So what does it cost?

Cost of living is an important factor in our choice of where to live. It’s not the most important, but I think we must give stronger consideration to countries and cities where our dollar goes further. So let’s look at what we’ve been spending to live like the locals here in Montpellier, France.

After housing, food probably takes the biggest chunk of our budget. For most items, we go to the French grocer Monoprix, which has a store in nearby Place de la Comédie (all amounts in USD):

  • canned white tuna, 3.28 oz., $2.32.
  • facial tissue, $2.51.
  • almond milk, 1L, $3.48.
  • basmati rice, 17.6 oz., $2.04.
  • gluten-free bread, $5.13.
  • Colgate toothpaste, 2.5 oz., $2.90.
  • olive oil, 16.9 oz., $6.98.
  • President butter, 8.8 oz., $5,47.
  • one dozen eggs, $3.48.
  • Barilla pasta sauce, 12.8 oz., $2.27.

For fruits and vegetables, there’s the Halle Castellane market right next door to our building. There are a number of vendors for fruits and vegetables, chicken and meat, seafood, cheese, even wine:

  • aged comté cheese, 10 oz., $11.63.
  • broccoli, 10.9 oz., $1.01.
  • head of romaine lettuce, $1.52.
  • asparagus, 12 oz., $3.83.
  • eggplant, 9.3 oz., $.91.
  • zucchini, 11.1 oz., $1.02.
  • Roma tomatoes, 12 oz., $1.90.
  • carrots, 19 oz., $1.63.
  • white onions, 12 oz., $.80.
  • boneless chicken breasts, 11.5 oz., $6.54.
  • beef tenderloin, 10.2 oz., $14.85.

There’s also a good boucherie (butcher shop) close by. We got a 1.3-pound pork roast there for $9.18, and 2.2 pounds of ground beef for $14.99 — and they ground it fresh while we watched!

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Heirloom tomatoes at the Saturday morning open-air market.

We’ve also been to the open-air market under the 18th-century aqueduct, but the vendors don’t always provide receipts and I can’t remember what we spent. We pay cash for all those transactions. I sense it’s slightly less than at Halle Castellane. The open-air market is only on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, and it’s a bit of a hike. We’ve only been twice.

Wine appears to be the best bargain, and I guess we should expect that since we’re in the largest wine-producing region in France. We’ve found excellent local wines for $12 or less — even less than $10.

Dining out seems to cost roughly the same here in Montpellier as it does in Chicago’s western suburbs. I think we’ve been spending slightly less for dinner but more for lunch. For example, after church Sunday we stopped at a restaurant on the Place du Marché aux Fleurs (Flower Market Square) that features burgers and ratatouille. I had a burger with a nice German beer and Leslie had salmon with rice and ratatouille and a glass of rosé  — total of $47.05. Their basic burger was over $15. A few weeks ago we tried an Argentine restaurant that features empanadas. (I was looking forward to this because I used to enjoy empanadas from a food truck in the Loop.) We each had two empanadas. Granted, we had dessert and enjoyed two glasses of malbec each, but the total was $49.04.

Dinner, on the other hand, seems a bit more affordable. We cook at home most nights, though, so the sample size is small. We’ve been to three of the four places our host, Anne-Marie, recommended. On our first night in Montpellier, we went to Bistro d’Alco and enjoyed three-course meals that included some very fine foie gras as an appetizer. Can’t recall what the main courses were, but they both just blew us away. This is a highly rated farm-to-table restaurant with an ever-changing menu, and our total bill with wine was $79.18.

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Leslie admires the ceiling of the 13th-century building that houses a fine-dining restaurant. A bit on the pricey side, but the wine was fantastic!

The second restaurant was L’Artichaut (The Artichoke), where we spent $84.22. This place has earned the Michelin Bib Gourmand award for good, simple cooking at prices under $46. Leslie had the three-course meal (including a chocolate dessert that we shared), while I enjoyed a very nice fish. And of course there was wine. (One of our favorite quotes: “A meal without wine is — breakfast.”) I remember spending more on dinner for two at some of our favorite “special occasion” places in Westmont, Naperville and Oak Brook. So dinner can be a bit of a bargain, in my opinion — lunch, not so much. We did one fine dining experience at Restaurant 1789 in a 13th century building with Gothic ceilings. Pricey, but with amazing food and outstanding service.

I’m getting hungry now, so let’s move on to real estate, starting with the rental market. Based on what I’ve seen online and in handouts from some of the immobiliers (real estate agencies) in our area, the market seems geared toward university students and young singles. You can rent a studio for less than $600 per month (real estate amounts in USD too). You’ll pay more if you want an actual bedroom. For example, a one-bedroom on the city’s north side is $719, and one in the Beaux Arts neighborhood, closer to the historic center, is $812. Both are unfurnished.

That would not be adequate for Leslie and me. We need a two-bedroom because we hope some of you are going to come for a visit — wherever we eventually land. At the very least, we need a place for Stephanie when she comes. I went on one website that listed hundreds of rental properties. When I clicked on the filter for two bedrooms, I got back six. And four of those were unfurnished. Another site, though, offered a two-bedroom with a private garden in the Arceaux neighborhood for $1,350.

Sale prices, as usual, depend on location. One agency had a flyer that listed a two-bedroom apartment with a terrace and parking near the newer suburb of Port Marianne for just $180,646. On the high end, there’s an air-conditioned three-bedroom apartment in Place de la Comédie for $503,479. Great location, but it would be noisy. The place is the largest pedestrian square in Europe! I saw lower sale prices in outlying communities, such as Palavas-les-Flots, and Pezenas.

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We saw lots of new construction outside the city center. Montpellier is still the fastest growing city in France.

Being in the historic center is nice, but Leslie says that if we were to live here long-term she would want something more modern. Recently we took the Montpellier City Tour, a red bus that goes through some of the newer parts of this town. Modern can be found easily in places like Port Marianne and Odysseum, suburbs built in the 1990s while Montpellier was growing from the 28th largest city in France to its seventh largest. And there’s building underway. Looks like the state bird here is the construction crane. Live in one of these areas and you’re just a quick, inexpensive tram ride into the historic center and the main train station. Closer to the historic district is the Antigone neighborhood, which Leslie says she likes because of the classical Greek architecture. Different from the historic center, but with the same walkability — shops and restaurants everywhere.

That’s all on the dollars and cents angle. In the next post — our last from Montpellier — I’ll explain whether or not Leslie and I would consider living in this little corner of the south of France.

Bonne journée!

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A better look at the Gothic ceiling in 1789, a Michelin-rated restaurant next door to our apartment. Somebody worked all day on that ceiling — 500 years before the French Revolution, which was in…right, 1789.

 

A happy reunion with good friends

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Our friends Julie and Dave were traveling in Italy, so we took the opportunity to see them in Florence.

Last weekend (May 26-28), Leslie and I rented a car and drove back to Florence. That’s an eight-hour drive through two countries and lots of tunnels! But it was worth it to spend a whole day with our dear friends Julie and Dave Kronbach.

When Julie and Dave lived in Naperville, Ill., we all attended Grace United Methodist Church. Leslie and Julie became fast friends when they were roommates on the church’s annual youth mission trip. And Julie somehow convinced me to serve on the Stewardship & Finance Committee. (Can you imagine? ME on the finance committee?!?!) She and Dave moved to the Denver area several years ago to be closer to family. Leslie and I last saw them about five years ago when we drove to Prior Lake, Minn., to spend a few days with them at their lake house.

If you’re Facebook friends with Leslie, you’ve seen the picture of the four of us in front of the Duomo. Julie and Dave were in Florence with Julie’s sister Susie and husband Mike. The four of them took a Mediterranean cruise and had a few days on their own after it ended. We met Julie and Dave about 10 a.m. Sunday in front of the Duomo and looked around for a place to chat and get an espresso. We found a nice al fresco spot on the piazza and stayed there almost all day, talking and catching up.

At some point shortly after noon, I realized our waitress was looking at our table often. I imagined her thinking, “Are they ever going to leave?” It wasn’t long before one of us had a great idea: Let’s get some menus. So we enjoyed an excellent lunch there and kept talking until we decided to check out two possible dinner locations, both of which Leslie and I discovered during our initial visit to Florence.

After reviewing the menus in both restaurants, we chose Le Botteghe di Donatello for its diverse offerings, outdoor seating and view of the Duomo. Susie and Mike joined us for our goodbye meal, and we enjoyed meeting and getting to know them. Leslie and I got back in the car Monday morning for another eight-hour drive while they took a train to Rome for their flight home.

What a great day we had, sharing the events of the past few years and renewing our friendship with these delightful people. Now we’re back in Montpellier, learning more about living in France. Until next time…

A bientôt!

 

 

 

 

Bonjour, Montpellier!

 

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The view from our window. The Prefecture is on the left and the post office is straight ahead. Place Martyrs de la Resistance is usually a busy place. The people-watching is great. Students congregate here until the wee hours, and we’ve watched locals let their dogs play in the fountain. Free entertainment!

Leslie and I have arrived in France, our sixth and (maybe) final candidate for a place to call home. For the next six weeks, we are living in Montpellier, capital of the Hérault department, which is in the Languedoc-Rousillon region. It’s just a little west of Marseille and about 10 kilometers from the Mediterranean coast.

Montpellier is the seventh largest city in France, and the nation’s fastest-growing city over the past 25 years. In 2014, the metropolitan population was 589,610, while 275,318 lived in the city itself. It’s a university city, so there are a lot of young people here — one estimate I saw said almost one-third of the population is university students. The city is old and charming, but the vibe is young and energetic.

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Our nearly 500-year-old building. You can see Leslie waving if you look carefully at the fourth-floor window above the gray awning.

Our one-bedroom apartment is on the fourth floor of a 16th-century building that overlooks Place Martyrs de la Résistance in the historic center of town. (If you’re thinking World War II French Resistance — you’re right!) The Prefecture, essentially the state police headquarters, is right across the street and so is the post office. There are lots of bars and restaurants within a two-minute walk, and several markets for fresh fruits and vegetables. Two grocery stores are an easy walk from our place — except when there’s an unexpected shower or thunderstorm!

So the location is excellent, but there is a downside — no elevator! I pictured us trying to navigate four flights of stairs and thought the exercise might be good for us.

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The stairs outside our apartment. Thank God for handrails!

Nothing prepared me, though, for the stairs. Not four regular flights — a spiral staircase that very well may be original. Feels like it, anyway.

Turn right just outside our front door and you’re on Rue de la Loge, which leads directly to the heart of Montpellier, Place de la Comédiein less than five minutes. This huge open area is always covered with people of all stripes, including several street performers. There’s an historic fountain, lots of restaurants and bars, and a small antique carousel. Walk only a few more minutes and you go from old to new as you enter Polygone, a big American-style shopping mall on three levels. Then there’s the tree-lined Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, where I’ve been jogging in the morning.

Turn left as you leave our apartment and you’re on Rue Foch. In just a few minutes you’re walking under the Arc de Triomphe and going into a nice park called the Place du Peyrou with a statue of French King Louis XIV. We’ve been in this park twice now, and both times it’s been full of young people and families having picnics and playing games.

First impressions of Montpellier are good, but only when we’re on foot. Driving in this town is impossible with the narrow streets that are usually one-way but may change direction without warning. And it’s hard to get used to sunset after 9 p.m. Even at 8:45 p.m., it still seems like broad daylight.

There’s a lot to do and see in this city, and we’re just getting started. Next week, we plan to take a city tour, check out the history of this city and investigate cultural opportunities.

A bientôt!

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Place de la Comedie. A few days ago Leslie and I sat under one of those umbrellas and enjoyed a glass of wine while watching locals and tourists go about their day.

 

 

All roads lead to Rome

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Our hotel is just a few blocks from the Spanish Steps, one of Rome’s most popular, and most romantic, attractions.

Rome. The Eternal City.

Shortly after arriving in Italy’s capital, Leslie and I climbed the Spanish Steps and gazed out across the city. “We’re in Rome,” she beamed as she grabbed my arm. Okay, we’ve been to many of the major cities in Western Europe by now, so a new town really shouldn’t be making us giddy. But there really is something special about this place. After all, we’re walking in the steps of Julius Caesar and Sophia Loren. Lots of other folks, too.

There’s a lot going on in this town. More tourists than downtown Chicago in July! We’ve seen ancient wonders like the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Pantheon, as well as more recent tourist sites like the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain, both of which were an easy walk from our hotel.

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The Trevi Fountain by night. Both of us tossed coins into the fountain, which means we will come back to Rome.

We started with the Colosseum. Our outstanding guide Roberta explained that the world’s largest amphitheater was built by Emperor Vespasian to get rid of a lake and some buildings put up by Nero after he burned Rome. Construction started in 70 C.E., just after the Empire destroyed Jerusalem. Jewish slaves got the whole thing done in just nine years. Impressive. Vespasian got it started, his son Titus finished the amazing arena.

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Free bread and free sports, like the games here in the Roman Colosseum, kept the public happy.

Events in the Colosseum were free, part of the empire’s way of keeping the populace in check — give them free bread and free sports. There were exotic animals fighting each other, simple executions and gladiatorial contests — the main event. Gladiators fought for three years. If they survived, they won their freedom. That doesn’t mean they went at it every day. Roberta said gladiators only had to fight four or five times a year.

The Colosseum could hold more than 50,000 people — some say as many as 80,000. Even though it was free, you had to have a ticket that provided a reserved seat in the proper section.

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Seating for top government officials. Best in the house, except for the emperor’s box.

The best seats were reserved for the emperor, top government officials and wealthy citizens. The good seats were for the middle class, while ordinary folks were higher up. Slaves and women — because they really didn’t count — got the nose-bleed seats (women of wealthy families could sit with their husbands in the better seats, of course).

Roberta then took us through the Roman Forum, where we saw several temples to pagan gods and a massive victory arch celebrating the Empire’s destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

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The Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum. If you’re thinking that’s where we get the term “vestal virgins,” you’re right!

We also saw the Capitaline Hill, where the Roman Senate once met and which is still home to one of the most important Italian national government buildings. The Forum was a marketplace for ideas as well as consumer goods.

We finished the day at The Pantheon, which was originally built “to honor all gods” but now it’s part tourist trap and part Christian church. Originally built in the first century B.C.E., it was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in the second century C.E. Parts of it, though, are over 2,000 years old, including the marble floor, the stunning facade and the beautiful dome, which is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. (Yeah, the Romans had concrete.) The dome really is an architectural masterpiece. If you can tear your eyes away from it for a moment, you’ll notice lots of other people looking up and gaping. Great design.

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Looking up into the dome of The Pantheon. That’s actually a hole in the roof. 

Finally, a bit about Rome itself. Many of the streets are tiny, almost alley-like. But cars and scooters use them at will, meaning pedestrians do not always have the right-of-way. We sat down in the outside seating at one little restaurant and had cars going by less than a foot away from our table. We moved inside, but only because it started to rain. Drivers are stunningly aggressive. The only time they back off is for pedestrians in a crosswalk. Drivers have to stop — it’s the law. If you’re not in a crosswalk, though, stay alert or get run over.

Our hotel is in an area where there are lots of restaurants; one on nearly every corner — sometimes three in one block. The menus are much the same everywhere: antipasti, first course pasta, second course meat or fish. And pizza, of course. No, Roman pizza is not better than Neopolitan pizza. They both taste really good, but I still need to check the pizza quality in Florence. So far, we have not had a bad meal in Italy. And Rick Steves is right about one thing — in Italian restaurants, the pasta is always perfectly al dente.

The downside to Italy in general, in my humble opinion, is that pretty much everybody smokes. There are limits, such as no smoking in restaurants or public buildings, and not on trains. But just about every restaurant has outdoor seating, and smoking outside is OK. Well, not if your table is right next to mine. Also, while waiting for a train one day in Naples, we looked down at the track and saw that it was littered with butts. It’s hard to walk down a street and not smell smoke. Big downside.

I’ll leave you with a few additional photos and this short movie of the Colosseum. Leslie shot this with her phone. It may go into your “downloads” and you’ll have to look for it there.

Next, Vatican City and its treasures.

Ciao!

 

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The fourth-century Arch of Constantine, between the Colosseum and Palatine Hill. 
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Where the Senate met. It’s part of the vast grounds of the Roman Forum.
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This section of the Pantheon is now a Christian church.

Water, water everywhere

It’s been smooth sailing (relatively) as Leslie and I head for Europe the old-fashioned way — by ship. One of those random thoughts I’ve had on this trip is about people like my ancestor John Rogers who left his home in Laugharne, Wales, in 1635 and sailed west to find his fortune in Surrey County, Virginia.

He sailed on a ship called George. I’m sure it was quite small, probably less than one-quarter the size of Celebrity’s Reflection, and I’ll bet the North Atlantic waves bounced that little ship around fairly well. We started out in five- to eight-foot waves, but for the last two days and nights it’s been more like 11- to 18-foot waves. The captain promises that will change tomorrow. This is a huge ship, but there are some big waves out there that sometimes make passengers (crew, too) walk like drunken sailors. So far, my motion-sickness patch is working perfectly.

I doubt my ancestor’s ship had a huge international crew, as this one does, to serve the passengers and meet all their needs. I’m willing to bet the facilities were quite limited: No pool, no library, no fitness center or jogging track, no shore excursion options, and likely no restaurants. In some cases, passengers on 17th century ships sailing to and from the New World had to bring their own food for the journey, which could take a month or longer. Our ship has 15 different restaurants, and we’ll be in Europe in less than two weeks. Plus, we have all the amenities mentioned — and then some.

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Our stateroom on Deck 9.

It’s quite possible John Rogers didn’t have a private stateroom with his own bath, and he most certainly didn’t get room service for any meals. We not only have a nice stateroom, we opted for one with a king-size bed and a private veranda, from which we can see the Atlantic Ocean — and nothing else. A few days ago we had breakfast on our veranda, which seemed decadent. But we’ll just ignore that and do it again soon.

There’s a pool and a solarium, with deck chairs and lounges on all the upper decks. Leslie and I have both gotten haircuts, and she’s made use of something called “The Persian Garden” several times. They have a room full of tiled chaise-like loungers that are heated. Great place to meditate or nap. Crew members are from many different countries. We’ve been served by crew from Mexico, Jamaica, Honduras, Philippines, Serbia, Ukraine, Macedonia, Malaysia, St. Lucia and South Africa. They all smile and say “good morning,” and they do a great job.

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Great view from our veranda. We’ve only seen two or three other ships on the horizon, and those were very far away. This is our normal view. Look at the color of that water. No, it doesn’t get boring.

If we had a complaint it would be that we are required to reset our watches one hour ahead almost every night during the passage. That means we lose an hour of sleep, but it also means we gradually adjust to European time. I think we have one more “spring forward” to put us seven hours ahead of Chicago time. We’ll be in that time zone until we head back to the U.S. in mid-July.

Celebrity tries to keep the passengers entertained. There’s a show every night in Reflection Theater and musicians perform at various spots around the ship, mostly near the bars. There are games, lectures and special sales in the many shops that line Decks 3 and 4. Leslie and I enjoyed a wine tasting a few days ago. We tried reds and whites from the U.S., Austria, Spain, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Australia and New Zealand. A few were just okay, but two or three of them are now on our list of, “buy this wine whenever you can find it.”

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Fellow wine lovers sample a Spanish red blend and a terrific Austrian riesling. This event was quite popular.

It’s interesting that many of our fellow passengers are from Europe. We met a lovely British couple at dinner a few nights ago, and we’ve encountered people from Canada, France and Italy. That gave me a second weird thought: I wonder how many of these folks are just going home from a long vacation and they’re afraid of flying? Hmmm.

Not much else to relate. I’ll try  to post again after we’ve visited our first port, which is Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands.

Ciao!

 

So what’s the cost of living in Costa Rica?

As we get ready to leave the land of pura vida, it’s time to talk dinero. If we choose to retire to Costa Rica, what would our cost of living be? It’s a key issue for us and always an inexact science.

Costa Rica’s currency is the colon. The current exchange rate is 566.795 colones to one U.S. dollar. So when you see something priced at 3,000 colones, that’s just a shade over five bucks. The guy at the airport car rental place called it “Monopoly money.”

Simply put, Costa Rica is not cheap. Eating out in restaurants, for example, costs us only slightly less than what we might pay in the U.S., and in some cases about the same. Last night we had steak and barbecued ribs at one of this town’s nicest spots, and it was slightly over $80 including wine and dessert. But last week we visited an excellent Thai/Balinese restaurant a short walk from our condo. Leslie had pad thai and I had Balinese beef stew. With lovely chicken spring rolls and two glasses of wine, we paid 27,400 colones — $48.34.

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Pineapples at the farmers market. Very sweet!

But we have most meals at home, buying groceries and cooking. As in Mexico, the food bargains are at Jacó’s Friday morning farmers market, where roughly $30 USD buys us a bag full of amazing fruits and vegetables. We bought a pineapple that was probably the best I’ve ever tasted. Great tomatoes, zucchini, watermelon, green beans and avocados. Most of the produce is local, but some comes from other Latin American countries, such as the apples from Chile.

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Stalls at the Friday farmers market. Not a big market, but some very nice produce.

We’ve shopped mainly at two grocery stores, and remember this is only for Jacó. We haven’t bought food anywhere else and prices might be different in other areas. Maxi Pali is a Costa Rican chain owned, I’m told, by Wal-Mart. It’s just down the street from our condo, and prices are lower than some of the other local stores. Here’s a sample:

  • fresh orange juice, 64 oz., $6.26.
  • 15 large eggs, $2.81.
  • local chorizo, three links, $1.50.
  • mayo, 14.1 oz., $1.98.
  • oatmeal, 42 oz., $2.21.
  • white onions, 20.8 oz., $1.41.

The more Americanized option is called Auto Mercado. It’s about a five-minute drive down the main highway in the Plaza Herradura shopping center. Prices are a little higher, but we can find things like gluten-free bread and pasta, and their wine selection seems to be the best. We got one of our U.S. favorites, Apothic Red, but it was $17.81 a bottle and we usually pay $7. Of course here, it’s imported! Here’s some of what we bought:

  • six limes, $2.50.
  • Costa Rican coffee, 12 oz., $7.59.
  • Ritz crackers, 9.14 oz., $2.71.
  • seedless red grapes, 28.7 oz., $8.75.
  • gluten-free pasta, 8.8 oz., $1.42
  • head of Boston lettuce, $.97.

We’ve gotten some meats at these stores, but we’ve also gotten great cuts at a lower price from El Rodeo, a carneceria just off the main street through town that was recommended by our new friend Lisa. She also guided us to a relatively new pescedaria where we got a little over 2.2 pounds of fresh mahi-mahi for just under $9. I think we made three meals off that fish.

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Not a great picture, but this is Jaco Bay Premium Towers where we’ve lived the past month. You could score a 2/2 here for under $300,000, but it’s pretty crowded on weekends. Yes, that’s a paraglider between the towers.

Moving on to real estate (all prices in USD), and I’ve tried to find properties in all three areas featured in this blog. I did not look in San Jose, although the San Jose neighborhood of Escazu (ess-kah-ZU) and the suburb of Alajuela (allah-WAY-la) are prime for North Americans to buy or rent. And please remember, we haven’t actually looked at any of these properties — I’ve just done a lot of research, either on the internet or by checking listings posted in real estate company windows.

Jacó is a beach town that’s known for surfing and partying.  A 2/2 at one end of the beach with amazing ocean views is listed for $389,000. Pretty good for ocean view. Don’t need a view of the Pacific? Here’s a nice 2/2 condo with a short walk to the beach for only $227,000. On the high end, a stand-alone villa for $1.2 million. Rentals are available, but it appears the focus is on short-term vacation rentals. I did find a 2/2 in central Jaco for $1,000 a month, but it’s not close to the beach. Right on the beach, in nearby Playa Hermosa, there’s a 2/1 for $2,000 a month.

Atenas isn’t near a beach, but the mountain views from this Central Valley village can be stunning. Here’s a 2/2 with two 1/1 casitas on the property for $699,999. And there’s a more moderately-priced option, a 3/2 in Grecia for $178,500. As for long-term rentals, I found a couple of nice 2/1 properties just outside Atenas running from $1,200 to $1,400 a month.

Prices are lower in the area around Lake Arenal. You can even get amazing views for a bargain price. Like this new 3/2 in a gated community with lake views for only $169,000. If you’re on a tight budget and you don’t need to see the lake, there’s this 2/1 renovated house in the village for just $89,000, and you can walk to many stores and restaurants. I had to work hard to find a high-dollar property but here it is, just reduced to $995,000. It’s a 3/3.5 with a garden shower and an infinity pool with waterfalls! Area rental prices are low, too, running around $500 a month. I found a 3/3 with volcano and lake views for $800 a month on a six-month lease. From a price standpoint, Arenal wins.

So does that mean we’re moving to Costa Rica? The answer is in the next post!

Pura Vida!

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Good stuff at the Jaco farmers market. And this photo was taken late in the morning, so everything had been picked over. Still some nice produce.

 

It’s halftime! Sorry, no marching band.

Leslie and I have been back in the States for two weeks. We are officially halfway through our search for an overseas home in retirement. This time next year, we’ll be making a choice — or at least narrowing it down to two finalists, which we will then try out for at least six months each. There could be a third year of this escapade.

We’ve enjoyed seeing friends and family, going to our church and visiting some of our old haunts. We’ve already been to our favorite farmers market on Saturday morning in Downers Grove, and we’ve dined at a couple of our favorite restaurants. We’ve even gotten a few physician appointments done. Okay, Leslie has done that. I’ll get to it soon.

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Met our friend Lini at the Tap House Grill in Des Plaines. We tried to catch up, but it’s going to take a few more long lunches!

One common question is whether we’re experiencing culture shock after being in Europe and Mexico for almost 10 months. Well, yeah! We’ve been living in places where we could walk or take public transportation (along with taxis and Ubers) for almost everything we needed. Here in the western suburbs of Chicago, things are spread out. We have to drive everywhere.

So we tried to rent an “intermediate” size car, thinking we would need a little more room than the smallest thing available. Imagine our surprise when they upgraded us to a Cadillac XTS! It’s got more bells and whistles than Leslie’s former car, an Acura RDX.

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Leslie says the trunk is big enough to hold three bodies! We just need to haul a few boxes.

The last time either of us drove a car was back in September when we turned in the RDX. Seems we’re both still able to drive on U.S. streets and highways. I guess it’s just like falling off a bicycle.

And it’s nice to see green trees and green grass again. We’re also thoroughly enjoying cooler temperatures and lower humidities. Summer is great in Chicagoland. It’s just those winters that make us want to live somewhere else.

Finally, we traded in our worn Jake’s Country Meats bag for a new one. For many years, Leslie and I have bought pork from Nate and Lou Ann Robinson (owners of Jake’s Country Meats and seventh-generation pig farmers in Cassopolis, Mich.) at the Downers Grove farmers market and throughout the winter, too.

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Remember this from October 2016? The Jake’s bag served us well in the past 10 months.

As we began our vagabond journey last October, Leslie used our insulated Jake’s bag — which we formerly used to take our farmers market produce home — as the carrier for prescription meds and medical supplies. The bag made it easy to keep some medications cool, and it kept all our meds in one place. That’s good organization, but it also helps in security lines at airports. Plus, we’ve advertised for Jake’s Country Meats in six different countries  — seven if you count Scotland as a country, which it may be very soon.

But over the past 10 months, the Jake’s bag has suffered from over-use. It has been through 12 international airports and seven train stations as we made our way from O’Hare to Dublin to the U.K., through France to Spain, to Malta, to four cities in Mexico and back to Chicago. Leslie has repaired it with duct tape more than once and it has remained serviceable. But today, Nate presented us with a brand-new insulated Jake’s bag. Of course, we promptly used it for breakfast sausages, bratwurst and pork tenderloin! Nate raises pigs the way his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, did. We’ve been buying pork and other meats in grocery stores and meat markets, but have not found anything as good as what Nate sells.

Our friends Linda and Bill are putting us up for a few weeks at their beautiful home in Glen Ellyn, and last week Leslie introduced them to Nate and Lou Ann’s outstanding pork products. She cooked some smoked pork chops, which were a huge hit. This morning, Linda joined us at the farmers market to meet Nate, and once the bag replacement ceremony was over she decided she wanted our old bag, which Nate was just going to throw away. I always say recycling is better!

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Nate presents a new Jake’s bag to Leslie while Linda signs up for the Jake’s newsletter as Nate’s newest customer. See the duct tape on the old bag?

We have a lot of work to do before Year Two begins in September, and we need to connect with lots of folks while we’re in Chicagoland. Some of you have already heard from us regarding when and where to meet for lunch, dinner or drinks. If we haven’t gotten in touch yet, we will soon!

 

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!

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!