New year, new plan

Happy New Year, everybody! May this be a great one for all of you. Leslie and I have been sharing a bad cold since right before Christmas, so we’ve been staying pretty close to home and doing very little of interest. Nothing to post about. We both feel much better now but we still have lingering coughs that sound worse than they are.

A new year brings new plans. We will be here in San Diego until the end of January (longest we’ve been anywhere since this project began). Unless our circumstances change significantly, San Diego is not on our list of possible retirement locations.

The cost of living is stunningly high here. For example, there is a one-bedroom, one-bath condo for sale on the first floor of the building we live in right now. It’s 717 square feet and is listed at $398,000. A two-bedroom, which is what we would need, is closer to $500,000+ in the downtown area. In nearby towns like La Mesa, one of our favorites, you can find two-bedroom places under $500K, but they’re generally quite small. And rents are high throughout the area. I’m not going into detail about real estate because everything depends on location. Prices are affordable if you don’t mind owning a double-wide in El Cajon. Want to see water from your house? Now you’re looking at seven figures.

Groceries cost a lot more here in Southern California. Ralphs is the biggest and best grocery store in the downtown area, and it’s an easy 10-block walk from our condo. (An aside here for my editor colleague John: It’s Ralphs, not Ralph’s. No apostrophe — checked their website to be sure.) The best thing about Ralphs is getting 30 percent off all wine (mix and match) if you buy a minimum of six bottles! That’s a great deal. These prices, though, not so much:

  • gluten-free penne pasta, $2.79.
  • Classico pasta sauce, $2.99.
  • zucchini, 1.29 lbs., $1.92.
  • grape tomatoes, $3.99.
  • Silk almond milk, 1/2 gal., $3.49.

Across the street from us is Grocery Outlet Bargain Market, a discount food store. Prices are lower and the walk is less than a block, but they don’t carry the range of stuff Ralphs or Whole Foods does:

  • 5 limes, $1.00.
  • zucchini, 1.29 lbs., $1.02.
  • Quaker oats, 42 oz., $3.29.
  • Ritz crackers, $1.99.
  • pineapple, $1.99.

When we have a rental car, we go up to the hip Hillcrest neighborhood to Whole Foods. There are some things we can only get at Whole Paycheck, like our favorite Intelligensia House Blend coffee, which sets us back $13.99 for 12 ounces. It’s worth it. Some other stuff:

  • guacamole, .85 lb., $7.64.
  • romaine lettuce, $1.99.
  • coconut milk coffee creamer, $4.49
  • low-sodium bacon, $5.49.
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People-watching is great at the year-round Little Italy farmers market.

Then there are the Little Italy (Saturday morning) and North Park (Thursday afternoon) farmer’s markets. I have no idea what we spend there, but it’s dramatically more than at the tianguis in Ajijic, or the mercado in Mérida. For example, you may recall me bragging about getting 13 limes at the Santiago mercado in Mérida for about 75 cents. At the Little Italy market, one vendor was selling limes at three for a dollar. Sometimes, though, you get what you pay for, like free-range eggs from Three Sons Farm in Ramona, Calif. — expensive at $7 a dozen, but by far the best eggs I’ve ever had.

I looked back at cost-of-living posts from Mexico, and you should feel free to do the same if you like. The Orowheat whole wheat bread I enjoy, for example, is $3.49 at Ralphs. We paid $2.30 for the same loaf at Wal-Mart in Ajijic, Mexico. At Ralphs, a dozen large eggs is just a penny shy of four bucks. In Ajijic, less than two dollars.

Mexico still seems to be in the lead in our home search, and cost of living is a big factor. But we’re giving Europe — France and maybe Italy — another chance in the spring. More on that when plans firm up.

Finally, some sad news. We had to say goodbye to our cat Sam last week. He was only 10 and suffered from episodes of poor health about once a year since he was a kitten. Dr. Berg, the best vet in the world, would give him a B12 shot and some other treatment and he would bounce back as if nothing had happened. She did that several times while we still lived in Westmont.

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Sam

This time, after more than a year of excellent health, he didn’t respond to treatment as he had in the past. He stopped eating and his kidneys and liver were shutting down, so we consulted with Dr. Berg and with our dear friend Barbara, who was caring for Sam in our absence, and made the tough call to end his suffering. We deeply appreciate Barbara, who did all she could for him. She and Sam had bonded, and we know she feels the loss as we do. We bring these little creatures into our homes and into our lives knowing their life spans are shorter than ours, but it’s still hard to handle.

2018 started on a sad note as Leslie learned that her second cousin, Helen Thoman, died in New Jersey at the age of 99. She was a grand lady, and a lot of family history may have been lost with her death, especially information about Leslie’s Hungarian relatives.

And we were shocked just after Christmas to learn of the unexpected death of our former neighbor Dan Smith. Dan and Zdenka were the best neighbors we ever had. I remember Dan shoveling his own driveway, then shoveling ours, then shoveling Monica’s driveway across the street, after her husband Ed died. Dan was one of those really big men who was never without a smile. Except, maybe, when the Chicago Blackhawks lost a hockey game! He was truly a gentleman, and a gentle man. Z, you and Christopher are in our prayers.

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We miss you, Dan. So glad we had this dinner together last summer.

 

San Diego for the holidays

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San Diego sunset, looking from the Convention Center toward Coronado Island.

Leslie and I have settled into our new digs here in beautiful San Diego. We managed to score an East Village condo two blocks from daughter Stephanie’s building and only “slightly” over our budget. (If you know SD, we’re on 11th Avenue between Island and Market.) I’ve already gotten us public transit passes and we took the trolley to the famous Saturday morning Little Italy Farmer’s Market. The people-watching is incredible!

It’s a bit cooler here than in Ajijic, 68° to 72° F. during the day and upper 50s to low 60s at night. Very pleasant, but we’re wearing sweaters and light jackets, especially in the evenings. Haven’t done that in awhile. Still, back in Chicagoland it’s already winter, so we’re smiling and enjoying life.

Our first trip to Ralphs Grocery for food was clear evidence we’re back in the States. For essentially the same stuff, we paid more than double (maybe close to triple) what we paid for groceries in any Mexican city we’ve lived in. That’s just anecdotal; I’ll do a “cost-of-living” post later on. But the significantly higher cost of food and dining out is undeniable. It’s one of the major reasons we’re leaning heavily toward Mexico as our retirement home.

But we have to do our due diligence, and that’s why we’re here. This is an experiment to see if we can live within our budget in Southern California, as an alternative to living in another country. We already see some upsides to San Diego. Leslie is thrilled, for example, that she can see Stephanie almost anytime she wants. She’s also excited that she can find her favorite coffee creamer at Whole Foods!

And it’s great that we can be here for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I’t’s been awhile since the last post, I know. I’ve been sick for a week but I won’t bore you with details. Seems like this happens to one or both of us when we move. Not every time, but several times our progress has taken a back seat to illness immediately following a relocation. I’m better now and should be back to full strength in a day or two. If you’re ever in San Diego and you need a doctor, I strongly recommend you go to Sharp Rees-Stealy Downtown Urgent Care. Great nurses (thanks,Virgil!) and doctors (thanks, Dr. Taylor). You’ll think you’re in a hospital. These folks treated me very well.

More to come…

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I am a thorn among roses at one of Stephanie’s favorite spots, Coasterra. We had lunch overlooking the harbor with Steph’s long-time L.A.-area friends Terry (far left) and Emina (far right), who were in town for the weekend.

 

 

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!

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!

 

 

 

 

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!