Expat Diary: Living in Mexico

by Ken Layne

Looking for a warmer climate, I found a second home—and a new life—south of the border.


I’m a recovering automotive book writer and publisher. In 2000, I moved to the Pacific coastal town of Santa Cruz, California, with my wife, Roseann. It’s a beautiful spot on the north rim of Monterey Bay with just one drawback: It gets cold in the winter. Not Green Bay cold, but temperatures do occasionally dip into the 30s. And that’s no small thing if you’re me.

I live with medical conditions called cold agglutinin disease and Waldenstrom’s Syndrome. I don’t fully understand these conditions, but their effect is to turn me purple at low temperatures—actually, anything below 70 degrees Fahrenheit will do it. I lose all feeling in my fingers and toes. My ears and nose turn the color of ripe prunes. And if I linger outside on a cloudy afternoon, my entire torso turns purple and I look like a 180-pound eggplant. These visible symptoms may precede pneumonia, acute anemia and a high fever.

That’s what ultimately led my doctor to say, “You can’t live here!” He was right, of course. Santa Cruz is a glorious place to live eight or nine months of the year, but I’m pretty much housebound from November through mid-March, which is what prompted us to think seriously about living in Mexico.

Reprise of My Misspent Youth

I first visited Mazatlan in 1955 on a fishing trip. I returned several times in hazy episodes of a misspent youth. Then, 38 years of marriage, kids, work and Disneyland vacations passed before I made it back to Mazatlan in 1997. On a short getaway, I introduced Roseann to the largest commercial port on Mexico’s Pacific coast—and one hell of a fine town. Most importantly, I noted, winter temperatures in Mazatlan rarely fall below 70 degrees at night.

Still, wintering south of the border was a whim—a pipe dream—that Roseann and I mentioned in passing. We hadn’t even invested in a good mosquito net or a Spanish-English dictionary when fate butted in.

Blame Jewlia

Jewlia and Carlos Moya are newlywed friends of ours who dropped by the house unexpectedly one summer afternoon a few years ago. They were returning from a six-week odyssey through Mexico, where they visited family in Guadalajara and then leisurely rediscovered the countryside of Carlos’ youth.

Carlos and Jewlia have the dreams of a young couple. They talk about working hard and one day opening a bed-and-breakfast in Mexico. So, while visiting there, they prowled real estate and even found a website for a local dealer: Mazatlan Homes.

Living in MexicoLiving in MexicoOnline, Jewlia found a description and photos of a small house—a “casita,” really—in a small village about 25 miles north of Mazatlan: El Quelite. They couldn’t help but visit this little house—recently restored and in spit-and-polish condition—and promptly declared it “perfect.” Jewlia showed the website to Roseann.

For weeks after, Roseann would tiptoe upstairs to the computer and stare dreamily at the little El Quelite casita.

“Look,” I said, “Why don’t I just fly to Mazatlan for a few days and look at some of the houses these guys have on the website?”

So, in October 2004, I flew to Mexico and met Roger, a displaced gringo who has lived two decades below the border, and Armando, a Mexico City native. Together, they run an efficient and honest business called Mazatlan Homes.

Bienvenidos a El Quelite

It so happens the casita we saw online belonged to Armando’s cousin, who personally restored the 100-year-old adobe structure to its original condition. When Jose Manuel Magallon found it 10 years ago, the casita was a farm storage building. Now, it’s the jewel of the village—a small jewel, but prized nonetheless.

The house has only two small rooms: a bedroom and a parlor. The kitchen, dining area and bathroom vanity are all on the veranda. (The shower and commode are in a room at the rear of the house.) The veranda blends into an enclosed patio dominated by a huge ficus tree at the center and the faux facade of a small church at the rear. The entire house, patio and front garden measure about 1,200 square feet.

When I first saw it, the casita was freshly cleaned and reflected the condition of the entire town. El Quelite is awash in color—houses are painted bright hues of red, yellow, green, the complete rainbow. And they’re clean. The town’s daily housecleaning routine includes sweeping the entire grounds, then mopping not just the house floors but the streets and patios, as well. Walt Disney never applied more painstaking care to his theme parks.

A New Home

Roseann and I made an offer on the casita. Soon, we would become the only two gringos in a town of 2,500 natives, only a handful of whom spoke English. No matter.

One way or the other, El Quelite is where we learned to sleep through the roosters’ 5 am morning call. It’s where we learned that 80-year-olds and 8-year-olds can all dance to the same beat—as long as it’s banda music. It’s where we learned that lizards make good watchdogs, really. And where I learned to slow down, take notice and begin chronicling the adventures of an American expatriate.

Ken Layne is a former automotive engineer and the author of various books and articles including Automobile Electronics & Basic Electrical Systems and Car Service.


by Ken Layne | Thursday, April 30, 2009 | Career Change, Dream Careers, Living in Mexico

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