The Space for Expatriates
Why Retire in Oaxaca
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
I have frequently been asked how at age 53 I could possibly have given up the good life in Toronto, living in a centrally located home on the subway line only minutes away from the Maple Leafs, the Blue Jays and the Raptors, with wife, daughter and pets, and making a decent lawyer’s income enabling me to dine well and vacation at will; all that and more in favor of retirement in Mexico. But as my friends and relatives gradually began to visit me in Oaxaca, to a number they came to understand, and realize, that climate and cost of living had nothing to do with the decision. Oaxaca offers expats more than any other city in Mexico.
Oaxaca boasts two UNESCO World Heritage Site designations; is steeped in culture with 16 distinct indigenous ethnic groups each with its own language, dress, song, cuisine and other indicia of tradition; contains some of the most exquisite colonial architecture exemplified by its Dominican churches, haciendas and Old World courtyard residential construction; has a plethora of both craft villages and pre-Hispanic Zapotec ruins peppering its central valleys; is renowned for its gastronomic greatness (by most evaluations the best in Mexico); has developed a network of ecotourism sites in and around small mountain villages; is welcoming to the extent that expats have the option of becoming fully integrated into the local population or centering their worlds around a community of predominantly Americans; and, is easily accessible to both the Pacific resorts of Puerto Escondido and Huatulco, as well as Mexico City.
The south central city of Oaxaca de Juárez has its own international airport. It can be reached by air, non-stop, from San Antonio and Houston. Accordingly, from virtually all major cities in Canada and the US, you can get to Oaxaca with two flights; the first into the southern US, and the final leg right into Oaxaca. The implications are that you can avoid the massive and often confusing Mexico City airport (especially for those who struggle with Spanish), and similarly not have to contend with taking a taxi or shuttle bus from the airport to your final destination. Two flights and you’re in Oaxaca, minutes from your home or apartment.
There are also non-stop flights from North American cities into the Pacific resort town of Huatulco, enabling expats to arrive in the state of Oaxaca with only one flight, and then relax on the beach before flying, driving or taking public transportation to the state capital.
Living in Two Worlds
In some Mexican cities where expats tend to reside, it’s difficult to integrate into the broader local population, be it establishing close relationships with members of indigenous groups who live in outlying villages, or urbanites of both native and European descent. Accordingly, foreigners are often rather restricted in terms of the social circles in which they are able to gain membership and participate.
By contrast, Oaxacans of all socio-economic classes and most ethnic groups welcome expats. In fact in the case of my wife and I, it was the relationships we established prior to moving permanently to Oaxaca, with both urban and rural residents of the state, which was the main factor influencing the decision to relocate. Expat experiences are infinitively richer if one is able to participate in the cultural traditions of different classes and groups, be it attending weddings, quince años celebrations and other rite of passage events; village fiestas; or simply socializing from time to time.
On the other hand, some expats have made the decision to move to Oaxaca based on weather and cost of living, and just as importantly being able to have social lives which revolve around activities involving other foreigners, mainly English speakers. The Oaxaca Lending Library serves them well. Its Board of Directors and members at large arrange outings and regular get-togethers, facilitate the formation of groups such as bridge and garden club, and are active in promoting and participating in charitable endeavors.
Culture, Culture and More Culture
The state of Oaxaca is about the size of Tennessee. Its well-developed system of toll roads and secondary highways makes visiting outlying towns and villages from the state capital very easy, using three main transportation options: van service, bus, or of course your own car. And why is accessibility to different parts of the state important?
As noted, Oaxaca has 16 indigenous cultures, most of which have developed over millennia, in isolation from the others. Each, therefore, has its own unique traditions which have been maintained despite westernization and the tourism industry. The celebration of the maintenance of cultural integrity throughout the state culminates each year during the second half of July, with a festival known as the Guelaguetza. The Guelaguetza is unrivalled in not only Mexico, but in all of Latin America.
Oaxaca has the greatest diversity of geographical regions in the country. Within each region a gastronomic tradition as developed, using ingredients unique to the area. Thus, Oaxaca has become identified with its diverse and distinctive culinary conventions; its moles, its tlayudas, its sopa de guias and its tejate, to name a few. In fact some of Mexico’s chiles grow only in the state of Oaxaca. There are several cooking schools which attract foodies, chefs and novice cooks from around the globe. American Rick Bayless of cookbook, television series, and Frontera Grill fame makes at minimum one annual pilgrimage to the city of Oaxaca with members of his staff, studying under the tutelage of renowned Oaxacan chefs such as Alejandro Ruiz and Pilar Cabrera.
Less than an hour’s drive from the city there are more than a dozen Zapotec ruins. INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropología y Historia) is continuously conducting archaeological investigation in Oaxaca. In 2012, a major ruin was opened to the public in the town of Atzompa, standing alongside Monte Albán and Mitla in terms of its importance within the context of Mexico’s pre-history. There are opportunities for expats to volunteer doing anthropological research, working alongside professors and graduate students.
Many of the craftspeople in Oaxaca’s central valleys are featured in books about the nation’s handicraft tradition. Their areas of expertise include cotton and wool textiles, clay and ceramics, wood, and metal. And because of the openness and welcoming nature of Oaxacans, there are wonderful opportunities for expats to study under some of the grand masters of Mexican folk art.
San Miguel de Allende has long been identified with its expat community, and the vibrancy of its arts scene. What I found on a visit to the city a few years ago was that there is indeed a lively artistic community, but that it was in large part comprised of American and Canadian artists. Perhaps it was an erroneous first impression, but it impacted me nevertheless. By contrast, in Oaxaca there are numerous Oaxacan artists of international acclaim, each of whom is open to receiving foreign students. While Juan Alcazar and Alejandro Santiago recently passed on, and Francisco Toledo is difficult to peg down within the capacity of teacher, Oaxaca still has the likes of Demián Flores, Rubén Leyva, Shinzaburo Takeda, Enrique Flores, and many others who are extremely approachable and amenable to tutoring. The legacies left by Rufino Tamayo and Rodolfo Morales live on in Oaxaca.
Patzcuaro has Morelia, and San Cristobal de las Casa has Tuxtla de Gutierrez. Each of these two, relatively small, quaint cities is within a 45 minute drive of a major metropolitan center. And then there are the more well established and larger expat communities within easy driving range of Guadalajara and Mexico City. Oaxaca is unique in that the closest large city is about four hours away (Puebla) and Mexico City yet further. The implications are that Oaxaca has been able to develop its own modern, cosmopolitan network of goods and services providers because residents cannot simply drive to a large city on a whim for all their needs because of the time and distance required to do so.
Oaxaca boasts continental and fusion style restaurants with a uniquely Oaxacan flavor as well as Thai, Chinese, Moroccan, Italian and Oaxacan regional eateries and a network of bars, mezcalerias and clubs; multi-screen cinemas; four major supermarket chains, as well as Sam’s Club, Walmart, Suburbia and Liverpool. With a population approaching 400,000, the city is able to support such retail establishments which many other smaller cities under the influence of larger centers cannot. Yet Oaxaca retains its Old World and indigenous charm.
Healthcare in Mexico
Mexico has long been associated with quality healthcare at accessible cost. Oaxaca stands up to any similar sized community in the country for its medical and dental personnel and facilities.
I can only speak from personal experience over the past 22 years. My wife and I are members of the Mexican national healthcare insurance plan, IMSS (Instituto Mexicano de Seguro Social). But we also avail ourselves of private doctors and hospitals. Depending on the gravity of the ailment, comfort level in using the insurance facilities and the perceived advisability of immediate treatment, we select one system or the other.
I’ve attended at IMSS emergency department for a fractured ankle. In one hour I was assessed by triage and seen by an intern, had x-rays taken, returned to an examination room to be further assessed by an orthopedic surgeon, had a plaster cast put on, and received medication. My wife has had similar experiences.
A number of years ago a Canadian friend visited us in Oaxaca, and was confident enough in the private medical system that she had a facelift performed by one of the top cosmetic plastic surgeons in the country, Cesár Mayoral. Mexicans from all corners of the country have come to Oaxaca for this type of procedure.
House guests at our B & B, including my mother, have had emergency treatment performed after slip and fall accidents, and have only praised the attention and treatment received using one of the many private hospitals in downtown Oaxaca.
Regarding dental treatment, as with the private medical system it’s a matter of tapping one’s social networks developed over a period of time. The list is comprised of go-to specialists such as for general dental treatment and both periodontal and endodontal work. My wife has had extensive dental surgery performed using all three classes of dentist, and I regularly attend a generalist and have had root canals done in Oaxaca. My brother is a Canadian dentist. He has reviewed proposed treatment plans by Oaxacan dental professionals and has encouraged us to proceed with all recommended procedures.
Safety in Oaxaca
Perceived threats to safety and security in Mexico have been the biggest impediments to more significant increases in number of expats electing to reside in the country. And for close to a decade Oaxaca has been a hot locale for journalists to document, mainly in the American media. However, even during the six months of social unrest back in 2006, not a single expat resident or tourist was either targeted or injured, except for one American who elected to walk alongside and video a march and was inadvertently subjected to tear gas; he shrugged it off when subsequently questioned by a reporter working for one of Oaxaca’s dailies. If my wife and I had felt insecure or threatened during 2006, we would have hightailed it back to Toronto.
In recent years the travel advisories and warnings issued by the US state department have more or less accurately portrayed the issue of cities, states and regions where drug-related violence has been commonplace. Essentially, border towns, a couple of coastal areas and specific other locations and cities have been noted. Oaxaca has not been amongst any of them.
Those prospective migrants to Mexico who have a preconceived idea about the issue of safety and security in the country can only be encouraged to take media reports with a grain of salt, and seek the opinion of expats who live in a particular city. I for one feel much safer walking around any part of the city of Oaxaca late at night than I would in many neighborhoods in L.A., New York, Chicago, Toronto or Vancouver.
Oaxacans As A People: Enough of a Reason to Consider the City
We were not looking for a place to retire in Mexico, or anywhere else for that matter. As the introductory paragraph suggests, I was more than happy residing in Toronto. After our first visit as a couple in 1991, and until the permanent move in 2004, we vacationed exclusively in Oaxaca. In those 13 intervening years it was the residents of Oaxaca, and the relationships we had established with both urbanites and rural folk, which kept drawing us back. We didn’t choose early retirement, or Oaxaca. Oaxaca chose us. The allure was just too hard to resist.
Alvin Starkman operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.casamachaya.com) with his wife Arlene, and Oaxaca Culinary Tours (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com) with Chef Pilar Cabrera. Alvin is a mezcal and pulque aficionado (http://www.oaxaca-mezcal.com), and taking visitors to the region to visit and learn from quaint, untouristy mezcal distilleries. He also assists travelers to the city to plan their vacations.