Canadian talks about her experience living in Mexico

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By Beverley Wood 

InterNations, a Munich-based network of 3 million ex-pats, compiled survey statistics in 2021 after interviewing 12,000 ex-pats worldwide — and Mexico ranked 2nd out of 59 countries in overall ex-pat satisfaction. A full 30% of ex-pats living in Mexico are retired, vs. 11% globally. And it ranks as the 4th best spot for the cost of living (90% of respondents say that they have enough disposable household income).

But let me speak frankly. So many “Move to Mexico!” guides only give you the rosy parts. For example, in the same InterNations survey of 59 ex-pat countries, Mexico ranks below average in quality of life (31st), low in the Quality of Environment category (42nd), and in the bottom 10 (51st out of 59) of the Safety and Security subcategory. You won’t see those stats in tourist guides.

Still, out of all 59 countries, Mexico ranked first in ex-pat happiness — 89% say they are happy with their lives (vs. 75% globally). No wonder more than half of them say they will stay in Mexico forever. And maybe you will too. But you need some local knowledge before you make such a big decision.

You will need to decide on a lot of things before you make the move. Like where you are going. Mexico is a big country and living in Tulum is nothing like living in Mexico City — and neither is anything like living in Puerto Vallarta.

There are questions to ask yourself. What kind of climate do I want? What about the crime? Is the cost of living as cheap as they say? Do I have to get permission to live there? Do I need to speak Spanish? What if I don’t like it?

Well, let’s figure that all out.

1. What kind of climate do I want?

San Juan Del Cabo, Sea of Cortez (left); Cenote, Yucatan Peninsula
Soumaya Museum, Mexico City (left); Oaxaca street

The weather is a big part of your choice. And 91% of ex-pats praise the weather in Mexico, compared to 66% globally (InterNations). Climate and geography go hand-in-hand — your elevation, proximity to the coast, and latitudinal location all affect the climate.

Mexico’s topography runs from sea level to 5,636 m above sea level (18,491 ft). For comparison, Denver CO is 1,609 m (5,280 ft) above sea level.

There are a number of major cities in what is known as the central highlands that rest 1,500–2,000 m (5,000–6,500 ft) above sea level, such as Ajijic, San Miguel, and Cuernavaca. And then there’s Mexico City, the country’s capital and 5th largest city in the world according to Wikipedia. Other charming cities in the highlands include Morelia, Patzcuaro, and San Luis Potosi.

The air in the highlands can be thin for some people — if you suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or if you are overweight for example. Obviously, beach towns are at sea level. If you have problems with altitude, this is where you should be looking. If you have respiratory problems, this is where you should be looking. If you have problems with heat and humidity for part of the year, this is not where you should be looking unless you can get away during the summers. The beach towns have high humidity most of the year, peaking in the summer. That said, there are a lot of different geographies to cover when you start to talk beach towns, and a lot of options, so don’t rule anywhere out yet.

México has more than 9,000 km (5,600 mi) of coastline on three different bodies of water — technically four, but I can’t count the Caribbean Sea with the same weight, as it’s a very small portion of Mexican geography (the other three are the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Sea of Cortez). The climate is different as can be from Cancun to Manzanillo to La Paz. Do lots of research — google is your friend. And visit first before moving, if you are able.

Tropical Riviera Maya (left); Desert La Paz and Baja Peninsula

There are big climate differences between the central highlands, the beaches and the north. In the central highlands, the temperature is relatively consistent, year-round. It is cooler in the summer than beach towns, but also cooler in the winter (and some more than others). Check various Mexican cities on your weather apps and check out historical temperatures online and you’ll see what I mean (don’t forget to check humidity, too). In the north, states like Chihuahua, Durango, and Zacatecas get snow (and a fair bit of it). Bet you didn’t know that.

Mexico does have devastating hurricanes on both coasts and it is one of the most seismically active countries in the world. But it’s also a big country geographically and some areas are more susceptible than others.

And it has seven different climate regions — spread out over 32 states, four oceans or seas, along with jungles, mountains and deserts. So you have lots of choices.

Popocatépetl volcano shot from Cuernavaca, Mexico

2. What about the crime in Mexico?

Let’s just get right to the elephant in the room. Should you be afraid to move to Mexico because of crime? More than a million ex-pats who live there say no. That said, you need to be aware. Very aware.

Because of the movement of drugs north to the USA (both from other Latin American countries and local sources), there is crime in Mexico that can be quite hideous and violent. But almost without exception, it is related to cartels and/or drugs.

You need to prepare yourself. Especially if you are reading local news, you are going to wake up some mornings to images of bodies swinging from bridges as the sun comes up and the commuter traffic begins (almost a reason to not learn Spanish). Or a dozen bodies lined up at the side of the highway, all bound and blindfolded, all dead. It happens. But this is cartel-related — and other than an image you’ll never get out of your mind, it should not affect your life in Mexico.

Although there have been grisly discoveries almost every­where, it is most common in the border towns and the states with warring criminal elements. It’s best to check your government’s website for hot spots as they change. When cartels start to fight over territories, all hell breaks loose.

If this talk makes you nervous, Mexico may not be for you. But ex-pats are rarely caught up in violent crimes unless they are in the middle of something they shouldn’t be messing with.

In 2020, Mexico had an overall murder rate of 29 per 100,000. Yet, many tourist areas remain unaffected by cartel crime. Puerto Vallarta, on the Pacific Coast, comes in at 15 homicides per 100,000 — on par with Dallas TX, or West Palm Beach FL. Of course, this could still alarm you if you’re from Vancouver, BC — where the homicide rate was 1.64.

Old Town, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

As for home invasions and robberies — often ex-pats are perceived to have money and are targets. But that’s why most homes have walls and razor wire and electric fences. Or in the case of a house facing the street, window bars. In the majority of locations in Mexico, you are on your own. Do not expect the local police to open an investigation or arrest anyone if your house is robbed. Sometimes, they don’t even answer the phone.

Foreigners in any country are targets for thieves. Don’t wear fancy jewelry, don’t get drunk and fall down on the sidewalk at 2 am, and don’t flash a lot of cash around. Be aware.

3. Is the cost of living as cheap as they say?

Almost 10% of ex-pats say that the cheap costs are their primary reason for moving to Mexico — and you can live extremely inexpensively. But you’ll be living no-frills. At the same time, you’ll have almost constant sunshine, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, and very little in the way of processed food, which is great for your health.

You can eat far cheaper than we did, but food is our religion. If you don’t mind shopping in multiple small stores and markets and eating uber-local produce, you can find inexpensive produce and meats at reasonable costs. You’ll have to cook what you find, but again — it depends on the lifestyle you want. As it turned out for us and food, it wasn’t cheaper unless we wanted to significantly change our lifestyle. I shopped at Costco a great deal and at higher-end stores in Mexico like City Market, as they had imported ingredients I couldn’t find elsewhere. And my grocery bill was more expensive than it is up north.

The markets are incredible. Prices top right are in pesos and are per kilo.

Other things are cheaper. Labor, if you are hiring cleaners or need renovations done. Eating out, if you don’t eat at high-end places, which are comparable to costs in Canada or the USA. Vehicle insurance was about half price ($400 annually, instead of $800). Gasoline was the same price as it is in Canada.

Public transit is ridiculously cheap. In the 25 cent range in most places. The Naugahyde seats are split open and there are no shocks as you travel too quickly down cobblestone streets. But you’ll see the compassion of Mexico when the driver and several passengers help a handicapped man up the steps. You’ll see the ingenuity and determination of Mexico when a three-piece band gets on and plays a song or two, collects donations and gets off at the next stop. And it’s quite startling the first time you see everyone on the bus crossing themselves in synch, and you hadn’t noticed that you were passing a church. Or even known that it was a thing.

But I digress. Back to the cost of living. Our property taxes were $800 instead of $3,000 a year. But, in our mid-60s, comprehensive private medical insurance was $1,000 a month. In Canada, it’s part of the services we contribute to with our income taxes so there is no monthly fee. There is public insurance in Mexico for residents at no cost, and you will be grateful for a public hospital if you are in an emergency situation and have no private coverage. Regular doctor visits for routine complaints are cheap. Under $50 and often $20. You can get health care that works for any budget.

Electronics, appliances and vehicles are more expensive. The luxuries are more expensive, basically. But if you want to live a simple life, you really can find it cheaper to live in Mexico. And the flowers are fantastic.

Flowers at the market in Cuernavaca, Morelos

4. Do I have to get permission to live in Mexico?

You do indeed, and this is the most complex part with rules often changing every time the government changes. Always check up-to-date sources of information. Currently, and for some time, you must apply for your residency visa, be it temporary or permanent, outside of Mexico at a consulate.

Basically, what gets you that visa is a passive income, a digital nomad income, or pension, equal to a certain amount of dollars per month. You can also show a benchmark amount of investments or savings and that works too. It’s too complex to give you details.

Check the website in the city where you will apply. Since consular services in Mexico have no connection to and are not governed by immigration services, they often list different amounts to qualify. It is theirs to interpret, plus it is based on a peso denominator in Mexico which fluctuates with minimum wage, the exchange rate and with new governments.

Wonderfully so for Mexicans, the current president has been raising the minimum wage annually. As a result, the qualifying amounts for visas have been going up correspondingly, about 15% a year. It is expected to be raised again in 2022.

San Miguel de Allende at dusk

You should find yourself a facilitator or immigration lawyer in Mexico who will help you once you arrive.

The consulate process is only the beginning. You’re a lock if you do things right from that point on, but it really helps to have someone guide you through the bureaucracy and red tape. And stamps. Mexican Immigration loves to stamp documents. You’ll see.

5. Do I have to speak Spanish to live in Mexico?

According to InterNations 2021 survey, a little over half (52%) of ex-pats in Mexico feel it is easy to get by without learning the language. That means 48% feel it is not easy if you can’t Habla Espanol. It does depend on where you live, but learning Spanish is highly advisable, even if you end up in a gringo town and socialize with gringos. You can pick up the basics anywhere and there are some great classes online. So I’m going to share some fun words with you instead.

6. What if I don’t like it there?

Simple. Come home. For starters, don’t sell everything and rush down without trying it first. Rent your house out for a year, put your stuff in storage, get your temporary residency and go to Mexico and rent a house in the region you think you want to live in. Do not buy right away. You could even try a housesit situation with a company like HouseSitMexico.

And OMG, there are so many things to consider before you buy — such as capital gains and the dangers of playing the currency game if you buy in pesos. You’ll find many houses in gringo areas in USD — so if you’re American you won’t have the currency game to worry about. Things in Mexico change with every new president, all the rules, so with respect to visas, capital gains, and immigration — you need to find a current source of information.

But seriously, don’t let this question be the thing that stops you. You can always come home. Always. Pack that bag — it’s an adventure. Who knows, you may even find your Shangri-La. Many do.

We came home after almost nine years. But I’m so very glad to have done it. There is a lot to love about Mexico. Just don’t for a second believe that it’s all margaritas and mariachis, and you’ll do just fine.

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Beverley Wood has lived on boats in Toronto and Vancouver and in an old hacienda in Mexico. She is currently contemplating her next adventure.

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