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.

 

Break’s over — back on the bus!

Tomorrow afternoon (Thursday, Sept. 14), Leslie and I begin the second year of our two- or three-year plan to find a new home — a place to retire where the weather is always warm (or mild, at least). No more snow. No more sub-zero Chicago winters.

We’ve both gotten clean bills of health from our various physicians and we’re ready to go back on the road.

Over the past year we’ve been through eight countries, 12 airports, eight train stations and four bus stations. We’ve stayed in eight different homes or apartments we found through Airbnb or VRBO, and in nine hotels, including the one we’re in now. We’ve slept in 21 different beds.

Since returning to the States we have dined with old friends, attended our church and readjusted the storage locker at U-Stor-It in Lisle, Ill., containing all our worldly goods.

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Leslie and I worked ALL DAY to move our stuff into this big storage unit.

We moved the contents of a large unit and a small unit into one huge unit, and (we think) more properly stored our king-sized memory-foam mattress. We also made two more trips to Goodwill and one to a consignment shop.

Many thanks to Bill and Linda for hosting us for two weeks at the end of July. Their lovely home offered a great re-entry into the U.S. for Leslie and me. We could only pay them back with a nice dinner of Fish Veracruzano style, and by introducing them to rum and tonic, our favorite tropical drink.

Then we moved into the Hyatt House here in Warrenville. Hyatt House has been our home since Aug. 1 and we have mostly enjoyed it. The part we didn’t enjoy is when the fire alarms went off and we had to leave the building. It happened much too often — and there was never a fire. We think it’s people cooking in their rooms without turning on the vent over the stove. The smoke detectors are very sensitive.

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Hyatt House in Warrenville.

This hotel offers a two-room suite, so we have had a bedroom/bath separate from the living area and kitchen. The hotel has a good location, comfortable bed, well-equipped gym, nice patio with gas grills and an excellent breakfast. One of the best things about the Warrenville Hyatt House is Patricia, a cheerful Guatemalan woman who makes amazing omelets every weekday morning. She’s always got a smile for all the guests, even though her back is hurting from being on her feet for over two hours.

We had fun visiting our friend Judy in her new place at The Lakes at Waterford. We were so taken with her bright, spacious two-bedroom, two-bath duplex that we met with the sales director! It’s a place we might think about as a “Plan C” a few years from now (Plan “B” is living in San Diego, close to our daughter). It’s something to consider if the idea of living in other countries loses its luster or if we just feel we need to be back in our old stomping grounds. We think the costs are low enough that we could live there in spring, summer and fall, while getting to a warmer climate for winter.

I know what you’re thinking. When we told Bill and Linda we were considering Waterford, Linda was speechless. Slack-jawed, in fact! But we’ve gotta consider all the options, right?

Now we’re headed back to Mexico to spend about six weeks in Ajijic (ah-HEE-hick), on the shores of Lake Chapala just south of Guadalajara. More on that once we get there.

This time next year, we expect to either decide on our new home or at least narrow the choices down to two cities and spend six months in each. The way we make decisions, though, it could actually be three finalists and four months in each!

Thanks for following us! I hope you will enjoy reading about our exploits in places to come: Costa Rica, France, Italy and who knows where else!

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The best neighbors anybody could want! We had a ball catching up with Dan and Zdenka (we just call her “Z”).
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Leslie got to spend some time with both sisters, Laura (center) and Cathy, who flew in from Florida for a few days.

 

 

Thoughts on our ‘halftime’ in Chicago

OK, I didn’t tell you the whole truth. I said Leslie and I would be in the Chicago area for several weeks this summer to see our doctors and visit friends and family. But I left out another big reason: The Chicago Air & Water Show.

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Fran and Rick watch the Blue Angels.

Leslie’s sister Laura and our brother-in-law Paul have a condo on the 51st floor of a Chicago high-rise with stunning views of Lake Michigan. Since buying this place, they have hosted an annual party for a group of friends to watch the “air” portion of the Air & Water Show, and it’s a fantastic viewpoint. That’s where we were Saturday (Aug. 19), seeing old friends and enjoying a great Chicago event.

The U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels precision flying team was the headline act. They’re always exciting to watch. There were other precision flying teams and acrobatic pilot performances, some using biplanes and aircraft from World War II. The Army’s Golden Knights parachute team impressed the crowds, as did the Navy’s Leap Frogs. There were flybys from military aircraft like the KC-135 tanker and the F-22 Raptor, the U.S. Air Force’s top-of-the-line stealth fighter. One highlight of the day was watching the F-22 jet fly in formation with a P-51 Mustang, a piston-engine WWII-era fighter plane. It’s incredible how aircraft designed and built more than 60 years apart can fly together. (For more on the amazing F-22, see this article from Popular Mechanics.)

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Ken (left), Fran, Tom and Peter watch the Heritage Flight. The tower on the right is Aqua, which houses condos and a hotel.

Here’s a You Tube video someone shot from Wrigleyville. It includes the Blue Angels and the F-22/P-51 Heritage Flight. It runs about eight minutes and the perspective is different than what we saw from just south of the Chicago River, but it gives you an idea of how exciting this show is. Next year, we’ll see the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds perform.

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Enjoying the balcony view are Kirsten and Peter (nearest camera), and Fran and Rick. 

We go every year to see the show, but also to see friends and catch up. Laura had a great spread of food out, as usual, including a spiral-cut ham, potato salad, bean salad, watermelon salad and other nibbles. And wine, of course. There’s always wine. This year, Leslie and I were able to share our favorite wines from Malta, one red and one white, with our friends thanks to a shipment from Meridiana Wine Estate.

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Ken liked both Maltese wines, but he really liked an expensive bottle of Spanish wine I laid in for about five years as a special treat for this group. “I don’t want to sound flowery,” he said, “but the bouquet is intoxicating.” 

Most seemed to like the chardonnay “Isis” a little better than the merlot “Nexus.” (Meridiana names their wines after Phoenician gods because the Phoenicians were the first to settle on Malta.) Leslie and I think Isis is one of the best chardonnays we’ve tasted.

After the Air Show party, I joined Leslie and Laura for a concert in Millennium Park — part of the Grant Park Music Festival. We’ve enjoyed this festival for many years, and I was glad we got to this free concert. It was the last GPMF concert of the summer. The festival’s orchestra and chorus outdid themselves with a terrific rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Enjoy this brief clip, shot with my iPhone:

Some other thoughts on being in the States:

  • Last week, I took a train into downtown Chicago — as I did nearly every day for almost 15 years — to have lunch with a former co-worker. As I walked down Adams Street toward the restaurant, I noticed that I was walking on the shadier side of the street. Six months in sunny Mexico can change your perspective!
  • We have enjoyed seeing family and friends, and eating at old favorite establishments.
  • Leslie and I both have clean bills of health from our physicians so far. We have a few more to go, including some of those wonderful diagnostic tests doctors like to perform on people our age!
  • And we both look A LOT better now that we’ve gotten good haircuts. Thank you, Traci!

We leave for Ajijic, Mexico, on Sept. 14. I hope to post again before we leave.

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Some of the crowd in front of us on The Great Lawn at Millennium Park, with a view to the stage of the Jay Pritzer Pavilion. I staked out a spot early, so we got pretty close. Concert-goers pay for the seats but the Great Lawn is free. 
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The rest of the crowd, behind us. The Grant Park Music Festival is very popular. It’s fun to check out the food other people bring. There are some great dinners out there.

 

It’s halftime! Sorry, no marching band.

Leslie and I have been back in the States for two weeks. We are officially halfway through our search for an overseas home in retirement. This time next year, we’ll be making a choice — or at least narrowing it down to two finalists, which we will then try out for at least six months each. There could be a third year of this escapade.

We’ve enjoyed seeing friends and family, going to our church and visiting some of our old haunts. We’ve already been to our favorite farmers market on Saturday morning in Downers Grove, and we’ve dined at a couple of our favorite restaurants. We’ve even gotten a few physician appointments done. Okay, Leslie has done that. I’ll get to it soon.

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Met our friend Lini at the Tap House Grill in Des Plaines. We tried to catch up, but it’s going to take a few more long lunches!

One common question is whether we’re experiencing culture shock after being in Europe and Mexico for almost 10 months. Well, yeah! We’ve been living in places where we could walk or take public transportation (along with taxis and Ubers) for almost everything we needed. Here in the western suburbs of Chicago, things are spread out. We have to drive everywhere.

So we tried to rent an “intermediate” size car, thinking we would need a little more room than the smallest thing available. Imagine our surprise when they upgraded us to a Cadillac XTS! It’s got more bells and whistles than Leslie’s former car, an Acura RDX.

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Leslie says the trunk is big enough to hold three bodies! We just need to haul a few boxes.

The last time either of us drove a car was back in September when we turned in the RDX. Seems we’re both still able to drive on U.S. streets and highways. I guess it’s just like falling off a bicycle.

And it’s nice to see green trees and green grass again. We’re also thoroughly enjoying cooler temperatures and lower humidities. Summer is great in Chicagoland. It’s just those winters that make us want to live somewhere else.

Finally, we traded in our worn Jake’s Country Meats bag for a new one. For many years, Leslie and I have bought pork from Nate and Lou Ann Robinson (owners of Jake’s Country Meats and seventh-generation pig farmers in Cassopolis, Mich.) at the Downers Grove farmers market and throughout the winter, too.

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Remember this from October 2016? The Jake’s bag served us well in the past 10 months.

As we began our vagabond journey last October, Leslie used our insulated Jake’s bag — which we formerly used to take our farmers market produce home — as the carrier for prescription meds and medical supplies. The bag made it easy to keep some medications cool, and it kept all our meds in one place. That’s good organization, but it also helps in security lines at airports. Plus, we’ve advertised for Jake’s Country Meats in six different countries  — seven if you count Scotland as a country, which it may be very soon.

But over the past 10 months, the Jake’s bag has suffered from over-use. It has been through 12 international airports and seven train stations as we made our way from O’Hare to Dublin to the U.K., through France to Spain, to Malta, to four cities in Mexico and back to Chicago. Leslie has repaired it with duct tape more than once and it has remained serviceable. But today, Nate presented us with a brand-new insulated Jake’s bag. Of course, we promptly used it for breakfast sausages, bratwurst and pork tenderloin! Nate raises pigs the way his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, did. We’ve been buying pork and other meats in grocery stores and meat markets, but have not found anything as good as what Nate sells.

Our friends Linda and Bill are putting us up for a few weeks at their beautiful home in Glen Ellyn, and last week Leslie introduced them to Nate and Lou Ann’s outstanding pork products. She cooked some smoked pork chops, which were a huge hit. This morning, Linda joined us at the farmers market to meet Nate, and once the bag replacement ceremony was over she decided she wanted our old bag, which Nate was just going to throw away. I always say recycling is better!

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Nate presents a new Jake’s bag to Leslie while Linda signs up for the Jake’s newsletter as Nate’s newest customer. See the duct tape on the old bag?

We have a lot of work to do before Year Two begins in September, and we need to connect with lots of folks while we’re in Chicagoland. Some of you have already heard from us regarding when and where to meet for lunch, dinner or drinks. If we haven’t gotten in touch yet, we will soon!

 

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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unique elements make Merida homes beautiful

There are some really cool aspects to traditional Yucatecan houses, and Leslie was quite taken with them. So I asked her if I could post this piece she wrote about pasta tiles and other neat stuff. Here’s Leslie’s contribution:

Although we could not remain in the first home we rented in Mérida, it had some architectural features typical of houses in this part of Mexico. This capital city of the Yucatan was established in the mid-1500s by the Spanish on a site already inhabited by the Maya. The home we rented was a simple house, built about 100 years ago during the henequen (sisal) or “green gold” boom.

It’s built, as most Mérida homes are, of “mamposteria,” a combination of cement block or stone and stucco.  For color, the walls are painted with a lime-based paint known as “cal.” The ceilings are often very high – as much as 25 feet.

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The ceiling in Casa Walker’s entry room. You see these ceilings everywhere, even in commercial buildings.

In the entry room of Casa Walker the ceiling was about 18 feet high. A combination of wood and iron or steel beams supports the ceiling. The look is striking, I think.

I was fascinated when I read about the “pasta tiles” in Mérida, and delighted to find them in this house. Pasta tiles are made of concrete, stamped and hand-painted. They’re used in homes throughout the Yucatan. The first pasta tiles were brought from Italy. Later, an industrious local imported the equipment to make and sell them to builders. That original business still exists in Mérida, and you can order tiles today – choose from their stock or design your own. They’re easy to keep clean. If you’re lucky enough to find a home that has been cared for since it was built, then you’ll find the tiles in good shape. We weren’t quite so lucky, but I thought they were beautiful. They were on all the floors and the walls of one bathroom.

As you can see (above), some are geometrical and some are quite fanciful. The gray one looks like feathers to me, and the red and green ones look like marble. The green tiles next to the brown and yellow ones remind me of ginko leaves.

No home in Mérida (at least those occupied by gringos) is complete without a pool to keep you cool. The pool at Casa Walker had yet another distinctive feature — a “chinked stone wall.”

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The “chinked stone” feature at Casa Walker.

The stones are hand-shaped and randomly placed. There is a funnel to recirculate, filter and deliver water into the pool. At its deepest it was about three feet. Fortunately, the water remains cool during the heat of the day and is quite refreshing.

Finally, Mérida homes are almost always connected, side-to-side. There’s no yard between you and your neighbor, just a shared wall — like in a condo building. So the house we lived in had no side windows, making it sort of “shotgun” style with a front door and a back door, along with some front and rear windows. Sometimes there were nice breezes, most of the time there were not. Fortunately, we had air conditioners in the kitchen and bedroom. Many Mexican families can’t afford air conditioning, so they sometimes leave their front doors open when they are at home.

The layout of Casa Walker, though, is a little odd — probably due to the way it was renovated. To get from the living area/kitchen to the bedroom was a challenge. First, there are double glass doors with scrolled metal grates to open and close (yet another typical feature), and the latching mechanism was difficult. Once you get through the door, take a stroll through the patio and past the pool to another glass door with scrolled metal grates, equally difficult to open and close. Oh, and to reach the outdoor shower or the bodega (storage room) that housed the washing machine (no dryer), there is yet another glass door with metal grates to open and close.

You’ll notice I said “outdoor shower.” The master bathroom shower was outdoors — very private behind high walls with lots of plants and vines, but outdoors. There was an elementary school around the corner from us, and while showering we often could hear children playing. It did have a nice rain shower head. I just couldn’t get over imagining Tarzan waiting his turn.

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Looking from the entry, with its pasta tile floor, through the TV room to the kitchen, and the iron-grate door to the patio and the bedrooms on the other side of the patio. The master was downstairs, the second bedroom above, up a spiral staircase.

There are some typical Yucatan house features that aren’t so nice. Since Mérida has no city sewer, every house has its own septic system. Unless you spend a gob of money to upgrade the septic system and re-plumb the entire house you know that that means – NO paper in the toilet. It goes into a canister, trash can, or other receptacle close by. So nice.

Despite the inconveniences we were able to make a home there for ourselves. Then, the super-hard bed (like sleeping on a concrete shelf) got the best of me. My back was giving me such pain that I went to see a doctor. She diagnosed a muscle contracture so strong that it had pulled my spine out of alignment. She prescribed a muscle relaxant and told me to find a different bed. After a few days in a hotel, we found the house we’re in now, Casa San Antonio. It’s much nicer, much less quirky, and the pool is neck deep. My back feels better, too.

Now, on to some more exploring of the Yucatan.