The LA Times published an inflammatory article about Americans who are “flooding” Mexico City and annoying the locals. This story has since been proven to be full of misinformation, but it’s fair to say that Americans and other foreigners are having an impact here. We have some thoughts.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s interesting how much can change in just one year. But it’s even more interesting when you can precisely document when and how that change occurred. Which is what I just did.
2021 has been a whirlwind. In January, Stephanie and I stayed at an Airbnb in Roma Norte for two and a half weeks, and we visited several of the top neighborhoods in Mexico City with an eye toward future visits. Then, on the last day of our trip, our lives changed: we walked around the corner, saw that the apartment building there was having an open house, and we toured two of the apartments. Then, we flew home, and, within days, we hired someone to represent us there, indicated to the owners that we wanted to purchase a specific apartment, and put down a small deposit. Within a month, we had returned to Mexico City to make a down payment. And then a month and a half later we came back again and closed the transaction. We got the keys that night and started furnishing the apartment. In the span of four months, we went from thinking about spending more time in Mexico City in the future to owning a place.
But we did put ourselves in a position to do this. And we did so the same way we always do things when it comes to planning for the future. It starts with a nudge, some communication from the outside world that causes me to do a bit of research. That research can last hours, days, or weeks, but it usually ends in defeat because it will turn up some information that proves to me that this isn’t the right direction for us. But sometimes that research changes things, and I’ll discuss it with Stephanie. And, if it’s important or good enough, perhaps share with her the newsletter, article, book, video, or whatever it was that sent me—and now us—down this new path.
And that’s what happened with Mexico. In my mind, it all started in early 2021 when something caused me to begin researching Mexico. By this point, we had lived through about a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we believed that we’d be able to travel again that year. And thanks to that pandemic, we had been reassessing things, and thinking about moving forward with some long-discussed but vague plans to start splitting our time between the U.S. and some international destination. Maybe Mexico—a place we had visited but didn’t think much of—could be that place.
“You’re going to think this is crazy,” I recall telling Stephanie once I had done a bit of research. “But I think we need to look into Mexico for the future.” She gave me that look that many Americans give you when you tell them you want to spend time in Mexico. That “are you nuts?” look. “I know,” I continued. “Let me explain.”
And I did explain. And we did visit Mexico in 2021, twice. Once in June, when we stuck to Mexico City for about a week. And once in August, when we came for two weeks and visited San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, and Mexico City; the kids joined us for the second of those two weeks, in Mexico City. And then we returned again in January 2021 for two and a half weeks. And … well, you know. Our lives changed.
Probably because of this strange and sudden turn of events, I’ve been wondering lately exactly how we got here. That is, what specifically triggered the research that led to the trips that led to the purchasing of an apartment? How did this happen?
And I figured there was no real way to find out. As noted above, I know that I started researching Mexico in early 2021. But I wondered when. And why.
In January 2022, Stephanie and I visited Mexico City for two-and-a-half weeks with one primary goal in mind: find the colonia, or neighborhood, in the city that we would use as a base for future trips. We were pretty sure that Mexico City was the place, so to speak. But we had come up empty on our previous trips—-in June and August 2021, respectively—in part because we had stayed in Centro, the historic center of Mexico City. And so this trip would be different: we had found a terrific Airbnb that was located in one of the more desirable and expat-friendly colonias, Roma Norte.
We told very few people what we were doing. And I’m honestly surprised that only one person asked what the heck we were doing when we started posting photos from the trip to Instagram and Facebook. Sure, there were occasional visits to tourist destinations, and the requisite street food and restaurant meal photos. But our trip must have been puzzling to our friends and family, as most of the pictures were of neighborhood walks from all over the city. Clearly, we were doing research.
It didn’t take us long to realize that Roma Norte was it, but we didn’t voice this to each other until it was time to book a second side-trip outside of Mexico City. We had spent a long weekend in Puebla earlier in the trip and had rough plans to visit Queretaro in a similar manner. But when Stephanie brought this up, I dug in my heels. “I kind of just want to stay here,” I said, noting that we had already found several great restaurants and enjoyed walking the safe streets of Roma Norte at night. Why even leave?
Steph agreed, and that was that. Roma Norte would be our home away from home when we visited Mexico City in the future, and we’d use that as a base to explore the rest of the city, and country. Had that been all we accomplished on that trip, I would have considered it a win, given our past inability to find the right neighborhood. But then it happened.
On our last day in Mexico City on that trip, we had headed over to the airport in the morning to get the COVID tests we’d need to return to the United States. (On previous trips, we’d gotten tested at a hotel, but the airport was less expensive. And we discovered on subsequent trips that there are local places in Roma Norte that are even less expensive.)
After that was done and we had returned to the Airbnb, we weren’t feeling particularly energic, so I offered up an idea: let’s walk down the street and visit the one real estate agency we’d seen in the entire city—they seem to be rare in Mexico City—and find out what we needed to do first should we want to rent or buy an apartment. At that time, this was something that was going to happen down the road, maybe years down the road. But it wouldn’t hurt to get started down that path.
She thought this was a fine idea, so we exited the Airbnb, walked the half-block down to the road where we’d seen the real estate office, and turned the corner. And that’s when our life changed.
The new apartment building on the corner was having an open house. We had walked by this apartment building dozens of times in the past few weeks, but we hadn’t even realized that it wasn’t fully occupied. In fact, the only thing I had remembered about it was that the front stairs seemed kind of steep. But the older gentlemen we met outside—he spoke almost no English, and we spoke only a little Spanish—indicated that we could come inside and take a look. And so we did.
The building consists of 11 apartments, with two towers of 6 stories each, and it had only recently been completed, we learned. In the ground floor office, which would eventually be rented as an apartment, we viewed a model of the building, and the gentlemen, Mauricio, handed me a price sheet listing the available departamentos (apartments). All of them seemed affordable to us, in the $235,000 to $280,000 range, save the penthouse, which occupies the top two floors of one of the towers and has its own rooftop terrace and costs about $485,000. We were never going to buy the penthouse, but he took us there first.
It blew us away. Of course it did. Its rooftop terrace, in particular, is amazing and it offers a panoramic view of the Reforma skyline. It also looks down on the building in which our Airbnb was, and so we took a few pictures of both the skyline and the Airbnb from this unusual vantage point.
I turned to Mauricio and explained, haltingly, that the penthouse was too expensive. Scanning the price sheet he had handed me, I pointed at #601, the only apartment on the sixth floor of the other tower. That one was listed at $280,000, which was a bit more than we wanted to spend, and we weren’t ready to buy anyway. But it would be interesting to see an apartment—a new apartment—in Mexico City that was at least in our price range. Could we see that one?
Of course we could. Mauricio took us over to #601 and let us into the unit. Like the penthouse, it was completely empty, but this one is on one floor, and is smaller, at about 750 square feet. There are two bedrooms, two bathrooms (one off the main bedroom), a large living space with a kitchen area in the corner, a washroom with room for laundry, and a large balcony. We stepped out onto the balcony, which faces south and offers views of buildings and mountains to the southwest. Gorgeous.
Then we walked back down to the temporary office, and my mind was racing. We were absolutely not ready, and I figured we’d plan future trips where we would visit more areas, stay in more Airbnbs, and get a better feel for the neighborhood. Longer term, I thought we would rent first and maybe buy only after were absolutely sure what we wanted to do. But this apartment had thrown a wrench into my brain. Surely my wife would explain, logically, that it was too soon. That we needed to see other places. That we needed more time.
And then we thanked Mauricio, exchanged WhatsApp numbers, and stepped down those really steep front stairs and into the Mexico sunshine. I felt like I had been hit by a bus. And so I asked Stephanie, the voice of wisdom and rationality, what we were going to do next.
“I really want to buy this place,” she said, surprising me. I think she had wanted me to talk her out of it. But I didn’t.
Stephanie and I were in an Uber heading to a meeting in Polanco, and we had turned onto Avenida Paseo de la Reforma, with the Museo Nacional de Antropología on our right and the gigantic Bosque de Chapultepec on the left. I had my window open because it was beautiful outside, as it almost always is in Mexico City. And then I heard it, a crazy siren sound that seemed to rise out of the woods rather than a vehicle.
“That sounds like the siren you hear at the beginning of a movie about a zombie apocalypse,” I joked, “and then it flashes forward to two years later and everyone is dead.”
When we arrived at the office for our meeting, we ended up having to wait for a while, and our attention turned to a TV in the waiting area that was broadcasting news about an earthquake that was happening somewhere in Mexico. We had never been in an earthquake, but we knew they were fairly common in the center of Mexico, and in Mexico City in particular. And so we paid a bit more attention to the news than we might have otherwise. The footage showed people standing outside in the streets, but it didn’t seem like anyone had been hurt or any property had been damaged.
When the other people arrived for the meeting, they pointed to the TV news coverage, and so I asked them if they knew where the earthquake had hit. I didn’t know enough Spanish to understand the location from the TV, but something I had heard made me believe that it had happened in Oaxaca, which isn’t that far from Mexico City. Maybe there would be aftershocks.
That happened here, I was told. It had hit when they were driving to the meeting.
Which meant that it had hit when Stephanie and I were driving to the meeting, in the Uber. And that explained the siren. It was an earthquake warning.
But we hadn’t even felt it.
When I asked about that, I learned that’s the case with most earthquakes. And that when you hear that siren, you should head outside immediately, just in case.
And that was how we experienced our first Mexico City earthquake. Hopefully, they’ll always be that uneventful.
I grew up in a typical middle-class household in the suburbs of Boston and were it not for a quirk of fate, my vacation experiences would have consisted solely of drivable family trips to Cape Cod, New Hampshire, and Maine, with a once-in-a-childhood trip—on a plane, no less—to Disney World.
But what set my family apart from those of my friends was that my stepdad worked for the Federal Deposition Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the curiously-named U.S. government agency tasked with insuring bank deposits. And because of his work-related training requirements, we spent two summers in Washington D.C.
I’m not sure what my brother and sister took away from those trips. We visited all the sights, of course, and we took driving trips to places like Luray Caverns and Virginia Beach. We even saw the Beach Boys perform on the Washington Mall before the 4th of July fireworks from the roof of a federal building one summer. But to me, the star of the show was Washington D.C., the city itself.
On the second of those summer trips, I was old enough to go into D.C. myself on foot. That year we were staying in a hotel in Alexandria, so I would walk from there across the Francis Scott Key Bridge into Georgetown and either explore that area or take the more arduous trek right into D.C. itself, where I could visit some of the best museums in the world for free.
It was on those solo walking visits into D.C. that I got the bug. The travel bug. The insatiable desire to explore new and different places, to extend my understanding of the world beyond the confines imposed by my unadventurous parents. Those D.C. trips were eye-opening in every way, but on a very basic level, they exposed me to the notion that there is an entire world out there occurring without my knowledge, and that much of it is beautiful and interesting.
In an odd coincidence, my birth father reached out to my mother shortly after that second D.C. trip and asked if he could meet me. My parents had divorced when I was three, which I knew, but he had remarried and had had three daughters, and they had moved out west in the late 1970s, first to Phoenix, Arizona, and then to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for work. Long story short, we did meet, and then I headed out to Albuquerque to meet my other family and explore the American Southwest.
Without getting into the pros and cons of discovering you have another family as a teenager, this experience opened me up to further worlds of which I’d never dreamed. My father was affluent, drove luxury cars, and had traveled all over the world, especially to Europe. Was, in other words, nothing at all like the family I had grown up with.
The Southwest, too, was fascinating, an alien world that I couldn’t get enough of. On my first trip there, my father drove me around the Four Corners area, visiting places like Durango and Mesa Verde, Colorado, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the Green River in Utah, and of course various places in New Mexico like Acoma, Santa Fe, Taos, and the ghost towns north of Albuquerque. I couldn’t get enough and I returned again and again.
Looking back on these formative travel experiences, I now realize that I was developing patterns I’d repeat as an adult. When I found a place I liked, I wanted to visit it repeatedly, and I would do so whenever possible, seeing and learning more each time. And I could suddenly consider living in these places, too. Each destination was a potential home, and I analyzed each with that possibility in mind.
By the time I met Stephanie, I had lived in Albuquerque with my father’s family, first for a summer and then for a year, and I wanted to move out west after we got married. And we did so, three years later, moving to the Phoenix area after showing my wife each of the Four Corners states to determine if she liked any place enough to live there. Our son was born there five years after we moved.
Interestingly, my birth father had moved to London around the time Steph and I were married, and thanks to him paying for our flights and giving us a place to stay, we were able to visit London and various nearby places in England on one trip and then expand out to Ireland and Paris, France on a second. These were trips we could have never afforded otherwise at the time, and thus would never have even considered. But here again, I could feel the bug.
And yet another world had opened up to us. And while it would be several years before we returned to Europe—two kids and us moving back to the Boston area would happen in the meantime—once we did return, in 2003, we spent about a month there every year for the next 15+ years between summer home swaps and smaller trips with the kids or just the two of us.
Our experiences were almost universally positive, and we fell in love with Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Lisbon, especially, visiting each several times, especially Paris, a place I now know as well as Washington D.C. or any of the places we’ve actually lived. And thanks to us working from home for many years—I’ve been doing so since the mid-1990s—we had long looked forward to a future when we could split our time between two places. One international, of course, somewhere in Europe, probably, and one back home in the U.S.
That time is rapidly approaching: our son has finished college and our daughter is halfway done and is already spending her summers elsewhere. But thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, which made travel to Europe difficult to impossible in 2021, we researched other trips that were more accessible at that time. And that’s when Mexico—more specifically, Mexico City—came up again and again. Not just as an interesting place to visit. But as a potential place to live.
We had never really considered Mexico, having visited some border towns and then Cancun, neither of which left a positive impression. And so the possibility of visiting and even living in Mexico came out of nowhere, a set of events about which we’ll write more later. But the short version is that we’ve now spent over two months in Mexico, most of it in Mexico City, in just the past year. We’ve spent much of our time in Mexico City scoping out different areas, reconnoitering, basically, to see if any felt like they would warrant more time, or made sense as a potential home, part-time at first.
By our third trip, in January 2022, we succumbed to a decision that we had thought might still be years away. We had fallen in love with the Roma Norte neighborhood. We wanted to keep spending time there. And we would, most likely via some series of Airbnb stays or perhaps longer-term rentals over time. But then, on the last day of that trip, we walked out of the Airbnb we were staying in at the time, walked around the corner, and unexpectedly found a home, scrambling whatever plans we had made to that point and instantly changing everything.
We’ll get to all that soon enough. But this is how it all started, with a love of travel, a seed that was planted at an early age. And it’s like we’ve been training for this moment ever since.