When most Americans or Canadians think of Baja California, they picture a seedy border town or perhaps a tourist playground such as Cabo San Lucas. However, there is another group of Americans and Canadians who know better, and as a result, are taking advantage of the disconnect between common belief versus the reality they get to experience daily.
As part of our road trip through Mexico for Best Places in the World to Retire to see firsthand what expat life is like, we drove the length of Baja California, from the U.S.-Mexico border in California to Cabo San Lucas, more than 750 miles to the south. Along the way, we saw what Baja California is like and met hundreds of expats who were having a great time in safe, sometimes shockingly beautiful locations, all at extremely low prices.
Most of Baja California is a peninsula, which at it's widest, is only about 85 miles across, bordered by the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California) on the east. Although the water in the Pacific Ocean gets warmer as you go south, it is pretty similar all the way from San Diego to Cabo. The water in the Sea of Cortez, however, is generally flat, clear, warm and tropical.
While the Mexican locals in Baja California are friendly and helpful, the terrain in Baja California doesn't coddle you. In places, it is stunningly beautiful. Most of it is desert, albeit with some of the most magnificent beaches you can imagine neighboring.
If you drive the peninsula, you will be richly rewarded with vistas that few others have seen and un-crowded beaches that few others know about. For example, we found one such beach called Playa Santispac, just south of Mulegé, a small town roughly halfway between the U.S. border and Cabo San Lucas, on the Sea of Cortez side.
As we pulled up, we could see several cabanas set atop perfectly white, powdery sand, with shimmering dark and light blue water just a few yards away. In the near distance, we could see another peninsula. To the sides, several small islands dotted the horizon. When we arrived, there were no more than six visitors on the beach.
As is not unusual in Mexico, we received quick and laughably low-priced service. Within minutes, a man appeared with ceviche. A few moments later, another vendor with cold drinks and ice cream appeared. If you've never experienced anything like this before (and I hadn't, at least not at these prices), it is surreal; like being at a world famous $500+ a night five star resort, but paying about a third of what you would to visit an average, local beach, which Santispac is definitely not.
We got this same feeling for much of the six weeks we stayed in Baja California in a little town between La Paz and Cabo San Lucas. What kept occurring to us while we were in Baja California is that it was so different than we had imagined, and compared to what we had been told. When we mentioned this to the expats and the people we met who regularly vacationed in Baja, most laughed and agreed. These people were in their own club, in which the members knew what Baja was like and enjoyed low prices.
Here is what some of the contributors to our site had to say about their life in Baja California, particularly in the areas toward or at the southern end, around La Paz and Los Cabos.
Everyone we asked about crime emphasized that no place is 100% safe, and that it is always wise to exercise prudence. For example, don't get drunk and stumble through a low-income area at 2 a.m., just like it would be unwise to do so in certain areas of the U.S. and Canada.
However, our contributors also made a distinction between violent crimes and petty theft. Ana Maria Carranza, who has lived in the U.S. and in Mexico, explained, "There might be less petty crimes in the States than here. As an example, you could leave your home unattended in the States and not think that someone is going to break in. However, here, unlike in the States, I have zero concern about violent crimes."
Originally from Rockford, Ill., Victoria Moate now lives in Cabo San Lucas. When she first arrived in the area as a single woman, Moate lived in what most Americans and Canadians would consider a low-income area, something most Northerners would never do. "I lived in an apartment in a Mexican neighborhood where I paid U.S. $250 per month for rent, total," said Moate. "There was no crime ever committed against me and I never felt unsafe. In fact, I didn't have a screen door in my apartment and sometimes I would leave my door open at night until 1 a.m."
Cost of Living
Comparing to the cost in the U.S. and Canada, the cheapest aspect of living in Baja California is for personal services, including housekeepers, haircutters, doctors and dentists. Alfonso Reynoso, originally from Mexico City, now lives in a smaller town just south of La Paz. "The cost for a gardener for an entire day here would run you about 500 pesos (less than $30)," said Reynoso, "and the cost for a housekeeper is about the same -- less than $4 per hour." We heard approximately the same prices from everyone we asked.
Dental care can be more than 80% less expensive than in the U.S. for the same quality, and, according to Moate, a doctor's visit can cost as little as $10.
Baja California Lifestyle
John Glaab originally came from Canada, and now lives full time in Mexico. "The best thing about living in the La Paz area is that we are on the Sea of Cortez," said Glaab. "Jacques Cousteau called the Sea of Cortez, 'The Aquarium of the World' because of the abundance of sea life and nature here."
Bill Edsell moved from Canada to Baja California Sur in 1983 to open a windsurfing school. Since then, he has become somewhat of a local legend, having been involved in much of the development of the area. "The people here are just the best," said Elsell. "They're so warm. Sometimes you don't feel it right away because they're shy with gringos and they don't speak English much, but once you break through that, you will see how warm and helpful they really are."