Living in Playa, and a side trip to Tulum

As we near the end of our time in Playa del Carmen, let’s examine the cost of living in this neat little beach town. That’s always a major factor in deliberations over where we will spend our retirement.

Meals in Playa restaurants seem a bit higher than in some of the other Mexican cities we’ve lived in. That’s probably because we’ve been to places that cater almost exclusively to tourists. We’ve paid only a bit less than we would expect to pay at similar quality restaurants in places like Naperville, Westmont or Downers Grove. If we lived here, we would go more often to places the locals frequent. They’re usually less expensive.

More important for us is the cost of groceries, because we dine in more often than we dine out. Unfortunately, there is no central mercado here, as there was in San Miguel de Allende and Mérida. Mega is the closest American-style grocery store. We know them from other Mexican cities and they’re generally okay. Our purchases there included:

  • almond milk, 946ml, $2.51.
  • toothpaste, 4.5 oz., $2.32.
  • premium orange juice, 1L, $2.29.
  • ground beef, 19.7 oz., $4.42.
  • chicken breasts, 38 oz., $5.88.
  • olive oil, 750ml, $7.65.
  • dozen eggs, $.98.
  • Advil, 200mg, 24-pack, $3.44.
  • Orowheat multi-grain bread, $2.42.
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Dac Market is open-air. No walls or doors. See the baskets? Those are your “shopping carts.”

There are a number of markets that sell frutas y verduras (fruits and vegetables). Our favorite is the Dac Market, where you can get nuts, chiles, spices and dried fruits, such as raisins, in bulk. This market is larger than most neighborhood fruit stands, and their produce is definitely better than the big chain stores. Here’s a sample:

  • carrots, 27 oz., $.54.
  • limes, 21 oz., $.58.
  • white onions, 23 oz., $.60.
  • romaine lettuce, $1.11.
  • zucchini, 19 oz., $.30.
  • raisins, 12 oz., $1.08.
  • avocado, 15 oz., $1.83.
  • white potatoes, 17 oz., $.46.
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Colorful jars of bulk spices and seeds at Dac Market.

Meat and fish tend to be better at a carneceria or pescaderia. There are two meat shops and two fish vendors close to us. A few days ago, Leslie went to Pescaderia El Mero Mero and bought some very nice grouper for dinner. The owner told Leslie his shop had provided the fish for a Mexican television version of “Top Chef” that featured Rick Bayliss. Good enough for Rick, good enough for us! Leslie picked out two whole fish, then the owner’s assistant filleted them on the spot — fresh, never frozen. We ended up with four six-ounce fillets for less than $10 USD. And what Leslie did with it was muy sabroso!

Real estate is also important, and Playa is a little different from other places we’ve lived. Vacation rentals are everywhere, especially between the main road (Highway 307) and the beach. There are no high-rises here, only condo buildings three to five stories high.

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Typical new condo building. At one time, developers were limited to three stories. Now, five is the max.

And there are more on the way. If you’re a construction worker and you need a job, come to Playa. Several condos or hotels are under construction.

Real estate sales pitches tend to tout income potential — buy a condo in PDC for your vacations and rent it out whenever you’re not here. That’s not for us, but it’s normal here. And prices are all over the map. There’s a third-floor, two-bedroom condo for sale in our building, Aqua Terra, for $245,000 USD. They had an open house last week and we took a look. There’s a rooftop area that would be great for entertaining or sunbathing, but the view is nothing special.

Then there’s a two-bedroom unit in condo-hotel Aldea Thai, right on our favorite beach. It has a private pool and says it has “great views” but none of the photos show an ocean view. It seems a bargain at only $650,000 USD. Right across the street, they’re hard at work on Ocean Residences, one of many new luxury condo buildings. We talked about looking at the model, but haven’t done it yet.

Want to spend more? I found listings online up to $10 million USD. If you’re looking for a bargain, you’ll need to look outside Highway 307 or in some of the smaller towns between Cancún and Tulum. Buying on the Riviera Maya would take a lot of research, figuring out exactly where you want to be, then spending a lot of time with a good agent. There are a lot of properties for sale here.

Rentals, as noted, tend to be vacation rentals rather than long-term. Go on Airbnb or VRBO and you’ll find luxury properties that will set you back $500 a night or more, USD. We were lucky to grab something in our budget. I found long-term rentals online, but there are few bargains at $1,500 USD a month and more. There was one listing in Tulum for $1,000 USD a month. It’s a nice two-bedroom house with good outdoor spaces, but it’s not close to the beach and you would need a car to get anywhere.

So, does Playa stay on the list or not? That’s coming up in the next post!

Living on the Riveria Maya would not be boring, though. There are lots of attractions on this stretch of the Yucatan Peninsula that runs essentially from Puerto Morelos (just south of Cancún) in the north to Tulum in the south. There’s also the island of Cozumel, a 40-minute ferry ride from Playa, where scuba diving and snorkeling are big business. We visited Tulum last week to see more Mayan ruins.

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“The Castle” at Tulum. When Leslie and Stephanie were here many years ago, people could climb those stairs to the top. The authorities don’t allow that anymore because at least one person was injured in a fall here, according to our guide.

Leslie and her daughter Stephanie went to Tulum nearly 30 years ago when they were on a cruise. Back then, she says, the site consisted of “the castle” and not much else. Archeologists have uncovered much more of the site now, and it’s amazing. There’s even restoration work being done right now on a building that’s in danger of collapse.

Our guide Dan told us Tulum was probably the last city the Maya built.

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One of the few houses still standing at Tulum. Our guide said this was the home of the high priest. There are lots of foundations inside the walls of Tulum. Priests and other high-ranking Maya lived here while most lower-class people lived in villages outside the walls. 

Next time, I’ll review our five weeks in Playa del Carmen and let you know if we’ll be coming back any time soon. Spoiler alert: The humidity here is often greater than 90 percent!

Hasta luego!

Mexican food takes center stage

This post is all about real Méxican food, particularly food from the Yucatan Peninsula where Mayan culture is important — especially at dinner time. If you’re not hungry right now, you will be in the next few minutes. So grab some chips and salsa and pour yourself a cold Pacifico or make a pitcher of margaritas.

Since we arrived in México, especially since we made it to the Yucatan, Leslie has wanted to take a cooking class. We struck that one off the list yesterday (June 28) at México Lindo Traditional Kitchen, Workshop & School in Puerto Morelos, between Cancún and Playa del Carmen.

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A place setting for our lunch. One dish we made was ceviche, upper right.

Leslie and I joined five new friends from Florida to learn some basics in the art of Méxican cuisine, and to taste hot chocolate, green juice, and Méxican coffee with cinnamon and orange rind.

After learning about different kinds of chiles and picking up some knife skills for cutting tomatoes and onions, the Florida group departed. That’s too bad, partly because they were fun people and partly because they missed an incredible lunch!

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We made, or helped make, all these items.

Leslie and I got individual attention for the next few hours as we prepared our meal with instruction from Chef Alexandra, the owner of México Lindo. The recipes we used were her grandmother’s recipes, although Chef admitted she has made a few revisions over the years.

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Leslie preparing tilapia for the ceviche we made.

We made ceviche, shrimp broth, green rice with poblano peppers, black beans and red snapper filet, all Veracruzana style. And we polished it off with flan. As we cooked, we also learned about Méxican cooking.

There was a lot of hands-on work. I chopped and diced, using my new-found knife skills, and got to use the blender a few times. Leslie did a lot of the actual cooking — stirring and  seasoning, asking questions and writing down notes. We each got copies of all the recipes, and we got to keep our “I Cooked In México” aprons.

As we sat down under the big palapa, Mari was making tortillas by hand. She invited us both to try our hand at making them. I couldn’t get the hang of it. Several times my work started to look like a tortilla, then some of the masa stuck on my fingers, leaving holes in the round of dough, forcing me to start over.

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I failed at making tortillas but succeeded wildly at eating them. Mari has beautiful classic Mayan features. You can see this same face on sculptures at ancient Mayan temples, or in museums.

Leslie fared a good bit better. Mari is a Mayan woman, probably in her 70s, who has been making corn tortillas by hand since she was eight. In addition to making the tortillas (among the best I’ve ever tasted), Mari also worked very hard in the kitchen all day, mostly cleaning up. As we arrived, she greeted us in the Mayan language.

If you’re ever in Cancún or Playa del Carmen on vacation, you should take the class. The menu is different every day, so check with Chef, online or by phone, before you sign up. It’s a full day and there’s some work involved. But the meal is definitely worth it, as is sharing food and conversation with Chef Alexandra and sous chef Claudia.

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Ready to eat the meal we prepared!

But wait — there’s more!

Last Thursday (June 22) , we joined guide Francisco on the “Walking Food Tour of Downtown Playa del Carmen.” Nine different stops, only four of them actual restaurants and only one in the main tourist area known as Quinta Avenida, or Fifth Avenue. We spent about four hours with Franciso learning where the locals eat out, and getting a little history lesson too.

The first place we stopped was a taqueria that was full of locals. No touristas in this joint. In fact, we were the only non-Méxicans in any of the places we went. We sampled tacos al pastor as well as beef tacos, ceviche, Méxican ice cream, fruit juices known as aguas frescas, and tamales from a street vendor.

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Ceviche at Buzo’s Seafood Restaurant in Playa. It was excellent.

“You might be concerned about eating street food in México,” Francisco said. “The one thing you should not worry about is tamales. These ladies make the tamales at home and bring them here. In fact, I think many restaurants in Playa serve tamales that one of these ladies cooked in her home and sold to the restaurant.” I thought it was one of the best tamales I’ve tasted. On the other hand, Leslie thought the sauce was too spicy for her taste, and didn’t care for the masa.

We finished off the evening at a more familiar (and more touristy) place called Ah Cacao. It’s like a Méxican version of Starbucks, only way better. Their motto is, “Let’s Look After Our Planet — It’s the Only One With Chocolate.” They serve a variety of drinks made with coffee and cacao, and a number of chocolate-laden pastries as well. I had a Chocolate Maya drink — cacao and a variety of Mayan spices. Wow!

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This young man is making a “marquesita” for a member of our group while guide Francisco (left) watches. He cooked a very thin waffle on this pan, put a sliced banana and some Nutella in it, twirled it into a cone and presented it. You can see that he works fast to make this classic Mexican street food. The whole process was probably less than two minutes.

Just a little over two weeks now before we end Phase One of our search for a place to retire, then we head back to Chicagoland. We’re going back for some routine, but necessary, doctor appointments and to see friends and family we have missed very much.

More on that later. For now, hasta luego!

Playa is a little different, seven years later

Leslie and I spent Christmas 2010 with daughter Stephanie in Playa del Carmen. In fact, this is the only place in our travels so far that we have actually been to before. Back then, we rented a two-bedroom condo near the beach for about a week, spent nearly every day at Kool Beach Club and sampled some excellent restaurants. We’re back, almost seven years later, and a lot has changed.

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Pedestrian-friendly Fifth Avenue is Playa’s top draw.

Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue) is still the hot spot in Playa but it seems busier now, with even more opportunities for tourists to spend their money.

On our first stroll down that famous pedestrian-only  street, we were attacked by at least a dozen vendors who aggressively tried to sell us something, thinking we were tourists. Easy assumption to make, I suppose.

I saw one or two restaurants that looked vaguely familiar. Otherwise, big changes. The little wine bar the three of us enjoyed more than once in 2010 — gone. The Mayan-themed restaurant where I got some great cochinita pibil (a traditional Yucatecan pork dish) — it’s Guy Fieri’s Restaurant now. I guess that’s called progress.

We got in last Saturday, unpacked and got settled, then decided to revisit Kool Beach Club on Monday. I remember it as being a place with great food and drinks, and a DJ that played techno-beat electronic junk music that annoyed me.

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Back at Kool Beach Club!

Until I caught my toes tapping to the beat. Then I heard the overlay change — something dropped in and something else dropped out. The music was changing, evolving, interesting to listen to. But the beat was the same. Hard. Driving. Constant. Not annoying anymore — fascinating. Didn’t read much in my book after that.

Well, the beach has changed. The music isn’t nearly as good, and a couple of new condo-hotels have been built, making the beach more crowded. The food is still great at Kool Beach Club. We had some terrific fish tacos Monday and will probably return several times over the next month.

Changes are not limited to the beach and Fifth Avenue. Playa del Carmen (pop. about 150,000) isn’t laid back anymore. It looks like they’ve built condo buildings all over the place in the last few years, especially between the beach and Avenida 30, a major thoroughfare.

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New condos along Calle 34, near our condo.

In 2010, PDC was centered on Fifth Avenue establishments catering to the tourist trade. Not anymore. There are restaurants and boutique hotels along 1st Avenue, 10th Avenue and all along the calles in between (avenidas, or avenues, go north-south while calles, or streets, run east-west).

One big downside to Playa is the lack of an English-speaking Protestant church. We loved St. Paul’s Anglican Church in San Miguel de Allende, as well as St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Mérida. Christ Church by the Sea in Puerto Vallarta (also Anglican) was OK, too. Unfortunately, that denomination apparently has no presence in Playa del Carmen, or anywhere in the state of Quintana Roo. There are non-denominational churches in neighboring cities like Tulum (about an hour south) and Puerto Morelos (about 30 minutes north) but nothing in PDC that might meet our needs.

Same with expat groups. Leslie found three groups on Facebook, but all appear to be geared toward real estate. We haven’t connected with any other expats yet.

We’ll be here in Playa until July 15. That should give us time to experience this little beach town and visit other possible retirement locations, such as Bacalar (on a lake near the border with Belize) and Tulum.

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We’re in a modern two-bedroom condo across the street from PDC’s major sports complex, where I join the locals to go jogging around the cinder track every morning. 

As for the weather, it’s hot and humid — really humid. But temps here are in the upper 80s F. instead of the upper 90s as they were in Mérida. Humidity, though is consistently high, so we start sweating when we walk out the door. Nice breeze at the beach, though.

More next time!

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The pool in Aqua Terra, our home for the next month. Not as private as our digs in Merida, but it’s nice. And the big saltwater “pool” is just a few blocks away!

 

 

Merida: Costs are low, too bad about the heat

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.

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We’re smiling because this was our refuge from the heat during the power outage. Somehow, the pool water stays fairly cool even when it’s 100 degrees or more every day.

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.

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Just wanted to leave you with a shot of our pool. It’s small but deep, so we can cool off.

More photos next time — I hope! Hasta luego!

 

 

 

 

Do you know what Mexican Turkey is?

A quick update while we are sitting by the pool, enjoying nice breezes and recovering from a couple of journeys with Vallarta Adventures (see “Whale of a Tale”), the tour company Leslie and I really like.

Before I tell you about those trips, another plug for US Global Mail, the Houston company that handles our mail for us, and for shipping service DHL. This week the mail included a new credit card to replace one that expires in May, and a check. Most of our mail gets thrown away or scanned to store on my laptop, but I needed that credit card, as well as the check. DHL got it here in just two days — a day sooner than promised — and at a discount thanks to US Global Mail. DHL makes it easy to track the shipment and their website is user-friendly.

The check is from International Living magazine, the first of many I hope to receive from them and similar publications. IL recently used an article I wrote about our vagabond lifestyle, so I am now a travel writer!

And our daughter Stephanie was here over Easter weekend to celebrate her birthday (April 14), along with her friend Kelly. The two of them often bunk together on group travel excursions, so they appreciated having their own rooms in our three-bedroom condo!  We celebrated Steph’s birthday at Puerto Vallarta’s top-rated restaurant, Tintoque, right down the street from our condo. The next night, we took them to Victor’s in the marina. A more casual, fun place known for free tequila shots. Stephanie was aghast when she arrived Friday night to find that her mother’s tan was better than hers. She and Kelly spent much of weekend trying to fix that.

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Victor welcomed us to his restaurant and gifted Stephanie (left) and Kelly with a bottle of his uncle’s famous tequila. Steph says it will stay at her place, but Kelly expects a shot whenever she visits. Happy Birthday, Stephanie!

 

It was great to see her again. If we decide on Mexico rather than a European country as our retirement home, it will be easier for Steph to come see us from her home in San Diego, and vice versa.

This week we went on excursions to Yelapa (pronounced gel-AH-pah), a small coastal village accessible only by boat, and to the silver mining town of San Sebastian.

At Yelapa, we saw a neat waterfall, walked through the town, relaxed on the beach and tasted some incredible raicilla, which is made — like tequila — from the agave plant, and is distilled only here in the state of Jalisco. Very smooth.

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This waterfall greets you as you complete a climb up Yelapa’s hill. Some in our group took a dip in the pool.

Vallarta Adventures staff, especially the amazing tour director Pablo, kept us entertained all the way there and back on the boat – about 90 minutes each way. Just before lunch, Leslie and I got a chance to paddle a sea kayak around a pretty little cove. First time for both of us! Lunch was a make-your-own sandwich buffet. Leslie pointed to one of the choices and asked a crewman, “What is this?” With a straight face he replied, “Mexican turkey. Brown pelican.” Then he winked. It was just regular turkey, of course. I wonder how many times a week he uses that one!

On the cruise back to PV, Pablo and the staff performed — OK, lip-synced — some old rock ‘n’ roll standards as “The Mexican Rolling Stones,” complete with makeup and props. Having an open bar helped us enjoy it a bit more, but those guys put on a great show. They were very funny!

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Got a selfie in as we prepared to board the boat back to Puerto Vallarta. Yes, that’s my Cubs cap — sorry the “C” doesn’t show. I wore it one day on the beach at the PV Marriott and met a guy who said he was once a Cubs bat boy. He knew Ernie Banks! Had fun talking with him.

Yesterday’s excursion was by van, over narrow, winding roads through the Sierra Madre Mountains to the silver mining village of San Sebastian del Oeste. Tour guide Gabriel kept up a running commentary on a variety of topics, including bits of Mexican history. San Sebastian was once home to some 30,000 people while 90 area silver mines were operational. Now the mines are gone and there are only about 600 residents. The town, with its narrow cobblestone streets and whitewashed homes, hasn’t changed much since the 1910 Mexican Revolution drove many people away, primarily the upper classes. It is one of more than 100 places the government has designated as a Magical City, or Pueblos Mágicos.

We visited Hacienda Jalisco, where silver ore was refined in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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Hacienda Jalisco. At least one website claims this may have been one place where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton hooked up during filming of “Night of the Iguana.” Our guide didn’t mention it, though.

Once owned by the great film director John Huston, some of it has been restored. You can see the smelters where ore was baked in one of the steps to create pure silver. After a terrific lunch at the Secret Hotel (“secret” because you can only stay or eat there if you know the owner), we saw a family-owned organic coffee roasting operation. The family matriarch, “Mary,” had 21 children. We bought some of the coffee from a gentleman known as “veinte” (Spanish for 20) because he’s the 20th child, and he looked to be close to 70 years old. The video below is the roasting part of the process. Yes, it smelled fantastic!

The formal walking tour ended at the home of the Encarnación family, which has lived in this house since the 1700s. Part of it is now a museum. Then we spent some time in the beautiful church just off the plaza, and saw a silversmith’s shop. Both our guide and the silversmith admired Leslie’s silver necklace. Her father brought that necklace home from a business trip to Mexico almost 40 years ago. Gabriel said the craftsman who made that style of jewelry passed away a number of years ago, and they don’t see his work very often. Gabriel was impressed.

Last stop, fortunately, was a visit to Hacienda Don Lalin, a local tequila distillery. After a brief introduction by our host, Lalo (who grows his own agave plants), we tasted some very fine tequila, mezcal and raicilla, as well as amaretto- and coffee-flavored tequilas. Once again, we contributed to the local economy and hit the road back to Puerto Vallarta.

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Lalo is a third-generation tequila distiller, and his products are very tasty. The labels say “Don Lalin,” who was Lalo’s grandfather. 

One more week here in this bustling Mexican beach town. Then Leslie and I move on to Mérida, capital of the state of Yucatan. It’s 10- to 20-degrees hotter there, but we’ve heard great things from a number of people about that colonial city.

Hasta luego!

Lake Chapala: Best climate in the world?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hasta luego!

 

And now for something completely different!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In English: Danger. Crocodiles. No Swimming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hasta luego!

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK, what are the downsides:

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

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

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

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

Next post from Puerto Vallarta!

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Go Cubbies!

 

 

Muchos pesos, no muchos dolares

You may have heard that the exchange rate between U.S. dollars and Mexican pesos is great and getting better. That’s good for us, not so good for people here in Mexico.

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Mexican cash is colorful! The smallest bills are $20 pesos. The coin on the left is $10 pesos, on the right $2 and $5.

When we lived in Westmont, we got a weekly “allowance” from our favorite ATM on Ogden Avenue. Here, I’m getting a little more and hitting the ATM more often, but that’s because we use cash more frequently. Many restaurants and shops don’t take plastic. Likewise, tickets for concerts, lectures and other events.

One of our reasons for living in another country is the cost of living, so let’s talk about that, starting with the cost of food. Here are a few items we bought several days ago at el Comer, known locally as “Mega.” All prices have been converted to USD:

  • Reynolds aluminum foil roll, $1.13.
  • Loaf of whole wheat bread, $1.96.
  • Jumex orange juice, 900ml, 69¢.
  • Lavazza coffee, 12 oz., $7.37.
  • Barilla penne pasta gluten-free, 12oz., $4.91.
  • Hellman’s mayo, 190g, 89¢.
  • Four gala apples, $2.21.
  • Olive oil, 250ml, $1.72.

But we buy most of our food at the Saturday organic market just down the street, or at the public mercado just north of the main plaza. We get great produce at low prices. They don’t give receipts and I can’t remember the exact prices, but less than Mega.

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Greens at the Saturday organic market. 

On our way home from the public mercado, we stop in to a carneceria, a butcher shop. We’ve gotten some excellent pork chops, ground beef and mild chorizo there. Better quality and lower prices than Mega.

Why even go to Mega, you ask? For coffee (we really like Lavazza brand, which we discovered in Malta), some paper products, a few other things we can’t get at the mercado.

Restaurant prices — again, there’s a range of prices. The anniversary dinner we enjoyed Monday night at one of SMA’s high-end places cost about what we would pay at our former haunts, such as Bakersfield, our favorite Westmont eatery, or Devon, the great seafood place in Oak Brook Terrace. Lunch today, on the other hand, was just $200 pesos with tip. That’s not even ten bucks for two people having lunch.

Other costs. Dry cleaning, we pay $45 pesos per item, or about $2.20 USD. Leslie got a mani/pedi a week ago and paid $300 with tip, less than $15 USD. I’m scheduled for a haircut tomorrow. They tell me it will be $250 pesos. Got some very nice Mexican wines a few days ago for just over $10 USD a bottle. Our buddy Ken Stevens would appreciate that!

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Great-looking zanahorias, carrots.

Housing costs are all over the place, but for the most part they are fairly consistent with prices in the Chicago area. One local real estate agency is advertising a three-bedroom newly built home with high ceilings and a rooftop entertainment area. It’s just over 1,600 square feet and is listed for $139,000 USD, but it’s nowhere close to the Centro where you find most of the restaurants, bars, galleries and shops. Still a good price. Centro properties can be more than $1 million USD, but the same agency has a three-bedroom with over 3,000 square feet listed for $850,000 USD. Includes a two-car garage and a rooftop terrace.

Rental rates also vary, depending on location, of course. One agency’s website lists a two-bedroom in the El Encanto neighborhood for only $950 USD a month, but you definitely need a car to get anywhere. The same agency has a gorgeous 2/2 in San Antonio, within a 15- to 20-minute walk to Centro, for only $1,140 USD a month. It includes a garage and rooftop terrace. And nearly all rentals are fully furnished. Some sales are, too!

Two interesting things about real estate here. First, all the agencies list their prices in U.S. dollars, which should tell you who they’re marketing to. Second, there is apparently no multiple-list service like in the States. And we’ve heard the agencies do not cooperate with each other. Go to a local Coldwell Banker agency, for example, and they will only show you their own listings. That might be an issue for our friend, Slav Polinski of the CB office on Main Street in Downers Grove, the best real estate guy in the western suburbs!

One thing we have learned about living in San Miguel de Allende — and Mexico in general, I suppose — is that utility costs are pretty high, especially electricity. In some of the other places we will be living, especially Puerto Vallarta and Mérida, we are being asked to pay extra for the electricity we use.

That gives you an idea of what it costs to live here in San Miguel de Allende. If you have specific questions about what things cost here, just ask. We’ll let you know.

Hasta luego!

 

 

 

Malta: Maybe, Maybe Not

We have fewer than 10 days left here on Malta, so it’s time to start evaluating. There are a lot of good things to say about Malta. The biggest plus so far has been the ease of meeting other expats. We’ve enjoyed going to church at St.Andrews

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Here we are with the Rev. Kim Hurst, pastor of St. Andrews and a methodist minister from the U.K.

and have met some lovely people. In fact, Leslie and I had dinner last night at the home of our Canadian friends, Frank and Judy Wilmot.

Another plus is that most Maltese speak English, some better than others. Most signage is in English or a mix of English and Maltese. It’s generally pretty easy to make ourselves understood.

Culture is a big deal here — yet another plus. In fact, Malta will be the European Union Capital of Culture in 2018. They’re already promoting it. Beginning next week is the Valletta International Baroque Festival, a series of 25 classical concerts at various places around the capital city. We may get to see two or three before we leave. Malta also has an annual jazz festival and many opportunities to see theater and dance performances.

Leslie and I attended the President’s New Year Concert by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra on New Year’s Eve at the Mediterranean Conference Center, which was built in the 16th Century by the Knights of St. John as a hospital. The orchestra was pretty good, as was the featured soloist, a young Maltese soprano, Nicola Said; the program mostly light classics and show tunes. And the president was there!

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The blond woman with glasses in the center of the photo is President Marie Louise Coleiro Preca. We were that close to her. Everybody talks about her with genuine affection and respect. What a concept!

We were in the same room with the president of Malta, and we never saw any security. No metal detectors, no cops or soldiers with guns. Granted, the real political power here rests in the prime minister rather than the president. But she is far from a figurehead, being heavily involved in social issues of all kinds. I think it speaks well for this island nation that the president can mingle easily with the people.

There are also some things that aren’t that great. We noticed pretty quickly that it gets quite chilly here in December and January — and many Maltese don’t have heating or air conditioning in their homes. We have a dehumidifier in this 400-year-old house, which makes it feel more comfortable. Today’s high was only 50º F. with light rain and even some sleet, and tonight’s forecast low is 41º F. Up until today, it’s been more like 60º to 65º F. most days. Our neighbor came by this morning and said this is the coldest winter she can remember. Newer construction and renovated spaces often include heat and air conditioning, but running them costs quite a bit — electricity is expensive on Malta.

That’s just one part of what we’ve determined to be a slighter higher cost of living than what we found in Spain. Renting or buying property would be more expensive here. The biggest real estate agency lists apartments in Valletta for upwards of $315,000, and some of the better properties are well over $1 million. Here, on the older more historic side of The Grand Harbour, an area known locally as The Three Cities, some apartments are listed for under $160,000, and about the same in other parts of the island.

Surprisingly, we found some rentals available in St. Angelo Mansions, built recently just outside the walls of Fort St. Angelo — the only Malta fortification that withstood The Great Siege of 1565. We could rent a three-bedroom with water view there for anywhere from $1,100 to $1,600 a month. And in Valletta, we found rental listings for as little as $1350 a month for a two-bedroom. In communities nearer the center of the island, we found monthly rentals as low as $600 a month, also for two bedrooms. So there is some affordable real estate all over Malta.

Then there’s the cost of food. Just a few items from last week’s grocery list, all converted from grams and liters into U.S. measurements, and from euros to dollars at the current exchange rate. Bear in mind that without a car we don’t have easy access to an American-style supermarket. Our neighbor Marthese, who takes care of this house for the owner, took Leslie to the supermarket one day a few weeks ago, but most of our food comes from The Convenience Store (yes, that’s the name — it’s a local chain). With that in mind, here are the costs for you to compare:

  • peanut butter, 12.3 ounces, $2.88.
  • eggs, one dozen, $2.31.
  • orange juice, 67.6 ounces, $3.56.
  • olive oil, 8.4 ounces, $3.35.
  • coffee, 17.6 ounces, $3.03.

Leslie says the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables from the greengrocer on Victory Street is slightly more than we paid at Central Mercado in Alicante. Same with meat and poultry. So in general, food costs are slightly higher here. Eating out in a restaurant is also a bit more expensive than in Alicante, with dinner menu prices rivaling what we paid at our favorite restaurants in DuPage County.

In general, we both believe Malta deserves continued consideration as a retirement home. We may come back to see how it is in a warmer season.

Our time in Europe is over for now. Next stop, Mexico. More on that next post.

I leave you with a photo of the nave and elaborately painted barrel vault of St. John’s Co-Cathderal, the number one tourist attraction in Valletta, built by the Order of St. John between 1572 and 1577, and dedicated to St. John the Baptist. In the 17th Century, the interior was redecorated in the Baroque style by Italian artist Mattia Preti and others. The church is considered one of the finest examples of high Baroque architecture in Europe and one of the world’s great cathedrals. The artwork alone is awesome.img_1318