This is just a quick post to let you know Leslie and I are just fine. We think we’re very safe here in México, and we’re actually worried about our friends in the U.S. and Europe because of the coronavirus.
As of this writing, there are 316 cases of the virus in all of México and only 27 in the state of Jalisco, which includes Guadalajara with nearly 1.5 million people and Puerto Vallarta with over 200,000. It also includes the Lake Chapala area where we have made our home with hundreds of other ex-pats. Of those 27 Jalisco cases, 10 were in a group of people who went on a ski trip to Vail, Colorado, and contracted the virus there. So far, only two people have died from the coronavirus in México.
We’re hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. We know those low numbers will go up, and maybe soon. In Jalisco, schools are closed, concerts and plays have been cancelled, and churches have suspended all activities. Even our bank will only allow five people in at one time. The governor has asked non-essential businesses to close for a week. Even the weekly outdoor market, the tianguis, has shut down. My Spanish class is now being conducted via Skype. Many restaurants are offering take-out orders, and one of our favorite places will even bring your order right to your car.
Our community, Riviera Alta, has suspended weekly social hours and closed all common facilities (pool, library, gym, tennis court) for a week. We have a number of high-risk folks here. Some are merely among the “elderly” group and a few have compromised immune systems. Some of our Canadian friends have already gone back north
My old buddy Jerry — back in our Army Reserve days — used to remind me of the ancient curse that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” Now I have a better understanding of that line.
Leslie and I wish you continued good health — now and when we are once again living in uninteresting times. We’ll keep in touch!
Leslie and I are officially no longer vagabonds. We recently signed a one-year lease on a new home in the Riviera Alta neighborhood of Ajijic. We’re in the process of moving all our furniture and household goods from a storage locker in Lisle, Ill., for a May 1 move-in. And we bought a car! A 2013 Honda CR-V, black with beige leather interior. Photos next post.
February has been a busy month, as you can see. But we’ve also been busy having lots of fun. We attended four concerts in the Northern Lights series, also known as Festival de Febrero. Most of the concerts in the two-week series are classical, but there is some jazz also. Proceeds from ticket sales go primarily to support aspiring young Mexican musicians. Here’s a brief video of pianist David Fung performing with the festival chamber orchestra:
Fung has performed with a variety of outstanding orchestras in the U.S., Europe and Asia, including the Cleveland Orchestra. He’s on the faculty at the University of Georgia. There were several other soloists, most of whom have been appearing annually at the festival and are crowd favorites.
One concert, called “Rising Stars,” featured a string quartet of young Mexican musicians, some of whom were part of the inaugural Festival del Lago Academy of Music in August 2018. We learned that the two-week academy was a big success, with 37 international students learning from 10 faculty members. Twelve of the students were from right here in the state of Jalisco, while another dozen were from other parts of Mexico. Thirteen came from places like South Korea, Iceland and Holland. Faculty members were from Canada and the U.S., as well as European nations.
We also attended (on my birthday) Show Stoppers, a twice-yearly effort by Los Cantantes del Lago, a choral group led by Tim Welch, who we know as the excellent choir director at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church. Performers entertained a sold-out crowd with tunes from “Cabaret,” “Hello Dolly” and “Call Me Madam,” as well as other pop songs. This was the 18th edition of this popular event.
Here’s a brief video of Wanda White, Jacqueline Collin and Donna Houghton singing “All I Have To Do Is Dream,” which some of you may remember as a hit by the Everly Brothers. Wanda (left) sings in the St. Andrew’s choir:
And there was non-musical fun and learning. Leslie and I attended a class at The Lake Chapala Society on “Mexican Manners.” It was taught by Leslie’s Spanish teacher, Alfredo, who is director of education at LCS. He explained how to greet our Mexican neighbors at different times of the day, what to do in a variety of situations interacting with them, and some tips on using the right words in Spanish.
We plan on taking more classes at The Lake Chapala Society. There‘s onecomingup on local fermented beverages. We just might try that one!
More to come soon, as we get the ball rolling for the move to Andalusia 3 in Riviera Alta.
Apologies. It’s been awhile since the last post, but there hasn’t been much to report until this past week or two. Now we’re very busy and getting things done!
The big news first: We may have found our new home! A few days ago Leslie and I looked at a new 3-bedroom, 3-bath home in Riviera Alta, one of our favorite communities in the Lake Chapala area. It has a great view of the lake to the south and the mountains to the north and west, so we’ll see amazing sunsets. It’s outside the central village of Ajijic so it’ll be a bit quieter, and some Canadian friends from church live right down the hill. Best of all, it’s unfurnished so we can bring all our furniture and household goods to Ajijic. We expect to sign a one-year lease next week, so nothing’s definite until then. More as things start to happen, but we are excited.
Leslie had a major role in the annual Italian Dinner fundraiser at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church on Feb. 1. She made her authentic Italian sauce, which is Stephanie’s favorite, for the featured lasagna. Not only did Leslie get a round of applause at the dinner, but one person spoke up Sunday morning during “parish time” after the service. This person was thrilled to have had a gluten-free vegetarian version of the lasagna and raved about how good it was. For everybody else, there were meatballs and Italian sausage. We learned Tuesday morning at the organic market that our friend Gregor, the sausage king of Lake Chapala, sold some Italian sausage to people who enjoyed the dinner so much they wanted to buy some. No, we didn’t get a commission.
The dinner was a big success, both in being a treat for taste buds and in raising funds for special projects around the church. Leslie and several other women on the Social and Hospitality Committee worked on the meal for three days straight. There was some leftover lasagna, which several people happily purchased to take home — that’s para llevar (PAR-ah yeah-VAHR) in Spanish.
I managed to stay out of the way by helping my friend Al tend bar, which is an important job! It was easy, though. We sold wine, beer, soda and water. The hard part for me was making change but I don’t think I shorted anybody. Wine, 40 pesos ($2 USD). Beer 25 pesos. Bottled water 10 pesos. I think Al said we went through almost 20 bottles of wine!
The Mexican fuel crisis, which you may have heard about, seems to be over. It reminded me of the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo that created shortages and long lines at U.S. gas stations. This gas shortage was caused by the Mexican government’s attempt to stop the theft of gasoline. For years, thieves have siphoned gas — lots of it — from government-owned pipelines, then sold it to the gas stations at a lower price than Pemex charged. It’s been going on for a long time, but new president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as “AMLO”) is trying to root out corruption.
I shot this brief video of a line at the Pemex (the government-run oil company) station on Ajijic’s carretera (main road) about two weeks ago. I was eastbound at the time. You can see the line on the other side of the westbound lane of traffic. It’s a little hard to see until there’s a break in traffic, but there are probably 20 to 30 cars waiting. Here it is:
This is a very short line, comparatively. About a week before I shot this, I waited 45 minutes in line at the BP station on the libramiento (bypass). By the time I got to the pump, they only had premium and I could get just 500 pesos worth (about $26 USD). That gave me half a tank, but I continued to look for opportunities to fill up. One day when I was taking Leslie to a friend’s house, we noticed the BP station west of Ajijic was pumping. And there weren’t even 10 cars in line. Then we saw a tanker truck at the Pemex station just down the road and I knew I was in luck. On my way back home, I pulled into the Pemex station with only two cars ahead of me.
The traffic is horrible here and the roads are bad, so this added insult to injury. But if this is the biggest problem we have — well, we can have a glass of wine and watch the sunset! Even if January was fraught with the gas crisis, the Lakeside Weather website shows the lowest overnight low temperature so far in 2019 is 54.1°F. and the daytime high so far this year is 78.8°F. To our friends in the Chicago area: Come on down! If you just want to feel cold, we’ll use the Celsius scale and say it’s 25° (77° F.).
Finally, we’re both working on our Spanish and looking forward to the Northern Lights Festival, which begins this week. It’s a series of classical music concerts by talented young performers from around the world. We bought tickets for four concerts. More on that next time.
If you’ve been following us since the beginning of this sojourn, almost eight months ago, you know Leslie and I are looking for a place to live in retirement where we will “never be cold again.” So imagine my surprise when my lovely wife said to me: “I’ve learned one thing living in Mérida. It is possible to be too hot.” Yep. And, I might add, too humid.
It is incredibly hot here. Oppressive heat. Excessive sweating heat. Two showers a day heat. And we’ve been asked to use the air conditioners in the house sparingly because they use a ton of electricity and it’s supposedly quite expensive. If a house uses too much electricity, the state government can charge a higher rate. But what prompted Leslie’s comment is the amount of fun we had on Tuesday (May 23).
We had finished breakfast and were planning our day when the power went out. AC was not on in any room at the time, but we checked to make sure no breakers had been tripped. They had not. We contacted the rental agent for this house and she said it was a city-wide power failure. Later in the day, we learned that the entire Yucatan Peninsula was affected, from Cancún to Campeche. We heard that even parts of Mexico City were affected. This, on a day when the high in Mérida was forecast to be over 100° F. and the heat index around 105°. We spent most of the day in the pool.
So even though we have about two weeks left here, Mérida is officially off our list. I still want to tell you about the cost of living here, because it seems to cost less to live here than in the other two Mexican cities we have tried. That makes it hard to eliminate this city, but there are reasons other than the heat and I’ll explain them in the final post from here.
This is strictly anecdotal, but taxis seem to charge less here than in Puerto Vallarta, for example. A ride I would have expected to pay $70 to $80 pesos for in PV was only $50 pesos here. Leslie bought two new pair of shoes a few days ago for about half what the same shoes would have cost in the U.S. There’s a small farmacia (drug store) right off Santiago Park where I bought some Advil, 24 tablets, for $2.70 USD.
Restaurant prices seem generally lower here — even lower than in other Mexican cities. I took Leslie out for dinner on Mother’s Day (even though she’s not my mother) at Apoala, a nice place that features food from the Mexican state of Oaxaca (wah-HAH-kah). Leslie had sea bass and I had a roast pork dish with black beans. Dinner for two, with wine, was about $60 USD. We would easily have paid over $100 in the U.S. for that meal. And we enjoyed breakfast this morning at Maize, Canela (cinnamon) y Cilantro. I had Mexican-style eggs (scrambled with tomatoes, onions, serrano peppers and chorizo) and refried black beans while Leslie had an omelet stuffed with chaya (a Yucatan green, similar to spinach). With one hibiscus tea and one cup of coffee, the total bill was $170 pesos — less than $10 USD.
Grocery store prices vary somewhat, as usual, depending on the store. Here’s a brief list of purchases at the three supermercados we’ve been to so far — Mega, Soriana and Wal-Mart:
premium OJ, 1L, $1.14
oatmeal, 800g, $1.62
rice, 900g, $.85
medium red onion, $.33
gluten-free bread, $5.17
almond milk, 946ml, $2.49
bacon, 227g, $4.18
1 dozen eggs, $1.07
boneless, skinless chicken breasts, 1K, $4.73
paper towel roll, $1.41
coffee, 340g, $5.00
cilantro bunch, $.36
Contrast that with the mercado near Santiago Park, where lots of locals shop. A bag of limes — 13 of them — cost five pesos. Five. That’s only 27 cents USD at today’s exchange rate. At Nature’s Best in Westmont, where we used to shop regularly, you might get five-for-a-dollar on special. We also bought two nice Mexican squash and two large zucchini, all for 38 pesos, or two dollars.
At the other end of the market spectrum is the weekly Slow Food Market, where prices are higher but so is the quality. We pay roughly $30 pesos ($1.62 USD) for a bundle of lettuce — several different kinds — that usually lasts all week. Another vendor sells homemade hummus for $50 pesos, which is $2.71 USD. Closer to prices in U.S. stores, but frankly some of the best hummus we’ve tasted. Then there’s the sausage lady, the tamale guy, the gringo couple selling smoked meats, and the woman who sells various cuts of lamb. All high quality but on the pricey side — relatively.
And tonight we’re going to a performance by the Yucatan Symphony Orchestra at Teatro José Peón Contrearas. I paid $400 pesos for two main-floor seats. That’s about $22 USD for two tickets. The cheapest orchestra-level seats at Symphony Center for a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert are $56 a pop. Okay, that’s like comparing a nice Honda Accord to a BMW 7-series, I know. But you get the idea.
As for real estate, it’s a mixed bag. We’ve walked past a lot of really nice updated homes in the Santiago neighborhood sitting right next to a run-down rat hole. Sometimes between two run-down rat holes or empty shells. And we haven’t seen much outside our neighborhood. I’ll do a little more research and report on real estate prices next post.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
That’s what Stephanie said when we told her San Miguel de Allende was our next stop on the retirement tour. Turns out, she was here a few years ago with a group of friends for a wedding. And she was right — there are small art galleries on nearly every street in the Centro. Leslie and I have already been to two concerts and we’re debating about going to the opera next week!
Go just about anywhere in SMA and you’ll see posters advertising the many cultural opportunities here. And every Friday we spend $15 pesos (not quite 75 cents) for a copy of Atención, the weekly English-language newspaper that includes a listing of all the cultural events in town.
There really is something for everybody. Here’s a sample:
Media Luna, acoustic world music, Restaurante Paprika.
Magical Kingdom, art opening, The Gallery.
The Dream Project, a play by Yonder Window Theater Company.
Javier Estrada, gypsy guitar, La Biblioteca.
History of Mexico, documentary film at Teatro Santa Ana.
You know we both love classical music. Last week we went to a recital by Misuzu Tanaka, an excellent young pianist with a commanding style. Remember that name — we think she’s going places. And on Thursday night we saw Amit Peled, an Israeli cellist who plays a 1733 cello once owned by Pablo Casals. Amazing performance!
Both concerts were promoted by the local arts group Pro Musica. They are offering two more concerts while we’re here: the concertmaster of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for a violin recital, and a performance by the Amernet String Quartet (on my birthday).
If classical is not your thing, just wait until next week for the Encuentro Nacional de Jazz. It’s the 14th annual jazz festival, Feb. 7-11 at Teatro Angela Peralta. See? Something for everybody.
Last weekend, the Instituto de Allende — a five-minute walk from our apartment — hosted a two-day arts and crafts fair. Sure, there was a lot of stuff you would probably see at similar fairs wherever you live. And yes, some of them were expats selling hand-made jewelry. But there were some very nice things, too: wood carvings, paintings, photographs, wearable art. We spent some time there Saturday afternoon but didn’t buy anything. No room in our suitcases!
Finally there’s La Biblioteca. It’s a hotbed of cultural opportunities for expats. You can buy tickets there for most events in the city, and they host some performances, too. There’s an English-language library and a cafe where gringos hang out.
So we’re not starved for something to do here in SMA. On the contrary, we have to figure out which events we want to attend and which we can pass on. And if we were to live here full-time, we could certainly get involved in arts organizations or do volunteer work for some of the many charitable organizations that help families, children and animals.
Next time, more on the cost of living here in San Miguel. There’s good news and bad news. Hasta luego!