Recently, I joined about a dozen retirees on a six-hour hike above Mexico’s Lake Chapala. John Burnett was one of them. He had moved here from Dallas to retire, so I asked him why. “My friends back home ask me that all the time,” he said. “And I wish I could just bring them here. They would see how great it is.”
The Lake Chapala area includes a cluster of towns. Ajijic is the most popular for Americans. A sign on the main road lists its population at roughly 10,000. The Lake Chapala Society, located in central Ajijic, has nearly 3000 members. Most of them are foreigners. Since arriving here two weeks ago, I’ve asked dozens of retirees the same question. What brought you here? Most cite the weather. At 5000 feet above sea level, it’s never too hot. And it’s never too cold. The year-round temperature averages 72 degrees.
The locals are welcoming. It’s safe. And it’s cheap. So Social Security performs like it’s juiced. Jim Cook and his wife, Carole, have lived in Ajijic for seven years. “We spend about $1,600 a month down here,” says Jim.
My wife and I had lunch with the Cooks at one of the town’s most popular restaurants. The total bill for four was $16.32.
That evening, we had dinner in the neighboring town of Chapala. Six potato and cheese Zopes (as pictured) cost just $4.
You can rent two bedroom houses in Chapala for as little as $300 a month. In Ajijic, where rental prices are higher, you can get a spacious home on the hill with a lake view, a swimming pool, a gardener and someone to maintain the pool for $800 a month.
When I asked 66 year-old Lisa Jorgensen why she moved from Massachusetts to Lake Chapala she said, “I was bored. I needed adventure. And I was broke.” In 2007, she bought a home in Middleborough at the peak of the housing market. Before long, she was upside down on the mortgage. The property’s value had dropped by one third.
“When I turned 62, I was eligible for Social Security. I started searching online for great, affordable places to live. Lake Chapala just kept popping up.” So she packed her bags, loaded her car and drove south. She rents a villa in Ajijic for $700 a month. Her home has three fireplaces, a swimming pool and a beautiful garden. “All garden maintenance, including the pool’s, is covered by the rent,” she says.
Her Social Security payments are a force down here. She earns $1,750 a month, and it covered her expenses. She didn’t need more money. But she has an entrepreneurial spirit. Lisa now earns additional income from her website, Lake Chapala Reporter and herbook, Moving To Mexico’s Lake Chapala.
But what about medical? Sixty one year old Mark Boyer lives in a house he bought, overlooking the lake in San Antonio. It’s roughly 1 mile from Ajijic. He says traveling to the U.S. for medical procedures doesn’t appeal to him, based on its distance and cost. Like many of the region’s expats, he and his wife Marianne have private medical insurance. They pay a combined total of $2,200 per year with IMG International Medical Group. Global health insurance companies set rates based on your country of residence. Because Mexican health care costs are low, the premiums are as well. After researching hospitals, Boyer says, “Three of the hospitals in Guadalajara [a one hour drive from Lake Chapala] are as good or better than about 85 percent of the hospitals in the United States.”
Mark and Marianne carry a $5000 deductible each. Like most of the region’s expats, they pay out of pocket for doctor’s visits. U.S. educated doctors charge about $15.
But Lake Chapala isn’t for everybody. Imagine driving along a narrow road. A public bus stops in front of you. There’s no way around the bus, so you wait. The driver gets out, wanders into the nearby store and picks up a pack of cigarettes. Would it bother you? If so, the region’s ultra relaxed culture might not be your fit.
Flexibility and patience are important. You can’t drink water out of the tap. Internet connections can be sporadic. Not everybody speaks English. And food could cost you plenty if you’re married to the brands you bought back home. At Lake Chapala’s Wal-Mart, it costs $4.70 for a bar of Lindt chocolate. That’s nearly twice what you would pay in the United States. You’ll find that cheese from Oregon, spinach from California or jars of pesto carry similar premiums.
If you’re considering the move south, here’s my advice. Come for a month first. It’s easy to find short-term rentals through any of the local real estate companies, such as Coldwell Banker. Between November and April, the population swells with Canadian snowbirds looking to escape their winter. Book your rental property a couple of months before they arrive.
Sixty-six year old Donna Fleming moved here from L.A. She keeps herself busy doing fitness classes, learning Spanish, exploring the mountains with the hiking club and kayaking the lovely lake. But she echoes one concern my wife and I share:
"There are far too many old people down here," she says.