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U.S. retirees living well in Mexico

By Rafael Romo, Senior Latin American Affairs Editor
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Thu May 15, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mexico has drug violence but it is still attractive to retirees
  • Cost of homes and medicines are cheaper, they say
  • In Puerto Vallarta, local businesses employing English speakers
  • About 1 million U.S. citizens are living in Mexico, State Department says

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (CNN) -- It's the life Sara Wise always dreamed of: a place with unbeatable weather, sunny beaches, good medical care and an active social life -- and all at very affordable prices.

The former manager of retail businesses didn't find what she wanted in her native U.S., but rather just south of the border in Mexico.

For the last six years, the 63-year-old Minnesotan and her 70-year-old husband Mike Wise, both retired, have been enjoying the warm weather and friendly beaches of Puerto Vallarta, a resort on the Pacific coast.

They have a very active social life and say they have more friends in Mexico than they ever did in the United States, mainly because Puerto Vallarta is full of people just like them.

According to local government estimates, there are around 35,000 U.S. and Canadian citizens living in Puerto Vallarta, many of them retired like Mike and Sara.

"We get together and we have happy hours, we have wine and appetizers, we have coffees in different neighborhoods and we get together at different restaurants," Sara Wise says.

Medical care is another factor they considered when they decided to move here. To their surprise, they found more options for quality health care and at much more affordable prices than in the United States, including procedures like surgeries and advanced dental care.

"The accessibility to the doctors is something that we never experienced in the United States and from what we understand it's getting more difficult, not less," Mike Wise says. "And the cost is somewhere between a quarter to a half of what things cost in the U.S."

Tourism recovering in Mexico

Puerto Vallarta has adapted to this relatively new, foreign clientele. Around town, doctors and dentists put out signs in English, and often have English-speaking employees.

Kimberly Altman, 63, a retiree from California who has been living in Puerto Vallarta for three-and-a-half years, says a doctor's visit is usually $40.

"No matter what they do, $40 per visit and you can get to see them the very same day you need them. It's very convenient in a lot of ways," Altman says.

Mike Altman, 68, Kimberly's husband, says affordability goes well beyond just medical care. For him, part of the beauty of living in Puerto Vallarta is how far dollars go when it comes to real estate.

"We have an ocean view, 3,000-square-foot condominium that I can afford on my Social Security. How's that? We have 24-hour security and indoor parking," Altman says.

According to the U.S. Department of State, 1 million American citizens of all ages live in Mexico, and 20.3 million visited as tourists -- making it the No. 1 destination for U.S. travelers.

The number of expats living in Mexico has continued to grow, local officials say, despite safety concerns from the drug violence which has made headlines around the world. Jesus Gallegos Álvarez, tourism secretary of Jalisco state, where Puerto Vallarta is located, was gunned down in March 2013 in the city of Zapopan.

In March, authorities confiscated 1 metric ton of marijuana and 38 kilograms of methamphetamine in nearby Tlajomulco de Zuniga. The seizure was made possible after the arrest of Geronimo Ibarra Alcaraz, 23, an alleged member of a criminal group who, Jalisco authorities say, led them to the discovery of 19 bodies buried in a field, including a restaurateur from Tlajomulco.

But many expats insist their little corner of paradise has largely remained untouched by the drug violence.

"I feel very safe here. I go for walks with my dog at midnight. I go alone and I don't worry about it. When we lived in northern Minnesota, I'd wake up every morning and hear how many people were killed in Minneapolis overnight. We don't have that down here," Sara Wise says.

With plenty of food options, water sports like sailing and diving and American stores like Costco and Home Depot, retirees say they can enjoy the best of Mexico while still having access to many American products.

"We're here for good," Sara Wise says with a chuckle. "They'll probably take us out in a jar of ashes."

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