Antique Punch Buggy

No Punch Backs

Whether by inclination or of necessity, gearheads are alive and well in Mexico! There are a lot of beautifully restored old cars and trucks here, some up to 50 years old. A few of the pickups are even badged ‘Datsun’, so that tells you how old they are. Some months ago, our mechanic needed to keep our car overnight and gave us a 1985 Mercury Sable as a loaner. It ran great! There are a variety of car clubs around for aficionados of different types of vehicles.

Shortly after arriving, I decided I wanted a classic VW. They are everywhere! The old style Beetle was manufactured here until 2004 and is called a Vocho. The mini-bus is also popular and is called a Combi. At some point in the distant past, when Volkswagen ceased production in Germany, the Beetle was re-engineered for manufacture in Mexico and Brazil. They were even given fuel-injection in 1993!

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Mans Best Friend

The Secret Life of Pets

There are a lot of dogs in Mexico, mostly roaming around free. Perhaps not quite as many as there are cats in Greece, but close. And they bark; morning, noon, and night. It’s not as bad as it sounds, however. Early in my career, I lived above the subway in Toronto at Davisville on the Yonge line, where the wheels squeal around the curve coming into the station 18 hours a day. If you can get used to that, you can get used to anything!

Just because the dogs are loose on the street and may not have a collar, doesn’t mean they are homeless. Usually, they get put out in the morning and go home at night. Traffic routinely stops to let them cross the road. In Ajijic, the butcher on the square gives them bones. Every morning, they line up in front of the shop, get their bone and toddle off to devour it somewhere in the shade. To paraphrase Hillary Clinton, “(In Mexico), it takes a village to raise a dog”!

At first, we were a little nervous walking our dogs because of all the strays. One Sunday morning in Jocotepec, we came upon a pack of eight dogs roaming downtown. I thought, ‘Oh hell, this isn’t going to end well’, but it wasn’t a problem at all. They figured it out among themselves. Dog fights are not unheard of but, often as not, it involves gringo dogs rather than the locals. Overall, there is much less aggression than I would have expected.

The most common breeds are mixed, chihuahuas and pit bulls. (There’s an old joke that goes; ‘What kind of dog is that? He’s an MSD. What’s that? Mexican Street Dog!’) Since many dogs have not been spayed or neutered, mixed breeds are predominant. In recent years, more owners have been having this done and spay/neuter clinics staffed by volunteer vets are now common.

Chihuahua dog Mexico

Unwanted dogs are still a problem, however, and there are several rescue facilities in the local area. A few months ago, my wife and a friend were in the Walmart parking lot when a truck pulled in, dropped off a box and sped off. When they went over to look, it was full of puppies. They immediately took them to a nearby dog rescue where they were all eventually adopted.

The chihuahuas are wonderful; enough attitude for 3 dogs and all in a 4 lb package! They yip and yap, strut and posture and boss around all the other (larger) dogs. To my surprise, the pit bulls are generally quite chill. We had a friend who had a pit bull back when they were first banned in Ontario. She assiduously referred to it as an American Staffordshire Terrier and swore it was a calm and friendly dog. At the time I used to think, ‘Yeah, right!’. Turns out she probably was.

Our two dogs are Standard Poodles, which is a bit unusual here. When we go for a walk in town or on the malecon, people are obsessed with them. Everyone, especially children, wants to pet them or take their picture. It has been a great ice-breaker. I swear, almost the first words we learned in Spanish were ‘el perros bonitos’ (beautiful dogs)!

While it is definitely improving, Mexico can still be a difficult place to be a dog. Part of the reason is a legacy of using dogs for security. The phenomenon of ‘roof dogs’ who spend their entire lives on the roof of the house barking at potential intruders is an example of this. The practice is now illegal but hasn’t completely disappeared yet. Also, obedience schools actually train dogs to bark. The other reason is economic; when money is tight for people, it’s doubly so for dogs.

In response to some of these hardships, the dog rescue centers do an excellent job of rehabilitating and adopting out many dogs. Funded through donations and staffed almost entirely by volunteers, including many gringos, these facilities provide food, shelter, medical care and, ultimately, adoption with many going to Canada and the US. When we were down the first time we volunteered to walk dogs at one place and saw firsthand the good work they do.

The culture here is very accepting of dogs. There are not many places that you can’t take them. Most restaurants, including good ones, will let your dog accompany you. It certainly simplifies going out for the day with them. Much nicer to have ribs in a restaurant with a tablecloth than a taco on a bench in the park! It’s also indicative of how easy and laid-back things are here generally.

In Canada, our dogs would get groomed every two months including clipping and a bath. The cost was $190 with tip for the two of them. Here the price is $40 total for the same thing. We like it so much we send them in the intervening months for just a bath; cost about $25. They don’t like to go here any more than they did there…….but I sure as heck do!

Similarly, our vet is a delightful young woman with a clinic in Joco. She is very knowledgeable and also volunteers extensively for the spay/neuter clinics. In Canada, one of our dogs had an unfortunate habit of developing medical problems on the weekend, necessitating a trip to the emergency on-call vet in Barrie. On more than one occasion, the bill was more than $1000. Our vet here works half days on Saturday and makes house calls. The last time we were in there the bill was larger than normal; $50 for a full exam, two shots and two medications (for one dog).

This morning, while walking along the carreterra, my wife and a friend came upon an older chihuahua by the side of the road that had been hit by a car. They took her to a nearby vet who determined that, while her spine had been bruised, it wasn’t broken. Also, she was somewhat undernourished. Time will tell, but she will probably make a full recovery. Cost of the vet; $20!

Our dogs have made the transition to life in Mexico very well. While they didn’t mind the winter in Canada as much as I did (they would run in the woods and eat snow!), they are thriving in the climate here. We can take them with us wherever we go and they get along well with the local dogs. Like people everywhere, Mexicans love their dogs.

On a sadder note, our immediate neighbor passed away last week. Originally from Belleville, Ontario, she taught for many years at the School for the Deaf in Milton. After coming to Mexico for the winter for a number of years, she and her husband moved down and built their house here about 6 years ago. She was both funny and a kind person who helped out extensively in the community. She will be missed.

Personal Finances

Show Me The Money

This topic is a work in progress for us; we are still feeling our way and could make changes down the road if circumstances warrant. Certainly, being retired simplifies our financial needs considerably, since all we really need is secure and consistent access to our money. Our CPP/OAS is direct deposited to our Canadian bank accounts, which we access with our debit cards. In addition, we supplement our income with occasional transfers from our investments as needed. This system works effectively most of the time, however, there have been a few hiccups.

Once, early on, we used an ATM branded with our bank in Canada, which has a visible profile here. The machine debited my account but didn’t give me any money. It took a few weeks to get the debit reversed but, ultimately, it worked out fine. Turns out servicing the ATM is outsourced locally and only the signage pertains to our bank. We haven’t used that machine since.

A couple of times, an ATM has ‘eaten’ our card. While this is anxiety-provoking, we have been able to have a new card couriered from Canada within a few days. When this happens, I can move money between accounts online and we make sure to avoid situations where both cards go AWOL simultaneously.

Living on a cash basis after many years of debt serfdom is both exhilarating and challenging. It requires a discipline to live within budget that had been missing during the era of the great ‘home equity line of credit sinkhole’. By the time we moved, it had become (as my friend Hutch used to say) “a pile of debt that would frighten the French”! With the high cost of living in Canada, it would have been impossible to retire that debt without a significant downgrade in lifestyle.

ATM charges can vary widely (as much as 300%), so we use machines with lower fees wherever possible and usually take our daily maximum. With a large number of gringos in the area paying cash for everything, the ATM’s run out of money regularly. Sometimes they arbitrarily reduce the amount that can be withdrawn, which makes the available funds go farther and also earns more fees for the bank. We’ve learned to go on Friday rather than Monday!

The ATM based approach works well for most things, however, there is a practical limit to the size of cash transactions. A new car, for example, can cost $500,000 (Mx) or more. Money laundering regulations prevent you from paying cash or using a credit card for this purpose. Apart from these types of cases, however, Mexican people are as enthusiastic as the Greeks when it comes to the cash economy!

We had a similar situation when we put in the pool, which cost about $30,000 ($500,000 Mx). The contractor wanted to be paid in 3 or 4 installments over the course of the six week build. It would have been difficult to run that much money through the ATMs in such a short time frame. Instead, we had funds transferred from our bank in Canada directly to the contractor’s account in Mexico. It was not that cumbersome and, fortunately, doesn’t happen very often.

Interest rates in Mexico are much higher than in Canada; bank accounts and GIC’s can pay up to 5%. The bad news is that financing for cars, mortgages and credit card debt is more restricted and expensive. I’m still trying to determine the extent to which this lack of consumer credit contributes to the lower level of affluence relative to Canada. On the positive side, the car may be 10 years old and the house may have taken 10 years to build, but they’re both paid for!

At this point, our current banking arrangements meet our requirements and we don’t see the need to open bank or investment accounts here. Many expats do, and there is a thriving local industry serving these clients. Without a Mexican bank account, however, we can’t pay bills online. The solution is Oxxo, a national chain of convenience stores, as ubiquitous to Mexico as Tim Horton’s is to Canada! You can pay most bills there for about 10 pesos each.

Our assets are principally comprised of our house in Mexico and investment accounts in Canada. Up to now, we have been Canadian residents for tax purposes, however, that may change this year. We will need to either become non-residents or deemed residents in Canada. If I understand our accountant correctly, it will be slightly more advantageous for us to be deemed residents, given the extent to which the lower cost of living in Mexico has allowed us to reduce our income. We will sort it out in April when we file our next returns!

Because we have the house in Mexico, we were advised to get Mexican wills complete with beneficiary designations and POA agreements. Failure to do so would have resulted in nightmarish bureaucracy and protracted delays in the eventual settlement of our estate. Since we are not citizens and Mexican law is not concerned with assets outside Mexico, we also retained our Canadian wills for assets there.

While preferable to Canada in many respects, Mexico does tax capital gains on residential real estate. Before you laugh too hard, I guarantee it’s coming to a town near you! There is a base level on which tax does not apply and different rates for principal residences vs investment property or seasonal use. In our case, having the Mexican wills is beneficial in terms of inheritance; it doesn’t eliminate the tax problem entirely, but it helps.

For all intents and purposes, there is no mail delivery in Mexico. When we moved down, we got a mailbox address at a chain store in Canada and assumed we would make a similar arrangement here. While that is what eventually happened, it wasn’t quite so simple. Due to customs regulations in Mexico, the local mailbox store maintains an address in Laredo and brings the mail down from Texas themselves. As a result, the cost on this end is actually more than in Canada!

Every couple of months, I had the mail from Canada couriered to Laredo. The first couple of times it worked well. The third time, the package was lost (by a prominent, global courier, no less!) and was never found. Normally that would not be a big deal, however, this package contained renewals for my wife’s drivers license, health card and car registration. Merde!

The last time, the courier contacted me to inquire about my immigration status in the US. I said, “I have no immigration status in the US”. They said, “US Immigration wants a scan of your passport”. I said, “To deliver an envelope of mail in Texas. Are you kidding me? Send it back”. Which they did. Since then it has been sent through the regular mail; it takes about two weeks but it works.

From the outset, our bank insisted on having our actual physical address on file. I assumed it was in case they had to send out a search party for some reason, like Stanley and Livingston in Africa. However, despite sending statements to the Canadian mailbox address, they also sent duplicates to the physical address. We would receive them about 2 months later when someone would stuff them in a hole in the wall down by the gate to the development and the caretaker would bring them up and stuff them in our wall! I finally managed to get this stopped.

Recently, I have been working to eliminate the mailbox in Canada. When I looked at the content of the mail shipments, more than 90% of it was bank statements and investment statements. While it was much more difficult than their advertising would suggest, eventually we were able to get these converted to online statements in both cases. Going forward, we will only have the address in Laredo for Canadian mail purposes.

Despite the fact that one of our cars is Ontario plated, we need Mexican car insurance for both. This was quite easy to obtain and, in the case of the Canadian vehicle, cost about half as much as in Canada. In fact, the price is so low that we pay the premium annually rather than monthly (remember, like in the ‘olden’ days!).

Car insurance is mandatory in Mexico but some people still don’t have it. You are somewhat fortunate if the person who runs into your vehicle is insured! Later this year, we will need to get Mexican drivers licenses before our Canadian ones expire. The driving manual is now available in English and the test can be written in Chapala, rather than having to go to Guadalajara.

Most Mexicans don’t have house insurance and, at this point, neither do we. The rationale is as follows; there is hardly any wood in it so it won’t burn and the physical security against break-in is good. The biggest danger is mudslides and earth tremors due to seismic instability, but this coverage is costly and difficult to obtain. The arroyos (drainage ravines) on either side of our property keep us fairly safe. Still feels a bit weird and exposed to my Canadian psyche, though!

Changing the subject; our son came down from Canada for a visit over Christmas. He had been on assignment overseas when we moved in 2020, so we hadn’t seen him in about two and a half years. We had a great time; went out for lunch every day and lounged by the pool in the afternoons. Went to visit the town of Tequila, where he and my wife both got snoggered at the tasting after the distillery tour. It made for a quiet drive home, but a good time was had by all!

I read online that Mexico rescinded the last of their pandemic restrictions for travelers on New Years Day. There are now no testing, vaccination or quarantine requirements on this end. Internal restrictions can vary by state but are generally much lower than the US or Canada. In Jalisco, for example, capacity limits on attendance at concerts were brought in last week in response to Omicron. Otherwise, it’s as close to normal as you’ll find anywhere. Absolutely no reason not to ‘Come on Down’. Unless, of course, you want to go back!

A Balanced Perspective

Glass Half Full

My parents emigrated to Canada from England shortly after the war. As my dad tells it, someone in the family had billeted a Canadian soldier from Alberta during the war and, afterwards, he sent a 5 lb canned ham one year for Christmas. A bunch of them were sitting around getting tipsy on ruby wine and they all decided they had to go to ‘the land of 5 lb canned hams’! Six months later, my parents were the only ones who showed up at the pier. That was in 1952.

In those days, most Canadians were wary of newly arrived Brits because they would perpetually whine about how they did things wrong in Canada and how much better it was in England. Many would go back and forth repeatedly, only to be reminded of the ongoing food rationing over there, among other things, before settling down in Canada. Some of them would actually refer to Canada as ‘the colonies’! Canadian colleagues would apprehensively ask my dad how he liked it and be both surprised and delighted when he said it was great.

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Moving Household Goods

The Long March

Some people sell everything, pack a suitcase, get on a plane and move down. That was never going to happen for us. Not with my wife! In fairness, we had a lifetime’s worth of art objects, travel souvenirs and ‘family heirlooms’ plus a houseful of furniture which we liked and which would fit well in the new house.

I have tried to sell furniture often enough on kijiji (Canadian ebay), only to have some half-wit offer twenty cents on the dollar if I will deliver it, to know there isn’t much of a market. Unless you’re trying to buy it, of course, in which case it is either vintage or antique. Or the buyer from across the country who wants to pay full price, sight unseen, provided you supply your banking information for the funds transfer.

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Real Estate in Lakeside

Mi Casa Es Su Casa

At the outset, a clarification: all prices quoted to this point and henceforth are in Canadian dollars, unless otherwise noted in US dollars (US) or Mexican pesos (Mx). Local real estate is usually priced in US dollars, sometimes in pesos, never in Canadian dollars. At current exchange rates, the US dollar is about 25% higher than the Canadian dollar. There are 20 pesos to the US dollar and 15 to the Canadian dollar. Therefore, $1 million (Mx) is about $62,000 Canadian.

A wide variety of real estate is available here for sale or rent. Sizes range from small, one bedroom apartments or casitas at about 500 square feet (sf) up to large homes at 5000 sf or even bigger. There are gated developments and stand-alone houses. Prices are up to 20% higher in Ajijic than in Chapala or Jocotepec due to the expat influence. Views of the lake and/or mountains can command a premium relative to properties that don’t have a view.

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Lake Chapala District

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Lake Chapala is located in the state of Jalisco in central Mexico. Jalisco is a large state encompassing both Guadalajara to the north and Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast. The lake is the largest fresh water body in Mexico, some 20 km wide and 80 km long. It is ringed by beautiful mountains, volcanic in origin (think Appalachians, not Alps).

The area sits at 5000 feet elevation, the same as Denver. This accounts for the more moderate climate relative to the beach resorts, which are very hot in the summer, as well as the periodic outbursts of “Ah, shit!” (or worse) emanating from our kitchen as my wife masters the art of high altitude baking. (I know, I didn’t realize that was a ‘thing’ either but, apparently, it is!)

Map pf Lake chapala
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Health Care in Mexico

The Elephant in the Room

When we moved from London, Ontario, to Muskoka in 2010, several people said to us, “Oh, I could never do that; what if you can’t get a family doctor?” and, “The hospital is 45 minutes away by ambulance. What if you don’t make it?” (then I guess I die?). Understand, we were moving to the Canadian equivalent of The Hamptons, not Outer Mongolia.

As it turned out, we found an excellent doctor in a family medicine practice in Bracebridge and had occasion to be treated at both the local hospitals, at various times, and they were fine (never had to go by ambulance though!).This incident certainly brought home the extent to which some people allow themselves to be held hostage by health care. I know there are many who will never consider a move to Mexico for this reason alone, which is a real shame.

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Obtaining Residency Visas

Permission to Come Aboard?

While down on our initial visit, we met with an immigration lawyer at a local expat cultural center called the Lake Chapala Society. She outlined the relevant types of visas and the requirements to obtain each. Before we left to return to Canada, we arranged for her to assist us with the process. It was not expensive and, as it turned out, we probably could not have done it ourselves at the time due to pandemic restrictions which were subsequently put in place.

When we first came down in 2019, we needed to get a Tourist Visa, good for up to 180 days. It is called an FMM (Multiple Migratory Form) and can be obtained at the border crossing or from the airline. It is all one needs to come down for the winter.

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Safety and Security

‘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.

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