Tuesday, 12 November 2013

A side trip to Guanajuato and Guadalajara

On my last journey back to Mazatlan from Alberta and Houston in September, I took an opportunity to take a side-trip on the way and check out Guanajuato.  Since I was taking a direct flight from San Antonio, Texas to Mexico City on the Mexican airline, Interjet, that arrived at noon, I decided to take a luxury bus that afternoon all the way to Guanajuato, which was about six hours away.  

For those who don't know this already, the luxury bus system in Mexico is excellent.  There are several competing companies such as ETN and Primera Plus with a wide-ranging choice of routes and frequency.  Their websites are fairly easy to navigate even though they are in Spanish - Google translates them anyway.  One can purchase a ticket online and just show up at the counter at the bus station, or just go to the station and purchase on the spot.  There are discounts for booking and paying online.

There were buses leaving Mexico City every half hour to Guanajuato so I decided to fly in and get a taxi to the station before purchasing in case there were delays.  I landed at noon and was on the bus at one.  The ticket price equaled about $35.  

There is a protocol at the bus station one must follow and it's a good idea to know this ahead of time if your Spanish is limited.  At the ticket counter, the clerk will show you on their computer screen the choices for departure times, then your choice for seat location.  Once the ticket is purchased, they will circle the post number where the bus will pull into.  Generally, you are allowed through a security checkpoint about 30 minutes before departure time.  Before that you will wait inside the terminal area.  When the bus pulls in and about 5 minutes before departure, one lines up in front of a cart by the bus where you will be given a bag with a sandwich and asked what you want to drink.  They do have water in bottles as well as soda.  This is included in the ticket price.  Then you can get on the bus and find your seat. 

At your seat there will be a head-set for watching a variety of movies on the TV screen on the back of the seat in front of you, if you wish.  I found they had some fairly good movies with good choices.  The seat reclines almost flat and there is a pull-down foot-rest.

I have been on several bus trips in Mexico now and have found the buses to be clean and very comfortable, and the drivers are extremely good.  The ride is smooth - no speeding or reckless driving.  I arrived in Guanajuato around 6 pm and took a taxi to my hotel right in the center of the city, Hotel San Diego.  In the picture above, I am looking down on the roof of the hotel next to the dome of the Church of San Diego and adjacent to the main public square, Jardin de la Union.

It was a fantastic location for just stepping out the door and going for a stroll around the historic area.  I won't be going into any touristy descriptions of Guanajuato and what to see - there are plenty of websites for that.  I found it just delightful, colorful, and architecturally a lot like the centuries-old towns of Italy or France. I stayed 3 nights.  The Hotel San Diego is comfortable but basic accommodations in an old restored building keeping in character with the surroundings.  There was an elevator, but it was old and manually-run so after getting myself stuck in there once and not knowing how to open the doors, I used the stairs.

I took a guided tour one of the days in a van with two women from Monterrey, Mexico who didn't speak English, but the tour guide spoke both languages.  I think I saw many of the tourist highlights, including the gruesome but interesting Mummy Museum.  The earth in the area has a unique set of properties that preserve bodies of the dead in a mummy-like fashion.  The mummies there are sent out to various scientific facilities all over the world to be studied since they are so unique.

On the 4th day, I took a bus to Guadalajara, which took about 6 hours, and stayed the night - only exploring the immediate area of the hotel since it was evening, but it there was a beautiful public square and cathedral nearby and I was able to get these beautiful photos.

In the morning, I took another bus through the Sierra Madres mountains to Mazatlan.  That was the most beautiful and scenic ride of the three, and also took about 6 hours.

It is sometimes more enjoyable to take trips like this with another person or persons, but I get something out of doing it by myself too.  I guess I feel more adventurous!

Sunday, 3 November 2013

How to find a rental and live inexpensively in Mazatlan - Part 3

Probably the most-read posts here are the ones about the cost of living in Mazatlan so I thought I would do an update.  Is it still cheap to live in Mazatlan?


I now live in a spacious two-bedroom, 2 bathroom apartment in a secure building steps from the ocean.  Because it wasn't furnished, the rent for a one-year lease was 4,500 pesos per month - or about $350 Canadian or US. It isn't fancy.  It's a little rough around the edges.  The kitchen needs an overhaul, and the bathrooms an update.  But, it has a front patio with lush plants that were left by a previous tenant, a utility room off the kitchen for a washer and dryer (I only bought a washer - used - for about $300), a cement sink, the water heater and gas tank.  It is open-air - the back wall is a lattice of brick facing the back parking lot.  I'm on the ground floor so no stairs to climb but any patio furniture will have to be chained down because it would be easy to steal at street level, whereas my upstairs neighbours have a small deck but can leave their furniture out.

The gas tank costs about 400 pesos to fill - usually about every 2 or 3 months depending on usage.  It is used to heat the hot water tank and for the little second-hand gas stove in the kitchen.

I pay the landlord 100 pesos a month for water that comes from the tinacas (big water storage units) on the roof - that's water for the kitchen and bathrooms.  I buy bottled water for drinking - a cost of about another 100 pesos a month because I use the convenience of having the building maintenance guy bring the big water bottle to my door when I put an empty one out.

Electricity is normally only about 200 pesos a month but goes up to about 500 a month with using the air-conditioner in summer.

Megacable kind of rips me off for internet - I may look into switching to the only other service, Telmex. Megacable forces me to take a package that includes cable TV and phone in order to have internet which is 649 pesos a month.  I don't own a TV and probably won't.  I can't stand watching TV with commercials anymore and watch movies or TV series on Netflix instead.

So, all told, my monthly fixed costs add up to about $460 a month on average.

Food and entertainment.  Well, that is quite variable depending on how often I eat out (lots).  But, someone on a stricter budget could eat well at home for about $200 a month by mainly shopping at the Central Market.  Going out is a lot cheaper than in North America - a lot cheaper.  I was just up in Canada and the US and, particularly in Canada, eating out is a budget-buster.  Here you can still have a full meal for about $5.00 to $10.00 if you don't drink alcohol, and even then, the beer is cheap - about $1.50 a bottle, or less. Drinking wine is more expensive at about $4.00 to $5.00 a glass.  Mixed drinks might be somewhere in between unless you ask for an imported brand.  Mexico produces a brand of vodka and gin that is cheap but not great.  And, of course, there are plenty of brands of tequila.

The variety and quality of restaurants have increased in the last three years, with new ones popping up every year.  I must admit that it is a popular activity in my group to make the rounds and try them out, or to just hang out at one of the favourites.  Most of them are indoor-outdoor, and along the malecon in Olas Altas where I live, it is just wonderful to sit and watch the sun go down and all the people walking along the waterfront with a group of friends.

Going to the movies is refreshingly inexpensive.  There are several good multiplexes that run new releases in English for as little as $3.00 per ticket.  Even the popcorn and snacks are reasonably priced.

I also buy a travel health insurance policy for emergencies but for minor illness, I can see a doctor in a local clinic for about $30 and prescriptions for most common medicines like antibiotics are cheap.  I can see a specialist for just about anything the next day usually for about $40 to $50.  The best money-saver though is dentistry.  The dentist and endodontist I see are extremely professional, pain-free, and the prices are a fraction of what I would pay in Canada.  My husband recently needed two root canals and two crowns.  He was able to get everything done in 5 days with no prior appointment for about $1,200.  Can that even be done in that short a time in North America, let alone at that price?

I recently went and looked at some alternative properties just to see what was out there.  I was considering renting a house instead of an apartment because I have the two dogs who might be better off with more access to the outdoors.  I am rather stuck on living in Old Centro though, and I love being so close to the waterfront, so my choices are limited.  There are many other areas to live though.  I did see a one-story home in Centro, but 8 blocks from the waterfront.  It was two-bedroom, one bathroom, very spacious with a modern kitchen, a washer AND dryer, two outdoor patios and a secure parking spot.  It was furnished too.  I could have rented it for about $450 to $500 a month if I committed to a one year lease, but the previous tenants had rented for 6 months for $600.  The big drawback for me?  The distance inland.  But it was closer to the Central Market and about equal distance to the main public square, Machado Square.  So, for now I have decided to stay where I am.  I hate moving anyway.

Friday, 18 October 2013


Annie and Teddie on the patio in Mazatlan.

In my last post I asked "What next?"

Mike just left Maz today after a short week visit before heading up to Halifax to visit his mom, Blanche Clarke, who turns 90 this month, and then he flies to Kuwait for a two-month work project.

Yes, Kuwait.  I'm not so concerned about his going there as I am about the future projects in places like Nigeria, Angola, and Bangladesh.  Nevertheless, he is happy for the opportunity and, of course, the higher-than-average pay rate.  All of this has come as a result of his recent contract in Houston for Chevron. Chevron is conducting systems upgrades on their document management software in every outpost all over the world.  Mike is to be their "man on the ground" in many of them, one at a time.  Even better - he will be using our software, MOVE, on the projects with Chevron's approval.  It fits right into their requirements.   That alone makes this all worth it.

So Chevron gave him the okay to come to Maz for a week and work remotely, then a week in Halifax, before flying to Kuwait.  He had some time for fun and relaxation but also had extensive dental work done - two root canals and crowns - all within 5 days.  But if you are going go through that you couldn't ask for a better place to be.  He will be back for two weeks at Christmas.

I've been back since the middle of September, settling back into the uniquely enjoyable lifestyle here.  A few snowbird friends from North of the Border have begun to trickle in for the winter, but the main flock will be here by mid-November.  Our favourite watering hole, Macaw's, which is like our local "Cheers - where everybody knows your name", re-opened after a month-long closure for September.  It's a short walk from my apartment and they welcome my dogs too.  Since it is an indoor/outdoor place, they happily sit by my feet and receive the petting and greetings by patrons there.  Often I am just walking by, not intending to stop in, and they naturally swerve towards the open door and my usual table.

The weather has cooled off somewhat but still quite hot for walking around in the middle of the day.  In fact today I got a fright when my 13-year old lab-mix, Annie, suddenly began seizing on the sidewalk near home. It last about 30 seconds and then she lay down and wouldn't get up.  I was alone and didn't have my cell phone with me.  Eventually, I managed to carry her home and called the vet, Cesar, who came to the apartment within 10 minutes.  She was still not moving much but I got her into the air-conditioned bedroom on the bed and Cesar looked her over.  He couldn't find anything wrong neurologically, heart or blood pressure were fine, and her temperature was just slightly elevated.  He gave her a shot and said it was probably caused by an electrolyte imbalance from the heat.  So she will be getting Pedialyte and TLC for a few days to see how she gets on.  She is resting easy now. 

Two snowbird friends have been waylaid with health issues and will be very delayed in returning this winter, if they get here at all.  Our community here is like a little village.  Everyone cares about everyone else.  It's like nothing I have ever experienced anywhere, anytime, in my life.  No wonder we all love it here.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

I think this a good thing...

Over the last 4 or 5 years, Mike and I have thought about selling our house in Alberta.  We've talked to real estate people, tried out the "sell it yourself" services and actually put a sign on the lawn a couple of years ago. We always ended up putting it off by renting it out for 6 months or so at a time  We didn't like the price we would get for it, based on comparables in the neighbourhood. 

Then one real estate agent said something to me when I told her we had bought it new with no money down, and  taken a big line of credit on the equity of the house a year after we bought it, when the value of the house had jumped from $255K to $425K in one year (I know, astounding - and the value now is about $350K).  We had taken it to invest in the software company and consolidate debt.  She said, "You have already benefited and profited from this house - why wait?  What more do you want?"  It made me look at things differently.

So when the present tenants (they moved in March 15) made us an offer - which we thought was a great deal - for them - but meant we wouldn't have do anything except move out our accumulated "stuff" that was already in boxes and stored in the basement - we took it.

After a terribly trying winter with no income (but hey, we were in Mazatlan - can't complain TOO loudly), Mike is now in Houston on a great consulting contract that is supposed to be long term - as in a year or two. He is staying in a one-bedroom apartment in a great complex with lots of lush gardens and walkways and swimming pools - which is good because Houston is got to be one of the most boring cities in the world. 

I've been there with him on and off.  We are beginning to catch up on debts and bills.  The proceeds from the house will go toward that filling that hole too.  It won't completely wipe them out by a long shot, but its a good start.

All our stuff fits in a 10 X 15 storage unit.  And I don't really think we would want to keep half of it.

My 1999 Toyota Sienna van here in Alberta needs $3000 work on it to be able to be driven long-distance - and the AC just conked.  I had an offer of $1500 for it and although it was handy to have here to drive around in May when we were here for a week, and this trip up for two weeks, I think I should sell it.  I've been lucky that nothing else conked - like the timing belt which needs replacing.

And so it goes - a lot less possessions and a little more freedom.

I return to Mazatlan Sept. 12 - earlier than I planned but my excellent house and dog-sitters asked for it so that they can go explore a few more places in Mexico before returning to their home in Belize.

What happens from then on?

Mike in Houston, me and the girls in Mazatlan?  Or will something else happen to change all that? 

Stay tuned...

Saturday, 1 June 2013

There is a Chinese curse...

"May you lead an interesting life."

I'm back in Mazatlan for the foreseeable future - by myself but with my two faithful furry companions.  May has been a blur.

Planned:  Get up to Alberta (via shared ride to Texas and then a flight)  for a week or so to take care of a few things, see my doctor, accountant, etc. and return with a new 6-month tourist visa. 

Unplanned:  Mike's 2-3 month contract in Indianapolis turns out to be only 2 weeks.  Client decides to ignore Mike's recommendations and project plan that he spent 2 weeks working on (that they hired him to do), and postpones the rest of the project.  Internal employees decide to do the project their way and blow up their systems (figuratively).  They had taken a look at our software which would have saved a ton of money and time, but still decide to do things the "old" way.

Unplanned:  May 5th - Flying to Las Vegas from Maz to meet up with Mike who drove madly from Indianapolis to do some networking at an industry conference for the software.

Unplanned: After driving up to Calgary from Las Vegas and getting everything on our list accomplished, including trading in our Murano for a Versa, Mike is hired for a contract in Houston and has to fly there right away.  I "volunteer" (no choice really) to drive the Versa to Houston so he will have a car to drive and save on rentals.  This does allow me to stop in Denver and visit my sister and family for a day - hadn't been there in 6 years.

Unplanned: Arrive in Houston and help Mike move into a house which he will share with another guy, a relatively inexpensive accommodation option. The contract does not pay expenses on top of the pay, but the rate is higher.  Keeping expenses low is in our best interest.

Unplanned: Flights back to Mazatlan are expensive so I fly to Mexico City and take an overnight bus to Maz, which takes 12 hours.

Now, I'm not complaining - I do like spontaneity and I think I am one of the most adaptable people on the planet - but seriously, I am ready for a modicum of predictability after the winter from financial hell and a whirlwind May.  Somehow, I don't think I'm going to get it for long....maybe I should make a plan.  

Sunday, 24 March 2013

A stressful (yet productive) winter...

This has been our home since Jan. 1 and as it turns out we have spent a lot of time together in it, working our hearts out and chewing fingernails.

My last post on Jan. 23 is laughable (well, maybe not laughable) - if I had known then just how long Mike would be out of work I would have freaked.

Right now he is in the car driving between Hattiesberg, Mississippi and Carmen, Indiana.  He finally has a contract to go to.  He left last Tuesday and flew to Dallas, got our car out of long-term parking (I don't want to tell you how much THAT cost), and then drove to New Orleans to attend part of an industry conference and do some networking.  

At the end of February we had a crisis point.  Should we continue to pay rent here and wait a little longer to see if a contract would start soon, somewhere, or cut the cord, sell our few pieces of furniture, break the lease, and go back to Alberta.  Our house which had been rented out until March 15 was coming available and we could move back in.  In the end, a dear friend loaned us some money to keep going.  Why come all the way back to Alberta where it is much more expensive to live, and lose the little bit of income from renting the house out, when surely the tide will turn any day?  I thank that friend for kindness from the bottom of my heart.

And now it is approaching the end of March, and the tide has turned.  Not only is Mike about to start work again - the contract will include the use of our new software product, MOVE.  The needs of the client are a perfect fit for it.  We'll either let them use for free and gain a great reference account, or maybe we'll actually make some money from it and it will be the first sale.

The very positive outcome of this winter in Maz (unemployed and desperate) is that we didn't mope around - we got to work on MOVE - writing executive summaries, business plans, marketing plans, investor presentations, customer presentations, shaping the message and working our contacts.  Andy worked too - thank you Andy!  Now we have gained an "angel" who is willing to introduce us to his investor friends, and an appointment next week to demonstrate MOVE to the acquisitions department of EMC - the software company that our product complements.  We also have an invitation to do a presentation for an angel investment group in Vancouver, BC - but it has to be in person so since they meet every month, we have asked to wait until May when we'll have the means to fly up there.

My stomach is still in knots but I have lots of wonderful, supportive friends here in Maz (and in Alberta) and I feel satisfied that we have done everything we possibly could to get through this winter (of our discontent).

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Darkest before the dawn?

There have been so many times (too many) when we have been nearly at the end of our hopes and money, no contracts, no-one getting back to us - and then, a miracle happens and a job, or money, or both show up out of nowhere.  The stress leaves a mark though.

The last couple of weeks has been like that.  And then, good things started showing up.  Of course, not without great efforts by both of us.

We are doing a lot of networking these days on LinkedIn - it's a great resource for business.  Everyone on there knows that everyone else on there is there to make business connections and to try to sell something - but not by hard sales methods; a softer approach is the protocol.  And "can I be of help to you, or can we help each other somehow?"

In addition, our poor slave (oops, I mean developer) Andy has been putting in enormous amounts of time and effort on the software, with great results.  We now consider him a co-founder.  No-one works for nothing or next-to-nothing unless one is an owner.  We would be nowhere without him.

We put a free downloadable copy of the software out there and invited people to try it.  It's still considered a beta product so we have to let people try it out and let us know if they run into issues, bugs, or would really like it to do something more, maybe some new features that would be useful to them.  

Out of nowhere we get an email from someone in Spain, someone working in one of the biggest consulting firms in Europe, who says he is using it to do ACTUAL WORK for a big project, and he really likes it but there are a couple of bugs that need fixing - could we do that right away?  

Andy and Mike jumped on it right away of course.  A bug fix has gone out.  Mike also found out exactly what the project was trying to do with it which is valuable information because we can market it to other firms who are going to do the same sort of thing.  No, we can't charge this company for using it, but the testimonial will be incredibly valuable.  And, maybe they'll volunteer to pay us something for it, who knows.  His feedback was that they are trying out different tools on this project and ours is the best - easy to use, works great.  Nectar.

There have been other great connections and interested parties as well.  Too many to describe.  But I can say that an actual sale of the software, including some customizing work to make it do exactly what they want, is in the works.  Its not a big sale but it will feel so great to actually sell something.

Now, none of this brings in cash in the near future so Mike still has to go do some consulting.  If only he could get a contract that allowed him to spend time here in Mazatlan and earn money too, and also allow him to conduct software business on the side.........hmmmm.  Ha! This exact wish was answered today! 

Maybe we should do more "putting your intentions and desires out there in the universe".  I know one - wouldn't it be great if someone with bags of money came forward and said they wanted to invest in our software!  Then Mike wouldn't have to do consulting work to pay the bills!

Come on universe!

More to come.....

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Moves and MOVE

Mexican Moving Van

It has been a couple of weeks of moves for four couples including ourselves - everyone has new digs!  We slowly purchased enough used furniture and household items to be able to move in and be comfortable.  One of our finds was a 3-piece living room set sold to us by another expat.  How to get it from their house to ours?  A truck (called an Orega) taxi with an inventive driver willing to put the loveseat on the roof and secure it down with a bit of rope.  We got some startled looks and laughs from people on the short trip - it was fun!

The apartment itself was still pretty dirty the day we moved in.  It had all been swept but everything needed wiping down and mopping.  The kitchen was the biggest challenge to set up for functionality.  It doesn't have a stove yet and it had precious little counter or work space.  The ceramic sink is shallow and pockmarked, with old taps that are very low - hard to get anything under them.  It does have a large built in pantry with shelves - good for storing dishes as well as food items.  The landlord loaned me a large wood cabinet with a drop-down table top and shelves.  We added a butcher-block work island on wheels and purchased a microwave, borrowed an electric frying pan and was given a coffee maker.  The fridge had a 3-prong plug with only a two-prong outlet nearby so an adapter was brought in by the building maintenance man.  

All in all, its a functional little kitchen now.

A few mexican rugs on the floors and voila its home.

It's a mexican apartment to be sure - and nowhere near being air-tight.  Noise is always an issue in Centro but its all part of the atmosphere and charm of Mazatlan.  We are thinking of it as you would a summer cottage - not all the comforts of home and a little rustic.  Fun!

On the work side Mike is still unemployed and cash is getting tight.  All of his contacts and leads went quiet over the holidays and have just started picking up again.  We have going full-force on talking up and promoting the software in the past few days, following up on a stellar demo done for some very important and influential people before Christmas.  So, some results are beginning to pop up - both on the job front and on the software.  A very large company in the US has requested a demo with great enthusiasm - it seems there is a huge need for what we've got and we are going to go gang-busters as much as possible while Mike has the time.  Will it pay off before the money runs out?  Unknown.  But we can't wait and worry   - that serves no purpose. We'll figure it out as we we always do.