From There to Here
The decision to move to Mexico was a process that spanned a number of years. In 2010, we took early retirement at age 55 and moved to our cottage in Muskoka. This had always been the plan, but the financial crisis brought it on early. Living on the lake was great…..in the summer. However, it would start to snow and the lake would freeze in November and it wouldn’t thaw until April.
For several years, we went to Cambodia for a month in January with the Rotary Club to distribute bicycles to rural children so they could get to school. That was a much-needed break, however, eventually, I had to acknowledge I had been deluding myself. I was sick and tired of being cold! I told my wife I wasn’t willing to spend a third of the rest of my life in a climate I couldn’t stand.
Then there was the cost of living. At the risk of sounding like an old guy whining about his pension, I was increasingly aware of the cost of things. The minimum wage in Ontario roughly doubled during this period and I think prices did too. I simply don’t believe the official inflation numbers; I think they are actually much higher and have been for some time. The cost of food alone would account for the official stats and my understanding is that it has become much worse since we moved last year.
A couple of minor but irritating examples. When I was working, we always had housekeepers; every two weeks for $20 per hour cash. Currently, it is closer to $40 per hour, an amount we couldn’t justify in retirement despite hating to do it ourselves. In Mexico, we have 2 cleaners for 4 hours each every week. It’s wonderful!
When we moved to Muskoka in 2010, there was a small restaurant in Gravenhurst that cooked prime rib on Friday nights for $20, complete with the rib bones. We tried to go every week and the bill was $50, give or take. In 2019, we went to a local roadhouse in a trailer park for fish and chips for my birthday. Despite this being the special that night, the bill was $75. Down here, the fish and chips would be $25 for two and we would be hard-pressed to spend $75 for prime rib or even steak.
Finally, there were the rules. I have a vague recollection that, when I was younger, there weren’t quite as many people always telling me what to do. It’s as if a large part of the population now believes that, if only there are enough rules, nothing bad or unexpected will ever happen. Since moving I’ve noticed that viewed from the outside, Canada’s post-industrial, first-world problems really aren’t all that compelling. Of necessity, things are much more grounded and real in Mexico. They can’t afford to be that self-absorbed.
For example; police here are very paramilitary in appearance. They wear fatigues, carry automatic weapons, and patrol with 3 or 4 officers in the back of a pickup truck. Our son is a police officer in Canada, so my wife always wants to give them a hug, an understandable if ill-advised impulse in this case (they are friendly enough; we wave, they wave back)! With my delicate Canadian sensibilities, it took a bit of getting used to until I realized that by patrolling as they do they are actively suppressing actual crime. They aren’t handing out $200 tickets for silly infractions every time you turn around; they have more pressing concerns.
About 5 years ago, a friend gave me a book called ‘A Better Life for Half the Price’. The author, Tim Leffel, is an American writer who, at the time, was living in Guanajuato, Mexico, about 3 hours from here. His premise was that there are many places, predominantly lower-wage jurisdictions, where a person could live as well or better than in Canada or the US for less money. His benchmark spending level was Social Security or CPP/OAS. He covered about 25 different countries and included comments on all aspects of interest to potential immigrants including health care and safety concerns and even schooling and work visas.
At the time, we had traveled enough outside North America to know that this was probably true, and Canada certainly didn’t have a monopoly on the good life. After reading the book in light of our criteria, our shortlist included Portugal, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, and Malaysia. Hungary scored well and I had been there, but they also have winter so I didn’t see the point. We had experience with Cambodia and the write-up in the book was accurate, but it’s not a place I would choose to live.
In 2018, we went to Portugal for the month of January to see what it was like. We visited Lisbon and then rented a nice apartment on the Algarve with a huge terrace overlooking the ocean. At this point, we were primarily looking for a six month winter getaway and it would have worked well for that. Winter is low season there, so accommodation and car rentals are cheap. I estimate we could have purchased our rental apartment for about $175,000 with $25,000 down, put it in a summer rental program yielding positive cash flow and used it ourselves for free all winter.
The only problems were that the weather, while certainly better than Canada, wasn’t as warm as I would have liked and we would have had to fly the dogs twice a year. When I did some research into that aspect, I found lots of horror stories of dogs dead on arrival.
In fall 2019, we decided to try and sell our cottage and downsize to facilitate spending the winters outside Canada. In December, we drove to the Lake Chapala district of Mexico, south of Guadalajara. It seemed easy and safe because we knew people who went down every winter and they gave us a lot of helpful advice. I was aware that some purists don’t consider this area sufficiently Mexican or sufficiently inexpensive because of the expat influence, but we eventually found it very much to our liking.
I say eventually because, I’m embarrassed to admit, my first reaction wasn’t that great. We had friends coming down to visit us in February and, a couple of days after we arrived, I sent an email saying hold off buying your tickets because I’m not sure we’ll be staying. There are a number of reasons for my initial reaction; we didn’t know where anything was, it was a bit foreign and scruffy looking and I had been wound up tight by everyone back in Canada warning me constantly about how dangerous Mexico was. Once our friends started showing us around, we began to relax and after a month we were looking at real estate.
We found the area to be sufficiently Mexican and cost-appropriate for us. The expat influence ensures a smooth and easy transition until we learn some Spanish (we can read directions and order in a restaurant at this point but not much else; thank heaven for Google Translate!). We thought about the beach resorts but they are also relatively expensive and very hot and humid in the summer, such that some people come here in order to escape it.
The other aspect that is nice is proximity to Guadalajara, which is less than an hour away. Guad is the second largest city in Mexico, bigger than the GTA. It is a major manufacturing and design center. You can get anything in Guad, from a Porsche to marine plywood! They don’t have an Ikea (you have to go to Mexico City or order online)…..yet.
So why did we decide to move down full time instead of coming down seasonally as we had originally intended? By this time we realized that, even by downsizing, it would take all our equity to get another place on the lake in Canada. We could have moved into town to save money but I didn’t see the point in that. It’s true, we could have done the downsizing, come down here and rented each winter, but once I saw that I could get a 4000 sq. ft. house with a pool for about $300,000 US, I simply lost my mind!
The other factor was that the drive down was more onerous than I had expected. I assumed it would be like driving to Florida but, at 4500 km one way, it’s about twice as far. It was six, 10 hour days with 2 dogs in the car. We stopped for half a day at the shrine to Chip and Joanna Gaines in Waco, Texas, but it was still a long haul! We know people who have done it for many years, but it was not something that appealed to me. Instead, we decided that we could always fly back to see family and friends anytime (pre-pandemic!) and that we would have a large enough house here that people could come and visit.
A local real estate agent (actually, a Canadian from Alberta) took us on an orientation tour in order to show us what was available in different areas. This is a common practice here. We also looked at listings online extensively and drove by a number of them. In the end we stumbled upon a private sale (also, as it happened, a Canadian from Alberta) and entered into an Agreement to Purchase drawn up by a Notary. We obtained several quotes from local moving companies experienced in moving people down from the US and Canada and chose one.
Finally, we engaged an immigration lawyer to help with obtaining our visas and drove back to Canada in March 2020 to sell our house there. At this point, the pandemic was merely a blip on the horizon, however in retrospect, getting the immigration lawyer was one of the smartest moves we made. Partway home, in Indiana, we arrived at the hotel to discover that that afternoon, the Governors of seven surrounding states had shut down restaurants to all but take-out. And the game was on!
My move to Mexico thus far has been a great experience thus I’m sure there are many more to come in the future.