Trading “The Big Apple” for City Life In Oaxaca

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Margie Barclay was raised in the Midwest of America but always wanted to live the urbane life of a Manhattanite. She lived in the Big Apple for most of her life and was content to retire there with her partner of 40 years. Her life changed forever, though, when she visited Mexico and tasted city life in Oaxaca 15 years ago.

“We were already retired and living in New York City,” Barclay said. “but then my mother died in California and I had to handle the estate. I was very tired and a friend told me she was going to Oaxaca and invited me to come along because it was a healing place. I didn’t know how to spell it or know anything about it except that it was in Mexico. We came and immediately fell in love with it, both of us.”

Margie Barclay at home in Oaxaca, Mexico
Margie Barclay

Barclay, who is 76, was born in Evanston, Illinois and raised mainly in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her father was a corporate executive, so the family moved often as he moved up the corporate ladder. After graduating from high school, she headed east to attend Smith College, a prestigious liberal arts school in Northampton, Massachusetts.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 1964, she moved to Manhattan and got a job with the fashionable department store Bonwit Teller as a buyer before moving on to end her 15-year retail career with Montgomery Ward.

With more than a decade and a half working in retail, Barclay entered the world of non-profit organization management, serving as a fundraiser and executive with a series of non-profits, including CEC, which enabled artist exchanges between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

“We worked with poets to drummers to dancers at CEC,” she said. “We brought them over and placed them in arts organizations and sent American artists to various countries within the Soviet Union at that time.”

Along the way, she married and had two sons before divorcing and beginning a 40-year relationship with her second husband, Gil Colgate, who passed away a few years ago in Oaxaca.

After the couple’s initial visit to Oaxaca, they enrolled in a local Spanish school and returned every winter to study the language. Each year they extended their stay a bit longer until finally in 2007 they found a house that had been built by an American woman who was a quadriplegic and had designed the home to be wheelchair accessible.

“We were settled in New York, I was retired for over 10 years and in my 60s, and my husband was in his 70s,” she said. “We surprised ourselves because we never went to most places more than once, but we found that cute little house and moved to Oaxaca full time 11 years ago.”

Her Spanish-style home is about 2,000 sq. ft. with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. The couple purchased it fully furnished for US$300,000 in 2007. Its location is perfect for a city girl who doesn’t own a car, downtown Oaxaca near the historic center of the city.

Street in Oaxaca
Credit: Kobby_dagan | Bigstock

“To explain why Oaxaca is so enchanting for me,” she said, “I often quote the French philosopher John-Paul Sartre who said, ‘If you want to be comfortable, stay home.’ I like living in this place. It challenges me every day. We expats have a saying here, ‘Leave your whys at the border and take what comes to you and don’t ask why.’ Oaxaca is such a lovely culturally-rich city with incredible restaurants, art galleries and a classical music scene that has exploded in the past two years. I now have three classical concerts I can go to each week, from chamber music to orchestra, and all free!”

Oaxaca, with over a half million people, is the largest city in the state of Oaxaca and its capital. The city sits in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains at nearly a mile high, which provides a mild year-round climate. The Zapotec and Mixtec indigenous cultures and nearby archeological sites have helped make Oaxaca a major tourist city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The city is well known as a center for arts and handicrafts, including marvelous rugs and weavings based on ancient indigenous designs. Barclay has furnished her home with many works of art that were made locally.

“A young artist who lives just outside of town, Manuel Reyes, works with clay and does wonderful work,” Barclay said. “We purchased a bas relief of an orchestra that is just a delight. We walked into his studio and there it was. My husband asked ‘How much money did you bring? Have you got enough for a down payment?’ It was like deciding to move to Oaxaca. We decided it was just right.”

Oaxaca is also known as a dining destination in Mexico, attracting tourists from all over the country and the world.

“I have a son who owns a nice restaurant in Aspen, Colorado,” she said, “and he says Oaxaca is one of his favorite places to visit for restaurants. There are an incredible number of brilliant chefs who use local flavors and spices, including of course our famous moles. Oaxaca is known for its seven moles. Puebla has its black mole, which is made with chocolate, but we have red, yellow and several other moles that have at least 30 ingredients, from cloves to raisins to specific kinds of chiles. The name of one mole translates as ‘stains the table cloth’ mole.”

Margie Barclay and friends in Oaxaca, Mexico
Margie Barclay and Friends

Barclay told us that a tasting menu of 10 dishes in an expensive restaurant costs about US$50, but you can eat very well in most restaurants in Oaxaca for about four or five dollars per person.

When she shops for food, Barclay heads for her local organic market or health food store, a short walk from her home.

“I shop in local markets because I tend not to buy packaged goods,” she said. “They have a full range of delicious fruits and vegetables. In the winter during the orange season, a guy from Vera Cruz comes every day in his pickup truck and drives up and down the streets selling fresh oranges. My weekly grocery bill is about US$20.”

Barclay also loves the benign climate that comes with living at 5,100 ft. elevation in the southern latitudes.

“It’s more like a San Diego climate so we don’t need air conditioning or heating here,” she said. “The warmest month is May just before the summer rains arrive. It is usually in the 80s F then but often gets down to the 50s F at night.”

Although not a beach person, Barclay said the beautiful beaches of Oaxaca state are a six-hour drive or twenty-minute flight away.

“The government has been working on a new highway to the beach for the past 12 years,” she explained, “and said it will be finished in two years. We don’t believe it will ever be finished. I wouldn’t count on it if you’re thinking about coming to Oaxaca.”

You can, though, easily fly to many international destinations from Oaxaca International Airport. She said United has a direct flight to Houston, Texas and American Airlines will soon fly directly to Dallas, Texas. Most flights connect through Mexico City, about an hour and half flight.

Oaxaca has about 5,000 expats, Barclay said, mostly Americans and Canadians and some from a variety of other countries. Canadians are mostly snowbirds who come for the winter. She spends most of her time with the expat community but her near-fluency in Spanish also allows her to integrate well into the local community.

For healthcare, she has retained her U.S. Medicare as an emergency backup but mainly uses local doctors and hospitals.

“Healthcare in Oaxaca is excellent and very inexpensive,” she said. “I have an issue with glaucoma and sometimes I have elevated ocular pressure. I’m told that I am seeing one of the top five glaucoma specialists in Mexico. I see him every two months and it costs me just US$20 a visit.”

Trading the Manhattan lifestyle for urban living in Oaxaca seems to agree with Barclay. She loves learning something new each day, from new fruits and vegetables to new restaurants to local archeology and colonial architecture. The dynamic local cultural scene is a particular favorite. She also loves how inexpensive it is to live in such a wonderful place.

“Having a maid clean twice a week, having a handyman come once a month to do everything on my checklist and all of my utilities costs less than US$5,000 a year,” she said. “Many of the people living here have artistic backgrounds and live on social security payments quite nicely.”

Like the other expats living in Oaxaca, Barclay found her way home.

“Anyone who can spell Oaxaca and pronounce Oaxaca and knows where it is, which is a pretty small group, has found their way here. I’m glad I did.”