Editors' pick: Originally published Nov. 28.
On our road trip for Best Places in the World to Retire, we are visiting some of the most popular places for U.S. and Canadian expats to move and to retire. Recently, we visited Ajijic, Mexico (pronounced "Ah-hee-heek") and its surroundings, which, in the high season, can be home to as many as 10,000 Americans and Canadians (perhaps about 20% of the overall population).
Strictly speaking, several towns and villages comprise the overall Ajijic area, which the locals refer to collectively as "Lakeside." At an elevation of about 5,000 feet, Ajijic is located next to the largest lake in Mexico, Lake Chapala, about an hour's drive south of Guadalajara and five hours east of Puerto Vallarta.
Upon first visiting the area, it's easy to see why it's so popular. Here are just some of the comments we received on our site about Ajijic from contributors:
The elevation of the Ajijic area lowers the temperature from what it would be at sea level, for example, in Puerto Vallarta, and then the large lake moderates the temperature, making it less cold in the winter and less hot in the summer.
Jerry Smith, MD, is a retired clinical professor from Texas who retired early after traveling much of Mexico on his motorcycle with his wife. "It's springtime all year long in the Ajijic area," said Smith. "The worst blizzard I've ever seen down here was in the dead of winter when one night it got down to 45 degrees. Normally in the wintertime it's about 60 at night and 75 in the day."
"Our hot months are from the middle of April, May, and early June where the temperature ranges from 90 to 94 degrees," reported Thomas Hellyer, who moved to the Ajijic area from the state of Washington. "That was the highest temperature that I have seen here in seven years."
Even the rainy season, which starts in mid-June, is less severe and bothersome than in most tropical locations. "The rainy season extends to mid-October, during which we generally get about 40 inches of rain," noted Richard Tingen, who moved to the area after visiting his retired parents in Guadalajara. According to Tingen, "Usually, the rains come at night, during which we may get half an inch or an inch and then the sun comes out at seven in the morning. 90% of our rains are during the very early morning or late evening."
Michael Kavanaugh moved with his wife and son to Ajijic in 2007. "Overall, the cost of living in the Ajijic area is much less than, for example, Tuscaloosa, Ala., where I used to live," Kavanaugh told us.
Kavanaugh gave us some examples. "My wife just took our grandson to have a dental X-ray for $4. A total annual blood work for myself was around $60. Getting a teeth cleaning in the U.S. could cost between $125 to $200. Here, its $7.50."
What Kavanaugh told us that surprised us most, however, was the price he paid for property taxes. "We have a house that's over 4,500 square feet on about a third of an acre and my property tax is less than $300 a year."
Amaranta Santos rents houses mainly to American and Canadian expats. Santos related the reaction she receives from her clients to the lower costs, especially with regard to out of pocket / without insurance healthcare costs. "When they first move here, many expats can't believe what they hear, so I have to make it clear that they are being charged in pesos and not dollars. They say, 'Oh, so it's $200.' And I say, 'No, it's 200 pesos (U.S. $10).'"
Santos told us, "It's crazy because when you go to a doctor, you pay 200 to 300 pesos ($10 to $15) for the consultation."
While we did hear complaints that the Ajijic area was not large enough to support a big-city hospital, we were repeatedly told that the healthcare locally available was good considering that Ajijic is a lower-population area and that nearby Guadalajara has extremely high-quality, modern healthcare.
According to Dr. Smith, "The healthcare facilities in Chapala and Ajijic are the bare minimum, which is fine for issues such as minor infections, diarrhea, scorpion stings and minor trauma. For anything really serious, one needs to go to Guadalajara, where we have world-class physicians and hospitals."
No discussion of living in Mexico or even visiting Mexico is complete without squarely dealing with the subject of safety. I can personally report, after renting in the Ajijic area for more than two months, that I encountered many, many middle-aged and even elderly American and Canadian women who lived on their own with no issues whatsoever.
As one of the first expat women business owners in the area, Anne Dyer is somewhat of an institution in the Ajijic area. "I am a single person who has lived here for 29 years and I feel very comfortable and very safe."
"Crimes against people, such as assault, murder, rape, or somebody getting beat up, is very rare in the Ajijic area," said Spencer McMullen, who moved from California to the Ajijic area and now practices law in Mexico. "When it does happen, there is attention called to it because it's not that common."
David Truly, Ph.D. settled in the Ajijic area with his family in 2010 to further his studies on international retirement migration to Mexico. He now teaches university classes and offers private consulting for businesses, governments and nonprofits. Truly made clear that, although there is very little violent crime, crimes against property in Ajijic are not as uncommon. "When you go to lesser developed countries, there are certain areas of towns that are not as wealthy so when you go riding in your Mercedes and you are wearing your Rolex, you will be setting yourself up for trouble. It is the same thing as if you are driving around certain parts of Boston, Detroit, or New Orleans. But generally speaking," Truly reported, "it is very safe. We raised our kids here and I have never felt any concern; as in a lot of Mexican villages, people look out for each other."
McMullen agreed. "We have been here for 11 years. When my children were teenagers I would give them 200 pesos (about U.S. $10) and a cellphone and they'd go to the market and walk on the malecon alone (walkway along the water), and I didn't worry."
Ajijic has so many English-speaking expats that it is possible to get by without speaking Spanish. "You can definitely get by in Ajijic with just speaking English," said Dr. Santiago Hernandez, who lived in Chicago for more than 30 years. "It is rather ironic," said Hernandez, "because I probably spoke more Spanish when I was practicing in Chicago than I do now here in Mexico."
Mirna Segura was born and raised in Mexico but lived in the U.S. for several years. Segura told us, "Another nice thing about living here is that the people in Ajijic are very warm and most expats notice that."
Alicia Gomez is another native Mexican who used to live in the U.S., and who agrees with Segura about the general nature of the local Mexicans and their interaction with expats. "Most expats have families but sometimes these families forget that they have parents," at which point, according to Gomez, "the maids take care of the expats like they were family. The expats are our guests. The least that we could do is to make them feel welcome and make them feel that they are not alone."
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.