So, How’s Lake Chapala Working Out?

We’ve been in the Lake Chapala area for a month now, and the verdict is in.

We dig it!

Before we arrived, we weren’t convinced this part of Mexico was right for us. This area is a gringo-retiree haven, so we knew there’d be a ton of English spoken and—among the expats—there would be fewer families with kids. Also we have a soft spot for semi-tropical climates, which this isn’t.

We seriously considered heading to Mérida (in the Yucatán, which I can’t wait to visit!) but wondered about the cost of living (all that heat and A/C) and our ability to settle in fast without speaking Spanish. We have a ton of work to do and really needed to hit the ground running.

Chapala has a mild climate (so pricey A/C isn’t an issue), and friends helped us find our house and get settled. Other enthusiastic friends, who had only recently left, raved about the place and shared tons of helpful information about the area. So that’s how we chose Chapala. With work to get done, it was just…easier.

And for now we like it here.

SPANISH & CULTURAL IMMERSION

One of our main goals for the year is for Scout to learn Spanish. That’s why we’re in Mexico. But is Lake Chapala the right area for that?

Sort of.

Lake Chapala’s good weather, lowish cost of living and gringo infrastructure have attracted THOUSANDS of retirees from the US and Canada. No joke. Go to YouTube and search for Lake Chapala or Ajijic. I dare you to find a video that doesn’t have more snowy-haired people than cherry blossoms in the spring.

This demographic concerned me for a couple of reasons.

Scout needs buddies without dentures and pensions.

I haven’t seen too many expat families around here. There are tons of lovely Mexican families, but until Scout’s Spanish becomes more proficient, bi-cultural friendships are unlikely to develop.

Luckily friends here have five kids whom Scout ADORES.

We are so lucky to have this great traveling family in our lives. (Check out their blog: Family Travel Bucket List.) They will be here for at least a few more months, during which time Scout can be working on her Spanish. Hopefully soon by the time our friends move on, Scout will speak enough Spanish to make some Mexican pals.

A gringo community of this size means it’s hard to avoid English.

Which means it’s possible to function without learning much Spanish. This is bad.

We’ve met retirees who have lived here for 12 years but still don’t speak the local language. Ugh. This place has English-speaking doctors, dentists, restaurants, shops, mechanics, and so forth. That’s fine for them, but it’s not an ideal language acquisition environment. Want to learn a new language as fast as possible? You need to feel the BURN of non-communication.

We are immersing as best we can. We avoid Gringo-heavy areas and keep our experience as Mexican as possible by shopping in local markets and always using our Spanish. Also Scout’s taking Spanish classes four days a week from a marvelous instructor whom she loves.

Scout’s sweet little Spanish School

Our Spanish would probably be a bit farther along now if we landed somewhere with a smaller expat community, but for now, realistically, we’ve struck a good balance between social comfort and linguistic progress. Scout’s a chatty kid, so without the occasional English conversation, she’d probably go bonkers.

WORK

We need to get traction on some pressing online projects. For this we need reliable internet and (for Mark in particular) office space. Check and check! The internet is good most days, and the house is roomy enough so the three of us can spread out and work in a focused way.

Also, despite all the retirees nearby, this is still essentially a Mexican village. Easy going and low stress, it’s a perfect place to get some work done, since it lacks the external distractions of a large city. Guadalajara is an hour away if we need something (like the nifty Apple AirPort wireless modem we picked up the other day!), but not so close that we are constantly distracted or tempted to spend money.

COST OF LIVING

The cost of living here is very reasonable: WAY less than Vancouver, though more than SE Asia. (We love SE Asia, but it was off the table because of all the palaver involved with getting Archie there. Also this year is about immersion for Scout, and I didn’t want her to start with a SE Asian language. She can learn one later if she wants.)

Our house in Lake Chapala is $650 a month. And we’re paying much less for everything than we did NOB. One of these days I’ll do a breakdown of our living expenses.

CUISINE

I won’t lie, Scout is an Asian food kid all the way. Mexican food isn’t her favorite, because she prefers more veg and less meat. The fresh tacos are great, as is grilled chicken from our favorite vendor. We can get lime and cilantro here, as well as Thai fish sauce, soy sauce, wasabi, and nori, so I can make her Thai favorites and sushi too. I think at this point the kid would trade me in for a decent ramen or a piece of eel, but we’re doing okay.

I can’t compare the food in Chapala to what’s available other parts of Mexico, since this is our first stop in country. Scout has her eye on Mérida in the Yucatán, where she hopes to find mangoes and fresh figs. Can’t argue with that.

So these are my observations for our first month.

This is place is easy. Too easy, perhaps, but it’s a great fit for right now. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when travel is all challenging and mind-bendy, but sometimes comfortable is good too.

Scout & pals riding through Ajijic.

We’ll stay here until we feel like upping the challenge level, and then maybe we’ll head over to the Mérida or another part of Mexico. We are on no schedule whatsoever and loving it!

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tom Medsger November 3, 2012 at 10:08 am

Good morning, Renee, Mark and Scout,
Thanks for this great piece on Lake Chapala living. I am really enjoying your posts, and the last one about the lizard dying was particularly beautiful. I hope you’re keeping all these bits for publication as a book.

So I’ll be in Querétaro in February 2013, as mentioned, and I’m hoping to see you there on my “free” weekend, Feb 16 and 17. Hotel Hidalgo, in Centro Historico, Cale Madero. I’ll buy you lunch or dinner! Maybe you could stay in hotel Saturday night.

Hasta luego,
Tom

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2 Renee November 3, 2012 at 10:14 am

Tom, we’d love that! And thanks for you kind words about the blog. xoxo Renee

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3 Kirsty November 3, 2012 at 10:47 am

Love this post. Love your blog. Makes me smile every time I read it 🙂 So glad it’s all working well for you at the moment.
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4 Renee November 3, 2012 at 11:39 am

Thanks, Kristy! That means a lot to me. I really appreciate your taking the time to let me know. 🙂

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5 Living Outside of the Box November 3, 2012 at 12:03 pm

Glad it’s working out! I need to hook you up with my friends there, so she can have more buddies. Sorry I’ve been lackadaisical about that!

Oh…and mangoes DO grow there–everywhere! But they’re out of season right now! They will pop back up in mid March, and she can eat her fill (I certainly do)!! LOOOOOOVE mangoes!!!
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6 Renee November 3, 2012 at 1:50 pm

Alisa,

That is fantastic! Obviously we’re aware that some fruits and vegetable are out of season now, but for some reason I didn’t think that included mangoes. I am SO stoked!!! And, yes, we’d love to connect with any other families you know here. 🙂

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7 Jared November 3, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Love the photos of Chapala! If you get a chance to see any of these places I would highly recommend it! Especially in the rainy season! San Cristobal, Oaxaca, Morelia, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Taxco, Tepoztlan, Campeche, Valladolid, Lake Bacalar, Agua Azul waterfalls, Palenque Ruins and Uxmal Ruins! And if you go to the beach check out Melaque north of Manzanillo! You might want the beach come Dec and Jan! 🙂

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8 Renee November 3, 2012 at 2:42 pm

Jared, we can’t wait to start exploring every one of those places! Just as soon as we get some work done here.

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9 Geoff November 3, 2012 at 2:02 pm

But, c’mon, aren’t you guys missing the constant grey and drizzling rain of a Vancouver Fall by about now? Any time you feel like a house swap…

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10 Renee November 3, 2012 at 3:26 pm

FedEx us a box of sashimi (on ice) from Sushi Garden in Burnaby, and maybe we’ll think about it… 😉
Renee recently posted..So, How’s Lake Chapala Working Out?My Profile

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11 Cliff November 4, 2012 at 1:11 am

I’d better try sushi garden if it’s worth packing on ice to Mexico. But yeah, the weather sucks lately.

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12 Renee November 4, 2012 at 8:02 am

It’s on Kingsway. Huge portions, super fresh and cheap. there’s often a line, but they have a lot of tables and you shouldn’t have to wait more than 20 min or so.

http://www.urbanspoon.com/r/14/181734/restaurant/Vancouver/Burnaby-South/Sushi-Garden-Burnaby

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13 Clelie November 3, 2012 at 7:34 pm

So glad it’s working out. Yes, total immersion works best for language learning, but you seem to have sorted a great compromise. And for Archie too.

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14 Renee November 3, 2012 at 7:48 pm

All I can say is I’m not feeling the urge to move on. And I was BORN with the urge to move on!

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15 Amy @worldschoolAdventures November 4, 2012 at 7:31 am

Looks like a great place to kick back for a bit and take it easy. Sometimes having an easy introduction to a country is easier than jumping in with both feet. Enjoy it!
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16 Renee November 4, 2012 at 8:04 am

Cheers, Amy. This is one of the (many) benefits of slow travel, isn’t it. You can ease into things.

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