Swimming with endangered green sea turtles in Akumal, strolling the cobblestone shopping district in Playa del Carmen, exploring cenotes or ancient Maya ruins or just lazing in a hammock…this is my life today. But it’s a far cry from where my husband Don and I were back in 2008. In the wake of the financial collapse and the deep recession that followed, our comfortable existence was completely upended. At an age when we expected we could begin to slow down, we found ourselves starting over in a very inhospitable economy. Add to that Don’s second heart attack and the loss of his health insurance when his job disappeared, and you have a recipe for real desperation.
If you’re looking for a life filled with stunning beaches, rich culture, excellent food, and a laidback lifestyle, we have the ideal place for you—and you don’t have to look far. Within close proximity to the U.S., visits from loved ones or popping back home is simple and affordable from Mexico. You can even drive here.
The narrow lane spills onto a magnificent square. A group of young musicians fills the twilight with melodies. All around you are stunning buildings dating back centuries. And yet the people relaxing here and walking through these ancient streets are very much 21st century: students with books and laptops in hand. Folks from all over are enjoying evening drinks or dining on café terraces. Talk is of the art expo the town is putting on…an upcoming concert…or the latest news or trends…
We enjoy the beach when we have time,” says Joseph Ader of his new life on Mexico’s Riviera Maya. “I love what I do. And I love the climate here. It’s very similar to Florida, which is one of the biggest producers of ﬁsh for food and the hobby trade. That’s one of the reasons it’s such a good business here.” As a kid growing up in Pennsylvania, Joseph helped his grandmother with her tropical ﬁsh aquariums, not realizing he was setting himself up for his future career.
One afternoon, as I awoke from a short nap and looked upon the brilliant, blue-green waters of the Caribbean Sea only steps away from my front door, I had a powerful thought. Nothing of what is now my amazing, wonderful life would be possible if I had surrendered to the fears I had only a few years ago. When my wife Diane and I ﬁrst embarked on our expat adventure, we had second thoughts, unanswered questions, and even an appropriate amount of fear.
I enjoyed my 18 years working as a veterinarian. It was a stressful, demanding, but very rewarding career helping animals and their humans. The down side was that I had to be at a certain place, at a certain time, on a very regular schedule. Now, I live in Mexico and work on my own time. Over the past year I have lived in two different cities in Mexico…one in Guatemala…and visited every country in Central America. I was able to spend as long as I wanted getting to know the places that I had become interested in over the years.
I lost my job due to the recession. I worked for a bank, and when they decided to “right size” the organization, my job was eliminated. Fortunately my husband, Ron, and I had been researching ways to work from home so we could one day realize our dream of traveling the world. I had familiarized myself with my freelance options and we had already taken an exploratory trip to Ecuador.
Neither Yvonne nor Michael Bauche qualiﬁed for a pension in Canada. And so the adventurous duo decided to embark on a round-the-world trip that has seen them visit Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Portugal, Italy, France, and the Caribbean. “We cut our expenses in half,” says Yvonne of their new life on the road. “Running two cars, paying for electricity, gas, phone, cell phone, internet, food, and eating out used to cost us almost $4,000 a month. Our average expenditure is now about $2,000, and we live and play very well on that.”
You’ll enjoy some of Mexico’s ﬁnest quality of living for a fraction of what you’d pay in the U.S. or Canada. All told, a couple can comfortably call this paradise home for around $2,500 to $3,000 a month. Simple meals in local restaurants will run you $5 or less. One of my favorites, ﬁsh tacos, can be had for $1.50 each in the no-frills beach restaurants. And in stores, you can expect to pay prices similar to those in the U.S. for imported foods, but fresh produce is a bargain…try a pound of tomatoes for 65 cents or two pounds of fresh fruit like mango for $1. There are big savings on property taxes and healthcare, too. And where else can you enjoy life in a two-bedroom condo a stone’s-throw from the beach, in a premier beach town, for under $700 a month rent?
A decade after leaving the corporate world and moving to Mexico, the word that best sums up my move is “freedom.” These days I’m visiting five to seven countries a year. I have the freedom to set my own schedule…decide what days are workdays…enjoy lunch at the beach with my feet in the warm sand…or park myself in a coffee shop in an easy-going colonial city.
Narrowing down the best beaches in Mexico is no easy task. With nearly 6,000 miles of coastline, Mexico is home to many gorgeous beaches. But if you ask Mexicophiles which are the best beaches in Mexico, opinions will differ. Beauty, ambience, affordability, and wave quality are all taken into consideration when deciding which beaches in Mexico can be called the best. It all depends what you’re looking for… Here are four very personal choices, in no particular order, and why they make the grade.
On the southern end of Mexico’s Riviera Maya is the up-and-coming expat destination of Tulúm. This small but lively beach community offers a warm tropical climate year-round, as well as white-sand beaches and vibrant turquoise Caribbean waters. Good value condos and homes means retirees and other expats live by the beach for less. And an active expat community, great restaurants, and plenty of modern amenities and services make for a great lifestyle.
La Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue) is the heart of life in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. This street is Playa (as locals call the town) in a nutshell: cosmopolitan, chic yet casual, and lively from early morning to late at night, with expats and visitors from the U.S., Canada, Europe, other parts of Mexico, and all of Latin America. What used to be a tiny town, a ferry stop for tourists heading to Cozumel, has boomed. The talk around town is that it’s the fastest-growing city in Mexico. But the town’s guiding spirit of “fun in the sun” remains strong.
Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula has a lot more to offer visitors than just sun and sand. As well as miles of pristine beaches and Cancún’s modern conveniences, the region is dotted with cenotes (underground lakes formed from limestone sinkholes): portals into the mysterious Maya underworld. This part of Mexico is also home to some of the last remnants of Maya culture in the country. And with the Mayan Nature Experience Cenote Tour, from the Layla Guesthouse in the beach town of Puerto Morelos, you can now experience all of this. This intimate tour yielded memories worth far more than the 900 pesos (about $60 dollars) I paid for it.
I grew up on a ranch in Winslow, Arizona, with Spanish all around me. I absorbed it by osmosis and used it on my first South American adventure…to Argentina. I loved Spanish but it was only when I traveled to Argentina that I discovered I loved teaching. A doctor friend there asked me to help him with his English. We made so much progress that I was soon teaching his friends. And that was the start of my language-teaching career.
At home, prices are rising. It costs more to put gas in the car, buy groceries, and pay for health insurance. At the same time, retirement savings eroded in the market downturn. If you’re looking overseas for a low-cost alternative to an uncertain retirement at home, there’s good news. You can ﬁnd it in places that offer not just “cheap” living, but a whole basketful of beneﬁts, too—places where a mild spring-like climate is yours all year round…beaches are of powder-white sand…snow-capped mountains soar above colonial towns…and your costs could be as low as $1,000 a month.
On the western side of the Yucatán Peninsula is Mérida. This Mexican town of 1 million hosts the third largest Spanish colonial quarter in the world. And the historic centro is full of centuries-old homes, churches, and public buildings, as well as charming plazas, parks, and squares. Retirees and other expats “discovered” Mérida in the late 1980s and every year more and more North Americans and Europeans make the move, many of them renovating colonial buildings, turning them into private homes, B&Bs, restaurants, art galleries, and boutiques.
After a long and grueling career in the restaurant industry in New York and New Jersey, Anthony Chalas was ready for a change. He wanted his own place, where he could fulfill his vision of a seaside restaurant serving Greek food. And he found it on Mexico’s Riviera Maya, in the sleepy fishing village and expat haven of Puerto Morelos.
Sunday morning, San Miguel de Allende. From a dead sleep, the cacophony of clapping, singing, and unusual musical instruments wakes me out of a deep sleep… “It’s really close!” I think to myself. I amble down the stairs in the direction of the sounds, they get louder, in fact they seem to be just outside my front door. I had arrived home the night before, after a long week of both business and fun, into a thunderstorm-ish airport.
For too many of us, daily life means paying mounting bills, commuting to work, staying there far longer than is healthy, and worrying about…well…everything. It’s what folks call the rat race. The futile grind. It’s stressful, it’s bad for your health, and it feels like it will never end. But freeing yourself from it is easier than you think. In this issue of International Living we hear from expats who have already escaped and taken advantage of low costs overseas to free themselves. They are living in beautiful locations around the world, enjoying lives that are a far cry from their experiences back in the States.
Sinking my toes into the warm white sand, I lean back in a plastic chair warped by the sun to give it a reclining effect. Homemade tortilla chips heaped on the plate in front of me are perfect for dipping into the ceviche of fresh ﬁsh caught just off the coast. And the $2 chelada, a lager beer on the rocks—Pacíﬁco is my favorite—with a liberal dose of lime juice and salt on the rim, hits the spot.
Tim Leffel and his family live among the cobblestone avenues, pastel-colored colonial buildings, and leafy plazas of Guanajuato, one of Mexico’s prettiest towns. “I really love the pace of life, the emphasis on family and fun rather than wearing ‘busy-ness’ as a badge of honor,” he says. “Since Mexican cities are geared to pedestrians and people are always out and about on foot, we don’t need a car and all the related expenses. Since healthcare costs are reasonable, there’s no fear of a doctor’s visit costing more than a car payment either.”
In 2006, even though the U.S. economy was still going strong, I looked around at my life and said, “It’s time to go.” So I quit my job, sold my apartment in New York, and moved abroad. It sounds abrupt, but it actually wasn’t. I’d been thinking about it for years. I’m no financial genius, but I can add as well as anyone, and I can certainly read writing on the wall. And, having hit a milestone birthday, calculated my net assets, and estimated remaining work years, they didn’t add up to a retirement I’d enjoy. I saw absolutely no way to save as much money as financial wonks said I’d need to retire comfortably in the U.S.
I get a couple of emails a month like this from International Living readers: “I’ve been doing my research as you suggest. I know I want to make my move abroad, but no matter how many likely destinations I cross off my list, I still have too many to choose from. Where should I go?”
Just north of Tulum on Mexico’s Riviera Maya is the small beach community of Akumal. The beach curves gently around a small cove, which is home to endangered sea turtles who munch on the abundant sea grass.
Just south of Cancún, on Mexico’s Riviera Maya, sits the small fishing village of Puerto Morelos. While still a working-class traditional Mexican town, Puerto Morelos has also drawn retirees in increasing numbers who come to live full-time or part-time as “snowbirds” escaping the cold North American winters.
Playa del Carmen lies about midway between the all-inclusive resort hub of Cancún and the up-and-coming, low-key and still somewhat bohemian destination of Tulúm. It’s a happy medium between those two extremes and a favorite for those seeking to live an active retirement in an atmosphere that is sophisticated, yet laidback at the same time. Casual dress and relaxed attitudes are the keys to living in Playa del Carmen. The region is the Riviera Maya, a focal point for tourist activity and site of investment by the Mexican government, which started with Cancún in the 1970s and spread down the coast. The feel is First World, with services, infrastructure, and amenities to match.
Gene and Patricia have been escaping harsh Canadian winters in Cancún for about 15 years now. They are among a large number of couples who have chosen the life of a “half-pat,” preferring to spend four to six months a year in their second, much warmer, home here on the Caribbean, without committing entirely to the life of full-time expats. The Rousseaus usually leave their Canadian home in early January, enjoying about five months in Cancún before returning in late April or May, depending on the Canadian weather.
Right now, in a quiet, laidback beach town steps from the blue Pacific, you’ll find a welcoming international community, cute restaurants and stores, and a remarkably low cost of living. On a budget of just $1,600 a month, a couple could live comfortably here, right near the ocean where you can fish, swim, kayak, sail, or just read a book on the sand… In an historic city we recommend, you could enjoy the cosmopolitan culture—live music and choral concerts, art galleries, independent restaurants, chic boutiques—and live comfortably for as little as $1,300 a month (less if you own your home outright).
Imagine a place of rich, earthy smells, dappled light, soaring tropical hardwoods, and thick underbrush…the dawn calls of birds and the nighttime chirps and whistles of insects. From your terrace it’s as though you have Eden on the doorstep—a thousand shades of green and nature’s bounty. These days, living in a jungle home, you can have the best of both worlds: the feeling of being set apart, while enjoying conveniences like high-speed internet and air conditioning in your own paradise.
Guanajuato, Mexico, loves its food. And as Mexico considers its homegrown cuisine part of its cultural heritage, what better way to celebrate it than a public feast? The three-day Enchilada Festival culminated this year in an enchilada cookout that filled three long tables—over 900 feet—with enchiladas. It’s thought to be the longest enchilada in the world!
Financial struggles weren’t the only thing motivating our retirement abroad, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that’s what got us looking for an out-of-the-box solution to begin with. Like a lot of people during the financial crisis, my husband, Donald, and I took a big hit. Here we were nearing the end of our working years, and our financial security had evaporated in a seeming instant. My husband had his second heart attack in three years, and then lost his job—along with his medical insurance. We were tired, vulnerable, and drowning in stress. I remember my husband declaring that he felt as if he’d, “been running a marathon for 60 years.” We both worked regular jobs, and even started a couple of small businesses on the side to claw our way back. But it would be years before we could hope to retire, and we were spending all our time and energy just to hold on.
One of my absolute favorite destinations in the world is Guanajuato, a city in Mexico’s Colonial Highlands. It’s a place where every interest is catered for: Every time I return I throw myself into the wealth of cultural activities it offers: concerts, exhibitions, theater, food festivals, book fairs… Even Guanajuato’s street scene is lively. Walk down to the Jardin (Garden) area any given night, and you’ll see strolling locals and expats, bustling outdoor cafes, student troubadours, and mariachi groups making music, and more.
Beverly Nelson has a passion for holistic health…and for Mexico. That’s why she opened a retreat center in San Miguel de Allende, in the country’s Colonial Highlands. Today, she enjoys a life that is fulfilling both personally and professionally. She welcomes clients from around the world who come for workshops and lectures, individual and group retreats, and healing modalities like acupuncture and various types of massage, including Ayurvedic. During her free time, she and friends enjoy San Miguel, going to concerts, films, gallery openings, the theater, or dinner at someone’s home or in a local restaurant. “There is so much to do here in San Miguel, there is never a lack of choice,” she says.
Bella Sirena is a secluded oasis on a strip of land that joins the peninsula of Baja California with the rest of Mexico. It’s right where the sand meets crystal blue waters and the beach goes on for miles. The 20-foot tidal changes uncover delicate creatures like starfish, tiny crabs, and other sea urchins that hide in all the nooks and crannies. Beyond the gates of this upscale resort, lush tropical foliage surrounds the infinity pools and you step into Old-World architecture inspired by Mexican and Tuscan villas.
In 2008, when my husband Paul and I first started talking about the possibility of retiring overseas, we really only considered two countries: Mexico and Costa Rica. I often wonder why we didn’t consider more countries at the time; there are so many great options. At the time, though, we only thought of countries where we’d had some personal experience. First up was Mexico. Paul lived and went to college there in the ’70s and has always had a love for both the country and its culture, so it was natural that Mexico was on our short list. I had visited Costa Rica on a business trip in the ’90s and remembered it as a beautiful country that I always wanted to visit again.
When Bob and Irma Caragol started looking for their new retirement home, they knew what they wanted. “We were looking for a warm climate at a high elevation, enough land for a garden with a good water source, a safe way to diversify our assets, and an affordable cost of living,” recalls Bob. They found all this and more in Santa Fe, Panama. “We are so impressed by the people of Santa Fe,” Bob says. “They are so friendly and helpful and we feel welcome here. There’s no sense of class distinction as in other places, and almost no crime. The environment is unspoiled, with clean rivers and no pollution.”
Mexico’s chic beach resort of Puerto Vallarta has been attracting expats for decades, thanks to its warm climate and sophisticated but affordable First-World living. But while many come to lounge by the sea or stroll the cobblestone streets of the city’s Romantic Zone, Canadian Pat Light has found in Puerto Vallarta a moneymaking opportunity. The former hospital administrator has turned her love for exotic handmade soaps into a thriving business. In addition to colorful soaps, Pat also sells shampoos and body creams scented with the coconut, lime, and mango of her new home. Like many businesses, hers grew out of a hobby. A longtime admirer of handmade soap, Pat ran out of supplies after moving to Mexico in 2007. This led her to try to create her own.
Every year, more and more North Americans are waking up to the immense opportunities that an overseas retirement presents. Some move abroad to embrace new experiences, a different lifestyle—even an exciting new career—unavailable to them at home. Others—worried that a depleted nest egg and spiraling healthcare costs may leave them too little to retire on in North America—discover that many lower-cost countries let them stretch their savings and enjoy a comfortable, even luxurious, retirement.
Recently I spent a month in the U.S. visiting family and friends. It was my longest continuous stint “back home” since I moved to Mexico eight years ago. It was a great opportunity to reconnect with loved ones and enjoy the U.S., and I did. There’s a lot that I love about my home country, including its beauty, the sheer convenience of life there, and, of course, its familiarity. I don’t include the high—indeed, exorbitant—cost of U.S. healthcare on that list of things I love. Those who live in the U.S. don’t have any choice—that expensive healthcare is all they have. But in moving abroad I gained a choice in the matter, and it’s been one of the best things about my move.