Retiring on Lake Chapala – Meeting someone who did it

I got up early again to download all my photos from my Lake Chapala trip yesterday and headed to the Guadalajara Language Center, my Spanish school, at about 8:30 am. Located in the pretty neighbourhood of Tlaquepaque, the school is literally less than two minutes away from the house of the family I am staying with. Most foreign language students usually receive two or three meals a day when they stay with a family, but since I am out so much I figured it was easier if I just bought myself some cereal and some milk to fix myself a simple breakfast without needing to bother my elderly hostess Graciela.

Before class I got on one of the free computers again at the language school to check my email and upload some Twitter posts to keep my readers updated. Then punctually at 9 am our teacher Miguel started my third lesson this week. Today we continued with our translation exercises, translating several paragraphs of the book “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros. Even though we are all at an intermediate or advanced level of Spanish, the translation exercises really humbled everyone’s perceptions of their own Spanish language skills. At the same time, I enjoy translation exercises because it really compels you to apply your language skills and try to recreate content in the most accurate manner – a very worthwhile exercise.

The rooftops of Tlaquepaque, in the foreground the cultural centre El Refugio


By 11 am we went on break and since I am enrolled in the two-hour a day program I was finished for the day and ready for my explorations. My plan today was to travel back to Lake Chapala to meet a former Canadian teacher who had decided to retire in Mexico. Retiring abroad has long been a topic that I have been very interested in, and today I would have the chance to meet someone who has actually done it.

So I checked with Wouter, the owner of the Guadalajara Language Center, how to get to Ajijic which is about an hour away by car. He explained I had to walk north a couple of streets, stand at a certain intersection (there are no official bus stops in this part of Guadalajara) and look for bus number 80 to El Alamo. I followed his instructions and was able to find the waiting area for the bus.

Another popular place in Tlaquepaque: El Parián with its 18 restaurants


A 15 minute bus ride later I got off and asked for the bus to Ajijic. Fortunately the locals were very helpful and friendly, but they told me I was at the wrong station. I had to take one more bus to get to the right bus stop and take a third bus from there. My second bus arrived at that moment and people literally pushed me on to the right bus. I was amazed at their helpfulness and the concern that they showed to get me to the right destination. Some of the locals informed the second bus driver where I was trying to go and he made sure to tell me which exit to get off the bus to catch my connection to my final destination.

Once arrived at the third bus stop I had to wait almost half an hour to catch the third bus which would end up taking me to Lake Chapala and the village of Ajijic, one of Mexico’s popular retirement destinations for gringos. Bus tickets were being sold by two ticket vendors who were walking around selling tickets from a big bundle of preprinted fare blocks. There was no fixed ticket window.

Views of Tlaquepaque: the arcaded courtyard of City Hall


Finally around 1:20 pm I caught the third bus and arrived 40 minutes later in Ajijic. My local retirement expert, Greg Clarke, welcomed me in his shorts and a bright t-shirt with a beer in hand. In Canada walking around publicly with an open beer would be a punishable offence; in sunny Ajijic it’s just part of daily life. Greg is a former high school teacher who was teaching English as a Second Language courses in Toronto’s east end in 2008. After he retired he made his permanent move to sunny Mexico although he had already been visiting the Lake Chapala for many years since 1998.

Greg Clarke, a retired teacher, moved from Toronto to Ajijic on Lake Chapala


After retiring Greg decided to sell his home in Toronto and ended up buying a condo in Ajijic. He now lives full time in Mexico and only occasionally travels back to Canada to visit some friends and family. From the first minute I met him I realized that this person is truly happy here with his new life.

We started walking eastwards on Ajijic’s main street until we hit a side street that was full of traveling merchants, all part of the weekly Wednesday market called “tianguis”. A very colourful event indeed, we strolled through and admired all the colourful woven goods, pottery, vegetables and fruits. I asked Greg what it’s like to live in Ajijic and he answered with a very poignant statement: it’s like being on a cruiseship – you can do as little or as much as you want.

Fruits at the weekly market in Ajijic


Greg himself keeps quite busy, he is currently rehearsing for a musical called “The Boyfriend” that will be running for eleven performances in April. He currently practices six days a week for four or five hours each time. He is also part of a barbershop quartet as he has always had a penchant for music and the performing arts. In addition, he plays poker four or five times a week and takes part in mini hold’em tournaments on Saturdays. Being a music lover, he also likes to sing karaoke on Monday nights when several friends gather in a local restaurant and just have a blast singing some of their favourite tunes. Ajijic offers diverse opportunities for people who want to participate in these types of endeavours.

Locally weaved products for sale


During our stroll we talked about many of the practical things that future retirees need to know about relocating to Mexico. The healthcare system, for example, is quite developed and dental and medical care is quite good and very affordable. At some point Greg had developed an infection in his leg; he said he paid about $15 for a visit to a private doctor and another $30 to $35 in medication.

Beautifully painted plates at the market in Ajijic


As far as language skills are concerned, the cruise ship analogy appeared to apply here as well. There are some expatriate retirees who essentially get by with extremely basic Spanish skills and essentially do most of their transactions with local English-speaking merchants and shopkeepers while other people intensely immerse themselves in learning and practicing Spanish as much as they can. From Greg’s descriptions I gathered that Lake Chapala offers a very easy-going lifestyle where people can choose how much they want to get involved.

The market in Ajijic


This type of environment also seems to keep people young; Greg told me of a 92 year old expat who is participating in his theatre production. Of course it helps that this kind of lifestyle in the sun with a perfect climate is affordable as well. Greg mentioned that a well equipped two-bedroom apartment could be going for US$ 250 to 300 a month. At the beginning when he arrived here Greg stayed at a bed and breakfast called La Paloma where the cost for a night might be between $55 and $80. In the end Greg decided to buy a condo so he would not constantly have to search for new rental apartment every time he returned from Canada. He loves living there now, and his Mexican girlfriend has become his private language tutor.

Local street food in Ajijic


Utilities are also very affordable: gas and electricity might cost about US$ 30 a month. Telephone costs would be about the same and Internet access is quite easy to obtain through the Mexican Telmex communications company. Many foreign retires hire local gardeners and housekeepers at comparably reasonable prices.

After the outdoor market Greg took me inside a local supermarket which was well-stocked with a wide variety of goods that would keep most Americans and Canadians happy. Next door we went to a liquor store that was stocking international and Mexican wines and spirits. Compared to Canada, alcohol prices are very low, particularly for local brands of tequila, Mexico’s national drink.

Colourful textile products at the market in Ajijic


Greg had almost finished his beer so it was time to head into one of the local restaurants now. We went to La Bodega, a cozy place with a nice interior courtyard, and sat down for about half an hour. Greg knew the owner Marta very well because this is the restaurant where he sings karaoke once a weak. I had my favourite, sopa azteca (tortilla strip soup), and Greg had some tasty guacamole. My stomach was grumbling and I really needed this lunch.

The restaurant La Bodega


Strengthened again we continued our walk, briefly headed down to the waterfront where the Tequila Republic restaurant entices visitors to sit down on the pier, and then walked back up on the Calle Morelos. We briefly popped into a restaurant called Los Telares (the looms) which had a gorgeous interior courtyard. A few steps away on the other side was El Tango restaurant, which also had a very picturesque inner courtyard. At the end of my visit in Ajijic we dropped in on a local merchant, Diana, who hails from Connecticut and sells art from all across Mexico. Greg seemed to know everyone in town.

The market in Ajijic


At about 4:30 I said goodbye to Greg and thank him for his enjoyable insider tour of Ajijic. Back on the bus I was wondering whether I could ever retire in a sunny place like Mexico. Greg certainly seemed to be very happy here, but every person has to decide for themselves what works for them.

Back in Tlaquepaque I got ready for my evening invitation: a dinner with some of the other Canadian language students from the Guadalajara Language Center. Bonnie, Turnie and Joyce were all in their fifties and hailed from places like British Columbia and different towns in Ontario. They were all here in Guadalajara to study Spanish; Bonnie and Turney for only a couple of weeks while Joyce was going to be in Mexico for almost three months. All of them had husbands who were in other locations: Bonnie’s was on the Pacific coast in Mexico, Turney’s husband was vacationing in Texas while Joyce’s husband was back in Ottawa, teaching at a university.

Some of my Canadian friends in front of the Guadalajara language school


It was great seeing such a cool and adventurous group of women expanding their horizons in Mexico. Bonnie and Turney were staying together at a small hotel called “Mi Viejo Refugio” which was less than 10 minutes from the language school and they loved staying there. Most of the language students at the Guadalajara Language Center stay, like me, in a homestay program with a local family. This is the most reasonably priced option and also usually provides you with at least two meals a day.

Bonnie and Turney were staying in a bed and breakfast-type arrangement while Joyce was staying with a friend in an apartment. The Guadalajara Language Center offers many different types of accommodation, whether someone wants to stay independently or with a family. I usually prefer family-type of accommodation because it offers that extra level of Spanish immersion after school. I do have to admit that this time, however, I was traveling and exploring so much that I have not been getting to spend all that much time with my local family. But on the other hand I have had a chance to explore many fascinating places so far.

Comfortable sitting area at Mi Viejo Refugio


The four of us talked a lot about travel and these ladies were quite a well-travelled bunch. We touched on our favourite destinations – always a difficult choice – and what it takes to be a good travel partner. I myself have had some interesting experiences with incompatible travel partners that I would rather avoid in the future…

We enjoyed a great meal: the ladies had picked up some delicious rotisserie chicken, juice, rice and potatoes and they had bought some fresh tomatoes, avocados and cucumbers in the local market. I had bought some pastries and some juice on the way here, and we were set for a great meal. Alejandro, the owner of the small hotel where Bonnie and Turney were staying, joined us briefly and welcomed us. He had no problem with us sitting in his lounge, enjoying our store-bought meal. I was planning to come back and do a video tour of his hotel, Mi Viejo Refugio.

Traditional Mexican decor at Mi Viejo Refugio


At about 9:30 our party came to an end and I started my stroll home through the lively streets of Tlaquepaque. I had met some great people today and really enjoyed my connections with a bunch of adventurous Canucks.

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