Thinking of how to retire in Mexico ? Then you will find this interesting about living in San Carlos….
Pilar Pobil is the only surviving niece of Spain’s last absolute monarch, King Alfonso XIII. Now widowed and in her eighties, she is also a self-taught artist—a painter and sculptor—with a viable following of collectors of her work. Having been stripped of her royalty, any possible inheritance, as well as some of her family members during the Spanish civil war, she had fled Spain in the 1930’s for the USA, married a successful businessman, raised a family, and settled in Salt Lake City, Utah. For many years Pilar has kept a second home in Guaymas, Sonora, where she and her late husband would come to paint, fish, relax, and get away from the drab, freezing winters of northern Utah.
I had met Pilar socially through my brother and his wife, both also successful artists, and one afternoon I saw Pilar again at my brother’s annual Christmas tea party. With one casual stroke this slightly eccentric, colorful woman, with her brightly colored art and her brilliantly colorful stories, splashed some new colors into my life that have only become richer to this day.
She asked me if I would consider driving her to Guaymas and back, and in return be her guest for three or four weeks at her house, located in a very small suburb of Guaymas and about fifty yards from the Bay of Bacochibampo on the Sea of Cortez. The drive was over eleven hundred miles—or two days—and she would not try it alone.
I was in the second year of a book project and it had become fairly monotonous work. After carefully considering her exotic proposal for a good five seconds, I said yes, jumping at the opportunity to blow some cobwebs out of my routine, escape the winter weather and see a little of Mexico. All I needed was my laptop computer, a bag of Italian roast coffee beans and some clothes, and early that February I was off to Guaymas with Pilar and her dog.
That trip was a little over seven years ago and I’m still down here today, in 2011. Obviously, I liked it here. More accurately, I started falling in love with this little piece of Mexico the very moment I arrived, and now I’m firmly attached to it by most every available heartstring. My first clue of this new, totally unexpected love affair came shortly after we’d navigated our way through the border at Nogales, Arizona and into the southern outskirts of Nogales, Sonora to find the proper highway to Hermosillo and then Guaymas.
Maybe I’m hyper-sensitive to such things, but during the course of only about ten miles I swear I could actually feel the over-regulated, over-legislated, hurried atmosphere of control and conformity, so prevalent in the US, as it seemed to dissolve the further I drove into Sonora, soon leaving only a relaxed atmosphere of peace and contentment. The difference was striking and it never changed during the next 250 miles to Guaymas. It still feels the same today and, as you may learn, that feeling is unmistakably Mexico.
My short but fateful stay at Pilar’s was all it took for me to decide to uproot myself and move to this beautiful place on the west coast of Sonora—for how long, I had no idea. The relatively abrupt decision to move to the suburb of a small seaport city in Mexico had surprised even me. But my head was just as involved in that decision as my heart, if not more. I can be adventurous, but I’m not stupid. So in due respect of logical, educated decision making, let me try to tone down the warm and fuzzy dialog somewhat and take a slightly more material point of view as I lead up to the ‘Best Kept Secret’.
As I mentioned, when I first came down here I was in the finishing stages of writing and editing a book, coordinating all the pre-press issues and so on. Upon publishing, I would do some pre-arranged bookstore promo dates and then seminars based on the book. Could I do all that from here? Yes, easily. More importantly, could I buy fresh Italian roast coffee beans here? Yes, thank you God!
First, being in the digital age, to finish the book, exchanging art, graphics, and text back and forth and finally to the printer, I could be anywhere in the world that had high speed Internet access. I have a DSL connection with my home phone service here, both of which cost me about $34 a month. Naturally, with a DSL line I can use Skype to make phone or video-phone calls to pretty much anywhere in the world for about 2¢ a minute. I also like to carry a cell-phone, and since I don’t use a ton of minutes my monthly bill averages about $17.00.
Traveling is no problem either. It’s still a little pricey to fly out of Guaymas’ nice, new airport, but there’s another bigger airport 85 miles north, in Hermosillo; Tucson is 320 miles from Guaymas and Phoenix is 440 miles. The Hermosillo, Tucson, and Phoenix airports are most easily reached by bus; they’re new and luxurious, the fares are very low and I can leave my car at home. If you’d rather drive, the highways between here and the border at Nogales are all excellent, divided, two-lane asphalt. Gas is about $2.70 per gallon.
For packages, as far as I can tell the mail service is poor and prone to theft throughout Mexico, although, in amazement, I once received a special order battery from Hong Kong within ten days of ordering it online. However, FedEx, UPS, and DHL all service this area directly.
I don’t know what kind of requirements you might have for your “home base,” but my immediate business needs were all in place, plus still being only 250 miles from the US border—less than a tank of gas—I’ve never felt too far away from my homeland. If French pirates attack Guaymas again, which hasn’t happened since 1854, a quick drive north will have you under the protection of the awesome US military in less than four hours.
The proximity of Guaymas to the US brings up a unique and wonderful point about this entire area, as well as the ‘Secret’ in the title of this article—finally. About 10 miles south-west of Guaymas is the small resort town of San Carlos, the best kept secret in Mexico. I’ll explain.
Guaymas, population 145,000, is one of the oldest cities in Mexico and an excellent seaport that’s yet to reach its destiny as a major deep water port. Fishing has always been a big industry here and the local shrimp from the Sea of Cortez are renowned as perhaps the best in the world. Guaymas is growing and thriving on other industries as well and with its current growth rate, plus the ongoing plans to expand its port, I also see Guaymas as an insurance policy protecting the property values in San Carlos.
San Carlos, on the other hand, was the dream of one man about fifty years ago who envisioned an ideal place for a coastal resort town. Technically, San Carlos is a suburb of Guaymas, sharing the same municipal tax base and services like police, etc. Other than that, San Carlos and Guaymas are as different as they can be, while still being in the same country.
San Carlos has two marinas, one of which is truly world-class, a landing strip, large hotel and timeshare complexes, and myriad restaurants and bars of literally every class.
Shops, markets, drug stores and other businesses line the town’s main thoroughfare. It also has new condos, houses, and its share of million-dollar-plus homes, all close or next to the water and most with jaw-dropping views of the sea and the local hillsides. Sunrises and sunsets here are beyond Disney’s wildest dreams.
However, San Carlos is still about 70% dream and 30% built. That’s just fine with most of its full-time, American and Canadian residents—realtors excepted—who would prefer that this secret be kept from the plasticizing hoards from north of the border. The population is very small, at only about 3,500, although it almost doubles during the winter months. Yet even with all the fine accommodations and the sailing, sport fishing, windsurfing, four-wheeling, horseback riding, cloud watching, ray catching, and the fresh, delicious, nutritious food, San Carlos has not quite caught on like other well known, highly developed Mexican resort cities. Stated from an admittedly defensive viewpoint, San Carlos hasn’t been overrun by big property developers.
The amazing part of this secret’s beauty is that San Carlos is close enough to the US border to make it convenient—again, less than a tank of gas—but far enough into Mexico to keep it authentically Mexican. Puerto Peñasco, a.k.a., Rocky Point, about 275 miles north-west of San Carlos on the Sonoran coast, counters my point. The most Mexican thing about Puerto Peñasco is its place on the map; otherwise much of it could easily pass as a suburb of San Diego. Being so close to southern California and Arizona, it’s more prone to the binge-and-puke crowd and other two-day tourists. It’s totally “Puerto de Condos Americano” and I can’t imagine any reason to live there unless I had to work there. (Sorry Mayor.)
Like other full-timers down here, I’m amused by the occasional northerners who come to San Carlos and wonder where the McDonalds is (it’s in Guaymas), or get a little indignant in a restaurant because it’s taking a little more time to actually prepare their meal from fresh ingredients instead of scooping parts of it out of giant cans. Are they missing tonight’s episode of “Real Housewives of Sodom and Gomorrah” or something equally important? No, they’re just missing much of the point of being here.
That’s the point I’ve left mostly unsaid until now; the part of this secret you might call romantic; the part I said I could feel when I crossed the border on my first visit seven years ago; the palpable atmosphere of peace and contentment. Are there invisible gods flying around down here making us feel this way? No, they’re called people—the locals—and people create the overriding atmosphere in any country, city, or even the room you’re in, anywhere in the world.
And that’s not to mention the physical atmosphere when you catch a big, mouth-watering whiff of Mesquite-fired sidewalk grill cooking chicken, pork, or beef next to the obligatory roasted whole green chilies or giant green onions. It’s heavenly. Or the clean air you breathe every day, fed its rich freshness by the Sea of Cortez, one of the few truly pristine bodies of water left on our planet.
I’ve seen a police truck stop to give a ride to an elderly woman struggling to carry her groceries. A small group on the beach will burst into song, whether they can all stay on key or not. Chance encounters on the street turn into long conversations because that’s more important than getting somewhere at some exact time. It’s all about a certain kind of freedom that comes from not having a rule for everything imaginable and valuing what’s truly valuable.
In this limited space my words can’t justly describe the endearing qualities of the people here. But if you’re open, respectful, and curious, you’ll experience them first-hand for yourself. The vast majority are just really nice people and a joy to be around. The authenticity of the people in San Carlos is preserved because, again, it’s far enough south of the US border, plus it’s not a huge, totally Americanized resort.
I have a “Mexico News” section on my Yahoo Internet home page. It’s a disgraceful joke of an excuse for real news about Mexico and Yahoo should be ashamed of it. But it’s typical of the constant barrage of bad news being fed to Americans about the heartless drug cartels’ mass murdering style of doing business—supplying the US—and no other news whatsoever. Sure, it’s bad news, and if you want to know the best way to insure your safety, just stay out of the drug business—here or anywhere. It’s about that simple.
My best excuse for the warped news coverage is that corporate America doesn’t want any more its precious consumers discovering what a bargain it is to live in Mexico. Living in Mexico is so much safer than in the US it’s almost laughable. Just ask any of the million-plus US citizens already living here—more than in any other foreign country—and that census is twelve years old. But if you’re still worried, I’ll be more specific and assure you that San Carlos is nowhere remotely close to any drug cartel’s smuggling route or redistribution center.
Money makes the world go ‘round—or go crazy lately—so I’ve saved this obvious comparison for last; comparing what you can get for a dollar down here, as opposed to in the US. Doesn’t everybody already know this? Unfortunately, a lot of retirement-aged, middle class Americans could be in for the terrifying realization that their retirement income will be barely enough, maybe, to keep them housed and fed and not much else.
My only question to those folks and even some of the more fortunate ones of that general age is this: wouldn’t you like to live a lot better on your available income? Or perhaps more bluntly: can you afford not to live here?
Ok, I’ll give you a short list, since I do my own grocery shopping. Naturally, hours-fresh seafood is the star attraction of San Carlos, but would you like a delicious 12-ounce rib eye steak for about $3.50, a large avocado for 50¢. a pound of Valencia oranges for 19¢, a pound of vine ripened tomatoes (that taste like tomatoes) for 75¢, a pound of 90% lean hamburger for 43¢, a whole oven roasted chicken for $4.30, or a pound of the best tasting jumbo shrimp in the world for $4.30?
During the current recession San Carlos real estate prices have regressed about ten years, meaning it’s a perfect time to buy. You can buy a two bedroom, two bath home on a huge 1,000 square meter lot for $100,-to-125,000; even less in Guaymas. Make a ridiculously low bid, and I’ll bet it’s accepted. Renting? How about a nice, modern, two-bedroom home (furnished) in a very nice neighborhood for about $300 a month, or a maid to clean it for about $22 for the day? Or car insurance for about $230 a year, or medical insurance for under $200 a year.
Think about all that while I go to one of my favorite San Carlos restaurants for some crab tostadas; about a half an inch of fresh crab meat, packed on top of some shredded lettuce and topped with a few slices of avocado and some diced tomatoes. Pass the limes and salsa please. For two crab tostadas and a bottle of beer I’ll pay about $4.65, including a very generous 15% tip. Sorry, but your local tapas bar or restaurant will charge you that much just for the beer and a menu.
Finding the ideal place to live that matches your budget and desired lifestyle is a real challenge, and if you’re considering Mexico you’re already way ahead of the pack. However, if you’re looking for a shiny, Americanized, everything’s-perfect-and-under-control resort town, maybe San Carlos isn’t really the right place for you. But if you want a beautiful home, in a beautiful setting, with outstanding facilities in a peaceful, truly Mexican locality, look no further. It really doesn’t get any better than this. Saludos!
Allen Covey is an author, semi-retired commercial finance consultant and resident of Sonora, Mexico. © 2011 – Allen Covey. All rights reserved.