Like any mature, clear-thinking, rational couple, before coming to live in Mexico, my wife and I did research into what it would be like to live there. Maybe you’re in this research phase now.
It’s not easy getting to the truth.
On the one side are the obvious promoters; people, websites, businesses, seminar-sellers, certain magazines, and YouTubers, etc., that tell you how wonderful absolutely everything is. It’s not unusual to hear that you can live for $1,019 a month on the beach, watch the sunset while sipping a 50-cent margarita and wiggling your perfectly tanned toes into white, powdery sand, while the gently blowing breeze lazily ruffles the palm trees above and your massage table is being readied.
On the other side is the vast majority of the news media and maybe your sister-in-law Suzie, that either infer or state directly that you will probably be murdered within minutes of crossing the border, and even if you’re not, it is only a matter of time (probably a few months at most) until you meet your maker after being caught up in a drug cartel shootout.
As I write this, I’m laughing out loud because both are so ludicrous. But I didn’t know that for certain before we moved here, and if you don’t live here now, perhaps you don’t know what to believe, either. That’s why I’m writing this article.
After our unsatisfactory research phase and during our “we’re in the middle of doing this” phase, my wife and I wrote lots of articles about what it was like as newbies to live in Mexico, mostly as a result of our year-long road trip, which started when we crossed the border. We compiled the articles into an eBook you can download here for free titled “Our Year on the Road & Living in Mexico—Adventures, Challenges, Triumphs,
Lessons Learned.” While the articles are very honest and transparent and we write about the bad as well as the good, I am well aware that most (but of course, not all) of what we wrote is pretty positive. The reason is that, on balance, from our perspective, traveling and living in Mexico is mostly positive. Also, we choose to be positive, paraphrasing and subscribing to the paraphrased biblical maxim, “As a man thinketh, so he becomes.”
However, from time to time, I will get an email from someone who complains about something about living here in Mexico that perhaps I haven’t highlighted enough. So, in order to more clearly highlight our complaints, here are our personal “Top 7 Worst Things About Living in Mexico” in order, with the absolute worst thing first. In keeping with any grown-up’s worldview that for most issues, for each “Worst Thing” I will also list the offset if there is any.
1. The Firecrackers
Mexicans love them and will shoot them off repeatedly, early in the morning (sometimes around six o’clock) and late at night (midnight is not at all an uncommonly popular time). The fireworks I’m
talking about are called cohetes. And cohetes aren’t subtle. The sound and percussive impact is a bit like what you would imagine it would be like to be on the receiving end of Shock and Awe in Iraq.
During each cohete episode, many Gringo dogs have panic attacks, along with a good number of their owners. I have known people who formerly lived near the origination of the displays near plazas to move further away, just so they and / or their pets won’t suffer a nervous breakdown.
Most of the time, Mexicans shoot off cohetes in several bursts during the day in conjunction with some celebration, sometimes running for a week or more. This multi-day feature adds a component to the overall experience many would equate with Chinese water torture. Remember when the US military was trying to get Manuel Noriega to surrender from his hiding place in Panama by playing obnoxious music very loudly without interruption (which worked)? It’s a bit like that. (By the way, the United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights have banned the use of “music torture” in interrogations, but we have no such luck yet with exploding cohetes.)
Of all the things in Mexico, the joy the Mexicans receive from exploding fireworks is the hardest for me to understand. If you’re a 15-year-old boy, yes, I get it. Making loud noises and blowing things up is great fun. But if you’re anyone else and / or have to go to work the next morning? That, I must admit in all my ugly American cultural insensitivity, I don’t get.
Speaking of which, In the middle of a particularly rattling episode resembling what I would imagine it to be like during a week-long artillery barrage, I asked our housekeeper, in the most culturally sensitive way possible, if perhaps, one day in the future, they may not feel the need to wake everyone up with bone-jarring, ear-popping expressions of religious or
other joy, easily heard miles away from the point of impact. On some level, I expected some agreement, or failing that, at least some commiseration or common understanding. (After all, our housekeeper was no adolescent boy; she was a middle-aged, hard-working, mother of three children, each of whom, I would assume, would need their sleep.) I was wrong. Flatly, she told me, “No cohetes, no fiesta (celebration).”. There is was, in four words. The cohetes are here to stay.
The only offset I could think of for the cohetes is that they don’t explode them all year long and the dates of the most major outbursts can generally be planned around town fiestas and major Catholic holidays (as in, “During the Festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe is a good time of year to visit the States”). Also, they’re not as bad in all parts of Mexico. Generally, the more modern and urban the setting, the fewer cohetes. The only other offset reminds me of when parents are looking at their baby in its crib, after a particularly long day of the baby having colic and screaming bloody murder. With a combination of exhaustion and the relief that comes from a modicum of perspective that can be gained when it’s over for a while, they may say, “Isn’t she peaceful when she’s sleeping?” The same here. When the celebration ends and the tranquility returns, you appreciate it even more.
2. Burning Fields and Burning Trash
In many of the non-urban areas, it is common for Mexicans to burn their fields prior to the rainy season. If you happen to be downwind, you are treated to the aroma and potentially unpleasant health issues associated with breathing smoke. They don’t burn all their fields at one time and they
only do it at a certain time of the year, but if you’re sensitive to smoke, you may want to locate out of these areas, or at least be somewhere else during these times.
In the poorer areas, some residents will burn their trash, which I assume is even less healthy to breathe than flaming agriculture. We have also seen people with large yards burn their garden waste right next to the road, so passersby can be treated to inhaling their burning excess. However, I am told that this is happening less and less and should continue to diminish, as trash pick-up becomes more common and generally used.
3. Driving and Walking Can Be Treacherous
Property taxes are, from a US perspective, so absurdly low (example: less than $170 per year for a big house), that there isn’t a lot of money available for street maintenance. There will generally be lots more potholes than you’re used to in the better parts of the US or Canada. There will also be road hazards like 10-foot-deep holes that may be marked by a single remaining piece of yellow caution tape blowing in the breeze that you could easily miss, like we experienced in La Paz. And it’s not that all the warnings are this elegant. Another hole was marked by a thoughtful soul placing a Coke bottle in the middle of the road just to the front of it.
As I do most of the driving, especially when we’re in a new area, I entrust my wife Jet to help me navigate by calling out the hazards. Here are some of the most common exclamations:
- “Tope!” Meaning: there is an upcoming speed bump large enough to send both of our 40+ pound dogs sitting in the back seat airborne. (Read about our immediate experience with topes and “alto”—stop signs – directly after we crossed the border, “Experiences Crossing the US-Mexican Border at Mexicali (or is it Calexico?”))
- “Pothole!” Meaning: there is enough pavement missing in front of us to dent our front axle and send our dogs airborne yet again. (Great fun… if you’re a dog.) (See: “Potholes, Detours and Other Driving Challenges Southeast of Cordoba, Mexico: Just Follow the Pigs, Keep Calm, and Have Faith.”)
- “Cow!” Meaning: one or more grazing T-bones have meandered onto the road. Of course, this happens much more in rural areas, such as around the area where we stayed in Baja California Sur. (See: “Arriving in Our Little Village in La Ventana Bay, Just Southeast of La Paz, Baja California, Mexico.”) If you happen to notice a car on a country road coming from the other direction with its emergency lights blinking, they’re probably trying to tell you that there are cows in the road just ahead. (See: “Tips and Observations About Driving Through Baja California, and the Release of Your ‘Inner Mexican’”.)
You cannot be oblivious when driving in Mexico. On the contrary, you must practice what the military and first responders call “Situational Awareness” (‘SA’ for those ‘in the know.)
You must also practice SA when walking. Sidewalk maintenance is generally the responsibility of the house or store behind the sidewalk. The result is a delightful mix we call “sidewalk potpourri.” There are some really bad / non-existent sidewalks, intermixed with creative, artful, and beautiful ones, all on the same block. What the overall sidewalk experience lacks in consistency is matched only by its lack of concern for safety. You’re pretty much on your own, with lots of unannounced drop-offs and things to trip over.
In many of the colonial / village areas such as Ajijic / Lake Chapala, San Miguel de Allende, etc., the roads and some of the sidewalks are cobblestone, which is pretty treacherous for walking. If you need a walker or a cane and you want to get around outside by walking, these colonial areas are not for you. Also, there are very few
(close to zero) ramps for those who need wheelchairs. (ADA compliance? Forget about it.) When driving in these areas it helps to have the concentration, reflexes and breathing control of a Navy Seal marksman. Many of the roads are so narrow that the cars parked on the side that still have side view mirrors on them that haven’t been ripped off fold them back, out of the most obvious harm’s way. When driving, you may have to fold back your side view mirrors, too, so that you don’t hit the pole that some reason was placed on the street side of the sidewalk, or one of the parked cars just opposite it.
On those very few occasions when my wife walks ahead of me (for example, due to the excitement she feels in an outdoor shopping area), in full stride, without slowing down even a bit, she will often point out the wires just higher than the top of her head but lower than the top of mine or a random piece of plumbing sticking out of the ground. (Especially when shopping, Jet’s SA is fully engaged.)
(Here are our YouTubes about shopping in Mexico. To read about one particularly good shopping experience, see “Mahahual to Chetumal, Mexico: An Otherworldly Lake, a Time Machine, and Great Presents for Everyone.”)
If the roadside perils don’t get you, there is always the possibility of someone (probably a short person) placing something by or over the sidewalk that a tall person like me doesn’t appreciate to the full extent it was intended. For example, one night, we were walking on the sidewalk in the village of Ajijic from our rental to a bistro just a few blocks away that had great food and entertainment. It was quite dark. So dark, in fact, that as I moved slightly to the right to avoid the tree from the street encroaching over the sidewalk at face-level to the left of me, I didn’t notice the beautifully decorated and ornate iron cage protruding from the widow on the right side, also at about face level. The reason I didn’t fully appreciate this beauty was that I probably lost consciousness for several seconds after hitting the iron cage full force, and knocked to the ground. After regaining composure and a semblance of full consciousness, I staggered back to the house very slowly and carefully.
Lesson learned the hard way, flashlight in hand and used fully, we made it to the bistro the next night.
4. Uncomfortable Furniture
“Yes, sweetheart,” I have said more than once to my wife, Jet, “the couches here are not as comfortable as what we had in the US.” I get it. It’s true. Which is pretty amazing. The cost of manufacturing furniture is so low here, even to the point of commissioning handmade, to your specifications, gorgeous pieces for a fraction of what it would cost in the US or Canada, that you would think they could, in general, make comfortable furniture.
Evidently, they can’t. We were talking with a couple who were both born in Mexico but lived in the US for an extended time before returning. Before they returned, the husband
had his wife give away all their couches and beds to relatives. That was 12 years ago, and when talking about it, the wife still glares at the husband. (Those living in Hawaii would call it “stink eye”; you can guess the meaning.)
Laughably, you can see equipales (see the picture at the top of this story, with my dogs sitting in them) everywhere, from cantinas and taco stands in backwater towns to upscale neighborhoods. By my calculation, Mexico has several billion of them, and I would suspect that no more than a dozen or so are really comfortable.
My wife complains about the beds being too hard, but personally, I like them that way. What Mexicans call the “matrimonial mattress,” is common here and is shorter and less wide that our double-size mattress. The mattress salespeople know what a California King is, but they don’t carry it. If you’re tall and you don’t want to put two beds together and sleep width-wise, prepare for your feet to hang out. After getting a bit of the picture, we were mattress shopping and walked
into a local store here in our little village to ask the salesperson if she had any beds an “estranjero (foreigner; us)” would like. Evidently after enough experience to know that it would be a waste of her time to try to convince us otherwise, she gave us the quick answer: no.
The glitzy mattress store across the street did have a few mattresses estranjeros would like, but they were ridiculously expensive.
So, you can have a spectacular, hand-made couch, made to your exacting design, even with your family crest (which you can conjure up for the occasion if you don’t have one already) carved into the wood for a tiny amount of what it would cost in the US or Canada. You just won’t enjoy sitting in it that much.
Offset: bring your mattresses and comfortable furniture from home.
5. The Power Goes Out / The Internet Can Be Slow
Some places in Mexico (just like some places in the US or Canada) have the power go out from time to time. It’s just that, in Mexico, it will tend to happen more often. Not all the time, but more often. When the power goes out during the day, we just enjoy our time doing something that doesn’t require electricity. When the power goes during the night, we enjoy the night air, the sky, the views, the sound of our wealthy neighbor’s generator, or just go to sleep. It really isn’t that bad.
Internet performance in Mexico is a mixed bag. In some places (of course, the most rural), it can be pretty bad. In some of the larger areas, the Internet performance is absolutely great. In Arizona, our Internet was 10 Mbps download and about 1.5 Mbps upload. When we were in San Miguel de Allende and Akumal (between Tulum and Cancun), our Internet speed was awesome—at least twice that. In the urban areas of Mexico, you can purchase a higher speed plan. In some rural places, you can’t.
In the wonderful little village we stayed in near La Paz, in Baja California Sur (see: “Arriving in Our Little Village in La Ventana Bay, Just Southeast of La Paz, Baja California, Mexico), we were told that the house we were renting had very good Internet. It didn’t. It was so bad that I really couldn’t work. However, realizing that they had given us the wrong information, the rental
company was very accommodating. My wife and dogs spent most of their time in the great house we had rented with the weak signal up on the hill with the pool and awesome view, while I worked for several hours a day in another house the rental company made available to me right next to the beach, with a different awesome view. Mexico teaches you to be resourceful.
If Internet speed is important to you, get the actual speed in numbers before you go. (See: “Two House Rentals Gone Wrong, and a Guardian Angel”.)
A quick personal story that may not be representative of all places in Mexico. Here in the Ajijic / Lake Chapala area, Telmex delivers us about 10 Mbps download, but only about 0.7 Mbps upload. Having reliable, high speed Internet is critical to our business, so I looked into getting Internet from another provider, Telecable, as well, for redundancy. (Telecable delivers 5.5 Mbps download and 2.5 Mbps upload.) I walked into the local Telecable office and asked how much it cost per month for just Internet. The answer: 250 pesos (around $13).
After a suitable pause to collect myself and not laugh out loud with glee (I was, you must understand, a Comcast customer in the US), I responded appropriately, with the rudimentary Spanish equivalent of, “OK. I’ll take it.”
“But there may be a problem,” the Telecable woman grimly told me in Spanish. “You need to pay for installation.”
OK; my joy was diminished a bit, but primarily by her ominous tone. Girding myself, I asked, “Cuanto cuesta?” (How much?)
With a knowing frown, she delivered what she believed to be sad news: “100 pesos.”
About $5.50 for installation.
Now, I have both Telmex and Telecable, so if one goes out, I have the other. Meanwhile, I’ll be combining both signals through a router to get what I am led to believe will be a combination of performance– about 15 Mbps download and 3+ Mbps upload with realistically about 98% reliability, at about 1/3 the cost in Arizona. I can live with that.
6. Noise Ordinances? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Noise Ordinances
Consistent with the general love and adoration the Mexican people have of cohetes, most Mexicans don’t see any issue with partying late into the night, and doing so in a fashion that would afford their neighbors several kilometers
away the enjoyment of their music to the exclusion of being able to hear much of anything else. If you were to call the cops, after a long discussion in Spanish between them to try to figure out what you were saying, they would probably get a good laugh out of your complaint. Then, they would probably shrug or just welcome you to Mexico.
This isn’t the case in all of Mexico, however. When we stayed in planned communities in Akumal and in the outskirts of San Miguel de Allende, there was no noise from parties. When I asked my Mexican neighbor in San Miguel de Allende if it would be noisy there, for example, because of the party that would happen later that night, she said, “Of course not; that would be rude,” and that’s exactly what happened—virtually zero noise. Just don’t expect a 10 PM curfew everywhere.
7. The Plumbing
It’s difficult to put this delicately, but I’ll do the best I can.
In lots of places in Mexico (but not all), you shouldn’t flush the toilet paper down the toilet. In these places, you can either place your toilet paper in the trash can (like most Mexicans do) or you can use a portable bidet, like my wife Jet brought for the occasion. I had no idea this was the case before we did our research on Mexico, because I had only visited the tourist areas, where things worked just like they worked in the US and Canada.
Being a typical, red-blooded American male, I had never thrown toilet paper in a trash can or used a bidet, but I decided to try what I considered the least objectionable option, the bidet. Now, I can happily report to you that, not only is this not an issue for me in any way whatsoever (inconceivable before we moved here and I was forced to try it), but I have come to prefer it.
Coming up with this list of the 7 Worst Things About Living in Mexico was a lot of fun for me, which should let you know how I personally view them. I’m not really all that bothered, except, from time to time, by the cohetes and the burning. But that’s me. How would you react? What is the reality of living in Mexico for you?
Trying to answer this question reminds me of the parable of the six blind men each holding onto a different part of an elephant, with each one asked to describe what an elephant is. Of course, each had a significantly different description, depending on what they were holding on to. Which blind man was telling the truth? In living in a place; any place, in the US, Canada, or Mexico, I believe we can choose which part of the elephant to hold on to.
Don’t let the perfect (which does not exist, even where you live) be the enemy of the possible. What’s the worst that can happen? If you are clear-eyed about tradeoffs and can accept the worst as I’ve described it above, there is a very good chance you’ll be happy here. If you can’t, at least you know our worse seven things in advance.
Any mature, non-agenda driven person will understand that life contains trade-offs, and there is no perfect place. Of course you wouldn’t have the same problems I described in this article in the US or Canada because these problems were formulated by a Gringo who is trying to tell you what is worse about Mexico than living in the US or Canada.
But I’ll bet you have other issues we don’t have here where I live in Mexico, like shoveling snow / dealing with too hot weather, ridiculously expensive and non-responsive healthcare (see: “My Personal Experience Comparing Healthcare in the US vs. Mexico”), and an overall cost of living easily more than double mine for even a remotely comparable lifestyle.
And speaking of lifestyle, yours may not include what my wife and I enjoy here– incredible views, great people, or walking from our home to spectacular hiking, the community pool or to play tennis, all while our housekeeper ($2.60 per hour) and our gardener ($3.20 per hour) get things just right for our return. (Tomorrow, Jet is going for a facial for about $16.) After listing all the good stuff and all the bad stuff and comparing where you live to here in Mexico, which place is best? For us, this is definitely the place to be. For you… well, you’ll have to decide that one for yourself; I’m late for my tennis match.
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