Mexico Is a Gorgeous Land of Opportunity Beckoning You to Call It Home
Here's how to make it happen... and do it without being terrible.
Mexico has a long history of welcoming gringos and other newcomers. Surfers looking for a cheap place to park their van, retirees seeking to extend their pension dollars, fugitives, beatniks, artists: They've all been called to Mexico for one reason or another. And most of them end up staying for a while.
I heard the call five years ago, and have lived here ever since. I moved to Mexico to study Spanish and teach English after falling in love with the country two years earlier. While I eventually started writing and translating, my story started pretty typically: I came to Mexico with a few suitcases and a one-way ticket, and decided to stay.
What makes Mexico such a great place to live depends a lot on your socioeconomic background, your worldly experience, and how much you can roll with the unknown. It's a country where you can do a lot without a ton of cash: In much of Mexico, there's accessible healthcare, great food, and lively entertainment. And it's not so far removed culturally from the US, thanks to a comparably large middle class and a steady back-and-forth between the countries due to land, people, culture and trade.
In this vast and diverse country, you can travel by bus or plane pretty inexpensively and enjoy everything from cloud forests to jungles, snow-covered volcanoes to pyramids, cosmopolitan cities to undeveloped beaches.
Of course, this is not some egalitarian utopia by any means. More than 50 percent of the population lives in poverty and the very fact that you’re coming here from the US implies that you will automatically be placed in the upper levels of society. As a newcomer, you'll need to pick the best place for you, and to integrate into society with respect.
By keeping a level head and an open mind, living in the guest mentality, you too might be tempted to surrender to Mexico’s pull. Here’s what to do when you hear that call.
First things first: Visas
Most foreigners—even those who own property—come in on 180-day tourist visas, and leave the country on a visa run every six months. Or they pay the $35 fee at the airport for having overstayed their visa. I recommend going the legal route.
If you are hired by a company within Mexico, it will sponsor your temporary residency visa. You will need to renew this visa once per year in order to work, and after four consecutive years you can apply to be a permanent resident.
After 10 years with a combo of temporary and permanent residency, you can apply to become a Mexican citizen. If you marry a Mexican citizen or even a foreigner with permanent residency, you can apply for temporary and then permanent residency without much hassle.
How to find work in Mexico
Most foreigners spending long stints in Mexico have some sort of digital work in which they are telecommuting or freelancing for US or European countries. That money is usually earned in fewer hours and in greater quantities than you would be paid by a Mexican employer. You’ll find a fair number of people teaching English, but that’s typically more of a temporary job because in most cases, it just doesn’t pay that well.
If your Spanish is decent to good and you have a college degree, you will likely be valued by any number of multinational companies that hire workers versed in different cultures and languages. I know people who have come here from the US with zero experience in social media or PR, but who are now managing the entire communications department of a major company. Is it foreign privilege? Probably. But it pays the bills.
What’s the cost of living like in Mexico?
This depends entirely on where you live. Prices will shoot up to meet foreign demand. And they will shoot up fast. For example, The Gray Lady named Mexico City its top travel destination at the beginning of 2016 and within a year, apartment prices in some of the most desirable parts of town doubled. Within a couple years, families and elderly people living in apartments in those hot spots were tossed out and said apartments became short-term rentals, easily netting more than triple what the previous tenants could afford per month.
More recently in Baja’s Todos Santos, the LA crowd arrived with their stimulus checks and decided to stick around, some calling it “a blank canvas.” Predictably, rent skyrocketed.
What I can say is that transportation, food, health care and utilities (if you’re used to paying out the culo for heating) are significantly less expensive in Mexico than in the US. On average, by about half. But wherever you choose to land, you have to get there before the gentrification brigade rolls in.
If you have kids, most public schools are desperately overcrowded (50:1 student/teacher ratio), so you’ll have to add a couple hundred more dollars into your monthly budget to send them to a private school. In most cities, owning a car is a nicety but not a necessity as public transport is plentiful and cheap and central neighborhoods were created with pedestrians in mind.
Do I need to learn Spanish?
Don't expect to just coast by only speaking English. I recommend UNAM’s CEPE program, but almost every town in Mexico with any sort of international tourism has at least one small Spanish-learning school. Mexico City’s CEPE stands apart because it draws students from all over the world, and at the time I attended you could test into one of 8 levels, offering nuance and preventing students from getting lumped into “beginner, intermediate, or advanced” as often happens at smaller schools.
Whatever route you take, know you’ll have to look a fool for a while and that’s when you will really appreciate the unparalleled hospitality (and subtlety) of the Mexican people. If you go from zero to full immersion, you could be speaking good Spanish in about two years.
Acclimating to life in Mexico
Gringos have a reputation of being loud and pushy, which falls somewhere between amusing to downright grotesque when played out on Mexican soil. Smiling, being polite, and waiting your damn turn will get you far in Mexico.
Patience is also a virtue you'd do best to embrace. Whether you're waiting on a check (pro tip: ask for it) or to file visa paperwork, always plan on things taking a long time. Sometimes they don’t, but, “mañana” is the Mexican way.
Finally, check your privilege. You’ll have it here just by coming from a different economy. You’ll have it here just by being “American.” It might take you a while to realize just how privileged you are. Be aware of it and don’t abuse it.
I’m a middle class white girl from the rural Midwest. Whatever that means to you, what it means to me is that I didn’t have to come here. I didn’t have to leave the relative comfort of my environs, which I have the luxury of returning to if and when I want. In Mexico, I am a guest. I came because I wanted to experience something else: to learn something about life and the world.
And I learned a lot, including many things I would rather have not known. That’s no fault of Mexico: I left the bubble of the United States and I don’t live in a foreigner’s bubble in Mexico. I have lived with Mexicans and Latin Americans, and have had my proverbial ass schooled in how US policy and culture dominates the world and in what ways that is harmful, specifically in Latin America. If you aren’t into this, choose a gringo enclave for relocation. And even there, do try to your best to be aware of your privilege and its impact.
Where to live in Mexico
Mexico is a massive country encompassing dense metropolitan areas, desolate deserts, pristine beaches, and tiny towns. Choosing the right place is essential, both to your quality of life and your personal safety. Start with these destinations to find the best fit for you.
Mexico City: The unknowable behemoth is the easiest place to find work and to travel to and from. It’s the hub of business, government, higher education, entertainment, nightlife, and everything in between. And at 30 million residents, it’s a beast. Living here is more expensive, and gentrification runs rampant (looking at you, NYC digital nomads), but it also has a spectacular art scene and you can find everything under the sun that you might possibly need. Plus, for about $150 round trip, and often less, you can fly direct to almost anywhere within the republic.
Guadalajara: Much smaller than Mexico City—but still big—Guadalajara enjoys a pleasant year-round climate and easy access to the coasts of Jalisco and Nayarit, as well as mountain escapes surrounding the city. As Mexico becomes a bigger player on the economic world stage, Guadalajara is enjoying economic expansion that means more jobs, more housing, and more foreigners. It’s even called the Silicon Valley of Mexico, with a number of technology companies popping up.
Mérida: A new, sprawling, and impossibly hot city surrounding a colonial center, Mérida is consistently ranked one of the safest places to live in Mexico. The rumor—so the Mexicans say—is that’s where the narco bosses send their families to live. I don’t know about chismes (gossip), but it’s a pretty town with access to all the best of what the Yucatán Peninsula has to offer: including its otherworldly cuisine, Mayan archaeological sites and Mexico’s greatest concentration of freshwater in the form of underground rivers that yield heavenly pools known as cenotes.
Puebla: Just two hours south of Mexico City, Puebla is a major city with tons of history, amazing food, and a more laid-back lifestyle than CDMX. It’s access to some of the most beautiful towns in Mexico and is well situated to explore the country, all while being within reasonable distance from anything you might need in the capital, including the international airport. Next to Puebla, Cholula has a pyramid, college bars and an old school Mexican pueblo vibe.
Querétaro: This stunning city is even more relaxed (and yes, less exciting) than Puebla. Due to the overcrowding, air pollution, and traffic that everyone complains about in CDMX, Querétaro is getting more popular with people fleeing the city. It’s an ideal base for exploring all points in the central part of the country, including Guanajuato and Querétaro’s unique and chill sierra, as well as la Huasteca Potosina, one of Mexico’s not-to-be-missed regions.
Smaller-size cities: Mexico comprises 31 states and Mexico City and each state has a sizable capital city. Oaxaca, Morelia, San Cristóbal de las Casas, and Zacatecas (my personal fave) offer a high quality of life for people who have the earning potential that immigrants (some would call them expats, a topic of contention) typically do. They maintain their historic charms and Mexican identity while also exploring modernity on their own terms. If you move to one, just know the prices: Don’t be a colonizer and force people out of their own town with your flashy dollars and Crypto. Move to Mexico for Mexico. Not with hopes of turning it into Seattle Sur for your own convenience.
Gringo enclaves: San Miguel de Allende and beach towns such as (but not limited to) Todos Santos, Puerto Vallarta, Playa del Carmen, and Rosarito provide an experience that quite literally caters to foreigners, including a high quality of life. Gringos are the bread and butter of these beautiful places, and their money dictates how life moves. If you want to be in a place where you don’t need to know much Spanish nor assimilate in any way to Mexican culture, a gringo enclave is your best bet.