Note: This is the second part of a two-part blog. The first part is entitled Why I Live in Mexico
Anyone who can leave the Yucatán with indifference has never been an artist and will never be a scholar.
Why I Chose to Live in Merida
- I don’t like cold, especially in Mexico. Most of my favorite cities, besides Merida, 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-degree Celsius or 53 degrees Fahrenheit. Unfortunately, cold in Mexico feels worse to me than 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 spending three weeks in San Cristobal de las Casas in December. 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 be able to get some warmth. Then after about two hours, I would start to sweat from the blanket’s heat. I dreaded going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. The combination of the sweat from the blankets and the cold night air caused me to shiver and felt painful.
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 function as a heater as well. I stayed in a hotel in San Miguel de Allende with this type of 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 an altitude of 1000 meter/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, without heat, these cold nights are unbearable. (i grew up near the coast in California and even find nights in the winter too cold there).
- I like living somewhere flat. Most Mexican cities are extremely mountainous. The streets are often steep and even the highways have a lot of curves. Merida, in contrast, is flat as a pancake. This 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 or old-style theaters or cultural institutions. I also get bored spending more than three days at a time at the beach.
- Safety. Merida is considered the safest large city in Mexico. It is also, according to CEO world magazine, the second safest city in North America (after Quebec city). Merida is the only city in Latin America included on several lists of the 100 safest cities in the world. (In CEO world magazine, Merida ranked in 21st place). As a result, you seldom hear of crime problems, and everyone feels quite safe in Merida even late at night.
- The Yucatan has a unique regional cuisine. Unlike most of the rest of Mexico, Yucatan cuisine features a lot of dishes with turkey, pork, and even sometimes duck. (One of my favorite turkey dishes is relleno negro), Yucatecan food also 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 foods are wrapped, usually in banana leaves, and cooked in a pit oven. The Yucatan has some of the best honey in the world. Habanero sauce and bitter oranges accompany many regional dishes.
- Merida has an impressive collection of museums, including the National Music Center, The Museum of the Great Mayan World, the Museum of Anthropology (Canton Palace), the City Museum, the Museum of Popular Art, etc.
- Almost every building in Merida has pasta tile floors. The pasta tile floors are still made from molds and feature floral and geometric designs that look a lot 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 century. At that time, Merida had one of the most significant numbers of millionaires in the world. The wealth came from henequin (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, henequin provided the world’s most durable fiber. (Anchors, for example, contained henequin).
- The Yucatan is unique. Unlike the rest of the country, it is flat. For many years, it was isolated from the rest of Mexico by mountains and for awhile even was its own country. Many aspects of its culture come from Spain and Cuba. Until the 1950s, it was easier to go to Havana than most of the rest 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 rich hacenderos of the Sisal plantations, 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). Merida is strategically placed to visit Mayan ruins. There are more than 100 ruins that are within one day’s drive of Merida including some of the most crucial sites in Mayan history such as Chichen Itza, Mayapan, Uxmal, Coba, and Edzna. Within a couple of day’s 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 own writing system. Many of their astronomical finds were more advanced than anything found in the West at the time. The Mayan civilization, at its height, was able to sustain an incredibly large population – 10 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 were thinking of millions and the Hindus billions.
- 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 an essential part of successfully surviving here. Generally, the expat community is more interesting than most people I would meet at home.
- 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. In the past five years, North Merida and the Centro (downtown) area has seen a profusion of new, hip, and world-class restaurants and upscale shopping opportunities.
- At social gatherings, Mexicans create a sense of magical camaraderie that does 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. Yucatans are also eager to help if you need it.
Sightseeing in the Yucatan
The Yucatan has excellent tourist sites; some of my favorites include:
- Celestun, a flamingo reserve;
- San Cristianito, a lovely palm-fringed beach;
- Hundreds of cenotes. Cenotes are a natural pit, or sinkhole, which looks like a natural 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 that is second in size to the Vatican. The monastery was built on top of a Mayan acropolis using stones from the Mayan temple. The City was painted a mustard yellow color to commemorate the arrival of Pope John Paul;
- Hacienda Peon de Sotuta. A restored henequin plantation featuring the machinery and techniques used to refine henequin around a century ago. The hacienda house also showcases the architecture and decoration used by rich 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 see how many artisan products are made often using techniques inspired by the ancient Mayans. I enjoyed visiting sites that made artisanal honey (Mani), pink salt (near San Cristanito), and sisal (Hacienda Peon Sotuta).
- I can walk to a lot of 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 a day to Cancun and even more to Campeche. The buses are comfortable, clean, and always punctual.
Cost of Living in Merida
- I have been able to afford help to develop this website in Mexico. I gave up developing a similar website fifteen years ago in the US because I could not find useful support to build my site. Almost everyone was expensive and tried to develop my website using a formula that was not relevant. No one seemed interested in trying to learn anything that would help me. I never was able to find someone who had any idea what my business was about. Fortunately, here I have been able to find someone who has been helpful, willing to learn, and not excessively expensive.
- The cost of living in most ways 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. Maid service is $15 versus $60 in the US. Fruits and vegetables are about half the price as in the US.
The Cons of Living in Merida (and How I Have Adapted and Even 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. For most of the first four years (October 2015 to August 2019) in Merida, I spent only three to six months here. Even then, I spent most of that time working on my house.
I bought my house in Merida after spending five years mostly on the road. I loved moving all the time. It was hard to settle down in one place. I never enjoyed working on a house even in the USA. It was even more difficult to work on a house in Merida.
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 once I felt comfortable with someone, I left. 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 also 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. 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.
I know that many expats (both in Merida and other expat communities worldwide) share many of the same issues. I think, like me, most expats can succeed in their new life if they develop a balanced perspective.
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 small. The issues also have both a good and bad side. Most expats, like me, are blessed to choose where and how we live. With time and patience, we will make great lives in our new home.
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 very hot. From March to October, the high temperature on most days exceeds 33 degrees centigrade or 93 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the heat does not bother me because of air conditioning. Most expats in Merida have a pool. I do not; however, I use the pool at the Hyatt around once a week. I pay around $85 a year for a membership that includes one free meal, one night free in the hotel, discounts on all the hotel’s bars and restaurants, and unlimited access to the pool. 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.
- I put too much time and energy early on with the house. I often have felt trapped because it is so difficult to know when people will show up to work on the house, what things will cost, and when work would be completed. Unlike, many expats, I know very little about home construction even 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. (Most expats have similar experiences).
- The results 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 in the house 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 down. All these issues have been solved. Trying to keep moisture from destroying the paint on one of my walls, however, is difficult.
- My house here reflects my style and personality. I doubt that I could have got the same effect in the US, particularly in a home that is by US standards is modest in size. 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.
- The house is available for rental when I am not there. See here for photos (and some great videos about the Yucatan).
- 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 which do not make a lot of noise. If the noise really bothers you, you may want to consider living in Northern Merida which feels a lot 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 are 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 largest collection of colonial buildings in North America. (The other two are in Havana and Mexico City). That said, just in the five years I have lived in Merida, there has been a lot of improvement in the Centro’s streetscapes. The block I live on has seen phenomenal improvement in the last five years.
- That said, the City has some beautiful parks and open spaces. I love the decoration of the parks and major streets at Christmas and Easter.
- Merida and its environs have a population of approximately 10,000 Canadian and US expats. (I would estimate that at least 50% of the expats are snowbirds who live 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, and 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, English-Spanish language conversation exchanges. (The library, unfortunately, does not offer many programs from March to November).
- The expat life in Merida is too seasonal. Considerably fewer social activities occur when the snowbirds leave in March. I do attend some activities such as movie nights and social clubs that are 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.
- In the US, I usually meet more people with whom I shared 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 who are 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.
- 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 for the events if you miss an announcement on Facebook. I also do not feel that comfortable 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 high-quality, world-class theatrical, dance, and musical programs from around the world. Some of the 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 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 a day 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 as well.
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 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. That said, Mexicans work longer hours and have many family obligations which make it hard for them to keep on schedule. In addition, when people show up, they concentrate much more on enjoying the moment. In the US, people often seem to be more interested in their phones than their visitors.
- 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.
Taxes and the Gringo Tax
- Low property taxes. I pay only $50 a year in property taxes. Most ex-pats seem ecstatic about the low property taxes. 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 people do not have much formal education. But there is 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.
- Dealing with the Gringo Tax (paying more for many services than locals) has caused some frustration. Over time, I have developed a strategy for dealing with this issue that works for me, however.
- Obtaining my temporary Mexican residency was both easier and harder 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 easily and had my visa within a couple of hours. The consulate accepted my documentation without any problems. (Note; I put a fair amount of effort preparing the required documentation. My financial resources also exceeded the minimum requirements). I also got my application approved by the Instituto Nacional de Migracion (INM) in Mexico City easily. (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 also capriciously rejected even though they meet the stated requirements).
- The hard part was getting the temporary residency card at 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. That said, 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 fairly easy for immigrants in the US and Canada)
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 information about events in Merida)
- Yucatan Living (Information about news affecting the expat community)