Over a year ago I made one of the biggest decisions of my life to sell my car, donate my belongings and move to a brand new country with new traditions, new climate, different language and somewhat of a misunderstood culture especially in US media.
It wasn’t a light decision and I first entertained the idea of moving south over 4 years ago, but only made the final decision in September, 2015.
When I was considering moving I was looking for three main things;
1. Warm weather 2.Lower cost of living 3. Good timezone for camming
I lived in Europe for a brief period and working from 12am-8am every night was really hard on my body. I was not able to function properly, barely saw any daylight and just knew my geographic region was basically any country south of Canada that fit those three criteria.
I was mainly deciding between Costa Rica and Mexico since they both offered the good weather and were perceived to be low cost destinations. To my surprise Costa Rica was not as low cost, in fact real estate was more expensive than most Canadian cities and you got the same amenities that you would get in a developing country. There were built up areas in San Jose but paying $3000 a month for a rental was not my idea of saving money since I was paying $1000 in Canada renting a similar place.
So next option was Mexico… I had previously traveled to different parts of Mexico such as the Mayan Riviera, Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara and the third one appealed the most. The other two places by the coast were too humid and the infiltration of tourism had made them really not that affordable.
Prices of homes in Cancun and Playa del Carmen seemed really inflated… $200,000 and upwards for a condo and $500,000 for a house with a decent lot ( we aren’t talking acres here just enough to not be a cookie cutter house). Sounded like it was a better deal to move to a southern US state. Because of tourism, dining out and entertainment was also more expensive. Walking through the airport of Cancun I felt like they saw me as a walking wallet and did not have any respect or manners when dealing with you in securing a taxi. I paid close to $100 USD for a two way ride to my hotel that was 10 min from the airport. The best part was that they never showed up to pick me up and I had to pay another overpriced taxi my hotel called for me so I wouldn’t miss my flight. I think the east coast is fun to go once in a while for a change of scenery but the over the top tourist feel and the humidity and heat was not my cup of tea. I would recommend this location if you are looking for great turquoise beaches with white sand and all inclusive resorts that can be quite good and affordable if you do some research.
Puerto Vallarta and the surrounding area seemed like a tuned down version of Cancun/Playa. Located on the west coast of Mexico, it’s visited by many world travelers every year although it’s not as popular as the East Coast.
The airport is located right in the city and you can walk out if you like. The area is pretty built up with golf courses, a marina with expensive homes, a few all inclusive hotels and at the end there’s the old town which they also call the zona Romantica. The weather was still hot and humid but not as unbearable as in Cancun. Real estate and dining out were still at tourist prices and almost all sales and home rentals were in US dollars. I would still class this area a bit cheaper than the east coast. Puerto Vallarta was growing on me but I still wanted to see more options of what Mexico had to offer so I took my next trip to Guadalajara which is in the same state as Puerto Vallarta (Jalisco).
Guadalajara is the second biggest city in Mexico, behind Mexico City. It is well known for beautiful colonial architecture, art and mariachi. Hmm now this place is sounding quite Mexican, however it is also the home of major tech companies and you can also find commercial centers that make you think you are in any major metropolitan like New York, Toronto or London. However it is not a major tourist attraction among foreigners and it caters to mostly Mexican visitors or foreigners visiting for business purposes. This could also mean that if you want to come here you may need to brush up your Spanish skills because not everyone you see will speak to you in English, although a lot still do speak English it’s not as common as the coastal places I mentioned above.
My first impression when I stepped at the airport… My body doesn’t feel like it’s in a sauna… wow ok this not so bad. There was only one taxi booth which had fares in Mexican pesos and to my surprise they were very affordable to what I had seen in the other airports. It was around $20 for a 1h taxi ride. Beats the $100 dollars for a 10 min ride I got in Cancun.
As much as I liked the idea of having all the amenities of a big city, the traffic which is the most horrible I have seen in the world, after Mexico city killed the idea of moving there, so I decided to stay rural which offered affordable real estate, lots of space and privacy with less neighbors around you. There was one catch… INTERNET… I had two providers one of them being Telmex which only provided 5mb download and 0.5 mb upload. Yuck! I got around this by purchasing phone data which does get quite expensive. The other drawback was that because I am in such a rural place life can be really boring at times and finding people that have things in common with you that can keep up with my work schedule are almost none. But I still like living in the country and my 4 dogs keep me happy and entertained most of the time.
Things I noticed during my first year here:
There is this perception generally portrayed by US media that one should not go to Mexico or they will get robbed, mugged and killed. Of course this things happen here but they also happen in the US, Canada and in any part of the world. The truth is that in most cases the shootings and killings are done by drug cartels trying to eliminate their competition aka other drug cartels. If you are not selling or buying drugs chances are no one will bother you. Some people are afraid they will get attention because they look “white”. Well let me tell you; I have seen ginger Mexicans, tall blonde with Nordic features and some that look very European. Mexico is mixed nationalities so you will get all looks here. If you use common sense such as not getting plastered at 3 am and then going to look for drugs chances are you are okay. Also use common sense and don’t offend the locals. I saw a drunk American in Puerto Vallarta that kept shouting really derogatory terms about Mexicans and although nothing happened to him and I was really impressed how the bartender didn’t just kick him out, you really don’t want to piss off the wrong guy here so be polite and treat people with kindness.
It is true that there is a lot of poverty in Mexico so it’s common to have high walls surrounding your property, electric fences, metal bars on your windows. Even the poor Mexicans do this and it’s just how it is here. If you have no fence or bars people take it as an invite to come and take your stuff.
As a young gringa (term for foreigner) I have not had any issues with safety and I have traveled to many Mexican cities on my own. As long as you use common sense and don’t go hitchhiking (yes it has been done) or drive where there’s known cartel activity you will be fine. Remember Mexico is a huge place. Think of it as; If there is a major shooting in Detroit, should you be afraid to fly let’s say Alaska which has nothing to do with Detroit.
2. Major Culture Change
One may thing the hardest challenge would be not knowing the language. This hasn’t been the case for me and despite coming here with zero Spanish I was able to conversate after 3 months (i’m not fluent mind you), also it helps that a lot of people speak English and well… there’s a thing called a phone and google translate. You type what you need to say on your phone and show it to the person. The things I had to get used to were more in attitude than communication.
This means tomorrow. Mexico is the land of mañana… Almost everyone is really laid back in Mexico. If you ask a contractor how long a job will take they will say 3 weeks but what they really mean is 6 months, maybe even one year. If you are waiting on a delivery and they say it will arrive tomorrow, be prepared than tomorrow may mean the day after tomorrow, or it could also mean next month or never, and they will not call you to let you know that they absolutely wasted your time. If you need to pay a telephone bill or electricity bill be prepared for the office to close after waiting in line for 1h or more telling you they are open mañana. Sometimes the simplest tasks in Mexico that can be done at the click of a button in the western world would take hours, days, weeks. Even if you shop in big department stores like Walmart, it will take the cashier 20 min to ask someone for change for each customer and she will just stand there until someone other staff comes along looking bored and unapologetic. 20 min to pay for 2 small items when there’s only two people in line; more people… be prepared to WAIT…
Not everyone is like this and I have met people that were on time and delivered what they promised but I had to go through a lot of bad apples to know those people.
The cost of food is surprisingly low but in contrary to the western world, in Mexico it’s almost impossible to find any large variety of frozen food or semi prepared stuff in supermarkets that is also healthy. If you happen to find it be prepared to pay double of what you would pay in the US because that’s “imported luxury” even if you are looking for just a can of beans. Anything that is not made here you pay for it through the roof. On the other side Mexicans take pride in cooking everything from scratch and buying fresh veggies and meat is also very affordable. If you are a busy working person that barely has any time to eat this could be a problem. But you can fix that by dining out which is also really affordable compared to what we pay in the US or Canada.
You can eat authentic local tacos or tortas (a local sandwich here) for 50 cents each. You usually need 4 of those to fill you up so you just had your main meal for $2.00. USD. If you want to add a beer to that that’s another 1$ or it can be less depending on where you go. If you buy the beer at the convenience store is only a few cents. If one is bored of tacos there are other options of Mediterranean Style, Steak houses, Bar and Grills which can be quite good especially if you live in a metropolitan area or close to foreign retirement areas because they tend to want variety. However I would like to warn you… careful when you try sushi… In most cases it will be a Mexicanised version of what they think it’s sushi with a lot of overboiled rice and a LOT of cheese. My experience with Mexican cuisine is that they love cheese, greasy sauces and spices, so they will give you jalapeno to eat with your sushi.
If you decide to not eat Mexican but want to experience a good steak house or a nice roasted chicken, a full rack of ribs or a great succulent burger there are plenty of options here that vary from $5-$15 per dish in a really upscale place. Hygiene has never been a problem in restaurants and you can ask to drink non bottled water with ice. They have to filter the water by law and no restaurant owner wants to kill their customers so during all the travels I have done in Mexico I have never gotten sick from the water.
One thing I have found really really bizarre is that it’s impossible to find Tex Mex style nachos served with sour cream, salsa and vegetables. The equivalent here is a soggy mass of maybe 5 deep fried tortillas with boiled water and A LOT of cheese. No veggies at all, no sour cream and the salsa is different to what I was used to in Canada. I think they may have this in Cancun or even Puerto Vallarta but hard to find in Guadalajara.
Mexico is still a developing country with a lot of poor people and not a lot of them are educated about proper care for an animal. Most of them let their dogs to roam around free which means they can be exposed to being run over by cars, a lot of them eat garbage and just mate with other dogs to contribute to the world wide issue of stray dogs. Living in a rural area, it’s quite easy to see this on a daily basis. There are some non for profit shelters/ volunteer vets that will offer to spay or neuter dogs for free for poor families but most of them either don’t really know about it, or just don’t think about it as a problem because they will just throw the puppies on the street anyway.
However I have been overwhelmed by how many Mexicans are also dog lovers and how many of them have also homed street dogs or dogs from shelters and given them the proper vet care, food and shelter. A neighbor close to my vacation rental in Puerto Vallarta had homed 10 street dogs he found roaming in the streets looking for garbage. One of them was still quite sick but they all seemed happy and knew he cared about them. Another Mexican woman that worked as a massage therapist had also homed two street dogs that she found at almost starving conditions. Maybe I have been lucky but I have never noticed any street dog be aggressive towards humans. I also haven’t seen a lot of direct human abuse like throwing rocks at them or hurting the dogs on purpose, the major issue seems to be neglect. With that said any street dog I have met seemed to be loving any human attention you give them. They always seem eager to please. However they are not so kind to other dogs and two of my female dogs had to be taken to the vet multiple times until they finally learned to live in peace. They haven’t been fighting anymore and I hope it never happens again.
I have been really pleasantly surprised by the quality and cost of the Mexican healthcare so far. It can take from 10-30 min wait to see a doctor that will examine you and explain everything about what you have. They also have offered me their number and email if I needed anything or if I had any problems with my medications. I have never seen that in Canada both the attitude and the waiting period. They also speak excellent English as most of them were trained in US or European Universes. The cost of a visit is $12.00 USD. If you need a specialist it can go up. I paid $30.00 to see a specialist. If you need specialized care there are top of the line hospitals in Guadalajara that offer more extensive services. The cost of medication is also really affordable in comparison to what I used to pay in Canada for the same things. Hospitals also take US insurance plans and there are plans you can buy locally here but I have no experience with this as the cost to pay out of pocket is really minimal.
– This one really really SUCKS especially if you drive to bigger places like Guadajajara. I would not dare drive in Mexico City because it’s supposed to be much worse than Guadajajara. I grew up in Southern Europe and I thought I had seen some aggressive driving. This is much worse because you often have to deal with pedestrians that walk across (no I didn’t say run) a major highway when there’s a pedestrian bridge on top of it for them to cross. Ain’t nobody got time for stairs, let’s just be in a rush to die instead because we are too lazy to go up a few flights of stairs. The worse part is that they do this with small children as well.
- “I cannot afford to have lights on my car, or get it insured, or even afford to get a drivers licence or know anything about how to drive, but fuck it… I will drive anyway on major highways” No one stops these sorts of vehicles because they have no money to bribe police. But having a GPS on your dash is considered illegal and you may get fined for it.
The emergency lights!!!!! In the west we use indicators when we plan to turn so the other person behind us will know what we are doing so they don’t crash into us. Indicators have no use in Mexico and a very small percentage of drivers use them. If someone wants to do something they will turn their emergency lights on and they may stop abruptly in the middle of the road, maybe make a fast turn, maybe switch lanes or maybe do nothing at all.
Making a U turn to find a location on the other side of the road in HIGH SPEED highways. Normally I am used to using a ramp to enter a highway but here although they exist they are not as common.
- Road paint. Ha… imagine a major highway designed to have two lanes, now there is no paint to guide you and you have maybe 5 lanes of cars all racing each other to get to where they need to as fast as they can, combine that with a faulty GPS that is confused about where you are going and really shitty road signs to guide you where you are going. If you happen to drive at night, you wont see any paint to know where the border of the road is because they used the shittiest quality that washes off in 2 weeks.
- If you are found in an accident you go to jail if someone is hurt, even if you are the non guilty part and you happen to be hurt. I heard of a case of an old man going to jail with broken ribs because they needed 3 days to sort out of the case of who’s fault it was even if it’s visibly obvious who was at fault it’s the LAW they need to take you. There is no food or water in jail or any basic hygiene and you will have one cell with people and feces right in the corner. If you want food and water you have to have a family member bring it. This promotes a lot of hit and run cases or people just pay the police a bribe to not record the incident, although they were not the part that was at fault. Personally I think this is the most shocking law I have ever heard of and if you are visiting here I recommend to not rent a car. Taxis are inexpensive and there’s also Uber in major cities which is even cheaper than taxis.
Cohetes and noise
Cohetes are loud fireworks that their only purpose is to make noise. They sound like a cannon is blowing. As far as I know the origin of this started when the indigenous people used to use drums to make noise so they would get closer to their gods. When the colonization period began, cohetes replaced drums and ironically are used a lot by people close to catholic churches. If you ever stay anywhere in Mexico do NOT stay close to a Catholic church, no matter how pretty the neighborhood looks. It will blow your ear drums starting at 4am in the morning. It may last 10 min or hours.
- Noise is much more tolerable in Mexican culture… When I had construction done to my house, the workers would bring really loud speakers with the bass turned all the way up. Combine this with the fact that I was working till 3 am in the morning and went to bed at 5 am and the workers get there at 7 am with their stereos and hammering. This is not just a worker thing. You will often see cars install concert type speakers that when they drive around it shakes the walls of your house (not an exaggeration). No police will pull these cars over either. Also do not live near a bar or nightclub even if it’s a few blocks away. They will have speakers outside that will shake your house and the entire block of homes in your neighborhood. There is no such thing as insulation here and no club is asked to make their location sound proof. As bad as this sounds if you pick a house that is not close to a church, a major road or a town center you will be fine.
- There are a lot of gated communities that offer the illusion of safety and less noise. Some of them are less noisy than the mixed class Mexican neighborhoods but you still hear of break ins despite them having a “guard” to ID people coming in. Also not all home owners pay their monthly fees for the amenities which can create problems. Some of them are quite nice and quiet but just because something looks nice in Mexico it’s not necessarily better.
Despite the good and bad things I have seen so far about my new country I still think I made a good decision to move here. No place in the world is perfect, but at the end of the day I can tolerate the negatives and appreciate the positives it gives me. And as long as the positives are more than the negatives I can make this place my home.
A lot of people have asked me questions about where to travel in Mexico that is still safe. I am not a expert tour guide but here are a few on my list
Yukatan Peninsula, Puerto Vallarta and surrounding towns, Manzanillo, Guadalajara (just don’t stay in the east side, although Tlaquepaque is an exception to the rule), Town of Tequila, Lake Chapala (it has a high number of foreign expats ), San Miguel D’Allende (a lot of expats too but much more expensive and colder in the winter, still a nice place to see), Guanajuato, Puebla and so many more places to see.