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.

 

We’re close to the coast and vineyards

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Here we are on a Mediterranean beach in the town of Carnos. We got lost that afternoon, but it led to us having a fine lunch: mussels provencal with a nice rose wine. Yum!

While Montpellier is a little over six miles inland, it’s easy to reach some of the beach towns along the Mediterranean. Leslie and I have been to Carnos and Palavas-les-Flots.

Palavas is home to our new friends Patrick and Anne-Marie. We’re renting the Montpellier apartment from Anne-Marie, probably the most helpful host we’ve had in any of our Airbnb or VRBO experiences in seven countries. She invited us to come to Palavas for lunch, then we walked around this little beach town that’s a bit on the quirky side.

We were lucky to catch some of that quirkiness when we watched a joute, or water jousting match, late in the afternoon. It’s a traditional sport in the Languedoc region of France, dating back to the 17th century. It’s also practiced in other parts of France and Switzerland. Water jousting is done in boats, in this case on the canal that bisects downtown Palavas. Two teams fight it out, each with eight men rowing, one steering, two or three playing traditional music on oboes and drums, and one with lance and shield doing the jousting. Actually, each boat has five or six jousters sitting in the tail who alternate fighting. They don’t wear armor. All they have is white shirt and pants, a blue or red scarf, and a wooden shield.

There’s a page on water jousting on the Palavas tourist office’s website but they don’t offer it in English, so here’s the Google translation: “The knights of the sea perpetuate the tradition of medieval jousting. Red boat and blue boat, champions dressed in white and oboe sound, here are the Languedoc jousts. Perched on the ‘tintaine’ at the back of the boat, the jouster launches in hand targets the bulwark of his opponent and tries to make him fall. A powerful symbol of belonging to a community, the spirit and passion of games are transmitted from generation to generation.”

We were fascinated. Here are three short videos I shot with my phone. In the first two, you get a good look at the boats. The first video shows how far they row before the actual battle, and you get a look at the crowd, too. The second is from a different perspective. There is no winner in either clip. The third video I shot from a bridge looking straight down the canal. Even though it’s pretty far away, you can see the red boat wins. Anne-Marie said the blue boat was the Palavas team. She didn’t know where the other crew was from. Everybody cheered anyway.

We also “enjoyed” a Montpellier tradition a few nights ago — one that Anne-Marie warned us about. Féte de Musique is an annual one-night music festival that goes on until the wee hours. It’s all kinds of music played all over town. There was a big stage set up in the Place de Comédie, but we didn’t get down there. We didn’t have to. The restaurant next door had a huge party with loud, thumping electronic music until about 2 a.m. If that wasn’t enough, a drum corps came through our neighborhood about midnight. And thousands of mostly young people were dancing in the streets and having a good time until 4 or 5 a.m.

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A small portion of the crowd outside our window. The revelry went on pretty much all night.

We tasted wine at two more vineyards in the Pic Saint Loup area, which is about a 20- to 30-minute drive from Montpellier. Our guide, Bertrand (bear-TRAHND), explained the appellation, which is in the far north of the broader Languedoc region.  French rules about wine are extensive and detailed. Winemakers in Pic Saint Loup, for example, can grow whatever they like, but the “approved” grapes are syrah, grenache and mourvèdre. To put the coveted “Pic Saint Loup” designation on a label, the wine must be red or rosé and must be a blend of at least two of these three grapes. Vintners also grow cinsault and carignan, but these grapes cannot be more than 10 percent of a blend. They can produce any wines they like — a 100 percent syrah, for example, or a white. But the label must show it comes from the broader Languedoc appellation rather than the more prestigious Pic Saint Loup.

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Bertrand shows us mildew on some of the grape leaves as our new Swedish friends Bjorn and Lydia watch. In the background is Bertrand’s friend from the vineyard.

When Leslie and I arrived in Montpellier, it seemed to rain almost every afternoon. That’s a bit unusual and not good for grapes. As a consequence, as Bertrand explained, some of the area’s vineyards are now dealing with mildew on the vines. That’s not good, as you would expect. He spent a lot of time extolling the virtues of Pic Saint Loup wines, saying they are consistently rated as the best in Languedoc. “But I’m from here,” he admitted. “I grew up in Pic Saint Loup, So I think these wines are the best.” Even if he’s a bit biased, we agree. Wish we could taste them all, but there’s not enough time. Guess we’ll have to come back.

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This map shows where wine is produced in Languedoc. Pic Saint Loup is north of Montpellier.

Leslie and I are almost ready to move on, so it’s time to talk about how much it costs to live in this part of the world. More on that next time.

Bonne journée!

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You probably can’t find this in the U.S., but if you can — buy it! One of our favorites!

 

Learning how to live like the French

Apologies, all. I neglected to provide a pronunciation for this energetic city in which we’re living through the end of June. If you took any French classes in high school or college, you probably know Montpellier is pronounced: moan-pell-YEA.

Leslie and I are getting into the French lifestyle, and it has its advantages. Notably, the idea of joie de vivre (zwah-du-VEEV-ruh), or “joy of living.” Leslie has done a bit of research on this concept. It’s all about enjoying life, nature, good food, fine wine. Work is less important than having a leisurely meal with friends, and it’s fine if that’s a two-hour lunch. Actually, work is less important than just about everything, which is counter to the culture we left behind in the States and we like it a lot.

Through Airbnb, we have a nice one-bedroom apartment with a comfortable bed, a big-screen TV and a decent kitchen. The refrigerator, however, is quite small. Once at the nearby grocery store I commented on something that looked delicious. “There’s no room in the fridge,” Leslie responded. So I stopped suggesting. Anyway, she picks the food, I’m just the pack mule.

So we’re adjusting to how the French live. They visit the markets almost daily, buying food for tonight’s dinner and maybe tomorrow’s breakfast. But many shops are closed (or have limited hours) Sunday, and many restaurants are closed Sunday and Monday. You have to plan appropriately.

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A great assortment of olives at the market. One of the benefits of living near the Mediterranean.

And the markets are amazing. Across the street from our apartment is the Halles Castellane, an enclosed market that’s open daily with stalls for a variety of vendors: fruits and vegetables, meat and chicken, cheese, fresh fish, dried fruits, pastries, even wine. One produce vendor sells fresh-squeezed orange juice — 5.90 euros ($6.94 USD) for a liter. Expensive, but it’s the best OJ in town! There are a couple of cheese vendors, but we like Les Marie because the young woman who runs the stand speaks a little English and is helping us try different French cheeses, like comté and appenzeller. Leslie was over the moon when she found her all-time favorite roquefort — the real stuff.

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Strawberries, ripe all the way to the center. Yum!

The Marché des Arceaux, a short walk away, is an open-air market on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. It’s more like our favorite Saturday morning farmers market in Downers Grove — and just as crowded. You can buy almost anything here. In addition to fruits and vegetables, we got some gallettes (like a potato pancake — great lunch), some pâte de fruit (fruit candies), and a nice chunk of smoked ham with roasted vegetables. We also bought a bottle of wine and some olive oil from a woman who told us she grows the olives and presses the oil herself. Vendors set up their tents under the 18th-century aqueduct that once brought the city’s water 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) from the Saint-Clément spring to the water tower in Place Royale du Peyrou.

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Lots of people shop at the Tuesday and Saturday morning markets under the aqueduct.

We’ve also learned more about the wines made in Languedoc-Rousillion, which is an area of more than 700,000 acres under vines. It is the single biggest wine region in the world, producing more than a third of France’s total wine production. You can get Languedoc-Rousillion wines in the States (see our friend Sean at Hinsdale Wine Shop!) but Leslie and I are focusing on wineries near Montpellier — especially from Pic Saint Loup (a mountain about 15 minutes northeast of Montpellier). There’s a wine shop right around the corner from our place, Maison Regionale des Vins, where they speak a little English and are eager to help us find great local wines, many of which come from the Pic Saint Loup appellation.

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We enjoyed a glass of rose among the vines.

We spent a morning recently at Domaine Haut-Lirou, riding in a 4X4 with new friend Nicholas to see the vineyards and taste their wines. The vines are bright green and growing like crazy right now. There’s been a lot of rain lately, which is good. Most of the vines have already set fruit, and we could see the beginnings of grapes. Their wines are excellent. We came home with four bottles! We’re planning more wine tours over the next few weeks.

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Nicholas explained pruning and how important it is for the vines.

Finally, we’ve found an English-speaking non-denominational church. When I stumbled upon the website for International Chapel I thought most of the photos showed young people — college-age or slightly older. And highly diverse. Not many people that look like me or Leslie. It’s about a 15-minute walk from our place, so we went. Yep, mostly students and no old people. But this was one of the warmest, most outgoing congregations we’ve encountered yet. We met a couple with three kids from The Netherlands, here because of his job. We met a young woman from Papua who’s just wrapping up her Ph.D. We met a guy who grew up in Montpellier but is now married to a Chinese woman and they have a baby. Diverse? Yep again. Black, white, brown, yellow and mixtures of the above, from lots of different countries. It truly is an international church.

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There’s a lot of energy in this little non-denominational church, with young people from all over the world.

We talked extensively with Pastor John and his wife Robyn, who have been serving International Chapel for 14 years. Turns out John grew up in Hinsdale! The church is in a very small space on the ground floor of an apartment building just outside the historic district. Their services don’t include much liturgy. Just several songs, some prayer, a sermon and a closing song. We like the church, the people, and the energy. We’ll go back over the coming weeks.

Next time, I’ll tell you more about the history of Montpellier and about some of the places  Leslie and I have been able to visit — like the 13th-century Jewish ritual bath.

A bientôt!

 

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Red wine ages in French oak barrels. Haut-Lirou’s red wines are very nice!
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Some of Haut-Lirou’s vineyards. Nicholas told us that on clear mornings, he could sometimes see the Alps in the distance. Not today, unfortunately.

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!

 

UPDATE 4

Good news! Leslie saw her surgeon today (Thursday, Feb. 27) for a follow-up. He says she is “good to go.” Her recovery is actually a bit ahead of schedule, as he sees it. She’s really looking forward to a glass of wine with dinner tonight!

Now we can reschedule our Costa Rica trip and get this show back on the road. It’s just a matter of working with the airline to find a good date for heading south, and I will do that soon. We have accommodations lined up beginning March 10, so we’ll be shooting for something between now and March 9.

I’ll post when we have a departure date. Thanks again for your prayers!

 

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!