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Affordable Living in Mexico Attracts American Retirees: Embracing a New Immigrant Experience

Don’t refer to Jym Varnadore as an ex-patriate.

Indeed, Jym and his wife, Renee Varnadore, have chosen to reside overseas. However, their decision to leave the United States was driven by a pursuit of a quality of life that they felt was unattainable within the country’s borders. Presently, they are gradually establishing roots in the serene surroundings of Rosarito Beach.

Their cozy condo, tailored for two, boasts intimate spaces complemented by luxurious amenities such as a spacious bathtub equipped with jacuzzi jets. The balcony offers a breathtaking panorama of the boundless ocean extending to the horizon—a sight synonymous with opulence for millionaires and billionaires in the US, yet accessible in their new abode.

“We are immigrants. To label us otherwise would be misleading,” Jym asserted. “When I made the conscious choice to relocate from the US, I did so fully embracing the identity of an immigrant.”

While the Varnadores’ decision to settle in a new locale was deliberate, their departure from San Diego was more of a necessity. Jym’s realization dawned as he assessed his 401(k) and social security amidst biweekly bill payments, discovering a stark reality—post-retirement, affording both groceries and their condo mortgage simultaneously would be unfeasible.

This awakening coincided with the tumultuous 2016 presidential election, which had already been a source of concern for Jym. However, when he broached the subject with Renee, the primary focus was on financial planning.

Presented with two options—lowering their standard of living significantly in San Diego or departing from Renee’s lifelong residence—they chose the latter without hesitation.

“We’re making the move,” Renee affirmed resolutely.

Their quest for a new home led them on a search across various US regions, contemplating Oregon, northern California, or Seattle. Renee meticulously researched real estate prices online, followed by personal visits to promising locations. Even Hawaii, despite its allure, proved financially comparable to their expenses in San Diego, negating its appeal.

Older white couple sit together in an armchair in a tidy, spare room, smiling, she holding a cat.

One day, Renee approached Jym disheartened. The affordable long-term options within the US were plagued by unfavorable weather, political climates, or, in her perception, a lack of cultural vibrancy.

Thus, the time had come to broaden their horizons beyond the constraints of the US. Subsequently, their gaze turned southward.

San Diego’s reputation for draining its residents’ finances remains prominent, consistently ranking among the US cities with exorbitant housing costs. Amidst a housing shortage and diminishing governmental support, the average home value in this Southern California hub has soared to nearly $1 million.

Renters in the region must allocate nearly three times the city’s minimum wage solely for monthly rent, while approximately a third of homeowners teeter on or surpass the federal threshold for cost-burdened households, spending 30% or more of their income on housing expenses.

Similar housing challenges pervade the US landscape. Nearly half of Americans identify the lack of affordable housing as a significant issue in their communities. Despite economic downturns, the cost of single-family homes has surged in recent years, transforming basic shelter into a luxury nationwide.

The scarcity of viable housing options underscores the widening wealth gap, with nearly one in ten individuals from families earning less than $100,000 unable to secure essential needs due to financial constraints. Additionally, healthcare expenses have skyrocketed in the US compared to other developed nations, exacerbating the financial strain on the aging population, a substantial demographic segment. A significant portion of individuals nearing retirement age lack any savings in their retirement accounts, rendering them economically insecure. This systemic inadequacy disproportionately affects marginalized groups, including Black, Latino, lower-income, and non-college-educated Americans, highlighting the flawed retirement system’s inequities.

Burdened by financial obligations such as student loans and medical bills, some individuals have resigned themselves to the grim reality that the absence of safety nets in the US necessitates working until their final days.

For those with the autonomy to choose an alternative path, the prospect of a bleak future has instigated a quest for security and opportunity elsewhere. While this journey may entail bureaucratic complexities and cultural adjustments, the pursuit of a more stable and fulfilling life beyond US borders holds promise.

The Contreras family’s residence in Baja California, Mexico, evokes awe from visitors. The expansive deck offers an unparalleled view of the Pacific Ocean, with azure waters stretching to the horizon and waves crashing below—a scene reminiscent of paradise.

“We are incredibly fortunate. This is truly a blessing,” remarked Mary Contreras from their meticulously adorned living space.

Surrounded by tranquility and vast natural beauty, one would find it challenging to envision a more idyllic setting. Despite their deep-rooted connections in the US—Mary’s background in education and Chuck’s involvement in a non-profit providing assistance dogs—the transition to full-time residency in Mexico was unforeseen. Having resided in Carlsbad, California, for almost thirty years, the decision to relocate posed profound questions about their past life and the uncertainties of the future.

A sandy beach with dozens of people sitting or walking along it, a pink towel, and someone playing a standup bass.

After a fulfilling career dedicated to assisting others, Chuck aspired to retire before turning 60. However, relying solely on Mary’s income in an economy that undervalued her contributions as an educator made it impractical to sustain their lifestyle in a community where she had positively impacted numerous families as a teacher and principal.

“The realization that I could no longer afford to live there, despite a lifetime of hard work, was profoundly disheartening,” Mary expressed.

“I am immensely grateful and content with our life here,” she acknowledged about their new chapter in Mexico. “I cherish this experience. However, there are moments when I reflect on the life we had back in the US, and I can’t help but feel a sense of loss.”

Similarly, Renee’s teaching career in California, coupled with Jym’s military background and naval intelligence service, painted a picture of fulfilled professional lives in the US. Jym’s naval experience resonated deeply with him, influencing his affinity for the ocean. Upon encountering a spacious ocean-facing apartment in Mexico at a fraction of their San Diego condo’s cost, the allure was irresistible. Promptly, he turned to Renee, expressing his readiness to embrace this new chapter.

“This environment resonates with me on a profound level. People have composed songs about such experiences—’The sea runs through my veins. It’s a tradition I uphold.’ It’s not just a sentiment; it’s a reality,” Jym reflected.

For Renee, the decision to relocate to Rosarito Beach posed challenges. Her prior encounters with Mexico were marred by unfavorable experiences, including a problematic family vacation and discomfort during visits to Tijuana for orthodontic treatments as a teenager. The juxtaposition of dilapidated structures alongside luxury high-rises in Rosarito initially unsettled her.

Nonetheless, Renee gradually embraced Rosarito’s compassionate approach to societal issues, notably homelessness. The respectful treatment of unhoused individuals contrasted with the harsher methods prevalent in San Diego, fostering a sense of community care that resonated with her. Engaging with  An older white woman dressed in bright blue looks into her purse among colorful flowers in buckets.

English-language newspapers like shed light on the region’s proactive community initiatives, shaping her evolving perspective.

Once the Varnadores committed to their decision, the process of preparing their San Diego home for sale took approximately two weeks, attracting multiple offers within a week. As they organized a garage sale to part with their belongings, Renee’s emotional response underscored the emotional weight of bidding farewell to their former life.

Approximately six months into their Mexican sojourn, the transformative power of daily beach walks and the soothing ocean waves catalyzed a profound internal healing process for Renee.

En route to the San Ysidro land port of entry bridging Tijuana and southern California, English billboards tout beachfront properties and luxury accommodations. Messages like “Own the dream in Baja” and “Starting at 347 K” cater to a middle-class American audience, enticing them with the allure of a new American dream in Mexico—an opportunity for property ownership, weekend getaways, and potentially retirement, all at a more affordable cost. Pura vida.

A view from a car of roadside billboards rising from a grassy verge.

The prospect of relocating to another country, leaving behind one’s birthplace, friends, and family, elicits mixed emotions and uncertainties, as articulated by Chuck Contreras.

“The transition is daunting. Moving to a new country entails significant changes and challenges. Leaving behind familiar surroundings and loved ones is indeed a formidable task,” Chuck acknowledged. “Yet, endeavors that hold true value often demand courage and resilience.”

While much attention has been focused on northbound migration across the Mexico-US border, the reverse flow of individuals relocating southwards has garnered less scrutiny. However, this migration pattern reveals a historical narrative that underscores both the US’s shortcomings and the appeal of alternative destinations.

Preceding the Civil War, individuals sought refuge from enslavement in Mexico. Post-World War II, Americans migrated to Mexico in pursuit of a “GI paradise.” During the Cold War, political dissidents found sanctuary in Mexico to evade persecution under McCarthyism.

Beyond these historical contexts, Americans have frequently sought better quality of life and affordability in Mexico while remaining proximate to the US, enabling them to enjoy oceanfront views at a fraction of the cost and visit family across the border effortlessly. Particularly in the post-pandemic era, the surge in remote work has prompted younger US professionals to flock to popular Mexican cities like Mexico City, occasionally leading to tensions with locals who perceive them as gentrifiers capitalizing on Mexico’s lower living expenses for recreational pursuits.

Irrespective of their motivations, American expatriates face legal obligations and cultural adjustments when relocating to Mexico. Both the Varnadores and the Contrerases navigated Mexico’s immigration laws diligently, albeit encountering administrative complexities in establishing their lives lawfully in Rosarito Beach. The stringent economic solvency requirements, necessitating extensive financial documentation to demonstrate stability, pose a significant hurdle for many applicants.

For Americans seeking affordable housing in Baja, where renting an apartment can cost $300 or less, meeting these economic benchmarks proves challenging. Consequently, some individuals opt to overstay tourist visas, mirroring the predicament of undocumented immigrants in the US.

Conversely, Americans with the means and eligibility to pursue legal immigration often opt for alternative routes, a stance that Mary Contreras finds contentious. Adhering to Mexico’s immigration regulations, securing local insurance, and healthcare coverage, the Contreras family is committed to integrating fully into their adopted community.

“We aspire to make Mexico our permanent home. This is not a temporary visit; we are invested in becoming integral members of this community,” Mary affirmed.

During Día de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday honoring departed souls, Jym and Renee construct an altar adorned with cherished memories of their loved ones, including deceased family members and even their beloved pet cat. This ritual holds deep significance for them, symbolizing remembrance and reverence for those who have passed on.

The Contreras family, like many expatriates, blends Mexican traditions with their own cultural practices, striving to learn Spanish and engage meaningfully with the local community. Recognizing the importance of cultural sensitivity, Mary emphasizes the need for collaborative efforts with local organizations to effect positive change without imposing foreign norms.

Two people walk down a quit road alongside teal and read two-story buildings.

Acknowledging past missteps and language barriers, Mary actively engages with non-profits and community leaders to foster mutual understanding and support local initiatives effectively.

“We must approach our involvement with humility and mutual respect, collaborating with the local community rather than dictating solutions from an outsider’s perspective,” Mary emphasized.

While expatriates in Baja celebrate their cultural heritage, traditions like Friendsgiving offer a unique blend of American customs within a Mexican setting. The Contreras family’s Thanksgiving celebration, complete with themed decorations and Chuck’s renowned tacos, exemplifies their adaptation to local customs while cherishing their roots.

Amidst the tapestry of cultural exchange, the sentiment embroidered on a simple pillow resonates deeply with the Contreras family: “I love this place.”