Two years ago Randall and Pat sold their Virginia home, banked the equity, and retired to a life on Social Security income alone. They pay $700 a month for a small cabin in a gated community on a lake and average $25 a day for everything else. They dine out often, hike, swim, watch movies, socialize, go boating, and crawl the local clubs for great live music. Both dress nicely, are educated, and well-spoken. Best of all, they’re as happy and carefree a couple as I’ve ever seen.
It’s no secret that my wife Kristi and I are on a quest to discover the best places for part-time expatriate living. Mexico is not the only place we’re looking but it’s certainly high on the list. The purpose of this trip was to explore towns in the interior of Mexico and consider them for future part-time residence.
We landed in Guadalajara on a bright Saturday afternoon. Our friendly Uber driver Ernesto, welcomed us to his town with terrible English while dodging dogs, tire parts, and dirty white Styrofoam blocks racing us in the gusts. The air was choked with dust, but it was too hot to raise the windows.
Guadalajara is the second largest city in Mexico, with 1.5 million people stuffed into a space less than a third the size of Albuquerque. Over 50,000 expatriates live here.
Our schedule included 4 days here. We lasted two.
Our lovely Airbnb was in Zona Centro – ground zero for ornate churches, historic buildings, fabulous restaurants, markets, and shops. We wore our tourist hats and shamelessly enjoyed all the city had to offer.
The first night took a turn. We collapsed into bed, drifting to sleep with our happy bellies full of chiles relleno and pollo con mole. At midnight our luscious dreams of contentment exploded in a tequila-fueled fury of a wedding reception on the veranda just two floors beneath our single-pane windows. Salsa music and cackling drunks kept us tossing until 4:30 am and we cursed every note and guffaw.
The morning came too soon but we vowed to suck it up and explore the city as best we could. We started with mass at the Templo Expiatorio del Santísimo Sacramento temple. It’s a strikingly beautiful and ornate neo-gothic Catholic church on the outside, but modestly adorned within.
Two markets, six shops, and three neo-something churches later, we arrived in Tlaquepaque for a late lunch and tour of the local artisan studios. This wonderfully colorful and eclectic town was a welcomed relief from the stark gray of the morning.
On our way back we hopped off the bus to explore another famous church, the Guadalajara Cathedral. An agitated crowd of people were surrounding the courtyard, and as we wiggled through them, we expected to see a troupe of acrobats or mariachis. Nope. It was a solitary man holding a large knife to his own throat while threatening the crowd with a dangerous sheet of floppy blue paper. The keystone cops chased him into the east door of the church while a torrent of souls exploded out the west.
We left the next morning, relieved to be away, but regretting that we hadn’t had a single heartfelt conversation with an expatriate.
The Lake Chapala region
One hour by bus from Guadalajara we found Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest freshwater lake. It is 50 miles long, 11 miles wide and straddles the border between the states of Jalisco and Michoacán. It lies high in the mountains, about a mile above sea level. More than a dozen communities and as many as 20,000 foreigners ring the mountain lake. Two of the villages are particularly well known to the expatriate community: Chapala and Ajijic – two sister towns separated by 5 miles.
The city of Chapala
After we settled into our hotel in Chapala, we walked the Malecon, astonished by the beauty of the lake and surrounding mountains. The waterfront was busy with activity. Tourists and locals alike marveled at the acrobats while tipping back Coca Colas and snacking on churros and tacos. Children licked the drips off their ice cream cones and kicked rubber balls while their parents watched from the shade. It was as heartwarming as a Norman Rockwell painting.
The afternoon grew stiflingly hot, and a seasonal deluge gave us the perfect excuse to slip into an open-air waterfront restaurant for beers, chips, and salsa. For two hours we chatted with the other English speaking rain-averse clientele, listening to their retirement stories, relocation decisions, and lakefront living adventures. A communal sense of satisfaction filled the air and I could hear the happiness in their voices.
Dinner at a nearby seafood house was delicious and as shockingly inexpensive as everything else in this town. We paid just $20 for two glasses of wine, a tender garlic-grilled octopus meal, and a delicate sea bass fillet.
At an adjacent table were Randall and Pat, the two expatriates I mentioned in the opening. We enjoyed a leisurely meal while trading stores of retirement experiences and soon-to-retire dreams.
The city of Ajijic
Ajijic was our destination the following day – just 5 miles and $5 away. It is a smaller town with an even stronger concentration of expatriates.
The waterfront is less developed and quieter, but very pleasant for a long stroll on the Malecon without the interruptions of tourists and vendors. The city is a grid of narrow streets with shops and homes intermixed. Construction is a constant, and the concussion of hammers and sledges is a reminder that this area is growing rapidly to accommodate the influx of new residents – both domestic and foreign.
We walked the grid, crisscrossing as we explored. Lunch was a simple taco meal in a traditional Mexican café. It seemed too early for beer, so when we stumbled upon a spa we decided to go inside for a little personal attention. After much coaxing, I agreed to a pedicure (my first ever) and it was awesome. Better yet, it cost just $10, which I’m told is quite a steal.
The main plaza of Ajijic is in the center of town and we were told it was a common gathering area for expatriates. So, we departed with our perfectly shaped toenails, and carefully navigated the rough cobblestone streets. Pedestrian traffic grew as we approached the center. The sounds of conversation sparked. Entering the square, we encountered a great swarm of friendly expatriates buzzing in conversation and nursing cool drinks.
We found the hive.
It was a mixed media mosaic of people. Tattoos, beards, and long hair were chatting with pressed preppy shorts, coifs, and facelifts. Languages were tossed about like confetti and the air was electric.
We chatted with many. They had two things in common: They were happy. And they were old. It felt as if we’d walked onto the stage of the movie Cocoon. People were vital and vibrant; active and enthusiastic. But old. Much older than we are.
A life I can afford
Life around the lake is enriching and diverse. We saw no judgement and no flaunting of class hierarchy. It was a relief to be in an environment that is missing the showmanship, subtle innuendo, and passive aggression that we see so often in our work-a-day lives. To be included in a community of people who are simple and humble is a priceless gift.
Life here is great, but what is the true cost of living?
We asked an elegantly dressed lady pinching a cigarette between her fingers how much it cost to live here, and she said:
“As much as you like”.
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The Mazatlan Post