CUERNAVACA: MEXICO’S UNPARALLELED PLACE TO RETIRE

This post was reprinted in edited form in LIVE & INVEST OVERSEAS, Feb. 13,2013. It is being updated in November 2016 because of the huge increase in the value of the dollar against the peso. In January 2015 the exchange rate was 14.5 pesos per dollar. In November 2016, the rate is 20.6 pesos per dollar. U.S. tourists and ex-pats are enjoying, at least temporarily, over 40% increase in their purchasing power. Click on the photos to enlarge them and read the captions.

I knew I would live one day in Cuernavaca  the first time I brought a group of students from freezing western New York for a College at Brockport study-abroad program and I found I could dine outdoors in January. After many winters directing the college program here, it was a no-brainer where I would retire. Often overlooked and unappreciated, Cuernavaca Mexico has more to offer tourists and retirees at lower cost than most other areas of the Republic. The  resort city  lies just 90 minutes south of the capital. Due to its near-perfect climate  “the city of eternal spring”  has attracted vacationers since the days of the Aztec emperors and the captains of Cortés. North American expatriates number only in the hundreds, but hundreds more snow-birds arrive for the winter months. While Brigitte Bardot and Helen Hayes drew attention to the city in the 1960s, it has always been much more popular among Mexicans than outsiders, and the population of about 800,000 swells by the thousands on weekends and holidays.

While often overlooked by foreigners, the city is unparalleled in the Republic for its remarkable climate, cultural life, security, cost of living, and medical care.   Virtually every major U.S. airline serves Mexico City’s bustling modern terminal, with over a dozen flights daily  from Texas airports alone.  Deluxe buses make the 100-minute trip to Cuernavaca and back every 40 minutes for under ten dollars each way.

The climate is certainly one of the best in the world with a mean temperature of 75 degrees and over 300 days of sunshine.  Winter temperatures average at least ten degrees warmer than better-known San Miguel de Allende. Spring arrives in early February with daytime temperatures in the 80s falling to 65 at night until May, the hottest month with its occasional dog days. From June through mid-October, cooling rains arrive to freshen things up again.  Thanks to the evening showers in July and August, Cuernavaca is cooler than Alaska. The only steady daytime rains occur when there is a tropical storm in the Pacific or the Gulf of Mexico.

Like  many residents, I make day trips to the nearby capital for opera, dance, theater, and concerts,  but I am never bored locally. The salons at the Borda Garden,  a vacation retreat for Maximilian and Carlota in the 1860s, host numerous  concerts, plays, and art exhibits.  The  Teatro Ocampo, in a  beautifully renovated old movie house, has freequent dance and music concerts  including the Morelos State Ballet, the city chamber music orchestra, and visiting groups like the National Symphony and the Harlem Gospel Choir. Seat prices range from five to fifteen dollars. Several eight to ten-screen movie houses play the big Hollywood hits a few weeks behind the U.S. schedule for under three dollars.

For a change of scenery it’s just a short bus ride to the “magic village” of Tepoztlán,  the  ancient Hacienda Cocoyoc, the ruins of Xochicalco, or the silver city of Taxco. And now Cuernavaca is the gateway to the largest flower garden in the world, Jardines de México, just a half hour drive from the city. The glamorous beaches of Acapulco are just three hours away by car, four by bus. (See my post, Tourism Should be Coming up Roses in Morelos.”)

There are several  world-class restaurants with gourmet meals in alfresco settings and dozens of bistros better than most neighborhood restaurants in comparably-sized cities in the States, with prices at least 30 percent lower.  Hundreds of family restaurants offer a three-course lunch with a fruit drink for about three dollars, but my gourmand tastes draw me to restaurants like La Provence where chef Pascal serves authentic French and international dishes like Coq au Vin, Osso Bucco, or Chateaubriand. In 2015 my credit card bill for one of those meals with wine and tip averaged 45 dollars. Despite modest inflation, my current bills are under 35 dollars. Las Mañanitas, one of the most renowned restaurants in the Republic, offers simple dishes like enchiladas  or extravagant fare like lobster bisque and oysters Rockefeller, in a spectacular garden with strolling peacocks and African crowned-cranes. A recent five-course, five-wine tasting dinner at spectacular Restaurant Gusto charged 75 dollars. You couldn’t find a meal that deluxe in the U.S. for that price even without the wine.

Cuernavaca’s low cost of living rivals most  other regions in the country. Deluxe hotels starting at 200 dollars per night compete with delightful four-star  hotels for 85 dollars and  30 to 40 dollar pensiones.  Modestly priced  golf courses, tennis clubs, gyms, and spas abound. Because Cuernavaca is a year-round resort, rates do not vary seasonally, and apartment rents are usually half what they would be in Florida for a similar-sized unit. The economy has dipped and real-estate sales are down by about 40 percent, so bargains abound.  You can find a three-bedroom condo with a large shared garden and  pool for 85,000 dollars, with monthly maintenance fees about 60 dollars and all taxes under 100 dollars  a year.  Utility costs are less expensive than in the States, especially since one can live without heat or air conditioning.  Inexpensive part-time and full-time help is easy to find. The shopping options will make you forget you are in Mexico. In addition to U.S chains like Walmart, Sam’s Club, Costco, and Sears,  huge shopping malls feature chic Mexican boutiques and plush department stores.

Given the nightmarish international publicity about Mexico’s drug wars, safety and security issues are obviously of concern.  Until recently Cuernavaca escaped the shootouts that characterize the hapless border cities.  Hence some drug lords took advantage to hide their safe houses in suburban residential developments and government forces have confiscated dozens of them. But the violence is a matter of drug lords killing other drug lords. Tourists and ex-pats are not the targets nor the victims. The murder rate is lower than that in cities of comparable size in the U.S  (See my post “Security Tops the Agenda in Morelos.”)

It’s amazing how many magazines on retirement and living abroad ignore their readers’ concerns for quality health care.  Unlike smaller retirement havens, excellent  medical and dental facilities are easily accessible in Cuernavaca. Those who need extensive dental work can pay for their vacation by visiting outstanding, inexpensive dentists here. At least two hospitals and a cardiac clinic are first rate. You don’t have to go far to find a well-trained specialist in cardiology, gastroenterology, obstetrics, plastic surgery, or optometry (including laser surgery). Reasonable insurance plans are available or Medicare coverage in a city like Houston is just a two-hour flight away. You can get emergency treatment or see a physician at the local Red Cross for just five dollars. The city even hosts the National School of Public Health, one of the most prestigious in the Americas. Nearby Mexico City boasts one of the best hospitals in the hemisphere. (See my post, “You Can Afford to Get Sick Here.”)

In the 1960s Cuernavaca was discovered by North American and European students attracted to schools specializing in teaching Spanish to foreigners. More than 30 North American universities send study-abroad students to schools boasting no more than five students per class. Such schools proliferated  making Cuernavaca perhaps the best place in the world to study Spanish. Alas, the U.S. perception of violence in Mexico caused a huge drop in enrollments so many classes have only two or three students per teacher now. For those too busy to enroll in classes, private tutors will come to your home for less than ten dollars an hour. And study you should because Cuernavaca is a thoroughly Mexican city, not a gringo town. The small ex-pat community offers occasional activities, but the city has no outsized  foreign colony like some places where retirees expect the maid to learn English. You have to work a bit more in Cuernavaca, which might explain why  it has been relatively overlooked. Those, like me, who have come to feel at home here don’t want to live anywhere else.

James Horn, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of History Emeritus at the State University of New York College at Brockport where he coordinated the study-abroad program in Cuernavaca. He resides ten months a year in his favorite city. He is the author of Cuernavaca, A Guide for Students & Tourists, available from amazon.com.

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23 thoughts on “CUERNAVACA: MEXICO’S UNPARALLELED PLACE TO RETIRE

  1. I’ve always wanted to visit Cuernavaca based on what Renee has shared with me about her experience (however long ago). But after reading this post, I may have to make it a priority over the next couple of years. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Jim, you are a modern incarnation of a medieval troubador singing the praises of the lady to whom he
    has sworn his fealty as you describe the beauties of Cuernavaca on your blog!

  3. Jim – What a beautiful description of one of my favorite places in all the world! Thank you! Ann

  4. Mr. Horn, I followed the link you provided after responding to my Huff Post comment. Congratulations on your retirement and your website. The pictures are stunning. After reading your post (you had me at ‘gourmand’ and ‘coq au vin’), I would be remiss not to consider Cuernavaca for my retirement and wish I could be on a plane right now, at least for a short visit to your favorite restaurants! I’m interested to know: what would be the walkability score of the city, if you had to give it one? What is the preferred mode of transportation for expats, and is a car required? Do most expats rent or purchase property? Also, how safe is the city for a single woman? Thank you for any information you may provide!

  5. Cuernavaca is called “The city of eternal spring.” That doesn’t begin to describe the advantages of this beautiful, friendly place. The city is very walkable. When I lived there, I was a single woman I walked around at all times of day and evening, and was never in the slightest danger. One big advantage to Cuernavaca is the bus system. You can go anywhere quidkly and inexpensively at any time. Another advantage to Cuernavaca is its location. You can easily take either day or weekend trips to an endless number of fascinating places. The first time I went to Cuernavaca I planned to stay for 2 weeks and actually stayed for 3 months, and even then it was hard to leave. Except for family responsiblities I would be retired there now!

  6. In your first paragraph you mention that Helen Hayes and Brigitte Bardot drew attention the Cuernavaca paradise in the 1960s. Barbara Hutton, who inherited the Woolworth millions, decided to leave the USA and put her slaves to work researching the planet for the best place for her to go. They did their homework and came up with the answer: CUERNAVACA. That is why we have Sumiya.

  7. Dear Mr Horn:

    I have enjoyed the stories I have read of your author. Please put me on your mailing list for your blog. Mexico may be my retirement place.

    • Thank you Tom. Sorry I didn’t see your request earlier. To receive automatic notice of new blog posts, at the top of the page is a place called “Follow.” Just click on that. You can edit it for how often you want to get notices and comments. Thanks. Jim

      • Jim,

        I love receiving all your comments about Mexico in general and Cuernavaca in particular. You make me wish I were there. At least I have wonderful memories!

        Ann

    • I am following this Blog site with clear intentions to retire in Cuernavaca. Any and all information is greatly appreciated

  8. I love the city of eternal spring and will spend part of my retirement time there. Take Spanish classes at
    Universal… Ramiro will set you up with classes and a home stay. Best experience of my my life! Tell him Becky sent you!

  9. My family are considering retiring in Cuernavaca. They don’t speak a word of Spanish but are eager to learn. The main obstacle to their tranplantation is a lack of knowledge regarding where to start. A step by step guide would be massivly useful. For example, who to contact regarding housing. They clearly need a trust worthy estate agent that won’t strip them of every cent of their retirement fund. They also would need good advice on the safety of the various areas on offer. Even a just a list of contacts and websites would be a good start for them. After reading this post, my mum seems determined to make the move. Any help would be deeply appreciated.

    • I am so sorry, a glitch has occurred and I am not longer being notified of new comments. Just found this one while updating. My guidebook will answer most of your questions. Information is on the front page of the blog on the masthead.

  10. I studied at Cemanahuac language school for 3 months in 1978! My host family were very nice and made me feel like part of the family! I was there from january to march and the weather was fantástico! I would like to retire there someday.

  11. If you are a US expat living there, please leave contact info. I plan to go to Cuernavaca next week, for the first time and would really love to meet you. Thank you so very much!

  12. Sitting here in our little room at Hostel Posada Morelos, reading this article for the first time. All so very true. We have taken several taxis since we arrived, and walk to the Zocalo at least twice a day. Not one problem have we encountered. We have met the group at “The Table” and have enjoyed their insights on living here. The touristy sights we have visited have not disappointed. So glad to be visiting here again.

  13. That is very fascinating, You are an overly skilled blogger.

    I’ve joined your rss feed and sit up for in search of
    extra of your wonderful post. Also, I’ve shared your site in my social
    networks

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