Category Archives: Living in Mexico

Mexico Gas Prices Have Their Ups and Downs

By Jeanine Lee Kitchel

With government owned Pemex the only show for in town for buying gas, you’re pretty much stuck with a one-cost price tag, everywhere. But at about 60 cents per liter, that breakdown brings gas here to roughly $2.45 USD per gallon, cheap by world standards.

A few months ago, Novedades/Cancun reported that even though gasolineras were committed to one price, some stations were going about corruption in a different way: by changing the weight on the pumps. So even though you thought you were paying the same price everywhere, at some Pemex stations you were getting a light tank of gas.

I did a personal study and located two gas stations in Cancun where my pesos went further for a full tank. One is closest to the airport, the other is near Sam’s Club. These non-corrupt stations usually have lines of taxis and local cars lined up as the locals seem to know where to go to get the best buy.

But now there’s a website that lets you know if the gasolinera nearest you is cheating or not. Check out: http:/webapps.profeco.gob.mx/verificacion/gasolina/home_11.asp.

If you’re on vacation look for the station with lots of business, and don’t forget to tip the attendant. It’s the norm here.

Avoiding the Hawkers

By David Simmonds 

We’ve all been there, right?. You have just spent a day and a half dealing with airports, unplanned layovers and flight delays, knee-destroying plane seats, humorless flight personnel, lost luggage, a view-room that overlooks a parking lot…but it’s OK, because now you’re on the beach, settling into a bright-blue wooden beach chair with a cold Pacifico floating in a bucket of ice and a fresh shrimp cocktail on order. Your heart beat clicks down to about 120 as you gaze out to sea as all your life troubles suddenly seem trivial, or at least manageable. Life is damn good. This well-deserved peace lasts about, oh, two minutes, when the first “salesman” squats next to you, welcoming you to paradise, and oh, by the way, how about a nice piece of “real silver” jewelry, and if that doesn’t work he happens to have a line on some good ganja or blow, or his cousin gives a great massage.

 Now most of us don’t want to be rude. After all, the beach hawkers work very hard and make very little. It’s good, honest work (the part about the drugs is actually rare) and they deserve your respect and kindness. But what you really want is to just be left alone to chill with your numb thoughts. So, how do you handle this without being a crass jerk? First, learn these three words of Spanish ” no gracias, amigo (a)”. Say this in a friendly manner, but with no equivocation. And above all, do not so much as glance at their merchandise, unless, of course, you really are in a buying mood. Then you are likely to barter a good price compared to the shops, as there is no storefront overhead for the seller. Once you show any degree of interest you have opened a door that will not easily close. If you can’t remember the three words, gaze straight ahead and simply shake your head. Generally, the same people work the same beach day after day and they all know one another. Eventually, it will be known that you are not a buyer and will be left alone, more or less.

In town it’s the time-share people who you encounter. It varies from beach town to town, but generally they have a small booth on the sidewalk. They might employ a “hook” to entice you, like “free information” or “$25.00 jeep rental”, and like all successful vultures, they can spot you  two blocks away. You, the savvy traveler, have a couple of workable options. One, when you see you are approaching  a sales booth, cross the street. Of course, you could spend way too much time doing this and it increases your chances of getting run over and badly maimed. A better method is to look and act like a local. If they perceive this they will leave you alone. This means walk with a purpose, like you know where you’re going, even though you have no clue. Lose the bright new t-shirt that advertises the local cantina and the straw hat with the multi-colored headband. Try to have tanned legs and arms. If they still come on to you, and you feel obligated to repsond, just say “I live here”. They’ll probably know you’re lying, but they won’t push the conversation.

Then, when you actually move to magical Mexico and find that time-share sales are one of your only employment opportunities, you will despise people like me who share their dubious wisdom.

How the Margarita Got its Name

By Jeanine Lee Kitchel

Was there a Margarita behind the margarita? Of course. But contrary to what you may have imagined, this woman was not a Mexican beauty but instead a fledgling Hollywood starlet.

And although other Margarita namesakes have surfaced and vied for this distinction, this starlet has all the trappings of the real McCoy.

Years ago a eulogy aired on NPR for a man named Carlos “Danny” Herrera, who’d died at the age of 90 in San Diego. Although the name rang no bells, he left an unforgettable legacy. He’d created one of the world’s most famous cocktails, the margarita.

It was 1992 and NPR took the story from the San Diego Union-Tribune which paid homage to Herrera who’d been raised in Mexico City but moved to San Diego five years before his death.

Herrera worked his way across Mexico and settled south of Tijuana in 1929. He and his wife built their house in rugged Baja California. They added a bar in their home to entertain friends. More people started to drop in and he opened for business; later they added a restaurant. Then came ten hotel rooms and a pool along with a booming clientele from across the border.

Rosarita Beach just down the road was becoming a fashionable getaway for the Hollywood crowd and Carlos’ place was an easy pit stop for a quick refreshment on the dusty Baja road. By 1935 traffic was heavy.

Carlos was a friendly guy with a quick wit and his bar-restaurant, named Rancho La Gloria after his daughter, attracted stars and socialites who stopped in on a regular basis. Among the bar’s clientele was an actress named Marjorie King. While all her friends were taking advantage of Carlos’ talents as bartender, Ms. King didn’t partake in the revelry. She was allergic, so the tale went, to all alcohol except tequila.

What luck, Carlos cajoled. Tequila is the national drink of Mexico, he said as he poured the actress a straight shot of the clear, strong liquid, brought out a plate of limes and set a salt shaker beside her on the bar.

Marjorie wrinkled her pretty nose, gave Carlos a “not so fast” look and informed him she hated the taste of it.

What was a girl to do? In those wild and reckless days not long after Prohibition, how could one sit idly by and not join in the fun? Herrera was determined to put an end to Ms. King’s misery. He went to work.

Herrera decided he would create the ultimate concoction for the attractive actress. He started experimenting and came up with a winner: three parts white tequila, two parts triple sec, one part fresh lime juice, a pinch of sugar. As the day was hot he added shaved ice and blended the mixture with a shaker. King liked the looks of the drink immediately.

But how to serve it? Marjorie King was no ordinary gal, and Carlos wanted to pay tribute to her sense of style. Something special was needed. He grabbed a champagne glass, dipped its rim in lemon juice, and twirled it in a bowl of salt. Reshaking the contents he then poured the frothy liquid into the champagne glass and presented it to King.

The result: the soon to be famous margarita, shaken not stirred. And what a coincidence. The drink included all the ingredients of a traditional tequila shooter, but in a more appealing package.

How did the drink come to be known as a margarita? Since Marjorie and her gang of friends came often to Carlos’ bar, whenever their car caravan pulled up outside, Carlos would spot the bunch, see Marjorie and greet her with a hearty “Margarita! Margarita!” the Spanish equivalent of her name. Then he’d start to prepare her special drink.

It was instant name recognition. Margarita was the perfect name for this sexy new drink. Meanwhile Marjorie went back to the States where she hung out with all her swell friends and introduced the drink to bartenders at some of the finer dining establishments from Los Angeles to San Diego. When asked its name, she explained the bartender who’d invented it called it a margarita.

The name stuck and by the 50s margaritas were being served everywhere in Southern California. Soon afterwards, the margarita began making its way ’round the world as Marjorie’s friends were globe trotters and took their love of the cocktail with them wherever they went.

So the next time you’re taking a sip of that marvelous frothy concoction known as the margarita think back on a time when Baja California was still just a rugged strip of sandy desert and Cancun didn’t even exist. Think about a little bar with big views of the Pacific Ocean and thank Carlos “Danny” Herrera for paying homage to a Hollywood beauty by inventing a delightful drink to brighten up her day. Salud!

The Border Gate Swings Both Ways

By David Simmonds 

The TV and radio talking heads and the op-ed writers for the print dailies (does anyone still walking read these guys anymore?) obnoxiously rant ad-nauseam about the immigration “problem”. One thing they all have in common is that no one has a workable solution. Political lines are erased as xenophobes hold hands with environmentalists and racist thugs embrace union workers, each looking out for whatever benefits them and theirs. I can’t tell you how many times progressive friends have told me ” I can’t believe I’m agreeing with Pat Buchanan on anything, much less this issue”. Life’s confusing enough without having to make that kind of confession.

What isn’t being talked about is all of the people heading the other way. That’s right, the 1946 – 1964 born baby boomers who are taking their considerable real estate equity while dusting off the 1960’s mantra to “keep on trucking”. No one knows for sure what the numbers are, but somewhere around a million Americans and Canadians are now residing, at least part of the year, down Mexico way. And from my anecdotal evidence, the surge has just begun. More and more, thanks to the internet, this group is discovering that making the move is a real option, not only financially, but for a better life-style. They see their retirement checks being devoured by an American system that has devolved into situation where $100,000 a year between you and your spouse means you’re middle-class and sinking. The gap between the rich and poor hasn’t been this great since the Gilded Age, before the New Deal, the G.I. bill and the formation of unions helped to build the strongest and fairest economy the world has seen…the one in which the boomers came of age. Throw in the disgust felt by many about a foreign policy designed to bully much of the world, and a domestic policy that encourages U.S. corporations to move their operations abroad, taking good jobs with them, and you end up with many of us thinking “I haven’t got that many active years left, I really ought to find a place to spend them the best I can”. I hear it very day.

So now there are popular pockets in Mexico where gringos are setting up shop. There are the well-known haunts like Guadalajara/Lake Chapala, San Miguel de Allende and Puerto Vallarta, as well as the newer “hot” spots of Puerto Penasco, the Nayarit coast and the Mayan Riviera. When those are filled and “gringo-ized”, there will be new places, and on and on. The border between Mexico and the U.S. is disappearing, and no fence, or Minutemen, or stump-speech posturing is going to stop it. The traffic is going in both directions, like it or not.

Rolling Over in Pakal’s Grave

 

By Jeanine Lee Kitchel

 

Although Pakal, the great Mayan ruler of Palenque, lived far from Quintana Roo (now synomynous with the Riviera Maya) his neighboring southern kingdom in Chiapas had much in common with the Maya of the Northern Yucatan Peninsula. And if Pakal could see the changes that have challenged this once (and still) beautiful region, he would be rolling over in his, er, sarcophagus.

Not unlike what will most likely be said of us (for those who choose not to be cremated) by future generations when the snowy mountains of Kilimanjaro have become as dry and barren as the Sierra Nevadas and the continent Antarctica is just a footnote in history.

A recent phenomenon, the Riviera Maya, formerly known as the Tulum Corridor until the late 90s, has surpassed all developers’ dreams. With over 30,000 hotel rooms and arguably some of the world’s finest beaches, it has morphed into a Cinderella Superstar.

 

Once know for funky pueblos like the Playa del Carmen of the mid-80s, this 90-mile stretch of coastline no longer sports unfenced white sascab roads that any Tom, Dick or Harry can just wander down and spend an uninterrupted day sunning on an idyllic beach.

 

Oh no. Every inch of beach front land is spoken for, from Cancun south to Tulum Beach Road, and possibly beyond into the ejido-sphere of the Sian Ka’an Reserve, a 1.3 million acre biosphere that was meant to be left untouched.

 

 

One of the directors of UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico) in Puerto Morelos where marine biology is studied told it to me like this, when I asked why the all-inclusive hotels continue to secrete secondary waste into the mangroves, thus clogging the tenuouseco-system on the reef, the Maya Riviera’s crowning glory: It’s all dollars and cents.

Payback for a standard resort hotel takes 20 years in real time in the real world. Here however, in the Riviera Maya, the payback profit takes only eight years.

 

But what happens when the turquoise ocean is pea-green and the reef has secondary growth, which it does now? I asked gamely.

 

They (the hoteliers) move on to the Dominican Republic or Papua New Guinea, he told me. They let a four or five star property drop in value to a one or two star resort. They’ve made their profit, to hell with the environment. Forget the cultured or the well-heeled traveler, enter the tour package.

 

Startling, but true. Zoning laws enforced early on by Vicente Fox’s Environmental andNatural Resource Minister Victor Lichtinger, demanding that environmental edicts must be enforced with two-story oceanfront structures in the Riviera Maya, have fallen to the wayside and now, new zoning regulations are “rethinking” the value of long, low structures.

 

“Better” use of the land is now considered to be high-rise hotels–as tall they say as eight stories in the not too far future, on the ocean.

 

But with the bring ’em on mentality that’s rampant with the scent of growth, eight story hotels create a mega-structure look and often block not only views but access to the ocean. The very look and feel of the Riviera Maya will be compromised. And because beach front land is a finite commodity, beach front homes, condos, even time shares just continue to rise in price.

 

If you’re looking for that sleepy little Mexican village, it’s paved over here in the Riviera Maya. But not to worry, it’s a big country and I’m sure you’ll find what you’re looking for if Mexico is the ticket for you. Just follow one of the many unmarked roads and see where it takes you.

Mexico is a State of Mind

By Jeanine Lee Kitchel

It’s no secret that I was seduced by Mexico 20 some years ago when I was traipsing around south of the border. Mexico offered romance, escapism, excitement. Mexico was then (and still is) a state of mind. It was my Neverland.

I had photos of Mexico beaches, long and windswept, tacked onto my bulletin board at work and at home I had magnets on my refrigerator holding up my favorite Mexico shots: the perfect beach, the perfect palapa, the perfect fishing boat, the perfect sunset. Every leisure thought I had seemed to hinge on Mexico, like waves in the ocean slowly coming back to shore where they belonged.

Each vacation south held some new adventure along with a few traveler’s tales. After years of hanging out on the Pacific coast with surfers, I graduated to the white sand beaches of Quintana Roo in the early 80s at a time when no one else seemed to know this side of Mexico–the Caribbean side–existed.

My fiance (later my husband) and I first heard about Cancun from a friend who’d gone there in the late 70s. She said it was remote and gorgeous and the Maya pyramids were nearby. I longed to see the pyramids so we tried to book a flight with a San Francisco travel agent. She didn’t have a clue where Cancun was, had never heard of it.

Even though the popular movie Against All Odds, starring Jeff Bridges, Rachel Ward, and fabulous shots of Tulum and Chichen Itza, had recently premiered, we had to show her where Cancun was on a map. That’s how remote the area was only 20 years ago.

Our Mexicana flight took nearly 20 hours and it was like stepping directly inside Mexico once the plane door was closed, from the flight attendant crossing herself as we left the ground at SFO to the smell of Spanish omelets and tortillas for breakfast. We had three layovers, one in Guadalajara in the middle of the night–scary–and another at some undisclosed location without a name on the terminal.

Our last leg of the journey took us to Mexico City where we laid over for two hours. We were drained, but at least it was daylight. For fear of missing our last connection, we didn’t move from in front of the reservation desk where we’d be booked in. After asking when we would board, more than once, the reservations clerk came clean–they hadn’t received any boarding passes and had nothing to give us.

“What will we do?” I asked helplessly, determined not to let the lack of a piece of paper
keep me from this new adventure.

After searching around under the counter, the clerk produced a brown paper bag. Tearing it in large uneven squares, she wrote our seat assignments and flight number on the torn piece of paper in black magic marker and handed them to me.

I was stunned. “This is it?” I managed to squeak.

“Si,” she nodded and smiled, without apology.

Well, okay, I though, looking at Paul, my traveling partner. “Here we go!”

We were never disappointed in our Mexico vacations. Isla Mujeres, or island of women, named by pirates a couple centuries ago after finding statues of women on the north point of the island, was our first stop. We nearly missed the last ferry to the island after our 20-hour flight but narrowly made the connection.

We fell in love with Isla. Adored North Beach with the shallow, turquoise ocean bumping up onto a white sand beach that stretched seemingly for miles (standard fare for the Mexican Caribbean we were soon to find out) and especially loved Maria’s, a small
resort with French restaurant attached. Maria had only five rooms to rent, bungalows fit for a tropical hideaway paradise, with palapa roofs and a bountiful garden brimming with hibiscus, crotons, and areca palms.

A narrow cement walkway etched with geckos and tropical flowers wound its way down to
the two prized bungalows, close enough to the beach to hear waves lapping on the shore at
night. Although we’d started out in the less desirable rooms closer to the restaurant we
stayed long enough to nab one of the sought-after bungalows below.

We spent long hours on Maria’s lonesome beach, sharing the ocean with her ancient loggerhead sea turtles that swam in the ocean by day and by dusk returned to a funky
zapote cage that straddled the sand at the water’s edge. We hunkered down in Mexican style Adirondack chairs, sunbathed, talked, napped, and dreamed, and I think it was right there on Maria’s beach, that we decided somehow we would escape northern winters and city life and live in Mexico.

That’s how it started for me. My love affair–with a country. And after living here on and off for 18 years, I realize that everyone, every single expat who lives in Mexico, has a story. Their story.

And this is mine.

Finding Traditional Mexico

By David Simmonds 

The strip of real estate just south of Tijuana, centered around Rosarito Beach in Northern Baja, is undergoing a period of huge growth. Hammers are swinging, real estate agents are selling, and gringos from the norte side of the border are laying down their money, looking for that ocean-view hideaway that has become an impossible dream for many in SoCal.

Now I’ve been traveling to and through this area for years, and I really don’t see the attraction, especially when compared to so many other places in Mexico. It has that uneasy border feel and mentality to it, the beaches are no warmer than San Diego’s (where you can only swim in the summer without a wetsuit), and it now resembles a very long strip-mall. But it did have a strange appeal in the early days, before the land rush…some good, authentic bars and restaurants, a funky Mexican ambience, and down-to-earth, friendly locals. It was a quiet respite from the madness of California life and it was cheap. Many people would haul a small trailer down, find a place to park it along the ocean where they paid someone $20 a month for rental space, and over the years they would bootleg a more permanent structure around the trailer. It was all very Bohemian and unplanned, with just enough element of the unknown to make every trip an adventure. It was a relatively small population of people who “got it”, and they liked it that way just fine.

But that was then and this is now, and as we gringos tend to do, we find a special place unlike the States and turn it into a place…just like the States. And we end up stuck with the dark side of unintended consequences. The old-timers are now complaining about how everything costs so much more now. A $1.00 beer at the local cantina is now $2.50 and the price of a plate of street tacos has doubled. Many of the “trailer parks”have been demolished to make room for condo buildings (Trump even has his name on a project) and the traffic is often stop-and-go…mostly stop.

The lesson here, if there is one, is that you need to pick your place very carefully. If you want a community not much different from where you now live, you can find it. But if your desire is to experience “Old Mexico”, a place that is still steeped in tradition and Mexican culture, you need to look a little farther into the country, and hope that the crowds are not close behind.