You may have noticed we have a new title for the blog: “Ex-pats in México.” Since Leslie and I are no longer vagabonds, I thought it was time for a change. The URL is the same, though, and if you signed up for notifications, you’ll still get an email to let you know a new post is up.
Meanwhile, it’s definitely springtime in our little corner of México. There are several flowering trees — most notably the purple jacaranda (hah-kah-RAHN-dah) — that make the landscape colorful. Climate is a big reason we’re here, and we’re not disappointed. At night we leave the windows open in our bedroom and have the ceiling fan on. I no longer need a sweatshirt for my daily jogs along Ajijic’s malecón as it’s in the low- to mid-60s F. at sunrise. During the day it’s been reaching the upper 80s F., but with low humidity it feels great. Of course, our Canadian friends — and there are a lot of them here — often complain about the heat!
The snowbirds have already started leaving, most of them going back to Canada. The next influx is the sunbirds, mostly people from places like Arizona and New Mexico who come here to get away from the heat! They should start arriving soon.
Another benefit of living Lakeside (as the Lake Chapala area is known) is culture. During March, Leslie and attended the final concert in this year’s ¡Viva La Musica! series. We enjoyed a mandolin soloist and piano/harpsichord accompanist, both Israeli musicians and exceptional talents. We also saw a performance of “Sweet Charity” at the Lakeside Little Theater. This is a community theater group, but many of the cast and crew are seasoned theater professionals who have retired to México. They did a great job.
We also benefit from membership in the Lake Chapala Society. Leslie and I attended a class on death in México. Things are different here, and gringos need to be prepared. It’s most important to have a local doctor, and Leslie has already found a great doctora (woman physician) that she likes. I attended a class recently on how to watch U.S. TV shows here in Ajijic. And I got help with an e-mail problem from the LCS tech guys. Free.
The Social & Hospitality Committee — better known as “S&H” — at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church ushered in Spring with its annual Garden Party. It has traditionally been a fun event for ladies to gather in spring dresses and fancy hats, but this year the luncheon was also open to The Company of Gentlemen (that’s the St. Andrew’s men’s group). Leslie helped make the lunch and hosted a table, while I tended bar.
Finally, our neighbors Gail and John invited us to join them on a boat ride last week. We got a chance to see our adopted home from the water. Our little boat motored west from the Ajijic pier down to San Juan Cosalá, a small town just west of Ajijic. It was a fun morning.
Every so often we just have to take a “down day” because there’s so much going on!
Leslie and I picked up our residentepermanente, or permanent resident, cards yesterday from the Instituto Nacional Migratión office in Chapala. In the U.S., we call those “green cards.” Here, they’re called visas, and strangely enough they really are light green! Now we can sign up for health benefits available to people over 60, and we can get a Mexican driver’s license.
Next up is buying a car, and we have a lead on a good one but the owner won’t be back in Ajijic until the end of the month. No rush.
We’re both getting more involved at St. Andrews Anglican Church. Leslie is a rising star on the Social and Hospitality Committee and enjoys the monthly Book Club meetings. I’ve agreed to help run the sound system for Sunday morning services (it’s not complicated), and I’m getting more involved with the men’s group called The Company of Gentlemen. Leslie has started a new Spanish class, and I’m still working on my skills. I have a decent vocabulary, but I need more practice in putting sentences together and understanding Spanish speakers. I can make myself understood — mostly. Google Translate helps.
Más mariachi! Last weekend, we walked down to the Lake Chapala Society for a concert featuring two groups from the U.S. that play Mexican music: Mariachi Estrellas de Chula Vista from San Diego, and Grupo Bella from the Los Angeles area. It was a great concert.
Here are a couple of short videos. The first is the (almost) all-female Grupo Bella. Their leader has done a lot of research into Mexican culture and music, and she shared some of her insights with the sold-out crowd. The second video clip is the group from San Diego, which I thought had flashier costumes.
Year Two of this journey is almost over as Leslie and I head back to the Chicago area in mid-July. A decision looms: Of all the places we’ve been since October 2016, where will we live as non-vagabonds? The past six weeks in France made that choice a bit tougher.
France has a lot of upsides. There’s great food, history and culture, excellent health care (best in the world according to the World Health Organization), great food, friendly people, a pleasant climate (here in the south, at least), great food, and easy access to terrific beaches (here in the south, at least). Did I mention the great food? And, of course, France has some mighty fine wine! Living in France would make it easier — and less expensive — to see parts of Europe we haven’t gotten to yet, such as Budapest and Vienna, and revisit parts of Spain, Italy and the U.K. It’s a first-world country, so you can drink the tap water and flush the toilet paper (both are issues in Mexico).
Montpellier would be a terrific place to live. It’s got great energy, a moderate climate, tons of cultural activities of all stripes, friendly people, good public transportation, an English-speaking faith community, and excellent markets for fresh meats and produce. We feel safe here. There’s a reason it’s been the fastest growing city in France for the past 25 years. There’s a thriving ex-pat community in Montpellier. Recently, we met a woman at church who told us about an organization that helps English-speaking ex-pats find housing and resolve some of the issues of moving to a new country. It would be most helpful to have that resource available.
There are negatives, though, as with everywhere we’ve been. France is not cheap, for one thing, and the dollar-euro exchange rate is not favorable to those whose income is in dollars (like us). Our money won’t go as far here as it does in other places. Getting to France from the U.S., and vice-versa, can be expensive. That could be an issue for anyone coming to visit us in our new home, or for us going back to visit family and friends. And it’s a very long flight. Also, there’s a seven-hour time difference between Montpellier and the U.S. central time zone, where most of our friends and family live — that’s a nine-hour difference between us and our daughter, Stephanie, in San Diego. We have to take that into consideration when calling or FaceTiming. Another big issue for us is that lots of people here smoke. Smoking is not allowed inside restaurants, but it’s fine in the outdoor seating. Many times we’ve been enjoying our lunch and gotten a whiff of cigarette smoke — takes us back to the ’70s.
As much as we like it, even Montpellier has some issues. Driving, especially in the historic center, is a major challenge because of one-way streets and roads designed for horses. It would take awhile to get accustomed to driving here. The climate is generally good, but the past few days it’s been really hot. It’s 31° C. right now (that’s 88° F., but using Celsius makes it feel cooler) and it’s expected to climb past 33° C. (92° F.) tomorrow. On the other hand, we heard that last winter Montpellier got some snow. So there are some extremes that may be less of a problem elsewhere.
Those are some of the pros and cons. So what’s our choice? Looks like it’s coming down to a tie between Ajijic, Mexico, and Montpellier, France. Two very different places, but a tough choice. Tell you what: If Mexico wins the World Cup, we move to Mexico; if France wins, we live in France. That sound good? (OK, I hear you saying, “What if Japan wins? What if Russia wins? What if…? Did I say it’s a perfect selection tool?)
Stay tuned — more adventures to come. We’re becoming tourists again briefly before the flight back to O’Hare. Where? I’ll let you know in the next post. Until then, I will leave you with some photos and videos from our time in Montpellier that haven’t made it into previous posts.
MOVIE TIME! I’ve mentioned the market Halles Castellane. Well, here’s a look at one small part of it on a busy Saturday morning:
And here’s Marion, our favorite vendor in the market, slicing some wonderful aged comté cheese for Leslie (you may need to go full-screen to see it all):
We did our “last night” celebration early because we leave on Tuesday morning, and many nice restaurants are closed on Sunday and Monday nights. So we did Maison de la Lozère and discovered aligot (AH-lee-go), a regional dish that’s a mixture of mashed potatoes, cheese and garlic. If you get hungry watching the video, here’s an English version of the recipe. This restaurant makes quite a show of serving it:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
There are some really cool aspects to traditional Yucatecan houses, and Leslie was quite taken with them. So I asked her if I could post this piece she wrote about pasta tiles and other neat stuff. Here’s Leslie’s contribution:
Although we could not remain in the first home we rented in Mérida, it had some architectural features typical of houses in this part of Mexico. This capital city of the Yucatan was established in the mid-1500s by the Spanish on a site already inhabited by the Maya. The home we rented was a simple house, built about 100 years ago during the henequen (sisal) or “green gold” boom.
It’s built, as most Mérida homes are, of “mamposteria,” a combination of cement block or stone and stucco. For color, the walls are painted with a lime-based paint known as “cal.” The ceilings are often very high – as much as 25 feet.
In the entry room of Casa Walker the ceiling was about 18 feet high. A combination of wood and iron or steel beams supports the ceiling. The look is striking, I think.
I was fascinated when I read about the “pasta tiles” in Mérida, and delighted to find them in this house. Pasta tiles are made of concrete, stamped and hand-painted. They’re used in homes throughout the Yucatan. The first pasta tiles were brought from Italy. Later, an industrious local imported the equipment to make and sell them to builders. That original business still exists in Mérida, and you can order tiles today – choose from their stock or design your own. They’re easy to keep clean. If you’re lucky enough to find a home that has been cared for since it was built, then you’ll find the tiles in good shape. We weren’t quite so lucky, but I thought they were beautiful. They were on all the floors and the walls of one bathroom.
As you can see (above), some are geometrical and some are quite fanciful. The gray one looks like feathers to me, and the red and green ones look like marble. The green tiles next to the brown and yellow ones remind me of ginko leaves.
No home in Mérida (at least those occupied by gringos) is complete without a pool to keep you cool. The pool at Casa Walker had yet another distinctive feature — a “chinked stone wall.”
The stones are hand-shaped and randomly placed. There is a funnel to recirculate, filter and deliver water into the pool. At its deepest it was about three feet. Fortunately, the water remains cool during the heat of the day and is quite refreshing.
Finally, Mérida homes are almost always connected, side-to-side. There’s no yard between you and your neighbor, just a shared wall — like in a condo building. So the house we lived in had no side windows, making it sort of “shotgun” style with a front door and a back door, along with some front and rear windows. Sometimes there were nice breezes, most of the time there were not. Fortunately, we had air conditioners in the kitchen and bedroom. Many Mexican families can’t afford air conditioning, so they sometimes leave their front doors open when they are at home.
The layout of Casa Walker, though, is a little odd — probably due to the way it was renovated. To get from the living area/kitchen to the bedroom was a challenge. First, there are double glass doors with scrolled metal grates to open and close (yet another typical feature), and the latching mechanism was difficult. Once you get through the door, take a stroll through the patio and past the pool to another glass door with scrolled metal grates, equally difficult to open and close. Oh, and to reach the outdoor shower or the bodega (storage room) that housed the washing machine (no dryer), there is yet another glass door with metal grates to open and close.
You’ll notice I said “outdoor shower.” The master bathroom shower was outdoors — very private behind high walls with lots of plants and vines, but outdoors. There was an elementary school around the corner from us, and while showering we often could hear children playing. It did have a nice rain shower head. I just couldn’t get over imagining Tarzan waiting his turn.
There are some typical Yucatan house features that aren’t so nice. Since Mérida has no city sewer, every house has its own septic system. Unless you spend a gob of money to upgrade the septic system and re-plumb the entire house you know that that means – NO paper in the toilet. It goes into a canister, trash can, or other receptacle close by. So nice.
Despite the inconveniences we were able to make a home there for ourselves. Then, the super-hard bed (like sleeping on a concrete shelf) got the best of me. My back was giving me such pain that I went to see a doctor. She diagnosed a muscle contracture so strong that it had pulled my spine out of alignment. She prescribed a muscle relaxant and told me to find a different bed. After a few days in a hotel, we found the house we’re in now, Casa San Antonio. It’s much nicer, much less quirky, and the pool is neck deep. My back feels better, too.
CORRECTION: In the last post I said my paternal grandparents had eight children who lived to adulthood. It was seven. My sister corrected me. Thank you, Linda. I must’ve counted a favorite aunt twice!
We’ve had some issues this week, so it’s taken awhile to do a new post. Sorry about the delay. Leslie had been experiencing back pain that kept getting worse, and we both thought it was the extra-hard bed in Casa Walker, where we were living. A visit to an emergency room doctor confirmed that, so we found a new place. For the next three weeks, we are living in Casa San Antonio. We’re still in the same neighborhood and even a little closer to the Santiago mercado. The owners, a retired physician and his wife, are from San Antonio, Texas, where Leslie and I used to live. They are actually there right now! Smart. It’s only 75° F. in San Antonio today. Here, it’s 100° F. with a “feels like” of 107°!
So we had yet another encounter with medicine in Mexico, with a similar outcome to the one we had in San Miguel de Allende. The woman doctor spoke moderately fair English but Leslie understands a good bit of Spanish and there’s always Google Translate, so they had no trouble communicating. You probably know how much an ER visit costs in the States. Many hospitals in the U.S. want your insurance information before they even figure out whether you’re dying or not! At Clinica Mérida, they just asked if we were going to pay cash or with a credit card. Easy answer. We put all medical expenses on our USAA Federal Savings Bank card so we can more easily track medical expenditures for tax purposes. I think we were out of there in less than an hour with a diagnosis and prescriptions. Total bill: $340 pesos. That’s less than $20 USD. Even better, Leslie’s back is much better now.
Leslie and I have been attending church at St. Luke’s Anglican Mission. It’s a bit smaller than the Anglican churches we attended in San Miguel and Puerto Vallarta.
Last week there were six in worship. Yesterday, we had a total of eight. Father José, a native of the Azores (Spain) who has spent considerable time in Canada and the U.S., does a service in English at 10 a.m. and in Spanish at 11:15 a.m. The Spanish service is considerably larger. Even with a tiny congregation, this church does outreach work. On Saturday, Leslie joined a group (English- and Spanish-speakers) that meets weekly to make pulled pork sandwiches. Those sandwiches are distributed Sundays to poor people who tend to gather at one of the local hospitals.
Before getting sidetracked by the need to relocate, we went to the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya de Mérida, an impressive collection of Mayan culture and history. Much of the first section is devoted to how a meteor strike in the Yucatan Peninsula millions of years ago created cenotes that the Maya believed to be sacred. There was also a lot of recent Mayan history, including how the Spaniards brought Catholicism and how descendants of the Maya are contributing to Mexican society today. As we walked through, I thought, “This is not what I was expecting.” I started to think this place was a bust. Then we turned a corner, and there was a statue of Chaac Mool, the Mayan rain god. “OK,” I thought. “Here’s where the real stuff starts.” We saw works by pre-Colombian Mayan craftsmen and artisans, and enjoyed some excellent interactive exhibits. What’s really cool is that the majority of the signage in this impressive modern building is in Spanish, English and Mayan — Yucatec Mayan to be more specific.
Then we spent a day at the beach in nearby Progreso. Mérida is about 30 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. If you want to go to a beach, though, just wait along Calle 64 in the Centro and watch for a bus that says “ProgresoDirecto.” Flag that bus down (there’s one at least every 20 or 30 minutes), just like you would hail a taxi in downtown Chicago, and for $40 pesos (a little more than two dollars), two people can spend a day at the beach. Of course, it’s $40 pesos more to come back!
Not the greatest beach we’ve ever seen, but we appreciated the cooling breezes. There were lots of locals on the beach on a Monday, most with small children. It was fun to watch them playing in the gentle surf. Seaweed had washed up along the length of the beach, and that wasn’t very nice. But we remembered that, “A bad day at the beach is better than the best day at work.”
Some of the restaurants along Progreso’s malecon (boardwalk, or esplanade) have beach chairs with umbrellas and bar service. We found one of those and staked out a spot, ordering some bottles of water and a few drinks. But their lunch menu was not inspiring, so we found a restaurant just a few steps down the beach that gets high marks on Trip Advisor: Crabster. I had some fantastic shrimp tacos and Leslie enjoyed coconut-almond shrimp that was crunchy and very tasty. And we enjoyed the whole meal with our toes in the sand.
In the next post, I hope to provide some cost of living details. Here’s a teaser: We had lunch several days ago at our new favorite place in the Colonia Santiago. It’s called Maize, Canela y Cilantro — a very small, very cozy, breakfast and lunch place. We had soup, entree with small salad and rice, warm corn tortillas, black beans, amazing salsa, and four glasses of jamaica (hibiscus) tea. Total bill with a healthy tip was $270 pesos. That’s a big lunch for two for less than $15 USD.
A little toohot, actually. It’s 2:30 p.m. in the afternoon and the heat index is 104° F. Good thing we both bought some new warm-weather clothing in Puerto Vallarta!
Before I tell you about this new place, please allow me a brief personal aside on the end of an era. My aunt Sue Rownd died Tuesday, May 2, in Little Rock, Ark. She was 96. Aunt Sue was my dad’s second-youngest sister. My grandparents, James Claude Rogers and Janie Teeter Rogers, had eight children (if I recall correctly) who lived to adulthood. Today, they and their spouses are gone. Aunt Sue was the last of her generation.
I learned only in the last few years that Aunt Sue was a writer, and she had done quite a bit of writing over the past few years. She was, in fact, the first female editor of the Weevil Outlet, student newspaper at Arkansas A&M College (now the University of Arkansas at Monticello). That was in 1941. I am proud to say she was a fan of this blog and sometimes emailed me with comments that I always appreciated. She had a great run. My sympathies go to my cousins Ed, Carolyn and Judy. I wish I could get back to the U.S. for her funeral, but there are some logistical issues. Unfortunately, I can’t resolve those issues to get there in time.
Thanks for your patience.
Mérida, capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan, is incredibly hot and humid. And it’s big — almost a million people live here. It’s on the western side of the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, but inland — about 22 miles from the Gulf of Mexico coast. Mérida has the highest percentage of indigenous persons of any large city in Mexico. About 60 percent of its people are of Mayan ancestry, so the conquistadores didn’t wipe out the Mayans — they’re still here and going strong. In fact, they’re great at marketing. We both bought new hats from them just yesterday!
Founded in 1542, Mérida was built on the site of a Mayan city that was a cultural center for centuries. So, Mérida could be the oldest continually occupied city in the Americas (that’s according to Wikipedia, so it might be true). It’s a beautiful colonial city with lots to offer, both here and in nearby places. We’re planning trips to Mayan archeological sites such as Uxmal (oosh-MAHL) and Ek Balam (eck bah-LAHM). Leslie and I learned about Ek Balam yesterday when we visited the Museo Palacio Cantón, also known as the Museo de Antropologia y Historia (Museum of Anthropology and History, but you probably figured that out even if you don’t know Spanish). We also plan to visit some cenotes. I’ll explain more about them when we’ve been to a few.
We’re staying in a 100-year-old house in the Colonia Santiago, which is home to lots of expats. The Mérida English Library is just a few blocks away. We plan to attend a Library-sponsored wine tasting next week. And on Sunday we’ll probably take an Uber (yes, Uber is here in Mérida!) to St. Mark’s Anglican Mission. We hope to meet more expats at church and at the wine tasting.
We’ve already been to our local Mercado Santiago,about a 15-minute walk from our house. But we’re looking forward to experiencing the mercado in the centro historico, which they tell us is huge — covers nearly a city block. On Saturday morning, we’re heading to the northern part of the city for the Slow Food Market. That one sounds great!
The house itself is a bit quirky, but it has a nice plunge pool on the patio and a rooftop area with great views of the city.
We’re not right in the centro, but a bus or our friendly Uber driver will get us there fairly quickly, or we can take about a 20- to 30-minute walk. Depends on how hot it is!
Part of the quirkiness is that the pool and patio actually separate the living area and kitchen from the two bedrooms. There is a full bath right off the kitchen, and that’s handy. There’s also an outdoor shower in the master bath.
The heat alone might drive Mérida off our list fairly quickly. One chart I saw indicated that, historically, this city has recorded a high temperature of 100° F. or more in every month of the year, including the winter months. But we’ve been here less than a week, so we need to have patience.
More to come after we’ve had opportunities to check out this city and its environs.
A quick update while we are sitting by the pool, enjoying nice breezes and recovering from a couple of journeys with Vallarta Adventures (see “Whale of a Tale”), the tour company Leslie and I really like.
Before I tell you about those trips, another plug for US Global Mail, the Houston company that handles our mail for us, and for shipping service DHL. This week the mail included a new credit card to replace one that expires in May, and a check. Most of our mail gets thrown away or scanned to store on my laptop, but I needed that credit card, as well as the check. DHL got it here in just two days — a day sooner than promised — and at a discount thanks to US Global Mail. DHL makes it easy to track the shipment and their website is user-friendly.
The check is from International Living magazine, the first of many I hope to receive from them and similar publications. IL recently used an article I wrote about our vagabond lifestyle, so I am now a travel writer!
And our daughter Stephanie was here over Easter weekend to celebrate her birthday (April 14), along with her friend Kelly. The two of them often bunk together on group travel excursions, so they appreciated having their own rooms in our three-bedroom condo! We celebrated Steph’s birthday at Puerto Vallarta’s top-rated restaurant, Tintoque, right down the street from our condo. The next night, we took them to Victor’s in the marina. A more casual, fun place known for free tequila shots. Stephanie was aghast when she arrived Friday night to find that her mother’s tan was better than hers. She and Kelly spent much of weekend trying to fix that.
It was great to see her again. If we decide on Mexico rather than a European country as our retirement home, it will be easier for Steph to come see us from her home in San Diego, and vice versa.
This week we went on excursions to Yelapa (pronounced gel-AH-pah), a small coastal village accessible only by boat, and to the silver mining town of San Sebastian.
At Yelapa, we saw a neat waterfall, walked through the town, relaxed on the beach and tasted some incredible raicilla, which is made — like tequila — from the agave plant, and is distilled only here in the state of Jalisco. Very smooth.
Vallarta Adventures staff, especially the amazing tour director Pablo, kept us entertained all the way there and back on the boat – about 90 minutes each way. Just before lunch, Leslie and I got a chance to paddle a sea kayak around a pretty little cove. First time for both of us! Lunch was a make-your-own sandwich buffet. Leslie pointed to one of the choices and asked a crewman, “What is this?” With a straight face he replied, “Mexican turkey. Brown pelican.” Then he winked. It was just regular turkey, of course. I wonder how many times a week he uses that one!
On the cruise back to PV, Pablo and the staff performed — OK, lip-synced — some old rock ‘n’ roll standards as “The Mexican Rolling Stones,” complete with makeup and props. Having an open bar helped us enjoy it a bit more, but those guys put on a great show. They were very funny!
Yesterday’s excursion was by van, over narrow, winding roads through the Sierra Madre Mountains to the silver mining village of San Sebastian del Oeste. Tour guide Gabriel kept up a running commentary on a variety of topics, including bits of Mexican history. San Sebastian was once home to some 30,000 people while 90 area silver mines were operational. Now the mines are gone and there are only about 600 residents. The town, with its narrow cobblestone streets and whitewashed homes, hasn’t changed much since the 1910 Mexican Revolution drove many people away, primarily the upper classes. It is one of more than 100 places the government has designated as a Magical City, or Pueblos Mágicos.
We visited Hacienda Jalisco, where silver ore was refined in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Once owned by the great film director John Huston, some of it has been restored. You can see the smelters where ore was baked in one of the steps to create pure silver. After a terrific lunch at the Secret Hotel (“secret” because you can only stay or eat there if you know the owner), we saw a family-owned organic coffee roasting operation. The family matriarch, “Mary,” had 21 children. We bought some of the coffee from a gentleman known as “veinte” (Spanish for 20) because he’s the 20th child, and he looked to be close to 70 years old. The video below is the roasting part of the process. Yes, it smelled fantastic!
The formal walking tour ended at the home of the Encarnación family, which has lived in this house since the 1700s. Part of it is now a museum. Then we spent some time in the beautiful church just off the plaza, and saw a silversmith’s shop. Both our guide and the silversmith admired Leslie’s silver necklace. Her father brought that necklace home from a business trip to Mexico almost 40 years ago. Gabriel said the craftsman who made that style of jewelry passed away a number of years ago, and they don’t see his work very often. Gabriel was impressed.
Last stop, fortunately, was a visit to Hacienda Don Lalin, a local tequila distillery. After a brief introduction by our host, Lalo (who grows his own agave plants), we tasted some very fine tequila, mezcal and raicilla, as well as amaretto- and coffee-flavored tequilas. Once again, we contributed to the local economy and hit the road back to Puerto Vallarta.
One more week here in this bustling Mexican beach town. Then Leslie and I move on to Mérida, capital of the state of Yucatan. It’s 10- to 20-degrees hotter there, but we’ve heard great things from a number of people about that colonial city.
This is the colonial city of Guanajuato (gwan-ah-WHAT-oh), about a 90-minute drive from San Miguel de Allende. It was founded in 1548 as a silver mining town, and is now the capital of the state of Guanajuato (SMA is part of the state of Guanajuato). It was named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. We were here a few days ago and were just blown away by the beauty of the place. The buildings are even more colorful than in SMA.
We see the yellow and orange and rust colors — like on the church just to the right of the top of Leslie’s head — on buildings in SMA, but look at the blue and pink! You may even be able to see some green. Most of that is paint, of course, but many of the buildings and sidewalks in Guanajuato were built with local sandstone, which can have pink or green hues, depending on the copper content.
The Spaniards discovered silver here in the 1500s. There were several silver mines, at least one of which is still in operation. There were also some gold mines, but silver has been this city’s claim to fame for hundreds of years. Freddy, our excellent driver and guide, told us that about two-thirds of the world’s silver comes from right here in this pretty little town.
Guanajuato played a major role in the 1810 Mexican War of Independence. In fact, Freddy started us out on the overlook where I took the above photos. There is a huge monument on the hillside to a poor miner, Juan José de los Reyes Martínez, better known as El Pípila.
When the revolution began, the Spanish elite and loyalist soldiers fled and locked themselves in the granary, an enormous building with few windows. From this veritable fortress they were able to pick off the insurgents when they attacked. El Pípila strapped a large flat stone to his back for protection and crawled to the wooden doors of the granary’s main entrance. He then smeared the doors with tar and set them on fire. Once the doors burned, the insurgents were able to take the building. The first battle of Mexico’s struggle for independence from Spain was a victory for the insurgentes.
The granary is also where government forces later displayed the severed heads of the revolution’s four top leaders, including Ignacio Allende (he’s the “Allende” in San Miguel de Allende), one on each corner of the building. The structure is scheduled to become a museum soon.
Freddy showed us the San Cayetano Church, which is outside the central city near the Valenciana mine. The mine’s owner, Antonio de Obregón y Alcocer,
spent years in a fruitless search for silver, and prayed for God’s help in his effort. When his mine became one of the most successful in the world, he built this church (between 1765 and 1788) and dedicated it to Saint Cajetan. When his daughter got married, he had workers install a temporary sidewalk of silver bars. She walked on silver for several hundred feet, from the street into the church for her wedding. Inside there is amazing amount of gold on the altarpieces, as well as some enormous 19th century paintings.
The big white building behind Leslie (in the photo above) is a former convent, now the University of Guanajuato. We also saw the house where famed Mexican artist Diego Rivera was born. He lived in Guanajuato as a child, then his family moved to Mexico City. Some of his works are displayed on the second floor, but to see the good stuff you have to go to Mexico City museums.
The central city is in a valley, with parts of the town going straight up the hillsides. There are two streets on the upper level and two on the lower level. A funicular goes up and down one hillside, but the main way to get around is little alleyways called callejónes. Some are quite narrow.
The most famous of these alleyways is the Callejón del Besos, or “Kissing Alley.” It’s only 66 inches wide in places, with balconies that nearly touch each other. Folklore states that couples who kiss on the third step are guaranteed seven years of happiness together. We spent quite a bit of time in a local silver shop (yes, Leslie has a couple of nice new silver trinkets) across from the San Cayetano church, so we didn’t have time to see this callejón. Guess we have to go back.
Most of the streets in the central part of the city are underground. Being in a narrow valley, Guanajuato was prone to disastrous flooding for many years. So a series of tunnels was built in the 18th century to protect the town.
In the 1960s, a new dam permanently fixed the flooding issue. The tunnels were then widened and turned into streets. Much of the central city traffic — including foot traffic — is in these old tunnels. It’s fascinating.
Freddy told us that the alleyways are also the site of a university tradition. In the evenings, university students gather in the Plaza de la Paz and go through the alleyways playing guitars and singing, with people following them along the way. It sounded quite festive, so we will have to go back and spend a few evenings there to experience this tradition.
There’s a lot more I could say about Guanajuato, but this was just a day trip. It’s probably not a place we would want to live, especially if we have to go up and down stairs very much. Leslie and I are more focused on San Miguel de Allende, and we’re leaving soon. In the next post I’ll reveal how we’re feeling about this neat little colonial town we have called home for almost six weeks.