Is this the place?

Leslie and I came to Ajijic partly because it has “the best climate in the world.” So far, so good. Since we arrived on Sept. 15, we’ve had temperatures in the mid- to upper-70s or low 80s during the day and the low 60s at night. The house we’re renting has fresh air flowing through all the time.

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Sunset over Lake Chapala. Most of the Driscoll’s raspberries and blackberries you buy at Jewel are grown on the other side of the lake.

Most homes in the Lake Chapala area (known generally as “Lakeside”) don’t have heaters or air conditioners. They’re not needed. If we lived here, I would never have to pay those $200-plus Nicor Gas Co. bills in February! One person told us the lowest temperature ever recorded in Ajijic is 40° F.

There’s roughly a month left in the rainy season so it’s a little wet at times, and slightly more humid than we would like but still not like the Mexican beach towns we’ve tried. Here, it’s as high as 70 percent after a storm, but usually 50 percent or less. And most of the rain is at night when we’re sleeping. In fact, one big storm woke us both up around 3 a.m. The lightning was pretty amazing.

We also came here because there is a thriving expat community. We’ve been to several events already, some sponsored by The Lake Chapala Society, and some by Ajijic Newbies.

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We met Susan and Rex (second and third from right) at an LCS event. We later joined them for Happy Hour at Nuevo Posada, where they introduced us to Janelle (front left), Carla (right) and long-time resident Flo.

And we’ve found a terrific faith community in St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, just down the road in a neighborhood called Riberas del Pilar, between the two main towns of Chapala and Ajijic. Our new friend Libby gave us a ride home from our first visit to St. Andrew’s and pointed out several other churches in the same area. “They call this Holy Corner,” she laughed.

St. Andrew’s is the largest and most welcoming congregation we’ve encountered yet in our travels. This past Sunday there were probably more than 75 people in worship. In addition to Libby, a Canadian widow who has been here over a decade, we met a couple who formerly worked in marketing and corporate communications, same as me. David worked at some Chicago public relations agencies, and is a former PR director for Playboy Enterprises. We found several other folks with Chicago connections, so we felt right at home.

Then there’s Ajijic Newbies, which is Facebook-based but they do events too. Last week we went to a dinner they sponsored and met more expats, some brand new to Ajijic and some who have been here for a few years.

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Leslie chats with new friends Heidi and Steve at an Ajijic Newbies dinner.

We also went on a tour of five homes for sale in Ajijic. It seems all the real estate companies host these tours once a week. It was a large group, and we went with Rex and Susan, a fun couple from South Carolina who seem much more interested in buying a home here than we are right now. Wherever we land, we plan to rent for at least six months to a year before making any real estate moves.

And it seems all these groups try desperately to keep expats busy! As LCS members, we’ve already been to one screening of a TED Talk with discussion afterward, and Leslie is taking a Spanish class at the Society starting next week. We’re both interested in the Tai Chi class mid-month, and we met some fun people at the Oktoberfest recently. LCS is a great resource for expats and a super way to meet people. The Society also gives back to the local community. For example, our friend Marlene is teaching English to a group of local residents, mostly teenagers, who know some English but are trying to improve their  conversational skills.

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Mariachis play in Ajijic Plaza for the opening of a display of historical photos of Ajijic, taken over 50 years ago. Lots of things happening here!

Finally, we came because it simply costs less to live here. That’s true of the other places we’ve been in Mexico. I’ll discuss the cost of things like food and real estate in a later post, but today let’s talk about the many shopping venues we have here.

There’s Wal-Mart, of course, and a grocery called “Super Lake” that has lots of food items from Canada and the U.S. But we prefer the local markets, like the Tianguis on Wednesday mornings. Here’s a fairly recent YouTube video. This clip focuses on beans and street food, but Leslie and I go more for the fresh fruits and vegetables. You can also buy jewelry, art, clothing, electronics, hats, shoes, DVDs — almost anything you want. On Tuesdays there’s an organic farmer’s market in West Ajijic, with more prepared food and specialty items.

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This organic market vendor had some excellent bulk oatmeal.

It’s a little more expensive and somewhat light on veggies, but you can find gluten-free bread and muffins, excellent sausages and chorizos, and some very tasty hummus.

Ajijic hits a lot of our buttons. Is this “the” place? We don’t know yet, but it looks good so far. More to come…

Hasta luego!

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!

Rent or buy? The big question for ex-pats

I’ve already given you an idea about available real estate in San Miguel de Allende and Puerto Vallarta, as well as our European stops. Now, even though Leslie and I won’t be relocating to Mérida, I want to give you an idea of what you might find if you were looking to rent or buy here. But first let’s back up a bit and talk about real estate in general.

Buying real estate in Mexico is very different from in the U.S., and not just because all the paperwork is in Spanish. This article from the Yucatan Times explains a lot about those differences. It’s a few years old but still valid. And here’s something from our favorite magazine, International Living. I can’t tell when this was first published, but the information is good. If you want to know more, just Google “buying real estate in Mexico.”

The big question is whether to rent or buy. Most gringos, especially those who live nine months or less in Mexico and the rest somewhere else, prefer to rent rather than buy. Dennis and Sandy, our friends from Puerto Vallarta, are renters. They actually have a five-year lease on a condo with an ocean view in one of the fancy high-rises in Marina Vallarta. It works for them because they go back to Wisconsin to spend the summer with family. Lots of people do that. When the rainy season arrives, they head north. We’ve met a number of people in all three cities, however, who are just beaming because their Mexican permanent residency has been approved. Those are the folks who buy, and they find they can afford a lot more house here in Mexico than they can in, let’s say, Naperville, Ill.

Now let’s get specific about Mérida. One downside to this city is the condition of some houses in the historic area, where lots of gringos live. Leslie and I have walked past facades of some very nice houses, and right next door is a hovel or an empty shell. The upside to that, and in general to living in Mérida, is that you are in a Mexican neighborhood with Mexican people as your neighbors, rather than a bunch of ex-pats. Our friend Frank Krieger says that’s why he bought in Santiago many years ago — the local people are warm, friendly, caring folks. And once you get to know them, they’ll do anything at all for you.

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See the houses down the block? Nice-looking, well-kept homes suitable for ex-pats, but on the same block with this place. And there are many houses that look a lot worse. This place could be vacant, or there could be a Mexican family living here. Many locals simply don’t have the resources to upgrade, or even paint, their homes. 

Yet another caveat regarding Mérida is the plumbing, especially in centro. The pipes are too small to handle toilet paper, so you can’t flush paper down the toilet. Instead, you carefully place used TP in the trash. I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right.

Two of our new friends from St. Luke’s Anglican Mission, Harrington and Ricci, remodeled a house and put in new plumbing and an updated septic system. Their bathrooms are now up to U.S. standards, but that’s still rare except in the newer parts of town and in new construction.

And if you’re looking for a fixer-upper here in Mérida, you’re in luck. You can score a two-bedroom home in the Santiago neighborhood for less than $50,000 USD, some as low as $35,000 USD. At that price, though, expect to spend at least $100,000 or more to make it livable — to improve the plumbing and put in a pool. But if you do that, you have the house you want in a good location at a bargain price.

Okay, renovation is not your style. Check out this four-bedroom, three-bath home in Santa Ana neighborhood, with pool, for $229,000. Then there’s a more modest two-bedroom, two-bath house, listed as a historic property for only $129,000 — not sure where it is, though. Of course, if you want to pay more, you might be interested in this two-bedroom, three-bath home for $460,000 USD. It’s stunning, and it would probably list for at least twice that price north of the border.

Rentals seem a bit expensive, especially in centro, because rental and property management agencies — such as Remixto, probably the biggest — consider them “vacation rentals,” so they can run over $100 a night USD. The houses on Yucatan Premier’s website, however, are all long-term rentals. Most are in North Mérida, so a car would be essential but at least you’d be close to Costco! This site is interesting because some properties are listed in pesos and some in dollars. Always pay in pesos, if you can. Right now, the property listed for $16,000 pesos a month would actually set you back merely $864 USD a month. And if the peso drops again, it would cost less.

There are a lot of good things about houses in Mérida. Pasta tiles, for example. The next post will tell you what a pasta tile is, and will have lots of great information Leslie has compiled about the unique architectural facets of homes here.

A few photos to leave you with:

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I mentioned the Santiago mercado in the last post but had no good photos. It was a little after 10 a.m. on a Saturday here, so the mercado is not very busy. Most people shop early. The lady on the left is my favorite vendor. She writes down the prices and adds them up for the gringo. That keeps me from sheepishly handing her a $500 peso bill to pay for lettuce and tomatoes that actually cost $30 pesos or less.
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Doesn’t this look great? Those are Mexican squashes, and they’re very good. Leslie says they are like a cross between and winter and summer squash. The locals use them as a side dish and to make soups. I think they taste a bit like zucchini.