The last major eruption was in 1968, when 87 people were killed. It was active up until 2010. Now it’s a major tourist attraction, as are Costa Rica’s other volcanoes. At least five are still active.
This side trip was another effort to see more of this country, since our time here is limited. We stayed two nights at the Lucky Bug Bed & Breakfast, which is right at the edge of a rain forest. Upon arrival, we heard howler monkeys in the jungle. Rob, one of our hosts, told us the howler is the loudest animal on earth. Louder than people?
We heard a lot of strange bird calls that were also pretty loud, and frog noises at night. Never caught a glimpse of a monkey or any of the strange-sounding birds. But we did see hummingbirds at Rob and Monika’s feeders, and a white ibis on their small pond.
The Lucky Bug is just outside the town of Nuevo Arenal. The “Nuevo” part is because the original town of Arenal was flooded in 1973 when a dam was built and a very small lake became a huge lake. That dam now provides 12 percent of Costa Rica’s electricity and the lake is beautiful, with lush, green hills all around it. We saw some people kayaking, but the tourist boat that will take you out for a ride (like we did on Scotland’s Loch Ness back in 2016) was only available in the town of La Fortuna. We didn’t get that far. If you lived here you would definitely want a view of the lake. And there are a number of properties for sale, as well as long- and short-term rentals.
Nuevo Arenal is quite small. There are other villages in the area, as well as the larger town of La Fortuna at the other end of the lake. La Fortuna got its name after the 1968 eruption, which spewed volcanic material up to five kilometers away and destroyed the small town of Tabacón. But La Fortuna was spared, so the name was changed to reflect its good fortune. One website I checked says that’s a myth. Maybe.
Lots of gringos live in this area, including our B&B hosts (he’s from the U.S., she’s from Germany). Some of the other local B&Bs appear to be gringo-owned and catering to North American tourists. I got directions at one point from a small group of North Americans at a bar called Karacters. Seemed like a fun crowd.
The climate is nice: mid-80s F. in the daytime and mid- to low-60s F. at night. We actually had to close the windows our first night there. Driving is a challenge because of the hills — lots of turns and twists on narrow roads.
Leslie and I thought the region was just a bit too rural. A dearth of health care would probably keep us from relocating there. Our host Monika complained about having to see what she called “cow doctors” unless you went to San Jose, which is almost a four-hour drive. So if we choose Costa Rica as our new home, the Lake Arenal area would probably not be our first choice. Great place to visit, though.
Next post will be a review of what it costs to live in Costa Rica. Spoiler alert: It ain’t cheap. I’ll leave you with some photos.
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.
Monday, Oct. 16, was Leslie’s birthday. We celebrated at one of the top-rated restaurants in town — Ajijic Tango. Varied menu, but the Argentine steaks are stars of the show. We had the filet mignon for two — 26 ounces of mesquite-grilled beef, medium rare. We each had half a baked potato and a glass of red wine. We finished off by having two cups of descafeinado (decaf coffee) and splitting a piece of flourless chocolate cake. Total bill with tip was 664 pesos — $35 USD!
Lest you think we made pigs of ourselves with that huge chunk of beef, we did a para llevar (doggy bag) on at least half of it. We had steak on our salads at lunch the next day, and steak-and-eggs for breakfast another morning.
That’s just one indicator of the Lakeside cost of living. Eating out is so inexpensive we often pay cash, especially at lunch.
I got a haircut a few weeks ago. I recall paying 200 pesos in Playa del Carmen. At Joe’s Barber Shop, just down the street, the haircut was only 80 pesos. With a tip, I paid a little over $5 USD. Leslie found a good place for a pedicure, which was only 160 pesos. That’s less than $9 USD. She’s gone back twice for other things.
Groceries, as usual, come from several different places — just like back in the U.S. One favorite spot is Super Lake, known for having lots of items popular with Americans and Canadians but with prices a bit higher than other stores. They have the best selection of gluten-free items. From our receipts, prices in USD:
Silk almond milk, 947 ml, $2.23.
Orowheat bread, $2.30.
President unsalted butter, 200g, $2.99.
Schar gluten-free bread, $5.47.
Filippo Berrio olive oil, 750ml, $6.79.
Pasta, gluten-free, 1 lb., $6.55.
One dozen brown eggs, $1.83.
Closer to home is Supermercado El Torito. We were told, “That’s where the Mexicans shop. The gringos shop at Super Lake.” One reason the locals shop at El Torito: lower prices, especially on meats. The grocery selection is not as good as Super Lake or Wal-Mart, but we saw a number of gringos shopping there. We got 1.82 pounds of ground beef at El Torito for $5.25, and two pounds of chicken breasts was about the same.
Tony’s is the best carneceria in our area. For example:
About a pound of ground beef, $2.78.
Nearly two pounds of chicken breasts, $4.26.
Just over a pound of smoked bacon, $3.50
A one-pound pork tenderloin, $2.35.
All our fruits and vegetables come from the Wednesday morning tianguis, where the real savings is. You’ll see lots of locals as well as ex-pats.
We have no idea what individual items cost at our favorite vendor. We put everything into a round plastic bin, they weigh everything individually and we pay the total price. Last week it was 180 pesos, roughly $10 USD, and we got:
One head green-leaf lettuce.
Four medium tomatoes.
One bunch cilantro.
Three white potatoes.
Two sweet potatoes.
One medium red onion.
Two small heads broccoli.
One poblano pepper.
One-half pound (approx.) green beans.
Five large portabella mushrooms.
At a different vendor, we got eight pints of fresh locally grown blackberries, raspberries and strawberries for 170 pesos, or $8.95. And to make my special pico de gallo, I got three medium jalapeños for 5 pesos, roughly 25 cents.
Shopping at the local markets saves money, as you can see. But it’s also a social event. We’re starting to see people we know at both the Tuesday morning organic market and the Wednesday morning tianguis. The organic market is great for home-made hummus, specialty chorizos, nuts, free-range eggs and chicken, and prepared foods such as tamales and tortilla español. It’s a little more expensive than the tianguis.
Unlike the tianguis, the Tuesday morning organic market is inside a large “eventos,” a hall where people often have large parties. Lots of great stuff here.
Let’s leave food now, I’m getting hungry while typing. The other big expenditure, no matter where you live, is housing. This area, like most we’ve encountered in our travels, has a wide range of available housing for sale and for rent. You can easily buy a nice home here for under $200,000 (all prices are USD), but if you want to be up the hill and have a lake view, that will cost closer to $350,000. Rentals range from less than $500 a month to well over $2,000. The good news for us is that there are rentals with views of the lake that fit our budget.
And unlike other places we’ve lived, Leslie and I have seen a number of homes here. Some on the market and some owned by new friends who’ve been showing us around. Most of the real estate companies have a free home tour once a week. We went on an Ajijic Real Estate tour of five homes. Two were in Racquet Club, a gated community in the San Juan Cosalá neighborhood. They were $269,000 and $349,000. The lower level of the more expensive one could be closed off and rented as a casita, so there was income potential. We also saw a nice 2/2 slightly closer to Ajijic for just $187,000, but the view was not as good.
On our way home from the tianguis one Wednesday, Leslie and I spotted an “open house” sign, so we wandered in. It was a new 3/2.5 in a gated compound. Dwight, the agent on duty, said the price had been reduced to $249,000. It was nice, but the only lake view was from the mirador on the third level. Many Lakeside homes have this feature. It’s usually a small area above the roof where the view is good and you can enjoy a glass of wine and watch the sunset. But in this condo, the mirador was a huge terrace complete with wet bar. You could have a party for 100 people easily!
Prices tend to be lower in the town of Chapala and other surrounding communities, but we prefer Ajijic. Here’s a sampling of what’s on the market right now, all in Ajijic:
If Leslie and I were to choose this area, we would definitely rent for at least a year, and if that works out we would most likely try to find a place with a three- to five-year lease option. The rental market is good right now, but lots of gringos are coming to Lakeside, so prices may go up.
Rents vary by area and whether or not there’s a lake view. We know someone who’s renting a 2/2 just off the main road in San Antonio Tlayacapan for $350/mo. It’s small and not in a subdivision, but it has a gated carport and a nice mirador. You can also find luxury properties on the hillside that rent for $2,500/mo. or more. Other possibilities include:
All that stacks up well with the other Mexican cities we’ve lived in, and in some ways Lake Chapala costs are slightly lower. Of course, it’s all less expensive than living in Chicago’s western suburbs.
First, let me assure you we were completely unaffected by the earthquake that killed more than 230 people in five Mexican states, primarily in Mexico City. We are a little over 330 miles from Mexico City, so we did not feel the quake here in the Lake Chapala area.
And a correction: Last post had a pronunciation guide for Ajijic, but I got it wrong. Sort of. There is some debate. One source says “ah-he-HEEK,” but the locals often drop the hard “c” at the end, making it “ah-he-HEE.”
Ajijic is a 450-year-old village where the cost of living is relatively low and the climate is “the best in the world.” This town is at roughly the same latitude as Hawaii and the same elevation as Denver. Average temperature is 68 degrees F. It’s near the end of the rainy season right now, and daytime highs are in the high 70s to low 80s with overnight lows in the low 60s. The humidity seems to run from 50 percent up to near 80 percent after a storm.
Like San Miguel de Allende, Ajijic has narrow cobblestone streets and a central plaza. There are a number of colorful shops, art galleries and restaurants in the centro. Population numbers vary but 15,000 seems to be a good number, with at least a quarter of that being retired expats, mostly from the U.S. and Canada. Some live here year-round, many more stay through the winter before heading NOB (north of the border) for the rainy season. There are several other villages along Lake Chapala — Jocotepec, Chapala and San Antonio Tlayacapan just to name a few.
Lake Chapala is Mexico’s largest freshwater lake. It’s 50 miles long and 11 miles wide, at its extremes, with an average depth of about 15 feet. Ajijic’s “Malecon,” or boardwalk along the lakefront, is a great place to jog/walk in the mornings. I often see egrets, herons and pelicans on the shores.
Leslie and I have settled into our new digs, a very nice home on Donato Guerra street in the central section of Ajijic. We have two bedrooms (family and friends can come visit!) and a patio with a pool. There’s a good bit of street noise and a few mosquitos, but the house is terrific. Some of that street noise is the clip-clop of horses’ hooves. Yes, you can see locals on horseback here almost any day of the week. The kitchen is probably the best-equipped we have seen in our travels.
And we have four female roommates: Audrey, Doris Day, Racer and Bean (photos below). They must think we’re okay, since they sleep in our laps and ask for belly rubs. Thanks, Anita and Ken, for letting us live in your home for the next few weeks!
We have become members (through the end of October, at least) of the Lake Chapala Society so we can take advantage of their many social and educational offerings, and meet more people here. They help expats with health and legal issues, offer personal enrichment classes, and sponsor bus trips to the shopping mall in Guadalajara. LCS has lots of things for expats, but they also sponsor ESL classes for local people who want to improve their English. Our friend Marlene, who has lived here almost two years now, is a volunteer ESL teacher.
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.