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.

 

 

Rent or buy? The big question for ex-pats

I’ve already given you an idea about available real estate in San Miguel de Allende and Puerto Vallarta, as well as our European stops. Now, even though Leslie and I won’t be relocating to Mérida, I want to give you an idea of what you might find if you were looking to rent or buy here. But first let’s back up a bit and talk about real estate in general.

Buying real estate in Mexico is very different from in the U.S., and not just because all the paperwork is in Spanish. This article from the Yucatan Times explains a lot about those differences. It’s a few years old but still valid. And here’s something from our favorite magazine, International Living. I can’t tell when this was first published, but the information is good. If you want to know more, just Google “buying real estate in Mexico.”

The big question is whether to rent or buy. Most gringos, especially those who live nine months or less in Mexico and the rest somewhere else, prefer to rent rather than buy. Dennis and Sandy, our friends from Puerto Vallarta, are renters. They actually have a five-year lease on a condo with an ocean view in one of the fancy high-rises in Marina Vallarta. It works for them because they go back to Wisconsin to spend the summer with family. Lots of people do that. When the rainy season arrives, they head north. We’ve met a number of people in all three cities, however, who are just beaming because their Mexican permanent residency has been approved. Those are the folks who buy, and they find they can afford a lot more house here in Mexico than they can in, let’s say, Naperville, Ill.

Now let’s get specific about Mérida. One downside to this city is the condition of some houses in the historic area, where lots of gringos live. Leslie and I have walked past facades of some very nice houses, and right next door is a hovel or an empty shell. The upside to that, and in general to living in Mérida, is that you are in a Mexican neighborhood with Mexican people as your neighbors, rather than a bunch of ex-pats. Our friend Frank Krieger says that’s why he bought in Santiago many years ago — the local people are warm, friendly, caring folks. And once you get to know them, they’ll do anything at all for you.

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See the houses down the block? Nice-looking, well-kept homes suitable for ex-pats, but on the same block with this place. And there are many houses that look a lot worse. This place could be vacant, or there could be a Mexican family living here. Many locals simply don’t have the resources to upgrade, or even paint, their homes. 

Yet another caveat regarding Mérida is the plumbing, especially in centro. The pipes are too small to handle toilet paper, so you can’t flush paper down the toilet. Instead, you carefully place used TP in the trash. I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right.

Two of our new friends from St. Luke’s Anglican Mission, Harrington and Ricci, remodeled a house and put in new plumbing and an updated septic system. Their bathrooms are now up to U.S. standards, but that’s still rare except in the newer parts of town and in new construction.

And if you’re looking for a fixer-upper here in Mérida, you’re in luck. You can score a two-bedroom home in the Santiago neighborhood for less than $50,000 USD, some as low as $35,000 USD. At that price, though, expect to spend at least $100,000 or more to make it livable — to improve the plumbing and put in a pool. But if you do that, you have the house you want in a good location at a bargain price.

Okay, renovation is not your style. Check out this four-bedroom, three-bath home in Santa Ana neighborhood, with pool, for $229,000. Then there’s a more modest two-bedroom, two-bath house, listed as a historic property for only $129,000 — not sure where it is, though. Of course, if you want to pay more, you might be interested in this two-bedroom, three-bath home for $460,000 USD. It’s stunning, and it would probably list for at least twice that price north of the border.

Rentals seem a bit expensive, especially in centro, because rental and property management agencies — such as Remixto, probably the biggest — consider them “vacation rentals,” so they can run over $100 a night USD. The houses on Yucatan Premier’s website, however, are all long-term rentals. Most are in North Mérida, so a car would be essential but at least you’d be close to Costco! This site is interesting because some properties are listed in pesos and some in dollars. Always pay in pesos, if you can. Right now, the property listed for $16,000 pesos a month would actually set you back merely $864 USD a month. And if the peso drops again, it would cost less.

There are a lot of good things about houses in Mérida. Pasta tiles, for example. The next post will tell you what a pasta tile is, and will have lots of great information Leslie has compiled about the unique architectural facets of homes here.

A few photos to leave you with:

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I mentioned the Santiago mercado in the last post but had no good photos. It was a little after 10 a.m. on a Saturday here, so the mercado is not very busy. Most people shop early. The lady on the left is my favorite vendor. She writes down the prices and adds them up for the gringo. That keeps me from sheepishly handing her a $500 peso bill to pay for lettuce and tomatoes that actually cost $30 pesos or less.
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Doesn’t this look great? Those are Mexican squashes, and they’re very good. Leslie says they are like a cross between and winter and summer squash. The locals use them as a side dish and to make soups. I think they taste a bit like zucchini. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mérida is hot!

A little too hot, actually. It’s 2:30 p.m. in the afternoon and the heat index is 104° F. Good thing we both bought some new warm-weather clothing in Puerto Vallarta!

Before I tell you about this new place, please allow me a brief personal aside on the end of an era. My aunt Sue Rownd died Tuesday, May 2, in Little Rock, Ark. She was 96. Aunt Sue was my dad’s second-youngest sister. My grandparents, James Claude Rogers and Janie Teeter Rogers, had eight children (if I recall correctly) who lived to adulthood. Today, they and their spouses are gone. Aunt Sue was the last of her generation.

I learned only in the last few years that Aunt Sue was a writer, and she had done quite a bit of writing over the past few years. She was, in fact, the first female editor of the Weevil Outlet, student newspaper at Arkansas A&M College (now the University of Arkansas at Monticello). That was in 1941. I am proud to say she was a fan of this blog and sometimes emailed me with comments that I always appreciated. She had a great run. My sympathies go to my cousins Ed, Carolyn and Judy. I wish I could get back to the U.S. for her funeral, but there are some logistical issues. Unfortunately, I can’t resolve those issues to get there in time.

Thanks for your patience.

Mérida, capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan, is incredibly hot and humid. And it’s big — almost a million people live here. It’s on the western side of the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, but inland — about 22 miles from the Gulf of Mexico coast. Mérida has the highest percentage of indigenous persons of any large city in Mexico. About 60 percent of its people are of Mayan ancestry, so the conquistadores didn’t wipe out the Mayans  — they’re still here and going strong. In fact, they’re great at marketing. We both bought new hats from them just yesterday!

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No, that’s not a “Panama” hat I’m wearing. It’s a jipi-japa (hippie-hahpah), made by Mayans right here in Merida out of henequen (sisal). And this style of hat comes originally from Ecuador, not Panama. Gringos in Mexico need good hats!

Founded in 1542, Mérida was built on the site of a Mayan city that was a cultural center for centuries. So, Mérida could be the oldest continually occupied city in the Americas (that’s according to Wikipedia, so it might be true). It’s a beautiful colonial city with lots to offer, both here and in nearby places. We’re planning trips to Mayan archeological sites such as Uxmal (oosh-MAHL) and Ek Balam (eck bah-LAHM). Leslie and I learned about Ek Balam yesterday when we visited the Museo Palacio Cantón, also known as the Museo de Antropologia y Historia (Museum of Anthropology and History, but you probably figured that out even if you don’t know Spanish). We also plan to visit some cenotes. I’ll explain more about them when we’ve been to a few.

We’re staying in a 100-year-old house in the Colonia Santiago, which is home to lots of expats. The Mérida English Library is just a few blocks away. We plan to attend a Library-sponsored wine tasting next week. And on Sunday we’ll probably take an Uber (yes, Uber is here in Mérida!) to St. Mark’s Anglican Mission. We hope to meet more expats at church and at the wine tasting.

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Casa Walker, which we are renting from Arnie and Pam White through Airbnb. 

We’ve already been to our local Mercado Santiago, about a 15-minute walk from our house. But we’re looking forward to experiencing the mercado in the centro historico, which they tell us is huge — covers nearly a city block. On Saturday morning, we’re heading to the northern part of the city for the Slow Food Market. That one sounds great!

The house itself is a bit quirky, but it has a nice plunge pool on the patio and a rooftop area with great views of the city.
We’re not right in the centro, but a bus or our friendly Uber driver will get us there fairly quickly, or we can take about a 20- to 30-minute walk. Depends on how hot it is!

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About half the size of our pool in Puerto Vallarta, but it’s great for heat relief!

Part of the quirkiness is that the pool and patio actually separate the living area and kitchen from the two bedrooms. There is a full bath right off the kitchen, and that’s handy. There’s also an outdoor shower in the master bath.

The heat alone might drive Mérida off our list fairly quickly. One chart I saw indicated that, historically, this city has recorded a high temperature of 100° F. or more in every month of the year, including the winter months. But we’ve been here less than a week, so we need to have patience.

More to come after we’ve had opportunities to check out this city and its environs.

Hasta Luego, Puerto Vallarta!

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This little guy is called a social flycatcher. He and his relatives have been visiting our pool for the past two months. Pretty bird with an obnoxious call!

Leslie and I leave tomorrow morning for the next stop in this vagabond lifestyle — Mérida, capital of the state of Yucatan (JOO-kah-tan).

This is Hasta Luego (“see you later”) rather than Adios! because we may very well be back. We like this city. San Miguel de Allende is still at the top of the list, and we still have other places to see. But PV is definitely in the running. We need to spend more time in the centro, the downtown area that’s also called the Romantic Zone.

We can already see a scenario that would have us in San Miguel for the summer and Puerto Vallarta for the winter. Best of both worlds.

The good things about this little slice of heaven include:

  • Lots of places where you can contribute to the local economy, including U.S.-based big box stores like Costco (where I got new contact lenses this week) and Home Depot, but also many small locally owned places. Leslie came out of one marina-area shop with lots of great-looking lightweight clothing at good prices.
  • A good Anglican church, Christ Church by the Sea.
  • The locals are warm and friendly. They don’t mind us gringos being here because we help create jobs. And that’s a good thing.
  • Many expats here, and our friends Mike and Sara Wise make sure there are several events a month to get people together. We met David and Michelle Webster at a coffee hour several weeks ago, and later had dinner with them. Fun couple, whom we hope to see again.
  • Lots of great restaurants, and not just Mexican places. Italian, Chinese, Brazilian, seafood, you name it.
  • A number of interesting places outside PV to explore — such as Magical Cities like San Sebastian.

The downsides are:

  • It’s big. Maybe too big. Lots of places and lots of people. Puerto Vallarta is several different areas with vastly different vibes.
  • Walkability is good in the marina but poor if you want to go to other areas, like downtown or the shopping centers — almost essential to have a car here.
  • Access to farmers markets and local mercados is limited.
  • Many expats here (once again, that’s a positive and a negative), and they seem a little bit cliquish, although they would say that’s not true.
  • Not many cultural opportunities here, at least not that we have found. However, we did miss an opportunity to be at a chamber music concert early last month, and last night we attended the second evening of the 11th Festal Vallarta Azteca del Folclor Internacional.
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Mexican folk dances, complete with colorful costumes, were a big hit with the crowd of mostly locals at the international folkloric dance festival that opened Wednesday evening. The beach is just behind that stage, so we had a nice view of the sunset, too.
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We will miss this view. 

Next post from Mérida. We’ve heard the daytime high temperatures hover near 100° F. It’s a colonial city, like San Miguel, but a 30-minute bus ride gets you to a great Gulf of Mexico beach! More to come…

Do you know what Mexican Turkey is?

A quick update while we are sitting by the pool, enjoying nice breezes and recovering from a couple of journeys with Vallarta Adventures (see “Whale of a Tale”), the tour company Leslie and I really like.

Before I tell you about those trips, another plug for US Global Mail, the Houston company that handles our mail for us, and for shipping service DHL. This week the mail included a new credit card to replace one that expires in May, and a check. Most of our mail gets thrown away or scanned to store on my laptop, but I needed that credit card, as well as the check. DHL got it here in just two days — a day sooner than promised — and at a discount thanks to US Global Mail. DHL makes it easy to track the shipment and their website is user-friendly.

The check is from International Living magazine, the first of many I hope to receive from them and similar publications. IL recently used an article I wrote about our vagabond lifestyle, so I am now a travel writer!

And our daughter Stephanie was here over Easter weekend to celebrate her birthday (April 14), along with her friend Kelly. The two of them often bunk together on group travel excursions, so they appreciated having their own rooms in our three-bedroom condo!  We celebrated Steph’s birthday at Puerto Vallarta’s top-rated restaurant, Tintoque, right down the street from our condo. The next night, we took them to Victor’s in the marina. A more casual, fun place known for free tequila shots. Stephanie was aghast when she arrived Friday night to find that her mother’s tan was better than hers. She and Kelly spent much of weekend trying to fix that.

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Victor welcomed us to his restaurant and gifted Stephanie (left) and Kelly with a bottle of his uncle’s famous tequila. Steph says it will stay at her place, but Kelly expects a shot whenever she visits. Happy Birthday, Stephanie!

 

It was great to see her again. If we decide on Mexico rather than a European country as our retirement home, it will be easier for Steph to come see us from her home in San Diego, and vice versa.

This week we went on excursions to Yelapa (pronounced gel-AH-pah), a small coastal village accessible only by boat, and to the silver mining town of San Sebastian.

At Yelapa, we saw a neat waterfall, walked through the town, relaxed on the beach and tasted some incredible raicilla, which is made — like tequila — from the agave plant, and is distilled only here in the state of Jalisco. Very smooth.

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This waterfall greets you as you complete a climb up Yelapa’s hill. Some in our group took a dip in the pool.

Vallarta Adventures staff, especially the amazing tour director Pablo, kept us entertained all the way there and back on the boat – about 90 minutes each way. Just before lunch, Leslie and I got a chance to paddle a sea kayak around a pretty little cove. First time for both of us! Lunch was a make-your-own sandwich buffet. Leslie pointed to one of the choices and asked a crewman, “What is this?” With a straight face he replied, “Mexican turkey. Brown pelican.” Then he winked. It was just regular turkey, of course. I wonder how many times a week he uses that one!

On the cruise back to PV, Pablo and the staff performed — OK, lip-synced — some old rock ‘n’ roll standards as “The Mexican Rolling Stones,” complete with makeup and props. Having an open bar helped us enjoy it a bit more, but those guys put on a great show. They were very funny!

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Got a selfie in as we prepared to board the boat back to Puerto Vallarta. Yes, that’s my Cubs cap — sorry the “C” doesn’t show. I wore it one day on the beach at the PV Marriott and met a guy who said he was once a Cubs bat boy. He knew Ernie Banks! Had fun talking with him.

Yesterday’s excursion was by van, over narrow, winding roads through the Sierra Madre Mountains to the silver mining village of San Sebastian del Oeste. Tour guide Gabriel kept up a running commentary on a variety of topics, including bits of Mexican history. San Sebastian was once home to some 30,000 people while 90 area silver mines were operational. Now the mines are gone and there are only about 600 residents. The town, with its narrow cobblestone streets and whitewashed homes, hasn’t changed much since the 1910 Mexican Revolution drove many people away, primarily the upper classes. It is one of more than 100 places the government has designated as a Magical City, or Pueblos Mágicos.

We visited Hacienda Jalisco, where silver ore was refined in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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Hacienda Jalisco. At least one website claims this may have been one place where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton hooked up during filming of “Night of the Iguana.” Our guide didn’t mention it, though.

Once owned by the great film director John Huston, some of it has been restored. You can see the smelters where ore was baked in one of the steps to create pure silver. After a terrific lunch at the Secret Hotel (“secret” because you can only stay or eat there if you know the owner), we saw a family-owned organic coffee roasting operation. The family matriarch, “Mary,” had 21 children. We bought some of the coffee from a gentleman known as “veinte” (Spanish for 20) because he’s the 20th child, and he looked to be close to 70 years old. The video below is the roasting part of the process. Yes, it smelled fantastic!

The formal walking tour ended at the home of the Encarnación family, which has lived in this house since the 1700s. Part of it is now a museum. Then we spent some time in the beautiful church just off the plaza, and saw a silversmith’s shop. Both our guide and the silversmith admired Leslie’s silver necklace. Her father brought that necklace home from a business trip to Mexico almost 40 years ago. Gabriel said the craftsman who made that style of jewelry passed away a number of years ago, and they don’t see his work very often. Gabriel was impressed.

Last stop, fortunately, was a visit to Hacienda Don Lalin, a local tequila distillery. After a brief introduction by our host, Lalo (who grows his own agave plants), we tasted some very fine tequila, mezcal and raicilla, as well as amaretto- and coffee-flavored tequilas. Once again, we contributed to the local economy and hit the road back to Puerto Vallarta.

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Lalo is a third-generation tequila distiller, and his products are very tasty. The labels say “Don Lalin,” who was Lalo’s grandfather. 

One more week here in this bustling Mexican beach town. Then Leslie and I move on to Mérida, capital of the state of Yucatan. It’s 10- to 20-degrees hotter there, but we’ve heard great things from a number of people about that colonial city.

Hasta luego!

How does Puerta Vallarta stack up?

Before the main event (and because there are not a lot of pics this time), here’s a photo I thought I had posted before but realize now that I never put it up for all to see. John and Anne Mixen came to Puerto Vallarta for a well-deserved vacation just a few days after we arrived here on March 1.

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We met John and Anne for drinks and watched an amazing sunset.

After a number of emails and texts, we met our old Naperville friends for drinks at the Lighthouse and dinner at Victor’s in the marina, followed by great conversation on the patio of our temporary home. It was great to see them again and catch up.

Now let’s talk pesos and dollars. Any consideration of where to live in retirement includes the cost of living. That’s a big factor in our decision, along with climate and a few other things. So let’s take a look at what it costs to live here in Puerto Vallarta.

We shop for food in several places, just like we did back in the States. The two major Mexican supermarkets are Soriana and Comercial Mexicana. Here’s a taste of what it costs to shop in an American-style supermercado (all numbers have been converted to U.S. measurement, and prices are in dollars at today’s exchange rate):

  • Lavazza coffee, 12 oz., $8.00
  • rice, 26.5 oz., $1.23
  • Colgate toothpaste, 4.6 oz., $2.04
  • oatmeal, 2.2 lbs, $1.07
  • gala apples, 23.8 oz., $.68
  • sliced deli ham, 17.6 oz., $5.39
  • olive oil, 25.4 oz., $5.28
  • gluten-free pasta, 12 oz., $2.61
  • loaf of 12-grain bread, $2.01
  • dozen eggs, $1.21

In San Miguel de Allende, and in Alicante, Spain, we shopped for fresh fruits and vegetabels at the mercado where the locals go. Puerto Vallarta is big city, so there isn’t one central market. We go to El Mercado Palmar de Aramara. It’s a neighborhood market, and we see lots of locals there. Here’s what we got this week:

  • pineapple (gold), $.69
  • carrots, 24.7 oz., $.48
  • red onion, $.59
  • raisins, 35.27 oz., $3.20
  • cauliflower, 35.27 oz., $1.09
  • white onions, 46.56 oz., $.45
  • cucumbers, 22.57 oz., $.93
  • Italian zucchini, 41.62 oz., $1.33
  • radishes, 35.27 oz., $.80

Obviously, we try to get fresh produce at the mercado whenever possible, but we have to take a bus or a taxi because it’s too far to walk. The bus is $15 pesos for both of us to ride. That’s less than a dollar US.

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Mexican buses are not much to look at, but they get us where we need to go. There are no routes, as such. You just look at the front window as the bus approaches. If you want to go to Centro, for example, hop on this one! And do you see the speed bump? Mexico LOVES speed bumps! They’re everywhere!

Taking a taxi is usually about $70 or $80 pesos, which is less than five dollars US. Transportation is not a big expense here in PV, but if we lived here permanently we would definitely need a car.

We usually have breakfast and lunch at home, as well as the evening meal most nights. Dinner out is always fun because there are a lot of excellent restaurants in PV, especially in the marina. We found a great place in the marina for seafood, Las Palomas Doradas. On our first visit, Leslie had mahi-mahi Veracruz style and I had — OK, I don’t remember what I had, but we both had a glass of wine and the bill was $38.25 US. On our second visit, we both had shrimp dinners with wine and paid less than $50 US. Plus, since it was a repeat visit, we got dessert free. There’s also a great Argentine restaurant, Rincon de Buenos Aires, where we both had steak with red wine and paid $57.85 US.

Is there expensive food too? Yes, we’ve had lunch twice at a gourmet burger spot, where Leslie had a glass of wine and I tried some Mexican craft beers. That ran us about $30 US, but the burgers are really good! And we have reservations next weekend at Puerto Vallarta’s top-rated restaurant (according to Trip Advisor), Tintoque, where we will celebrate daughter Stephanie’s birthday! That will be more on a par with high-end restaurants in the Chicago area. I’ll let you know.

There seems to be a lot of property on the market at any given time, which you would expect in a place like PV. There are also a lot of real estate agents, including some expats who prey on serve other expats. So I checked a reputable place, Coldwell Banker. Just so you know, CB on Main Street in Downers Grove has the best real estate agent in the Chicago suburbs, Slav Polinski. Slav, you should come down here! Anyway, the CB office in Marina Vallarta has a range of properties. These are some of the condos available (single-family homes are generally a bit higher):

  • A 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bath in the Marina Golf complex for just $175,000. Overlooks the marina and the mountains.
  • A 1,732-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bath in the Porto Fino complex for $395,000. It’s beachfront, on the seventh floor near the elevator, with views of the Bay of Banderas.
  • And just for comparison, a 4,000-square-foot, two-bedroom, three-bath penthouse in luxurious Bay View Grand for a mere $1.1 million. Two terraces, bars inside and outside, and a private pool. Here’s the listing, in case you want to dream a bit.

The Romantic Zone is another popular area of Puerto Vallarta. It’s in the centro, the older part of PV, and you can find homes with a little more Mexican character here. Just looking at the Coldwell Banker website, there are two-bedroom condos from $155,000 US up to $1.2 million US. For $599,000, you buy a two-bedroom, two-bath overlooking Los Muertos Beach, and it’s a penthouse with amazing ocean and beach views, plus a BBQ grill.

And that’s just from one agency, and just looking at their website. There are many other options. (Google “Puerto Vallarta real estate” if you’re interested.) Real estate here in PV is all over the map, literally and figuratively. For vacation rentals, the same thing. There are nice properties for rent under $1,000 US a month, and there are some ocean-front penthouses that rent for that same price, but per week!

In general, we think prices might be a little better in San Miguel or some of the other places we’ve visited. But we’re not done yet! At the end of April we head for the next destination, Mérida, capital of the state of Yucatan. More on that later.

Let’s close with a look at that sunset we enjoyed with our friends back in March. This is a regular occurrence here on Mexico’s Pacific coast.

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Sunset as seen from El Faro, The Lighthouse in Marina Vallarta. We have a pretty good view from the patio of our condo, too!

Hasta luego!

 

 

 

Lake Chapala: Best climate in the world?

Leslie and I took one of our side trips this week to check out a place we’ve heard has “the best climate in the world.” It’s the Lake Chapala (chah-PAH-lah) area, about an hour south of Guadalajara. We were only there for a day and a half, but we’re going back because this area is now on our list.

We visited the town of Ajijic (ah-HEE-hick) to renew an acquaintance from over 20 years ago. Leslie and I knew Marlene Syverson when we all attended University United Methodist Church in San Antonio, Texas.

 

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Our old San Antonio friend Marlene at the Wednesday morning mercado in Ajijic. 

Marlene left Texas in 1994, but kept in touch through the years with Joan Ahrens, who was singles pastor at UUMC at the time (and a key force in getting Leslie and me together). Leslie read one of Joan’s Facebook posts recently, in which she said she had visited Marlene in Lake Chapala. Surprise!

So we spent five hours on a plush, first-class double-decker bus through the Sierra Madre Mountains to Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city. We had primo seats at the front of the upper deck, with great views of lush valleys, extinct volcanos and huge fields of agave plants (main ingredient in tequila). A 45-minute taxi ride from the new Guadalajara bus station got us to Ajijic, a quaint little town similar in many ways to San Miguel de Allende.

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Make you hungry?  The climate means local farmers can grow crops year-round.

Marlene took us to the Wednesday mercado in Ajijic (some of the best produce we’ve seen, plus meats and fish!) and showed us several towns and neighborhoods, including Ajijic, Chapala, San Juan Cosala and San Antonio, where she has lived (yes, a little bit ironic) for a little over a year. Some are stunning, high-dollar homes with sweeping vistas, and some are quaint little Mexican houses with lots of character. We caught up with Marlene and learned more about her life in Mexico.

So what did we find? Lake Chapala itself is beautiful. It’s the largest lake in Mexico and is natural, not man-made. Small towns like Ajijic ring the lake, with gringos living mostly in Ajijic, Chapala and San Juan Cosala. We expected to find beaches and lots of boats, but there are no beaches and only the gringos paddle around in kayaks, Marlene being one of them.

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Lake Chapala. It’s really much bigger than it looks here. Marlene says there is a volcano on the other side of that prominent mountain. Some days, she can see smoke rising.

Best climate in the world? Well, International Living says the region has “one of the best.” This is due partly to “lake effect,” with Lake Chapala acting as a moderating force on highs and lows. And there are mountains north and south of the lake, helping ameliorate storms. Temperatures are in the 70s fairly consistently throughout the year, with the annual average between 75° and 78° F. Add in low humidity and a brief rainy season, and it’s hard to beat. That’s similar to what we found in San Miguel, but in SMA it can get pretty chilly at night — down into the low 40s — and the daytime temps can vary with the seasons. Also, Ajijic is at 5,000 feet altitude, a little over 1,000 feet lower than SMA. Closer to Denver-type altitude. The rainy season begins in mid-June, but most of the rain comes at night and is not constant. Long-time resident expats say it might rain every three days or so.

The cost of living here appears to be quite low.  Marlene left the mercado with a huge bag of vegetables that cost her the equivalent of $5 US. Leslie was lusting after the beautiful heads of red- and green-leaf lettuce, but we had no way to get it home!

I checked a couple of rental agencies in Ajijic and found some two-bedroom, two-bath homes and apartments available for under $1,000 US a month on a long-term rental. And some of them have views of the lake!

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Ajijic’s malecon. I can see myself jogging on this esplanade every morning!

If you don’t mind being outside the centro you can rent a nice home for $500 US per month or less. Houses for sale run the gamut, some are on the market now for $100,000 US or less. Marlene says property taxes can be as much as $100 US per year. That’s right – per year. Propane gas appears to be fairly costly but electricity is not, especially since you don’t need air conditioning.

There’s more, but I will revisit the Lake Chapala area in-depth in a later post. Much later. Leslie and I are thinking we will spend a couple of months in Ajijic next year, probably mid-January at least through the end of February, maybe longer. We want to be in Ajijic for the Festival de Febrero, a classical music festival formerly known as Northern Lights Music Festival.  We got to know two of the festival’s biggest backers, Canadian expats Tony and Roseann — their son produces the festival every year.

So it was a great visit with Marlene and an enlightening tour of the Lake Chapala area. We will be back.

But we still have one month here in Puerto Vallarta, and lots more to see and do. Next time, I hope to focus on the cost of living here.

Hasta luego!

 

A Whale of a Tale

I know it’s been too long since the last post. I do have several excellent excuses, but that will have to wait until the end because we had a great adventure this week.

Yesterday morning, Leslie and I got (relatively) up close and personal with some humpback whales, courtesy of Vallarta Adventures and expert guide Nikki from the U.K. Whale watching is one of Puerto Vallarta’s biggest winter tourist attractions. The humpbacks arrive in early December every year and by the end of March they migrate north again to their feeding grounds.

Northern Pacific humpback whales – we learned from marine biology Ph.D.candidate Nikki – come to Puerto Vallarta for the winter. Good choice. We did the same thing! Mexico and Hawaii are their two main winter breeding grounds.

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This is about as close as we got to the whales. Vallarta Adventures has a plane that searches for whales and let the Zodiac captain know where they are.

Our group of about 25 made the trip from the Puerto Vallarta maritime terminal to the mouth of the Bay of Banderas in a fast Zodiac (400 hp). On the way, I got a chance to see some boobies! Blue-footed boobies, that is. A kind of waterfowl. Since we were in the middle of the bay, we saw them in flight and couldn’t see their blue feet. Two of them flew right beside our Zodiac for at least a minute (see the brief video below), pacing us perfectly. Then they zoomed ahead and cut us off!

But the main event was the humpbacks. We saw several groups of two or three whales in the Bay of Banderas and just outside the mouth of the bay in the Pacific Ocean. Nikki told us humpbacks rarely travel in groups. But we saw several groups of two or three, and it was amazing!

She was excited to see the whales feeding, since they normally don’t feed in the breeding grounds. They feed like crazy on their way to the Bay of Banderas, but they usually fast during mating season. Nikki spotted a krill floating in the water and was able to scoop it up for us to see. This is what whales eat – like a shrimp and a little smaller than a honeybee. Sorry I didn’t get a photo of the krill, but I will show you – in the series of three photos below – what it looks like when the whale dives. Once you see the tail go under the water, it will be awhile before Leviathan comes back up, gathering krill as it rises. Nikki said, “The biggest part of whale watching is whale waiting.”

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You can’t see markings on this fluke, but each whale has unique markings on the underside of its tail. Nikki said the markings are like human fingerprints. Researchers can identify each whale they see.

The highlight of the morning, though, was seeing a baby whale – a calf – with its mother. “Couldn’t be more than three months old,” Nikki said. Later she added, “We believe humpbacks may live 100 years or more. So we hope this newborn will migrate with its mother, and come back to these waters next winter. And we hope he or she keeps doing that even after all of us in this boat are gone.”

Baby humpback was breeching like crazy. “It’s very playful,” Nikki said. See the video below, and turn up the sound to hear Nikki’s commentary in English and Spanish.

There was a third whale, a male, along with the mother-calf pair. But Nikki said we “should not assume that’s Daddy because that’s not how humpbacks live. That’s probably a male that wants to mate with this calf’s mother.” Humpbacks can be quite solitary, she said, noting that if we see two whales together they could be a male-female pair or more likely two males. She said researchers almost never see two females together during mating season.

If you’re ever in Puerto Vallarta, be sure to do your touristy-type stuff with Vallarta Adventures. They do a great job. The marketing people that sell for them, though, can be very aggressive. We’ve learned to say, “Vivimos aqui, amigo” (We live here, buddy. We ain’t tourists.) They leave us alone when they hear that.

Yes, it’s been awhile since the last post. I hope you think this was worth the wait. I did mention some excellent excuses.The biggest one is that the patio and small pool we have are actually magnets that attract us and keep us in place! See what you think!

Hasta luego!

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Wouldn’t you hang out here as much as possible? With an adult beverage in hand? Thought so.