Aging Out of Place in Lake Chapala, Mexico

 

“This is a very artsy area. I play drums in an open-mic band. I’m in a ukulele group, I tap dance. In the summer, a friend and I put on a camp for kids in one of the villages. I’m constantly busy.”

After spending 29 years working in Alaska, where she met her husband on an oil rig, Audrey Zikmund was ready to retire—preferably to somewhere warm and affordable. Audrey had worked odd jobs all over the US. She’d been a hairdresser, worked in a pizza joint and a laundry, waited tables. In 2009 she and her husband were living in Texas, where she was working as a florist and he was running a parasailing and fishing business. They were an active, adventurous couple with one grown daughter and two grandchildren. Then Audrey’s husband, Peter Lee, was diagnosed with ALS.

Initially, the couple didn’t let that stop them from searching for their perfect retirement spot, and after visiting Mexico, they fell in love with the Chapala area. Nestled in the mountains at 5,000 feet but only about 45 minutes from metropolitan Guadalajara, which has a major airport, Lake Chapala—the largest freshwater lake in Mexico—is bordered by several villages where expats have settled. The airport, along with warm weather and cool breezes, stunning vegetation and views, and a manageable cost of living have made it a mecca for year-rounders and snowbirds.

Enamored, Audrey and Peter decided to move to Lake Chapala together despite his illness. They returned to Texas and sold their house, but Peter’s condition kept getting worse, so they moved to Seattle to live with their daughter, where Audrey cared for him until he died.

During his illness, Peter encouraged Audrey to move to Chapala, so even as he got sicker, she kept looking into houses to buy there. Within a month of his death in 2010 she bought a house, moved there and has never regretted it. Audrey is now 73 and wouldn’t consider living anywhere else.

Audrey spoke to us by phone from her home in Chapala, one of the lakeside villages.

You were looking for the perfect spot. What led you to Lake Chapala?

I went on the internet and started looking for a place we could afford. The first place I came upon was Honduras. We flew there for a few days, but it was too Third World. It was almost depressing. We were living in Brownsville, Texas, on the Mexican border, so I thought we should look at Mexico. We went to the International Living website looking for information about Central Mexico near the mountains, and read about Lake Chapala. It has a high concentration of expats, which wasn’t at the top of my list, but we came here for a few days and the minute we got here I knew this was the place—it just felt peaceful. I loved the lake and the mountains.

After my husband died, I was able to take his Social Security—luckily he was more stable than I was, workwise. I bought a house with the proceeds of the sale of our house in Texas and, ever since, I’ve been living here very comfortably on $1,400 a month.

Tell us about the different communities around the lake.

There are five communities around the lake. The biggest and busiest is Ajijic which attracts the most snowbirds. I wouldn’t live there because there’s no privacy, the streets are still cobblestoned and it’s too crowded, but as long as you don’t want to go anywhere outside the village, it’s walkable. The other main ones are Chapala where I live, San Antonio, Riberas del Pilar, San Juan Cosala and Jocotepec. We year-rounders prefer to be in outlying villages.

What do you do there to stay active?

Don’t laugh, but I play the ukulele. I belong to a ukulele group. In the winter, when the snowbirds arrive, there are 45 of us and in summer there are 25. In the smaller group, six of us call ourselves the Ukeladies. We dress in 1940s outfits and play ’30s and ’40s novelty songs. I also play drums in an open-mic band twice a week and teach English to kids as a volunteer. In the summer, a friend of mine and I put on a camp for kids in one of the villages. Besides the ukulele group, I also tap dance. By the time I get done rehearsing, there’s not much time left. I’m constantly busy. This is a very artsy area. If you paint, write, play music, act, dance you will find lots to do.

A lot of people worry about making friends abroad, especially single women. What’s Lake Chapala like for a single woman?

That was one of my concerns, but there is a huge community of single women. Most of my friends are single, and I’m also invited to socialize with couples.

It’s very easy to make friends here. You just get off the plane and you have friends. Everyone is in the same boat—we don’t have family here, so there’s more bonding with one another. In fact, I have more friends here than I had anywhere else. After I’d lived here for some time, I went back to Oregon for a while to live with my daughter so I could work to pay off the loan on my house. I had no friends there, no one ever called and said, “let’s go to a movie” like they do here. It was the same when I lived in Maine. Here your social life is so busy, you’re running all the time.

How are the relationships between locals and expats?

We expats want to be part of the community and help, so there’s no resentment toward us. The volunteerism around the lakeside is astronomical. If all the expats moved out, the locals would be in a world of hurt. Expats teach English, music, art. They teach the locals to sew so they can make money and be self-sufficient. Most people have maids, gardeners, pool guys, contractors, and that helps the locals, too.

Any bad attitude comes from the snowbirds. They have a hissy fit if stuff isn’t done immediately. They don’t accept the culture. When they leave, I tell the locals that the snowbirds are being assholes. But the Mexicans who work as waitresses and busboys don’t let it bother them. They realize where their money is coming from.

How about entertainment? What is there to do in the area?

There are lots of cultural activities. There are two live theaters, two show halls, a movie theater, and any night of the week you can hear live music for the price of a drink. Plus, they bring in groups from Canada, Guadalajara, Mexico City. There are a lot of free events. There was a free jazz festival recently on a huge stage. Lake Chapala also has lots of restaurants with all kinds of ethnic foods: Chinese, Greek, pizza, hamburgers, Italian—anything.

Your kids and grandkids live in the US—how is it to be so far from them?

Once a year, I visit them in Seattle and once a year my daughter comes to see me. I can fly roundtrip from Guadalajara, which is about 45 minutes from here, to Seattle—a six-hour flight—for $250 non-stop on the Mexican airline Volaris. They fly everywhere. I don’t see my granddaughters as often, because they’re in college. The rest of the time we communicate on the internet through Zoom.

How about Medical Care? What will you do if something serious happens?

Medical care here is very good, and I feel comfortable with it. In fact there’s a lot of medical tourism—Americans come here to get procedures done cheaply, especially dental care.

Mexico has two government programs for healthcare: IMSS and a newer one, Seguro Popular, which has its own hospitals. I belong to that. They bring doctors here from Guadalajara once a week, and you can make an appointment to see a specialist. Mexican doctors are well trained. If I had a broken hip or cancer, I’d get treated here. Insurance with Seguro Popular is free, and I supplement it with another insurance for major medical for which I pay $1300 a year. I’m 45 minutes from Guadalajara, which has good hospitals.

Mexican doctors are very caring. I’ve never met a doctor here who doesn’t feel that medicine is their life. Doctors don’t get paid a lot, but they want to help people. You can talk to them for an hour, and they don’t rush you. Some speak broken English, some speak good English, some no English. My cardiologist speaks some English. The more English they speak, the more patients they have.

Can you cope if you don’t speak Spanish?

I don’t have any trouble communicating. You can hire someone to translate for medical and legal issues. Other than that, I manage. There’s always someone around who can translate.

What does aging with attitude mean to you?

I am a big proponent of staying active and trying new things. That’s what people are all about down here—trying new things. Age has nothing to do with it. It’s more about how you feel about yourself and about life.

The Bottom Line

Cost of Living: Low to Moderate. Many people live on $1,000 to $1,500 a month. Rents vary widely from $500 for a casita or small apartment in Chapala to $1,500 and up for a 3-bedroom, 3-bath villa in Ajijic. Homes are not cheap to buy, and most sales are cash. Utilities, including internet and cable, are about half of US prices, except for electricity which can be high. You can have dinner with wine at a restaurant for 150 pesos, or $8.

Climate: Temperate. Because of areas elevation and the lake’s expanse of water, the mean daytime temperature is 72 degrees—a little cooler in the winter, a little warmer in the summer. The sun shines almost every day; a rainy season lasts from June to October.

Crime: Watch your wallet. Many locals are poor, and you can’t leave your purse lying around or your house unlocked. There is a lot of violent crime in Mexico, especially between drug gangs and the police, but there is little to no violent crime against Americans in the Lake Chapala area. You can take a walk at any hour without worrying.

Expat community: Large and growing. Today, an estimated 30,000 expats live around Lake Chapala, most of them from the US, Canada and Europe.

Human/Civil rights: Not great for poor women. According to the 2013 Human Rights Watch, sexual assault of Mexican girls and women, including within families, is a problem. Many women don’t report domestic abuse or sexual offenses for fear of their “chastity” being questioned or their complaints being brushed off. However, women are gaining power as part of the workforce, and working women are much more assertive about their rights.

Visas: Easy for those with some income. A tourist/visitor’s visa for up six months is easy to get—the “Visitante” is issued when you arrive in Mexico. Mexico also issues a temporary resident permit, good for up to four years, as long as you can prove that you have sufficient income to support yourself: based on the current exchange rate, around $2,000.00 a month for the six month period prior to applying. You have to start the process in your home country. After four years, you can apply to exchange your temporary resident permit for a permanent one.

Do you have any warm, affordable spots in mind for aging out of place?

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15 comments
  • Cheryl Loney
    REPLY

    Great article. I already live at Lake Chapala. Can you tell me what the supplemental health insurance is you have in addition to Seguro Popular? I’m ready to break the Medicare ties this year, and this sounds perfect for me. Thank you!!

    • Audrey
      REPLY

      yes, it took me awhile to break the ties also. But I have Boomers in Paradise. I have not had to use it yet but know a couple of people that have and it was major surgery and they were satisfied. That is all the recommendations I can give you at this time..
      Audrey

  • Paula K Koch
    REPLY

    Chapala is a place that has long interested me. My father had hoped to retire there. That said, when I have looked at it in the past, it seems that the lake itself is terribly polluted to the point that watersports are not safe. I would appreciate your comments.

    • Audrey
      REPLY

      I am told the main reason there is not much water sports is because it is not a deep lake. There is more than one kyack club here, they are very active on the lake.
      We have all been told by high authority that the Lake is NOT polluted. The locals fish out of it and eat the fish.
      thanks for your questions
      Audrey

  • Pat Hamil
    REPLY

    Hi Audrey,

    Is there a way I can communicate with you privately? I am 72 year old, still-employed,, nurse from the Pacific Northwest who is considering Chapala as a place to retire next year. I have so many questions.

    Ty,

    Pat

    • Bryn Butler
      REPLY

      I would love to communicate with Audrey, I am selling all my posessions NOW and getting ready to head SOUTH. Thinking of San Miguel de Allende but would love the Lake Chapala area. I want to know about Internet services. And, I too would like to have a recomendation for a name of a real estate company that will find me a place to land. I am starting to looking into my “tourist Visa” but just found out these particulars and have questions about that too. Also, I have dogs. (2) can I find a place allowing my Corgis?
      I am thinking of driving to Brownsville from Bentonville, AR, taking a plant to the Lake Chapala area. United will fly pets but I am not sure of others. I am sorry, I have questions mainly about how to live there without returning to US more than once every 6 mo.

      Thank you – Bryn Butler

      • Audrey
        REPLY

        Hi Bryn……O.K. I am going to take a few of your questions at first. I can tell you are excited about the move to Mx. Ofcourse any suggestions I give you will be my personal opinion, O.K. ???
        That said, I don’t know from personal fact but have heard that San Miguel is quite expensive to live there. You would have to come and check that out for yourself. Internet…….I have excellent internet , but I know of friends that have problem with their internet so it depends on a lot of where you decide to live, what area I mean. There are lots of rental companies on the internet, with pictures and fact sheets. They will tell you if they allow dogs, not all places allow dogs and not all places do not allow dogs. There again depends on the place. Dogs are a welcome feature down here, a lot,alot of people have dogs, more than one dog. There are also several agencies to get involved in that try to find homeless dogs a forever home. Yes a doggie community :) .
        If you have any more questions Bryn I would be more than happy to help you in any way I can. I was in your shoes about seven years ago.
        Audrey

      • Audrey
        REPLY

        oopppsss…….I meant to give you my email address Bryn. You should have no problem getting a tourist visa. Which needs to be re-newed once every 6 months. Once you do that you can look into a permanente.

        az62343@gmail.com

  • Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com
    REPLY

    Thank you for such an interesting article. My husband and I recently visited San Miguel de Allende and found many great qualities there. We didn’t make it to the Lake Chapala area but hope to next time. Always good to read about how others are “disrupting aging”.

      • Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com
        REPLY

        Hi Pat! San Miguel is a beautiful city and we very much enjoyed our visit there. LOTS going on so you would never be bored unless you wanted to hold out. But although we wouldn’t hesitate to visit again it didn’t make US want to retire there. There are so many other places to check out before we make that big decision just yet. Besides, right now real estate prices are extremely high there–NOT a good time to buy in my opinion. I write a lot about picking a good place to live along with picking the “lifestyle” you want as you age and call it rightsizing. For me, SMA didn’t quite fit but because we are all so different it might be just perfect for you. The very best way to find out would be to go and spend at least a month there (preferably more) and check it out. Don’t make any place your forever home without living there a bit to see if it really is what you want. Good luck! ~Kathy

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