by Jen Barnett
Last month, Brett and I took our second trip to Mérida, where we’re moving in Yucatán, Mexico. Originally, we’d planned to visit each of our top ten countries over the course of 5-10 years, choose our favorite, and then begin planning the move. But we loved Mérida immediately, so we decided to move there now and continue exploring other countries. Because it’s so much more affordable, I’ve been able to quit my job and use the freedom to work on Expatsi while my husband keeps working remotely.
Expat Training Wheels
Costco Cenote Ka Kuxtal
Like a lot of Americans, we’ve seen very little of the world. We want to challenge ourselves and get outside of our comfort zone, but we also want to set ourselves up for success. I feel like we’ll be more confident migrants if we can feed ourselves, get healthcare, and take care of all the basics until we learn our way around. For us, moving to Mérida is like a starter city for American expats. There’s a lot about it that’s different from the U.S., but there’s also a Costco. No matter how lost I might get in a new city, the fact that I’m never that far from 12 organic chicken breasts and 36 cups of Smart Pop is oddly comforting. But it’s also better, because this Costco has a cenote right in the parking lot!
ALL THE LIMES
Scouting Trip #1: neighborhoods + vibe
We took our first scouting trip in January, 2022. Our travel agent recommended three popular neighborhoods, and we chose to split our trip between two of them. We stayed in Airbnbs so we could get the feel of living in those neighborhoods. We mostly checked out grocery stores, parks, movie theaters, nail salons, and co-working spaces—regular places we’d use day-to-day moreso than tourist spots. Except the beach—we couldn’t stop going to the beach. Mérida is 30 minutes from the Gulf of Mexico, the same body of water we can visit in Alabama—but at a much greater cost of money and time.
I can’t overstate how much we loved this city from the first moment. Our first night, we got hopelessly lost in a massive neighborhood of identical houses. Every person we encountered stopped to help us. Once we found the Airbnb, we headed for a highly rated pizza place nearby with late hours, which turned out to be on someone’s patio (with a full stone pizza oven!). The food was amazing, and this was also our first encounter with the state’s COVID-19 protocols, which included temp checks, hand sanitizer, and masking. The messaging was “we’re all in this together,” which was so encouraging.
I take care of you, you take care of me, we take care of each other
We enjoyed wandering around the city, seeing the big fancy malls, and hitting every beach we could. All beaches in Mexico are public, so it’s easy to drive out for the day or afternoon. The highlight of the trip was seeing Celestún’s flamingoes, but we enjoyed every minute of every day. Before we even boarded our flight home, we knew we’d be moving as soon as we could.
Scouting Trip #2: banking + weather
Mérida is hot. VERY hot. Since our first trip was during the city’s coolest month, we decided to plan our next trip during one of the more unpleasant months. April-June is when Mérida is boiling, but we couldn’t get another visit planned that quickly, so we made plans for August, when it’s still hot but also very humid. We booked an Airbnb at the beach, thinking we might decide to live at the beach instead of the neighborhoods we visited in January.
Unfortunately, the red tide had the same idea as us. The beaches east of Mérida, including where we were staying, were full of the algae blooms that kill fish and emit smelly toxic fumes. The red tide comes to Florida every year, but this was the first near Mérida since 2015. Still, we spent as little time in the Airbnb as possible, which made us realize how dependent we were on driving back and forth to the city. For now, we plan to live near the city and visit the beach, rather than vice versa.
Since we couldn’t cool off in the water, and spent most of the hottest parts of the day in the concrete and asphalt city, we were acutely aware of how hot it was. We were sweating by 9am and fully drenched before lunch. That said, we tolerated it fine. Maybe it’s our Southern hot natures, but we quickly adjusted to being sweaty and moved on. (I’ll definitely need a more practical haircut, though). It was much cooler any time we were indoors, even though houses use A/C sparingly and mostly at night. A combination of concrete construction, fans, and high ceilings make homes quite comfortable, and businesses have mini-splits going nonstop.
Our Airbnb host, Keith, was a former NYC realtor, and now remodels homes in Mexico. We got to see several of his beautiful properties and learned a lot about buying and renting locally.. The biggest surprise was how uncommon it is to have a mortgage! It does give us pause, especially if the U.S. housing market tanks before we were planning to sell next year. Our backup plan may be to rent our home until it improves, but of course that comes with its own challenges. Either way, we’ll be renting for at least a year in Mexico, to make sure we know where we want to live and be sure we’re able to stay for the long haul. Climate change is a big consideration — like Florida, the Yucatán Peninsula will be drastically affected by rising sea levels. Finally, the taxes on selling a home for people with a temporary residency visa is punishing — we wouldn’t want to sell unless we had permanent.
Keith also connected us with a banker at InterCam, the only bank that allows foreigners without visas to open bank accounts. The bank uses a complicated process where you transfer funds meant for InterCam to a bank in New York, which then transfers to Mexico on the day of the best exchange rate over the next month.
We also had drinks with Edwin from MID Relocation Specialists. They’ll help us find a rental when we’re ready and finish our local paperwork for our residency visas. Edwin was part of the Dreamer program in the U.S., and he decided to move back to Mexico because he couldn’t get a driver’s license or participate in many other programs citizens enjoy. Now, as an expert in both cultures, he helps Americans move and adapt to Mexico.
Pet-friendly La Isla
Again, we had a tremendous experience interacting with local folks. I don’t know if it’s their Mayan heritage (60% of Mérida citizens are Mayan), or if they just haven’t faced the divisiveness we have at home, but people are so nice that you could just cry. We had a tire that kept deflating, and every time it started, a stranger would quickly point it out to us. Instead of driving from gas station to gas station looking for a working air machine (with enough cash for all the quarters you’d need), an attendant would take care of it as soon as we pulled in, refusing even a tip. One night, we were walking through La Isla Mérida, a fun mall that welcomes dogs, when I tripped on my ridiculous shoes and face-planted on the tile floor. No fewer than 10 people rushed to my aid, even though Brett was already helping me up. One grandmother insisted to know who tripped me, so I pointed sheepishly to my own platform clogs. I honestly can’t imagine that happening in the U.S. It’s encouraging to know that if it had been a real emergency, we’d have so much support.
If I could only describe Mérida in one word, I’d use the word Community. People continually seem to be looking out for each other. That’s exactly what we’re looking for, and we look forward to giving back.