Retiring in Mexico: It's not for everyone

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by STEVE STOLER

WFAA

Posted on September 27, 2010 at 10:00 PM

Updated Tuesday, Sep 28 at 4:29 PM

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Lake Chapala, Mexico

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LAKE CHAPALA, Mexico — Lake Chapala is Mexico's largest lake. It offers stunning beauty, colorful culture and consistent climate.

That's why it's known as "The Land of Eternal Spring."

The Lake Chapala area is touted as the best climate in the world for retirement. With an elevation of 5,200 feet, the average temperature is around 70 degrees. As a result, few people have (or need) air conditioning or heating systems.

Sid Grosvenor retired after 36 years as a Dallas police officer. He left his farm house in Canton, Texas and headed for Chapala.

"You can live a caviar lifestyle on a tuna fish pension," he said.

The former Dallas police commander says his police pension goes a lot further in Mexico because the cost of living is about one-third what it would be in North Texas.

"You can live OK here on $1,000 a month," Grosvenor said. "I know one lady who's doing it for $600 a month, believe it or not."

Greg Ochs and his wife came to Lake Chapala from Farmers Branch. They bought a 5,000 square foot house for $167,000. They spent another $160,000 to remodel it.

The property tax bill on their new house is $120 a year.

"A lot of the services are very inexpensive, like the construction costs to build this house," Ochs said. "I'd never be able to afford to build this in the States."

North Texans who retire in Chapala fear health care wouldn't match what they receive back home. In the lakeside area, there are only a few small clinics and hospitals and about three dozen doctors, including Dr. Juan Lastra.

But Lastra and the retirees say some of the world's best medical facilities are only 30 minutes away in Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city.

"When you become specialized in Mexico, most of your training is in the States. So most of them — about 80 percent — are trained in the States," Lastra said. "So they have very good qualifications."

Even though they're not Mexican citizens, American retirees can choose one of several government-run insurance plans. The social security system, known as IMSS, will — in most cases — cover surgeries and major medical expenses at a fraction of the cost of the same care in the U.S., and premiums are much lower.

"I've had friends who have had heart work, cancer work — some of the most challenging health care issues — who have had excellent care down here in Mexico," Ochs said.

There is no 911 emergency system in this part of Mexico. The Cruz Roja (Red Cross) runs a local ambulance service paid for by donations from the Americans who live in the region. But the best critical care is still 30 minutes away in Guadalajara.

"They're there 24-7. They don't charge anything," Grosvenor said.

But is Mexico safe? With a deadly drug war dominating headlines in the U.S, the retirees believe their fellow Americans have an unfair and inaccurate perception that all of Mexico is dangerous.

"I feel a lot more safe here than I would in Dallas or Farmers Branch, to be perfectly honest," Ochs said.

"The ladies feel safe to walk on the streets at night — even alone — here," Grosvenor added. "Confrontational crime is almost non-existent."

Retiree Marian Wellman said her lifestyle in Mexico mirrors her life in the U.S. "I'm in community theater; I'm in community choirs; I can take piano lessons; I have my own business," she said. "There are volunteer opportunities."

But life by the picturesque lake has its disadvantages too. Some Americans discover life here is not for them. During the rainy season, the air is thick with mosquitoes.

"We've known people who have come down here for a month or two and turned around and said, 'I'm heading back north of the border," Ochs said.

Sid Grosvenor admits that he had a difficult time adjusting to life in Mexico. "I'm go-go, make-it-happen-now, always rushing, and that doesn't work here," he said. "You have to slow down and go with the pace of the Mexican people, which is much slower."

For those who don't speak Spanish, simple communication can be a difficult challenge. "You can get very frustrated going into a store, wanting something, and not being able to communicate to the person and have them help you," Ochs said.

Some retirees move back to the U.S. once their grandchildren are born. And while Chapala has some very familiar institutions, some folks miss the many choices of American shopping back home.

"There are very few things that I want that I can't get," Wellman said. "Maybe I don't have 20 choices when I go to the grocery store, but quite honestly, I don't need 20 choices."

Ochs said life in Mexico is somewhat rougher than back in the States. "You just don't have all the nice things that we were so used to having."

The number of Texans retiring in Lake Chapala is growing fast. Americans and Canadians now account for more than half the population.

North Texas retirees say living in Mexico is an adventure that may not be for everyone — but for them, it's paradise.

E-mail sstoler@wfaa.com

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