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.

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!

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!

 

And now for something completely different!

We have arrived in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and the difference between this city and San Miguel de Allende – where we lived for the past six weeks – is amazing. It’s bigger. More than 300,000 in the metropolitan area, with lots more traffic. It’s a beach town at sea level, with high temps and moderate-to-high humidities. Even more Americans and Canadians.

Leslie and I were able to rent a modern three-bedroom condo in Marina Vallarta that backs up to a golf course. We have a small pool in a huge outdoor space with lots of tables and chairs. We’ve already had one visitor (see photo below)! And we’re seeing (and hearing) a number of birds I can’t easily identify. A sparrow-sized cutie with a reddish-pink head and chest, a larger bird with yellow on its chest and a streak from its eye backward along its head, and a woodpecker. And what I think may have been a goldfinch – not sure.

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Saw this small iguana joining us on our first day in the sun! I didn’t have a snack to offer, so he left!

Hal, our Canadian landlord for the next two months, has a local administrator for his property. Rosanna picked us up at the airport on Wednesday and gave us some pointers on the marina area.

“It’s very safe here,” she said. “You can walk all around the area any time of day or night and you’ll be safe. Just one thing that you must never do: Never, ever, walk across the golf course at night.”

I was having a difficult time figuring out why. Would we be attacked by banditos lurking the links after hours? Bopped on the head by golf balls from blind golfers playing in the dark to avoid crowds? No and no.

“Crocodiles,” she said. “In the dark, you might step on one, and they don’t like it when you step on them.”

Right. What’s now a huge marina with lots of boats and tons of shops and restaurants, not to mention a plethora of condos, was once a swamp. There are still crocs here. It’s their habitat. So the danger is from wildlife, not from a wild life.

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In English: Danger. Crocodiles. No Swimming.

Rosanna has been very helpful. On Friday, she took us on a tour of Vallarta, showing us a bit of the old city and pointing out areas we will need to explore in depth over the next two months. She also took us to a local mercado for fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as seafood and meat.

There’s also a Wal-Mart and a Costco, in addition to Mexican grocery stores very much like the one we patronized in San Miguel. More on cost of living next time, but at first glance it appears prices are slightly higher here than in San Miguel.

We attended our first Vallarta ex-pats dinner on our second day in town. A number of them live here in the marina area, including Mike and Sara, the group leaders. There’s a social event almost every week.

We also attended Sunday morning services at Iglesia Cristo del Mar, or Christ Church by the Sea. But…it’s not really by the sea, more like on a really busy street close to the airport! I dressed as I would for any summer Sunday at Grace United Methodist Church in Naperville. Boy, was I overdressed! Shorts and t-shirts are not out of place here. It’s another outpost of the Anglican Church in Mexico, like the one we attended in SMA, and we enjoyed the service in what is essentially a big open-air palapa. Nice people. We will be back.

We’re really excited that John and Anne Mixen, friends from Grace UMC, are right here in Vallarta this week for a well-deserved vacation. We’re meeting them this evening to watch the sunset and enjoy dinner and conversation.

I’ll leave you with the view from our patio toward the golf course. We planned to do things today but we’re still on the patio because of a comment I made during lunch, “This is just about perfect, and you don’t often get perfect.” Maybe more often here in Vallarta. We’ll let you know.

Hasta luego!

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Looks great, doesn’t it? Behind these lounge chairs is a round table with four chairs where we’ve been having lunch almost every day. The only down side to this space is watching the golfers on what appears to be the 18th fairway. I don’t play golf, but know a lousy swing when I see one. Have to keep myself from yelling, “follow through, dude!” or “Hey, your stance is too wide!”

 

 

San Miguel is Number One. Just like the Chicago Cubs!

Back when I was working, my good friend and colleague John Peterson and I always made it through depressing pro football and basketball seasons in Chicago by saying, “How long until spring training?” (OK, the Blackhawks are winners, but neither of us understands hockey!) Well, spring training has begun anew. And this year, the Cubs are defending World Series Champions!!!

The Cubs are Number One, and apparently so is San Miguel de Allende.  No, we haven’t reached a final decision, but if we had to choose today our retirement home would be SMA. Will we be here  when the Cubs win the 2017 World Series? Can’t answer that one yet. We’ve still got several places to see.

We’re both a little surprised that we like Mexico so much. I always felt that our primary focus for a retirement home would be Europe, probably Spain, and it might still be that. So why is San Miguel the leading contender right now?

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The iconic Parroquia, the beautiful parish church that dominates SMA’s “skyline.” As the sun shifts during the day, the colors change. So it looks different in the afternoon than in the morning.

The climate here is just great — warm and dry. It’s been as low as 69º F. and as high as 81º F. for daily highs, with humidities usually below 50 percent. And there’s very little rain this time of year. In the six weeks we’ve lived here it has rained twice, both times at night and only briefly. Local expats tell us that during the “rainy season” it either rains at night or for an hour or two in the afternoon. All-day rain or thunderstorms — very rare. Yes, it gets cool at night, but it rarely gets into the 40s until the wee hours, like 4 or 5 a.m. We’re snug in bed then. And in the dead of summer, daytime highs are slightly higher but nothing excessive because we’re at 6,200 feet altitude. Those who have been here awhile say to expect highs in the mid to upper 80s and lows around 60º F. We can handle that!

San Miguel, as noted in earlier posts, has an extensive arts scene with concerts, plays, operas, ballets, films, lectures and tons of art galleries. Many restaurants have live music on the weekends. One of our friends at St. Paul’s Anglican Church — and a long-time expat — put it best when he said, “I try to limit cultural events to one per day.” St. Paul’s is yet another reason to choose SMA. Good group of people there, and we like the rector, a retired Episcopal bishop from the States. There are also a number of charities here with many opportunities to volunteer. So we could stay pretty busy if we lived here. Or not.

Another person from St. Paul’s told us she has a good friend in the real estate business and can help us find a long-term rental. Lots of people come down here for six to nine months and rent their homes when they’re not here.

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This is a boveda ceiling in one of SMA’s many churches. Lots of buildings have this unique brick work ceiling. It’s even in some homes. Go here to see a two-minute video showing how they do it.

Then there’s the food. We love the fresh local produce we get at the mercados, and the meat we get at the carnicieras. But SMA also has a ton of great restaurants, from hole-in-the-wall chicken joints with locals lined up out the door, to high-end places with top-flight international chefs and stunning views. One could never go hungry in San Miguel.

International Living magazine touts Mexico as 2017’s top retirement country. Last year, I think, it was Panama. There are a lot of positives about San Miguel, and about Mexico in general:

  • Mexico boasts one of the strongest economies in the western hemisphere right now.
  • It’s close to the U.S., so we can get back relatively quickly and without great expense in case there’s a family emergency.
  • Health care here is excellent, as we noted with Leslie’s visit to the podiatrist. And we have friends who always see a dentist while they’re here to get crowns and root canals — just as good as in Chicago at one-third the cost, they say.
  • There are many creature comforts in Mexico, like theaters, shopping centers, good cell phone and internet coverage. In the cities, even the small ones, there’s nothing third-world about this country.
  • The cost of living in general is low, especially if you pay in pesos. Friday morning we met another couple at a popular breakfast spot and had a lovely meal for a little over $500 pesos — about $25 USD. For FOUR people.
  • There are a lot of other expats here, mostly from the U.S. and Canada, but some from the U.K. and other countries.

OK, what are the downsides:

  • There are a lot of other expats here, mostly from the U.S. and Canada, but some from the U.K. and other countries. No, that’s not a mistake. Too many gringos is a problem. It tends to drive prices, especially home prices, higher.
  •  We will need to learn more Spanish. We’re getting by OK with limited knowledge, but if we’re going to live here we need better command. And we would have to do that if we chose Spain, too.
  • We’ll have to adjust to time here, and how things are done. This is Mexico, things don’t always go as smoothly and perfectly as in the States. Even though they don’t do siesta here in San Miguel, mañana is a way of life. You have to be patient sometimes.

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    Traffic can be a problem in SMA, but drivers are much more courteous here than in the U.S.

So we have a lot to think about. But now it’s on to the beach town of Puerto Vallarta on Mexico’s Pacific coast. We have already connected with the expat community there, and we’ve signed up for a dinner on Thursday night after we arrive Wednesday afternoon. This group has lots of social events like dinners and happy hours — every week!

The condo we’ve rented from a Canadian guy named Hal is very different from all the places we’ve lived in on this trip. It’s a modern townhouse in a gated community called Marina Vallarta. It’s on a fairly busy street, but it backs up to a golf course. We have three bedrooms and a huge outdoor area with a plunge pool. It’s nowhere close to the historic centro. We will be able to walk to the marina area and to the beach, but we’re unsure about how to access the local produce in farmers markets, as were able to do in Spain and to a lesser extent in Malta. Hal says taxis and buses are plentiful and cheap. We’ll be in Vallarta for two months — all of March and April.

Next post from Puerto Vallarta!

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Go Cubbies!

 

 

Sunny San Miguel

Leslie and I have arrived in San Miguel de Allende, about three hours north of Mexico City. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is about 6,200 feet above sea level and has a population of about 140,000 — perhaps 10,000 of whom are expats from the U.S., Canada, Australia, Ireland and the U.K.

We plan to be here through the end of February. And it’s warm! Today (Sunday) the high will be about 75º F. Cool at night, but really pleasant during the day. Low humidity, and no rain for the next week at least.

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The neo-gothic La Parroquia San Miguel de Allende Arcangel is the parish church and the city’s emblem. It is one of the most photographed churches in Mexico. 

Getting here certainly wasn’t easy, and we made it more complicated by trying to save a few bucks on the airfare. First, we flew from Malta to Barcelona and stayed overnight to avoid getting up early and rushing around trying to make close connections. Good move.

From Barcelona, we endured an 11-hour flight to Bogota, Colombia, then another four hours to Mexico City. On the trans-Atlantic leg, we were on an Avianca Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner. First time on one of those. Neat plane, and an uneventful trip, but in hindsight it would have been better to spend a little more and go through Miami to Mexico City. You get what you pay for.

We arrived in Mexico City at about 2:30 a.m. Wednesday and stayed over Wednesday night to become acclimated to this hemisphere. Got to SMA Thursday afternoon and settled into our apartment in the Centro area, which has cobblestone streets and narrow sidewalks with neat little shops and restaurants all along the street. We are just above Cafe Monet, owned and run by our landlady’s brother. Click on the link to see their site, then click on “Casa Monet Apartments” to see where we’re living for the next six weeks.

We’ve already visited the Central Mercado for some fruits and vegetables, and on Saturday we went to the Organic Fair just down the street. Judging from the quality of the produce, we’ll be going back there every Saturday. Especially since there are also food vendors selling all manner of tacos, enchiladas, empanadas and other Mexican food for lunch.

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One of the food vendors at the Organic Market. Looking forward to proxima semana (next week)!

San Miguel has a vibrant arts scene, with tons of art galleries and almost-daily opportunities to see plays and attend concerts of all types. In fact, there’s a jazz festival Feb. 7-11.

Today we attended St. Paul’s Anglican Church, just a 10-minute walk down the main street. Neat old building and a good message from a retired Episcopal bishop — also a U.S. expat.

More next time on costs, but the big thing in that area is the peso-dollar exchange rate. The dollar is getting stronger by the day, and that helps in many ways. For example, in the Mexico City Airport Hilton I tipped a bellman 100 pesos — that’s about five bucks USD. And yesterday, we went to a chain supermarket here in SMA known locally as “Mega” for all the stuff we couldn’t get at the mercado. Put over 1,200 pesos on my debit card! Checked the bank account online today, and with the exchange rate USAA Bank gives us, we paid $57.18 for a basket full of food. Leslie is sure that at Jewell or Whole Paycheck it might have been double or even triple that amount.

As they say around here, hasta luego!