“What I’ve seen from keeping in touch as well as I can is that what I find so typical in Mexican culture is the helpfulness of the people to each other. I think, at this point, that is the highest good and the highest we can hope for, which is to be of help and use to each other wherever we are.“
Here is a companion post with more about my personal view of living and traveling in Mexico, my posts about what it takes to be a successful expat, and the logistics of expat retiree life in Mexico.
If you want to explore expat retiree life in Mexico, check out my workshop on living and traveling in Mexico.
Choosing the Right Place to Retire in Mexico
8 Reasons to Retire in Mexico
Half of all Americans and Canadians who move abroad for lifestyle changes end up in Mexico, and who can blame them? Mexico:
- Is close to the United States and Canada. The Yucatan and Baja California, Mexico’s farthest extreme, are no more than five hours away from almost any place in the US and Canada.
- Has a climate for nearly every taste. The Lake Chapala region has some of the best weather in the world; the Yucatan only has three days a year when the low dips below ten degrees centigrade (Fifty degrees Fahrenheit)
- Encompasses diverse and dramatic landscapes and wildlife ranging from some of the world’s most stunning tropical beaches and jungles anywhere to deserts with cactuses found nowhere else on Earth
- Contains some of the world’s warmest, friendliest, and most charming and kind people.
- Possesses one of the richest culinary cultures on Earth by mixing exotic ingredients (look for squash blossoms in the fall) and terrific sauces (I am endlessly amazed at the variety of Mexican Mole sauces) artistic presentation.
- Has one of the world’s richest cultures and folkways, including a fascinating mixture of Indigenous and European traditions (try to spend some time in Mexico during the Day of the Dead on November 2 and the Posadas leading up to Christmas).
Plus, there is always so much to see in Mexico, such as:
- Fantastic Mesoamerican ruins. Palenque, a temple complex ensconced amid a Chiapecan jungle, and the ornately decorated Uxmal in the Yucatan are among my top 25 favorite sights worldwide.
- Stunning colonial towns (Guanajuato, Querétaro, Oaxaca, San Cristobal de las Casas, and last but not least, my new hometown, Mérida, are my favorites),
- Incredible biodiversity. Mexico is the second country in the world in ecosystems and 4th in overall species.
- Mexico City is one of the world’s top ten cities in an almost imaginable category, including museums, cultural life, restaurants, and nightlife.
Expat Retiree Communities in Mexico
Most expat retirees who move to Mexico congregate in a few places that I call “expat havens”: Puerto Vallarta, Lake Chapala, San Miguel de Allende, and the Southern tip of Baja California (from La Paz to Cabo San Lucas), and Northern Baja between Tijuana and Ensenada. Most Americans in these communities want to enjoy the pace and style of Mexico and the comforts of home.
There are also vital small American enclaves – which I call locally-oriented expat centers– throughout the country in places like Cuernavaca, Morelia, Mazatlan, Riviera Maya, Guanajuato, the Valle de Bravo, and my favorite, Mérida, and the nearby Gulf coastal communities like Progreso, Chelem, and Chuburna. Most of these communities have a lot to offer in terms of atmosphere and indigenous culture (the area in and around Oaxaca offers great native arts and crafts).
Increasingly Mexico sees more exclusively gringo developments (which I call Gringo Ghettoes) occurring along the seashore, particularly in Baja and the Sea of Cortez in Northern mainland Mexico. The more significant developments are outside San Felipe, Loreto, and La Paz in Baja, Puerto Penasco, and San Carlos on the mainland. Most developments may house five to ten thousand people, primarily expats. when fully developed,
Many books extol living in Mexico for $1000-$1500 a month (20-40% of the cost of living a similar lifestyle in the states). However, that is misleading.
You can live like a Mexican on this amount (the average Mexican family makes about $500-$1,000 a month and supports a couple of kids) by
- Eating Mexican foods exclusively (and cooking on your own),
- Buying locally-made goods (exported goods cost about the same, if not slightly more than in the USA),
- Living in a modest home with bare electricity and basic plumbing,
- Buying or renting a place outside of the large American enclaves. (Note: houses in Puerto Vallarta and San Miguel de Allende, both popular American retirement communities, cost twice as much as comparable homes in less popular expat enclaves, like Mazátlan or Mérida, and four times as much as a place in a small, rural Mexican town.)
“Going Mexican,” however, is not for everyone. It is harder to adapt to the country if you do not have many of the trappings of homes. (Lake Chapala has several options for social life for Americans—including a local English language playhouse—and San Miguel de Allende has one of the best English language libraries in Latin America.) Many Americans also will find it hard to live comfortably in the conditions of a typical Mexican home.
Most Americans who live in expat retiree havens like San Miguel de Allende, Lake Chapala, and Puerto Vallarta spend about 60-75% of what they would if they lived a typical American lifestyle. (Including eating out a couple of times a week, buying familiar American products, renting or buying a home with modern features, owning a car, and having a house cleaner a couple of times a week). Their housing costs are similar to the Mid-Western part of the US, while the prices of daily goods and services are 50-70% of the US.
Choosing Your Ideal Expat Retiree Community in Mexico
Understanding the Pluses and Minuses of Expat Havens, Locally Oriented Expat Centers, Off-the Beaten Path Places, Gringo Ghettos, and Business Havens
NOTE: I have made up these classifications to help you frame your decision on where to live. I am sure that, like most efforts to classify places demographically, expat retirees can argue whether these categories are accurate.
Types of Expat Communities in Mexico:
In addition to determining what country you want to live in, you also need to decide what type of community within Mexico best suits your personality. Expat retirees have diverse needs, and choosing a community that meets your needs is essential to being happy in Mexico.
Many books, classes, and websites only concentrate on two types of communities abroad: expat havens and gringo ghettoes. While these communities are the best choice for about 60% of expat retirees, I have met many expat retirees who will be happier outside of these communities and have included a discussion of other types of communities.
I classify most places into five categories: expat havens; locally-oriented expat centers; off-the-beaten-path areas; gringo ghettos; and business havens.
Some of these categories will get more attention in this post than others. Since most expat retirees are not sent overseas by an employer, I will only briefly mention business havens. In addition, since most expat retirees have not lived overseas before (and therefore should seek places with at least a small American community), I will not talk much about off-the-beaten-track places.
The following is a description of the five categories:
- Expat Havens. An expat haven usually has around 10-30,000 Americans out of a total population of 50-200,000 people (a few exceptions, like Northern Baja, that have a larger population). Most Americans and Canadians who populate these havens are expat retirees seeking a lifestyle-related change instead of a job-related assignment. Many expat retirees are concerned that living in an expat haven separates them from the local population, though that is seldom. Since these communities have significant local populations, there are several established neighborhoods where you will find a mixture of locals and expats. Most of these hybrid neighborhoods still retain the charms and annoyances associated with living in a local community.
- Locally Oriented Expat Centers: Expats usually compose around 1% of the population of these large cities with significant expat retiree communities like Mérida, Oaxaca, and Querétaro. Most Americans who choose to live in these places are interested and willing to get involved in the culture of their new home (including learning the language). Typically, these towns have a lot of culture, architecture, and history. Many Americans (and other foreigners) who discover these places are usually people who have traveled to the towns and fallen in love with the local culture.
- Off-the-beaten places: Off-the-beaten places have fewer than 500 Americans living in them, though most places have almost no Americans. Off-the-beaten-path areas are where most Mexicans live. These places are found in small, rural communities, middle-sized regional hubs, and various middle and lower-class neighborhoods in most large cities worldwide.
- Gringo Ghettos: Typically found in beach areas gringo ghettoes are large, typically gated communities with up to a couple of thousand units, usually condominiums, that are marketed at and occupied by Americans (Most of these communities are at least five miles away from a local-oriented town, and have very few Mexican full-time residents).
- Business Havens: (60% of all expats in Mexico live in Mexico City and business havens; however, most expat retirees live in Expat Havens, Locally Oriented Expat Retiree Centers, or Gringo Ghettos). Most business havens are in elite areas of large cities (like Lomas de Chapultepec in Mexico City). Most Americans who live in business havens are sent there by a company or government agency.
The Pluses and Minuses of Each of the Five Expat Retiree Communities in Mexico
- You will usually find several (at least twenty) American or Canadian realtors in expat havens. These realtors speak English natively but will also be familiar with the questions and issues raised by American and Canadian clients. Be careful, however, because some of these realtors may be crooked. Keep in mind that:
- Real estate is the only way to make a living for many expat retirees.
- Even in the US, real estate does not attract the most honest business people.
- The USA has strict rules governing real estate that does not apply in Mexico.
- Real estate is the only way to make a living for many expat retirees.
- In communities where Americans own a sizable percentage of the properties, many rental properties and sales listings will be available through Real Estate firms. Most locals will sell or rent properties by owners outside of expat havens. Therefore, to handle the inventory available in most of the world, you will need to visit multiple realtors and check out the informal for-sale by owner market. (The best ways to access the for sale by owner market are: 1) to pick up free Real Estate magazines; 2) walk around the streets looking for “for sale” or “for rent” signs and 3) talk to everyone you meet about places for sale or rent).
- Once a community reaches a vital threshold of lifestyle expats – usually around 5,000 people—it will develop a slew of businesses that help expats with their daily needs. These businesses provide:
- Moving services to move your household goods from the US and Canada
- Consultants to help you sign up for and get the most out of national health care services;
- Attorneys and paralegals to help you file residency visa applications;
- Accountants to help ensure that taxes and business reporting forms are filed on time and accurately; property management and rental services;
- Companies that will pay your bills and manage your accounts; mail services; high-speed internet access at home; financial services; etc.
- The quality of these services varies, and you should talk to a few expats and locals in the community before selecting your service provider.
- Most expat communities have a lot of expat clubs for a wide range of interests. You will have access to an extensive social network in English. In Mexico, American or English Language Libraries serve as a hub for many expat retirement communities (Merida, Oaxaca, San Miguel de Allende, and Lake Chapala).
- You can live comfortably in an Expat Haven without knowing much of the language. Many of the locals you meet on the street speak good English. Restaurants and businesses in Expat Havens usually have locals who can speak English reasonably well, and menus (and other similar business literature) are often available in English. In addition to this, based on the significant population of expats, you will both be able to have an active social network exclusively in English and have enough of a dynamic expat network to answer questions you have in English.
- Often the best answers to your questions come from other expats because 1) they are less likely to have a vested outcome in the answer, and 2) they understand what you are looking for easier than locals).
- The cost of living in an Expat Haven is higher than in most other communities. While the cost differences will not be as dramatic in restaurants, stores, etc., you should be prepared to pay 10-40% more for these services in an expat community. The increased prices are particularly noticeable in real estate, where the cost of renting or buying a home in these communities will be two to five times as high as the other communities in the country.
- Living in an expat community does not allow the same personal growth as living in a more locally-oriented place. In other communities, because you must deal with locals daily, often in their language, you will come to understand and appreciate the native way of life and values.
Locally Oriented Expat Centers
- You will spend most of your time talking to locals in their language. You will better understand the local people’s culture and values as you learn the language. There is no more incredible thrill than carrying on a meaningful conversation with someone in their language. It also helps establish trust and respect among the local population.
- If you are patient, you will find some cheap ways and places to live in these communities. Locals will help you learn how to get the best bargains in their local supermarket; ride public transportation, and even find the best and most inexpensive properties for purchase or rental.
- Most of the locally oriented expat centers are cultural centers. You will have a lot of exciting things to see in your free time and many opportunities to learn about the folklore, history, and society where you live.
- Finding the right place to live will take more time than in an expat haven (since it depends on who you know more than finding the right realtor). It will be harder to settle into your new environment, particularly in the first few months, as will everything from communicating with the US to paying your bills.
- It would help if you had a lot of patience, flexibility, and desire to live in a place with such a small expat community. While you will quickly meet and may form close friendships with the few expats, you will have to get to know a wide range of locals to get anything done efficiently. In addition, I have met expat retirees in those communities who initially feel very lonely and isolated. Some expats in these communities report that they feel trapped by the “small-town mentality” that develops in communities within the small expat community and the long time it takes to make friendships with residents.
The advantages and disadvantages listed in the above discussion about Locally Oriented Expat Centers apply, only more so in Off-the-Beaten-Path Places. Expect a lot of effort, patience, and desire to settle into your unfamiliar environment in the Off-the-Beaten-Path Places.
In addition, particularly if you decide to live in a rural area, you should expect to be the center of attention in Off-the-Beaten-Path places. In many communities, the locals will watch everything you do. While this may sound daunting, many expat retirees enjoy it once the locals accept them into the community.
Since most of these developments are new, you need to be careful about the quality and reputation of the project developer. Most of the horror stories you hear about defrauding expats in real estate occur in these communities.
Many of these developments are legitimate, and gringo ghettoes are the closest thing you can get to living in the US abroad. Since 90-95% of the residents are other expats, you will contact other Americans immediately. In addition, legitimate developers have often thought of everything necessary to make it easy to settle into these communities. Many of these communities have financing with terms similar (though seldom as advantageous) as stateside.
You are usually better off waiting until these projects finish before buying a property in a Gringo Ghetto. That way, you have an opportunity to hear the skinny from other expat retirees.
Getting to know, understand, and appreciate another way of life is probably the greatest joy of expat retiree life. The most significant disadvantage of these communities is that they are so separate from mainstream society. I have a tough time with the idea of living in a foreign country and only interacting with other gringos.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Though increasingly expat retirees (and younger digital nomads) choose to live in Mexico City and Guadalajara, most expats in these business havens are business people who have little in common with expat retirees.
Most of these business people have the logistics of settling into and moving to their new home taken care of by their workplaces. Usually, these workplaces will pay upwards of $100,000 to settle these people into their new digs. The businesses’ services are expensive and often not as efficient as the firms found in expat havens. (Often, they use large, corporate service providers because the firms are US-based).
Business people often form cliques with others in the same company or industry. Also, many people in these communities are abroad to make more money than in the States and thus have little interest in their newfound, temporary home.
All these caveats aside, I have heard of active expat social organizations in Mexico City and Guadalajara that highly support the needs of all expats, including expat retirees. In addition, Mexico City and Guadalajara offer access to some of the world’s richest history and culture for much less cost and hassle than most prominent European and North American cities.
Expat Retirement on the Beach Versus Interior Communities
Please remember when you read the pluses and minuses of living on the coast listed below. I have tried to keep my prejudices down to a minimum (I prefer the inland to the beach) and apologize in advance if my preferences are apparent below.
Pros and Cons of Retirement in Mexico’s Beach Communities
- Tropical beaches are the stuff of people’s dreams. Ninety percent of American tourists in Mexico spend most of their time on the beach. Though the interior offers much, Mexican beaches capture most Americans’ imaginations. Every travel publication contains pictures of Mexico’s white sand beaches, palm trees, and azure seas.
- Beach communities have a very relaxed vibe. While most Mexicans dress and act more formally than in the States, casual dress and comportment are acceptable- and even encouraged- along with hot, tropical beaches. In addition, though Mexicans are laid-back, the most laid-back people in Mexico live by the beach.
- Living by a tropical beach is an immense joy for water sports enthusiasts. Many beach communities are too cold in the US, and the waves are too large for watersports enthusiasts to enjoy their pastimes. In addition, living by a beach in the US is prohibitively expensive for many expat retirees.
- Many who live in expat havens by the coast enjoy their fellow expat retirees. The expats in these communities are younger and more party-oriented than those who chose expat digs in the interior. In addition, the shared love of the relaxed beach vibe and water activities often allows for more accessible and more comfortable friendships than in other expat communities. (Read Gringos in Paradise by Barry Golson).
- Many beach communities are lovely places for expat retirees who love nightlife and socializing. Many of these places have enough variety of restaurants, stores, and entertainment venues that you can spend every night exploring unfamiliar places. Some of the most enjoyable club scenes in the world are in places like Puerto Vallarta and Cancun.
- Some of Mexico’s most beautiful flora and fauna are in beach areas. The variety of animal life and plants – caimans, alligators, iguanas, geckos, dolphins, and some of the world’s most colorful fish — found in many of the mangroves, rivers, and beaches along the coast is fantastic.
- If you ever want to see Americans (and Mexicans-particularly during Semana Santa, Easter Week) at their most obnoxious, check out the Mexican beach scene in places like Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, Cancun, or Cabo San Lucas. Tons of drunken, lustful, loud, and insulting tourists –particularly teenagers- line these beaches and often make locals dislike Americans. Most beach communities with substantial expat retiree communities attract many ugly foreign tourists and locals.
- Something about living the tropical beach dream attracts both Mexico’s best scam artists and expat victims. I have rarely heard of someone who was sold a serious bill of goods about a property in Mexico in the interior. However, stories of expat retirees who get ripped off by unscrupulous real estate developers and realtors in beach communities abound. Somehow, the expats attracted to the interior are the types who will do their homework and have the patience to get the right place and lifestyle for them. Whereas some expats fantasize about living by the water and are prone to throwing caution into the wind and buying their dream places sight unseen after a few drinks and a persuasive sales pitch by an aggressive huckster.
- Most of the development by the beach is environmentally destructive. Look at a map of Mexico from forty years ago, and you will be hard-pressed to find Cancun or Puerto Vallarta (Mexico). Since Mexicans have mostly lived inland, the development of Coastal resorts and towns is a recent phenomenon. Traditionally, the only beach towns to attract many residents in Mexico have been ports like Veracruz, Acapulco, and Mazatlan in Mexico. Until gringos showed their love of these tropical resorts, most of the best-known beach communities were pristine small fishing villages. Today, the beaches are full of hotel rooms, condominiums, and shopping centers that are not ecologically sensitive. As gringo ghettos take hold throughout coastal Latin America, one can expect more severe impacts on the water supply and abundant plants and animals in more of Mexico’s most pristine fishing villages.
- It is hot and humid on most beaches in Mexico for many months a year. (The worst months are often September and May). In most of Mexico, the beaches are hotter and more humid than in Southern Florida, from April to November. I have heard expats extol the virtues of some of the micro-climates along with certain beach areas in Mexico. (The Gulf of Mexico coastline communities (Progreso, Chelem, etc.) forty kilometers north of Merida are generally three to five degrees Centigrade cooler than Mérida). So, I encourage you to ask and see if you can find a place that suits your climate needs.
- Many beaches in Latin America are packed with bugs and mold. The most common of these insects, “no-see-ums,” get their name because they are so small that you cannot see them; yet, you feel their sting. In addition, many places by the water are subject to serious mold problems during the rainy seasons.
- The cost of air-conditioning a house, particularly a large one, can get expensive during the worst summer months. Many expat retirees in Puerto Vallarta and the Riviera Maya pay $500 per month for air conditioning in the height of the summer.
Pros and Cons of Retiring in Mexico’s Interior
- Experts consider that areas in and around Guadalajara, Mexico, have some of the most pleasant climates. The weather, in the interior, especially at 3000 feet, is better than on the coast. It seldom gets colder than about 55 degrees in the winter (at night) and 90 degrees in the day. However, some people have trouble with the rain in some areas during the summer. (Note: The weather at higher elevations can get cold during the winter – snow sometimes even occurs. The weather in the lowlands- including my hometown of Merida, Yucatan – shares the same climate as the coastal regions).
- Most of Mexico’s folk traditions, Mayan and Aztec ruins, historical monuments, and colonial towns are away from the beach. You cannot get to know the culture of Mexico without at least spending some time in the interior.
- You cannot participate in water sports in the interior or sit on the beach daily.
- Interior areas are less relaxed than the coast. It is easier to meet expats and locals by the beach because these areas attract people with fewer family obligations than the Mexicans who live in the interior.
These are the only real minuses I can see to choosing to live in the interior versus the coast. Most pluses of Mexican coastal communities also apply to the Mexican interior.
The interior also has active, friendly (though less party-oriented) expat scenes, and flora and fauna are varied and worth seeing.