Living the Mexpat Life

Walking the pedestrian streets of hilly Guanajuato, Mexico while living abroad. “So what’s it like living there in Mexico?”

People in my country of birth ask me this a lot. Usually with a bit of trepidation in their voice, like I’m going to tell them five horrible things that happened to me in the last five weeks. In reality though, life as a Mexpat is good. It has been good every time I’ve lived in Mexico, which is three times now.

I started this Cheapest Destinations blog way back in 2003 as a place to provide advice on traveling well for less. That mission has stayed basically the same, with a bit more advice on living abroad mixed in over time. So while some may say I’m foolish to not exploit my “personal brand” on here more, I’m usually content to help others find travel bargains instead of talking about myself and what I’m doing all the time. There’s enough of that “Look at me!” content on the internet and social media as it is.

Every month since moving to Guanajuato in 2010 though I’ve gotten e-mails from people asking me what it’s like living in Mexico, or living abroad in general.  How do you find a place to live? What do you do about health care? How do you get by while you’re learning a new language?

Eventually I put out a whole book with answers to their questions. But that has only increased the number of e-mails and questions here in the comments. So here’s a quick post on life as a Mexpat.

Daily Routines and Costs

I moved to Guanajuato, Mexico the first time on June 30, 2010 with my wife and daughter and signed a one-year lease. We paid $800 a month for two side-by-side apartments (2BR each) and used the second as an office and guest pad. That included all utilities. You could get the same thing for the same price now as long as you take some time to hunt around. You can still find an apartment for two for $500 or less. Many college students rent a room for half that.

This picture below is a view from our roof deck that first year in Guanajuato.

Guanajuato Mexpat view

 

A maid came once a week to clean up: $12 to $16 depending on whether we had her do both apartments or not. All these years later, we’re paying her much more in pesos, but about the same in dollars thanks to the currency decline. Back then we would get a babysitter, who charged a shade under $3 an hour. It costs a couple bucks to get alterations done, less than a buck for a shoe shine, under $3 for a men’s haircut. Not everything is cheaper in cheap destinations though. Electronics, name brand clothing, cars, and imported food items can seem pricey. It’s in services where you really get the savings: the minimum wage in Mexico just went up to about $5…a day!

This is a beautiful colonial city that was already a city before the pilgrims landed way up north. It’s surrounded by mountains and most of the traffic moves in tunnels underneath, meaning the pedestrians outnumber cars about 30 to 1 in the center. I walk almost everywhere, only taking a taxi when it’s too far or too late. The second time we lived here though, my daughter’s school was on the edge of the city. So she took a taxi there for $2 and took the bus back for 35 cents.

Life in Guanauato

We are at 6,500 feet, so the weather is gorgeous all year. The lowest it gets in the winter is about 40F in the middle of the night if there’s a cold front, but most nights it’s in the 60s. The highest it ever gets in the summer is about 85F. Most days the range is 60-80F. Apart from a few rainy days here and there (mostly in July and August), it’s sunny all the time. If we have two cloudy days, people start getting cranky.

Guanajuato Mexico plaza

Few people speak English here (unlike nearby San Miguel de Allende, which is dominated by retirees from the U.S. and Canada). So every day I use at least a little Spanish every time I leave the house and over the years I have taken lessons and still study at home to improve. I still suck because I’m working in English all day in my home office, but can get by. My daughter became very fluent: she went to a Spanish-only school for three years and almost none of her friends spoke any English.

She was quite upset when we told her we were packing up the house and moving to Mexico, that she would be going to school in Spanish, but she adapted quickly and now she’s off to college being bilingual. Someday that will probably help in the job world, besides just talking to the cooks like she did in the restaurant she worked in while we lived back in the USA for a while.

We are now on our third stint here and this is now the permanent base for my wife and I. We ended up buying a house along the way at a good price, investing the proceeds from a sale in the USA and getting rid of a little beach house we used to have in the Yucatan peninsula. You’ve got to pay cash when you buy a house in Mexico, which puts the action out of reach for many foreigners, but the good news is you own it free and clear after that, no mortgage. I just paid my property taxes and they were less than $350—for the year. We go out a lot and aren’t very careful about what we spend here, yet we are probably getting by for under $1,500 a month, or $1,700 counting the damn health insurance we still have to buy for those times we’re back in the states.

Guanajuato Mexpatriate view from a rooftop

Speaking of the doctor and dentist though, I’ve found a great way to solve the U.S. health care crisis: move everyone to Mexico. A cleaning and checkup at one of the best dentist offices in town is under $45. A visit to the doctor is $35 to $60, including follow-ups. Most (but not all) prescription drugs are far cheaper here—probably because the companies are not spending millions a day on TV ads trying to convince you to “ask your doctor about…”

From the USA to Mexpat Life

Overall, this has been an easy experience every time, just a drag lugging suitcases up the pedestrian-only street we live on. The hard part was packing up our house in the U.S., taking care of all the address changes and such, selling off a lot of possessions, and putting things in storage. This last time we got rid of tons of stuff–literally. Once we actually made the move, life got easier. There’s less stress here, people move more slowly, people aren’t so obsessed with their work, and there’s far less of a “buy buy buy” consumer culture. Family comes first and leisure is near the top of the priority list.

Local street festival in Guanajuato, all normal for Mexpats living hereThere are adjustments, of course. Nothing gets done as fast as we would like it to, especially when there’s work to be done on the house, but you go with the flow because that’s the way it is. Living in a cash-based society is tough sometimes, especially when you get dinged $5-$7 every time you hit the ATM machine to access your bank account back home. (We try to keep most of the cash we’ll need in the Fidelity account to avoid this.) You have to always have a lot of money on hand: the doctor and dentist are paid in cash, you shop at the market or the butcher shop with cash, you go out to eat with cash.

We picked a great year to arrive the first time: Mexico was celebrating its bicentennial—the time it started the revolution to become independent. Since them we’ve been through a few Cerventino festivals, a few Day of the Dead times, and lots of neighborhood celebrations.

Many of the things we have experienced as Mexpats are an integral part of Mexico, so don’t think the only place the magic happens is Guanajuato. Do some ample traveling around the country to see which places get you excited. You don’t have to follow anyone else’s path.

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Comments
  1. Boo

    “you get dinged $5-$7 every time you hit the ATM machine to access your bank account back home”
    Easily solved. I’m in east Asia, and the first thing I did was start to get cash flowing directly to my local bank here. Even if you have significant transactions continuing in the US, HSBC is set up to handle that kind of thing in their premium accounts. I have no remaining financial connections there, and it took me about a year before I closed my US account. Mainly it took that long for sentimental reasons.

  2. Robert J

    Guanjuato is wonderful. I visited for three days, but by then felt I had seen pretty much all that was to be seen. As an expat living there what is there to do? Golf, tennis and the country club would get old pretty fast.

  3. Don

    I agree with you 100% that there is enough “Look at me!” content on the internet. Way more than enough.

  4. Lana Fox

    Thank you for the article. Just checked prices on real estate for sale in Mexico https://tranio.com/mexico/ and it is pretty affordable. Plus quality of life is not that bad. I guess it is a good option for those who retired or have a lot free time and decided to change smth in their life. And as a bonus local food is just amazing!

  5. Andrea

    Have been a huge fan of yours (and book buyer through several editions) for many years. I wonder I don’t see more about the city of Queretaro as a possible destination to live full time or part time. Since you are not too far from there, do you have any insight as to why that might be?
    We like cities…are planning to check out Mexico City; haven’t been there in decades but loved it when I was there.

    • Tim Leffel

      Andrea, I am headed there in a few weeks and will stay for five nights. So stay tuned! I’ll be hanging out with a couple people who live there.

      I suspect though that it doesn’t attract a huge number because it’s got a small historic core surrounded by a sprawling city that’s more industrial. Still, Merida manages, despite the sprawl, so I’ll see.

  6. tony

    I personally don’t like either Guanajuato nor San Miguel de Allende that much. Even nearby Lagos de Moreno and Leon would be my preferences instead of those overpriced places. Lagos de Moreno is much more peaceful and Leon is a big city with much more interesting people watching than the other 2 options that expats always make a beeline to..

    • Andrea

      Great, I’ll be looking for your opinion on the place. Thanks!

    • Tim Leffel

      To each his own Tony, that’s why Mexico is such a great destination. A hundred choices. You’re the first person I’ve heard say they actually liked Leon, so there’s a spot for everyone!

  7. Pierre

    Thqnk you so much Tim for sharing your knowledge and experience with us.

    My wife and I are currently on an 18months journey, starting in South-East Asia, in search for a destination that will hit all (or most) of our needs and start a new life there. Your texts are a breath of fresh air to us

    Karine & Pierre

    • Tim Leffel

      That’s the way to do it! It’s hard to know what kind of place gets you excited until you spend some real time in different ones to compare.

  8. Judd Mondry

    Really glad I get these text from you I will be buying your book tomorrow I take it it’s on Amazon and I will write a review. I Would like to ask a question though Is it necessary to go to a large city for a dentist or should I say how do you find a good dentist. The only other thing I could ask you is although I have been interested In a extended stay in Mexico or as you recommend traveling to find the right place show should I drive to Mexico

    • Tim Leffel

      My city is only about 160K and we have a couple great dentists. There’s no MRI machine in this city though. People have to go to Leon, where there are bigger hospitals. But that’s not far.

      You can get from one end of Mexico to the other by bus, hitting every place in between. So you can bring a car if you want and drive, but it’s not necessary–and often not any cheaper because of tolls. The buses are quite comfortable.

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