Published On: Tue, Mar 18th, 2014

Living Internationally: My Mexican Experience

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It was like I had DejaVu and had been in the place before.  The color of the water in the pool, lit up by the deep blue lights beneath the surface. The waterfall on the wall, which drained into the pool. I knew that I was supposed to be here, or at least see something here.

For the past 4 years, I have had the honor of working with a great bunch of people at International Living.  Together, we have traveled to Belize, Uruguay, Nicaragua, and just recently, Mexico.  As I had not yet explored my adopted country, this was going to be an eye opening experience for me, in the country I thought I knew.

Our journey started on familiar ground: the beaches of Tulum, Playa del Carmen, and Puerto Morelos.  All three locations were identified as strong expat relocation options for the Riviera Maya.  This, to anyone would be a no brainer as the Riviera Maya is active with tourists from around the globe.  An ideal place to call home, and live in an “international setting”.  It’s not hard to run into someone that comes from where you are.


Tulum, Quintana Roo

Meandering through the various neighborhoods, developments, and homes, I got a sense familiarity with the area.  The construction, the finishings, the appliances, etc… all looked like what we would have left back home (in my case, Toronto, Canada). Bedroom communities, with comforts and conveniences. For me the Riviera (outside the funky beach dwellings) was not my style or taste, but for someone looking at those familiar amenities, it’s not a bad option.

The day came to fly to Querétaro, where upon arrival, we had an extra 1 hour car ride to our destination of San Miguel de Allende.  I suppose all the bad omens were in place that day as the flight was delayed at the airport due to rain, and we have been luckily seated next to screaming children.  Pacifier dipped in rum, anyone?



Landing in Querétaro, I have been luckily selected at random to have the “special security check”.  This was a first…no biggie.  Interesting enough, I was curious as to how calm everyone was during the check of my luggage.  There was no “Hollywood-style” intimidation tactics or insinuations that “we’re gonna getcha just cause you’re a gringo”.  Courteous and professional would be the right words to describe the experience.  Pleasant smiles and thanks for co-operating were given by the military and state officials once they had completed their jobs.  They even refolded laundry once they were finished.

It was close to midnight when we rolled into San Miguel, and I can’t remember much of the drive there, other than it was smooth roads…until we got into the city…

Cobblestones are a pain (really) to anyone who has broken their ankles previously.  Stepping on one can cause a stabbing pain at the site of the old injury or worse, shooting pains up the leg.  Thank God San Miguel had decent sidewalks to navigate.  Something else was happening too – it was kind of hard to breathe.

San Miguel Allende

San Miguel Allende

I had forgotten that Yucatan is at sea level and San Miguel was high up in the mountains.  This altitude can leave an unprepared traveler a little short of breath.

Being my first time visiting Central Mexico, I have to say I was impressed with San Miguel.  The city was organized, vibrant, and people were genuinely courteous.  There are no traffic lights in San Miguel.  Motorists practice courtesy, by taking turns, and traffic flows with only the occasional direction from the police.  There is a large visible number of expats living there, and they seem to have a huge involvement in the city.  The surroundings themselves are beautiful and manicured as well.  The one feeling about this place is that it is just a bit too perfect…almost a sense of Disneyland.  It’s this perfection which allowed San Miguel to be recognized as one of the best place to live in the world.  The expats that we spoke to there seem to agree.

A few days later we took a 1 hour ride out of San Miguel to head onwards with our journey.  Next stop: Guanajuato!

Upon entering Guanajuato you can be in for a shock if you do not know what to expect.  The city is a maze of tunnels and roads that run beneath the city.  The region known for mining industry, the best built tunnels, and impressive architecture was strapped for surface level roadways, thus made use of abandoned subterranean tunnels under the city to move traffic.  A novice driver would surely get lost here without a map.  Roads weaving in the catacomb like tunnels, on-ramp tunnels appearing out of the sides of the walls, daylight breaking the darkness as you exit one tunnel…only to be lost back into another.

Underground tunnels in the City of Guanajuato

Underground tunnels below the City of Guanajuato

Our hotel (Antiguas Vapors) was literally built into the mountain, as you could see the carved out rock on the walls, and where some were brick-lined for details.  One gets the feeling here of an Italian mountain town, tight streets, cozy shops and bars, and towering ornate buildings from an era gone by.  One such structure that caught my eye was the Teatro Juarez.  If you are not familiar with it, just picture Parthenon in Greece…at least, that’s how it looked through my eyes. It was like someone took a fine chisel and carved the columns, motifs, and so on, just to ensure their perfection.  Stunning work.

Now being in the mountains, and a mountain town, one would be correct to expect to have a few steep roads and hills.  Here, there are A LOT!



Alleyways that seem to climb forever, roads with perilous turns and corners, marks and gouges left by the last vehicle to impact the wall.  An unlucky house was at one such corner and you could see the damage from a car which must have gone right through the front door.  Suffice to say, if your car has bad brakes, if your lungs or legs are not up for it, Guanajuato might be a little challenging…even the “Rocky Run” up the stairs to the front door of Universidad de Guanajuato would have the average person gasping for their breath.

Without the physical activity, even the views here from some of the city’s miradors will surely take your breath away.  Houses here are painted in a variety of colors and hues, and to see them from up high is like looking at a giant panoramic paint pallet.   One could never tire of these views.

Like in San Miguel, our time in Guanajuato ended, and we headed for the airport.  Onward to Guadalajara

From Guadalajara, we traveled 30 minutes to Lake Chapala and Ajijic, two very popular long time expat destinations.  Retired people, snowbirds, sunbirds, and even young families have been coming here over the years.


My colleagues from International Living lived here at one time too.  It has the same mountain town appeal, but with more wilderness and greenery, and yes, the lake too.  What was appealing to me here, was that the area had been in the news for the deaths of some expats.  This added fuel to the media blanket accusations about Mexico not being safe.  What the locals responded to this question, was with a graceful retort – “How many people died in NYC, Chicago or Toronto yesterday? Are those cities now so unsafe that you shouldn’t go there ever again?”

Struck with the beauty and the scenery of Lake Chapala and Ajijic, I began considering the possibility of coming back there to visit.  It reminded me of the town of Huntsville, Ontario, Canada (just outside of Algonquin Provincial Park).  It was just rustic enough, and had just enough modern amenities to be comfortable.  The people of the town (locals and foreigners) are friendly and welcoming, and there are enough activities for me to keep busy.  Plus, the BIG city (Guadalajara) was 30 mins away.  Perfect!


Our last day in Ajijic came, and we headed out do an interview with a local shop owner, and had the pleasure of meeting one of her employees.  He was a very lively man who was curious as to where we were headed to next.  We told him, Puerto Vallarta.  Well, that was it! He went on about how we were going to LOVE IT! Names of restaurants, beaches, clubs, and stores were exchanged and recommended.  He even suggested some local dishes to try.  Onward to Puerto Vallarta!

Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta at night was a sight to be seen.  Outside the older part of the city, Nueva Vallarta spreads out with malls, casinos, and businesses for anything and everything.  Very modern, and similar to what I know from back in Canada.  Into the old city, however, the streets and stores begin to resemble the familiar Mexico I know from Merida.  A mixture of old and new, built alongside each other, blending as best as possible.  Artisan markets, next to high end jewelry.  Fine dining establishments, next door to a Gay bar….GAY BAR??

I must have been living under a rock to not realize that PV was one of the top destinations for LGBT people.

Our first night there, we decided to go on the hotel’s recommendation of a place called “CoExist”.  It was a surf and turf style grill.  Food was made with skill, and presented like art on each plate.  A perfect location, which was giving me a strange feeling.  It was like I had DejaVu and had been in the place before.  The color of the water in the pool, lit up by the deep blue lights beneath the surface. The waterfall on the wall, which drained into the pool. I knew that I was supposed to be here, or at least see something here.

Coexist Restaurant Puerto Vallarta

Coexist Restaurant Puerto Vallarta

As our time rolled on in Puerto Vallarta, I found the town more and more appealing to my personal tastes.  It had its historical significances, but also its movement to modernize and grow.  Service staff were prompt and attentive.  But best of all, the real estate was still affordable.  I was surprised to see what was on offer and even some of the bargains that could be made.

Returning to Merida, I was on Cloud #9.  Our last leg of the trip, on the home front.

Being away from somewhere allows you to appreciate what you left behind when your travels began.  The warmth of the air that greets you, as you step outside.  The sounds of life rolling on around you.  The smells of the foods and delicacies that await your senses.  To me, these are the signals to the weary traveler – “You Are Home”.  This sentiment seemed to be equally shared by the people that we interviewed here in Merida.  Whether it was the Hotel Owner, the retired restaurateurs from San Francisco, or the musician from Upstate New York, everyone found something here that made them feel like this truly was home.


Maybe it was a combination of traveling the cities, and the interviews with several expats (mainly about how and why they chose their locations) that I rediscovered my Merida.  It is a cultural meeting place, a sanctuary for people seeking a peaceful place in the world to call home.  It has its charms and familiarities that one can appreciate.  For me, my family lives here, and have grown here over the last 5 years.  After all the ground that we covered, and after climbing all those hills, it was sure nice to be back on Yucatan’s flat Terra Firma.

by Erich Briehl

Erich Briehl is a veteran videojournalist/photojournalist who’s work has taken him to Asia and throughout the Americas.  With his beginnings back in 1997, Erich has strived to maintain ethical and professional journalistic standards, while delivering the truth in all stories he presents.


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