It is hard to believe it has been six months since we took early retirement and moved to the tiny village of Xcalak, Mexico; way down south on the Caribbean Sea near the border with Belize. Xcalak is the picture postcard version of natural Caribbean shores. Beautiful white sands, impossibly blue waters and a protected reef less than 50 meters offshore remind us daily of why we chose this quiet fishing village to be our first home as expats.
There are practically an infinite number of lessons to be learned and we aren’t foolish enough to believe we have even scratched the surface of our education. What I intend to do here is give a very short list of things you might not have considered. Things that I noticed quite early in the adventure. This list is in no way all inclusive and after only five months out it would be ludicrous and presumptuous for me to even attempt something comprehensive. The situations that I present here are only from my very limited experience and observations. Yours will be different. Maybe though as a newbie I can help you avoid a few traps and lowered expectations.
Many people have asked me what it costs to live in Xcalak. It is impossible for me to tell you what your costs are going to be. We all have different expectations and requirements regarding perceived comforts, living situation and style. From doing our research it appears that on our budget we can live just about anywhere but we are all different. We don’t require much room by American standards. Put us in a place with over 1,200 square feet and we start to get lost. We generally don’t require centralized climate control and so far have not found it necessary to be sequestered behind layers of security. We have no problem shopping in local markets and cooking at home. We can also entertain ourselves pretty readily.
Having said that; I figure that our spending in Xcalak has been about $1,800 per month not including trips away. This does includes the occasional meal out, as high of quality local foods as we can find and only a moderate amount of adult beverages. We don’t spend much time in major supermarkets and when we do to we try as much as possible to buy Mexican products. If you have we had had to buy the same products we used back home we may have been able to find them but there would be no discount; in fact we may have wound up paying a premium over what we did back home.
So, in Mexico where we are now, spent carefully, money does go a long way. [We also understand that there are other places where it goes a lot further.] We do entertain on occasion and even have had a bit left over to share with some of our favorite causes. If we had decided to move to say Paris; it might not be as easy but I am sure we would find a way to survive. There are people doing it on less.
One rule of thumb to judge a place’s cost of living is by using what is known as a beer index; that is the cost of a restaurant beer in any given place. Beer at Toby’s Restaurant in beautiful “downtown” Xcalak is 22 pesos. At today’s exchange rate that is about $1.63 USD. Bear in mind that a Coca Cola cost’s about the same. If memory serves a restaurant lager back in the United States was about $3.50 USD. For reference, in France according to www.pintprice.com a pint of lager will set you back $7.74 USD.
After five months we have started to get the hang of things but it has been a bit of a learning curve. Because Xcalak is such an isolated place; off the grid and virtually off the map, we have had make some adjustments. Everything from going to the grocery store to getting mail is different. Well getting mail isn’t different; Correos de Mexico does not deliver in Xcalak so getting daily mail delivered is impossible. What we get has to be brought by friends from our alternate address in the United States. But a funny thing, there really hasn’t been that much to miss.
Getting groceries at our place on the beach road has been an adjustment also. For the most part groceries come to us on grocery truck run by enterprising individuals willing to do a generic grocery shop in distant towns and hopefully sell it all to people living like we do, on the beach road. Now that may seem like a nice thing, and to an huge extent it is, but it also makes you dependent on being available when the grocery truck comes and getting excited about (or having to settle for) what is available. We often find ourselves asking for “anything green” because by the time the truck has made the path to our place almost all the prime vegetables have been picked over. Getting food off the grocery trucks is also relatively expensive compared to actually going to a grocery store but the nearest “American style” grocery store is over three hours away in Chetumal. Naturally we try not to exercise that option too often.
Having said that eating local, even with the grocery truck mark ups is so much more economical than searching for the same products you had back home. It is an adventure to try new things and over time we have found you begin to develop new tastes. We try to get something we have never tried every time we shop and most of the time we like it. It is amazing what we have found. From unusual (to us) fruits and vegetables, to spices and even meats, learning new ingredients has been fun!
We have also found, like everywhere, people still come with their lovable quirks and annoying idiosyncrasies. We have also found it best to reserve judgment of people instead of relying on the “old hands” for opinions. We have made some very good friends in Xcalak, both Mexican and Expat. For the most part the expatriates are caring, progressive people that moved to Mexico because they wanted to have the experience of living there. There is however a small but vocal contingent that merely wants to replicate the conditions they had at home on the Mexican Caribbean. They are the ones that seem to have the hardest time adjusting and perhaps serve as the best example of what not to do. They build their homes and attempt to outfit them with all the latest in modern conveniences. They complain about prices and use every interaction with locals as a chance to practice their bargaining skills; even though the few cents they save themselves may mean the difference between the local having a nutritious meal that night or doing without.
Many of the expats that have moved to Xcalak on a year round basis have come to the realization that the living here is good – real good – if you learn to adjust. Making a radical change and moving to another country permanently is not necessarily difficult but it is a big deal. There are [hopefully] bound to be differences and in time they find new ways of doing things. They adjust and in many cases come to savor the difference.
Also, some of those that come to escape for only a few months or a season seem to want to get the temporary residence to adjust to them. It doesn’t work. Upsetting the already established norms that everyone else has come to enjoy means nothing to them. Apparently, they know what they are experiencing is only temporary and see no reason to adjust. The locals’ speaking a different language frustrates them. In some cases they even take a perverse pride in not knowing the language. They want seclusion yet people and services available for their beck and call. They don’t want to see anyone who is not invited on “their” beach (all beaches in Mexico are supposed to be for public enjoyment) and only want to be accepted on their terms. Others think they instantly deserve status because they a perception have it back home. Still others think they are surrounded by marauding hordes hiding in trees covetously watching and hoping they will let their guard down long enough so they can take their precious possessions.
Yes, we have heard stories of thievery up here on the beach road. I imagine some of them are even true, however during ourfive months here we have not had so much as a flip flop taken from us. We use normal precautions. We lock our doors when we leave. We ask friends to check on the place when we are gone. We strategically leave lights on timers when we will be gone at night if we remember. But so far it hasn’t been an issue and we don’t fret too much about the possibility of someone taking our things. It would be hard to enjoy ourselves if we thought there were “robos” [robbers] studying us from afar, waiting for us to slip up and forget a book on the porch or take our eyes off the clothes line. Yes, there is a possibility that something, someday may turn up missing. I am willing to take that chance and not worry about it too much because if I do I will have lost something far more valuable; my sense of peace and relaxation.
Living in any community with a small number of other expats is like living in a tiny town. As everyone knows a few malcontents, troublemakers or bullies in a small group can make life miserable for those that choose to engage them. Generally I am not an advocate of ignoring problems but this is one where often the aggressors enjoy the confrontation so maybe it is best to do ignore them. These unhappy people will either learn to get along or in time become very, very lonely. Hopefully they will change because I believe everyone has something to contribute.
We have also learned that there is a high season for a reason. If you have wondered why prices in some places escalate drastically and becomes much more crowded during certain periods of the year there probably is a reason for it. Check closely. When we checked out Xcalak for the first time it was in March. The days were agreeably warm and the nights cooled to a comfortable sleeping temperature. There was a steady breeze off of the ocean and it didn’t rain. In other words it was idyllic. We naively assumed that it was this way almost year round with the higher prices being because it was still frigid in the United States.
We were wrong. When we arrived to live here in July we were greeted not by ocean breezes but stillness and humidity; the rainy season. It rained almost every day and the wind refused to blow; and with rain and stillness comes mosquitoes. Now Vonda and I grew up in Houston and we thought we knew mosquitoes. We didn’t. Combine stillness with houses that are not sealed thigh because they are not climate controlled and the mosquitoes can find their way in, in infuriating numbers. The days were hot but there was escape in the beautiful water. The nights weren’t cool but with a fan or on those occasions when there was a breeze the sleeping was still good; except for the mosquitoes.
One of the things that we knew before we started is that it would be a learning experience. I have learned that I like isolation up to a point. Snorkeling, sun worshiping, catching up and reading and beach combing can only take you so far. Have realistic expectations f your needs is all I am saying. It is sometimes a fine line between seclusion and monotony. Just be careful.
Also, it is essential that you take care of yourself medically. That should be a no-brainer anywhere but it is especially important when moving to a new country. We have found the medical care in Mexico to be quite good but on occasion a bit hard to decipher and it is always best to decipher it in situations that are not urgent. Right away find the place to go if you need urgent care. That is not something you want to do on the fly in an emergency. Then start asking around and find the nearest or best specialists.
We have also had many opportunities to meet people that have left their home countries to try and get away from themselves and what they see as their bad habits. We haven’t seen a single instance of this working by itself. People develop habits and routines over time and they are hard to break. Moving to a new location may separate someone from their tempters or their temptations but there will be a whole new set after relocating. I’m not saying that a move can’t be a good starting point for reinventing one’s self but that is all it is; a starting point. Change is still hard work and if you aren’t careful you will be disappointed to find it is still you staring yourself in the mirror ever morning.
After going over these last few paragraphs I may seem like I am a little pessimistic. No way. I would not want to reverse course for even a second. The ups far outweigh the downs. Having said that, I am often accused of romanticizing everything. Guilty as charged. It is a positive mental attitude that gets you though the downs and the ups have been everywhere. I guess what I am saying is, relish everything and continue to learn. It isn’t hard to move to a different country but there are some adjustments. Be positive that you and your partner (if you have one) are ready.