Ajijic on Lake Chapala. Easy living with gorgeous views. Look, but don’t swim!
Photo copyright©Daniel Gair. All Rights Reserved.
Daniel Gair is the author of Amazon/Kindle’s top-rated romp through the Mexican underbrush ‘The Mexico Diaries: A Sustainable Adventure‘ (https://goo.gl/FHJ94q)
Updated April 2021
It’s a damn vast country, so where to go???
As the wave of U.S. Baby Boomers looking for a warm, cheap place to retire begins cresting on the shores of Mexico, the question of potential relocation spots comes up in blogs and FB pages daily. Those nervously planning their first trip to Mexico, while trying to get a handle on all the possible destination options, are also searching for solid advice.
Having traveled in Mexico for decades, lived here full-time for ten years, and visited virtually every region, Holly and I love to share our thoughts on the subject. Though there are dozens of books and websites to help guide prospective ex-pats and travelers, most we’ve seen are either hopelessly vague, primarily meant to address the mechanics of resettling, or are hyping one specific location or region (Mexico has a way of making people feel ‘born again’, and those posting on social media tend to proselytize as if their spot was a new religion). This post was prompted by the fact that we’ve never found a truly concise guide that outlines the many, varied locales, while clearly stating the pros and cons of each, particularly for those planning to relocate.
Of course, we too are biased to where we’ve settled, here on the mid-Pacific coast near Puerto Vallarta, however, in this post I share (ahem) ‘objective’ thoughts on the many alternatives and their pros and cons. I realize that by stating the disadvantages for each region I risk insulting every born-again Mexpat who reads this and has an emotional or proprietary interest in their own specific area. All I can say is that I’ve attempted advanced, bend-over backward yoga moves in order to stick to the facts and ladle out the downsides in equal measure, including the cons of our own little slice of paradise.
My first recommendation for those looking to relocate is to rent for a minimum of a month in several different locations before cashing in your chips and committing to any one spot. Mexico has a wealth of relocation possibilities, many with subtly different vibes that appeal to some folks, but not others. The website Housesit Mexico is a great way to sample places free, although the listings are heavily oriented to the Lake Chapala area, and many are only available in the low season. Hopefully, this is changing as it’s a well-run service, and their listings seem to be expanding.
The first, main consideration for those planning to visit, or relocate here permanently, is usually whether to head toward the beach or the mountains. In a nutshell, the beaches tend to epitomize the laid-back, tequila-swigging, Mexican hammock lifestyle, while the mountains and central highlands represent a deeper cultural experience with a more comfortable, year-round climate. If Holly & I had it to do over, we’d probably have chosen a more flexible condo or renting lifestyle, spending time in the mountains in summer, then beaching it winters.
Following are the most popular options, both regional and local, including their flaws and favors.
If the beach is your thing, then…
Yucatan, Sugar-white sand beaches (when not covered in Sargasso 😦 Photo copyright©Daniel Gair. All Rights Reserved.
Advantages & Disadvantages: Mexico’s best snorkeling and diving, cool cenotes (ethereal saltwater-filled sinkholes), gorgeous white sand beaches, spectacular Mayan ruins, and easy hop to the U.S. On the other hand, the Yucatan tends to be crowded on the coast, dreadfully flat, and fairly short 3-4 month season unless you happen to like one hundred plus degree days with high humidity. Crime is becoming more prevalent, especially in Playa Del Carmen and Tulum. Beaches fouled with Sargasso Seaweed has become a significant problem the past couple of winters, and is something that is likely to continue and worsen with the warming waters (of course, if you’re a sustainability nut like me, all that sargassum equals endless biomass just itching to be used for mulch or composted. There’s even a guy squashing and drying it into blocks to make houses out of!) The fact that the Yucatan is a major hurricane alley put Holly & me off from investing there originally, even though we liked it and visited regularly in our early days of exploring Mexico.
Cancun, a hopping cluster of high-rise hotels and all-inclusive is Mexico’s spring break capital, and Merida is a colonial city with a thriving ex-pat population. It is touted as being remarkably free of cartel activity, although we hear that general crime is on the rise (like so many other places in Mexico, especially with the pandemic’s added economic stress, we’ve seen waves of criminality enter supposedly safe areas, practically overnight, so one should take any reports of specific ‘safe zones’ or especially safe cities with ‘un grano de sal’). And as a side note: water contamination is yet another issue surfacing in popular ex-pat spots such as Merida, SMA, Lake Chapala, and many other locales.
The best Yucatan options for getting off the beaten path are the beach areas north of Chetumal and Lake Bacalar near the Belize border of Campeche on the Gulf Coast, keeping in mind that either area puts you more than a six-hour drive from Cancun’s international airport and medical services. Also a note of caution about Lake Bacalar – it’s drop-dead gorgeous, but also a drop-dead scary place to swim according to recent reports of extensive fecal coliform contamination. Other interesting places to visit are the Mayan ruins distributed like giant stone party favors throughout the Yucatan (Chichen Itza is the most spectacular, but too crowded for us); numerous, cool, old sisal plantations, many of which have been beautifully restored and turned into five-star resort properties; Valladolid with its massive cenote; the islands of Mujeres, Holbox, and Cozumel (dive with sleeping sharks!); and the Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve. Palenque, located in the Isthmus of the Yucatan, is the place to go to munch on magic mushrooms, explore the jungle ruins, and get in touch with your inner Mayan. Don’t miss swimming in the nearby aqua blue river (Aquas Azules) and spectacular Misol Ha waterfalls.
Overall, Holly and I love the Yucatan as a place to visit but consider it to be uninhabitable for much of the year due to the heat and humidity. That’s just us though. Many have made their ex-pat homes here and are extremely happy with their choice. In fact, of all the retirement spots in Mexico that people rave about, Merida’s denizens are among the most vocal.
The Baja (including mainland Sea of Cortez)
Advantages: Easy U.S. driving access and reasonable year-round climate in the northern part. Todos Santos is a particularly hip and artsy, though pricey, surf town. Rosarito/Enseñada on the Pacific and the San Carlos/Puerto Peñasco/Guaymas at the top of the Sea of Cortez (just over the border into the mainland from The Baja) share the prize for easiest jog back and forth from the U.S. (although I’ve heard that Tecate is the easiest and most affordable border-hopping ex-pat option of all, other than fuming Tijuana.) Disadvantages: The Baja is basically a parched, dry desert. This region also has the feel of still having one foot in the U.S. (which is a good thing for some). Narco activity on the Baja has been ramping up in recent years, particularly around Cabo and the mainland side of The Sea of Cortez is a region of perennial narco activity. Cabo San Lucas is the obvious choice for those seeking sport fishing, golf, and an upscale, high-rise, all-inclusive type environment. Nearby La Paz is a calm seaside town, similar to the vibe of Zihautenejo, but not a lot going on (a snorkeling trip to Isla Espiritu while visiting La Paz is a must!). Nearby La Ventana attracts a winter population of kite-boarding and mountain biking enthusiasts. A vineyard tour of the Valle de Guadalupe region of northern Baja is a definite winner! And a one to two-week camping and kayaking trip down the length of the Baja, especially during whale rutting season, is worth the effort, though it didn’t live up to our once-in-a-lifetime adventure expectations.
North-Central Pacific Coast
A hundred miles of cities and beach towns with Puerto Vallarta and the sprawling Bay of Banderas at its center.
Advantages: Liveable year-round climate, though somewhat hot and sticky summers. Plenty of culture, good restaurants, amazing farmer’s markets, and overall vibrant ex-pat living, especially Puerto Vallarta area with its many year-round festivals, excellent private hospitals, gay-infused art galleries and nightlife (PV regularly shows up on top-ten lists for international retirement destinations).
There are lots of lifestyle options up and down the mid-coast from big city living to gated golf or sailing communities, to sleepy beach towns. Some of the great beach town options include hip-but-crowded Sayulita, and the more upscale San Pancho in Nayarit state to the north, or the yoga Mecca of Yelapa to the south. Closer in to the hub of PV is the sailer’s haven of Cruz de Huanacaxtle and the Canadian stronghold of Bucerias (excellent kiteboarding in the spring). We also like the beach towns of Barra de Navidad and La Manzanilla several hours south. Near to Barra de Navidad is Malaque a Canadian favorite, and there’s also Costa Careyes for the mega-wealthy. Nuevo Vallarta and Punta Mita are the Bay of Banderas’ most upscale yachting and golf-centric destinations. About a 6-hour drive north of Vallarta is Mazatlan with its beautiful historic center, hotel zone, and malecón waterfront popular with Mexican nationals, and some limited golf and yachting options. One could think of Mazatlan as being Puerta Vallarta with a fraction of the buzz and services. (Probrecita Mazatlan – a nice girl, even if she’ll never be quite as sexy and glamorous as her big sister Vallarta – but still, who could resist those adorable taxis of hers?)
Disadvantages: The entire mid-cost turns into “Gringolandia” during the winter months, and Puerto Vallarta’s “Romantic Zone” is going through an overwhelming growth spurt that is likely to bring problems, Robberies are notably on the rise throughout the region.
Puerto Vallarta – specialized in outrageous sunsets. Photo copyright©Daniel Gair. All Rights Reserved.
South and Central Pacific Coast
Advantages: Big Surf around the resort city of Puerto Escondido. Huatulco, Puerto Angles, and Mazunte are nearby beach cities/towns that have their following. Zihuatanejo further north, with its sleepy tourist beach town feel, is similar to La Paz in the Baja, while nearby Ixtapa is a good southern option for golf and high-rise hotels, not unlike Cabo San Lucas or Cancun.
Disadvantages: Unfortunately, like the Yucatan, you’ll boil like a lobster summers, so the south-central coast is not a great year-round ex-pat option, in our opinion. It’s also a bit of a hike from the U.S. or Canada. Acapulco, once Mexico’s most high-rolling, high society beach resort city has been all but written-off to crime in recent years.
The Coast of Michoacan north of Zihuatanejo is a gorgeous no man’s land only visited by renegade surfers, fishermen, and true adventure types due to the narco fear factor. A trip there is like having California’s Big Sur all to yourself!
The Mountains and Central Highlands
These regions offer a wealth of relocation options, especially if you’re more a fan of colonial culture and cooler weather than you are of sand and sea.
Advantages are great culture and climate, while the disadvantages are, for us, that you’re trading in a laid-back beach lifestyle, for more of a bustle. San Miguel De Allende is Mecca for the monied, art gallery, fine dining set. It’s just plain hard not to like San Miguel, though, admittedly, it’s had its share of crime over the years, and water quality is emerging as a serious issue. While there be sure to check out the picturesque, art gallery-laden mining town of Pozos about 45 minutes north. Holly and I also really like, and have owned properties in, nearby Guanajuato, a terrific, artsy, visually stunning, university city. Other very liveable cities that have ex-pat communities include Puebla, Queretaro, Morelia, Cuernavaca and Oaxaca (arguably Mexico’s cultural and culinary heart). Update Note as of October 2020: Puebla is currently experiencing a wave of organized crime due to the government’s curtailing of narco revenues from oil thefts). I’m going to stick my neck way out here and say that these highland cities are fairly comparable with their good-to-excellent health care, affordable housing, beautiful historic centers, and increasingly upscale dining and shopping options – vibrant change driven by the influx of gringo ex-pats, and Mexico’s own emerging middle and upper-middle classes. Aquas Calientes is yet another alternative in this group, but one with more of an international ex-pat population, and very affordable. Smaller, popular mountain towns include Tepotzlan and Tequila (among others) and the culturally rich city of San Cristobal de Las Casas further south in Chiapas. One highland locale that blends a beach-like feel with great climate is Lake Chapala and Ajijic with its stunning Malecon waterfront (see photo at top), a short one-hour drive from Guadalajara where one can find cheap international flights and excellent, affordable medical services. Flies in the ointment for this Mexpat enclave are that the Chapala area has its fair share of robberies, and the lake, though beautiful, is badly polluted by the Lerma River watershed. There is also considerable pollution and related health issues due to agricultural runoff into Lake Patzcuaro, otherwise known for its fascinating and colorful Day-of-the Dead celebrations (think the movie “Coco”) and craft villages surrounding the lake.
The Copper Canyon in the north is a great place to tour. Lots to see and do, but brutally hot summers. The train trip through the canyon, with overnight stops, is a must. The mining town of Alamos near the western end of the canyon is also worth a layover, especially if driving down the west coast from Nogales. There are ex-pats in this region, but they seem to be scattered few and far between.
Then there’s the Huasteca Potosina region of San Louis Potosí state, over toward the Gulf Coast. Again, plenty of outdoor adventure; caves, aqua blue waterfalls and cenotes, and the not-to-be-missed surrealist jungle art installation of Sir Edward James at Xilitla. Like The Copper Canyon, there are no significant ex-pat populations in this area that we know of, however, as is true anywhere in Mexico, you will find the occasional North American or European emigres scattered here and there amongst the creosote bushes.
Another must-stop on your Central Highlands tour is Real de Catorce. Near the Texas border, this über cool, ancient-feeling mining city is the main spiritual pilgrimage site and peyote gathering grounds for the Huichol Indians. If you like to dance with aliens, this could be your place.
Finally for the highland option is Mexico City. We love “CDMX” for its wonderful museums, dining, and cafe culture, but, not being city people, we couldn’t imagine ever living here full time. The air pollution is also quite bad spring-through-fall.
Guanajuato, an exuberant cultural center with a comfortable climate. Photo copyright©Daniel Gair. All Rights Reserved.
Veracruz / Gulf Coast
Catemaco is a funky little lakeside town, and Vera Cruz is a beautiful port city, but both wilt in the summer heat. Xalapa and Orizaba are very liveable cities with better climates, higher up in the mountains, that are gaining popularity with ex-pats despite Veracruz state’s violent reputation. Advantages to this region are that is hasn’t been nearly as overrun by gringos as other areas. Disadvantages are that the summer heat & humidity on the coast, and the fact that this region is a perennial center of narco activity.
There are endless FB groups for specific cities and regions, too many to mention here. Following is a list of our favorite, more general online resources for digging in further:
Los O’Grady’s in Mexico (http://www.losogradysinmexico.com) Fun moving to Mexico blog + Site Admin Katie O’Grady runs a well-respected, personalized relocation consulting service.
Mexico News Daily (https://www.mexiconewsdaily.com) – The very best English language news source for Mexico!
Surviving Yucatan (https://yucalandia.com) – Yucatan-centric, but still a great source of general life and retirement info for Mexico.
MexConnect (http://www.mexconnect.com) – For years this was the go-to site for overall Mex info with extensive chat boards though, unfortunately, it seems to be falling into neglect.
Mexperience – Slick, professional Mexico info site with plenty of useful info but geared toward selling their products & services (https://www.mexperience.com/lifestyle/living-in-mexico/moving-to-mexico/)
Make the Right Move to Mexico on Facebook: One of several move to Mexico FB pages (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1581227251953242/)
On The Road in Mexico (Facebook) – Fine, well-informed travel page.
For a list of the 121 designated “Pueblos Magicos” (Magic Villages), the spots the Mexican government is most highly touting check out Mexico Desconocido Magazine online at: https://www.mexicodesconocido.com.mx/pueblos-magicos-de-mexico.html (Spanish Only but you can cross-reference the list with Google). While many of these towns are, uhm, “magical”, others tend to be cutesy places barely worth a visit, so do your research.
And last but not least, a shameless plug for those interested to learn more about the ‘real’ Mexico or hankering for an over-the-top adventure story: The Mexico Diaries, A Sustainable Adventure! chronicles the insanity that Holly and I treated ourselves to by moving to rural Mexico (4.7 stars on Amazon/Kindle: www.amazon.com/Mexico-Diaries-Sustainable-Adventure-ebook/dp/B07GMYGB7T ). Also available locally in Mexico at Under the Volcano Books in Mexico City, A Page in the Sun in Puerto Vallarta, NV Books in Nuevo Vallarta, and The Puerto Vallarta Botanical Gardens. The Mexico Diaries, a lively romp through the Mexican underbrush, is both encouragement to choose Mexico, as well as a cautionary tale!