After bonding with my parents over an episode of “My 600 Pound Life,” I changed the channel to watch the Cubs and Dodgers battle it out in Game Five of the National League playoffs. During a commercial break I got an update on the Curling World Championships, and was reminded the National Hockey League season just started, and I could watch every game courtesy of the new app from Rogers.
This is just an average night in the retirement community of Ajijic, Mexico—my parents’ home since 2008. I’ve visited every year since, and figured it’s about time to tell you all what it’s like.
While looking for an inexpensive place to retire, a realtor tipped my Mom off to the expat communities of Lake Chapala, home of Mexico’s largest lake. Money talks, and in Mexico, it practically screams. My parents did some research, visited Ajijic a couple of times, and bought a house in short order. It took a while to settle their affairs stateside since the real estate implosion was in its infancy, but they sold their house in the spring of 2008. Six weeks later, they drove cross-country to set up their new home in Mexico.
They moved into a newly-built retirement community where they joined a bunch of Canadian and American expats who also decided to take advantage of the weather, occasional adventure, and cheaper cost of living in their retirement years. Ajijic is also an escape town for residents of Guadalajara, and each weekend Mexicans come in droves for some fresh air.
The weather’s tough to beat. There’s hardly any humidity and when the rainy season hits, it rains at night, leaving the days pretty much full of sun year round. It’s mountain country though—about 5,000 feet above sea level—so whenever I visit the first thing I notice is the altitude as the pressure starts to play with my head. It’s also perennially dusty since it’s so dry. The first couple of days I feel extra spacey and tend to get winded fast, so I drink my yearly Coke to acclimate, and it helps. My parents’ house has a great view that often includes psychedelic sunsets, and one of the things I really look forward to is drinking coffee out on their back patio where I can take in the mountains and assorted scenery in calm.
After that, each visit is pretty much more calm. Ajijic is a village, hokey around the edges but not overly touristy—I’d say the day-to-day businesses outnumber the fun shops that sell local art and other miscellany (jewelry and Day of the Dead items are big hits). Since they’ve been here Domino’s Pizza has held strong, a Wal-Mart has opened, and so has a mall at the end of their street that hosts a movie theater, casino, and Scandinavian bakery.
Restaurants seem to have a lot of turnover, but thankfully I’ve developed an affinity for Dona’s Donuts, and Ajijic institution my Dad introduced me to that sells what have to be the most delicious but bad-for-you donuts on earth. There are a few coffee shops around town, and each offers a local variation of Starbucks’ standards. Markets and street vendors sell all kinds of local food and Super Lake, one of the main grocery stores, keeps the gringos connected to food they’ve left behind (my parents had hot dogs and brown bread the week before my visit).
Getting around is pretty easy. Their house is off a main road that takes you into the village and down by the lake in less than ten minutes. You could walk the same route under an hour, and there’s a bus that passes by pretty frequently if you aren’t up for walking in the heat. Guadalajara is a half an hour or so away by car, but the cheap bus is the best way to see the big city, since it stops right at the end of my parents’ street.
Street lights aren’t really a thing here, so driving at night isn’t easy for anyone, no matter what age. Driving during the day is a little dicey, too, since the locals could definitely give Boston drivers a run for their money. Main streets are paved but side streets aren’t, and cars constantly rattle over speed bumps or dusty cobblestones. You see all kinds of cars in all kinds of condition—newer models tend to belong to the gringos, while the locals drive anything that moves. Every car needs a trip to the car wash, and like Times Square in the good old days, squeegee guys do what they can to help out.
Loads of Canadians live there, and my parents’ cable TV is mixed with American and Canadian channels, which makes for some fun viewing. I don’t think they watch any Mexican channels. The retirement gringo community has been going strong for at least thirty years, so it’s easy to live there without speaking a word of Spanish. The locals and the gringos depend on each other and have a good thing going—people help each other out, and the times I’ve visited haven’t noticed any anti-immigration sentiment.
There are great doctors and medical services nearby, and medicine is a fraction of what it would cost in the US or free, depending on your insurance. While there’s sort of an unwritten rule that the retirees are left alone, no one is immune to the effects of the drug wars raging through the country. I’ve heard of a few hair-raising stories of drug lord justice over the past few years, and was told about a grisly vigilante episode involving hand removal that took place the week before my last visit.
Though it’s dusty, rough around the edges, and plays with my sinuses it’s a mellow visit—probably no more difficult than heading to Florida, especially now that Volaris offers a non-stop flight from New York’s JFK to Guadalajara. I’ll admit it’s a trip to hang out on the furniture I grew up with in muy lindo Mexico, but you never know where life will take you, so whenever I go I relax, and enjoy it.