there is a thriving expat community. We’ve been to several events already, some sponsored by The Lake Chapala Society, and some by Ajijic Newbies.

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We met Susan and Rex (second and third from right) at an LCS event. We later joined them for Happy Hour at Nuevo Posada, where they introduced us to Janelle (front left), Carla (right) and long-time resident Flo.

And we’ve found a terrific faith community in St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, just down the road in a neighborhood called Riberas del Pilar, between the two main towns of Chapala and Ajijic. Our new friend Libby gave us a ride home from our first visit to St. Andrew’s and pointed out several other churches in the same area. “They call this Holy Corner,” she laughed.

St. Andrew’s is the largest and most welcoming congregation we’ve encountered yet in our travels. This past Sunday there were probably more than 75 people in worship. In addition to Libby, a Canadian widow who has been here over a decade, we met a couple who formerly worked in marketing and corporate communications, same as me. David worked at some Chicago public relations agencies, and is a former PR director for Playboy Enterprises. We found several other folks with Chicago connections, so we felt right at home.

Then there’s Ajijic Newbies, which is Facebook-based but they do events too. Last week we went to a dinner they sponsored and met more expats, some brand new to Ajijic and some who have been here for a few years.

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Leslie chats with new friends Heidi and Steve at an Ajijic Newbies dinner.

We also went on a tour of five homes for sale in Ajijic. It seems all the real estate companies host these tours once a week. It was a large group, and we went with Rex and Susan, a fun couple from South Carolina who seem much more interested in buying a home here than we are right now. Wherever we land, we plan to rent for at least six months to a year before making any real estate moves.

And it seems all these groups try desperately to keep expats busy! As LCS members, we’ve already been to one screening of a TED Talk with discussion afterward, and Leslie is taking a Spanish class at the Society starting next week. We’re both interested in the Tai Chi class mid-month, and we met some fun people at the Oktoberfest recently. LCS is a great resource for expats and a super way to meet people. The Society also gives back to the local community. For example, our friend Marlene is teaching English to a group of local residents, mostly teenagers, who know some English but are trying to improve their  conversational skills.

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Mariachis play in Ajijic Plaza for the opening of a display of historical photos of Ajijic, taken over 50 years ago. Lots of things happening here!

Finally, we came because it simply costs less to live here. That’s true of the other places we’ve been in Mexico. I’ll discuss the cost of things like food and real estate in a later post, but today let’s talk about the many shopping venues we have here.

There’s Wal-Mart, of course, and a grocery called “Super Lake” that has lots of food items from Canada and the U.S. But we prefer the local markets, like the Tianguis on Wednesday mornings. Here’s a fairly recent YouTube video. This clip focuses on beans and street food, but Leslie and I go more for the fresh fruits and vegetables. You can also buy jewelry, art, clothing, electronics, hats, shoes, DVDs — almost anything you want. On Tuesdays there’s an organic farmer’s market in West Ajijic, with more prepared food and specialty items.

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This organic market vendor had some excellent bulk oatmeal.

It’s a little more expensive and somewhat light on veggies, but you can find gluten-free bread and muffins, excellent sausages and chorizos, and some very tasty hummus.

Ajijic hits a lot of our buttons. Is this “the” place? We don’t know yet, but it looks good so far. More to come…

Hasta luego!

Year Two begins with one more stop in Mexico: Ajijic

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Leaving Midway on a direct Volaris flight to Guadalajara. A little better prepared than a year ago, and still advertising for Jake’s Country Meats!

First, let me assure you we were completely unaffected by the earthquake that killed more than 230 people in five Mexican states, primarily in Mexico City. We are a little over 330 miles from Mexico City, so we did not feel the quake here in the Lake Chapala area.

And a correction: Last post had a pronunciation guide for Ajijic, but I got it wrong. Sort of. There is some debate. One source says “ah-he-HEEK,”  but the locals often drop the hard “c” at the end, making it “ah-he-HEE.”  

Ajijic is a 450-year-old village where the cost of living is relatively low and the climate is “the best in the world.” This town is at roughly the same latitude as Hawaii and the same elevation as Denver. Average temperature is 68 degrees F. It’s near the end of the rainy season right now, and daytime highs are in the high 70s to low 80s with overnight lows in the low 60s. The humidity seems to run from 50 percent up to near 80 percent after a storm.

Like San Miguel de Allende, Ajijic has narrow cobblestone streets and a central plaza. There are a number of colorful shops, art galleries and restaurants in the centro. Population numbers vary but 15,000 seems to be a good number, with at least a quarter of that being retired expats, mostly from the U.S. and Canada. Some live here year-round, many more stay through the winter before heading NOB (north of the border) for the rainy season. There are several other villages along Lake Chapala — Jocotepec, Chapala and San Antonio Tlayacapan just to name a few.

Lake Chapala is Mexico’s largest freshwater lake. It’s 50 miles long and 11 miles wide, at its extremes, with an average depth of about 15 feet. Ajijic’s “Malecon,” or boardwalk along the lakefront, is a great place to jog/walk in the mornings. I often see egrets, herons and pelicans on the shores.

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Traditional house on a cobblestone street.

Leslie and I have settled into our new digs, a very nice home on Donato Guerra street in the central section of Ajijic. We have two bedrooms (family and friends can come visit!) and a patio with a pool. There’s a good bit of street noise and a few mosquitos, but the house is terrific. Some of that street noise is the clip-clop of horses’ hooves. Yes, you can see locals on horseback here almost any day of the week. The kitchen is probably the best-equipped we have seen in our travels.

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Leslie has already whipped up some great meals here!

And we have four female roommates: Audrey, Doris Day, Racer and Bean (photos below). They must think we’re okay, since they sleep in our laps and ask for belly rubs. Thanks, Anita and Ken, for letting us live in your home for the next few weeks!

We have become members (through the end of October, at least) of the Lake Chapala Society so we can take advantage of their many social and educational offerings, and meet more people here. They help expats with health and legal issues, offer personal enrichment classes, and sponsor bus trips to the shopping mall in Guadalajara. LCS has lots of things for expats, but they also sponsor ESL classes for local people who want to improve their English. Our friend Marlene, who has lived here almost two years now, is a volunteer ESL teacher.

I’ll leave you with pics of our four housemates.

Hasta luego!

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Audrey has her own chair! Her name is on the heart-shaped medallion.
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Bean, short for “String Bean,” can open the patio door by herself, but never closes it.
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Racer, short for “Speed Racer,” loves belly rubs.
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Doris Day, a tiny kitty who loves to cat around outside at night, but is always at the patio door seeking entrance when I get back from my morning walk/jog.

 

Playa del Carmen: For a vacation maybe, but not long-term

Leslie and I love the beach. Since we moved to Chicago’s western suburbs late in 2000, most of our vacations have been on Caribbean islands. In February. It helped us survive Chicago winters.  So it seemed natural that a place like Playa del Carmen, right on the Caribbean Sea, would be a strong candidate to be our new home. Wrong. We would love to come back here for a vacation, but living here permanently is out.

There are some positives. Let’s look at those first:

  • It’s a small city, only about 150,000 people, and relatively walkable if you live between the beach and Highway 307.
  • There’s a lot to do here. Playa is a major tourist destination, so you can visit Mayan ruins, swim in cenotes and go to water-related theme parks on the Mayan Riviera. Oh, and there’s the beach. We will miss our wait-person Luis at Kool Beach Club. He tried to teach us some Spanish: “Estamos bien, por ahora.” (We’re good, for now.)
  • Excellent restaurants, and not just in the tourist areas. And not just Mexican food, either. We had terrific gazpacho and paella last night at Mar de Olivo.
  • Good public transportation, especially the vans they call colectivos, which will get you around town and to other cities on the Mayan Riviera. Lots of taxis available, too.
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One great thing about living in Mexico: BIG avocados, some of the best we’ve ever had. Less than $2 USD for a pound.

But the negatives are strong:

  • We’re looking for warm temperatures and Playa has that. But the humidity is 80 to 90 percent or more. We’re tired of sweating constantly when outside. The deodorant works, the antiperspirant does not. It wasn’t so bad when we were here seven years ago in December but again, we’re looking for a year-round home.
  • We’ve been unable to find an English-speaking church. In three other Mexican cities, we have thoroughly enjoyed attending Anglican church services weekly and meeting some terrific people.
  • As a consequence, we’ve been unable to meet other expats. There doesn’t seem to be any organized group here as there were in San Miguel de Allende and Puerto Vallarta, and to a lesser extent in Mérida.
  • We’ve also been unable to find any cultural events, such as concerts or lectures we might want to attend. This town appeals to a younger, hipper crowd. One of the biggest annual events is the DJ Festival at Mamita’s Beach.
  • Playa is a big-time tourist trap. We gringos cannot walk peacefully down Fifth Avenue. We are assaulted by people selling tours, fishing trips, diving trips, cenote trips, tacky souvenirs, Cuban cigars and lots of other stuff. “Vivimos aqui, amigo,” (We live here, buddy) usually works, but it’s easier just to avoid the street.
  • And as mentioned in a previous post, it seems most of the housing is vacation rentals rather than traditional Mexican homes for more permanent residents. Prices seem a little on the high side.
  • Did I mention the humidity?

So we’ve learned that the Yucatan Peninsula is not for us. Great for vacations, but not more.

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Madre Tierra is one of the few restaurants we remember from our Christmas vacation seven years ago. I enjoyed one of the best steaks I’ve had in years.

We’ve been on the road for nine months now. Time to take a break and head back to the U.S. to take care of things that need our attention and to see friends and family. Our flight from Cancún lands at O’Hare tomorrow afternoon (Saturday, July 15). We will be in the area until the end of August and possibly for the first week or two in September.

What happens after that? You may recall from a previous post that Leslie and I visited the Lake Chapala area for a few days at the end of March to reconnect with an old friend from Texas. At the time, I said this deserved a closer look. So we’ve secured a two-bedroom house in Ajijic for mid-September through the end of October.

Ajijic is similar to San Miguel — high altitude (5,000+ feet), warm days, cool nights, low humidity. The expats who live there say it’s the best climate in the world. And we really liked their downtown weekly farmers market. It will be our fifth, and probably final, Mexican home. Leslie wants to try Ensenada in the northern part of Baja California. I think it’s too close to the border, which is where a lot of the drug cartel activity is. We’ll see.

After that, we’ll be in San Diego for November and December. That lets us spend the holidays with our daughter Stephanie, and it gives us an opportunity to see what it would be like to live there. It is possible, after all, that someday we would want to be closer to her. Knowing, however, that moving in with her for two months would be nearly impossible, we have secured an East Village condo about three blocks from her place.

As 2018 begins, we plan to check out a couple of highly recommended towns in Costa Rica’s Central Valley, and then do another three months in Europe — France and Italy are on the agenda, but we may also try another city in Spain. This time next year, it will be decision time. Where will our new home be? Vegas oddsmakers are already hard at work!

Next post from the U.S.

 

 

 

 

Living in Playa, and a side trip to Tulum

As we near the end of our time in Playa del Carmen, let’s examine the cost of living in this neat little beach town. That’s always a major factor in deliberations over where we will spend our retirement.

Meals in Playa restaurants seem a bit higher than in some of the other Mexican cities we’ve lived in. That’s probably because we’ve been to places that cater almost exclusively to tourists. We’ve paid only a bit less than we would expect to pay at similar quality restaurants in places like Naperville, Westmont or Downers Grove. If we lived here, we would go more often to places the locals frequent. They’re usually less expensive.

More important for us is the cost of groceries, because we dine in more often than we dine out. Unfortunately, there is no central mercado here, as there was in San Miguel de Allende and Mérida. Mega is the closest American-style grocery store. We know them from other Mexican cities and they’re generally okay. Our purchases there included:

  • almond milk, 946ml, $2.51.
  • toothpaste, 4.5 oz., $2.32.
  • premium orange juice, 1L, $2.29.
  • ground beef, 19.7 oz., $4.42.
  • chicken breasts, 38 oz., $5.88.
  • olive oil, 750ml, $7.65.
  • dozen eggs, $.98.
  • Advil, 200mg, 24-pack, $3.44.
  • Orowheat multi-grain bread, $2.42.
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Dac Market is open-air. No walls or doors. See the baskets? Those are your “shopping carts.”

There are a number of markets that sell frutas y verduras (fruits and vegetables). Our favorite is the Dac Market, where you can get nuts, chiles, spices and dried fruits, such as raisins, in bulk. This market is larger than most neighborhood fruit stands, and their produce is definitely better than the big chain stores. Here’s a sample:

  • carrots, 27 oz., $.54.
  • limes, 21 oz., $.58.
  • white onions, 23 oz., $.60.
  • romaine lettuce, $1.11.
  • zucchini, 19 oz., $.30.
  • raisins, 12 oz., $1.08.
  • avocado, 15 oz., $1.83.
  • white potatoes, 17 oz., $.46.
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Colorful jars of bulk spices and seeds at Dac Market.

Meat and fish tend to be better at a carneceria or pescaderia. There are two meat shops and two fish vendors close to us. A few days ago, Leslie went to Pescaderia El Mero Mero and bought some very nice grouper for dinner. The owner told Leslie his shop had provided the fish for a Mexican television version of “Top Chef” that featured Rick Bayliss. Good enough for Rick, good enough for us! Leslie picked out two whole fish, then the owner’s assistant filleted them on the spot — fresh, never frozen. We ended up with four six-ounce fillets for less than $10 USD. And what Leslie did with it was muy sabroso!

Real estate is also important, and Playa is a little different from other places we’ve lived. Vacation rentals are everywhere, especially between the main road (Highway 307) and the beach. There are no high-rises here, only condo buildings three to five stories high.

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Typical new condo building. At one time, developers were limited to three stories. Now, five is the max.

And there are more on the way. If you’re a construction worker and you need a job, come to Playa. Several condos or hotels are under construction.

Real estate sales pitches tend to tout income potential — buy a condo in PDC for your vacations and rent it out whenever you’re not here. That’s not for us, but it’s normal here. And prices are all over the map. There’s a third-floor, two-bedroom condo for sale in our building, Aqua Terra, for $245,000 USD. They had an open house last week and we took a look. There’s a rooftop area that would be great for entertaining or sunbathing, but the view is nothing special.

Then there’s a two-bedroom unit in condo-hotel Aldea Thai, right on our favorite beach. It has a private pool and says it has “great views” but none of the photos show an ocean view. It seems a bargain at only $650,000 USD. Right across the street, they’re hard at work on Ocean Residences, one of many new luxury condo buildings. We talked about looking at the model, but haven’t done it yet.

Want to spend more? I found listings online up to $10 million USD. If you’re looking for a bargain, you’ll need to look outside Highway 307 or in some of the smaller towns between Cancún and Tulum. Buying on the Riviera Maya would take a lot of research, figuring out exactly where you want to be, then spending a lot of time with a good agent. There are a lot of properties for sale here.

Rentals, as noted, tend to be vacation rentals rather than long-term. Go on Airbnb or VRBO and you’ll find luxury properties that will set you back $500 a night or more, USD. We were lucky to grab something in our budget. I found long-term rentals online, but there are few bargains at $1,500 USD a month and more. There was one listing in Tulum for $1,000 USD a month. It’s a nice two-bedroom house with good outdoor spaces, but it’s not close to the beach and you would need a car to get anywhere.

So, does Playa stay on the list or not? That’s coming up in the next post!

Living on the Riveria Maya would not be boring, though. There are lots of attractions on this stretch of the Yucatan Peninsula that runs essentially from Puerto Morelos (just south of Cancún) in the north to Tulum in the south. There’s also the island of Cozumel, a 40-minute ferry ride from Playa, where scuba diving and snorkeling are big business. We visited Tulum last week to see more Mayan ruins.

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“The Castle” at Tulum. When Leslie and Stephanie were here many years ago, people could climb those stairs to the top. The authorities don’t allow that anymore because at least one person was injured in a fall here, according to our guide.

Leslie and her daughter Stephanie went to Tulum nearly 30 years ago when they were on a cruise. Back then, she says, the site consisted of “the castle” and not much else. Archeologists have uncovered much more of the site now, and it’s amazing. There’s even restoration work being done right now on a building that’s in danger of collapse.

Our guide Dan told us Tulum was probably the last city the Maya built.

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One of the few houses still standing at Tulum. Our guide said this was the home of the high priest. There are lots of foundations inside the walls of Tulum. Priests and other high-ranking Maya lived here while most lower-class people lived in villages outside the walls. 

Next time, I’ll review our five weeks in Playa del Carmen and let you know if we’ll be coming back any time soon. Spoiler alert: The humidity here is often greater than 90 percent!

Hasta luego!

Mexican food takes center stage

This post is all about real Méxican food, particularly food from the Yucatan Peninsula where Mayan culture is important — especially at dinner time. If you’re not hungry right now, you will be in the next few minutes. So grab some chips and salsa and pour yourself a cold Pacifico or make a pitcher of margaritas.

Since we arrived in México, especially since we made it to the Yucatan, Leslie has wanted to take a cooking class. We struck that one off the list yesterday (June 28) at México Lindo Traditional Kitchen, Workshop & School in Puerto Morelos, between Cancún and Playa del Carmen.

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A place setting for our lunch. One dish we made was ceviche, upper right.

Leslie and I joined five new friends from Florida to learn some basics in the art of Méxican cuisine, and to taste hot chocolate, green juice, and Méxican coffee with cinnamon and orange rind.

After learning about different kinds of chiles and picking up some knife skills for cutting tomatoes and onions, the Florida group departed. That’s too bad, partly because they were fun people and partly because they missed an incredible lunch!

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We made, or helped make, all these items.

Leslie and I got individual attention for the next few hours as we prepared our meal with instruction from Chef Alexandra, the owner of México Lindo. The recipes we used were her grandmother’s recipes, although Chef admitted she has made a few revisions over the years.

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Leslie preparing tilapia for the ceviche we made.

We made ceviche, shrimp broth, green rice with poblano peppers, black beans and red snapper filet, all Veracruzana style. And we polished it off with flan. As we cooked, we also learned about Méxican cooking.

There was a lot of hands-on work. I chopped and diced, using my new-found knife skills, and got to use the blender a few times. Leslie did a lot of the actual cooking — stirring and  seasoning, asking questions and writing down notes. We each got copies of all the recipes, and we got to keep our “I Cooked In México” aprons.

As we sat down under the big palapa, Mari was making tortillas by hand. She invited us both to try our hand at making them. I couldn’t get the hang of it. Several times my work started to look like a tortilla, then some of the masa stuck on my fingers, leaving holes in the round of dough, forcing me to start over.

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I failed at making tortillas but succeeded wildly at eating them. Mari has beautiful classic Mayan features. You can see this same face on sculptures at ancient Mayan temples, or in museums.

Leslie fared a good bit better. Mari is a Mayan woman, probably in her 70s, who has been making corn tortillas by hand since she was eight. In addition to making the tortillas (among the best I’ve ever tasted), Mari also worked very hard in the kitchen all day, mostly cleaning up. As we arrived, she greeted us in the Mayan language.

If you’re ever in Cancún or Playa del Carmen on vacation, you should take the class. The menu is different every day, so check with Chef, online or by phone, before you sign up. It’s a full day and there’s some work involved. But the meal is definitely worth it, as is sharing food and conversation with Chef Alexandra and sous chef Claudia.

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Ready to eat the meal we prepared!

But wait — there’s more!

Last Thursday (June 22) , we joined guide Francisco on the “Walking Food Tour of Downtown Playa del Carmen.” Nine different stops, only four of them actual restaurants and only one in the main tourist area known as Quinta Avenida, or Fifth Avenue. We spent about four hours with Franciso learning where the locals eat out, and getting a little history lesson too.

The first place we stopped was a taqueria that was full of locals. No touristas in this joint. In fact, we were the only non-Méxicans in any of the places we went. We sampled tacos al pastor as well as beef tacos, ceviche, Méxican ice cream, fruit juices known as aguas frescas, and tamales from a street vendor.

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Ceviche at Buzo’s Seafood Restaurant in Playa. It was excellent.

“You might be concerned about eating street food in México,” Francisco said. “The one thing you should not worry about is tamales. These ladies make the tamales at home and bring them here. In fact, I think many restaurants in Playa serve tamales that one of these ladies cooked in her home and sold to the restaurant.” I thought it was one of the best tamales I’ve tasted. On the other hand, Leslie thought the sauce was too spicy for her taste, and didn’t care for the masa.

We finished off the evening at a more familiar (and more touristy) place called Ah Cacao. It’s like a Méxican version of Starbucks, only way better. Their motto is, “Let’s Look After Our Planet — It’s the Only One With Chocolate.” They serve a variety of drinks made with coffee and cacao, and a number of chocolate-laden pastries as well. I had a Chocolate Maya drink — cacao and a variety of Mayan spices. Wow!

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This young man is making a “marquesita” for a member of our group while guide Francisco (left) watches. He cooked a very thin waffle on this pan, put a sliced banana and some Nutella in it, twirled it into a cone and presented it. You can see that he works fast to make this classic Mexican street food. The whole process was probably less than two minutes.

Just a little over two weeks now before we end Phase One of our search for a place to retire, then we head back to Chicagoland. We’re going back for some routine, but necessary, doctor appointments and to see friends and family we have missed very much.

More on that later. For now, hasta luego!

Playa is a little different, seven years later

Leslie and I spent Christmas 2010 with daughter Stephanie in Playa del Carmen. In fact, this is the only place in our travels so far that we have actually been to before. Back then, we rented a two-bedroom condo near the beach for about a week, spent nearly every day at Kool Beach Club and sampled some excellent restaurants. We’re back, almost seven years later, and a lot has changed.

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Pedestrian-friendly Fifth Avenue is Playa’s top draw.

Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue) is still the hot spot in Playa but it seems busier now, with even more opportunities for tourists to spend their money.

On our first stroll down that famous pedestrian-only  street, we were attacked by at least a dozen vendors who aggressively tried to sell us something, thinking we were tourists. Easy assumption to make, I suppose.

I saw one or two restaurants that looked vaguely familiar. Otherwise, big changes. The little wine bar the three of us enjoyed more than once in 2010 — gone. The Mayan-themed restaurant where I got some great cochinita pibil (a traditional Yucatecan pork dish) — it’s Guy Fieri’s Restaurant now. I guess that’s called progress.

We got in last Saturday, unpacked and got settled, then decided to revisit Kool Beach Club on Monday. I remember it as being a place with great food and drinks, and a DJ that played techno-beat electronic junk music that annoyed me.

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Back at Kool Beach Club!

Until I caught my toes tapping to the beat. Then I heard the overlay change — something dropped in and something else dropped out. The music was changing, evolving, interesting to listen to. But the beat was the same. Hard. Driving. Constant. Not annoying anymore — fascinating. Didn’t read much in my book after that.

Well, the beach has changed. The music isn’t nearly as good, and a couple of new condo-hotels have been built, making the beach more crowded. The food is still great at Kool Beach Club. We had some terrific fish tacos Monday and will probably return several times over the next month.

Changes are not limited to the beach and Fifth Avenue. Playa del Carmen (pop. about 150,000) isn’t laid back anymore. It looks like they’ve built condo buildings all over the place in the last few years, especially between the beach and Avenida 30, a major thoroughfare.

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New condos along Calle 34, near our condo.

In 2010, PDC was centered on Fifth Avenue establishments catering to the tourist trade. Not anymore. There are restaurants and boutique hotels along 1st Avenue, 10th Avenue and all along the calles in between (avenidas, or avenues, go north-south while calles, or streets, run east-west).

One big downside to Playa is the lack of an English-speaking Protestant church. We loved St. Paul’s Anglican Church in San Miguel de Allende, as well as St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Mérida. Christ Church by the Sea in Puerto Vallarta (also Anglican) was OK, too. Unfortunately, that denomination apparently has no presence in Playa del Carmen, or anywhere in the state of Quintana Roo. There are non-denominational churches in neighboring cities like Tulum (about an hour south) and Puerto Morelos (about 30 minutes north) but nothing in PDC that might meet our needs.

Same with expat groups. Leslie found three groups on Facebook, but all appear to be geared toward real estate. We haven’t connected with any other expats yet.

We’ll be here in Playa until July 15. That should give us time to experience this little beach town and visit other possible retirement locations, such as Bacalar (on a lake near the border with Belize) and Tulum.

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We’re in a modern two-bedroom condo across the street from PDC’s major sports complex, where I join the locals to go jogging around the cinder track every morning. 

As for the weather, it’s hot and humid — really humid. But temps here are in the upper 80s F. instead of the upper 90s as they were in Mérida. Humidity, though is consistently high, so we start sweating when we walk out the door. Nice breeze at the beach, though.

More next time!

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The pool in Aqua Terra, our home for the next month. Not as private as our digs in Merida, but it’s nice. And the big saltwater “pool” is just a few blocks away!

 

 

Moving on; one stop left in Phase I

We’re at the end of our six weeks in Mérida. Tomorrow, Leslie and I hop on a bus and travel to the beach city of Playa del Carmen. We’re looking forward to slightly cooler temperatures and a more walkable town.

Mérida, capital of the state of Yucatan, is an interesting city.

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Merida’s many parks feature these “conversation chairs,” also called “Las Sillas Confidantes,” or  “Tu y Yo,” or “De Los Enamorados.” This young couple shows the original purpose.

There are some good things about it:

  • While there are lots of expats here (fewer in May when it’s so hot), the percentage is smaller than in the other cities we’ve been to so you don’t often run into other Americans or Canadians on the street.
  • The cost of living seems a bit lower here, especially for food at the local mercados and for real estate.
  • There’s no beach in Mérida but in 20 to 30 minutes you can be on the tip of the peninsula and enjoy neat little beach towns like Progreso.
  • Orquestra Sinfónica de Yucatán performs in a very nice concert hall. They’re pretty good, too. And there are classical music performances every Sunday at a smaller auditorium on the other side of the park. Last week we saw the chamber orchestra Orquestra de Cámara de Mérida do seven Vivaldi works. A free concert!
  • St. Luke’s Anglican Church has warm, helpful people and an energetic priest who gives insightful sermons. Sunday (June 4), we helped inaugurate the new church building just five blocks from our house.
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Merida’s cathedral, completed in 1598. It was the first Roman Catholic cathedral on the American mainland. This cathedral and the one in Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) were the only American cathedrals built entirely during the 16th century.

Never say “never,” but Leslie and I agree Mérida won’t make our final list. Here’s why, in a nutshell:

  • I never thought we would say a place is “too hot,” but Mérida is too hot. And too humid. Maybe it would be perfect in January, but we’re looking for a year-round home.
  • This is a city of almost a million people. It’s big and spread out, and outside the centro it’s not very “Mexican.” We liked the smaller towns better.
  • Being a big city, of course, means it’s not very walkable, and walkability is a big asset.
  • Transportation back to the States is not simple. When I looked for ways to get back quickly for a funeral, the only options were to fly to Mexico City and catch a flight north, or take a bus or private car to Cancún and hop on a direct flight to Chicago or  another U.S. city. Connections are not the best.
  • Did I say it was too hot?

So it’s on to the final Mexican stop on this part of our journey — Playa del Carmen in the state of Quintana Roo, about 30 miles south of Cancún. I’ll leave you with some photos of the places we’ve visited here and the things we’ve seen — pics that haven’t made it into any previous post.

Next post from Playa!

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We visited Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, where henequen (sisal) is grown and made into fibers that are used to make rope, carpets and burlap bags. It’s the only henequen hacienda still operating. At one time, the Peon family alone owned 14 henequen plantations in the Yucatan. Our guide Jose (left) and one of the workers showed us how rope was made by hand, using this simple machine. We saw every step of the fiber-making process. Now, they only produce the fiber as a working museum for tourists and for use on the plantation, and the plantation is dramatically smaller than in the early 1900s during the “green gold” boom.
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Henequen fibers come from a type of agave plant. Yes, agave is used to make tequila. Different kind of agave. At the end of our tour, though, I had a margarita made with henequen liquor rather than the normal agave tequila. It was OK, but not great. Once a plant is started, it’s seven years before any of the fronds can be harvested. Then you can only harvest seven fronds per month.
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Hacienda Sotuta de Peon has one of the Yucatan’s many cenotes. We enjoyed about an hour swimming here, and there were no crowds. Leslie enjoyed floating in the crystal-clear water. This cenote is in a cave.
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Uxmal (OOSH-moll), an ancient Mayan site dating to 700 A.D. The temple is to the right, and palaces to the left where priests, scribes and other professionals lived and worked. Lower class Maya lived in villages outside the temple grounds. This site was apparently abandoned around the 10th century.
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Mayan figures at Kabah, a smaller site near Uxmal.