We’re close to the coast and vineyards

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Here we are on a Mediterranean beach in the town of Carnos. We got lost that afternoon, but it led to us having a fine lunch: mussels provencal with a nice rose wine. Yum!

While Montpellier is a little over six miles inland, it’s easy to reach some of the beach towns along the Mediterranean. Leslie and I have been to Carnos and Palavas-les-Flots.

Palavas is home to our new friends Patrick and Anne-Marie. We’re renting the Montpellier apartment from Anne-Marie, probably the most helpful host we’ve had in any of our Airbnb or VRBO experiences in seven countries. She invited us to come to Palavas for lunch, then we walked around this little beach town that’s a bit on the quirky side.

We were lucky to catch some of that quirkiness when we watched a joute, or water jousting match, late in the afternoon. It’s a traditional sport in the Languedoc region of France, dating back to the 17th century. It’s also practiced in other parts of France and Switzerland. Water jousting is done in boats, in this case on the canal that bisects downtown Palavas. Two teams fight it out, each with eight men rowing, one steering, two or three playing traditional music on oboes and drums, and one with lance and shield doing the jousting. Actually, each boat has five or six jousters sitting in the tail who alternate fighting. They don’t wear armor. All they have is white shirt and pants, a blue or red scarf, and a wooden shield.

There’s a page on water jousting on the Palavas tourist office’s website but they don’t offer it in English, so here’s the Google translation: “The knights of the sea perpetuate the tradition of medieval jousting. Red boat and blue boat, champions dressed in white and oboe sound, here are the Languedoc jousts. Perched on the ‘tintaine’ at the back of the boat, the jouster launches in hand targets the bulwark of his opponent and tries to make him fall. A powerful symbol of belonging to a community, the spirit and passion of games are transmitted from generation to generation.”

We were fascinated. Here are three short videos I shot with my phone. In the first two, you get a good look at the boats. The first video shows how far they row before the actual battle, and you get a look at the crowd, too. The second is from a different perspective. There is no winner in either clip. The third video I shot from a bridge looking straight down the canal. Even though it’s pretty far away, you can see the red boat wins. Anne-Marie said the blue boat was the Palavas team. She didn’t know where the other crew was from. Everybody cheered anyway.

We also “enjoyed” a Montpellier tradition a few nights ago — one that Anne-Marie warned us about. Féte de Musique is an annual one-night music festival that goes on until the wee hours. It’s all kinds of music played all over town. There was a big stage set up in the Place de Comédie, but we didn’t get down there. We didn’t have to. The restaurant next door had a huge party with loud, thumping electronic music until about 2 a.m. If that wasn’t enough, a drum corps came through our neighborhood about midnight. And thousands of mostly young people were dancing in the streets and having a good time until 4 or 5 a.m.

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A small portion of the crowd outside our window. The revelry went on pretty much all night.

We tasted wine at two more vineyards in the Pic Saint Loup area, which is about a 20- to 30-minute drive from Montpellier. Our guide, Bertrand (bear-TRAHND), explained the appellation, which is in the far north of the broader Languedoc region.  French rules about wine are extensive and detailed. Winemakers in Pic Saint Loup, for example, can grow whatever they like, but the “approved” grapes are syrah, grenache and mourvèdre. To put the coveted “Pic Saint Loup” designation on a label, the wine must be red or rosé and must be a blend of at least two of these three grapes. Vintners also grow cinsault and carignan, but these grapes cannot be more than 10 percent of a blend. They can produce any wines they like — a 100 percent syrah, for example, or a white. But the label must show it comes from the broader Languedoc appellation rather than the more prestigious Pic Saint Loup.

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Bertrand shows us mildew on some of the grape leaves as our new Swedish friends Bjorn and Lydia watch. In the background is Bertrand’s friend from the vineyard.

When Leslie and I arrived in Montpellier, it seemed to rain almost every afternoon. That’s a bit unusual and not good for grapes. As a consequence, as Bertrand explained, some of the area’s vineyards are now dealing with mildew on the vines. That’s not good, as you would expect. He spent a lot of time extolling the virtues of Pic Saint Loup wines, saying they are consistently rated as the best in Languedoc. “But I’m from here,” he admitted. “I grew up in Pic Saint Loup, So I think these wines are the best.” Even if he’s a bit biased, we agree. Wish we could taste them all, but there’s not enough time. Guess we’ll have to come back.

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This map shows where wine is produced in Languedoc. Pic Saint Loup is north of Montpellier.

Leslie and I are almost ready to move on, so it’s time to talk about how much it costs to live in this part of the world. More on that next time.

Bonne journée!

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You probably can’t find this in the U.S., but if you can — buy it! One of our favorites!

 

Costa Rica misses the cut

While Costa Rica has a lot going for it, the downsides overshadow the positives for Leslie and me. The land of Pura Vida is no longer on the list of places we’ll consider living. It’s a close call, but we think Mexico is still in the lead.

On the plus side, Costa Rica is a beautiful country. The mountains are lush and green, and there’s an incredible diversity of flora and fauna. We didn’t get to see much of it because we didn’t do any of the touristy things, such as jungle treks and zip lines. Areas like the Central Valley and Lake Arenal have a nice climate with warm days and cool nights. The humidity in those places is relatively low. Beach towns are definitely out. Too hot, too humid.

There are a number of things we like about Costa Rica in general. It’s a politically stable country that just elected, by a fairly large margin, a center-left president who has great plans for his country. There has been no standing army since 1948, the 90 percent literacy rate is one of the highest in the world, there’s a growing middle class, and Costa Rica takes care of the environment. For example, almost 100 percent of the electricity generated in Costa Rica comes from five renewable sources: hydropower, wind, geothermal, biomass and solar.

But electricity is expensive, and the overall cost of living is only slightly lower than in the U.S., In some cases it’s on a par with North American and European countries. We’re looking for a place where our money goes a little farther.

Other downsides include:

  • There are no street addresses. We talked with a Canadian who rents a box at the post office to get mail. If he knows a package is coming, he calls the UPS or DHL delivery driver to meet them somewhere. Crazy.
  • And you get directions that assume you know where you are: “We’re 200 meters south of Pops Ice Cream.” Thanks — now where the heck is Pops?!?!
  • Even the highways are not very well marked. We used Waze and Google Maps on our two trips around the country and still got lost in places.
  • Driving is hideous. In cities and towns, you have to avoid hitting pedestrians and cyclists who just dart into traffic. In rural hilly areas, the twists and turns force me to slow down while the locals just barrel ahead. We saw several near-accidents from drivers passing against a double-yellow line.

Finally, we just don’t have good feelings for Costa Rica like we have for Spain and Mexico. The people are friendly, and there are a lot of ex-pats in the area to socialize with. But neither of us has developed warm fuzzies for this country.

So Costa Rica is off the list as a place to retire. But we would like to come back someday as tourists to do some of those things we passed on while we were here. Also, Horizon Church — the nondenominational we’ve been attending in Jacó — is building a new church. The walls are up already and the plans look terrific. We would love to see it after they have moved in, and reconnect with our new friends there.

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Our last look at Costa Rica — a Pacific sunset. Hasta luego!

Now we’re taking a short break to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, which was back on Feb. 6. Has it really been 25 years? Doesn’t seem like it. We are marking this auspicious occasion by taking a two-week cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Rome. While Italy is not really on our list of places to live in retirement, we’re taking this opportunity to visit Naples, Rome and Florence to see the historical sites and museums — places like Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the coliseum in Rome.

After Italy, we’ll move on to France, the last place (maybe) on our list of possible places to live. We’ve rented an apartment in the historic center of Montpelier, capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon area, for six weeks. Leslie is looking forward to finding a French cooking class, and I relish the idea of sipping cafe au lait at little French bistros.

We’ll be back in Chicago’s western suburbs by July 12. Then we have a decision to make.

Next post will be from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean — IF we have decent wi-fi on the ship!

Ciao!

 

Livin’ in the land of ‘Pura Vida’

Leslie and I finally made it to Costa Rica last week. This is a beautiful country, with a number of national parks and wildlife preserves. The national motto is, Pura Vida, which means “pure life,” or “simple life.” It’s more than just a saying or a greeting, it’s a way of life. This site gives you a brief explanation.

We’re living in the beach town of Jacó (ha-KOH) on the central Pacific coast. It’s a fairly small town, geared to touristas, very much like Playa del Carmen was in Mexico. It’s hot and humid, so we would probably not choose it as a place to live in retirement. But we rented a car so we could get to other parts of Costa Rica. Our original plan was to spend all of February in Atenas (ah-TAY-nahs), which is at about 2,000 feet elevation in the Central Valley. A long-weekend trip there, where the climate is probably more amenable, is in the works.

Driving in Jacó, and in most of Costa Rica, is difficult. There are a ton of bicycles on the road, some of which are motorized. Plus, pedestrians  like to cross the street pretty much anywhere they like, since there are few actual street corners. Looking for a parking place is also a challenge. On our first full day here, we were searching like crazy for a particular restaurant that was highly rated on Trip Advisor. Couldn’t find the restaurant OR a parking place.

When I finally spotted a place to park, I was so hungry and frustrated I just dragged Leslie into the first place that looked like there was food available — a hole in the wall. Well, actually there were no walls. Just some tables and chairs and a bar. Fortunately, we had stumbled onto a traditional Costa Rican soda. This was our first taste of Costa Rican food. We both ordered casado, which is a plate with salad, rice and beans, fried plantain, and choice of meats (chicken, beef, pork or fish). Nothing fancy, but it all tasted great!

One rather challenging thing about Costa Rica is that they do not have addresses or street signs. For example, here’s the “address” for the church we attended Sunday, right from their website: “Horizon Church is located 200 meters south of Pops Road on the Costanera (main highway) in front of Auto Tica.” Now, Pops Road is NOT the actual street name, and it is NOT marked — you have to know that it’s the road that runs past Helados Pops, or Pops Ice Cream Shop. See? Challenging. 

More on Costa Rica once we’ve seen a bit more of it! I’ll leave you with a shot of the beach I jogged on this morning.

Pura Vida!

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The volcanic-black-sand beach north of Jaco. Big waves. Lots of surfing farther south.

 

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!

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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A small bump in the road, but a nice new home for us

CORRECTION: In the last post I said my paternal grandparents had eight children who lived to adulthood. It was seven. My sister corrected me. Thank you, Linda. I must’ve counted a favorite aunt twice!

We’ve had some issues this week, so it’s taken awhile to do a new post. Sorry about the delay. Leslie had been experiencing back pain that kept getting worse, and we both thought it was the extra-hard bed in Casa Walker, where we were living. A visit to an emergency room doctor confirmed that, so we found a new place. For the next three weeks, we are living in Casa San Antonio. We’re still in the same neighborhood and even a little closer to the Santiago mercado. The owners, a retired physician and his wife, are from San Antonio, Texas, where Leslie and I used to live. They are actually there right now! Smart. It’s only 75° F. in San Antonio today. Here, it’s 100° F. with a “feels like” of 107°!

So we had yet another encounter with medicine in Mexico, with a similar outcome to the one we had in San Miguel de Allende. The woman doctor spoke moderately fair English but Leslie understands a good bit of Spanish and there’s always Google Translate, so they had no trouble communicating. You probably know how much an ER visit costs in the States. Many hospitals in the U.S. want your insurance information before they even figure out whether you’re dying or not! At Clinica Mérida, they just asked if we were going to pay cash or with a credit card. Easy answer. We put all medical expenses on our USAA Federal Savings Bank card so we can more easily track medical expenditures for tax purposes. I think we were out of there in less than an hour with a diagnosis and prescriptions. Total bill: $340 pesos. That’s less than $20 USD. Even better, Leslie’s back is much better now.

Leslie and I have been attending church at St. Luke’s Anglican Mission. It’s a bit smaller than the Anglican churches we attended in San Miguel and Puerto Vallarta.

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St.Luke’s meets in the family chapel of a private home in Merida’s La Ermita area. On the first Sunday in June, they will move to new digs closer to us.

Last week there were six in worship. Yesterday, we had a total of eight. Father José, a native of the Azores (Spain) who has spent considerable time in Canada and the U.S., does a service in English at 10 a.m. and in Spanish at 11:15 a.m. The Spanish service is considerably larger. Even with a tiny congregation, this church does outreach work. On Saturday, Leslie joined a group (English- and Spanish-speakers) that meets weekly to make pulled pork sandwiches. Those sandwiches are distributed Sundays to poor people who tend to gather at one of the local hospitals.

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Father Jose uses a tortilla instead of bread for communion. Isn’t that appropriate?

Before getting sidetracked by the need to relocate, we went to the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya de Mérida, an impressive collection of Mayan culture and history. Much of the first section is devoted to how a meteor strike in the Yucatan Peninsula millions of years ago created cenotes that the Maya believed to be sacred. There was also a lot of recent Mayan history, including how the Spaniards brought Catholicism and how descendants of the Maya are contributing to Mexican society today. As we walked through, I thought, “This is not what I was expecting.” I started to think this place was a bust. Then we turned a corner, and there was a statue of Chaac Mool, the Mayan rain god. “OK,” I thought. “Here’s where the real stuff starts.” We saw works by pre-Colombian Mayan craftsmen and artisans, and enjoyed some excellent interactive exhibits. What’s really cool is that the majority of the signage in this impressive modern building is in Spanish, English and Mayan — Yucatec Mayan to be more specific.

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 On the ceiling of the museum is a Mayan calendar (we think), a drawing from the Chilam Balam of Ixil, which a wall plaque describes as “an example of the persistence and power of Mayan memory.” Written in the 17th and 18th centuries, these books preserved important traditional knowledge in which indigenous Maya and early Spanish traditions coalesced. But they also contained material that is clearly pre-conquest.

Then we spent a day at the beach in nearby Progreso. Mérida is about 30 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. If you want to go to a beach, though, just wait along Calle 64 in the Centro and watch for a bus that says “Progreso Directo.” Flag that bus down (there’s one at least every 20 or 30 minutes), just like you would hail a taxi in downtown Chicago, and for $40 pesos (a little more than two dollars), two people can spend a day at the beach. Of course, it’s $40 pesos more to come back!

Not the greatest beach we’ve ever seen, but we appreciated the cooling breezes. There were lots of locals on the beach on a Monday, most with small children. It was fun to watch them playing in the gentle surf. Seaweed had washed up along the length of the beach, and that wasn’t very nice. But we remembered that, “A bad day at the beach is better than the best day at work.”

Some of the restaurants along Progreso’s malecon (boardwalk, or esplanade) have beach chairs with umbrellas and bar service. We found one of those and staked out a spot, ordering some bottles of water and a few drinks. But their lunch menu was not inspiring, so we found a restaurant just a few steps down the beach that gets high marks on Trip Advisor: Crabster. I had some fantastic shrimp tacos and Leslie enjoyed coconut-almond shrimp that was crunchy and very tasty. And we enjoyed the whole meal with our toes in the sand.

In the next post, I hope to provide some cost of living details. Here’s a teaser: We had lunch several days ago at our new favorite place in the Colonia Santiago. It’s called Maize, Canela y Cilantro — a very small, very cozy, breakfast and lunch place. We had soup, entree with small salad and rice, warm corn tortillas, black beans, amazing salsa, and four glasses of jamaica (hibiscus) tea. Total bill with a healthy tip was $270 pesos. That’s a big lunch for two for less than $15 USD.

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A closing shot. You see this all over Merida — people saving parking spaces, just like in Chicago when it snows. Except, there’s no snow here.

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!