“Yes, it’s just below Texas,” I answered with a shrug. “It’s as close as Canada, right?” Well, not quite, as it turns out. We can get to Canada in a day, but Mexico is more like three days’ drive. Due to school schedules, our son Ross, 14, and I ended up flying to San Antonio (OK, I admit, I was happy to skip the long drive), where we met Peter and Jasper, our 20-year-old, who had driven—yep—two and a half days to get to Texas. It was all a big adventure, we decided, and a chance to see what Mexico was really like—from the cities to the highways to the rugged mountains that march like soldiers through Mexico’s interior.
I know what you’re thinking. Why would anybody want to go to Mexico with all the negative press they’ve been getting? My answer is it’s a lot of hype, and the truth is Mexico is a beautiful country with a rich culture, ideal weather, and inexpensive cost of living. And it’s so close—relatively speaking, that is.
After a night in Monterrey, a thriving city about four hours south of the Texas border, Peter, our sons, and I continued south into Mexico’s heartland. The four-lane highway we traveled on was a direct link from Nuevo Laredo, Texas, to Mexico City and wasn’t very different from our interstates. Tolls are a frequent interruption to highway travel and, at about $10 a pop, can add up quickly, but we decided the tolls were worth the money once we found ourselves on the secondary road from San Luis Potosi heading west to Lagos de Moreno. Two lanes, big trucks, and slow going. Nevertheless the countryside was beautiful: stark mountains, lush valleys, and windswept prairies.
Our first stop was Hacienda El Ahito in Lagos de Moreno, where we’d stayed the previous year and met a lovely couple, Pancho and Lena, who offer a horseback riding package to tourists who want to ride the range. One of the reasons we planned this trip was to show Jasper and Ross this unique side of Mexico, where cowboys still rustle cattle and an unending blue sky stretches across a vast landscape. We only planned one night at the hacienda, and it was everything we hoped it would be: a sunset horseback ride along undulating sandy trails followed by a dinner of peacock stew (tastes like chicken) and homemade tortillas to sop up the juices.
The next morning we hiked with the boys under eucalyptus trees, played fetch with the resident dogs, and then said farewell to Pancho and Lena, promising to return for a longer visit next time. We headed south past Guadalajara and drove about five hours to the Pacific coast, where we’d arranged to rent a condo in Manzanillo, a busy coastal town that attracts lots of Mexican tourists and a scattered few Americans. We’d considered including Puerto Vallarta on the itinerary, but decided to plan something a little mellower.
Manzanillo proved to be a good choice. Our hilltop condo overlooked the bay, and from our outdoor terrace, we enjoyed stunning views of the Pacific and picturesque sunsets every night. Most nights we cooked in the kitchen—Mexican food, what else?—and ate out on the terrace as soft winds blew from the Pacific and the moon danced across the sky.
During the day we headed to the beach. Both boys had brought their surfboards, anticipating chest-high Pacific surf, and that’s what they got. Peter and I sat in comfy beach chairs, drinking cold bottles of Negro Modelo, and watched Jasper and Ross riding the waves while around us Mexican families frolicked in the surf. What a life!
One night we went out to eat at a taco place our condo owner had recommended. “Look for the smiley face on the main drag,” he said. We found Happy Taco or Sunset Taco, I forget what it was called, and feasted like kings on the sidewalk tables for only a few dollars. The flavorful, slow-roasted beef, tender and juicy, oozed from giant tortillas served with a condiment tray brimming with limes, chiles, guacamole, and three or four different sauces. Right beside us a woman cooked the homemade tortillas, and when Peter decided to take a couple photos, a smiling Mexican family said, “Take our photo, too!” Everyone we met was friendly and kind, happy to see visitors supporting the local economy.
The weather was surprisingly hot and humid in Manzanillo, considering it was December, but folks we met said it’s like that year round. Some retirees choose to live on Mexico’s coast, but I like the mild climate south of Guadalajara—in Lake Chapala, where I hope to retire one day. That was our next stop, so we said goodbye to our cozy condo and headed inland again, a three hour-drive to a part of Mexico that I think looks like Switzerland, but without the snow.
Sometimes when you go back to a place the second time, the luster is gone and you wonder what appealed to you so much the first time. Happily that doesn’t seem to be the case with Lake Chapala. During this visit, our second to the area, I became convinced that I’ll make Chapala my home one day. It’s authentic and has a lot of soul, two qualities a place needs to enable one to lead a meaningful life, I think. This region of Mexico combines culture with fabulous weather, a ridiculously low cost of living, lots to do, and plenty of interesting people to meet. Our visit this time was brief, but it was long enough for me to start dreaming about the life I want to live in Chapala one day when Peter and I are empty-nesters and can run away to Mexico.
Wanna come? I already know of one Virginia Beach couple who took my advice and headed down to Mexico just last month, dog and cats in tow, to retire in a cozy villa they bought for under a hundred grand not far from Lake Chapala. Peter and I are a few years off from retirement, but it’s nice to know we have a place in mind that’s not too far, relatively speaking, where it’s easier to live life in the moment. Even Jasper and Ross could see how appealing the lifestyle is south of the border. What’s not to like?