Retirement on the Mexican Riviera

Riviera; the word alone tends to conjure pleasant images of beautiful scenery, of calm serenity or relaxation, even of Paradise. By definition, Riviera is an Italian term originally from the Middle Ages for the coast of Liguria. The two divisions of the original Riviera, both of which border the Ligurian Sea and an arm of the Mediterranean Sea, are the Italian Riviera and the French Riviera. Retirement on either Riviera would be wonderful if you have seriously deep pockets, don’t mind the 10 hour transatlantic flight, and the possible language barrier when you’re there!

Today, the term is more generally applied worldwide to about a dozen warm coastal regions popular with tourists. Mexico is blessed with two such regions; the Riviera Maya and the Mexican Riviera.

The Riviera Maya consists of 80 miles of Caribbean coastline wrapping along the eastern side of the Yucatan Peninsula in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. It includes the resort cities of Isla Mujeres, Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, and Tulum. This region is a terrific area for visiting with its warm weather, sandy beaches, and historic archaeological sites; it may be a different matter when it comes to retirement. The average daily temperature for the “high season” of November through May along the Riviera Maya is 77°F however you can expect an average monthly rainfall during this season in excess of 3 inches. Also, the Yucatan area is threatened by hurricanes off the Caribbean Sea almost every year with Playa del Carmen and Chetumal being virtually wiped out a few years ago and Cancun devastated in 2005. The topography of the entire Yucatan peninsula is essentially flat with elevation variations of less than 500 feet thereby providing no scenic mountainside retirement communities. This flat topography results in the beautiful large beaches and shallow water that attract the younger generation for spring break vacations and other holidays with a very active night life.

The Mexican Riviera consists of more than 1,000 miles of Pacific Ocean coastline on the western side of Mexico stretching all the way from Ensenada in Baja California to Puerto Escondido and Huatulco in the state of Oaxaca. With the Sierra Madre Mountains running virtually the entire distance, this shoreline has to be considered one of the most scenic on the planet. First dubbed the Mexican Riviera by the American cruise industry, today this magnificent shoreline is the fourth most popular cruise destination in the world with approximately 300 cruises annually. The problem is that approximately 90% of this magnificent terrain is classified as ejido land and is not available for purchase by foreigners. This land was given to the Mexican citizens after the Mexican Revolution for the purpose of farming or working and has not yet been regularized or privatized. The small fraction of land that has been privatized lies in and around the resort destinations along the Mexican Riviera where foreigners can purchase property and hold the title, as an escritura, in a 50 year bank trust. Consequently, almost all retirement communities along the Mexican Riviera are located in the cities of Ensenada, Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo, Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo, Acapulco, Puerto Escondido, and Huatulco. For retirement consideration, let’s take a closer look at the resorts along this Riviera.

Located only 70 miles south of the US border, Ensenada, known as the “Cinderella of the Pacific”, is a very convenient drive from most of the western cities in the US and really not that far from western Canada. Ensenada now has a population of 530,000 inhabitants. With beautiful weather and rolling hillsides, the Ensenada area has become world class wine country. Along with the wine industry, Ensenada has a thriving fishing industry, agricultural business, a substantial gravel mining industry, six major maquiladora parks, and of course tourism. The only deep water port in Baja California is located in Ensenada and therefore global shipping of products manufactured in the area is another main source of revenue. The greater Ensenada area is quite large and basically flat with mountains generally in the background surrounding the city. Therefore, most retirees reside in communities lacking hillside views or are in beachfront condominiums. Because the region is more industrial than tourist based, the cost of living is quite attractive in the Ensenada area.

Mazatlan, the “Pearl of the Pacific”, has more than 650,000 inhabitants and is one of the largest working ports in Mexico. Fishing, agriculture, cotton textile spinning and weaving, sugar refining, breweries, coffee roasting plants, etc. are located in Mazatlan. Approximately 300 miles south of Mazatlan is Manzanillo, the “Sailfish Capital of the World”. It is substantially smaller than the other industrial cities on the western coast of Mexico; however it has become Mexico’s busiest port with a huge volume of containerized freight. Both Mazatlan and Manzanillo rely heavily on industry and much less on tourism. Both of these industrial cities have fine beaches, fine weather, reasonable costs of living, and facilities catering to tourists and retirees.

Acapulco is the largest city on the Mexican Riviera with a population of approximately 700,000 people. Due to its easy access from Mexico City, Acapulco was the first resort city to be built along the Mexican Riviera. This popular resort destination offers scenic terrain, beautiful beaches, warm climate, and all the amenities that any tourist would desire. It grew so rapidly that the infrastructure was unable to handle the population; consequently during the past decade the authorities in Acapulco have tried to upgrade the infrastructure, clean up the city and beaches, and return it to world class resort status.

Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo (Ixtapa is actually the resort area where the retirees are located), Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Escondido, and Huatulco are much smaller cities, each having populations of of to 80,000 people; Puerto Escondido and Huatulco, much less. These relatively new resort cities are built around fabulous beaches with magnificent surrounding mountainous terrain. They each have beautiful golf courses and other tourist related activities. They all have modern cruise boat terminals and “international” airports with 2-6 international flights daily. Being strictly resort areas, there are virtually no other industries and therefore most of the local citizens speak some degree of English. Since these resort areas are still quite young and relatively small, some of the amenities that retirees are accustomed to might be lacking. Having small North American communities may offer benefits to some and drawbacks to others. The cost of living in these relatively remote areas may be somewhat higher than in the more accessible, further developed areas.

The last and probably the most popular resort destination, located in the center of the Mexican Riviera, is Puerto Vallarta with a population of 430,000 residents; home of nearly 50,000 North Americans. Puerto Vallarta has easy access from Guadalajara, has direct flights from about 35 cities in the US and Canada, more than 50 international flights daily from the US and Canada (more than all the rest of the Mexican Riviera cities combined), and has a Maritime Terminal that was recently upgraded and tripled in size in order to accommodate three large cruise boats simultaneously.

Puerto Vallarta is situated on the shoreline of the 25 mile diameter Banderas Bay which is surrounded by the Sierra Madre Mountains. There are approximately 35 miles of coastal land, much of which has very scenic adjacent hillside property that has been privatized for foreign purchase. Retirement property ranges from beachfront condominium towers to mountainside villas, all of which have panoramic views of the city, the Pacific Ocean, and the Sierra Madres with their native fauna and flora.

This city of 430,000 inhabitants is large enough to support the “big box” stores such as Sam’s Club, Super Wal-Mart, Costco, Home Depot, Office Depot, Office Max, etc. as well as many other mega modern supermarkets. High speed internet, VoIP telephone service, fiber optics, satellite TV, and all the other modern amenities are available in PV. Four new modern hospitals with sophisticated equipment and highly trained doctors are now in Vallarta as are a number of modern dental clinics. The area has always had world class sport fishing and now boasts more than a dozen magnificent signature golf courses, a new convention center, botanical gardens, new parks, and numerous sites to visit. Since Vallarta’s only industry is tourism, communications are never a barrier.

The cost of living in Vallarta is about average for the Mexican Riviera but a fraction of that in Pebble Beach where the scenery might be comparable but the climate is not! Being on the same latitude as Maui, Hawaii, the average daily temperature in Vallarta during the winter months of November through May is 73°F with virtually no chance of rain; i.e., the weather is perfect for whatever activity pleases you and every activity imaginable is available!

As you can readily see, there’s a reason for Puerto Vallarta’s popularity; it basically has it all! So, whether you arrive via one of the 300 Mexican Riviera cruises or by one of the 50 daily flights, you really ought to consider Puerto Vallarta on the Mexican Riviera for your retirement residence. After all, not only is it a short 2-4 hours away but it’s probably the only Riviera you’ll ever be able to afford, except perhaps your dad’s old Buick!