Retirement in Mexico deserves a fresh look

Man sitting in back of sport fishing boat, rear view
Getty ImagesA Pacific coast beach retirement costs much less in Mexico.

By Kathleen Peddicord

Mexico was perhaps the original retire overseas destination for Americans, who have been relocating south of the border in retirement for decades. More than a million American expats and retirees call Mexico home.

In recent years, Mexico has been overshadowed by countries in Central and South America. These other destinations also offer appealing options for a sunny, coastal retirement on a small budget. Mexico has recently suffered some bad press, including the swine flu epidemic of 2009 that fizzled after a few cases and the drug violence in some border cities and beyond that has affected the perception of the entire country.

It's true that some parts of Mexico don't belong on any retire overseas shopping list. However, it's time to take a fresh look at this old favorite. Housing markets in many areas of Mexico are depressed. The great recession took its toll in this country, especially in areas popular as second home markets, many of which still haven't recovered. Mexico isn't the uber-cheap destination it was in the 1950s and 1960s, but it's still a very affordable lifestyle option, especially at the current rate of exchange between the Mexican peso and the U.S. dollar. Today's dollar buys 15.38 pesos, making the cost of living in Mexico cheaper than it's been in a long time for anyone with dollars in his wallet.

%VIRTUAL-WSSCourseInline-459%In addition, Mexico is a culturally familiar neighbor and accessible. Americans can drive back and forth or take a short flight

Mexico is also a big country, offering many diverse retirement lifestyle choices. One particularly appealing coastal retirement option is Mazatlan. This city opened its first tourist hotel and restaurant in 1850 and has been a major international tourist destination since the 1940s. But in the 1970s, Mazatlan began to fall out of favor, as more travelers to Mexico's Pacific coast opted for its cousin city, Puerto Vallarta, some 270 miles to the south.

Mazatlan has undergone a mostly unnoticed resurgence over the past few years. The renaissance has been focused around the city's historic center, a compact, attractive and walkable peninsula. At the heart of this old town is Plaza Machado, which, thanks to the city's ongoing rebirth, is now surrounded by pleasant outdoor cafes and international restaurants. Just off the plaza is Teatro angela Peralta, a beautifully restored theater dating to 1874 and open today for concerts and other performances and live events.

Mazatlan is one long day's drive from the U.S. border. The main attraction is its almost 20 miles of beautiful beaches bordering the deep blue Pacific. These beaches are lined with developed resort infrastructure, including shopping, restaurants and cafes, as well as banks and other commercial establishments necessary for full-time living.

One reason Mazatlan is popular among North Americans is its excellent winter weather. From December through March, daytime temperatures hover in the high 70s, with lows in the low 60s and little to no rain. Between July and October, temperatures average around 90, with most rain falling between July and September.

Mazatlan's got everything a retiree dreaming of a new life on the Pacific coast could hope for. Furthermore, real estate in Mazatlan is a buyer's market, both on the coast and in the historic center of the city.

The closest beach to the Centro Historico is called Olas Altas, which means "high waves," a misnomer as the water here is sheltered and tame. The beach itself is a crescent-shaped, sandy cove about a quarter mile in length. This is lined with cafes, restaurants and a couple of hotels. Bright and early each morning, the tables at these seaside venues fill up with locals and expats who come down for a good cup of coffee and breakfast.

Centro Historico is the real Mexico. The areas around Plaza Machado and Olas Altas beach see their share of tourists, but the rest of Centro Historico is old fashioned and authentic. If a non-touristy Mexican lifestyle appeals to you, this charming neighborhood is worth a look. It's also an interesting choice if you're interested in the idea of buying and restoring a vintage piece of real estate.

At home here, you'd have the best of both old-fashioned coastal Mexico and modern amenities, with an attractive beach nearby. The weather is brilliant, sunny and comfortable during the North American winter, but the city's rental market is active year-round. Invest in a home of your own here, and you could earn cash flow to supplement your retirement income by renting out your place when you're not using it yourself.

At today's exchange rate, you could buy a modern apartment in Centro Historico in a building with a pool and other amenities that's located on the waterfront road with unobstructed views for as little as $220,000.

Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group.