Chapala Jalisco, Mexico
The Lake Chapala Region of Jalisco , Mexico, with its wonderful climate and large base of ex-patriat residents, has become a very desirable place for retirees, those wanting to escape aspects of "Home" (such as the winter weather), and those who desire to live and work in Mexico.
The area has many attractions and comforts, and yet, it is not a place where everyone can live happily. It is not the same as "back home."
Living in México requires an openness to differences and a willingness to change.
How do I get to Lake Chapala ?
1. Airline flights come into Guadalajara airport daily from US and other Mexican cities. American Airlines flies non-stop from Dallas, Continental flies non-stop from Houston. Various Mexican airlines fly from other U.S. cities. Guadalajara airport is only 25 minutes from Ajijic.
2. Buses are a neat way to travel in Mexico. They range from super first-class air-cushioned, air conditioned buses, to metal seated shaky local buses. The first class buses are cheap comparatively, and the service is frequent. You can catch buses from some US cities that proceed into Mexico, or you can take one to a border city and then transfer onto one of the Mexican first-class buses.
3. Driving down is easy. It is a long trip, but the highways are good (although the tolls can add up). AAA has a good road map of Mexico. It is best to only drive during the daytime, so plan your trip accordingly. Make sure you purchase Mexican auto insurance through this web site or at the border.
Taxis will take you from the Airport or the Guadalajara main bus terminal, to Lake Chapala for a reasonable cost. Negotiate the price first though.
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How are houses constructed there?
Most homes are built in the following manner:
1. Foundation footings are composed of rocks and poured concrete. The foundation walls are built using concrete blocks or poured concrete.
2. Above ground, the walls are built using two methods:
a. The most common method is to use red construction bricks between reinforced concrete columns that are placed every six feet or so. Reinforced concrete or steel are used for headers, sills, etc. In better homes, conduits for wiring are then placed along the inside of the brick walls at this point. About 2 -3 inches of concrete is then trawled onto both sides of the brick wall. The fairly porous red brick forms an insulating layer between the concrete layers.
b. A method slowly becoming more common is to use concrete blocks for the entire wall and foundations. They are then covered with concrete as above.
3. Roofs and ceilings are constructed with supporting steel beams or cast-on-site reinforced concrete beams. Then there are two options:
a. Poured concrete is often used between the beams, and then the ceiling is plastered with a layer of concrete like the walls. In hotter climates foam insulation is sometimes used at this point too.
b. Bricks are laid between the beams (usually in an arch, forming a series of arches across the ceiling). This type of ceiling is called Boveda, and is very popular, and very strong.
The roofs are then covered with a layer of concrete, like the ceiling, and then a waterproof paint or other material, and if exposed to the street, red roof tiles are used to finish it off.
4. Floors are almost always made with tiles, varying from ceramic Italian to rustic Mexican red tiles. Often a pattern of tiles is used.
5. Entrance doors can be treated wood, special hard wood, or steel and glass. It seems to depend on the geographic location. Steel doors are hung on steel frames and are very secure. The door usually has wrought iron designs and glass for light in the middle.
6.Cupboards are usually wood of various types, but sometimes you will see concrete cupboards with wood used only on the doors. Counter tops are either ceramic tiles, or the same kind of materials used in the U.S.
7. Interior doors are usually wood and pre-hung.
8. Windows are single glazed, except in hot climates where dual windows are becoming more common. The frames are usually aluminum or steel. Sliding glass doors are popular and better homes often have wall sized pocket glass doors to bring the outside in.
9. Covered terraces with tile floors and electric wiring are very common. Around Lake Chapala people tend to live outdoors as much as they do indoors, so these terraces become the family rooms.
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Is It Cheaper to Live There?
A qualified YES! It does depend on your life style. If you insist on using American consumer products, prepared American frozen food dishes, etc., it may not be cheaper to eat. But if not, fresh foods of all kinds are usually much cheaper than in the US, and relatively cheaper than Canada.
Services are cheaper, so is insurance and health care (much cheaper, including health insurance). Property taxes are very low (almost nothing). Restaurant prices around Lake Chapala are low, much lower than on the coast, and the food is excellent. You can safely eat at any restaurant lakeside. You can still find a good American style meal for less than $6 US.
House prices and rents are relatively high. Canadians have to be prepared to possibly pay more for a nice house in areas of Mexico where norteamericanos tend to congregate, than they would in Canada for a similar house. Prices may even be higher than many areas of the U.S., but often they are less here for similar houses.
Utilities are reasonable, and comparable to the U.S. states that have fairly low utility costs. Telephones and long distance are more expensive ( a monopoly company, called Telmex). Gasoline is more expensive and getting higher all the time because of another monopoly company called Pemex.
Once your housing is taken care of, you can live on social security here, and live a good life style. Now that inflation in Mexico is finally down to reasonable levels, these conditions should last for some time.
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What is happening to the lake?
You have probably heard about the lake and it's problems. People don't seem to realize that the lake has gone through similar cycles in the past, and has been lower than it is now. Of course the current situation is not helped by the fact that Guadalajara is drawing half of it's water supply from the lake.
The Mexican government has recently announced a multi-billion peso plan to restore the lake to optimum levels by 2006. The plan involves making Guadalajara use alternate water sources, opening dams that prevent water from coming into the lake and educating the farmers that have built the dams, on how they can irrigate more efficiently. Reforestation is also part of the plan, and possible diverting of other water sources into the lake.
International organizations such as the Global Nature Fund are now looking at adding the lake to the world's endangered lakes list, opening up resources that could lead to the restoration of the lake.
Of course then there is also the issue of pollution. Since the pollution is agricultural, the education program and government assistance to the farmers should solve it. Preventing cattle from grazing on the shoreline would help too.
Next are the fish. There are few game fish left, but if the lake was restored, fish could be stocked, and this is being considered. You only have to watch the local white pelican flocks and other fish eating species to realize that there must be a good supply of fish to feed them! Good bass fishing lakes are not far away, and the coast is only 2.5 hours where great sea fishing is available.
Currently (Feburary 2002), the lake is rising. Probably due to a wetter than normal fall and winter. Great springs feed the lake and these have been replenished with recent rains in the area. The area has experienced about 8 years of drought, so maybe that is ending!
Nothing will change the fact that the lake is very flat, mud-bottomed, and shallow, so it will probably never be a really attractive recreational lake. It is a very pretty site though, and it will continue to moderate the weather in the area, making it the best climate in the world. When you really think about it, the greatest use people make of a body of water, is the view of it. Most people living near lakes and oceans do not actually engage in water activities.
If the government can raise the money, and this will need the help of private enterprise, the lake could be brought back up to the beaches of old. They are being lobbied aggressively, and most people now think that good things will start to happen soon. The problem some of us have with that is the thought that if the lake was perfect too, there would be a million people here!!!
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Do I have to learn Spanish?
The Lake Chapala area is probably the easiest place in Mexico to live if you don't speak Spanish. Most business people speak English and most waiters in restaurants do too (they at least understand it, and don't put you down if you don't speak Spanish). Almost all of the restaurants have English menus. There are English language newspapers and publications, and dozens of clubs and societies that cater to English speaking people and help them make sense of the system down here.
However, if you want to learn Spanish, there are many teachers offering courses for beginners and advanced. Knowing Spanish is a good idea. It can save you money when negotiating at markets!! It makes it much easier to hire and instruct tradesmen and domestics, and you can hear what people are saying about you!
Can I really "own" property there?
Simply, Yes. Mexico only puts restrictions on land ownership in the coastal and border areas. In the Lake Chapala area, foreigners are allowed to own land directly with their names on the deeds of land. Land ownership is guaranteed in the constitution, and a foreigner has the same rights of land ownership as the average Mexican.
In fact, the Mexican deed allows you to name spouses, children, or parents as beneficiaries, thereby negating the need to have a Mexican will if you should pass away. The deed can be transferred to beneficiaries quickly and with very little cost.
The only condition is that the foreigner must apply to the Secretary of State for a permit to own property in Mexico, but this is never withheld. It really is a tax, costing around $350 US. This is a one-time fee.
The deed transfer process is similar to what it is in other countries. You always should hire a lawyer or a Notario (a Notario is a lawyer with extra powers to transfer deeds and collect taxes for the government). The Notario has a legal obligation to protect your interest, and to make sure the deed is clear and has no liens or claims.
The same cautions apply as they would if you were buying property elsewhere.
In the coastal areas and near the border is the restricted zone. In this zone, foreigners cannot own property directly by deed of land. They must go through a Mexican bank. The bank holds the title, but it is held in trust for the foreigner. The foreigner has all the rights of ownership under the trust, the bank has no rights to the property. The foreigner must pay an annual fee to maintain the trust. The foreigner has wide rights to name beneficiaries in the trust, even more broad than under a direct deed.
These trusts or Fideicomisos are for 50 year terms and are renewable. When you sell, the buyer can assume your fideicomiso or take out a new one with another bank, starting a new 50 year term. Fedeicomisos add to the closing costs and annual costs, but they can only be avoided if the foreigner forms a Mexican corporation and buys land through the corporation. A Mexican corporation can now be wholly owned by a foreigner. You must show some commercial use for the property, but a rental to clients or friends may be good enough.
If buying Mexican property from an foreigner, make sure that a fideicomiso is in place, because if not, there may be problems with the deed.
Always consult a Mexican lawyer when considering any of these options.
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What about Crime, is it safe there?
Yes it is very safe in small Mexican towns. Far safer than the U.S. or Canada. In spite of what you might hear from the media, violent crime is very low here, and usually has a cause, so it doesn't involve the average foreigner. Most crime is found in big cities, such as Mexico City and parts of Guadalajara, or along the border areas among drug dealers.
The tourist areas along the coast see more petty crime than we do here in the interior. Lake Chapala is not really a very popular tourist destination. Most people come here to research their retirement, or spend a good part of every year here in their retirement. This has an influence on the attitude of the locals too. The foreigners here are generally residents, and the locals treat them that way. You don't see the "rip-offs" that you sometimes see on the coast or in tourist areas anywhere in the world.
You can walk the streets of Ajijic at any time of the night and not have to worry. You will sometimes see young people dressed like gang members in the U.S., but these kids are just trying to imitate their dress, not their behavior. Carrying guns is illegal unless you are the police or a security guard.
There is some property crime though. Car thefts are a bit of a problem, because gangs of thieves come out of Guadalajara sometimes. The local government has recently beefed up the local police force and their higher profile will help. It is not as much of a problem as it is in most cities in the U.S. or Canada.
There are occasional break-ins in homes. Usually an isolated home where nobody has lived in it for a few months. Most homes are very secure here due to the Spanish influence. Homes not in gated communities often have high walls around the property lines. Many doors are made of steel, and with homes that are not in gated communities, there is often iron work on the windows.
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What are my legal rights and remedies?
In Mexico it is generally "Buyer Beware". Don't assume that things are done the same way they are at home. There is little consumer protection in the system, and there are no "Ralph Naders".
Generally the system of law is different too. In Mexico, you are considered guilty until you prove your innocence, so avoid breaking the law! Drive carefully, and avoid traffic accidents. Always carry Mexican auto insurance if you drive! You won't be hassled by the police, but if you are pulled over for an infraction, be pleasant and courteous (the cop will be too), and pay the fine directly to the policeman if he indicates he will take it.
Law suits are rare, because there is no precedent law, so courts do not consider other cases in deciding a suit, only the written law, and common sense. There are no large legal settlements, so liability insurance is cheap! You can basically only recover money you have lost, when suing someone. Other damages are not awarded. (don't spill coffee on your lap in a MacDonalds restaurant down here, as you would probably only recover your dry cleaning costs!)
Some stores offer a return policy, others don't. Some will give you a refund, others insist on a credit note only for returns. Most American stores here offer similar return policies as they do in the U.S., but the process will probably be more involved and frustrating. In Guadalajara there are Costco, WalMart, Sam's Club, Office Depot, Sears, Ace Hardware, etc. (WalMart is now the biggest retailer in Mexico!)
When purchasing real estate, always insist on using and paying for a Notario (lawyer). Even if the Notario is also representing the vendor, he has a legal obligation to protect your interests too, if you are paying him. Always check out the house thoroughly and decide what you want to do about anything that needs repairing before you complete on the purchase. Never agree to a purchase where the developer or owner says that they will pay the legal costs and use their Notario. You can use their Notario to handle the transfer of deed, but hire a lawyer for yourself too. Ask to see a copy of the deed. Use a reputable real estate agent when buying property as they can warn you about areas or developments with problems. Avoid private sales unless you know someone you can talk to about the house or area, and as always, make sure you hire a lawyer.
A document must be in Spanish to be legal and enforceable in Mexico! Changes and initials are not acceptable on legal documents. They must be completely rewritten and resigned.
A knowledge of Spanish is very helpful when dealing with complaints or legal issues. Most police, store clerks, government officials and office workers at utility companies, etc., do not speak English. In Ajijic there are many bilingual people willing to help, and once you are here you will learn of someone you can call upon to help when you have to deal with some official. Offer to pay for the service when you ask them and let them decline if they want to. I have been helped many times by bilingual Mexicans and they did not want any payment for their help (in fact an offer to pay after the fact would have been a minor insult), but some do make it a part of their business, so you should determine that ahead of time.
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What are the utility services like, and how much do they cost?
This is an area where you will notice differences between living in Mexico and living in the U.S. or Canada.
Water utilities generally do not supply water 24 hours per day through the water system. To cover this you need to have some kind of storage tank, such as one in the ground with a pressure system to your house, or one on the roof with a gravity feed system. The roof one is more reliable in cases where the electricity is down.
Because they don' t supply water constantly, the pressure in the system will drop to a negative pressure, risking sucking in bacteria, and that is why we recommend you use bottled water (which is cheap) for drinking, and don't drink directly from the water taps. Many people do drink from the taps, and nothing has happened, but you never know. The cost is usually around $200 Pesos per month, but this varies. (Divide by approx. 10 to quickly convert Pesos to US Dollars).
Telephone service is adequate but a little expensive. Phones cost about $250 Pesos per month, but that only includes 100 local phone calls per month. Extra calls are $2.5 Pesos per call. Long distance is $2.5 Pesos per minute, and it applies to any long distance call in Mexico, to any city. Service is reasonably reliable, with few outages, but dealing with the telephone company on complaints and bills, etc., can be frustrating. The company, Telmex, has a monopoly and is not noted for real good customer service. Getting a phone line installed can be expensive and time consuming, so consider that when buying or renting a house.
Electricity is also fairly reliable and not too expensive. Basic service with minimal usage is around $200 Pesos per month. Most people pay around $300 Pesos per month for power if they don't use air conditioning. Air conditioning is not needed around Lake Chapala.
You will find one, two or three wire services to houses. Even I don't fully understand why, but it has something to do with phases, and it is best to have as many as possible. There are sometimes fluctuations in the current supplied. Lights will sometimes dim for a few seconds, and spikes are also noted. We recommend a surge protector for sensitive appliances and computers.
Cooking and hot water are generally provided by delivered gas. It is similar to propane, but I was told once that it is actually butane. The price is reasonable. Your cost would be around $200 Pesos per month for two people, a little higher if you shower a lot.
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Do I need to have a car while there?
Many people come for several months each year and do not use a car while here. The bus service is very frequent and inexpensive. Also, taxis are not expensive either, and there are lots of them.
The buses run along the highway through the towns, so you need to consider that when buying or renting a house. Is it walking distance to the highway?
From the highway, you can walk to any store or restaurant in the town, although in Ajijic and much of Chapala the streets are cobblestones, so they are a little hard to walk on (leave your high heels at home!). The sidewalks are narrow too, so you often have to walk on the street. The streets in Ajijic were laid about 300 years ago, so they don't adequately accommodate modern vehicles. Most streets are one-way, as they are too narrow for passing.
There are bus services to Guadalajara and bus tours to that city and many other places in Mexico. There are travel agents in Ajijic and Chapala that can give you details and sell tickets. They even have shopping tours to Guadalajara.
But if you really want to explore, you need a car. Also, if your home is high on the hills overlooking town, you may find walking up and down the streets to be too tiring. With a car you can travel at any time of night, and explore many areas without relying on bus schedules.
Driving in Guadalajara is a frightening experience for many people, but once you find your way around, you can explore all the shopping and entertainment experiences there with a car.
You can bring your car with you when you come. Driving down you will find good highways all the way. If you live here more than six months at a time, you should take out an FM3 immigration visa, and that visa allows you to drive a foreign car while in Mexico. Alternatively you can buy a car here, but they are more expensive than in the US, and you will have to pay license fees and annual taxes.
If you come for less than six months at a time, you can use a tourist visa ($180 Pesos) and take out a vehicle permit at the border. The permit runs for up to 180 days, just like the tourist visa. It costs around $150 Pesos currently. With that permit you can drive anywhere in Mexico in your foreign car, but you need to pay for the permit with a acceptable credit card, such as Visa, and you must turn in the permit when you leave.
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Can I get on the Internet from there?
Yes, there are several options.
If you are only visiting for a short time, there are 4 Internet Cafe type operations in Ajijic alone and more in Chapala. The rates are a little higher than similar operations in the U.S.
If you are here for a month or more, you can sign up with one of two local internet providers. Laguna.com is a private company. They offer fairly slow connections, but have recently included wireless connections. They have various payment plans and they average out to around $30 per month for unlimited access.
Telmex, the monopoly telephone company has purchased Prodigy, and they offer internet access for a little less money. As a promotion, they offered a year's unlimited service for $200. They have slightly faster connections, but it is often harder to get on-line as they don't provide enough modems during the busy months. (one problem here is the larger populations in Jan-March). For full-time residents the services all get better when the snowbirds leave.
Prodigy is just starting to offer ADSL connections. I don't have prices yet, but the connections should be super fast.
The telephone backbone in Mexico is all optical fiber, so the future is good for internet connections.
Do Most Americans/Canadians live there year-round?
There are three groups of norteamericanos here.
The first and largest group is the "snowbirds". These peopls come for three to six months in the winter, escaping the colder weather up north. This group includes renters and people who have bought their houses. The home owners sometimes rent their houses out during the rest of the year. It hardly ever rains here in the winter, and temperatures are in the 70's and 80's most of the time.
The next largest group are owners and a few renters who live here all year. With the very pleasant climate, great shopping in Guadalajara, and lack of crime, Lake Chapala is one of the nicest places you can live. Many of these people take extended trips back to the USA or Canada to visit family.
The last group is the "sun birds". These are people from the sun belt states who come here to escape the heat and/or humidity. This group is growing quickly as people learn that Lake Chapala has a pleasant summer climate too. The summer season here is the prettiest time, as all the hills become green jungles. It rains most days, but mainly at night. Most days start off sunny and temperatures are generally in the 80's with moderate humidity.