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!

 

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!