It’s Not Just Hammocks and Margaritas: My Expat Life in Mexico
“I hope you are enjoying your vacation!” a friend wrote to me a few months ago. During lunch on the patio of our Mexican house, I read her email to Barry, my husband. “Vacation?” he said. “Are you kidding?” Even though our friends know we’ve lived part-time in the UNESCO-listed city of Guanajuato for over 17 years, many of them still seem to think we spend our days lounging on hammocks and drinking margaritas. Not enough!
Guanajuato is an artist’s dream. A bustling city built from a deep ravine, it looks like a wide you, with houses stacked on top of each other the color of mango, watermelon, lemon and kiwi. But as beautiful as it is, living here requires much more effort, initiative, ingenuity and creativity than in the United States. Here are six examples:
1. Home maintenance
In 2005, we bought a 150-year-old adobe house which, thanks to the carved stone cornice of the facade, is a immutable catalog, The Mexican equivalent of a building on the historic register. It would have been much easier to buy a house that didn’t involve so much bureaucracy, but we didn’t know that then. Owning our Mexican home has brought us great joy, but it has come with equity and upkeep.
We spent several years remodeling, a long and complicated process requiring a range of specialists, including an architect, two contractors, an electrician, a steelworker, several gardeners, a carpenter and many albañiles (workers). We now enjoy a beautiful and comfortable home. However, in the old adobe houses of Guanajuato, the upkeep never ends. To take just one example, since most buildings are hilly (row houses), during the rainy season, moisture can pass through the adobe walls, causing damage to adjacent houses and tension between neighbours. After several years of plugging the same leaks, our resourceful entrepreneur, Juan, found a long-term solution. He inserted perforated tubes into the walls of the ground floor rooms, which dried out the damp and reduced the leaks.
Newer homes in Guanajuato wouldn’t require as much maintenance, but we fell in love with the unbeatable view and location of our home, which is very central, yet also quiet. No regrets!
2. Modern infrastructure and conveniences
In the United States, most homes come with basic appliances like a stove, oven, refrigerator, dishwasher, washer, and dryer. Not in Mexico. When we bought our house, it had no — not even a stove or a bathroom mirror. Newer homes on the market are a bit more equipped, but most foreigners still choose to renovate. Here are some ways infrastructure takes time and effort:
Wash clothes and dishes
We don’t have a dishwasher or dryer for our clothes, so we wash the dishes by hand and hang the clothes on the roof. This is not a problem! In the hot climate of Mexico, clothes dry quickly. Expats who want modern conveniences install the necessary appliances.
Household and drinking water
In Mexico, running water at home is not drinkable. For domestic water, a tinaco (big water tank) on the roof supplies the various sanitary appliances in our house.
We buy drinking water in 5 gallon containers (boys) hoisted by young men who walk up and down our hilly pedestrian street twice a week. This system can be a bit tricky as we have to be home to order the water and pay the muchcho, and if we miss it, we have no luck for 3 days. For this reason, many expats invest in reverse osmosis filter systems, but these require periodic maintenance, and since we are not in Guanajuato full time, we did not choose this option.
Unlike the United States, where gas enters a home invisibly, most homes in Mexico have a gas tank that needs to be changed periodically. In the pedestrian streets of Guanajuato, gas is delivered in heavy canisters on the shoulders of men.
A few years ago we decided to save money on gas by investing in a solar water heater, so our on-demand gas water heater is now just for backup. Solar heated water gives us the highest pressure and hottest showers we have ever had. We don’t have a tub, but a few years ago we brought in a mini foldable plastic tub from the US that can accommodate one person at a time. We pour hot water into our bathtub and enjoy a bath once or twice a week. Our housekeeper, Lidia, then reuses the water to clean the floors and water the plants.
In some suburbs of Guanajuato, garbage is picked up like in the United States, but in the center, where garbage trucks cannot reach the alleys, residents haul their trash to a nearby dumpster, which in our case is located 3 minutes away.
Like many other expats, we find it much easier to live here without a car. Guanajuato is not particularly suitable for cars. Most homes don’t have garages or driveways, so you have to pay to keep the car in a parking lot.
Also, most of the time, driving is not necessary. In town, we walk everywhere, and if we take a trip, we use Primera Plus (one of Mexico’s excellent first class buses), rent a car or fly, often on VolarisMexico’s low-cost airline.
3. Our terrace
When we bought the house, Barry suggested that instead of replacing one of our crumbling ceilings, we would completely remove it and turn the old bedroom into a garden patio. Most homes in the center don’t have a garden, so I accepted immediately. The problem? None of us know much about plants in Mexico (or anywhere else for that matter).
Although we love our green space, it has also been an ongoing challenge, especially since we are not here all year round. After much trial and error, we are slowly discovering which plants work in a semi-desert, dry climate and which do better in sun than shade. I cannot track the number of visits we have made to the vivero (nursery), and all the plant lovers and gardeners we begged, bartered and paid to give us advice.
I inspect our will garden (the wall-to-wall plant box) every day, watching the delicate tendrils twist and curl as the vines clamber up the walls. Barry and I talk obsessively about our plants as if they were our children.
4. Bureaucracy and banking
Through our Mexican bank account, we pay for most of our utilities electronically. This year we decided to try to automate payments to our cleaner. The bank’s website didn’t clearly state how to do this, so I left our home early one morning to wait an hour to meet with a banker, a meeting that was cut short because I forgot my passport. So I came back the next day for another hour and still got no response. Queuing is a fact of life in Mexico. And it doesn’t seem to matter which bank you belong to – no expat I’ve met finds their Mexican bank simple.
I buy food almost every day on foot. The little shop at the bottom of our street has a lot of basics. Other grocery stores, mom ‘n’ pop stores, bakeries and cafes are located within walking distance of our home. I only buy what I can carry in my shopping bag. If I forget something, I leave later.
Getting things done in Guanajuato is often a very personal process. For example, the other day I woke up to find that my watch strap had broken. If this had happened at Eureka, I would have bought a new watch from Target. Instead, I went to see Rudi, who owns a watch repair shop. As he fitted my watch with a new strap, I asked him about the family photos hanging on the wall, hearing about his architect wife and three adult children. Such a satisfying and practical way to solve a problem.
6. Daily and weekly rhythms
Of course, our life in Guanajuato is not just about maintenance and infrastructure! Besides running errands and household chores, I spend my time writing articles for The journey awaits you and other sites, giving editorial commentary to Barry (a science writer), taking Spanish lessons, going to yoga, and taking walks with friends. I also chat with Lidia on Monday, her cleaning day, when she dusts, sweeps, washes and takes care of our plants. In the dry climate of Guanajuato, our outdoor house accumulates a lot of dust. Barry and I joke that she’s jefa (owner) of the house.
On Saturdays, Barry and I often go hiking, and on Sundays, we cycle on the panoramicthe road above the city that goes around the city.
We were part of a meditation group led by a Japanese teacher, but after COVID forced it to shut down, we started sitting quietly for about half an hour most afternoons in the one of the city’s vast ornate 17th-century churches. It has since become one of our favorite activities.
Life in Guanajuato requires ingenuity and initiative, as solutions don’t come as ready-made as they do in the United States. But the concrete and immediate way of life here never fails to stimulate me. It’s better than lying in a hammock.