Have you ever dreamed of living or retiring in Aruba? What could be better than smooth white sand beaches, fresh seafood, rum cocktails, and beautiful people? Well… maybe Mexico?
I’ve been to both – and now I know.
A casually clad bespectacled man holding a sign with my name welcomed us just outside customs. He never introduced himself, but for 20 minutes as we rode in the back of his spotless black sedan, he introduced us to his love of the island in perfect English.
“I’ve lived here all my life.” He said. “I’ll never live anywhere else.” He appeared to be about 50 years old and I asked him, tongue in cheek, where an Aruban would vacation to get away from the relentless tedium of 82 degrees, sunshine, and soft sand beaches. He just smiled.
Aruba is a tiny Caribbean island just north of Venezuela, famous for its blonde beaches, cactus forests, and wind-sculpted scrub. Upscale resorts dominate the lee of the island which is the primary roost of the common tourist. With the equator only 864 miles south, visitors enjoy 24-hour sun-kissed temperatures that are as pleasant as its people.
Mexico is eleven thousand times larger than Aruba…
My first visit to Mexico in 1978 is immortalized in A Mexico Love Affair. Since then, I’ve traveled to and through scores of different towns, beaches, and cities across the country. Compared to Aruba it’s a goliath – the 13th largest country in the world, with over 750,000 square miles of mountains, beaches, deserts, lakes, and jungles.
Mexico is rich in culture and diversity, and replete with poverty and despair. Some view it as a wonderland, others see it as a slum. Don Miguel Ruiz, a Mexican author and spiritualist, captured the sentiment in these simple words: “We only see what we want to see.”
Those who choose to see the wonderland will learn that Mexico’s riches are profound and rewarding. Over a million people have crossed the US border to retire in Mexico and enjoy the relaxed lifestyle, low cost of living, and generosity its people.
Seven retirement priorities
I’ve written a lot about retirement lately because we’re going there soon. My wife and I plan to split our time between the US – probably Seattle – and a less expensive locale that offers an extra scoop of sunshine. Mexico has been our default, but we’re eagerly exploring alternatives (thus the recent Aruba trip).
Since we’ve had the privilege of time to carefully consider our future, we have well-defined retirement priorities to use in a thoughtful comparison. Yours will almost certainly be different, but the discoveries and revelations below should help.
Thanks for joining us. Let me know what you think!
- Safety first!
The US State Department ranks all countries on safety and security factors using a scale of 1 to 4 (‘Normal’ to ‘Do Not Travel’). As of this writing the US and Canada are Level 1, Aruba is also Level 1, and Mexico is Level 2 (Increased Caution).
Given the size of Mexico, you’ll find areas that are L1 through L4. Be very careful in Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, and Michoacán. But enjoy yourself up and down the Baja Peninsula and throughout most of the states in the southern and eastern regions.
Be vigilant no matter where you are. Every region has good and bad areas. Even the safety of Aruba has been breached – recall the 2005 tragic murder of Natalie Holloway.
I’ve never felt threatened in Mexico, but I do recognize that Aruba has a stellar reputation of safety.
- Lower cost of living
Since our dream of early retirement relies on frugality, low-cost living is important for the months we’re away from our home base in the US.
The cost of living in most of the larger cities in Mexico are about 60% less than the cost of living in Seattle – a compelling financial advantage that supports our early retirement goals.
Aruba costs less too, but only a modest 10% to 20% less. If we decide to set down roots in Aruba for 4 to 6 months a year, the savings wouldn’t add up fast enough. We’d have to keep our jobs a couple of years longer.
- Ease of assimilation
If I had been blindfolded, sensory-deprived, and secretly smuggled into Aruba in the dead of night, it might have taken some time to determine I wasn’t still in the US. Arubans are required to learn four languages: Papiamento (their local dialect), Dutch, Spanish, and English. My admiration for these gregarious polyglots is immense and even more so for the fact that they were able to somehow detect my language before addressing me. Not once did an Aruban speak to me in a language other than English.
Mexicans speak Spanish of course, yet these days you’ll find English speakers in most of the cities you’d visit. While I can speak Spanish well enough to muddle my way around, I would feel more comfortable in Mexico with a better command. I would also feel a great sense of personal pride if I was more fluent.
There’s a fascinating ongoing debate about a foreigner’s obligation to assimilate. Should we be encouraged – or expected – to adopt the host country’s native language and settle deeply into the host culture? I plan to dedicate the effort regardless, but many will find it easier in Aruba.
- History & diversity
I remember crossing a busy street in Mexico City and walking past a dwarf, a Mayan, a tidy businessman, an African, and some loud European teens with multi-color paints on their bare chests. It sounds like a joke in need of a punchline, but its true. Mexico is a melting pot.
To me, the word ‘diversity’ describes interesting people, activities, and places. While Mexico offers an incomparable selection of ecosystems, wildlife, and indigenous history, Aruba’s diversity is the product of tourism and the attraction of abundant marine treasures.
Mexico boasts of eight different ecosystems and thousands of native wildlife species. Aruba has fish, lizards, rodents, cactuses, and beaches – among the finest I’m sure, but a scant collection nevertheless. Aruba was once declared ‘a useless island’ because of its absence of natural resources, but my recent visit was a fascinating journey of discovery that included hidden caves, sunken ships, talented kite-boarders, and an endless procession of interesting foreigners.
- Okay let’s talk beaches
Both countries lay rightful claim to some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, but Aruba’s beaches are the finest I’ve seen. Clean, white, and soft. The surf on the resort side is almost non-existent, and the sea is salty and buoyant – great for those who prefer easy access and gentle play.
Mexico’s beaches are vibrant and warm, with roiling surf and challenging currents in some places; calmer waters in others. It is the best of both worlds. Sadly though, the Caribbean side is seeing an unfortunate invasion of sargassum (seaweed-like blooms). They’re safe but unsightly. If you have the guts however, to dive beneath the floating drifts of sargassum you’ll discover eerie submerged shipwrecks and vast coral reefs teeming with colorful life.
- Food and drink
Other than seafood and iguanas, most everything consumed in Aruba is imported (yes they eat iguanas, and no I didn’t). The best restaurants are top notch, but in my brief experience, the average meal was just, well, average. Their desalinated drinking water however is clean, safe, and delicious.
The island is small but hosts over 300 restaurants with as broad an array of culinary variations as you’d expect in a much larger locale. My favorite was a small open-air breakfast nook called Diana’s Pancakes where they served Dutch-style thin pancakes topped with your choice of meats, fruits, cheeses, and of course whipped cream and Dutch syrup. They were absolutely delightful. Unfortunately, good steaks and fine wines were as elusive as the Caribbean Chupacabra.
Across Mexico I’ve eaten good and bad, frozen, and fresh, raw and cooked, unidentifiable and visually striking. I’ve eaten off street carts and silver platters. There’s no limit to the quality, quantity, or breadth of selection as one travels the country, and with 15,000 restaurants in Mexico City alone, your options are never-ending.
I remember one extraordinary dinner at a small inexpensive Mayan restaurant in Merida where I dined on mango-seasoned pork baked inside banana leaves. If I could ever find it again I would move in next door.
- Expatriate communities
Waiting in the customs line on our way home from Aruba, a gangly man of about 70, dressed all in white and carrying a rigid orange marine cooler, lamented his departure. He spends half of each year in a condo he bought 24 years ago. Between booming guffaws, he explained that non-citizens can only stay for 180 days so he splits his time with a second home in Michigan. “Never been anywhere else in the Caribbean.” He said. “I came here one year, fell in love and bought a condo.”
Expatriates are far less common in Aruba than Mexico because of higher costs and fewer activities. “We get together for barbeques and cocktails at each other’s homes.” He explained. “Beaches are great too, but it’s mostly socializing.”
It is estimated that over a million expatriates live in Mexico. Anyone can stay for 180 days on a tourist visa, and residency is fairly easy to acquire. I’ve lost track of the ‘expat paradises’ listed on the blogs I frequent – they’re everywhere. In my travels through Mexico I’ve met expats who were supertanker captains, veterans, foreign nationals, aristocrats, surfer dudes, and a colorful ski instructor named Chalky. The places, activities, and personas are endless and entertaining.
And the winner is…
Mexico wins by a nose – a big Roman aquiline nose. At least that’s my humble opinion. For me, the cost of living is a compelling advantage, as is the size and diversity of the country and people.
Retirement is a much greater commitment than a vacation. A few weeks or months in Aruba would be a bacchanalian orgy of beautiful beaches, pancakes, and rum. But I know that at some point I’d grow bored.
In Mexico, when I feel the twinge of complacency, I’ll pluck the beach umbrella up from the sand and explore the Mayan ruins in the jungle. Or stay with the silversmiths in a small mountain village. Or sample the unique cuisine of a new region.
I wish I was already there. Just a few more details, a few more dollars, and the adventure begins.
Hope I see you there!
By Brian Feutz at http://retirementtype.com/
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