Why Mexico?

The most common question we get from friends, family, and strangers about our new focus on Mexico is why? This has been phrased ambiguously, or even politely. But with a few close friends, it was blunter and more forthright. Are you crazy?

We’re not crazy. But it should come as no surprise, especially by Americans, that Mexico is misunderstood: Mass media and our government both portray Mexico as some kind of Narco-controlled hellhole. If the U.S. State Department were to cast the same critical lens at the United States, with routine mass shootings, even of children, it would recommend that no one visit that country too. But maybe we can arrive at some less sensational middle ground. There are dangerous places everywhere. And we avoid those places, whether they’re in Baltimore, Detroit, or New York City. Or Mexico.

Photoshoot in San Miguel de Allende

But this isn’t about places to avoid. It’s about why we pivoted away from Europe after visiting there for at least one month a year for over 15 years. It’s about why we turned to Mexico. And not just Mexico, but Mexico City specifically. And not just Mexico City, but a specific part of Mexico City, the colonia of Roma Norte. And, I suppose, the apartment we chose, with its nearly perfect location.

This is a complicated story. It’s complicated enough that it will require multiple articles, and multiple videos for that matter. But what I’ll do here is lay out the high-level overview. And then Stephanie and I can expand on this later, over time. And it goes something like this.

Zocalo, Mexico City

I’ve been working from home since the mid-1990s, and my wife joined me over 20 years ago. We’re both writers, and remote workers, and have enjoyed the freedom of working from anywhere for much of our adult lives. But our children kept us rooted in the same home for 15 years: they had friends, and school, and activities, and we didn’t selfishly move around when they were growing up.

We did, however, travel. In 2003, Stephanie and I returned to Europe for the first time in over a decade, and the kids stayed with their grandparents as we toured southern Germany for about 10 days. We then visited Paris in late 2005 and early 2006 thanks to some unbelievable cheap airline sticks. And then we started taking the kids to Europe every summer, starting in 2006, usually for three weeks at a time. We also visited Europe at other times each year, sometimes just the two of us, and sometimes with the kids. We were “the family that travels,” as our daughter Kelly described it early on.

Hot air balloons over Teotihuacán

During this time, Stephanie and I started thinking about a future in which we’d split our time between the U.S. in Europe. This time was always vague, in the distance, and so we never really worked out the details about how that would work, or how we’d even afford it. Maybe there would be more home swaps, at different times of the year, once the kid’s school schedules were no longer the deciding factor. Maybe we could house-sit. Or something.

We loved Europe, and still do, but over time it became obvious that it wasn’t necessarily perfect. The weather in most of western Europe is as extreme as it is in the northeast United States, where we live, with very cold, dark, and often snowy winters, and very hot and humid summers. Ideally, we would split time such that we would avoid the worst weather anywhere. But the bad times in Europe, weather-wise, are the same as they are in our part of the U.S.

Condesa in Mexico City

This problem was driven home in the winter of 2015, when we had over six feet of snow on the ground and the relentless back-to-back snowstorms were so bad that we had to replace our house’s roof and windows that Spring. I had had enough, and I began thinking about how I could orchestrate a future in which I never had to experience a winter like that ever again.

We took a baby step towards that future in 2017 when we moved from the Boston, Massachusetts area to the slightly milder Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania. By that time, our son Mark was already in college and Kelly was about to finish her first year of high school. I would never have asked her to move while still in school, but she actually initiated the move, and away we went. This move accomplished a few things. It allowed us to financially downsize. It gave us an extra three weeks of Spring and an extra three weeks of Fall, making winters a bit more bearable. And, most important, it proved that this future we had been thinking about was obtainable: moving out of a house you’ve been in for 15 years is daunting, but we went from decision to move in less than four months. I’m still really proud of that.

Cacti, Zocalo, Mexico City

A few big changes have occurred since we moved to Pennsylvania. First, Kelly graduated from high school and is now in college herself. Mark, our son, has graduated from college, and he lives in Rochester, New York. And the pandemic hit in 2020, ending our annual home swap streak and, worse, any chance of traveling to Europe. And about two decades of regular international travel, 2020 was like getting hit with a brick.

By early 2021, vaccines had arrived and travel was slowly opening up again and so I naturally started researching what we might be able to do. Europe was out of the question, unfortunately. Though it looked like we would be able to go there, we wouldn’t be able to resume home swaps because it looked like the United States wouldn’t allow Europeans into our country. We had contingency plans for a home swap with our friends near Amsterdam, but as the year wore on, it became obvious that would never happen.

Street food in Mexico City: Los Cocuyos

Mexico was among the places I began researching in early 2021. (I also looked at Puerto Rico and Lisbon/Portugal) I wrote about that process in The nudge, but the most interesting thing about Mexico, to me, was that this was a place we had never really considered. We had visited the country two or three times, most recently in Cancun with the kids, but there wasn’t anything particularly compelling about the country.

The thing is, we had only visited places on Mexico’s border with the U.S. or, in the case of Cancun, its coastline. And while neither appealed to us, there’s a lot more to this country, as I discovered in early 2021. And the more I looked at it, the more I realized that Mexico had a lot of the same qualities that we liked about Europe. And, intriguingly, a lot of advantages that Europe lacks.

Rainbow over Mexico City

As with Europe, Mexico offers great diversity, with wonderful urban, suburban, rural, and wilderness areas to explore. It has an incredible food scene that is nothing like the sad “Mexican food” we see in most of the United States. It has a rich history and incredible culture. And there is a surmountable level of difficulty, enough of a difference to our home to make it interesting but not so different that it’s off-putting or difficult to manage.

But Mexico’s advantages over Europe are perhaps more interesting. Where Europe is mostly expensive, Mexico is affordable. Where Europe requires tiring overnight flights spanning 5 or 6 time zones and often with two legs or more, Mexico is an easy 4-to-5 hour non-stop day flight away with just a single time zone change from the U.S. east coast. The climate of the interior of Mexico is consistently mild, with little variation between the seasons, the inspiration for the phrase “eternal Spring,” and a sharp contrast to most of Europe. And the people are universally friendly and accommodating to those from the United States and elsewhere, something we’ve certainly experienced in Europe, but not universally.

Alameda Central, Mexico City

In researching Mexico, I quickly realized that we’d probably want to focus on Mexico City because of its accessibility. It’s the biggest city in the country and has the biggest airport with the most non-stop flights from the U.S. It’s also centrally located, and an ideal base from which to explore the rest of the country. But we still tested this theory when we visited Mexico in 2021 and 2022 by visiting other places, like San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, and Puebla. Each was interesting in its own right, but also remote, and this only reinforced my preference for Mexico City.

As for Roma Norte, that came out of our January 2022 trip, when we spent two and a half weeks in Mexico City with the specific goal of finding one or colonias—or neighborhoods—on which to focus in the future. We visited several, but Roma Norte—where our Airbnb was located—was by far our favorite. And when the time came for a side trip to Queretaro, I suggested that we simply stay in Roma Norte, and Stephanie agreed. We had found the location we liked and didn’t want to leave.

Tacos from Los Cocuyos

Mexico isn’t perfect, and neither is Mexico City. There is incredible poverty there, and it can be right in your face. And Mexico City is a big city—the biggest city in North America, and bigger than any city in Europe—and it can be loud. Spanish is a requirement, and anyone who believes that they can simply get by speaking English, even in a friendly area like Roma Norte, is out of their minds. We are learning.

But when I compare Mexico City—and Roma Norte in particular—to any place in Europe, it’s clear we made the right decision. We still love Europe, and we hope to visit again and again in the future. But the advantages of Mexico are real, and the disadvantages are surmountable. Roma Norte, for example, is a very safe and relatively quiet oasis in the sea of noise that can be Mexico City. And for now, at least, it seems like we’ve found that place and are setting ourselves up for that future we always envisioned.

We’ll dive deeper into the pros and cons soon.

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