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.

 

Looking at options in San Diego County

In the last post, I said one part of the plan for San Diego was to spend the holidays with our daughter Stephanie. Another part was to continue being warm — or at least warmer than we would be if we were still in the Chicago area. So far, so good.

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One of the upsides to living in California. Great wines!

It was over 80° F. on Thanksgiving Day here in San Diego. Leslie and I enjoyed a great Thanksgiving dinner with Stephanie. The list of things we’re thankful for begins with Steph. Being here in San Diego to share the holidays with her ranks right up there. And leftovers, of course. I’m always thankful for leftovers!

We got the festivities started a little early. On Nov. 18 (the Saturday before Thanksgiving), we enjoyed a “Friendsgiving” celebration with Stephanie and more than 40 of her closest friends. The hosts provided a roast turkey and a turducken. All the women brought a side dish and all the men brought two bottles of wine. There was a lot of great food, and a lot of wine! Leslie made her famous home-made cranberry sauce (way better than that gelatin stuff out of a can) and Stephanie made some amazing mashed potatoes. The party was on the rooftop of a condo building where one of Steph’s friends lives. Long walk for us — almost a whole block from where we’re living now.

Plans for Christmas Day haven’t been formalized yet, but we had dinner with Stephanie last weekend and helped her put up her Christmas tree. In keeping with tradition, we watched the 2003 Will Ferrell movie “Elf.”

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A small part of the crowd at “Friendsgiving.” We were the second- and third-oldest at the party. One other set of parents was there: David (he’s 70) and Patty, a neat couple we enjoyed meeting.

This week Leslie and I have been going to a number of communities in and near San Diego to see if maybe we could live here. We still plan to live outside the U.S., but San Diego has always been “Plan B.” There may come a time when we would need to be closer to Stephanie — driving distance rather than a potentially long flight.

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There’s a Farmers Market every Saturday morning, year-round, in the Little Italy neighborhood of San Diego. Lots more than just fruits and vegetables: hummus, sauces, jellies, bread, cheese, you name it.

So far we have visited places as close as North Park, La Mesa and El Cajon, as well as farther-flung haunts such as Carlsbad, Temecula and Poway. We also drove through the coastal villages of Solana Beach and Encinitas, both of which are very similar to Carlsbad. And we have a few other places to check out.

The leading candidates appear to be Carlsbad (a quaint beach town) and Temecula (inland, lots of wineries). It’s jarring, though, to look at tiny apartments — two-bedrooms, about 850 square feet — that would cost us three, four, even five times as much as a nice furnished home or condo would in Mexico.

And so far, all the independent senior housing we’ve seen has been at a very high price and includes three meals a day in the facility dining room. We’re not interested in that — not yet, anyway. We want to cook most of our own meals. If you’ve tasted Leslie’s cooking, you understand.

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One of the desserts we enjoyed at Friendsgiving. Couldn’t resist including this! Leslie says the turkey is made of fondant, a type of decorative icing for cakes.

UPDATE: We’ve been struggling with where to go after San Diego. The original plan was to spend some time in Costa Rica before heading back to Europe to check out France and Italy. But we couldn’t seem to find appropriate housing in our preferred area of Costa Rica, the Central Valley. The other problem was how to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, which is Feb. 6, 2018.

We always try to be flexible, so here’s the new plan: A Panama Canal cruise for late January and early February. That would allow us to see a bit of Costa Rica, as well as some of Panama and Colombia. It would also get us from the west coast to the east coast while crossing the Panama Canal transit off both our bucket lists!

Getting to the east coast (Florida) sets us up to take a repositioning cruise to Europe (up to four weeks). That should make for a nice vacation — like the one we did last year in the U.K. — and it’s a little less expensive than airfare. Plus it gets us to Europe in spring when the temperatures are more amenable. Yes, we’re still leaning toward Mexico for our retirement home, but we need to give Europe another shot.

More on that later. I leave you with photos of Stephanie’s cats, Louis and Piper. They’re both Maine Coons, which is the third most popular breed in the U.S. right now.

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This is Louis. He’s the senior cat in the house.
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This is Piper. Her markings are really dramatic.

Low cost of living is a big plus for Ajijic

Monday, Oct. 16, was Leslie’s birthday. We celebrated at one of the top-rated restaurants in town — Ajijic Tango. Varied menu, but the Argentine steaks are stars of the show. We had the filet mignon for two — 26 ounces of mesquite-grilled beef, medium rare. We each had half a baked potato and a glass of red wine. We finished off by having two cups of descafeinado (decaf coffee) and splitting a piece of flourless chocolate cake. Total bill with tip was 664 pesos — $35 USD!

Lest you think we made pigs of ourselves with that huge chunk of beef, we did a para llevar (doggy bag) on at least half of it. We had steak on our salads at lunch the next day, and steak-and-eggs for breakfast another morning.

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It tasted as good as it looks!

That’s just one indicator of the Lakeside cost of living. Eating out is so inexpensive we often pay cash, especially at lunch.

I got a haircut a few weeks ago. I recall paying 200 pesos in Playa del Carmen. At Joe’s Barber Shop, just down the street, the haircut was only 80 pesos. With a tip, I paid a little over $5 USD. Leslie found a good place for a pedicure, which was only 160 pesos. That’s less than $9 USD. She’s gone back twice for other things.

Groceries, as usual, come from several different places — just like back in the U.S. One favorite spot is Super Lake, known for having lots of items popular with Americans and Canadians but with prices a bit higher than other stores. They have the best selection of gluten-free items. From our receipts, prices in USD:

  • Silk almond milk, 947 ml, $2.23.
  • Orowheat bread, $2.30.
  • President unsalted butter, 200g, $2.99.
  • Schar gluten-free bread, $5.47.
  • Filippo Berrio olive oil, 750ml, $6.79.
  • Pasta, gluten-free, 1 lb., $6.55.
  • One dozen brown eggs, $1.83.

Closer to home is Supermercado El Torito. We were told, “That’s where the Mexicans shop. The gringos shop at Super Lake.” One reason the locals shop at El Torito: lower prices, especially on meats. The grocery selection is not as good as Super Lake or Wal-Mart, but we saw a number of gringos shopping there. We got 1.82 pounds of ground beef at El Torito for $5.25, and two pounds of chicken breasts was about the same.

Tony’s is the best carneceria in our area. For example:

  • About a pound of ground beef, $2.78.
  • Nearly two pounds of chicken breasts, $4.26.
  • Just over a pound of smoked bacon, $3.50
  • A one-pound pork tenderloin, $2.35.

All our fruits and vegetables come from the Wednesday morning tianguis, where the real savings is. You’ll see lots of locals as well as ex-pats.

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These folks always have fresh produce.

We have no idea what individual items cost at our favorite vendor. We put everything into a round plastic bin, they weigh everything individually and we pay the total price. Last week it was 180 pesos, roughly $10 USD, and we got:

  • Eight carrots.
  • One head green-leaf lettuce.
  • Four medium tomatoes.
  • One bunch cilantro.
  • Three white potatoes.
  • Two sweet potatoes.
  • One medium red onion.
  • Two small heads broccoli.
  • One poblano pepper.
  • One-half pound (approx.) green beans.
  • Five large portabella mushrooms.

At a different vendor, we got eight pints of fresh locally grown blackberries, raspberries and strawberries for 170 pesos, or $8.95. And to make my special pico de gallo, I got three medium jalapeños for 5 pesos, roughly 25 cents.

Shopping at the local markets saves money, as you can see. But it’s also a social event. We’re starting to see people we know at both the Tuesday morning organic market and the Wednesday morning tianguis. The organic market is great for home-made hummus, specialty chorizos, nuts, free-range eggs and chicken, and prepared foods such as tamales and tortilla español. It’s a little more expensive than the tianguis.

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Unlike the tianguis, the Tuesday morning organic market is inside a large “eventos,” a hall where people often have large parties. Lots of great stuff here.

Let’s leave food now, I’m getting hungry while typing. The other big expenditure, no matter where you live, is housing. This area, like most we’ve encountered in our travels, has a wide range of available housing for sale and for rent. You can easily buy a nice home here for under $200,000 (all prices are USD), but if you want to be up the hill and have a lake view, that will cost closer to $350,000. Rentals range from less than $500 a month to well over $2,000. The good news for us is that there are rentals with views of the lake that fit our budget.

And unlike other places we’ve lived, Leslie and I have seen a number of homes here. Some on the market and some owned by new friends who’ve been showing us around. Most of the real estate companies have a free home tour once a week. We went on an Ajijic Real Estate tour of five homes. Two were in Racquet Club, a gated community in the San Juan Cosalá neighborhood. They were $269,000 and $349,000. The lower level of the more expensive one could be closed off and rented as a casita, so there was income potential. We also saw a nice 2/2 slightly closer to Ajijic for just $187,000, but the view was not as good.

On our way home from the tianguis one Wednesday, Leslie and I spotted an “open house” sign, so we wandered in. It was a new 3/2.5 in a gated compound. Dwight, the agent on duty, said the price had been reduced to $249,000. It was nice, but the only lake view was from the mirador on the third level. Many Lakeside homes have this feature. It’s usually a small area above the roof where the view is good and you can enjoy a glass of wine and watch the sunset. But in this condo, the mirador was a huge terrace complete with wet bar. You could have a party for 100 people easily!

Prices tend to be lower in the town of Chapala and other surrounding communities, but we prefer Ajijic. Here’s a sampling of what’s on the market right now, all in Ajijic:

  • A 2/2.5 in West Ajijic with lake and mountain views from the mirador. $117,500.
  • A 2/2 with casita (which makes it a 3/3, technically) in Upper Ajijic (north of the carretera, where homes are generally newer. Big yard and view of Lake Chapala. $212,000.
  • A 4/4 in tony Raquet Club on a double lot with a private pool, mirador and casita. $639,000.
  • And for the high rollers, there’s this one in Upper Chula Vista. Stunning, and only $850,000. Unfortunately, it just sold.

If Leslie and I were to choose this area, we would definitely rent for at least a year, and if that works out we would most likely try to find a place with a three- to five-year lease option. The rental market is good right now, but lots of gringos are coming to Lakeside, so prices may go up.

Rents vary by area and whether or not there’s a lake view. We know someone who’s renting a 2/2 just off the main road in San Antonio Tlayacapan for $350/mo. It’s small and not in a subdivision, but it has a gated carport and a nice mirador. You can also find luxury properties on the hillside that rent for $2,500/mo. or more. Other possibilities include:

  • A 3/2.5 in Upper Ajijic (north of the main road) with a small view of the lake. $700/mo.
  • A 3/2 in San Antonio Tlayacapan close to Wal-Mart and other shopping, but no views. $950/mo.
  • A 2/2 with study in Los Sabinos. No lake view but great outdoor space. Taxes, HOA fees, utilities and gardener included. $1,500/mo.
  • A 2/2 in Puerta Arroyo with lake and mountain views, a nice lawn, great patio, and a jacuzzi. $1,750/mo.

All that stacks up well with the other Mexican cities we’ve lived in, and in some ways Lake Chapala costs are slightly lower. Of course, it’s all less expensive than living in Chicago’s western suburbs.

Last post from Mexico coming up soon!

Hasta luego!

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It’s best to get to the tianguis early. I took this a little after noon, and the crowds have already thinned out.

 

 

Thoughts on our ‘halftime’ in Chicago

OK, I didn’t tell you the whole truth. I said Leslie and I would be in the Chicago area for several weeks this summer to see our doctors and visit friends and family. But I left out another big reason: The Chicago Air & Water Show.

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Fran and Rick watch the Blue Angels.

Leslie’s sister Laura and our brother-in-law Paul have a condo on the 51st floor of a Chicago high-rise with stunning views of Lake Michigan. Since buying this place, they have hosted an annual party for a group of friends to watch the “air” portion of the Air & Water Show, and it’s a fantastic viewpoint. That’s where we were Saturday (Aug. 19), seeing old friends and enjoying a great Chicago event.

The U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels precision flying team was the headline act. They’re always exciting to watch. There were other precision flying teams and acrobatic pilot performances, some using biplanes and aircraft from World War II. The Army’s Golden Knights parachute team impressed the crowds, as did the Navy’s Leap Frogs. There were flybys from military aircraft like the KC-135 tanker and the F-22 Raptor, the U.S. Air Force’s top-of-the-line stealth fighter. One highlight of the day was watching the F-22 jet fly in formation with a P-51 Mustang, a piston-engine WWII-era fighter plane. It’s incredible how aircraft designed and built more than 60 years apart can fly together. (For more on the amazing F-22, see this article from Popular Mechanics.)

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Ken (left), Fran, Tom and Peter watch the Heritage Flight. The tower on the right is Aqua, which houses condos and a hotel.

Here’s a You Tube video someone shot from Wrigleyville. It includes the Blue Angels and the F-22/P-51 Heritage Flight. It runs about eight minutes and the perspective is different than what we saw from just south of the Chicago River, but it gives you an idea of how exciting this show is. Next year, we’ll see the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds perform.

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Enjoying the balcony view are Kirsten and Peter (nearest camera), and Fran and Rick. 

We go every year to see the show, but also to see friends and catch up. Laura had a great spread of food out, as usual, including a spiral-cut ham, potato salad, bean salad, watermelon salad and other nibbles. And wine, of course. There’s always wine. This year, Leslie and I were able to share our favorite wines from Malta, one red and one white, with our friends thanks to a shipment from Meridiana Wine Estate.

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Ken liked both Maltese wines, but he really liked an expensive bottle of Spanish wine I laid in for about five years as a special treat for this group. “I don’t want to sound flowery,” he said, “but the bouquet is intoxicating.” 

Most seemed to like the chardonnay “Isis” a little better than the merlot “Nexus.” (Meridiana names their wines after Phoenician gods because the Phoenicians were the first to settle on Malta.) Leslie and I think Isis is one of the best chardonnays we’ve tasted.

After the Air Show party, I joined Leslie and Laura for a concert in Millennium Park — part of the Grant Park Music Festival. We’ve enjoyed this festival for many years, and I was glad we got to this free concert. It was the last GPMF concert of the summer. The festival’s orchestra and chorus outdid themselves with a terrific rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Enjoy this brief clip, shot with my iPhone:

Some other thoughts on being in the States:

  • Last week, I took a train into downtown Chicago — as I did nearly every day for almost 15 years — to have lunch with a former co-worker. As I walked down Adams Street toward the restaurant, I noticed that I was walking on the shadier side of the street. Six months in sunny Mexico can change your perspective!
  • We have enjoyed seeing family and friends, and eating at old favorite establishments.
  • Leslie and I both have clean bills of health from our physicians so far. We have a few more to go, including some of those wonderful diagnostic tests doctors like to perform on people our age!
  • And we both look A LOT better now that we’ve gotten good haircuts. Thank you, Traci!

We leave for Ajijic, Mexico, on Sept. 14. I hope to post again before we leave.

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Some of the crowd in front of us on The Great Lawn at Millennium Park, with a view to the stage of the Jay Pritzer Pavilion. I staked out a spot early, so we got pretty close. Concert-goers pay for the seats but the Great Lawn is free. 
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The rest of the crowd, behind us. The Grant Park Music Festival is very popular. It’s fun to check out the food other people bring. There are some great dinners out there.

 

How does Puerta Vallarta stack up?

Before the main event (and because there are not a lot of pics this time), here’s a photo I thought I had posted before but realize now that I never put it up for all to see. John and Anne Mixen came to Puerto Vallarta for a well-deserved vacation just a few days after we arrived here on March 1.

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We met John and Anne for drinks and watched an amazing sunset.

After a number of emails and texts, we met our old Naperville friends for drinks at the Lighthouse and dinner at Victor’s in the marina, followed by great conversation on the patio of our temporary home. It was great to see them again and catch up.

Now let’s talk pesos and dollars. Any consideration of where to live in retirement includes the cost of living. That’s a big factor in our decision, along with climate and a few other things. So let’s take a look at what it costs to live here in Puerto Vallarta.

We shop for food in several places, just like we did back in the States. The two major Mexican supermarkets are Soriana and Comercial Mexicana. Here’s a taste of what it costs to shop in an American-style supermercado (all numbers have been converted to U.S. measurement, and prices are in dollars at today’s exchange rate):

  • Lavazza coffee, 12 oz., $8.00
  • rice, 26.5 oz., $1.23
  • Colgate toothpaste, 4.6 oz., $2.04
  • oatmeal, 2.2 lbs, $1.07
  • gala apples, 23.8 oz., $.68
  • sliced deli ham, 17.6 oz., $5.39
  • olive oil, 25.4 oz., $5.28
  • gluten-free pasta, 12 oz., $2.61
  • loaf of 12-grain bread, $2.01
  • dozen eggs, $1.21

In San Miguel de Allende, and in Alicante, Spain, we shopped for fresh fruits and vegetabels at the mercado where the locals go. Puerto Vallarta is big city, so there isn’t one central market. We go to El Mercado Palmar de Aramara. It’s a neighborhood market, and we see lots of locals there. Here’s what we got this week:

  • pineapple (gold), $.69
  • carrots, 24.7 oz., $.48
  • red onion, $.59
  • raisins, 35.27 oz., $3.20
  • cauliflower, 35.27 oz., $1.09
  • white onions, 46.56 oz., $.45
  • cucumbers, 22.57 oz., $.93
  • Italian zucchini, 41.62 oz., $1.33
  • radishes, 35.27 oz., $.80

Obviously, we try to get fresh produce at the mercado whenever possible, but we have to take a bus or a taxi because it’s too far to walk. The bus is $15 pesos for both of us to ride. That’s less than a dollar US.

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Mexican buses are not much to look at, but they get us where we need to go. There are no routes, as such. You just look at the front window as the bus approaches. If you want to go to Centro, for example, hop on this one! And do you see the speed bump? Mexico LOVES speed bumps! They’re everywhere!

Taking a taxi is usually about $70 or $80 pesos, which is less than five dollars US. Transportation is not a big expense here in PV, but if we lived here permanently we would definitely need a car.

We usually have breakfast and lunch at home, as well as the evening meal most nights. Dinner out is always fun because there are a lot of excellent restaurants in PV, especially in the marina. We found a great place in the marina for seafood, Las Palomas Doradas. On our first visit, Leslie had mahi-mahi Veracruz style and I had — OK, I don’t remember what I had, but we both had a glass of wine and the bill was $38.25 US. On our second visit, we both had shrimp dinners with wine and paid less than $50 US. Plus, since it was a repeat visit, we got dessert free. There’s also a great Argentine restaurant, Rincon de Buenos Aires, where we both had steak with red wine and paid $57.85 US.

Is there expensive food too? Yes, we’ve had lunch twice at a gourmet burger spot, where Leslie had a glass of wine and I tried some Mexican craft beers. That ran us about $30 US, but the burgers are really good! And we have reservations next weekend at Puerto Vallarta’s top-rated restaurant (according to Trip Advisor), Tintoque, where we will celebrate daughter Stephanie’s birthday! That will be more on a par with high-end restaurants in the Chicago area. I’ll let you know.

There seems to be a lot of property on the market at any given time, which you would expect in a place like PV. There are also a lot of real estate agents, including some expats who prey on serve other expats. So I checked a reputable place, Coldwell Banker. Just so you know, CB on Main Street in Downers Grove has the best real estate agent in the Chicago suburbs, Slav Polinski. Slav, you should come down here! Anyway, the CB office in Marina Vallarta has a range of properties. These are some of the condos available (single-family homes are generally a bit higher):

  • A 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bath in the Marina Golf complex for just $175,000. Overlooks the marina and the mountains.
  • A 1,732-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bath in the Porto Fino complex for $395,000. It’s beachfront, on the seventh floor near the elevator, with views of the Bay of Banderas.
  • And just for comparison, a 4,000-square-foot, two-bedroom, three-bath penthouse in luxurious Bay View Grand for a mere $1.1 million. Two terraces, bars inside and outside, and a private pool. Here’s the listing, in case you want to dream a bit.

The Romantic Zone is another popular area of Puerto Vallarta. It’s in the centro, the older part of PV, and you can find homes with a little more Mexican character here. Just looking at the Coldwell Banker website, there are two-bedroom condos from $155,000 US up to $1.2 million US. For $599,000, you buy a two-bedroom, two-bath overlooking Los Muertos Beach, and it’s a penthouse with amazing ocean and beach views, plus a BBQ grill.

And that’s just from one agency, and just looking at their website. There are many other options. (Google “Puerto Vallarta real estate” if you’re interested.) Real estate here in PV is all over the map, literally and figuratively. For vacation rentals, the same thing. There are nice properties for rent under $1,000 US a month, and there are some ocean-front penthouses that rent for that same price, but per week!

In general, we think prices might be a little better in San Miguel or some of the other places we’ve visited. But we’re not done yet! At the end of April we head for the next destination, Mérida, capital of the state of Yucatan. More on that later.

Let’s close with a look at that sunset we enjoyed with our friends back in March. This is a regular occurrence here on Mexico’s Pacific coast.

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Sunset as seen from El Faro, The Lighthouse in Marina Vallarta. We have a pretty good view from the patio of our condo, too!

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!

 

 

 

Different Parts of Malta, Part Two

In the last post I forgot to say Leslie and I had a great Christmas with our daughter, Stephanie. We enjoyed Christmas Eve dinner in our house and went to church Sunday at St. Andrews, where we sang carols and heard an excellent message from Pastor Kim Hurst.

After the service, we feasted on Christmas dinner with about 40 people from the church and the community. There were people from the U.S., the U.K., Ireland, Australia, Libya, Egypt, Nigeria and Malta, of course. Maybe a few others. We didn’t get to talk to everyone.

Our new friends Franklin and Judy cooked turkey and dressing with lots of potatoes and vegetables. Since they are Canadian, Judy called it, “a traditional North American Christmas dinner.” Here we are:img_1297

 

Now, Part Two of our private guided tours of Malta, conducted by Victoria, who did a great job. In the last post I detailed our visits to the Blue Grotto, two of the island’s megalithic temples and Casa Bernard. But there’s more!

We had  a “Taste of Malta” experience that started with some Maltese coffee and traditional pastries. Didn’t like the coffee. It has anise in it, and I don’t like that flavor. Leslie liked it, but not enough to make it at home. The pastries, on the other hand, were very nice. We each had something different, and we also tried traditional nougat treats. For lunch, we dined at Diar Il-Bniet in the town of Dingli, a restaurant featuring food from a nearby farm. We asked Victoria about the menu and she said, “Everything they serve is food that Maltese people prepare at home.” Baked macaroni with minced beef, beef marrows, beef olive with Maltese sausage, and cauliflower lasagne. Probably the best meal we have had in quite some time. Maltese food is very flavorful!

But we did more than eat. We also walked through the walled city of Mdina, founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th Century and Malta’s capital until medieval times. Only a few hundred people live within the walls, mostly members of Malta’s noble class.

The biggest attraction in Mdina is St. Paul’s Cathedral. Originally built in the 12th and 13th Centuries, the cathedral was severely damaged in a rare earthquake in 1693. It was rebuilt in the Baroque style we see today. img_1400

The Apostle Paul was shipwrecked on Malta while being taken to Rome to stand trial before Cesar, his right as a Roman citizen (see Acts 21-26 for the whole story). The cathedral is dedicated to him, and most of the art is about Paul, including a beautiful frescoe above and just behind the altar depicting the shipwreck.

St. Paul’s Cathedral is known for its Christmas “crib,” what we in the U.S. would call a nativity scene. Only this one is massive. There are so many people and animals in this crib that it’s hard to even find Mary and Joseph! It’s probably 12 to 15 feet across. This is a Maltese tradition. Many of the faithful have cribs in their homes, or in a display case right beside their front doors.

Here’s the cathedral’s crib — shepherds on the left, angels descending from Heaven:img_1410

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the close-up (below) you can barely see Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Look near the center, then see the Magi just to the right of the baby:img_1411

We left the cathedral to visit the Mdina Glass factory, which is actually in the village of Ta’ Qali. Each piece the company sells is hand-made. We watched glassmakers working, effortlessly creating items like the ones on display in the shop. Leslie and Stephanie both contributed to the economy of Malta!

If you want to know more about the art they produce, click on the link in the previous paragraph.

Finally we visited Meridiana Wine Estate, also in Ta’ Qali, where we got a tour of the winery and did some tasting. This winery, and its vineyards, are on land that was a British airfield during World War II (see photo, below). Vines were planted and the winery built in the 1980s. Click the link above to learn more.img_1426

Leslie and I had tried some Meridiana wine at a wine shop in Valletta a few weeks earlier. We were surprised at how good Maltese wines are. Meridiana is our favorite, but there are other excellent wines here.

Our good friend Sean Chaudry at Hinsdale Wine Shop really needs to try and score some of their Isis Chardonnay. It’s one of the best chardonnays I have ever tasted, but I doubt it’s available to distributors in the States. Sean, your next trip should be to Malta! You won’t regret it. img_1423

This photo (left) shows Leslie and Stephanie in the barrel room. We descended a tightly wound spiral staircase into the cellar and learned how their wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged in French oak barrels, like these.

All their wines are named after Phoenician gods, such as the goddess Isis, previously mentioned. I know what you’re thinking — Isis was an Egyptian goddess! Well, it seems folks here on Malta think she was a Phoencian goddess first, and the Egyptians borrowed her. Either way, the wine named for her is stunning. Crisp and citrusy. Great with Maltese seafood.

Steph bought a few bottles, some red and some white, to ship home to San Diego. Leslie and I got a few bottles for ourselves because the winery price was lower than the Valletta wine shop price.

Since we don’t have a rental car, these tours gave Leslie and me a great chance to see more of Malta. And it was super entertainment for Steph. We all learned a lot.

But then it was time to say goodbye to our beautiful daughter. She took a very early morning flight to  London on Dec. 29, and arrived safely — much to the delight of her two cats, Louis and Piper. Fortunately there was no hijacking this time!

Leslie and I plan to celebrate New Year’s Eve by attending The President’s New Year Concert by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. Then we will watch the fireworks. We haven’t decided where to go yet; there are several possibilities. We may join the crowds in Valletta’s St. George’s Square or watch from Upper Barrakka Gardens, near the underground bunkers where the Allies planned the Mediterranean campaign in World War II. Or, if it’s too cold, we may head back home to watch the fireworks from the Three Cities side of The Grand Harbour. We’ll let you know.

Happy New Year!

Merry Christmas from Malta!

We had a little excitement today. As Leslie and I prepared for our daughter Stephanie’s arrival for Christmas, we heard about a hijacked airplane that had landed at the Malta International Airport. There was a possible hostage situation and the airport was closed. It turned out to be a Libyan airliner, hijacked while on a domestic route. Apparently this was a political act by supporters of the former dictator. It was not terrorism, and no one was killed or injured. The good news is, Stephanie’s flight from London Heathrow was only about 15 minutes late.

So she arrived safely and will be with us for a few days to celebrate Christmas. Leslie has a lot planned — we’re doing a walking tour of Valletta, the capital city, and a wine tasting, among other things. Maltese wines are very good — we’re trying to sample as many as we can!

Christmas Day we plan to worship at St.Andrew’s Church in Valletta, then join our new friends in the congregation for Christmas dinner. img_1273Our Canadian friends Franklin and Judy are preparing traditional turkey and dressing with all the trimmings. This is a fun group, so it should be a great Christmas. So far we’ve met people from Canada, Egypt, Nigeria, the U.K. and the U.S. Quite an international group.

Here’s a look at the sanctuary (right). I think the building dates to the early 1800s.

There are Christmas decorations all over this island. The city of Mdina is known for works of art in blown glass. Just inside the city gates of Valletta, in front of the Parliament building, stands a Christmas tree made of Mdina glass balls — big ones, little ones, all kinds of sizes. It’s quite festive, and about 30 feet tall. Timg_1288here are also lots of nativity scenes around Malta, some done by churches, some by businesses, some in front of private homes.

I saw an article — can’t remember where — in which Malta was touted as one of the best places in the world to spend Christmas. Makes sense, since better than 90 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Nobody here says “Happy Holidays”!

Stephanie heads back home to San Diego after Christmas, but Leslie and I plan to celebrate New Year’s Eve here. Instead of joining the crowd in the square on Republic Street at midnight, though, we will be at the Mediterranean Conference Center for the President’s New Year Concert, featuring the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. There are a couple of other concerts in the first two weeks of the new year that we hope to attend.

We’re here until Jan. 16, then we have to leave Europe because we don’t have the visa necessary to stay longer than 90 days. I explained the Schengen Agreement in an earlier post. It just means we will be heading to Mexico next, to the mountain town of San Miguel de Allende. More on that later, too.

It will be sad to leave our new neighbors here in Malta, though, especially our new best friends who live here, on these tiny boats, just across the harbor from us:img_1279

The one on the left is bigger than our house in Westmont was!

The boats on our side of the harbor are a lot smaller. We were chagrined, however, to learn that the American Dream is not dead, it’s for sale:img_1275

Merry Christmas!

The good life in sunny Spain

Today, Leslie enjoyed getting a pedicure at a nail salon here in Alicante. We found this place online, then stopped by yesterday afternoon and made the appointment. You should understand that she really liked getting her toes done at Karma in our former hometown of Westmont, Ill. So going to someone else, especially someone who  does not speak English, was a big question mark. I think Leslie has a new favorite nail tech! They managed to communicate just fine, and the pedicure was slightly less than at Karma, just 25 euros.

We’re trying to be like locals, so Leslie is cooking our main meal at midday, which for Spain is around 2 p.m. We have a big dinner, what we would call “lunch,” between 2 and 3 p.m., with a glass of red wine. Then we enjoy siesta until 5 or 6 p.m. Sometimes that’s an actual nap, sometimes it’s reading a book, or taking a walk or working on a blog. Many shops close between 2 or 3 p.m. and 5 or 6 p.m., then reopen until 8 or 9 p.m. Siesta is very civilized. Here’s one of those midday meals, a favorite of mine and one of Leslie’s amazing creations: Spanish steak baroness, along with a 2012 crianza from Protos winery in the Ribera del Duero region of Spain.img_1189

OK, the selfie’s not that great, but the meal was incredible!

Most Spaniards have their evening meal as late as 9 or 10 p.m. Something light like tapas. I’ve been making dinner salads for us almost every evening, usually about 7: 30 or 8 p.m. That was our lunch back in the States. Having a light meal before bedtime is, we think, healthier.

We usually dine at home, but some evenings we go out for tapas and a glass of sangria. And a few times we’ve had the midday meal at a restaurant, taking advantage of the menu del dia. For a fixed price, often less than 10 euros per person, you get an appetizer or soup, entree, wine and dessert.

We’re buying food at a couple of different places, but the most interesting is Central Mercado on Avenida Alfonso X El Sabio. Built in 1911-12, it’s a cavernous old building with  modernist architecture and tilework. Seems like hundreds of vendors on two floors, selling fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, cheese, etc. Like the Downers Grove farmers’ market on steroids, but indoors and all year ’round. Prices are even better than the farmers’ market, too. And if we don’t know the Spanish name of something we just point to the item and ask, “Como se dice esta en Espanol?” This morning, Leslie pointed to the broccoli and asked that question. “Broccoli,” the vendor smiled. Sometimes it’s easy.

Another great thing about this part of the world: We’ve been here a little over two weeks now and have not used heat or air conditioning in the apartment. Most days, the windows are open. It’s been a little cool the past few evenings, but most it’s usually at least  22 degrees in the afternoon, and the coolest overnight so far has been 10 degrees. Remember, they use the Celsius scale in Europe so that would be a high of 70-plus and a low of 50. And very little rain.

One more month here in Spain,  then we move on to the island nation of Malta for another month. We’ve heard lots of good things about Malta, and can’t wait to check it out. The original plan was to go to France or Italy next. But even southern France is a bit chilly this time of year. And our preferred location in Italy, the Amalfi Coast, was a logistical nightmare. So we opted for Malta and we’re still hopeful our daughter Stephanie will be able to join us for Christmas.

On Jan. 15, we must leave the Schengen Zone. Options include hanging out for three months in the UK, Ireland or Croatia, or something more exotic such as Cyprus or Israel, then back to Europe proper. The current Plan A, though, is to come back to the New World, probably to Montevideo,Uruguay, where it is now summer!

That could change, though.We’ll keep you posted.