Ageing out of place in Lake Chapala, Mexico

by Erica Manfred
SenorPlanet.Org

“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.

Photo ©Dennis S. Hurd, Flickr CC