Random thoughts on living in La Paz

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Now that we’ve settled in in La Paz for over two weeks, I thought I’d share some random observations and thoughts with you.  I’ve learned it takes at least two weeks before you stop feeling like a tourist and more like a temporary resident.

Weather – currently very nice. When we arrived, day time temps were in the 90’s, cooling into the 60’s at night.  No need for AC at night.  It’s actually cooled down over the last week to the 70’s or 80’s in the day and into the low 60’s or high 50’s at night.  Typically in the afternoons, a steady breeze rustles through the palm trees and it quickly cools down.   I sleep with the windows open and actually need more than one blanket.  I’ve been told the hot weather we initially experienced was atypical of late March early April, and what we have now is much more typical.  It will steadily heat up again in the day time and by May we will need AC, even at night.  No rain likely for the remainder of our stay (late May).  Water temps are still too cold to comfortably swim except in the shallowest of beaches.

Dust everywhere  This is the desert and there hasn’t been any rain since we cross Mexico in late March.  Main roads are paved, but even just a few blocks from a main road the road becomes dirt.  We are staying in a very nice neighborhood but even though it’s only two blocks from the main thoroughfare through town, the road is dusty dirt.  We found a great hand-wash a few blocks away for about $6.50 the car is spotless and shiny inside out; but within a block after we leave, it’s dirty again. 

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Driving The Baja California Sur drivers are not particularly bad, compared to those in some countries I’ve been to (e.g. Italy, the Philippines, Egypt).  They are not overly aggressive and rarely honk their horns.  They tend to stay on their side of the road and don’t cut you off.  They do practice the so-called Baja California rolling stop.  There are stop signs everywhere, sometimes misplaced 20 yards back from the intersection, or not at an intersection at all (even though they say “4 altos”), or on the wrong side of the street.  We have learned that stop signs are merely a “suggestion.”  If someone stops at a stop sign, he/she is probably a gringo/gringa.  Pazcenos just roll slowly through a controlled intersection and maybe will yield the right of way to whomever gets there first.   There are also plenty of speed bumps or fake bumps painted in the road to make you slow down. some are wickedly high and you have to take them at an angle about 2 mph or you will knock your muffler off. There are many one-way streets, not always marked that way, you have to check which way the cars are parked and whether there are any signs facing the direction you want to go.  Also, once you get a few blocks inland from the waterfront, there are no street signs at all.  Most homes and businesses don’t refer to their house numbers.  Addresses state the street name and the two closest side streets.  We can drive at night in the City but don’t go between towns at night.  This isn’t because of crime (it is incredibly safe) but because the land around the highway is unfenced and cows like to sit on the road at night because it retains the heat.  If you hit a cow, the cow will probably win.

Safety We have felt very safe in Baja California.  We lock our doors of course and don’t leave valuables in plain sight.  But violent crime is pretty  nonexistent down here.   Walking down the Malecon (waterfront) you are probably more likely to be run over by a toddler on her tricycle than mugged.  In Loreto, we stayed in a hotel right on the main plaza.  The front door to our room opened right onto a patio on the main plaza.  The door had a single key and was made of wood and had a glass window.  We were never afraid of being robbed or burglarized.

Cost of living   Baja California is an “island” bordered by the U.S. to the north and separated from the “mainland” of Mexico to the east by the Sea of Cortez.  Produce is locally grown and costs anywhere from 60-80% what we pay in Alta California but the quality is infinitely superior.  Tomatoes are always ripe and flavorful.  Avocados buttery and smooth.  Seafood is very fresh but not cheap .  Bread is very good and very cheap.  A large freshly-baked sandwich roll costs about $.15.  A artisan demi-baguette will set you back $.60.  A huge capuccino muffin costs $.60. Everything else is shipped in from the U.S., China, or the mainland. Packaged goods cost what they cost in the U.S.  Dairy is much more expensive that in the U.S.  A gallon of milk will run over $4 and if you want non-fat it will be over $6.  Labor costs are cheaper and you can get a good meal at a taco stand for about $1.50 a taco with all the trimmings.  A car wash (by hand inside and out) costs $6.50.   Two large loads of laundry – wash, dry and fold costs $8.  A fill at the local nail salon costs $17 (about what I pay in California).  Gas is sold by Pemex, the government-owned petroleum company and costs slightly less than in the U.S.  A friend went to a retinal surgeon for a consult and to have some stitches taken out and a prescription and he charged her $50.  The medicines he prescribed, purchased at the local pharmacy, however, cost $60.  Many prescription meds (not antibiotics or controlled prescriptions) can be purchased over the counter.  Prescription meds, if available here, cost about 80% what they cost in the state.  Generics, however, sometimes cost the same or more.  No giant Costco bottles of allergy medicine at volume discount.  The same medication here will be sold in small packets of 28-30 pills and the per pill cost is almost identical.  I don’t know how the average Mexican (who makes about $20 a day) can afford to live here. 

For us, the big savings is rent.  We are staying in a furnished 600 sq ft two-story casita with 2 BR and 2 BA, a fully equipped kitchen and living room and a 300 sq ft covered patio with dining area, living area and bar overlooking the swimming pool.  We pay $650 for the month, which includes utilities and drinking water.  We pay an extra $16 a week for the housekeeper.

Inconveniences   We take so much for granted in the States.  No, you cannot drink the water out of the tap.  We have large jugs of drinking water delivered and go through approximately one jug a week.  I do use tap water to brush my teeth and wash my fruits and vegetables in it (with white vinegar added to the washing water to act as a disinfectant).  I boil pasta, rice in purified water and because water is so scarce, actually save the water and reuse it (for example, left over pasta water was used to cook dried beans). The City often shuts the municipal water off with no warning, so we have a back-up tank for these emergencies, which we have had to resort to twice.  When the back-up tank runs out, we refill it by hand from our landlady’s tank.  Water pressure is very low here and it can take a long time for the water to heat up, but we do have hot water.  Many people don’t have that luxury.  Sharon, our landlady, lets us use her clothes washer.  She doesn’t have a dryer.  We hang our clothes out to dry on a clothesline.  It’s so hot and dry here that mid day, clothes will dry within two hours.  But they come out stiff and scratchy.  Now I know why Latinos love fabric softener.  We wash and dry our clothes this way, but take our sheets and towels to a small family-run laundry down the street.  They charge us $8 to wash, dry and fold two large loads. The sheets and towels come back nice and soft.  Credit cards are widely accepted in Mexico except at smaller businesses and restaurants.  We try to use our credit card as much as possible. First, because we get a better exchange rate than withdrawing cash a the ATM, and Capital One doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee.  If we have to withdraw cash, the maximum we can withdraw is the equivalent of $300/day and Banemx charges us  about $2.20 and Wells Fargo charges us $3.  The exchange rate is slightly more than 12 pesos to a dollar.  Plumbing in Mexico is better than it was when I used to come down 30 years ago, but in most places, you still can’t throw the toilet paper in the toilet.    Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon, especially on certain days, to smell an unpleasant sewer smell, especially near Walmart (How’s that for poetic justice?). Internet Service is slow, especially in the late afternoon, and things do not run as efficiently as they do in the States.  Nonetheless, the slower-paced life is part of Mexico’s charm.

Some other random observations  I’ve seen very few smokers, and most of them have been crusty old gringos.  Electricity is expensive so most of the light bulbs are compact fluorescent.  Watching the national Mexican news, there was a small box in the lower right hand corner of the screen with a sign language interpreter also delivering the news.   There are recycling bins throughout the public areas labeled “organico” and “inorganico”, but no one seems to really use them properly.  There is no curbside recycling and I haven’t found a place where I can schlepp and drop off paper, cans, bottles, etc.  Watch where you walk at all times.  Sidewalks are uneven and the water meter wells are frequently exposed.  You will definitely trip and fall into a hole if you don’t look where you are going.  The Mexican military takes tourism seriously.  On busy weekends (e.g. Easter weekend), fully armed (assault rifles) and uniformed soldiers will patrol the beach and tourist areas.  We have never been stopped by a cop and asked to pay a mordida.   There were lots of military inspections on the way down but the soldiers were courteous and helpful, even giving us sightseeing recommendations.  The Mexican people are warm, friendly and generous. 

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La Paz is a beautiful medium-sized City with lovely beaches nearby and lots of tourist activities but it does not feel like a tourist town. Mexican tourists outnumber gringos. There are no loud bars blasting rock music and we do not see drunk gringos in the street like you see in Cabo. Other than some boat operators who will approach you to see if you want to go fishing or to Isla Espiritu Santo to see the sea lions and swim with the whale sharks, you will not be pestered by timeshare operators, souvenir sales people or the like. The town has a family feel and in most places Mexicans far outnumber gringos. Nonetheless, there is a sizeable ex pat gringo population here, many from Oregon – I’m not sure why.

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