In 1999, before Zoom ZM,
Skype or Facebook META,
My husband Barry and I, both consultants in Silicon Valley, decided to take a self-designed sabbatical.
We rent our home in Palo Alto, California, and use the rental income to subsidize our 20-month multi-country trip, beginning and ending in the vibrant and colorful Mexican city of Guanajuato, a UNESCO World Heritage Center located a few five hours northwest. from Mexico City in the Central Highlands.
When we got back to the US, our house was still rented and we didn’t want to move anyway, so we bought an old Westfalia motorhome and drove up the coast, considering different cities.
Read: I told my friends that I would move to France for a year. 4 years have passed and I am building a house in this town of 1200 people.
We found a cozy second-story apartment in Old Town, Eureka, the “Victorian Seaport” on the Northern California coast. Just one block from Humboldt Bay, the apartment reminded me of Lara’s warm and cozy apartment in the Russian steppes in the movie “Dr. Zivago”. With no lease, our apartment rented for just $595 a month (and has gone up just $500 since).
“This is like renting a place in Mexico or Turkey,” I told Barry. “Let’s settle in for now while we figure out what to do next.”
More than two decades later, we are still there.
“You’ll never leave,” jokes our landlord. Meanwhile, everything else has changed. In 2004, we sold our Palo Alto home and invested part of the proceeds in stocks and bonds. A year later, we paid $107,000 for a rather dingy 150-year-old adobe house in Guanajuato, which we had enjoyed so much that we visited several times after the sabbatical, meeting the expats who lived there and learning the logistics of buying and remodeling a house. in Mexico.
Read: Our retirement budget is $38,000 a year, so we can’t afford to stay in California. Where should we move to?
After we bought our house, we spent three years and about $100,000 remodeling it. Our light and airy house has, in our biased opinion, the best view in town.
Now we divide our lives between Eureka, Guanajuato, and our “third home”, our van. I love the variety in our lives: green, coastal, and English living for part of the year, including trucking trips through northern California and southern Oregon; and the semi-desert, 7,000 feet high, life in Spanish on the other hand. Not only different landscapes, but different friends, culture, architecture, history and gastronomy.
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In Guanajuato we don’t have —nor do we want— a car. Since the semi-detached houses in the center, where we live, we have no driveways or garages, our part of town is car averse. Much of the traffic flows through underground tunnels, leaving a large part of the city pedestrianized. We keep fit by walking everywhere along the colorful and vibrant streets. Also, we can hike right from our front door. In 20 minutes we are over the city, in another world of cliffs, rock formations, old mining towns and hills.
Although we can’t walk directly from our apartment in Eureka, we can paddle in Humboldt Bay. Barry pushes his kayak while I take my light inflatable paddle board three minutes to the dock. Then we’re off, wandering the funky work bay, with all its curious features: decommissioned pulp mills; two bridges; a quagmire lined with cypresses; herons, seals and a local sea lion perching on a marina dock; fishing boats; and two islands, one of which made national news in 2019 when, in an unprecedented step, the city of Eureka returned it to the native Wiyot people.
Read: I went looking for the perfect place to live in retirement and got lost along the way
Beyond the unique pleasures that each city offers, we enjoy different practical benefits. Before I was eligible for Medicare, I had cataract surgery in Mexico. Now that I’m 71, I use Medicare for mammograms and colonoscopies in Eureka, but we always get our dental work done in Mexico or Latin America. A couple of years ago, while in Medellin, Colombia, on a home exchange with our Mexican house, Barry had a root canal done for just $200, two days after he was diagnosed.
Of course, living in two places also costs more, with double the utility bills and other expenses. We make up for them by renting out our Mexican home when we’re not there. Our contractor built us two lockable cabinets where we keep valuables and other personal possessions.
We occasionally have sitters at our Eureka apartment, but we don’t rent it out. Our two houses are very safe. A friend from Eureka is keeping an eye on our apartment, while in Guanajuato our rental manager and cleaner are in the house regularly.
We have a Mexican bank account, through which we pay our electricity and telephone bills by automatic deduction. In Guanajuato you can’t pay your water bill electronically, so every winter I personally go to the local water company and pay them a anticipation which covers the rest of the year. We pay our rental manager and house cleaner through an automatic bank transfer.
It’s a relief to have only one house. Two houses would be too much. Our house in Guanajuato requires continuous maintenance and that is a lot of responsibility for me.
Between our investments, IRAs, Social Security, and part-time income, we are financially comfortable. As freelancers, we are semi-retired. Barry writes regular columns on science and Humboldt history, and I write about travel, expat life, and wellness. In both communities, we see friends, explore the natural beauty that surrounds us, and volunteer. In Guanajuato we paint graffiti in our neighborhood and I give wellness talks in centers for the elderly; Barry helps plant trees in Eureka and picks up trash on the beaches.
I am a permanent resident of Mexico, the equivalent of a US green card holder, while Barry still has a tourist visa, which allows him to stay in the country for 180 days.
Seventeen years after buying our house, Barry is 80 and I’m 71. We’re physically fit and agile, but will we want to continue this lifestyle, and a full day of flying in each direction, for another 10 years? We have built good systems, but even with good systems things can go wrong and maintaining two homes in different countries requires continuous adaptability.
For now, we thrive on variety and contrast in our lives. I love having the opportunity to chat with people in Spanish in one house and paddle around the bay in the other. There is nothing better than that.
Louisa Rogers is a writer, hiker, paddleboarder, and cook who divides her life between Guanajuato, Mexico, and Eureka, California. She read more of her articles and essays.