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!

 

Where you gonna go when the volcano blow?

We just got back from a trip to the Lake Arenal area in north-central Costa Rica, and I had that Jimmy Buffet song running through my head: “Where you gonna go when the volcano blow?” From the deck of the Arenal Lodge, we had a nice lunch and an amazing view of the Arenal volcano, which is listed as “dormant.”

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Clouds drift over the top of Volcan Arenal, a 5,538-foot dormant volcano.

The last major eruption was in 1968, when 87 people were killed. It was active up until 2010. Now it’s a major tourist attraction, as are Costa Rica’s other volcanoes. At least five are still active.

This side trip was another effort to see more of this country, since our time here is limited. We stayed two nights at the Lucky Bug Bed & Breakfast, which is right at the edge of a rain forest. Upon arrival, we heard howler monkeys in the jungle. Rob, one of our hosts, told us the howler is the loudest animal on earth. Louder than people?

We heard a lot of strange bird calls that were also pretty loud, and frog noises at night. Never caught a glimpse of a monkey or any of the strange-sounding birds. But we did see hummingbirds at Rob and Monika’s feeders, and a white ibis on their small pond.

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Hummingbirds joined us for breakfast at the Lucky Bug.

The Lucky Bug is just outside the town of Nuevo Arenal. The “Nuevo” part is because the original town of Arenal was flooded in 1973 when a dam was built and a very small lake became a huge lake. That dam now provides 12 percent of Costa Rica’s electricity and the lake is beautiful, with lush, green hills all around it. We saw some people kayaking, but the  tourist boat that will take you out for a ride (like we did on Scotland’s Loch Ness back in 2016) was only available in the town of La Fortuna. We didn’t get that far. If you lived here you would definitely want a view of the lake. And there are a number of properties for sale, as well as long- and short-term rentals.

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A view of Lake Arenal. On the right you can see windmills, part of a large wind farm along a ridge line. Almost all electricity in this country is from renewable sources.

Nuevo Arenal is quite small. There are other villages in the area, as well as the larger town of La Fortuna at the other end of the lake. La Fortuna got its name after the 1968 eruption, which spewed volcanic material up to five kilometers away and destroyed the small town of Tabacón. But La Fortuna was spared, so the name was changed to reflect its good fortune. One website I checked says that’s a myth. Maybe.

Lots of gringos live in this area, including our B&B hosts (he’s from the U.S., she’s from Germany). Some of the other local B&Bs appear to be gringo-owned and catering to North American tourists.  I got directions at one point from a small group of North Americans at a bar called Karacters. Seemed like a fun crowd.

The climate is nice: mid-80s F. in the daytime and mid- to low-60s F. at night. We actually had to close the windows our first night there. Driving is a challenge because of the hills — lots of turns and twists on narrow roads.

Leslie and I thought the region was just a bit too rural. A dearth of health care would probably keep us from relocating there. Our host Monika complained about having to see what she called “cow doctors” unless you went to San Jose, which is almost a four-hour drive. So if we choose Costa Rica as our new home, the Lake Arenal area would probably not be our first choice. Great place to visit, though.

Next post will be a review of what it costs to live in Costa Rica. Spoiler alert: It ain’t cheap. I’ll leave you with some photos.

Pura Vida!

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We haven’t done a selfie in awhile, and that volcano makes a great background!
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Another view of the volcano. The clouds come and go, and they create shadows on the face of the mountain. We could’ve sat there all afternoon watching the changes.

 

The Central Valley

Costa Rica advertises its Central Valley as having “the best climate in the world.” We’ve heard that about other places, too, so we had to check it out. The valley encompasses most of the country’s interior, and includes several national parks. This week, Leslie and I visited the Central Valley towns of Atenas, Grecia and Sarchi. We spent most of our time in Atenas (ah-TAY-nahs), which — you guessed it — is named for Athens, Greece.

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One of the main streets in Atenas.

Best climate? Depends on how you define “best.” One definition is a place where temperature and humidity are relatively constant throughout the year. However, it was unseasonably hot the few days we were there — in the low 90s F. with overnight lows in the upper 60s. Our Canadian host at the bed and breakfast where we stayed told us many North Americans leave Costa Rica at this time of year because it is hotter. Humidity is lower in the valley than at the beach, of course, but it still felt humid. So maybe it’s not “the best” climate.

Another thing that changes very little is sunrise and sunset. This area is so close to the equator, these events happen at roughly the same time every day. And there is no daylight saving time.

We also heard horror stories about Costa Rica’s rainy season, which is in the fall and is not limited to the Central Valley. Apparently there are deluges almost every day, and while they don’t last long they cause brief flooding in some places. Areas without paved roads have bigger problems. We noticed that streets in Costa Rican towns have drainage gutters built into the roadsides. They are made of concrete and some are at least six to eight inches wide and eight or nine inches deep. You’ve got to be careful when walking or you might break an ankle if you step into one, and very careful when parking or your car will drop off into the ditch.

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The drainage on this Atenas street is sloping toward the curb, and you can see the yellow walkway just to the right of the white car. Some drainage ditches are more squared-off.

We found Atenas to be fairly small (5,000 population, I think), with some very nice homes near the center of town. We talked with a young woman from the U.S. who lives with her husband and daughter on a nearby mountaintop. They can actually see the Pacific Ocean from their 6,000-foot perch. There’s a sizable gringo population, but it’s not as obvious as some Mexican towns, particularly Ajijic. We met some other ex-pats at a small cafe and learned there are men’s and women’s groups that meet weekly, so a new resident would have to get connected through those two social groups. A downside for us is the lack of a faith community. The closest English-speaking Protestant church is in a San Jose suburb.

Atenas sits at about 2,200 feet, while Grecia (GREH-see-ah), the largest of the three cities we visited, is slightly higher at 3,270 feet. That makes sense, because we thought it was just a bit cooler in Grecia. Sarchi is only 1,000 feet above sea level, and is a center for Costa Rican crafts. Furniture manufacturing is huge in Sarchi. We saw lots of places selling furniture.

So the Central Valley has some good things going for it, and a few things not so good. Leslie and I might consider coming back to spend more time here. To be continued.

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A common sight in the Central Valley is clouds hugging the mountaintops in the distance. I took this from the car window just outside Sarchi.

Finally, some fun facts about Costa Rica in general:

  • This country has no standing army. There are local and national police, of course, but Costa Rica abolished its army in 1948.
  • Life expectancy in Costa Rica is about 79 years. That’s among the highest in the world. The Nicoya Peninsula on the Pacific coast is one of the world’s seven Blue Zones, where people often live past 100 years.
  • The World Health Organization ranks Costa Rica’s health care system as the 36th best in the world. That’s one notch ahead of the United States (France and Italy top the list).
  • Costa Rica is the world’s unofficial hummingbird capital — home to 52 species of hummers.
  • There are five active volcanos in Costa Rica.

That’s it for now. Last post from Costa Rica coming soon, then it’s time to return to Europe. Time flies!

Happy Easter, and Pura Vida!

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This bus in Grecia is typical of Costa Rican public transportation. The buses here are much newer and nicer than those  in the Mexican towns where we lived.

Surprise! We’re back to Plan A.

You may recall that Leslie and I originally planned to go from San Diego to Costa Rica, but those plans changed because of scheduling issues. So we decided to take a cruise through the Panama Canal instead. A great way to celebrate our 25th anniversary, we thought. Well, we’re back to Plan A again!

It’s a long story — here’s the short version. The company we were working with to book the Panama Canal cruise failed miserably, so we called on USAA* for help. They quickly verified that canal cruises in the time frame we wanted were sold out. After some discussion about our options, they booked us on a repositioning cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Rome in mid-April. So we return to Europe in spring when temperatures are milder than in February!

That, in turn, caused us to take another look at Costa Rica, and we found what appears to be a good place — under budget — in the Central Valley town of Atenas (ah-TAY-nas). The plan is to be there for about five weeks, then head to a Pacific coast beach town for another five. Still working on the beach town. More on that in the next post.

The 14-night transatlantic cruise takes us from Fort Lauderdale to Civitavecchia, the port city of Rome, with stops in Tenerife, Canary Islands (Spain); Malaga, Cartagena and Barcelona, Spain; and Ajaccio, Corsica (France).

While we’re presently not sold on Italy as a place for us to live — at least not right now — Leslie and I would like to check it out and do some touristy stuff, like we did in Scotland and England when we started this journey in 2016. So the plan is to spend two or three weeks in various parts of Italy and then head to France for about six weeks, probably in Languedoc-Roussillon in southern France, or maybe in Provence. Details to come.

If all goes well, we will be back in the Chicago area in late July to see our doctors, catch up with friends and family, and make a decision on a retirement location. By the end of this year, we hope to be vagabonds no more!

Looking back at the last post, I’m afraid it may have left you with the impression that we don’t like San Diego. We love San Diego, but our focus is to live in another country. Plus, the cost of living in southern California is quite high, so things will have to change dramatically for us to retire here.

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Lots of Navy people attend this church. The design of the sanctuary is that of an old sailing vessel, upside down. The roof is the ship’s keel. 

There are lots of great things about San Diego, though. One of them is not even in San Diego — it’s St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, the “Church of the Voyager,” on Coronado Island. We’ve made some good friends at St. Paul’s and have learned a lot from Pastor Robb’s sermons, like his current thought-provoking series on the Gospel of John. Anytime we’re back in San Diego, we will return to St. Paul’s.

I’ll close with this: Stephanie’s Christmas gift to us was tickets to the musical “Hamilton”! All three of us went on Thursday, Jan. 11, to the San Diego Civic Theatre. Wow! This is the best show I’ve seen since “Les Miserables,” which is my all-time favorite. The music, the staging, the singing, the dancing — all just incredible. I’ll admit I was prepared not to like it because I’d heard some of it was in rap. But the rapping was like the recitative, or spoken words, in opera. It worked really well. I highly recommend “Hamilton.” Go see this one, it’s definitely worth the price!

The music is the real star: songs like My Shot, The Room Where it Happens, and Washington On Your Side, just to name a few. They’re not tunes you can hum while walking down the street, though. They are rich and complex, like fine wine. One of the most impressive things about this musical came after the last notes died away. The entire cast took a bow together. Curtain calls didn’t start with the minor characters and end up with the stars getting the most applause. No. The cast appeared at the end as equals, no matter what role they had. It made me think about Mr. Jefferson’s eloquent words, “…all men are created equal.” Too bad we have drifted so far away from that idea.

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The Civic Theatre is an excellent venue. Decent seats and good sight lines, even from the upper balcony. We could see the dance moves well from up above.

 

*We use San Antonio-based USAA (United Services Automobile Association) for car and home insurance, life insurance (Mike), banking and investments. In fact, I’ve never had any other brand of car insurance — over 45 years with the same company. The bank and investment services are available to anybody, but the insurance is sold only to current and former military officers and certain non-commissioned officers. The company offers many additional services to members, including a car buying service and a travel agency. If you ever served in the military, go to their website to see if you qualify to become a USAA member. And no, they didn’t pay me for this advertisement!

San Diego for the holidays

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San Diego sunset, looking from the Convention Center toward Coronado Island.

Leslie and I have settled into our new digs here in beautiful San Diego. We managed to score an East Village condo two blocks from daughter Stephanie’s building and only “slightly” over our budget. (If you know SD, we’re on 11th Avenue between Island and Market.) I’ve already gotten us public transit passes and we took the trolley to the famous Saturday morning Little Italy Farmer’s Market. The people-watching is incredible!

It’s a bit cooler here than in Ajijic, 68° to 72° F. during the day and upper 50s to low 60s at night. Very pleasant, but we’re wearing sweaters and light jackets, especially in the evenings. Haven’t done that in awhile. Still, back in Chicagoland it’s already winter, so we’re smiling and enjoying life.

Our first trip to Ralphs Grocery for food was clear evidence we’re back in the States. For essentially the same stuff, we paid more than double (maybe close to triple) what we paid for groceries in any Mexican city we’ve lived in. That’s just anecdotal; I’ll do a “cost-of-living” post later on. But the significantly higher cost of food and dining out is undeniable. It’s one of the major reasons we’re leaning heavily toward Mexico as our retirement home.

But we have to do our due diligence, and that’s why we’re here. This is an experiment to see if we can live within our budget in Southern California, as an alternative to living in another country. We already see some upsides to San Diego. Leslie is thrilled, for example, that she can see Stephanie almost anytime she wants. She’s also excited that she can find her favorite coffee creamer at Whole Foods!

And it’s great that we can be here for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I’t’s been awhile since the last post, I know. I’ve been sick for a week but I won’t bore you with details. Seems like this happens to one or both of us when we move. Not every time, but several times our progress has taken a back seat to illness immediately following a relocation. I’m better now and should be back to full strength in a day or two. If you’re ever in San Diego and you need a doctor, I strongly recommend you go to Sharp Rees-Stealy Downtown Urgent Care. Great nurses (thanks,Virgil!) and doctors (thanks, Dr. Taylor). You’ll think you’re in a hospital. These folks treated me very well.

More to come…

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I am a thorn among roses at one of Stephanie’s favorite spots, Coasterra. We had lunch overlooking the harbor with Steph’s long-time L.A.-area friends Terry (far left) and Emina (far right), who were in town for the weekend.

 

 

Ajijic becomes the favorite.

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

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

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

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

There are some downsides, of course:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next post from NOB (north of the border)!

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

Is this the place?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This organic market vendor had some excellent bulk oatmeal.

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

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

Hasta luego!

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.

 

 

 

 

How does Puerta Vallarta stack up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hasta luego!

 

 

 

Lake Chapala: Best climate in the world?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hasta luego!