Discovering La Paz as a wonderful place to call home more than 13 years ago this month I wanted to take another look back at the changes and provides the tips on living in Baja California Sur. With so much to share with our readers we have broken the article up into a four part series.
The first version of this article was published on the BajaInsider when I had passed the 5 year mark of my Baja experience. Now I'm bi, bi-national that is, bilingual as well, married Mexicana, own property in Mexico and am a season Mexican businessman. All these things took more than a little while to grow into. So as you suffer the slings and arrows of your migration to Mexico know that it is neither all sunshine nor is it all rain, but it is certainly a growing experience.
A lot of things have changed over my 13 years here, some for the better, and some in my opinion, for not. Overall I still applaud my decision to relocate my life to Mexico. Immigration policies and procedures don't even resemble the process I went through and was a decent authority on, so we will have to include that information for you in an upcoming article.
First and most importantly, I will say it is important to learn the language. You are in their country, learn their language. There are a variety of ways to do this, language schools are perhaps the most rapid way to learn correct espanol. Watching movies you are familiar with, alternating audio and subtitles between languages. But certainly the best way is to make some Mexican friends. They will enjoy learning English from you just as much as they will enjoy laughing at your horrible pronunciation. Knowing the language is key in defeating what I call “Mexiphobia”. Socialize with the locals, you will find it educational and a whole lot of fun to experience a culture different from your own.
The first matter of course, is to find shelter. Thirteen years ago an apartment rented for about $150 a month and up. After doing a little legwork I found an acceptable level of apartment in a part of town that wasn't on the tour list for $225 a month, including utilities and the landlady did my laundry. Installing an air conditioner was not permitted without further rent negotiation. Today that same very basic apartment rents for $375, no laundry and I’m not certain as to the utilities.
Homes with a small yard can be rented for about $450USD and up. Very nice apartments are also available in marina and ocean view locations. These usually run $1200 and up. If you are a first timer there are a realtors and rental firms that can assist you. This may add a little to the price but their experience in both location and contract assistance can be invaluable.
Baja California Sur has grown tremendously. North Americans living here has grown, but is still relatively insignificant in the totals and seasonally may account for as much as 5-7% of the state population. Since 2005 the population of the state has grown from 512,000 to over 630,000. La Paz remains the largest Baja Sur city, but Los Cabos (the conjunction of San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas) has narrowed the gap. In 2010 La Paz had more than 215,000 residents and Los Cabos about 76,000. Unofficial numbers place the population of La Paz around 300,000 and the Los Cabos near 100,000. Loreto, Mulege and Todos Santos are fractional contributors. Complete 2010 census results will be available later this year. Contrary to popular rumor, women do not outnumber men in Baja Sur.
Groceries have never been a bargain in Baja, as we live on a three sided island. Although agriculture is one of the economic staples of Baja the food we produce here is shipped to the mainland in many cases, sorted, graded and shipped back to us across the Sea of Cortez. Every other product comes by ferry from the mainland and the rest by truck down Highway 1 from the north. You can sometimes cut costs by shopping the city markets rather than the supermarkets which import nearly ALL their products, but that requires time, if you have plenty of that it is a Baja experience.
A few years back the Insider did a semi-scientific price comparison and Baja Sur’s supermarket prices were the second highest of our survey. Only San Diego was more expensive on the basic items like milk, butter, bacon beef and so on. Since most of the major chains are represented in La Paz and Cabo you will find little difference in their prices. With the addition of new chains competition seems to have driven prices down a bit.
Not so very long ago there were two major places to shop in Baja California Sur, Aramburo's Markets, Sr Aramburo came down from the mountains of El Triunfo to open his market in La Paz in the 1920's as silver was running out in the mountains and the CCC chain, which was also locally owned and dated back to the pearling days. Then the Ley chain opened three stores and right after that we got our first two Soriana's in Cabo and La Paz. Then like a biblical begat, CCC sold to Chedraui bought out the CCC stores, Mega came to town. Then came the "Express stores", these compact sized versions of the big chain stores, every time I drive into a different neighborhood I find a new one of these smaller stores. Price Club, Sam's Club and Walmart are all common names in town. I do enjoy the fact that it is easier to finds the goods that you need, but it has run the corner shops out of business and taken some of the fun out of search out your item.
Perhaps one of the biggest invasions and changes to the local retain market has been OXXO. The Mexican equivalent of Circle K or 7/11, the glitzy new junk food markets can sell you every thing from phone card time to semi food. Seriously, if you have any concern for your body at all you would find nothing nutritional for sale here. As of December 2014 there were over 90 OXXO's in La Paz alone and more than 15,000 of them in Mexico
As tourist destination Los Cabos has had a broad spectrum of restaurants for some time, including one of the best sushi restaurants I have ever enjoyed. Fast food, high class, top end and often pricey as any tourist town, some of my favorite ‘bargain eats’ have disappeared from Cabo over the last few years. Running down the wide variety of restaurants in Los Cabos would be another 10 page article.
La Paz 13 years ago had very limited fine cuisine, one of the most popular steak houses in town was one of those where you 'cook your own' on a communal grill – now long gone. You could get a reasonable steak taco meal with a beer for about $5. Today it runs $2 to $4 dollars more than that. Quality at the various restaurants was hit and miss depending on the mood of the cook. Today you could dine for a week at true culinary experiences and not complete the circuit.
Good sushi however, still alludes La Paz. If your a real sushi fan like I am, let me know if you find something other than 'lunch sushi' in La Paz, yet one of the best sushi restaurants I've ever enjoyed is in Cabo San Lucas. Sushi restaurants have been the rage in La Paz for probably about 5 years and despite what you think about La Paz and the Sea of Cortez and Seafood, it must be the enormous margin gleaned from a thin slice of (the wrong) fish and a whole lotta rice and when you run out of sea weed sheets, just fry it!
Thirteen years ago it was still possible to find a $10 peso beer (about a buck at that time). That quickly jumped to $15 and today you are doing well to find a bar or restaurant serving Mexican beers for under $25 pesos. Imported hard alcohols and wines are taxed and a mixed drink consumer will often find himself financially pushed back to drinking beers. Some imported hard alcohols have an import tax as high as 700%! The exception being Argentinean and Chilean wines, which are except from the tax and usually one of the best values on the shelves..
Puerto Paraiso, the harbor-side mall in Cabo was just being completed on my arrival, it seemed like they would never find enough high end stores, it was the only thing like it between Land's End and San Diego. Today it is a busy center-piece to downtown. Since then the mall has been expanded twice. Sophisticated items are available from makeup and lingerie to Harley Davison’s are available in the substantial indoor mall. It also makes a really good place to wander on a hot fall day. But that is Cabo.
La Paz has a mall or two now too, depending on how loosely you define 'mall'. The Shoppes La Paz. The anchor store is a Liverpool, a chain which North Americans may find of dubious distinction. On my visits there, I have found them to have Nordstrom's marketing and in-store displays with Sears quality merchandise and help that is really just waiting around for a text message or 5PM. Kinda like J. C. Penny! The mall is struggling, AutoZone, Walmart and Sam's Club are across the street, Home Depot, Soriana. As much as I hate to say it, and as strange as this will sound to folks in SoCal, who consider them the bottom of the food chain, Walmart offers the best quality cloths/products we an chose from I'm afraid to say. Shorts I've purchased from Soriana had 100% zipper failure on 4 pairs and then they gave me static about returning them - again... not Nordstrom's.
With the appearance of the new malls in La Paz and the tremendous retail building boom that took place from 2006-2009 there is just plain too much retain space available in La Paz. Even the Shoppes mall has nearly as many empty stalls as full. Downtown has taken a hard hit from this suburbanization and the core of downtown seems to be a trend toward a Gas Lamp district of clubs and restaurants and the remaining dinosaurs of Orient electronics shops that were tax exempt in the 1980's. One of the problems with this real estate glut is 1) builders are upside down with no tenants 2) they offer ridiculous move in allowances and when the 'free' period is over the business dries up and blows away under in adequate management and funding.
The true departments store Dorian’s has now been replaced by Sears in both downtown and in the mall location. La Perla’s history as a department store went back over a century, to the days when it was the company store for the pearling industry. But a couple of years ago a careless welder ended that dynasty and the store burned to the ground. Today the resurrected La Perla is a footnote, they have moved back into the original building that was the dicount center before the fire, it is a little sad, but if you listen when it is real quiet in there and half close your eyes you can still imagine the bustling perfume counters and sales people of the 1920's.
I continue to do a lot of online shopping from the states. Amazon.com or other sites can regularly provide me a better selection of exactly the brand and type of product I want at a price that is still significantly cheaper than the local price. Yes, I do feel bad not supporting local business, but it seems that Mexican companies want a much higher margin than US companies find profitable. Goods tend to be more expensive here across the board for the shipping down our three sided island or the lack of big city volume. A good example is the set of solar panels I just purchased from Amazon and had shipped down, paying the 16% import IVA and about 9% more for transportation to my door in La Paz via ACV Logistics. The panels, direct from the manufacture in Mexico City were 20% more than I had them in hand from Amazon.
Cloths shopping is a challenge unique to me. At 6'8" with a size 14 shoe – even socks are hard to find in my size, the one size fits all is smaller than the US version and to get 38 inseam pants I'd have to sew two together. .
Bars, Dancing and Drinking Establishments
In Los Cabos the beachy, Squid Roe caliber bars are now getting a run for their money from the $200 bottle of champagne glitz bars and clubs. La Paz has made a concerted effort to locate the nightlife to a section of downtown which points out onto the Ensenada de La Paz. This has certainly helped with neighborhood noise complaints, but I think you can walk nearly a block and a half from 16th of September south along the Malecon before you run into something other than a bar. The bars are of course all aimed at the younger crowd and La Paz has a burgeoning yuppie class, trendy places like Jungle Bar, but all in the category of "Beachy". The only place even close to getting all dolled up is El Rollo at the Hotel Palmira. For Mexican music La Cabaña on the Malecon has live music on Friday and Saturday night with a mix of Chilango and Choyero music, the house band is pretty good. Nearly every bar and restaurant in La Paz has live entertainment on the weekend and holidays.
I think the saddest part of the growth of La Paz and the bar scene is there is but one bar on the Malecon now where you can wiggle your toes in the real beach and drain down a frosty cerveza, Stella's at the west end of the Malecon. hey have a good salsa dancing night too.
Going to the Movies
The original 'big 1950's single screen theater' had just been closed in favor of the modern more comfortable Cineplex in the mall facility. Today La Paz has no less than four very comfortable multiplex theaters. For those of you who don't speak espanol well enough (yet) to follow a movie, a good number of the current releases come through with English and espanol subtitles in at least one showing per day. You will find the movie ticket about 1/2 the price of the states and if you have your old folks card it costs even less.
In Baja Sur auto transportation has grown tremendously. More people own cars, and newer cars than I could have imagined in years past, this is in part to the explosion of personal credit. Before real estate took a flying face plant in 2007 we saw a lot of Hummer's and big black Lobo's (a Ford pickup) but the other day I even saw one of those former Hummer drivers jetting about in a golf cart sized econo-box. Volkswagen in made in Mexico and a very popular brand in La Paz. With this growth traffic has increased as well, although it still pales in comparison to my days in San Diego and L.A.
The four lane highway from La Paz to Cabo San Lucas has been completed for several years, it trims a good 40 minutes off the trip between cities, but it too has stripped some of the adventure from the drive. Very shortly the Cabo by-pass will be completed too. This will take traffic off Highway 19 south, just before you enter Cabo San Lucas, and take you north of the city to connect with the Airport toll road and further on, Highway 1 east of San Jose del Cabo. From La Paz ths could trim as much as 30 minutes off the trip to the airport.
The “rolling stop signs” still baffle rookies, but once you get the hang of it you see how much better it works. It is not based on how important you THINK you are, as in Southern California, but rather precisely on who arrived at the intersection first. You are required to pay attention or other drivers will become annoyed and toot at you. Coming to a complete stop will result in a rear ending, if you drive around La Paz for about a whole day.
In past years you could drive as a gringo with expired plates, it has always been illegal, but today you are probably more likely to get pulled over for bad gringo plates as you would be for bad Mexican plates. One of the great Gringo Scams are the South Dakota license plates. Folks who have their cars here year round are stymied by the California requirement to have valid insurance to maintain valid registration. The minute you cancel your insurance your registration is void. So, even if you have Mexican insurance, if it is a substantial claim, the Mexican carrier will have the right to say your car was not legally registered and deny the claim.
Mexican auto insurance remains very affordable, Liability is required by law to drive on any Mexican federal highway and as a North American you will find the accident is nearly always your fault and insurance can save your vacation or 8 weeks trying to get our car back. If you are driving an US plated car you can buy Mexican Auto Insurance very reasonably for the entire year. Unfortunately, many states such as California cancel your registration if the insurance company informs them you canceled your US policy. This forces you to carry two policies, a Mexican to cover you in Mexico and a stateside policy to keep your registration active. In the event of an accident you must be carrying a valid registration. If your state has recalled your US registration they could legitimately decline your claim on your Mexican insurance.
Ok so your probably still laughing about mandatory insurance, in a place where maybe 20% of the cars don't even have plates. Insurance violations will be an add-on ticket to your other ticket or accident infraction. It can only be enforced on federal highways.
Well that is it for this installment, next we'll take a look at medical care in living in La Paz.