I get a fair amount of mail wanting to know about expatriation to Mexico, whether it is a good idea, what it is like, and how to do it. I have consequently flung together the following to satisfy this curiosity. I hope it serves.
Mexico is a friendly, courteous, flavorful country. It appeals to the mildly adventurous who are tired of the uniformity, political correctness, conformism, blandness, and growing authoritarianism of America. Many of the political hostilities that tear at the US do not exist here. There is a sense of age, of having a past, in countless towns each with a distinctive church and different architecture. It is not a mass culture. Endless miles of undestroyed beaches line, for example, the Michoacán coast near here. Mexico costs less than the US. And, yes, you can probably afford the services of a maid. If you are a single man, you will find the women more agreeable and much more feminine than American, and frequently beautiful. What CBS thinks.
The political situation in Mexico is shaky with an uncertain future. Or maybe it is shaky–we have been hearing this for thirteen years, and so far nothing has shook. Corruption is rife. The narcos are as bad as you have heard and probably worse. This has no direct effect on expats as narcos have no interest in gringos, but it doesn’t add to the stability of the country. There are states where it is wisest not to go: probably nothing would happen but “probably” isn’t what most retirees want. The cops are crooks, and you will likely get hit for an occasional bribe. Many Mexicans, especially around concentrations of expats, try to swindle gringos, whom the lower classes believe to be rich. Traffic is bad and getting worse as the local population grows.
Important note: Mexico is not the mass of filthy, illiterate, lice-ridden thieves and child-molesters with bargain-basement IQs as painted by the political Right. Yes, kids go to school. Yes, they can read, and no, they don’t attack their teachers with switchblades. Maybe in LA, but not here. If you are on the cautious side, it might take you half an hour to convince yourself of this. Otherwise, fifteen minutes.
Mexico is, however, a different world. While some million Americans live here and like it, it is not for pampered people used to a consumerist society where everything works all the time. Electrical outages occasionally occur, usually for a few hours. Some people report low internet speeds. There are perfectly good roads but also perfectly awful ones. When there are fiestas, which there frequently are, skyrockets can sound like mortar barrages and bands can crank up at, or not shut down until, four a.m. Many Americans, especially women, expect Mexico to work like the United States. It doesn’t. Come for a couple of weeks. You may love it. You may not. (Google “hotels, Ajijic.”)
Above photo: an example of how Mexico is not the US: When a small town has a fiesta and brings in carnival rides for the kids, it has to put them somewhere. It’s a law of physics. Things have to be somewhere. They once put the Ferris wheel, above, in the street just outside my room, upper window left, in Italo’s hotel. (This was maybe nine years ago.) If this sort of thing outrages you, you need to be somewhere else. For a week my room flashed pink-and-yellow, pink-and-yellow as delighted kids in buckets sailed upward past my window. I saw them all go up, but not come down. I figured maybe God was storing them. It was like something out of Ionesco. Or Mexico. Not much difference.
You don’t need it around town as countless Mexicans have learned English, and most expats never learn. Sixty is not the best age for learning a language (two is), they are married and find it difficult to get consistent, sustained practice, and basically want to relax and enjoy life. There are worse ambitions. Spanish lessons are readily available, but tend to be a scam with unqualified teachers who just want the money. Good ones exist, and the payoff in independence and comfort is well worth the effort.
How much does it cost to live?
If you want a small, decent, unfancy apartment, internet, and occasional meals at restaurants, you can do it on a grand a month for daily expenses. I know people who do this. Two grand a month and you live well. Caveat: The exchange rate changes. When I wrote this it was about 12.5 pesos to the dollar, but is now about 20. It could go back.
Internet: Doesn’t have the speeds of advanced countries like Finland and South Korea, but adequate. Pricey: We now pay about $60 a month for telephone with unlimited calls to the US, internet, and ClaroVideo, which is like Netflix (which also is available).
Various foci of gringo expats exist in Mexico–Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast, San Miguel de Allende inland, an such. They are Googleable. We live, as do most of the expats hereabouts, on the north shore of Lake Chapala, the largest lake in Mexico. Lining the lake are the “mountains,” or what would be called hills elsewhere. From the lake shore to the hills is perhaps a walk of ten minutes.
Various towns line the shore, often merging into each other. At the west end of the lake is Jocotepec, very old-style and with a government that has never heard of street repair. At the east end is Chapala, much better managed, pretty, with a lovely malecón (a cement boardwalk) and all manner of restaurants and bars. Between Joco and Chapala is Ajijic, the center of gringo life.
If you want to see what the region looks like, here is Google Images for Ajijic. Also, Chapala. (Note the thick coating of filth, garbage, used condoms, plastic bags and dirty diapers that are not there: Again, so much of what you read about Mexico in the anti-immigrant sites isn’t true.)
Homes run from palaces to the merely functional. And, since Mexico is not yet a country of identical tract houses, it is hard to generalize. The Multiple Listing Service for my region gives an idea, but with some looking you can do better for less. Prices are negotiable. Mexican homes tend to look much better on the inside than on the outside, inside being where what we would call the yard often is. A friend’s place in a small gated courtyard, walking distance to pretty much everything, two bedrooms, 750 square feet, Internet and electricity included, $280 a month.
Not a posed photo. Many bars don’t mind if a customer brings along the pooch to curl up under a table or, well, see above. Some Americans–again, for whatever reason, almost always the women–get into an uproar over it. Why, it’s awful, what kind of country allows, why we would never do such a thing in Purdue.
All over the place. Bancomer, Santander, HSBC, Actinver, and so on. ATMs are common and work as they do anywhere.
In the immediate area, we have: A Wal-Mart, like any in the US. Soriana (a Mexicans Wal-Mart). A huge liquor store with anything you have ever heard of. El Torito and Superlake, selling American brands of food. Farmácia Guadalajara, standard American-style drugstore. Various hardware stores. Subway (sandwiches, not trains). Electronics store. And so on. In or near Guadalajara, Sam’s Club, Costco, Office Depot if you want American names, and pretty much anything you want to buy in the city’s stores.
Amazon ships to Mexico, not just books but most everything, and provides fast, reliable delivery by UPS. Or maybe it’s DHL Anyway, it gets here.
Guadalajara (click for photos) is a city of something like six million. It has what you would expect in such a metropolis. Great restaurants, awful traffic, a downtown with gorgeous churches and a cathedral, a lot of just-city that isn’t very interesting. Ticketmaster, Guad.
If you read Spanish, Guad has huge first-rate bookstores with everything from neurosurgery to Tom Clancy, Borges, Juan Rulfo, Hobbes, in general everything–in Spanish. If you don’t read Spanish, forget it.
Costco and probably dozens of others sell 72-inch smart televisions. To a close approximation, anything you can get on the Internet in the US, you can get here: Kindle books, iTunes, streaming this and streaming that. For television, StarChoice, Dish, DirectTV, or Sky, the South American satellite. (I think that is a correct list. Anyway, there is lots of television.) Sky, which we briefly had, though Latin offers most of the major English-language channels, and many of the Spanish channels are switchable or dubbed or subtitled. In Guad there are stores with sell approximately all movies–Kurosawa, Luis Estrada, Buñuel, Fellini etc. as well as pop stuff. If they don’t have it, they will order it.
Chapala, shot from near the lake shore.
Medical: This is complicated. The Wikipedia has a lengthy article on Mexican health care. The quick answer is that good care is available and lots cheaper than in the US. Guad has good hospitals: Puerta de Hierro and San Javier, for example. Dentistry is excellent and cheap. We go to Hector Haro (U. Guad dentistry, U. of Maryland grad work in prosthodontics), at the high end of cost. (A cleaning costs $33 from Haro at the current exchange rate, a crown $600.) He employs several female dentists, all good, all speaking English. Many others are available, often costing less, but we are content with Haro.
Paying for medical care is another question. Medicare does not work here by US law. Thank you, Washington. If you are an eligible military retiree, Tricare does work. There is also IMSS, Instituto Mexicano de Seguro Social, for which expats are eligible. A fair number of gringos without a lot of money rely on it. Medical care is cheap enough that many pay their medical bills for minor problems and fly to the US to use Medicare for anything expensive.
Herewwith an approximation. See Ajijic Law, below, for definitive information. At the current exchange rate, you need bank statements showing an income of just under $1300 a month or proven investments or savings of $206,000, to get a temporal visa (temporary residence). The Mexican government’s position is that you are welcome but Mexico is not going to support you.
The plaza of San Antonio, walking distance from Ajijic. Plazas, while all different, are standard in towns. The gazebo serves as bandstand for fiestas.
Relations with gringos
Excellent everywhere I have been for thirteen years. Under the surface there is the planet-wide resentment of Americans but it seems not to apply to individual Estadounidenses. The main proximate cause of disgust with us comes when Americans start telling the locals that they need to do this and need to change that and why don’t they do the other things, and it isn’t like this in Boise. It is their country. Those who don’t like it need to find another one.
Contrary to web mythology, the Mexican constitution (here) guarantees the right to own a gun for protection on one’s home. There are restrictions on caliber and types of weapon. In English, here. Generally speaking, the gun has to stay in your home. A friend of mine recently bought a thirty-eight from another person and registered it without difficulty with the army in Guad, which is required. The necessary form, here. Hunting weapons and those for use in shooting clubs are legal but restricted, as are carry permits.
Nursing homes and assisted living:
These are criminally expensive in the United States and often not very good. You can do better here. Try Lakeside Care. If interested, note on the right the link to the PBS segment on Lakeside Care.
Ajijic Law Immigration-law office, run by Adriana Perez Flores and Kevin Paulini. Both speak English.
Chapala Web Board Local expat site. You can register and ask questions.
Multiple Listing Service self-explanatory
The Lake Chapala Society in Ajijic serves as a social center for many expats. It has a remarkably good English library, the result of many decades of bequests. It also has some interesting people, for example high-end computer guys.
Them’s the basics.