Mexico: Retiring and long stays

Mexico is home to about 700,000 U.S. and Canadian citizens who have decided to exchange hectic cities, frigid temperatures and high living costs for a more relaxed, warmer and inexpensive lifestyle. Some live in Mexico year-round, while many others come to Mexico to escape the harsh winters back home.

Common destinations include the colonial city of Guadalajara or along the nearby Lake Chapala; the beach towns of Acapulco, Colima, Cuernavaca, La Paz, Mazatlan, Manzanillo and Puerto Vallarta; and the colonial cities of Guanajuato, Merida, Morelia, Oaxaca, Puebla, Queretaro and San Miguel de Allende.

Deciding where to settle depends on many factors, including weather, budget, desired degree of immersion in the Mexican culture and potential for interaction and socialization with locals.

Weather is perhaps the major factor. Mexico is divided into three zones – tierra caliente, tierra templada and tierra fría.

Tierra caliente (hot land) ranges from sea level to about 3,000 feet. Destinations of this sort include Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, La Paz and other beach resorts. Hot, humid weatherprevails during most of the year.

Tierra templada (temperate land) goes from 3,000 feet to 6,000 feet above sea level. Places such as Cuernavaca, Guadalajara and the nearby lakefront towns of Chapala and Ajijic fall in this category. Spring-like weather is common almost year-long.

Tierra fria (cold land) is anything above 6,000 feet. Winter snow and frost are rare but not unknown. Mexico City is an example of this type of land.


Guadalajara, Chapala and Ajijic together harbor the largest colony of retired North Americans in Mexico. It is estimated that some 40,000 year-round expatriates call Guadalajara and the towns of nearby Lake Chapala (including Chapala and Ajijic) their home, while thousands more take up residency during the winter months.

Chapala is a beautiful town lined with Victorian-style buildings line. Though populated by retired Americans and Canadians much of the time, the town is still very Mexican in atmosphere and appearance.

A larger Canadian population lives in Ajijic, a relaxed small town with cobblestone streets. Aside from being Lake Chapala’s most picturesque village, Ajijic touts some excellent dining and shopping.

The Lake Chapala Society is a foundation/service club with mostly expatriate members. The society is actively involved in the community, providing scholarships for local students, conducting health and safety classes and fundraising.

The proximity to the large but liveable city of Guadalajara is an advantage for people interested in living in Chapala and Ajijic, and many prefer the city itself. Parks, fountains, plazas and wide tree-lined boulevards are scattered throughout this home to many of the traditions and products most identified with Mexico: tequila, Mariachi music and charros, Mexican cowboys.


San Miguel de Allende

This fabled colonial town of artisans and writers was declared a national monument in 1926. It boasts colonial mansions, flower-filled patios, terraced cobblestone streets and some of the best options for dining and handicraft shopping around. Its North American expatriate community numbers 10,000 and is extremely active. Many plays, lectures, art classes and other activities are offered in English. An English newspaper, Atencion, lists these events. This is the perfect town for expatriates looking to retire in Mexico but still have ties with North American social groups.

Every December, the San Miguel Music Festival brings Mexican and international artists to the town, transforming it into an artistic mecca.

The town’s biggest bash happens the last Saturday of September – San Miguel Arcangel, a celebration honouring the town’s main patron saint, includes running of the bulls through city streets, traditional dancers, food and music.

In August, the town hosts the Festival de Musica de Camara, which has been running for more than 20 years. Music lovers from around the world come to hear internationally acclaimed ensembles perform in historic and architecturally unique venues.


Located on a long, flat stretch of the Pacific coast of Mexico, east of the tip of the Baja peninsula, Mazatlan is Mexico’s second largest coastal city (after Acapulco) and is considered to be the shrimp capital of the world. It is also coming into its own as a retirement destination.

In general, real estate prices and living expenses are lower than in many other areas popular with North American retirees. The few hundred or so Canadian and American expatriates who call Mazatlan home tend to spread out and integrate to some degree with the local population.

In 1999, a beautiful assisted living facility, The Melville, run by a Mexican/Swiss corporation, opened in the historic center of Mazatlan. The Melville is aimed principally at American and Canadian retirees in Mexico and is based in the American assisted living model. This is the first facility of its kind in Mexico to be designed specifically for American and Canadian retirees.

In the six days leading up to Ash Wednesday, Mazatlan hosts the world’s third-largest Carnival behind Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans. Nearly 300,000 participants come together for a spectacular array of festivities.


Morelia is capital of the state of Michoacan, a land of renowned natural beauty. The state has few large cities but rather is a quilt of small villages and towns that have changed little since the early 1800s. Its pace is leisurely, its people friendly and its Spanish colonial and indigenous heritage rich–perfect for someone interested in a strong immersion with the Mexican culture.

Morelia, aside from its historical attractions, is also the cultural and political center of the state. It is home to dozens of writers, artists, philosophers, poets and a small community of retired North Americans. Retirees are lured to Morelia because of its low real estate prices and living expenses, as well as for the great opportunities of interaction with the local community.

The Feria de Morelia is the city’s major fair (April 29-May 20) with exhibits of handicrafts, agriculture and livestock from around Michoacan, plus regional dances, bullfights and festivals. The anniversary of the founding of Morelia in 1514 is celebrated on May 18 with fireworks. An increasingly-important International Music Festival is held annually in November.



Oaxaca, located southeast of Mexico City on an arid highland plateau about 5,000 feet above sea level, is not the most popular destination for North Americans, but it offers so much in terms of handicrafts, cuisine and history that veteran Mexico travelers have a special love and respect for this state and its charming capital city.

The city of Oaxaca is a romantic and magical town that has a lot to offer to potential retirees. Despite its population of 472,000, it feels more like a village than the sprawling town that it is. The pace is relaxed and the atmosphere friendly. Its downtown streets are lined with impressive baroque colonial architecture. In 1987, UNESCO declared its beautifully preserved Historic Center a World Heritage Site.

The climate is spring-like and pleasant year round, though cooler during winter months due to the elevation. Lodging and dining in Oaxaca are remarkably affordable, perfect for retirees looking to buy at reasonable prices. Oaxaca is also easy to reach via plane or bus.

Oaxaca celebrates its holidays and traditional festivals with a unique exuberance and intensity. The Guelaguetza, a festival held each July and attracting visitors from around Mexico and abroad, showcases the cultures of the state’s seven regions.

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated in a very special way in Oaxaca. The night of November 1, a procession of town people accompanied by the village band visit homes where they are invited in for food and drink. They also take music, flowers, food and dance to the graves of their dearly departed.


Depending on the retiree’s plans for staying in Mexico, there are different visa procedures. For someone looking to stay in Mexico for a short period, a tourist visa (FM-T) is easily obtained. It is valid for up to six months and doesn’t grant work status.

Rentista is a non-working visa available only to individuals aged 51 or older, retirees or veterans. The applications for rentista status must be accompanied by a letter from a bank, social security agency or financial institution, certifying that the applicant receives a certain minimum monthly income (about $1,200 USD), plus $600 USD for each dependent.

Foreigners who have resided in the country as immigrants for five years are eligible to become permanent residents and can acquire most of the rights and obligations of a Mexican national. The change to permanent resident status is not automatic and is subject to the guidelines of Gobernacion (Mexico’s Immigration and Naturalization Service).

Real Estate

Owning or renting a home in Mexico is relatively easy. Foreigners buying in an area not near the coast or the border can own property directly. If the property is within 60 miles (100 km) of the border or 30 miles (50 km) of the coast, non-Mexicans are required to purchase through a fideicomiso (beneficial trust). This is set up through a Mexican bank for a period of up to 50 years and can be renewed. The process involves a notario publico (a public notary) who will certify the transaction and collect taxes. If buying a home from an agent, it should be from the AMPI, the Mexican Association of Professional Realtors.


Health Care

In general, the quality of health care in Mexico is very good. Hospitals, both private and public, are usually easily accessible and well equipped. In the major cities such as Mexico City, Monterrey and Guadalajara, they often have leading-edge equipment and techniques that equal or exceed those available in the U.S. and Canada. Private hospitals usually have highly trained professionals and, in most cases, offer services in English. Private consultations vary from around US$20 in small towns to US$60 in large cities.

Retirees also have the option of signing up for the medical IMSS plan (Mexican Social Security). It costs approximately $200 USD a year and covers medical, dental and vision. Dental care in Mexico is one-third the price of similar care in the United States or Canada. IMSS hospitals are some of the best equipped in Mexico, although translation may be necessary both at appointment or hospitalization. To sign up for the plan, they require two passport-type photographs, a valid proof of permanent residence through a current electric or phone bill with the person’s name (or a copy of a lease) and copies of passport and immigration documents. Married couples must provide a copy of the marriage certificate.

Another alternative to healthcare is buying a private insurance policy in Mexico that will insure against major medical expenses. Many of the insurance policies are supplied by North American providers. Major medical runs about US$500 to US$700 a year.


Mexico is a country that runs within and between cities by bus. There is no need to have a car, since public transportation is affordable and reliable. Mexico’s new, modern toll highways make travel between cities easy and comfortable as well.

There are three classes of buses – luxury, first-class and second-class. Luxury buses are air-conditioned, with bathrooms, assigned seats, snacks, movies, reclining seats and even on-board attendants. The stops they make along the way are infrequent and service is excellent. First class busses are similar to luxury buses, but stops are more frequent and snacks or movies not provided. Second-class buses are very inexpensive but stops frequent, so travelling time is longer.

About the Mexico Tourism Board
The Mexico Tourism Board (MTB) brings together the resources of federal and state governments, municipalities and private companies to promote Mexico’s tourism attractions and destinations internationally. Created in 1999, the MTB is Mexico’s tourism promotion agency, and its participants include members of both the private and public sectors. The MTB has offices throughout North America, Europe, Japan and Latin America.

Mazatlan. Photo © Sean Hannah