An Appeal to Starbucks de Mexico

Starbucks, I love your Cold Brew. I typically bought out all the supply at Walmart of the Cold Brew bottles while I lived in the U.S. and on the few trips I’ve made back.

The bottles are not available here in Mexico. And that’s okay, although I hope you bring them here in the near future.

No. My appeal regards what is sold in Mexico, listed on the menus of all the Starbucks I have graced here so far, the Cold Brewed Coffee.

A couple of times when I have ordered the Cold Brew, I’ve been absolutely delighted. The barista opened a little frig, pulled out a vessel of dark chilled coffee, added it to a Venti with ice and mixed with water. Perfection! That smooth, delicious cold-brewed taste I so love.

However, most of the time, the barista fills a Venti with ice, runs some pipping hot brewed coffee into a vessel, dilutes it with water and pours this devil’s concoction into the Venti.

What is it? That’s iced coffee! That is NOT cold-brew.

Please, please Starbucks de Mexico, train the baristas on how to properly provide the cold brew that is on the menu. Or, if that’s simply the way it’s done here, fine. Just please please label it on the menu as cafe con hielo, not as Cold Brew.

Ahhhh, Cold Brew, I do miss thee.

Rules of the Road–Driving in Mexico Part 2

This weekend Bonita and I ventured on a run to the border. No, not for Taco Bell but for something much more mundane. We had to renew the permit for our U.S.-plated car. Mexico does not allow permanent importation of a foreign-plated vehicle; you get a permit at the border which must be surrendered every 180 days. So off we drove from Chapala to Nuevo Laredo to take care of business.

In another post I’ll talk more about the actual journey; today, my focus is once again on driving in Mexico, building on my first post on the topic.

The drive from Chapala to Nuevo Laredo (on the Texas border) is a clear shot North. Much of it, probably about half of it, is on toll road. Pretty straightforward. Toll roads in Mexico, at least those we’ve encountered, come in two versions: divided four lane and undivided two lane.

The divided four lane is easy-peasy to navigate and drive. Indeed for much of the time on these I used the car’s cruise control and sat back and drove.

What you encounter on the toll roads are mostly trucks. Here in Mexico, you see a lot of double semi’s, and on the rolling hills and mountain passes they can move at a snail’s pace (upside) and road runner (downside). On the four lanes, you zip right along.

You’ll pass a lot of trucks. But, always, always check the mirrors. Despite doing 70 to 75 mph myself, a number of the cars that use the toll roads treat them like the autobahn and will flash by you in the blink of an eye. And they seemingly appear out of nowhere.

The fun part is on the two lanes.  On the toll roads with two lanes, there’s typically a paved shoulder, specifically marked. The shoulder is most often treated as another lane here in Mexico.

You are expected to drive mostly on the shoulder. The trucks almost all do so. Thus another “lane” is created in the middle of the road. The double yellow lines down the middle are ignored. And you pass in this “third” lane and you will be passed too. Even where it appears impossible to safely pass.

It seems that everyone understands this here in Mexico. The police do it; the trucks do it; buses do it; cars do it. It appears to be considered very bad form to doggedly drive, especially slowly, in the marked single lane in the road on these two lane toll roads.

Every now and then, you’ll see signage that clearly says “no passing”. However, there seems to be no signage that says “passing allowed”. You just do it.

The same is true in the cities. Be prepared to be passed on the right on the shoulder.

And motorcycles and scooters zip everywhere.

I see the Mexicanos driving and talking away on their cellphones. I shake my head in amazement. It takes all the focus and attention I can muster just to drive here.

It’s not better; it’s not worse; it’s just quite different than driving in the U.S. or Canada.

I do wonder though. Do the Mexicans find driving in the U.S. and Canada as challenging as I find driving in Mexico?

How Clean Is Lake Chapala?

I’m back on a lake at long last. Lake Chapala.

Let me explain.

I grew up on the shores of Lake Champlain in Vermont, one of the largest lakes in the U.S. other than the Great Lakes. Lake Champlain was and is beautiful and relatively pristine. I remember days of pleasure on and in the lake, swimming, fishing, wading, picnicking, and camping.

Lake Chapala reminds me in some ways of those early days of my life. Relatively little beachfront with actual sandy beaches. More marsh and shrubland.

When we first thought about moving to the Chapala, we read that the lake was seriously polluted, and getting worse. And visiting the malecons and the few beaches, we rarely saw people swimming. Lots of families on the shores, but rarely anyone in the water. Boats, yes. People, no.

So we weren’t sure.

Now, I’m happy to say, the issue is settled. In a report titled Lake Chapala: State of the Lake 2018, the authors rely on the analysis of Dr. Todd Stong, a prominent and widely-respected civil engineer. Turns out that Lake Chapala is in quite good environmental condition. Safe for swimming. Safe for fishing. And the Lake is a major source of water for Guadalajara.

Lake Chapala is slowly, very slowly, disappearing. Indeed, it is already quite shallow. As the report notes, the average depth is fourteen feet. Each year adds an increment of sediment to the bottom of the Lake. Over the course of thousands of years, the Lake will turn to marsh and finally land.

The report is quite enlightening. I recommend reading it. It’s brief and factual. So, have no fear. The Lake is just fine.

Our Favorite Chapala Restaurant (Please keep it quiet!)

I’ve hesitated for a long time about writing this post about our favorite restaurant in Chapala. Partly because we’re come to think of it as our little secret. And partly because until one of our most recent visits, we had not encountered any gringos there…and the place is pretty much always hopping.

Finally, we decided we had to reveal. Los Milagros de Dalila or, loosely translated, the Miracles of Delilah. (If anyone knows better, we’d be happy to know.)

It’s on Route 23, a few miles beyond the mountain pass that separates the Chapala area from greater Guadalajara. Right on the way to and from the airport. We passed it several times, noting each time that it was very popular. Lots of cars, every time.

Finally, on a trip back from the airport, we decided to stop in.

Los Milagros is a cafeteria. You wait in a (sometimes quite long) line, get a tray and approach the single serving station. Drinks and desserts tempt you as you approach the hot food area.

Basically, they serve burritos. There’s an array of choices to put in your burrito. They specialize in lenga (beef tongue). Chicken, pork and beef possibilities too.

I don’t speak much Spanish and neither does Bonita. We’re learning. And at Los Milagros, Spanish is the language. So, we point and gesture and the patient servers work it out and we get our meal. Most often, though, a kind soul waiting in line steps up to translate for us. We’ve had that experience over and over here in Mexico and we are so grateful.

With your burritos you get frijoles (beans). And on top of the counter, Los Milagros has a big plate of grilled chilies and another of grilled onions from which you can take as much as you want on your plate.

Then you pay. They do take credit and debit cards. Yet, almost everyone pays with pesos.

You take your tray and move to one of the two large dining rooms, take a seat and dig in.

Oh, wait, what’s that? In the front?

Yes, yes indeed it is a salsa bar. With pickled jalapenos, and mild to hot salsas. Self-serve.

Just wonderful! The food is hearty and basic and delicious. Good for the soul!

And for the two of us? Typically, $200 pesos, with food for us both, beverages, and a dessert for Bonita. About $11 U.S. And we take part of our feast to go. (They supply the boxes.)

Los Milagros is open 24/7/365. Yes, that’s correct. They never close.

It’s clean and bright (every time we’ve been there, we’ve seen workers mopping the floors). And very family-friendly. Indoor and outdoor seating.

So, with some reluctance, we’re letting you in on the secret. Just try to keep it quiet, okay???

Chapala, Mexico: It’s a Plastic World

Mexico loves plastic, at least this part of Mexico does and the same seems to hold true for the regions we have visited (only a few to be sure).

Everywhere you’ll find chotskies being hawked with aplomb from stalls and individuals walking the malecon and the streets and all among the numerous vendors and small shops lining the streets.

The kids seems to love them. Brightly colored plastic animals pulled along by happy cherubs brings a smile to the face of all but the most Scrooge-like.

Yet, the presence of plastic is woven into the very fabric of commercial life here.

At least twice a week, I head to the mercado to visit what I think of as “my” salsa vendor. A lady with a table at the edge of the sidewalk in the commercial zone. Fresh salsa and beans available every day. Delicious!

When I go, I buy a little bit of a supply and this is what is handed to me when the transaction is complete.

A (very) inexpensive plastic bag with my purchased goodies inside. Easy to carry.

Unpackaging the contents leads to yet more plastic.

Yes, that the salsa. Each cup is carefully and skillfully wrapped in its own plastic bag and tightly tied at the top. (I’ve never been able to untangle the knot; hello, scissors.)

And finally, once the cup is revealed, it too is inside a plastic cup and top made by the standard-bearer of disposable cups, Dixie Cup. A “taste” of what used to be home.

So, all totaled, I come home with four individually-wrapped plastic Dixie cups, each in their own plastic bag, placed in a plastic shopping bag.

Now, I also buy beans here. They come in a more solid, yet still plastic tub with a lid. The two I buy are put in yet another plastic bag before going in the shopping bag.

I come one with six plastic bags, four plastic Dixie cups and lids and two plastic tubs with lids.

And I can tell you that the salsa vendor moves a lot of salsa and beans, every day.

Compound this with the hundreds, if not thousands, of street vendors and there’s a whole lot of plastic around here.

Moreover, as described in an earlier post, local custom is to drink bottled water. And, guess what, the bottle is plastic.

Plastic is often vilified by by environmentalists and alternative health practitioners as harmful to both the planet and to all types of life.  I sympathize; I really do. Yet, living in Chapala, and being surrounded by plastic, I can also appreciate what drives its use here. It’s inexpensive. Every peso counts here for many people.

Also, if you care to observe how waste is handled here, you’ll see that the trash workers sort out the trash by hand, putting recyclables in huge cloth bags and then dropping them off at local recyclers. You’ll also see people on the streets picking up plastic bottles which they can take for recycling and earn a few pesos doing so.

Finally, for the really plastic-phobics, some good news. Scientists have recently created an enzyme that breaks down plastic rapidly.

But for right now, if you choose Chapala as a potential expat location, learn to love plastic. It’s everywhere here.


Cost of Living in Chapala, Part 2

In a prior post, we discussed the cost of housing in the Chapala area. Here, let’s explore the other major variables that affect the cost of living in Chapala.

Although we do not directly pay for utilities: water, gas, electricity, and internet (they are included in our rent), friends here tell us that they spend about $100 U.S. dollars a month on these items.

TV is another story. We know some expats purchase TV through local services here, cable or satellite. We choose to access TV through web-based services such as Netflix and Fubo. DirectTV is another option. With TV accessed through the web, you may need to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) connecting through a server that is based in the country where you are purchasing the service. (Some of these services are only available to the U.S.geography so use a VPN that allows you to specify access through a U.S.-based server.)

In total, we spend about $60 U.S. on TV.

Food and groceries. A lot of variability in this category as well that impacts the cost of living in Chapala. We’ve found that prices for ingredients are fairly uniform and remarkably inexpensive (compared to the U.S.) for locally-sourced produce and meat. It’s routine for us to visit the local mercado where lots of local vendors hawk their wares. We visit a fruit and vegetable stand (there are several), a carniceria (butcher), and a salsa vendor.

At the vegetable vendor, we walk away with a couple of large bags stuffed with fruit and vegetables, enough for a week of eating, for between $5 and $7.50 U.S. The butcher provides us with beef and pork and chicken. Typically, we get a kilo (2.2 pounds) of beef for about $7.50 (U.S.) We also buy fruit from the numerous vendors that line the main street of Chapala. I’m in love with the salsa I can get fresh every morning. Ditto with the frijoles (beans) with or without chili or carne (meat).

Some expats are squeamish about buying off the street. We aren’t. We’re choosy though and we have learned to develop familiarity with the vendors and tend to re-visit the same ones over and over. The locals buy here; why not us?

Products that are imported from the U.S. can be readily purchased here, either at Walmart or a local shop called Super Lake which caters to gringos and has lots of the favorite items gringos crave. However, compared to the locally-produced items, they are premium-priced.

That said, we frequent Pancho’s Deli Market. It’s small and packed with goodies gringos like us love. Excellent produce and fruit and staples such as jasmine rice, Asian sauces, chips, and other such items. Superb service too.

Dining out is also variable, just as in the U.S. The Chapala area has lots of restaurants that cater to gringos, ranging from what you might call diners in the U.S. all the way up to white tablecloth places. We gravitate toward the restaurants that cater to the locals. The prices are better; the food usually good to excellent, and the price (other than the money) is having to learn a little more Spanish in order to communicate our needs and wants. We think it’s worth it.

That said, you can eat heartily at lunch for about $5 U.S. for two. Dinner costs more in the $10 U.S. range. At gringo-oriented establishments, expect to spend $20 and up for dinner. (And, for transparency, we do not imbibe, so the prices I have quoted here do not included any adult beverages you might want.)

What else? Oh, household items. Hello, Walmart. Local brands cost about a third less than in the U.S. The familiar U.S. brands are about the same or slightly higher than in the U.S. Likewise with clothes.

A trip to the movies here? About $6 U.S. for two. Yes, for major Hollywood releases. See our previous post about the movies here.

We visted Guadalajara recently to partake of opera broadcast Live from the Met. In the U.S., the last time we attended the tickets ran $22 per person. Here, we paid about $10. (Remember, that pricing in pesos varies daily depending on the exchange rate.)

So to sum up, you have a lot of control of your cost of living in Chapala. Go local, go native, and you can live on a surprisingly small amount of money. Such as the average Social Security check (in the range of $1300-$1400 U.S. per month, or even less). And you can splash out, spending pretty much any amount above that.

Ah, the choices of living in paradise.

A Musical Odyssey in Guadalajara

Yesterday we indulged in our love of live music with a day trip to Mexico’s second-largest city, Guadalajara. Well, sort of. As noted in a previous post, Mexico is full of music. We enjoy it almost every day here in Chapala. Yet, we were longing for the musical events we loved back in the U.S. We got our wish satisfied.

First up, we took in an opera broadcast live from the Met (the Metropolitan Opera in New York City). Truth be told, it was a delayed broadcast of last Saturday’s actual live event (on March 31), delayed because of the overwhelming celebration of Holy Week and Easter throughout Mexico.

The opera was the Mozart classic, Cosi Fan Tutte. I’ve seen this opera a number of times, each time a different production with a new stage setting. This latest iteration had the backdrop of 1950s Coney Island, complete with circus artists filling the stage. A truly glorious production and beautifully sung by the six leads.

Teatro Diana hosted the event, right in downtown Guadalajara. And it’s a perfect setting for the Live from the Met broadcasts. Yes, the subtitles are in Spanish, so brush up on the libretto before you attend or, better yet, use the opportunity to learn written Spanish.

Following the opera, we headed toward Telmex Auditorium in the northern part of the city, where the Corona Capital Festival happened. The Festival is billed as the premier musical annual event in Mexico. [Telmex Auditorium hosts many major musical acts, both Mexican and internationally-known.}

We did not know what to expect, beyond the relatively limited information on the festival website.

Still, we had a powerful (for us at least) reason to make this foray–David Byrne of Talking Heads fame was bringing his solo tour to Guadalajara in support of his new album, American Utopia.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, the number one question we get as geezers living in paradise is how safe it is to live here.

We drove easily to the venue, found parking and began the walk to the festival entrance. Police presence was everywhere. Not heavily armed, although I’m sure if the need arose, those resources were readily available. I felt a lot more safe here than at similar events I have attended back in the U.S.

Approaching the entry, there were two pathways. Several times I was admonished to move over the right side (Bonnie and I were walking on the left side) so we moved over. Then the reverse would happen. Finally, an English-speaking Mexicana explained that men and women entered separately.

So we split up. At the entry, ticket displayed, I was gently patted down by a security man and then was asked to go over to show my day bag to a police officer for inspection. Bonita received a similar inspection from a female. This accomplished, Bonita and I met up again and went through the final gate where our tickets were scanned and we were finally in the festival grounds.

And we sure felt like geezers. The sea of people were all in their twenties and thirties, although the twenties and younger were the main demographic. The only people we saw who could be described as mature were either police, festival officials or firefighters.

And, we saw no other gringos the entire day.

Yet, we felt totally welcome, even though we were the source of some amusement among the young.

The grounds were sparkling and dazzling; multi-colored structures, mainly presented by Mexican corporations dotted the landscape. Along with lots of food vendors (with a deep selection of all kinds of cuisine) and cerveza (beer) everywhere.

And it was hot and sunny. Early April through the end of May is the hot season here. We managed to find some shade under a canopy near one of the food courts and crowded ourselves in with other refugees from the heat.

The festival boasts three main stages and a couple of smaller ones. Music is continuous from the open (1PM) to the an hour before the close (1AM). We sat and ate and enjoyed whatever music was playing, while we waited for David Byrne.

David was scheduled from 5:20PM to 6:20PM so around 5PM we made our way through the crowds (every increasing) to secure ourselves a good spot to enjoy the show. Miraculously, we found a shaded area beside the sound control tower and joined several hundred youths there.

Right at 5:20 (the entire festival ran with military precision), David came out on stage and it was on with the show!

A collaboration with the Detroit School of the Arts, after David did the first song by his lonesome, the curtains parts and ten musicians joined him onstage: four drummers (each having one drum used like a marching band), keyboard, guitars, synth and a dancer or two.

The show was a mix of cuts from American Utopia and some of the Talking Heads catalog (Once In A Lifetime and Blind were standouts). And to finish, of course, Burning Down The House.

It was the first time either of us had gotten to see David and we had never had the chance to see the Talking Heads (although the move Stop Making Sense is a good second).

The show was everything we had hoped for and even more.

Following the show, with the blazing sun finally on a course to set, we found seats on a picnic-table bench and rested, awaiting Alanis Morissette. Right on schedule Alanis hit the stage. We listened for a while and finally decided to make our way home.

Did I mention we are now geezers?

A little too much angst in the music and we were unwilling to await one of our all-time favorite songs, Thank You, which we assumed would be the closing number, so we headed for the salida (exit).

We might have stayed. The Killers, a band that is huge among the twenty-somethings were headlining. We’d listened to them on Spotify (yes, it works just fine here in Mexico) and both felt they were not quite our cup of tea. And the other headliner, Robin Schulz, had canceled his appearance. We would have stayed to see him!

So, satiated with glorious music, albeit it radically different styles and environments, we made our way back to Chapala.

But not for long. Next Saturday, we’re off for the live broadcast of Luisa Miller by Verdi live from the Met, again at Teatro Diana.

Ahhhhh, the musical life is a good life. At least for these geezers in paradise.

Cost of Living in Chapala

A reader asked us about the cost of living in Chapala and housing availability. We suspected that the cost of living question would arise, yet I write this with some trepidation. The cost of living here is dependent on two major variables and boy do they vary.

So let’s unpack the variables. Let’s go with the simpler one first: the relative value of the (for us) U.S. dollar and the Mexican peso. Over the last few years, the peso has been declining in relative value to the dollar, so in that sense the cost of living in Mexico has become increasingly less costly. At present, we are withdrawing from our U.S.-based bank accounts at an exchange rate of between 17 and 18 pesos. Just a few years ago, the exchange rate hovered around 10 pesos to a dollar. So, relatively speaking Mexico has gotten cheaper and cheaper for those with U.S. dollars.

[A parenthetical insert here–locally the prices in pesos are symbolized exactly like both U.S. and Canadian currency. This still knocks us for a loop on occasion. Walking into Walmart, you’ll immediately see laptops and HD tvs, with $ signs on them in the thousands. Not to worry, the prices are in pesos, so yes, you have to do the math to approximate what you’re paying in U.S. or Canadian currency.]

The second variable about the cost of living in Chapala is the most difficult to gauge: lifestyle.

For example, we currently rent an apartment (called a condominium here) for $650 U.S. dollars. This is a little bit on the pricey side in Chapala. Perfectly decent one bedroom apartments can be had for as little as $400. Typically, apartments come with utilities included in the rent, although this is not always so.

In our case, we get electricity, water, trash collection, and internet included with our rent. (We also have a pool just off our back patio….and we are just two blocks from the lake and the malecon.)

Now I am talking cost of living in Chapala specifically here. Once you look in Ajijic you have a different story. Ajijic is generally more upscale and the costs of renting reflect that difference. Yes, you can find rentals in Ajijic on the lower side, yet prices of $800 to $1200 U.S. are more abundant (again here, one to two bedrooms).

From there, you can rent all the way up into the thousands of dollars per month.

As to availability, supply is more limited in the snowbird months of November to April than from May to October. That said, our observation is that it is relatively easy to find rentals at any time. The Lake Chapala Society in Ajijic has a bulletin board with listings as does the local Walmart (it’s on the wall near the shopping carts). Also, just walking around you’ll see For Rent (En Renta) signs on potential dwellings. Also literally just ask around as you explore.

If you have a vehicle you will be paying about the same price for fuel as in the U.S.

Where we observe the biggest differences in the cost of living in Chapala are with food and healthcare.

We’ll explore these in our next post, coming soon.

Living la vida calma, Bob and Bonita


A Musical Paradise Too

If you’re wondering whether you’d have to give up a musical life if you move to Chapala, you can rest assured you’ll find a rich, abundant musical culture here.  Music is everywhere here. Find a musical life in Chapala.

Almost every evening we take a stroll on the malecon. And almost every evening we do, we enjoy roving bands of musicians serenading a couple or a family who have engaged them for a song. Mariachi of course and several other styles of Mexican music. Tubas are really big here for some reason, almost as popular as accordians, which are ubiquitous. Not to be confused at all with the Lawrence Welk style or even the polka styles of Germany and Poland. The Mexican musicians have made it their own.

We enjoy lots of actual concerts here as well. Everything from Mexican pop music to traditional music to standard classical music with a Mexican twist.

Last night we walked up to the old train station in Chapala, a beautifully restored building from some one hundred years ago. It’s now used as a museum/art center. The Orquesta Tipica de Chapala performed a delightful concert which was a true mosh pit of musical styles. Many of the tunes reminded me of the soundtracks of great films from the 1940s and 1950s, such as Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Almost twenty musicians packed the small stage. Violins, guitars, auto-harp, salterios, congas, upright bass, harp, and a giant marimba. It took four energetic players for the marimba alone.

Check out the video below for a sample of the evening:

Today we’re headed into Guadalajara to hear the Jalisco Philharmonic Orchestra perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concert No. 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances.

Next month we head there for a musical festival with David Byrne, Alanis Morissette, and The Killers headlining.

Are we living the musical life in Chapala? Yes, indeed we are.

And here’s another longer selection from Orquesta Tipica de Chapala:

Tips and “Tricks” of Daily Life in Chapala

We’ve learned to keep our ears and eyes wide open here in Chapala. Daily life in Chapala is quite similar to our life in the U.S. in some ways. In others, quite different. Here are some of the seemingly random differences.

Everywhere you go here, you will have Mexicans approach you offering something for sale or for some service, such as washing your car. I stand of awe of these folks. They are doing everything they can to support themselves and their family. However, we can’t buy everything we’re offered. So we compromised and buy what we need or want and simply say, Gracias, no, to the rest. Once we say no, such vendors move on.

You will find some folks simply looking for a handout. Your choice. The social safety network is not as well developed here as in the U.S. so folks are trying to make their way as best they can.

And speaking of working hard, at the big-box stores in Chapala, such as Soriana (grocery and variety) and Walmart de Mexico, you’ll have your purchases bagged by what to us appear to be store employees. But they are not. Upon more than a casual glance, the baggers have not store employee ID’s. They are, in fact, volunteers. So slip them a little change in pesos for their service. That’s their only compensation.

Another big difference is that despite the traffic on the main drag on this, the north side of Lake Chapala, the cities of Chapala and Ajijic and other enclaves that border the lake, are heavily pedestrian. And the pedestrians here more often than not simply walk as they need. Yes, there are crosswalks and lights at some key locations. For the most part, however, pedestrians go where they wish. When we driving, we can find this quite frustrating. However, when we are walking, which, in truth, is most of the time, we very much appreciate it.