‘The Perils of Pauline’
There are a million Americans and Canadians currently living in Mexico. Despite this, the common perception in Canada is that it’s highly dangerous. We heard about this constantly. One person, who should have known better, said, “You’re driving! To Mexico! Crossing at Laredo! Are you crazy!?”
On one of their trips down, friends ran across a couple who had spent 10 days driving back and forth along the border in Texas trying to muster the nerve to cross. Another friend told my wife about a Canadian who drove down to Laredo, was allegedly told by US border security that it was too dangerous to cross, drove back to Canada and flew down.
All of which is utterly ridiculous! Let me be absolutely clear: at no point since arriving have we had reason to be concerned for our safety. Not once. It doesn’t even register consciously with us any more. That doesn’t mean we weren’t hyper-ventilating a bit when we first got here because of all the dramatics we’d been exposed to in Canada, just that there was no need to be afraid.
In the early 1980’s, my brother was an art student living in New York City, before it became gentrified. At one point I asked him if it was dangerous. He said, “Not really, if you pay attention and learn the rules.” In 2008, I visited a friend who was working in the middle east. The plane was full of Arabs including many families with children. I never felt unsafe, either on the flight or in-country. At all times, security was robust, visible and effective.
So, is Mexico dangerous? Not really, if you pay attention and learn the rules! In the first place, forget all the sensational stories in the media full of lurid accounts of gangland violence. Put them out of your mind completely. They are simply not relevant to a foreigner minding their own business and going about their life.
It’s true that there can be issues in the border region, the reasons for which should be obvious. Based on advice from our friends, we took the following precautions coming down. Instead of crossing at the main Laredo checkpoint, which is huge, we chose a smaller point about 20 miles west at Colombia. We have now used this crossing three times and there hasn’t been any traffic each time. Coming in, it takes about an hour to complete the paperwork for the visas and the car.
We bought a GPS at Best Buy in Laredo with the data set for Mexico, so we wouldn’t get lost. It worked well, although the robotic, anglo voice trying to pronounce Mexican street names can be very funny! We also crossed in the morning so we would have time to drive inland during daylight. Finally, we filled up the car before we crossed so we wouldn’t have to stop right away. Gas costs about the same in Mexico as it does in Canada, so it’s cheaper in Texas anyway.
What we failed to do the first time was get Mexican currency beforehand. The border crossing at Colombia is quite small and the exchange wasn’t open (any of the 3 times). Unlike some countries, US money is generally not a substitute here, and they wouldn’t have a clue what to do with Canadian money! After that experience, we ordered $5000 Mx (about $325) from our bank before we left and relied on ATM’s when we ran out.
The drive from the border to Guadalajara takes two days. We have stayed overnight in both Monterrey and Saltillo on different trips. You can either take toll roads or non-toll roads. Generally, the toll roads are better and more direct. The convenience is worth the approximate $100 cost for the 2 day trip.
Most gas stations are staffed by attendants; you don’t pump your own. We were told to always make sure they set the pump to zero before they start, however, the first time we stopped for gas on the way down, I forgot. Driving away, I realized I had only received about half the gas paid for. Oh well, live and learn, it hasn’t happened since!
With the risk of physical violence at almost zero, all that remains is the potential for petty theft and grifting. There is a bit of this, but it is not directed only at foreigners. (The Mexicans are just more skilled at avoiding it!) The income distribution is not as homogenous overall as it is in Canada with a large working class, a small but growing middle class and a few very wealthy. The disparity between most of the expats and many of the locals is significant. If anything, it’s surprising that there isn’t more tension than there is.
To offset any risk, I wear a travel wallet around my neck, my wife keeps a good hold on her purse at all times, we pay attention when using the ATM and always count our change on the spot. The trick is to strike a balance between being naive on the one hand and cynical or paranoid on the other. There is a jungle-drum network on social media to keep gringos up to date on any problems.
We rarely drive at night, but this doesn’t have anything to do with ‘fear of highwaymen’. It has more to do with other nighttime ‘hazards to navigation’ which include cows on the road, impaired drivers and speed bumps (topes, pronounced to-pay). At first we found the topes frustrating, but they are really effective at controlling traffic and eliminate the need for many stoplights. Rather like the roundabouts now coming into vogue in Canada. However, if you hit an unmarked one at speed, you’ll know it! It’s not that we won’t go into town to have dinner with friends in the evening, but if we had to pick up people from the airport in Guad at night, we’d probably get an Uber.
Since moving in, we have had a number of contractors do work on the house. We had a fence put up across the back of the property which had previously been open. This was primarily to contain our dogs, however, prior to moving in, a number of cows had come down from the mountain looking for food. They ate all the plants, crapped everywhere and one even had a calf on the driveway. We were up north trying to sell that house when our neighbour sent a picture of this blessed event!
Other work included installing the pool, putting in an automated sprinkler system to water the garden in the dry season and painting the outside of the house. We also had a termite infestation which needed to be rehabilitated. We learned of this problem when the kitchen sink collapsed into the cabinet below while full of dishes and water!
The contractors for all this work were excellent; hard working, technically skilled and honest. In a couple of cases the final cost was actually less than the estimate. In one instance, however, we had a plumber who saw a ‘gringo patsy’ when he looked at me. By the time I realized what was going on and fired him, I had paid about $1200 for $400 worth of work. The Romans were right; Caveat emptor!
Moving on to security; as previously mentioned, the presence of the police and National Guard units on patrol is frequent and visible. This certainly contributes to a feeling of safety. In addition, most properties are walled or fenced and gated, often including barbed wire or razor wire. Many developments are gated with either a manned guardhouse or automatic gates.
Our house is in a gated development. Our particular lot is also walled and gated. All the doors and windows have ornamental ironwork (Spanish for bars!). Even the skylights are grated. Each door has a minimum of three locks including two deadbolts. Most deadbolts are double cylinder.
There seems to be a trend away from the bars in new construction, for whatever reason. When our house was originally built, it was somewhat isolated in the development and the owner wasn’t in residence all the time. Since then, more houses have been built nearby. In spite of this, the bars are beautifully fabricated, more decorative than ‘prison-like’, and don’t bother us at all.
The streetscape here can appear unkempt compared to Canada. This is generally by design. There is an expression that states ‘behind the walls’ denoting that, while the outside may be a bit rough looking, the property within is usually beautiful and well landscaped. Common public areas are very nice and all the towns have lovely central squares and boardwalks (malecons) along the lake.
There are not as many rules down here as in Canada. Building permits, for example, have more to do with capturing new construction for the municipal tax base, low as the taxes are, than about building inspection. When we bought the house, we had it inspected by an engineer. While he missed the termites (it’s a cement house, it’s not a big deal), everything else was fine. The lesson is don’t assume the same level of built-in protection as in Canada and always conduct your own due diligence. On the positive side, I could pay my property taxes here for 10 years for the cost of my last building permit in Canada!
Author Tim Leffel (A Better Life for Half the Price) has addressed the backlash many receive from their friends and family when looking to move abroad. He hypothesized that, if you are successful, it would undermine their belief that they already have the best possible circumstance. In the case of Mexico, trumped-up safety concerns are merely the stick they use to beat you with (pun intended)!