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MEXICO -- STILL A MECCA FOR EXPATS

Getting Along in Mexico
Guadalajara
Lake Chapala - Ajijic
San Miguel de Allende
Guanajuato
The Mexican Riviera
Mazatlan
Puerto Vallarta
Zihuatanejo
Manzanillo
Acapulco
Baja California
San Jose del Cabo

Despite earthquakes, economic collapses, drug wars and border fiascoes, Mexico remains the favorite expat haven for U.S. and Canadian citizens. Some of the reasons are obvious, some less so.

Above all, Mexico is colorful, whether you're looking at flora and fauna or architecture, furnishings and textiles. It has a rich history, and if we are to believe financial figures, a promising future.

Though nearby for many U.S. residents, Mexico is culturally a long way from its northern neighbor, as author Alan Riding spells out in Distant Neighbors. Mexicans are friendly but very private and even secretive, trustworthy but not trusting. As an outsider, you can make yourself understood with a little Spanish, yet you may never really understand Mexican people. This doesn't mean you shouldn't try.

Many North Americans live here comfortably and inexpensively. Although the expat lifestyle can include a very nice house and a maid on a modest income, one should not come here for the low prices alone. Many find a relaxed, tranquil existence, yet there are frustrations such as having to wait in line to pay bills and not trusting the mail... or the drinking water.

Getting Along in Mexico

The Mexican people are exceedingly proud with a great capacity for enjoying life. They are both formally polite and genuinely kind. Don't flaunt your wealth. Not only is this in bad taste, as in other parts of the world, it could make you a target for theft. Never say anything offensive about Mexico or Mexicans in general, and don't do anything that could be seen as flirting with anybody's spouse.

When you want something, begin with please or "por favor." People greet each other with "buenos dias," "buenas tardes" or "buenas noches." When introduced, say, "Mucho gusto," then say your name while shaking hands. Casual friends and colleagues shake hands upon meeting, and after inquiring about each others' health and families, they shake hands again. Good friends hug and pat each other on the back. Women friends kiss once on the cheek.

Mexicans don't like to say "no." Simply saying "gracias" or "thank you" may actually mean "no." Sometimes you'll think they mean "yes" when they're really hedging. Also, they are reluctant to say, "I don't know," with the result that you may get wrong directions.

People may arrive late for appointments, and guests aren't apt to leave when dinner is over. Everyone stays up late, even on work nights.

Many areas of Mexico have large numbers of U.S. and Canadian expats, who are a visible minority with their own culture, enclaves, organizations and churches. In Mexico's more populous expat havens, you can attend English and American plays and even choose from fairly well-stocked library of books in English, although people are increasingly relying on digital books. Need directions in English? Stand on any street corner in the center of town a few minutes and a gringo is sure to come along.

Guadalajara

At an altitude is 5,200 feet, the area has an almost ideal climate, with occasional days in the low 90s in May and June and perpetual spring the rest of the time. A city of over 4.5 million, it has been the administrative center of western Mexico since the 16th century and today is a cultural and industrial hub, with  booming high tech companies. It also offers cultural advantages and attractive residential areas. The University of Guadalajara has some 200,000 students.

Public transportation is quite good. Traffic moves here, but the air can be smoggy (it's worse in some areas of the city than in others.) You don't have to socialize with other expats; as in any large city, you can keep a low profile.

You'll find books in English and U.S. newspapers at the Benjamin Franklin Library at the American Consulate. You can also access the Benjamin Franklin Library in Mexico City with over 30,000 volumes.

Lake Chapala-Ajijic

After landing in Guadalajara, you can take a cab direct to this area, which is truly an expat enclave, about 35 miles from the city. Several towns border the lake with the mountains in the background.

Chapala is the business center. Housing ranges from palatial villas, some built for expats who came here in the early 1900s, to inexpensive rentals where recent arrivals on a tight budget can live.

Ajijic, several miles away, is a lakeside village with sloping cobblestone streets, small hotels and even ethnic restaurant. The Chapala Society in Ajijic has a library of books in English; its bulletin boards list classes, clubs and trips. and more. Those who thrive on the strong sense of community will feel at home here although it's not necessary to be a part of the social swing. On the hillsides are posh communities that could have been transplanted from California. Nearer to the village center, housing is more affordable.

San Miguel de Allende

Prerequisites for living here are a passion for the arts and strong ankles. Three and a half hours by bus from Mexico City or six hours from Guadalajara at an altitude of 6,100 feet, San Miguel is a colonial city built on hills, some rather steep, with narrow cobblestone streets. Most houses lie behind high fences with bougainvillea and other vines cascading over them. Look behind and you see lush gardens. The downtown area has quaint little shops and fine restaurants.

Guanajuato

This is an old colonial city and former mining center with a European ambience. Situated about an hour from San Miguel, its an hour closer to the international airport in Leon. A university town and the capital of the state of the same name, Guanajuato is where expats choose to live to get away from other gringoes. Here one sees far fewer foreigners and fewer poor people than in many other Mexican cities.

An important cultural center, with a population of about 120,000, the city hosts an annual festival honoring Cervantes, author of Don Quixote. Cobblestone streets wind past historic buildings and well-kept green plazas. The elegant Teatro Juarez, various museums, shops and tourist attractions sit in a deep canyon, and underneath the town are tunnels which offer shortcuts for traffic and much needed parking spaces as well. Lining the surrounding hillsides are houses painted pastel colors.

 

The Mexican Riviera

The Pacific coast of Mexico from Mazatlan to Acapulco is sometimes called the Mexican Riviera. To the north of Mazatlan, the Sea of Cortez cuts off breezes from the Pacific, creating a desert landscape. Mazatlan, just south of the Tropic of Cancer and east of the tip of Baja, has a near perfect climate most of the year. As one travels south, the climate is increasingly subtropical, that is, hotter and more humid. The coastal forests from Mazatlan to Puerto Vallarta are greener than those further south..

Mazatlan

Lying on a long, flat stretch of coast, Mazatlan is known as the least expensive of the beachfront cities. Although it attracts many visitors, it is a busy port where about half a million people live and work. Its just a two-day drive (735 miles) from the U.S. border at Nogales.

Like a number of other Latin American cities, it has an old town and a new area with high-rises, ocean front condos and tourist attractions. The older area has charming houses with wrought iron gates and balconies. It offers the conveniences of a medium-sized Mexican city with supermarkets, department stores and high quality, inexpensive medical facilities. Sharp Hospital has an excellent reputation, but store-front emergency facilities are to be avoided. Phone and internet access are good, and there are expat groups for those who want them.

For those who prefer modern facilities, there are luxurious timeshare complexes such as Pueblo Bonito Emerald Bay. Timeshare resorts typically have gourmet restaurants on-site as well as spas and large swimming pools, while the suites themselves offer private balconies, multiple bedrooms, whirlpool tubs and full kitchens. Many visitors prefer returning to timeshare properties year after year as an affordable alternative to owning a vacation home abroad.

Puerto Vallarta

Made famous by the film, Night of the Iguana, the city has maintained a connection with Hollywood ever since and even hosts a film festival. Vallarta, as everyone calls it, has grown from a sleepy fishing village to a resort city with a population of somewhere between 170,000 and 330,000, depending on which source you use. At least 5000 expats own property here.

The city is built on hills, wedged between the mountains and the sea. The bay is beautiful and is one of the cleanest in Mexico but the water isn't good for swimming. Although the atmosphere is touristy, there are old cobblestone streets and charming old houses. Summers are hot and humid, but winters are mild. However, hurricanes occasionally hit as do earthquakes.

Foreign residents here are younger and more affluent than in some expat havens, and are often involved in charitable and ecological organizations. There are at least two American schools and several golf courses. The phone lines are good, and direct flights to the U.S. leave from the airport north of town.

For those who prefer smaller towns, Melaque, San Patricio, Bucerias, Rincon de Guayabitos and Punta de Mita are nearby.

 

Zihuatanejo

This was another small fishing village until the Mexican government developed the resort at nearby Ixtapa, With about 70,000 people, Zihuatanejo is compact and easy to navigate although suburbs are spreading into the hills behind the town. Increasingly, tourists stop here as well as in Ixtapa, but fishing is still a part of the local economy. The town is about four hours from Acapulco by bus; you can take a cab from the Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo airport.

The late novelist Alice Adams wrote in her book Mexico, "The town of Zihuatanejo is on a large horseshoe-shaped bay, bounded at the horizon by large rocky promontories, from which feathery trees lean up and out to the sky. Small fishing boats move slowly across the water, out there in the shining distance, and occasionally...a huge cruise ship would anchor there...."

She went on to say, "...we drove up and out of town and onto a weedy, rocky cliff above the water, the brilliant, glimmering sea. Bougainvillea, all colors, flowed down that cliff, to the sand. We could see the beach and already, from that distance, I knew that I had begun to fall in love...."

Manzanillo

With about 80,000 people, this is a very Mexican beach town where crowds from Guadalajara visit on the weekends. The foreign community is quite small. Prices are reasonable for a beach community, which is also a port and an industrial city with resorts to the north of town. Communications are excellent. Surfing and sport fishing are good, too.

Acapulco

The famous resort with high rises lining the bay, has a population of about 1 million. The city rests against a background of mountains with lush tropical palm trees, coconut groves, mangos and bright colored flowers. People come for the warm winter weather. Summers are hot and wet with rain lasting through the hurricane season.

One hears French and English as well as Spanish. Nightlife is plentiful. (Some areas are noisy, parties go on all night). There are also golf courses, yachts and good scuba diving. Although known as a playground for the rich, the area offers every type of housing, including RV parks. Medical care is excellent.

Baja California

The Baja peninsula extends 1000 miles to the south from San Diego, California, to Cabo San Lucas, which is a ferry ride from Puerto Vallarta. The climate varies, depending on whether you face the Pacific or the Mexican mainland. The Pacific side has a dry Mediterranean climate with cool ocean breezes. The other side, separated from the mainland by the Sea of Cortez, has hot summers, but attracts expats from colder parts of North America during the winter. With some exceptions, costs are higher in Baja than on the mainland.

Ensenada

Just a short drive from San Diego, Ensenada has grown from a small fishing village to a bustling city in the last few decades. The population is around 195,000 with about 15,000 foreigners, including some who commute to jobs in San Diego and others who come for the weekend. Good restaurants abound as does night life with mariachi bands. Activities include fishing, diving and whale watching.

The climate here is ideal with no need for air conditioning in the summer, and an electrical heater suffices for the coldest days. To the south of the city are small communities of travel trailers and motor homes.

La Paz

With a population of over 155,000, La Paz is the largest city and capital of in Baja Sur. The climate from here to the tip of Baja,137 miles away, is very comfortable. The per capita income is among the highest in Mexico. The city is a cultural center with a university, a theater and a number of museums. The gateway to the Sea of Cortez and the surrounding islands, It has several marinas and boatyards Activities include fishing, wind surfing, kayaking and scuba diving.

The area has ample facilities for camping and RVs. Although it is a popular destination for tourists and snowbirds, many expats choose to live here year round and the gringo community numbers about 4500. Health care is perhaps the best in all of Baja.

 

Todos Santos and Pescadero

An artist colony of a few thousand people halfway between La Paz and Cabo San Lucas, Todos Santos and Pescadero have, some say, the best climate in Baja California with a landscape much greener than the surrounding desert. The cultural life includes open air concerts in the plaza, seasonal art and food fairs, a reggae fest and more. Surfing is good here in the summer. As in other areas away from large cities, food is available in small markets and medical care is limited.

San Jose del Cabo

San Jose del Cabo is a peaceful and pretty colonial town of about 23,000, including many expats. It's just 20 miles form the resort of Cabo San Lucas with its busy marinas, sportfishing and high-end hotels and, fortunately, an international airport.

Resources For Mexico


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