I've lived in Mexico for twenty years, including eight in Mazatlán and seven on Isla Mujeres, and more in Baja, Cabo, Puerto Vallarta, Guadalajara, coastal Oaxaca, and Tijuana. My friends and neighbors have included everything from seasonal "snowbirds" to entrenched ex-pats with Mexican citizenship to temporary wastrels and deportees. After a while certain patterns and successful strategies for relocation become evident. Moving to Mexico, especially for retirees, is a compelling idea with a lot going for it. But doing it without planning and research can lead to moving to the wrong place for the wrong reasons and turning paradise into an ongoing nuisance. Let me offer some observations on what tends to work, and what doesn't.
I'm continually amazed to see people who wouldn't think of moving across their own state without looking into the new town in depth, yet buy a condo from a street hustler and move to Mexico without any idea of the area other than how the beach looks through the bottom of a Corona bottle. There is no single factor more important to relocating to another country and culture than to research it first. "Research" need not mean poring over Google and library references: it can be as simple as asking some obvious residents at the next table about the area during your times ashore from a multi-port cruise. Many come to a resort town in Mexico, like it, and come back year after year, then think about moving there when they get the gold watch and escrow from selling their home in Frozen Elbow, Michigan. If you're thinking of retiring to Mexico, why not take a vacation in a different area every year? And maybe not always at the beach: the upland colonial towns are rich with beauty, facilities, and more suitable climate. That's why all the big tropical capitals got built at 4,000 feet. If you start zeroing in on an area, go there in the summertime. With the exception of Los Cabos, every beach resort in Mexico offers lovely weather in February (and you appreciate it more when three days before you were de-icing your windshield) but sweaty, oppressive misery, and perhaps hurricanes and epidemics, in September. If you're going to be spending summers with the grandkids in the States, fine. But if you'll be living in Vallarta or Cozumel or Puerto Escondido in the summer, you are likely to suffer. And turning on the air conditioner will only shift that suffering to other areas. Like $400 light bills. Scout it out first.
Another area of "research" should entail learning some Spanish. The more the better. You can spend a month in Mazatlán around tourists and gringo-wrangler waiters who all speak English, but living in a country where you can't get by in the local tongue is arrogant and self-defeating. Just as one small example, when I ask the price of food in the market, they immediately name me a price much lower than the one they just gave the gringos trying to be understood by speaking English louder. There's an "Inglés tax" on a lot of things from help to plumber's fees to traffic ticket bribes. But beyond that, Spanish really does open the country up to you. One thing you often see among ex-pats is that the ones who learn Spanish start developing more Mexican friends--and Mexicans are very good friends, in general--and enjoying life more, seeing more of their new world and appreciating it more fully. This is another thing it's well to get started on well before actually making your move. I'm among those who finds it easy to pick up language in an area it's spoken, but difficult with books and classes. Let me suggest a short version of my patented Spanish learning method.
Get a Spanish-English dictionary. The University of Chicago paperback is cheap, small, and the best one you can get because it has a very smart way to deal with irregular verbs. Any college book store will have a rack of those laminated, three-hole subject sheets: get the one for Spanish grammar. Takes up no space, no weight, and has all you need to know about grammar once you get to that point. Get Mexican children's books and comic books to learn from. Do kids learn their own language with newspapers and novels? Follow their lead. Get a steno pad to write down any word you don't get. Look it up and put the definition beside it. If you can't find it, ask the next Spanish-fluent person you meet, and write it down. Review your notebook from time to time. See if you can find local conversation groups. Try to find a Mexican restaurant to patronize to the point that they will talk with you, give you good pronunciation. Get recordings of Mexican songs with lyrics printed in English and Spanish. Linda Ronstadt's "Canciones De Mi Padre" records are perfect, but anything you can find lyrics for will work. Google "letra" to search for Spanish lyrics. When you learn the words to a song or poem, you learn them for good. Again, it's why so much teaching for kids is in rhyme. Try renting films with Spanish subtitles, or Spanish language films with English subtitles. A great way to learn, though translations are sometimes a little sloppy. Whatever other classes you might take, these methods will supercharge your "real world" relationship with Spanish.
Decide what kind of environment you want to live in. Visiting different vacation sites helps, as does talking to people familiar with other areas. Travelogue DVD's and shows help too. The beach areas are not always the best bet. Acapulco is a place very few foreigners would want to live. Inland colonial cities like Morelia are charming, cheap, and blessed with springlike climate. And look for other features. Just as a young family will want to know what schools are in the area, retirees or working ex-pats will want to know about local hospitals, real estate values, and the availability of the things they want and need. The days when you had to beg visitors to bring peanut butter or pickles from the States or Canada are gone, but there's a big difference between a city with a WalMart or Sam's Club and some bucolic pueblo where you can't find your favorite clothes, food, or lifestyle supplies. Sure, you pick up new tastes, but it's a matter of how much of a "crash" your move will be. Some areas are very easy for a foreigner to move right into. Mazatlán and Cancun have big modern hospitals and populations of thousands of English-speakers. "Maz" also offers the ability to choose between very North-American areas and other areas that are very Mexican. Gringo "enclaves" like Ajijic, on a lake near Guadalajara, are even more "gringo-friendly" in many ways, but many find them too Americanized. Many find tight groups of ex-pats to be confining and prefer being able to choose company and commodities from both sides of the fence. Isla Mujeres is paradise on a tiny island (in winter at least), with the advantages of big city Cancun kept at bay by a ferry ride. A major urban center like Guadalajara is like being in Chicago: you can find almost any style of life somewhere in its sprawl of suburbs. Beach towns built on tourism alone can get old fast. I wouldn't recommend Puerto Vallarta or Puerto Escondido to very many people. Small, hustler-ridden, and far from urban facilities. Los Cabos offers a year around climate, large foreign population and plenty of movies, shopping and diversions, but is a crazy rat-race, like living in Las Vegas. I currently live in Tijuana, where lots of Americans find life to be congenial, though few would rave about how wonderful it is.
Which brings me to this. When people hear that I live in "TJ" they often say, "Aren't you afraid?" And I say, "Compared to where? Detroit? East St. Louis? Compton? Dade County?" It is not an area where foreigners get gunned down. My neighborhood is as safe and peaceful as Mayberry. And I pay two hundred a month for a very nice townhouse with a view and internet and anything I ever need a few blocks walk. But my point is, the danger to foreigners in Mexico is highly exaggerated. Even the U.S. State Department is hysterical about it. Residents here snicker at the dire warnings of our own government. Don't freak out over headlines about 30 people being shot in a city. Ask if any were foreigners. Or, in fact, if a single one of them was not a narcotics industry professional or police officer. Which, sorry to say, are usually the same people. Drug gangs gun each other down in Miami all the time, but people don't dread going there. There is huge wave of kidnapping in Mexico, but I can't think of a single American or Canadian who was kidnapped here. They like outside income and people who strike against tourists and retirees generally lose the protection that corruption has bought them. Nobody wants foreigners to get hurt.
Here's a general rule about safety in Mexico. Your possessions are at higher risk than in the states. You need to be extra careful. Don't use your credit card for small purchases: get pesos and spend them. Make sure any house you rent or buy has what the Mexicans' homes have: barred windows, good locks, maybe a yard dog. It's not something peculiar to Mexico: most of the world is the same way.
Your person, on the other hand, is safer than back home. Crimes like muggings, rape, kidnapping, and murder are rarer than in the states, and almost non-existent in the foreign population. When you hear of them, you generally find somebody was up to no good or being really, really stupid.
Mexico has some major advantages as a place to live, and a wide spectrum of ways to live here. There is probably a place for almost anybody to enjoy the kind of life offered, and live cheaply with new vistas and opportunities for enjoyment without having to sacrifice most of the advantages of living in North America. And if you do it intelligently and with some prior planning, you should be able to find the place in the sun that's right for you.
Linton Robinson has been a journalist in the USA and Mexico for many years and has several Mexico books on amazon.com. His 'Mexican Slang 101' is one of the best-selling English books in Mexico. See more on his website, linrobinson.com.