“Anyone who can leave the Yucatán with indifference has never been an artist and will never be a scholar.“
Pros and Cons of Living in Merida, Mexico
Why I Chose to Live in Mérida
- I don’t like the cold, especially in Mexico. Besides Merida, most of my favorite cities in Mexico are in the mountains. In the winter, these cities can get very cold (often below 0 degrees Celsius or 32 degrees Fahrenheit) at night. Merida never gets very cold. Even the coldest night in January never goes below 12 degrees Celsius or 53 degrees Fahrenheit. Unfortunately, the cold in Mexico feels worse to me than in most cities in the Northern US or Canada because most homes and businesses do not have central heat.
I have never felt so uncomfortable as I did spending three weeks in December in San Cristobal de las Casas. The temperature at night was usually around -10 Celsius or 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Since there was no heating to sleep, I had to put on ten blankets to get some warmth. Then after about two hours, I would start to sweat from the blanket’s heat. The sweat from the blankets and the cold night air caused me to shiver and feel muscular pain. I dreaded going to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
The cold also causes me to get frequent colds whenever a cold front comes during the winter in central Mexico. (Note: In the last couple of years, many air-conditioning units can also function as heaters. I stayed in a San Miguel de Allende hotel with this unit and loved it!)
That said, the temperature in the cities in the mountains of Mexico varies considerably depending on altitude. San Cristobal is very high and, thus, is cold every day in the winter. Most expats who live at places with a height of 1000 meters/3000 feet (like Guadalajara/Lake Chapala) are not bothered by the cold. It usually only gets cold at night for a few days a month. However, at least for me, these cold nights are unbearable without heat. (I grew up near the coast in California and even found nights in the winter too cold there).
- I like living somewhere flat. Most Mexican cities are incredibly mountainous. The streets are often steep, and even the highways have a lot of curves. Merida, in contrast, is flat as a pancake, which makes it easy to walk and drive around.
- Many people ask me why I did not choose a city by the beach. (Merida is about 30 miles or 50 kilometers from Progreso, a beach town). I answer most beach towns do not have enough culture and activities. Beach towns are too new to have many colonial buildings, old-style theaters, or cultural institutions. I also get bored spending more than three days at a time at the beach. However, the water cools the temperature all year round (a blessing in the summer; I prefer the warmer winters in Merida, though).
- Safety. Merida is the safest large city in Mexico though crime has increased recently. However, you seldom hear of crime problems, and everyone feels relatively safe in Merida, even late at night.
- The unique Yucatecan regional cuisine. Unlike most of the rest of Mexico, Yucatan cuisine features many dishes with turkey, pork, and sometimes duck. (One of my favorite turkey dishes is Relleno Negro), Yucatecan food has many unique sauces and recipes based on Mayan culture mixed with tastes influenced by the peninsula’s historical ties to Cuba, Europe, Asia, and Middle Eastern cultures. Many plates, such as the region’s iconic dish Cochinita Pibil, feature achiote (annatto seed), which gives food a reddish color and carries a peppery smell with a hint of nutmeg. Many dishes feature Pibil. Pibil is a cooking method (from the Mayan word pib, meaning “buried”) where the cooks wrap the ingredients, usually in banana leaves, and cook them in a pit oven. The Yucatan has some of the best honey (Melipona) globally. Chile Habanero sauce and bitter oranges accompany many regional dishes. (If you have a chance to see the honey’s production, go. It’s fascinating). The Slow Market has a great selection of artisanal prepared foods and fresh, organic produce.
- Merida has an impressive collection of museums, including the
- Almost every older building in Merida has pasta tile floors. The pasta tile floors are still made from molds and feature floral and geometric designs that look like a Persian or Belgian carpet. I love these floors and have several throughout my home.
- Merida has incredible mansions built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At that time, Merida had one of the world’s most significant numbers of millionaires. The wealth came from henequen (also known as Sisal fibers), a durable fiber found in the spines of the leaves of the blue agave. Until the advent of robust synthetic fibers, henequen provided the world’s most durable fiber. (Anchors, for example, contained henequen).
- The Yucatan is unique. Unlike the rest of the country, it is flat. It was isolated from the rest of Mexico for many years by mountains. The Yucatan even was its own country for seven years. Many aspects of its culture come from Spain and Cuba. Until the 1950s, it was easier to go to Havana than most of Mexico. The omnipresent guayabera (traditional men’s shirts) come from Cuba, and the pasta tile floors are from Spain. (Spain used to import the tiles to Sisal (henequen) haciendas, The tiles helped make sure the ships going from Spain to Sisal had enough weight to keep them in balance):
- I am fascinated by Mayan history. The Yucatan features Mayan ruins that reflect nearly 1500 years of Mayan history. (2nd century BC to 1300s AD). More than 100 ruins are within one day’s drive of Merida, including some of the most critical sites in Mayan history, such as Chichen Itza, Mayapan, Uxmal, Coba, and Edzna. Within a few days’ drive, you can visit many other notable Mayan ruins, such as Palenque and Calakmul.
- The Yucatan peninsula was the center of the Mayan civilization for two centuries. The Mayans were very sophisticated. They had their writing system. Many of their astronomical finds were more advanced than anything in the West at the time. The Mayan civilization, at its height, was able to sustain a vast population – 6 million people lived throughout the La Ruta Maya (currently southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras).
Want to Learn More About Mayan Culture?
- I went on a tour led by Bob Caskie of Bob’s Maya World Tours and was impressed by his knowledge and passion for all things Mayan.
- Although the tours are a bit too expensive for my budget, I have heard great things about the Mayan Exploration Center. I also have completed a very engaging and complete course on Mesoamerican Culture through the center’s founder, Dr. Ed Barnhardt, offered by Great Courses Plus.
Pros of Living in Merida
“A millennium before Europeans were willing to divest themselves of the Biblical idea that the world was a few thousand years old, the Mayans thought of millions and the Hindus billions.”
People in Merida
- I have met a lot of people and made some good friends. Trying to get things done in Mexico gives the expat community a sense of common purpose and makes developing friendships essential to successfully surviving here. Generally, the expat community is more interesting than most people I would meet at home.
- Mexicans create a sense of magical camaraderie at social gatherings that do not occur in most other countries. (Interestingly, the only other place that has given me the same feeling is Russia). There is great ease in conversation and joyfulness that is contagious. Go to a bar, and you will be invited to dance and sing. Yucatecans are also eager to help if you need it.
Shopping in Merida
- It is easy to find US products and stores here. Merida has Walmart, Carl’s Jr., Krispy Kreme, Home Depot, Office Max, etc. Even though products from the US are about the same cost as at home, you can find almost anything you want here if you have patience. North Merida and the Centro (downtown) area have seen a profusion of new, hip, and world-class restaurants and upscale shopping opportunities over the past five years.
Sightseeing in the Yucatan
The Yucatan has excellent tourist sites; some of my favorites include:
- Celestun is a flamingo reserve and relaxing beach town.
- San Crisanto is a lovely palm-fringed beach. Visit the neighboring pink salt ponds and mines. They use many of the same techniques used by the ancient Mayans.
- Hundreds of cenotes. Cenotes are natural pit or sinkhole which looks like a pool or cavern. The pits and sinkholes form from the erosion of the limestone bedrock, which exposes the groundwater underneath.
- Izamal. The city’s famous San Antonio de Padua Monastery, built in 1561, features an open atrium second in size to the Vatican. The monastery was built on a Mayan acropolis using stones from the Mayan temple. The city painted all the buildings in the center a mustard yellow color to commemorate the arrival of Pope John Paul.
- Hacienda Peon de Sotuta is a restored henequin plantation featuring the machinery and techniques used to refine the henequin around a century ago. The hacienda house also showcases the architecture and decoration used by wealthy landowners at the end of the nineteenth century. Sotuta de Peon also features a refreshing cenote and a horse-drawn cart trip around the plantation.
- The Yucatan has many places where you can learn about the production of honey (Mani), sisal (Hacienda Peon Sotuta), and pink salt (near San Cristanito) using techniques inspired by the ancient Mayans.
- Valladolid (about two hours East of Merida, halfway to Cancun) features the stunning art collection of the Casa Venado, fabulous cenotes, a beautiful colonial plaza and church, and one of my favorite Mayan ruins, Ek Balam.
- I can walk to museums, theaters, restaurants, and cultural events within ten minutes of my house.
- It is easy to catch a bus to go to nearby cities quickly. There are around 25 buses daily to Cancun and even more to Campeche. The buses are comfortable, clean, and always punctual.
Cost of Living in Merida
- In most ways, the cost of living is around half the cost in the US. Taxi and Uber rides that in the US cost between $10-40 are $2 to $8 here. Food and restaurant costs average around 60% of the US. House cleaner service is $18 per visit versus $60 in the US. Fruits and vegetables are about half the price as in the US.
- I spend around $2500 monthly and have no mortgage or rent. (I bought my house with cash in November 2015). I also don t have a car. With this amount, I have a genuinely satisfying life in Merida. I can:
- Go on short vacations around the Yucatan.
- Eat out occasionally.
- Buy groceries (including high-cost imported luxuries like European cheese and alcoholic beverages).
- Have my own personal chef and assistant (Juan Carlos).
- Take Uber and taxis anywhere around town and to Progreso (a nearby resort).
- See many medical specialists, pay for prescriptions, tests, etc.
- Attend cultural events and give parties.
- Give 5% of my income to charities in Mexico and the US
- Maintain my 100-year-old home (which requires more work than the US).
I can also pay for:
- Utilities including electricity- I use my air conditioner from April to November- water, trash, cell phone, internet, Netflix, and landline phone.
- Property taxes.
- Health and home insurance.
- Taxes and social security contributions on my US income.
Health Care in Merida
- I have taken advantage of the lower medical costs to see many more doctors than in the US. I have had two physicals and seen an ophthalmologist for new glasses (after thieves sold my glasses during my express kidnapping in Puebla). With assistance from Mario, Juan Carlos, and several doctors (including a local sleep doctor, psychiatrist, and psychologist), I fought off a bout of depression and dealt with sleeping apnea. While I paid for all these services out of pocket, all -except the sleep apnea machine, some tests, and a brain scan- cost considerably less than in the US, and everyone seemed entirely professional.
- Most office visits last 45 minutes and cost around $35-45. I can generally get an appointment within a week of my call. In addition, many doctors typically have appointments available at night. Most also spoke good English. (I have had some appointments in Spanish. I suspect these doctors know some English; however, it has not been an issue because I understand and speak Spanish).
- I have regular visits to a nutritionist to lose weight. (I was fatter than ever, having gained around 10 kilograms during the pandemic). Most Mexicans visit nutritionists when they want to lose weight. So, I decided to follow them. I spend over an hour with a nutritionist, who sets me up with a biweekly menu based on my needs, tastes, and habits. Juan Carlos has religiously cooked the menu, and it has worked well. In one year, I should reach my target weight.
- I have medical insurance in case of an emergency. It costs me $1800 a year. It has a $1000 deductible and a co-pay of 10% up to $3500. Since I am 56 years old and heavyset, this is much cheaper than in the US. I have never used the insurance. I understand it will cost me around $6000 a year when I am over 65 years old. It has a cap of $5,000.000. I have not met many expats who have used their insurance and do not know how the insurance company will likely reimburse my expenses. I may sign up for government health care. It costs $400 a year. I have heard mixed things about the quality of the care. I know many people over 65 keep US Medicare, and it is advisable to keep the supplemental payments up to date. I also have known people who went back to the states for healthcare-related reasons. It is difficult to find helpful information about healthcare realities in Mexico; however, these posts seem better than most.
The Cons of Living in Merida ( How I Have Adapted and Learned to Like Some of the Cons)
“In Mexico, an air conditioner is called a politician because it makes a lot of noise but doesn’t work very well.”.“
Living in Merida Part-Time
I have only just begun to feel comfortable in Merida. I spent three to six months here in Merida for most of the first four years (October 2015 to August 2019). Even then, I spent most of that time working on my house.
I bought my house in Merida after spending five years on the road. I loved moving all the time, and settling down in one place was hard. I never enjoyed working on a house, even in the USA, and working on a home in Merida was even more challenging.
Until I decided to live in Merida full-time, I knew my frustrations with the house would not last long because I would be leaving soon. I never took the time to make friends and become part of the community because I left oI left once I felt comfortable with someone. In retrospect, moving back and forth and working on my home put me in the throes of a prolonged, mild culture shock.
Living in Merida Full-Time
Partly for these reasons (and financial ones), I decided to live full-time (at least nine months a year) in Merida starting in August 2019.
I am happy in Merida. I have made many friends, and it feels more and more like my home. The more time I spend in Merida, the more I rediscover that it is a magical place.
I have developed a nuanced view of life in Merida. No place is perfect. With time, I see that my issues with living in Merida have both good and bad sides.
Many expats (both in Merida and other expat communities worldwide) share many issues. Like me, most expats can succeed in their new life if they develop a balanced perspective.
Most expats, like me, are blessed to choose where and how we live, and with time and patience, we will make extraordinary lives in our new homes. The following list contains the issues that I have (or did have) with Merida. As I hope you will see, most of these issues are minor, and the problems also have both a good and bad side.
An Analysis of the Cons of Living in Merida (Why Many Cons are Not So Bad After All)
“Mexico is always a good idea.”
- It is scorching. The high temperature exceeds 33 degrees centigrade or 93 degrees Fahrenheit on most days from March to October. However, the heat does not bother me because of the air conditioning. Most expats in Merida have a pool. I do not, however. Merida is also only thirty minutes from the Gulf of Mexico in Progreso.
- The streets flood when it rains hard. When I first came here, I could not walk outside in the rain without being thoroughly drenched when it rained hard. The city installed a drain which did help. However, I can get quite wet if a bus passes by the house.
- Merida can be noisy. Since I live on a reasonably busy street in Centro, I hear a fair amount of traffic noise in my front room. Many expats complain about the noise from nearby bars. Fortunately, I live among several hotels that do not make much noise. If the noise bothers you, you may want to consider living in Northern Merida, which feels like the suburb of a large American or Canadian City.
- Sidewalks are uneven, and some streets are full of potholes. After interviewing many expats in Merida and throughout Mexico, I was surprised to learn that uneven sidewalks caused more problems than anything else.
- A lot of buildings in Centro still need repairs. It is expensive to make the repairs, and some of these houses have been occupied by families for generations. Many other central cities in Mexico (nearby Campeche is a great example) look more finished than Merida. Merida has the third most significant collection of colonial buildings in North America. (The other two are in Havana and Mexico City). There has been a lot of improvement in the Centro’s streetscapes in five years. The block I live on has seen phenomenal progress in the last five years.
- That said, the city has some beautiful parks and open spaces. I love the decoration of the parks and significant streets at Christmas and Easter. In addition, in 2020, the city began an initiative to add green space to the most significant boulevards around town. However, some expats feel (with some justification) that the streets in Centro lack trees.
- It can be hard to buy tickets to social and cultural events. There is no central place to purchase tickets. Restaurants and bars often sell tickets. Many theaters, etc., do not announce events on their websites. It can be hard to find information about the possibilities if you miss an announcement on Facebook. I also feel uncomfortable going to events alone as in the states. Everything is so family-oriented that I feel more awkward going to cultural events than in the US.
- Most cultural events cost less than ten dollars. I have seen some world-class theatrical, dance, and musical programs worldwide. Some venues are historical and romantic, including the Peon Contreras Theatre (built around the turn of the 20th century) and the former churches of Haciendas.
Connections in Merida with the Rest of the World
- I wish there were better connections from Merida via air to the rest of the world. There is only one consistent international flight- a once-a-day flight to Houston. Unfortunately, I do not have much reason to go to Houston non-stop. Over time, I have decided to fly mostly in and out of Cancun, which is only four hours away. I do not mind the bus trip and usually stay overnight at a hotel and then take the flight in the morning. From Cancun, I can fly non-stop to a lot of places. There are nearly hourly flights to Montreal in the winter and hourly flights to Miami. Cancun also has many non-stop flights to almost every US and Canadian regional center and several non-stop flights to Europe and South America.
Getting Things Done
- It is hard to get things done in Merida if you have a preconceived notion of how to do a task. However, most of the time, the way things are done is as well or better than expected.
- Yucatecans often do not show up when they tell you. Sometimes they do not show up at all. Many times they show up at the last moment. Often several people show up at once.
- Mexicans work longer hours and have many family obligations, making it hard for them to keep on schedule. In addition, when people show up, they concentrate much more on enjoying the moment. People often seem to be more interested in their phones than their visitors in the US.
- The Yucatan has its own dialect. It has different grammar and vocabulary than the rest of Mexico. (Some of the words come from Maya). I have few problems talking to most people from Central Mexico. But at times, I do not understand people from the Yucatan.
- Dealing with the Gringo Tax (paying more for many services than locals) has caused frustration. Over time, however, I have developed a strategy for dealing with this issue that works for me.
Obtaining my temporary Mexican residency was more accessible and more complicated than expected.
- The easy part was getting the residency approved. I had no difficulties applying for residency at the Mexican consulate in Boston. (They even let me apply there even though my official address is in California). I got an appointment quickly and had my visa within a couple of hours. The consulate accepted my documentation without any problems. (Note; I put a fair effort into preparing the required documentation. My financial resources also exceeded the minimum requirements). I also quickly got my application approved by the Instituto Nacional de Migracion (INM) in Mexico City. (The approval came in two weeks, as promised). In contrast, immigrants in the US frequently experience long lines and stifling bureaucracy during this stage of becoming a resident or citizen. (Many are capriciously rejected even though they meet the stated requirements).
- The hard part was getting the temporary residency card at the INM office in Merida. It took four months to get an appointment to get my fingerprints taken and two more months to get the card issued. Unfortunately, since I had been told that this process takes a couple of weeks, I made plans to leave Mexico before the card was issued. As a result, I had to get permission to leave Mexico twice. Getting these permissions was time-consuming and expensive. My friends who did not have plans to leave Mexico did not have too much trouble with the INM office in Merida. (Usually, this part of the process is relatively easy for immigrants in the US and Canada).
- I also renewed my residency card with the help of Yucatan Expatriate Services in January 2021, and it was straightforward and efficient.
Expat Life in Merida
“Tequila is not even a drink; it’s a way for having the cops around without using a phone.”
- Merida and its environs have a population of approximately 10,000 Canadian and US expats. (I estimate that at least 50% of the expats are snowbirds living in Merida between November and March). The expat population is large enough to support a robust infrastructure of people to help us do everything necessary to establish and maintain a life in Merida. (Some of these services include help with getting residency, buying, fixing, and maintaining homes, etc.)
- Perhaps, the most crucial resource in Merida is the Merida English Library. It is the de-facto community center for the US and Canadian expat community featuring an ample calendar of events, including art walks, wine tasting, home tours, and English-Spanish conversation exchanges. (The library, unfortunately, does not offer many programs from March to November and has only provided limited services during the Covid Pandemic).
- The expat life in Merida is too seasonal. Considerably fewer social activities occur when the snowbirds leave in March. I attend activities such as movie nights and social clubs available throughout the year. After joining several expat Facebook groups, I have learned about many social and cultural events that I did not know about before.
- Expats tend to move frequently and can be a bit cliquish. Sometimes, I feel like I live in a small town rather than a community of over a million people.
- I usually meet more people in the US with a common interest or bond. Here I have met a more extensive range of people. Overall, I would say this is a good thing. I learned how to be comfortable with people quite different from me and met many people who probably would not have become friends in the US. I do occasionally, however, have conflicts with local expats. Usually, I can get over these conflicts quickly.
I Don’t Have Much in Common with Expat Life (Though I Do Like Living with Expats)
While I have expat friends and like the community here as a whole, I honestly don’t feel that I am a good person to answer logistical questions because I don’t have much in common with most expats for the following reasons:
- I live alone and have never had a family (though I have been married and have had a couple of long-term relationships). Most expats are either married or widowed.
- I am younger than most expats, most of whom are in their 60s or 70s.
- I speak Spanish and am very aware of Mexican culture and values. I tend to view things from their perspective. I occasionally listen and watch Americans and Canadians here and cringe at how they deal with locals.
- I have a large house by Mexican standards but small compared to most Americans (about 120 square meters or 1200 square feet). If I move out of my house, I will seek someplace even smaller. I have a small yard and no pool or parking. Most expats have spacious gardens, pools, parking, and a car.
- I usually only go shopping every ten days at Walmart. I want to think that I am a habitue of the traditional market, but I typically do not have the patience to go there. I did not go to Farmer’s Markets or spend a lot of time shopping regularly in the US.
- I spent a long time fixing up my house but am unsure if I would do it again, I look at everything that goes wrong with my home as a source of frustration, and I do not intend to make any more improvements unless necessary.
- I don’t particularly like driving, even in the US. I moved into the Centro deliberately because I did not want a car.
- When it is hot, I turn on the air conditioner. I sweat a lot, and unlike other expats, I do not spend much time on my patio except in the winter.
- I do not want to replicate my life in the US in a sunnier and cheaper place. I want a life that has a mixture of US and Mexican characteristics. I do not mean this as a criticism of Americans or Canadians. It is merely an acknowledgment that my perspective is different.
- I know very little about cooking, construction, or maintaining a house.
- I didn’t come here “to escape life or politics in the US.” “I went to the Yucatán because I feel comfortable in México and Mérida. I love the food, history, and most aspects of Mexican culture. Merida feels more and more like my home than my native California with each passing day. (Even though I love California, too).
- I came to Merida to “settle down.” Before I bought my home here in 2015, I had spent five years traveling around the world and knew that I needed a ¨”pied á terre” “somewhere and quickly realized that Merida could be an excellent new home for me.
- I put too much time and energy into repairing my house in Merida. I often felt trapped because it was so difficult to know when people would show up to work on the house, what things will cost, and when the work would be finally completed. Unlike many expats, I know very little about home construction in the US and often wondered if someone was taking advantage of my ignorance. Overall, I spent almost twice as much as expected. It also took twice as long as I anticipated to finish the house, and most likely, I overpaid for most of the construction and management by 20%-40%. I will probably not recuperate my total investment on resale, at least for several years. (Many expats have similar experiences).
- The results of repairing my house in Merida are better than expected. The house is much more functional and comfortable than when I bought it. The electricity and plumbing work well. When I moved into the house, it had no hot water and only intermittent running water. The light bulbs in the lighting fixtures needed to be changed constantly, and parts of the roof fell. All these issues were solved in the renovation. However, trying to keep moisture from destroying the paint on one of my walls is difficult.
- My house here reflects my style and personality. I love the thick walls, tall carved wooden doors, and pasta tiles, and am happy that things do not have to match in color. The grayish-brownish colors that characterize most Americans’ sense of interior decoration are dull. Exuberant, loud colors and playful designs make me happy. I doubt I could have gotten the same effect in the US, particularly in a modest home size by US standards.
- I doubt I could have gotten the same effect in the US, particularly in a modest home size by US standards. Low property taxes in Merida. I pay only $50 a year in property taxes. Most expats seem ecstatic about the low property taxes in Merida. However, for me, it brings mixed emotions. I can’t help but think if there were more taxes, there would also be better infrastructure. The low tax rates also mean the Mexicans do not have a social safety net, and many do not have much formal education. But there are a lot of government-subsidized cultural activities. For tourists, every day of the week there is some cultural events. (These events do not change much over time). There are also a lot of theatres, etc. and public colleges and universities are cheap or free.
Want to Find Out More About Living in Merida?
The following are two great sources for information about expat life in Merida:
- MID City Beat (Excellent details on events in Merida)
- Yucatan Living (Information about news affecting the expat community).
- Check out Mexico Cassie for books about the Yucatan.
- Also, check out Amy Jones‘s publications and blogs.