The Road To Margaritaville
It Beats Scarsdale
August 9, 2005
I get hordes of mail (though I’m not sure how many emails in a horde) saying “Dear Fred, I too am sick of my job, the country, dumb-ass wars, the creeping mommy-state, and the hyper-regulation of practically everything, and I too want to live in paradise with a dusky maiden and sip funny drinks with lots of tequila in them and maybe die of cirrhosis but everybody has to anyway and it’s more dignified than a car crash on the Fourteenth Street Bridge. How?”
This is my nickel guide for people thinking about expatriation to Mexico. It may bore most people, but it’s supposed to be useful instead of scintillating. (Utility is a new departure for this column.)
Mexico is not for everybody. Lots love it. Lots don’t. As a very rough rule, there are two types of gringos here: Those who don’t like Mexico but want good weather and cheap maids, and those who are adventurous, self-starting, and independent. Some of the latter are married couples, or at least couples. If you are really interested, spend a grand and come down for a week. (For how, see below.) Then you won’t have to wonder. If you don’t want to stay, call it a vacation.
For what it’s worth, the country seems to appeal powerfully to those who want to be left the hell alone. The United States tries to control your every move, thought, and minute. Here in Mexico, unless you break a major law or do something awesomely stupid, the government isn’t much interested in you. This lack of interest is perhaps government’s greatest virtue.
To begin with, the Mexican government is perfectly gringo-friendly and, no, you will not be used for a piñata by the Federales. Crime is not much of a problem unless you go to bad neighborhoods or look filthy rich in Mexico City. You won’t die of exotic diseases, or even mundane ones.
Now, where in Mexico? In central Mexico, the only part I know well, you have several choices, depending on who and what you are. There’s Guadalajara, a huge, sometimes grubby, noisy city but with all manner of restaurants, churches, malls, bars, music, and suchlike.
Then there are the towns along Lake Chapala, just south of Guad—Ajijic, Chapala, and Jocotopec, in descending order of Americanization and, therefore, of price. Ajijic is heavily gringofied, sort of Mexico by Disney, but has US-style grocery stores, gated suburbs, most of the conveniences of the States, and quaint cobbled streets overwhelmed by traffic. Chapala is much more Mexican, Joco still more so. Ajijic is probably the best place to get your feet wet, since there are lots of Americans to talk too, easily found on the plaza and in the bars.
Finally, there are the coastal towns and cities, Manzanillo (biggish) and Melaque (small). The beaches are beautiful, the summers hotter than a two-dollar pistol, with not too many furners. You can build a three-bedroom house in Melaque for maybe $50K. If you speak Spanish, or have your spousal unit with you, Melaque is great.
Some bad news: If you are a single woman, Mexico probably isn’t a good idea. You either date Americans or Mexicans. Most single Americans are well along in years and aren’t looking. There is a musical-beds scene but it isn’t pretty. American women tend to be more educated than the Mexican guys, to have a lot more money, and not (with good reason) to like the average Mexican guy’s attitude toward women.
Mexico isn’t super-cheap, but lots cheaper than the States. A decent meal where I live in Guadalajara runs seven bucks including a glass of wine. Rents vary wildly depending on the usual factors. A friend in Jocotopec has a small but decent two-bedroom apartment for $130, but he isn’t in a gringofied neighborhood. Housing is high now in the major expat towns: I saw a two-bedroom nondescript house going for $129,000. Farther out, you get much better buys. A beer in a bar is a buck or two.
You get a 90-day (sometimes, mysteriously, 180) tourist visa when you land in Mexico. You can then apply for FM-3 status, which is legal residency and what I have. This costs under $250 and has to be renewed annually for half that. To get it you have to demonstrate an income of $1000 a month, $1500 for a couple. It is not a hassle. Driver’s license is easy. So is bringing your car.
If you are, say, a self-sufficient military retiree, you can live comfortably on $1000 a month as long as you don’t have unexpected expenses, such as medical ones. On $2000, you are set, unless you need more diapering than anybody should. Good medical care is available though I don’t know much about it, as are broadband and hideous American TV by satellite for idiots. Mexican TV is equally bad.
Many guys write me asking about Mexican women. If you are a single guy, the woman situation is…complex. Because most gringos never learn Spanish, they have little access and so end up lonely in the bars, or just drunk. Learn serviceable Spanish, as a fair few do, and you will find a world of attractive and agreeable females. They like gringos, who can give them a comfortable life and don’t hit them or much cheat on them. Imagine a pretty, pleasant, warm-blooded young woman who doesn’t snarl, grouse, demand anything, or sue. Often bright and quirky, they run to domesticity, jealousy, and tranquility. Americans married to them do not complain.
Serious? Fly into Guadalajara, arriving early so as to have time to get settled. You have two choices that I know of. First, Ron Langley of Ajijic runs an introduction-to-Mexico service. I’ve talked to several of his clients and they liked him. Unless you speak Spanish or have experience winging it in the Third Word (whatever that means), might be a good idea.
Second, do it yourself, not hard. Fly to Guad, take a twenty-five buck cab ride to the plaza in Ajijic, grab a hotel. Talk to the gringos in the plaza.
Laboring as I have done in the vineyards of journalism, I know that foreign countries and war zones always sound more forbidding from outside than they do from within. I’ve watched friends fall in love with Mexico. Of course, my friends may not be quite normal, but maybe you aren’t either. If the darkening clouds over the United States bother you, the regulation and regimentation and surveillance, think about giving Messico a shot. A lot of people have, and they seem content--funny drinks, dusky maidens, empty beaches, and all.