A baby boomer in Gringolandia

You might remember reading a recent piece about monarch butterflies and their migration each year to Mexico, where Seattle writer Ron Gompertz is currently holed up. Well, there’s another migration to Mexico that he also has been watching, and it’s not nearly as carefree.

Less miraculous than the migration of the magnificent monarch butterflies to Mexico is the annual arrival of thousands of retired snowbirds from chilly North America.

The Mayan Riviera, Cabo San Lucas, San Miguel del Allende, and my current location, the village of Ajijic on Lake Chapala, are but a few preferred destinations for those of us seeking a warmer climate and culture.

Mexico is no secret and it’s being sold by the dollar, pound, and peso. A superficial, carefree and colorful Mexico-lite lifestyle is featured in lots of glossy “retirement abroad” sites, books, and articles which, in turn, feed the frenzy.

I’ve read that 10,000 baby boomers retire (or turn 65) each day. If so, half a day’s worth seem to have made tiny Ajijic their home. And more arrive every winter.

Not that I’m judging anyone for the seasonal migration. This laid-back lakeside locale sure beats another bone-chilling winter in Detroit or Ontario. And anyone on a fixed income or limited savings can stretch their winter heating budget much further here.

Ajijic, this cute and artsy “Gringolandia” on Lake Chapala, is about 40 minutes from Guadalajara’s international airport. Access is almost too easy. If your comfort zone fits in a carry-on, you can bring it with you.

In addition to providing water to Mexico’s third largest city, Chapala, the country’s largest freshwater lake offers sanctuary to white pelicans, heron, and egrets. It’s stunningly beautiful. In facts it seems like heaven.

But all is not well in paradise.

After years of receding water levels, recent upstream dam management has caused the shoreline to swell and encroach on many lakefront properties. We are staying in a former governor’s lakeside spread that has been relegated to a self-serve B&B. The front yards of homes on either side of this property are about 30% underwater. Two doors down, a lakefront squatters camp is now a half-submerged shantytown.

Some real estate may be literally underwater, but prices continue to rise, which displaces the locals. If you’re not approached by a real estate agent within 24 hours of arrival,double check to see if you are invisible.

Or just speak English. There are enough ex-pat and and bi-lingual service providers that you don’t have to learn much more Spanish than “Una mas cerveza, por favor.”

Ajijic’s uneven cobblestone streets are treacherous for the less than sure-footed, but I guess that adds a sense of adventure for those frequenting the fine restaurants, lakefront boardwalk, galleries, and dental clinics. For the price of a crown or root canal in the U.S. you can fly down and enjoy a nice week while the laughing gas wears off.

Ron Gompertz

As places like Ajijic and San Miguel del Allende become colonized by North Americans, Mexicans are pushed out onto the fringes. In a sense, this gentrification is no different than what has happened in the San Francisco or Seattle areas.

It’s the same in any language: Money talks and locals walk. Even in paradise.


Ron’s book is Life’s Big Zoo.

1 Comment

  1. Ron, I live in Merida. I see the same changes. For example, in the last two years, over 16 new hotels have opened in the city.

    Construction is all around, not just in the city but in surrounding areas.

    What bothers me is that many Mexican government agencies are bending over backwards seeking foreign investment without regard for the impact on their country of the changes these investments will bring.

    The fickle nature of foreign investment is that they can come in and skim off profits from underpaid labor and materials and leave when the going gets tough. This leaves cities, pueblos and colonias with abandoned buildings and reduced local labor resources because minimum wage workers have been forced to live further and further from urban centers. Among other changes are costs increase for housing, food, transit, and medical services.

    If anything, Merida exemplifies this process. When henequen was the “green gold” in the Yucatan, it fueled the building of multiple Hacienda plantations that used local labor like slaves and owners built mansions in the city. But, when synthetic rope was created, the need for henequen diminished. Many owners abandoned their haciendas and mansions and you can see the ruins of many of these structures today.

    I am beginning to see the necessity for a black market. It is often the only way the minimum wage worker can purchase needed goods and services.

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