It’s rare that I get to interview bestselling authors.
Russell is pretty much famous, having sold over 4 million books worldwide in the fiction genre. But he’s also an expert on Mexico and wrote “Retirement Secrets of Mexico” which covers basically everything you need to know about retiring in Mexico.
But this is much more than about the book. Russell tells us all the reasons he left the USA for Mexico. He also tells us what people don’t understand – and should know – about Mexico.
A great read below.
Name: Russell Blake
Country of Origin: USA
Number of years in Mexico: 17
Hi Russell! Can you please tell us about yourself? How did you end up deciding that you wanted to leave the US and live in Mexico?
I am a serial entrepreneur who sold his medical company in the US back around 2004, and decided I didn’t want to live in the U.S. any longer for a host of reasons (including the passage of the Patriot Act and wars against folks who never attacked us), so I started really considering where I’d want to live permanently. I loved Melbourne, Australia, and had spent a ton of time in Cabo San Lucas on vacations (easy trip from So Cal, so was very familiar with the area), so I decided to give Cabo a 6 month try – which turned into 12 years there. I suppose I was never a very good American, having spent time in Europe during my late teens, and I never really bought into the whole consumerism lifestyle that powers the country, so was looking for something different, more chill, more relaxed and less materialistic. Mexico seemed a good choice due to proximity to the U.S. for family visits, so off I went. I’ve never looked back nor regretted a moment of it, and it’s been almost eighteen years here (a dozen in Cabo, three in Guadalajara, three in Colima). I love the family orientation of the culture, the emphasis on friendship and community and traditional values – a feeling of “we’re all in this together” that is especially evident in times of hardship or chaos that defines the population’s perseverance and resilience in the face of long odds.
After settling into my retired lifestyle, I quickly discovered that I bore easily, so over the course of four or five years I started a custom home design and construction company and a winemaking company in Cabo. That kept me busy, but after the 2008 market crash, building dried up for a few years, so I decided to start writing, and created a publishing company to handle the IP. Fortunately it did well (started in 2011) and readers seemed to enjoy my efforts, and my timing was fortuitous – after almost a year of toiling away in obscurity, I hit big in 2012, and in relatively short order co-authored several books with the legendary Clive Cussler, and was featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, The Times of London, the Boston Herald, and a slew of others as the self-publishing revolution captured the public imagination…culminating in my selling four million books and counting.
Being entrepreneurial, I got involved in restaurants in Mexico, and currently have a couple of popular spots in GDL – Peku, which is sort of a Mexican Chic-Fil-A, and a now defunct Mendoza Grill in Colima, which was an Argentine grill that got killed by 18 months of pandemic shutdowns and regs.
I’ve found Mexico to be quite business friendly if you know how to navigate the bureaucracy, and have had nothing but good experiences, even on the restaurant that didn’t work out. Contrast that ease of starting ventures with someplace like California, where I would have spent tens of thousands on each startup just in permits and licences.
On balance, Mexico isn’t perfect, and I don’t mean to color it as such, but I can live anywhere in the world, and I’ve been happy in Mexico for approaching a third of my stay on the planet, so I’d say with confidence I’ve adapted and thrived here, and lead what for many would be a dream life. It doesn’t hurt that costs are a third to a fifth of what they are back in the “old country,” which means one’s quality of life is that of someone making triple to five times as much someplace like California. And the food, the culture, the people, are truly amazing in a host of ways too numerous to list in the context of this blog.
You’re a Mexico expert and even wrote a book entitled “Retirement Secrets of Mexico” which was a bestseller. You’re mostly a fiction writer – what made you want to write a book aimed at helping people settle in Mexico?
It started off as a labor of love, that recounted my impressions of living in Baja, and then expanded at the suggestion of friends to encompass a “how to” book that not only enumerated all my impressions, experiences, and tips on relocating and thriving, but listed some favorite locales that are off the beaten mainstream path. These are places I’ve spent time in and considered moving to over the course of my years in Mexico, and I thought I’d share the spots so others could consider areas other than the typical tourist destinations most associate with the Mexican experience. It’s kind of a mish mash of what you need to know, how things actually operate, and towns that offer unique experiences, focused on those that have high quality of life with decent amenities. I didn’t want to do a “live in Mexico on $1000 a month” type guide, as those tend to focus on areas I wouldn’t be caught dead in. That may sound a bit elitist, but I want decent infrastructure, good restaurants, acceptable internet, driveable roads, not “rustic charm” that is basically Mexico fifty years ago. I want a grid that’s dependable, not burros in the street. And there was nothing I’d read that offered a no-nonsense approach to that, which I’d wished I’d had when I’d begun this phase of my life. So I figured, hey, I’m a writer, why not? The rest is history.
Your book “reveals seven of the best kept secret locations for expat living on virtually any budget”. I’m sure you don’t want to divulge what those locations are here (buy the book!). BUT I’d be curious what places do not make it on that list. Do expats tend to follow the herd to the same old places? What should people know when considering a place to live in Mexico?
Yes, expats tend to go to the headline spots like PV, Lake Chapala, Tulum, Cancun, Ensenada, Cabo, where English is spoken by most. The problem is that those areas are quickly somewhat ruined by the influx of gringos with expectations and relatively fat wallets, and they turn into tourist nightmares or Midwest retirement homes for disgruntled expats. Aside from buying my book for a host of considerations and info (shameless plug, but hey), I would say that the most important things to consider are how comfortable one will be adopting and accepting a new culture, with a new language, and a different way of doing things. If not very, then stick to the tourist areas where you’ll pay for the familiar with a substantial premium. If you’re adventurous, then there are amazing spots all over the country that aren’t on the average person’s radar, and because they’re undiscovered, they are at a deep discount to the tourist spots.
What many fail to grasp is how big the country is, and at how diverse. Many areas are as modern as a typical US city thirty years ago, with all the usual and familiar brands and conveniences. But you’ve never heard of them, because they aren’t vacation destinations – they’re simply nice places where a substantial chunk of the Mexican middle class live. I’d advise anyone considering Mexico (or anywhere else) to travel the country for six months to a year, rent once you’ve found a destination you like and see how it works through the summer and winter months, and create a list of positives and negatives of the area. If the positives outweigh the negatives, you’re on to something. If they don’t, move on, because there are hundreds of other spots waiting.
You’ve lived in a few places in Mexico: first in Cabo San Lucas, then Guadalajara, now in Colima. All very different types of places. What do you think it says about your progression as an expat in Mexico?
When I first moved here, I loved the easy pace of Cabo, which was a cantina town built around fishermen from Southern California coming down for long weekends to let their hair down. That was fine for what I was after, which was an exit from the go go go pace of business ownership in the states, and the constant pressure evident in everything from road rage to massive anti-depressant consumption to never-ending stress. I wanted to relax, and Cabo is definitely a great place to do so. But it changed over a decade, or perhaps I did, and I found myself wanting more. More amenities, more infrastructure, more “civilization.” While living there I traveled the country extensively, and found that Cabo was a kind of singularity – a tiny sliver of Mexican possibility that was primitive and rustic compared to mainland. As I experienced more, I discovered that mainland had some incredible places that I could see myself living in. After a dozen years, I built a home in Zapopan, which is a suburb of Guadalajara, and began splitting my time between it and Cabo. And after branching out to surrounding areas, I discovered Colima, which combined the small city thing I favor with proximity to GDL – but at giveaway prices. So I guess you could say I became more discerning as I learned more and experienced more here, and that progression resulted in a more nuanced take on what I did, and absolutely didn’t, want out of a place.
Obviously you love Mexico. Can you tell us what makes this country so special for you?
The food is unbelievable. I mean, truly breathtaking, from simple street corner taco joints to high end restaurants with white table cloths and wine cellars. I’m a foodie, so that’s important to me. I want to be able to dine well, and Mexico delivers on that end, in spades. The people are warm and welcoming, with a good sense of humor, and a sort of pragmatism you find in Latin America. They’re used to their government being a pack of liars, and things not working the way they should, so they’re self-sufficient and not particularly accepting of authority. I like that. It’s honest in terms of the understanding of human nature, including all its failings. There’s no moral superiority of the sort you get in the U.S., so that’s refreshing to me. Everyone is doing their best to get by, to have a nice life, to make ends meet, to raise their kids and build a happy existence. And of course, there’s the costs. The country is inexpensive to live in, and I don’t mean to survive in. I mean to have a really high quality life in. Everything is a fraction of the cost of the U.S. or Canada or most of Europe. So your dollar/euro/whatever goes a long way. No matter how much money one has, I’ve found people appreciate value, and Mexico delivers high value. That’s important, whether it’s health care costs being a tenth of the U.S., or food being a fifth, or property being the same. Nobody wants to overpay, and you quickly find that if you aren’t supporting the largest bureaucracy and military the world has ever seen, your costs are far lower.
I’d love your perspective on safety and security in Mexico. It’s the first thing that ever comes up when mentioning “Mexico”. How about your own personal experiences with safety/security?
Mexico is a huge country. 132 million people last time I looked. There are good, and terrible, areas. Typically speaking, the areas close to the border are the worst due to the drug cartel violence as the various entities fight for territorial control. So I avoid those areas, just as I would avoid the bad areas of Chicago, or St. Louis, or Baltimore, or Los Angeles. I also don’t traffic in drugs, or consume them, so I don’t find myself in districts where drugs are trafficked or sold. If you look at something like 90% of all violent crime in Mexico, it’s connected to the narcotics trade. So avoid that trade, and you avoid 90% of crime. Seems pretty simple. When I lived in San Francisco, there were areas you simply didn’t go if you wanted to stay alive. Same with LA. Same with San Diego. All cities have them. Same with Mexico.
I lived in New York for years, and you develop a certain radar for trouble, a certain street-smart sensibility that steers you clear of trouble. That comes in handy in Mexico. Certainly in the larger cities like Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey, and so on. I’ve found Mexico to be no more dangerous than anywhere else I’ve lived, and I’ve lived all over the world. I have been robbed once, at gunpoint, in Guadalajara, because I foolishly wore a rolex and wasn’t paying attention to my surroundings. So that attracted predators, who were actually quite polite about the transaction – they wanted the watch, didn’t ask for my wallet or anything else, and dashed off once they had it. At no point did I feel I was going to get shot. It was a business exchange. I was stupid enough to wear something flashy, they took advantage, I learned a lesson (I’ve never again worn an expensive watch outside of really high-end areas). That’s the extent of my experience with Mexican crime, which could well be qualified as dumbass gringo crime, easily avoided. In almost two decades, and the only time I had a problem was when I was kind of asking for it. That isn’t to say there aren’t dangerous spots here. I simply avoid them. I advise most people to do the same.
What else do people get wrong or don’t know about Mexico (that they should know)?
I think they don’t realize how developed and globally connected some areas are, so they expect chickens in the streets and other stereotypes they’re bombarded with in film and on TV. They expect truly primitive conditions, and are shocked by areas with Ferrari and Bentley and Maserati dealerships, luxury malls, glass high rises, gourmet restaurants. I mean, you can certainly go places that are 100 years behind, but many areas of Mexico are 21st century in the more prosperous zones, so that causes shock when expats visit them. It’s completely unexpected. Then again, consider that Mexico is the 11th biggest GDP in the world. That gets left out of most considerations. There’s a lot of money floating around here, only concentrated in fewer hands. But Mexico has an aspirational middle class that’s growing, and that’s evident, especially on mainland.
A lot expect things to be the same as in the U.S., and that’s a set up for disappointment. Mexico works at its own pace, and if you want Swiss efficiency you’re going to be badly let down. A trip to the bank can take two hours. On a positive note, a doctor’s visit or an ER visit can happen in minutes, and might cost $25. So there are plenty of surprises, both positive and negative. Dollar beer and tacos, medicine costs that are a fifth or less than in the U.S., building costs that are a third or less, property tax that’s in the few hundred dollars per year… many positives, and many negatives that teach one patience. You’re on time if you are a half hour late. Your handyman may promise you to be there in a few hours, and show up two days later. Expectations are different in terms of performance, and one either adapts or leaves. If you’re a type A personality with no interest in changing, you won’t do well. It isn’t for everyone.
On another note: what are your favorite places in Mexico for a getaway? There are many beautiful places in Mexico that people are not familiar with. What are yours?
I like Isla Mujeres, off the coast of Cancun, and Holbox Island, a few hours north of it. For quick getaways, Nuevo Vallarta, Punta Mita, and San Francisco (“San Pancho”) on the Pacific coast. Hualtuco and Oaxaca are faves, but for different reasons – Huatulco for getting away from the madding crowds, and Oaxaca for the food, which can’t be beaten anywhere in Mexico (except possibly Puebla). And the odd trip to Tapalpa for pine trees and mountainous terrain, or Valle Guadalupe for the Mexican wine country, breaks up the endless summer experience that living near the coast is good for. The country is massive, and there’s truly something for everyone regardless of taste, so it’s never boring.
Do you ever miss any aspect of living in the US Russell? Do you think Mexico is your ‘forever’ home?
Not really. Last time I was back in the “old country” was 2014. I spent a week with Clive Cussler at his home, talking book ideas, trying some of his favorite restaurants, and I couldn’t wait to get back to Mexico. The U.S. is way too much of a pressure cooker environment where the population is deliberately kept on edge, unhappy, at each other’s throats, tribal, propagandized, unhealthy, terrified of the unfamiliar. The stress level is palpable, and stress is a killer, as is eating poison, which is the majority of the American diet. So it’s been almost nine years, and I don’t feel like I’ve missed anything by not returning. I mean, the convenience of consumer goods and round-the-clock dining is a plus, but Mexico has changed a lot since I’ve been here, and you pretty much can get everything you can in the states now in the more developed areas. And I’ll admit I cringe in the tourist areas when groups of loud, red-faced, fat Gringos are yelling to one another in restaurants, or generally misbehaving, so I don’t miss my American brethren that much. As I’ve said, Mexico has warts and blemishes, just like everywhere else, but I’m used to them, and find the annoyance with them worth it given the overall positive experience I’ve enjoyed for nearly eighteen years. Truthfully the time has gone by like a finger snap, and I couldn’t imagine living elsewhere, even though I enjoy traveling to Europe and South America (not as regularly as I’d like since the pandemic, but it is what it is). As a home base, it’s been really good to me, spiritually, emotionally, financially, romantically. There isn’t a lot more to ask than that.
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