retirement

Why Ensenada, Baja California, Is a Great Place to Retire

Just over the border, the city nicknamed "Old Mexico" has a distinct international flair.

Population: 520,000

Nearest large city: San Diego

What $300,000 will buy: Loma Dorada home with 2 bedrooms, 2.5 baths and a rooftop terrace, a half-block from the ocean

As you drive south from San Diego past the Mexican border, the nearly uninterrupted development of southern California and Tijuana quickly gives way to breathtaking coastal views of the Baja California peninsula. The well-maintained four-lane road hugs the rocky shoreline and passes through Mexican towns and small communities until, 65 miles south of Tijuana, you round one final bend and Ensenada stands before you.

Ensenada is often described as “Old Mexico,” but the downtown area also has an international vibe. Walking along the wide, brick sidewalks, you’ll find no shortage of traditional Mexican restaurants, bars showing soccer games and street vendors selling souvenirs, churros and fish tacos. In fact, Ensenada is reputedly where the fish taco originated, as well as home to the bar that invented the margarita. But you’ll also spot restaurants experimenting with lighter, Mediterranean-inspired Mexican fare, as well as French, Thai and Chinese cuisine. Cruise ships drop off passengers for a few hours four days a week, temporarily transforming the main thoroughfare into a much busier place.

Thousands of U.S. expats call Ensenada home. Retiring abroad appeals to Americans seeking a different culture and lower cost of living, and Mexico earned the top spot on International Living’s 2017 list of retirement havens abroad. The mild climate and warm, easygoing culture in which even new acquaintances often hug goodbye don’t hurt, either. Speaking Spanish is helpful but not necessary.

Ensenada’s proximity to the border makes it particularly appealing. Many retirees opt to use a mix of Mexican and U.S. doctors so they can continue to see their stateside providers while paying less for some procedures south of the border. “We live in the best of two worlds here,” says Tillie Foster, 85, who moved to Ensenada from Orange County, Calif. Retirees can live comfortably on $1,500 a month and still have access to most of what they’re accustomed to back home, she says.

Many expats in the area choose to live in communities a few miles away from downtown Ensenada, such as Bajamar to the north and Punta Banda to the south. Homes that would cost $500,000 or more in San Diego typically sell for $200,000 to $300,000 here, and people looking for an unimpeded ocean view can find property for about $400,000. Mexico limits the number of foreigners who can purchase coastal real estate, but you can still buy residential property in restricted areas if you pay the bank a few hundred dollars a year to hold the property in trust. Property tax rates are reasonable—usually about 0.1% of a home’s assessed value. And renters can find modest options close to the water for about $500 a month, or homes with an ocean view starting at about $1,500 a month.

A short drive north of Ensenada lies the Guadalupe Valley, known as the Napa Valley of Mexico. Informal Facebook groups of expats gather to practice yoga on the beach weekly; others volunteer with local organizations. Or you can just chill out and watch the sunset over the ocean while listening to the seals bark from the nearby fishing docks.

One cultural quirk that many Americans say takes some getting used to: Things run on Mexican time. It’s not unusual for people to be 15 or even 30 minutes late, because south of the border, people are more important than schedules.

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