A Little Adrift

A Little Expat Living… Cost of Living in a Mexican Beach Town (2017)

Two years ago, I lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand for five months after having traveled steadily for two years. It was the first time I stayed put in one spot and became a semi-expat. As the months passed, I was so surprised by how affordable living there was that I shared a cost of living post … mostly for the readers in the A Little Adrift community who had written me over the years wondering how they could afford to also live abroad. Long story short, that post went viral and has had half a million visitors intrigued by the $485 baseline costs to live in Thailand.

Clearly the financials are interesting. So, with that in mind, I thought I’d share a similar post outlining my recent semi-expat stint in a tiny beach town in Mexico earlier this year — this time with a bonus five-minute video, covering everything the post below does if you’re keen on video rather than text! Baseline (and total) costs to live in Mexico came in under $745 every month. I’ve also lived in Oaxaca too, and it’s even more affordable.

This post was last updated in early 2017 with new information. This video shares the costs, style of living, quality of life, and other details about living as an expat in Mexico:

If you’re a reading person instead, below are the details covered in the video.

Total Cost of a Month of Living in San Pancho, Mexico

This entire post outlines the baseline costs — my fixed monthly expenses for one person living in a beach town on the west coast of Mexico. Living in Mexico is ideal for budget-conscious expats, retirees, and travelers. Those living in nearby Costa Rica or Panama tend to have higher monthly averages, so I found my Mexico living situation ideal. Mexico also has a very generous visa policy — six months on arrival for Americans, which helps keep total living costs low.

The chart shows the basics you’ll need to cover when living in most parts of Mexico. Puerto Vallarta and surrounding communities are generally pricier than spots in Oaxaca, and perhaps on par for places like San Miguel de Allende. Not included in this breakdown of costs: medical/health insurance, my plane flight to Mexico, or any expenses I incur outside of living (running this site, insurance, work, etc). But all the baseline costs are covered, and really unlike the Thailand post, this total includes toiletries and any expenses inside Mexico that cropped up — I never withdrew more than USD $750 from the ATM each month. And this budget is on the high-end for one person; if I had looked around for an apartment or shared a house with friends my costs would have lowered to $600 (and my friend Earl says that’s about the cost of living in Playa del Carmen on the east coast beaches as well. I also spent less than that easily when I lived in Oaxaca, which is an inland city and far cheaper than the coastal towns, so your money will go further. I share more Mexico resources at the end).

Monthly Expenses Cost (USD$)
Rent & Internet $375
Electricity & Water $0
Food $300
Transportation $20
Entertainment $50
      Total $745

One of the high points of Mexico, a clear advantage over living in Asia, is the visa situation. As a US citizen I receive a six months visa on arrival automatically, and this can be reset simply by crossing a border and coming back … indefinitely. For those considering moving overseas without the chance for a retirement visa, the visa policy in Mexico is a very big boon. The visa situation in Southeast Asia is a lot trickier, and though I didn’t include the visa runs into my baseline costs in SEA, it was a part of living there for six months that could add up a lot if you were there years on end. Right now the peso is roughly 18 pesos to 1 US dollar as a guide to the food and transport costs I mention (check that exchange rate here).

What Does That Look Like in Terms of Living Life?

The various facets of living abroad are part of what makes one place appeal to some expats while others prefer something vastly different. I’m on the fence between Asia and Latin America, I love them both for different reasons, so rather than compare these aspects of life to each other, below is the food, life, and culture you get for that budget living in a beach town on Mexico’s Pacific coast.

Sunset is a nightly ritual and a great way to meet the other expats and locals in town as everyone takes to the shores every single night for what have to be some of the prettiest sunsets I’ve ever seen.

A Light, Airy Studio Apartment

I didn’t look very hard for my apartment; in fact, it’s the first one I came across. I loved the family compound I lived within (they had a separate house with three rental apartments within their lot) and it’s one of the things I value living solo … I like having other people nearby who have my well-being in mind in case something happens. So, the apartment was 4,500 pesos per month ( $375) which is on the high-end for a studio in my town but the price included all utilities and really strong internet, which is essential for my online work.

A high point of living in Mexico is the fact that apartments and houses come with full kitchens (though mine was minus an oven), this is really great if you’re a keen cook—anything you rent here will likely come with a stove and pots and pans if it’s a furnished apartment. Other than the kitchen it had everything else you would expect in a studio—full size bed, counter with stools (where I worked from), closet, and a bathroom (a tour is shown in the video above).

Other places in town rent out as vacation rentals or rooms for anywhere from USD $200 per month on the very low-end (likely no wi-fi) to $500+ for 1 and 2 bedrooms. And one town over, in Sayulita (which is bigger and more touristy has a great beach, a lot more food, bars, etc), then apartment prices are actually pretty comparable if you like the idea of Mexico but think my town was a bit too small! :)

Delicious Vegetarian Eats

It’s no secret I’m a vegetarian, so for me, a country gets bonus points for not only the accessibility of vegetarian food, but the understanding of the concept of vegetarianism. Mexico’s good on both fronts, though not always great. During high season my little town had just enough options to keep it interesting, and as the seasons shifted I cooked in my apartment a lot more using fresh veggies from the markets, which was fun and gave me a kick toward my goal of becoming a better cook (Asia spoiled me because the lack of kitchens and cheap street food meant I never had to learn to cook these past years).

For costs, a cheap quesadilla runs 15 pesos (just over $1) at one of the stands, a nicer taco is about 40 pesos (about $3.25), and a veggie meal at one of the handful of restaurants in town runs up to $10 or $15 USD. I was lucky to have friends in town so I could split one of the big pizzas for our weekly Friday-night gatherings, and my friends Victoria and Steve often hosted potlucks. I drink a lot of coffee, so although I made my own pot each day, the food budget included many espressos each week. My food budget was pretty generous so if you cook at home, even cooking meat I think you could get by on 1000 pesos each week. I often bought organic veggies (expensive) at the Friday market in Sayulita, so the food budget is generous for a range of eating styles.

Getting From Here to There

One of the perks of living in a one-street town is that you don’t need a whole lot of transportation! That being said, I chose to live on the far end of the main street very close the community center where I volunteered (and about a 10 minute walk from the beach). 10 minutes doesn’t seem like much, but in the scorching heat I was happy to have use of a bicycle from the family compound.

And for leaving San Pancho, Puerto Vallarta is about 45 minutes away and costs just a few dollars each way on the bus—this is the closest big city. Sayulita is a perfectly lovely small town (much bigger than mine though) and it was merely 20 minutes up the road. This ride costs $1 each way on the bus or a quick (and easy) hitchhike ride. Sayulita was perfect to have nearby if I needed to vary up my food, explore a bit, or just get out of town for a few hours. There are many other beaches driveable, some ruins, old stuff to look at, etc if you’re keen to explore. I worked a lot so my bike took me most anywhere I wanted to go.

Nightlife in San Pancho

Dos Bertos y Las Musas play every Friday at Darjeeling during the high season in San Pancho, Mexico.

I am not a partier. Whew, glad we got that out of the way. Now, when I say that I have a low-budget for alcohol and partying you can adjust it up accordingly for yourself. San Pancho is a great town for nightlife if you like a bit of variety but nothing too crazy—no dance clubs but we did have two great bars and a lot of live music throughout the week. In fact, during high season there was live music at one of the bars or restaurants nearly every night.

One of the things I loved best about the town was that the pace of partying was a lot closer to what I prefer—everyone chilling, talking, listening to music, and enjoying company. Add to that some game nights at Victoria and Steve’s for Jungle Speed (had never heard of this game but it was fun and hilarious to play in a group), beach bonfires, and conversation …I felt like Goldilocks, San Pancho was just right.

Quality of Life in Mexico

This bit surprised me some, I knew that many Americans headed south of our border to live but I never really understood why until I stopped and spent four months on the Pacific coast taking in the truly stunning sunsets, the relaxed atmosphere and the affordable lifestyle. The only thing I expected but never found was the fear and danger.

I talked about danger last week and how our perceptions and reality are often skewed, and I think that is true of Mexico. While there are certainly dangerous places in Mexico, the country is huge, the people and cultures shift and change with the terrain and there are some surprisingly safe cities throughout the country if you know where to look (look to the blogosphere!).

I really loved the access to affordable healthcare (a bonus Thailand had as well), like-minded expats who I now call close friends, and a pace of life that encouraged me to slow down and enjoy the little moments. On the healthcare front, and safety and all that, expat friends even had a baby in Puerto Vallarta … showing even me that the perceptions and reality are different on the ground.

The short of it all is that Mexico proved more expensive at daily living than Thailand, but still at least half the rent I paid living in Los Angeles in my pre-travel days. And the flights to Mexico are far cheaper for North Americans. Although it wasn’t as cheap, I have continued to make Mexico a regular stop on my travels in the years since i lived in San Pancho. The plane flights are affordable, I speak the language, and I enjoy the culture. It’s a privilege to even have this ability, and I appreciate that Mexico has a lot to offer American expats. And likewise, many of these towns appreciate the influx of money and added services that come with expats moving to town.

It’s the sum total of it all that I love — by living outside the US I am able to scale back the hours I have to work each week to survive, and instead focus that attention on doing things I love: volunteering in the nearby community center, taking photographs, and having the time to enjoy the friendships I make. No place is perfect, but for $750 a month, nightly sunsets, lots of friends, and tasty tacos… I’ll return to Mexico soon. :)

Relevant Links and Resources for Moving to Mexico

Other Mexico Cost of Living Posts

San Pancho Travel and Visit Specifics

Airport to SP: Cheapest is the bus, by far. Taxis are going to run you a fair bit more. The bus makes a number of stops, but it’s not so bad. I had a friend who luckily was able to pick me up my first day, but after that I frequently made the trek into Puerta Vallarta via bus. Where ever you book for accommodation will also be able to arrange a taxi pick-up (sometimes for less than the going rate if you hail one) if you reach out beforehand. If you are already in the area, the bus is straightforward and takes 45 minutes to an hour from downtown PV.

Finding Accommodation: There are three tiers, the Hostel San Pancho if you don’t mind a shared-dorm; this is the most affordable option in town. Above the hostel is an affordable, very nice guesthouse called Refugio de Sol. Or Roberto’s Bungalows is boutique and just great — Earl and his wife run this place and they are simply fantastic and well linked into the expat community.

If you’re in Sayulita, my friends rented a nice place from Villas Vista Suites for three months— I would start there for online hunting. If you’re using Sayulita as your base, consider the Aurinko Bungalows or Casa Pia as a midrange option and then daytrip over to San Pancho. These all come recommended, and if you plan to move to the area they are a good base. From each you can rent a bicycle for the day or walk around town and you will see many signs for rent. You can also talk with local expats and ask around. With average Spanish, you will have no problem finding something in just a few days, especially if it’s low season (get there before November). If you don’t speak Spanish, or you came in high season, pop into the real estate agencies. They handle rentals too and are fantastic resources on any city mentioned. For a midrange hotel in Puerto Vallarta, look at Hotel Mercurio.

Working: There are some places that hire expats, though it’s under the table. To get these gigs you will definitely need to be in town and getting to know the people, places, and other expats. I know for sure that some friends worked at the mid-range and high end restaurants in SP or Sayulita. A few expats also taught English for a small stipend at Entre Amigos, the community center.

Other: For work and living, it really will be so much easier on the ground. It’s a very small town and the expat community is super supportive. It’s a cinch to get the lay of the land once you arrive. Places like Darjeeling have fantastic tea and food, and then live music throughout the week. SP is more low-key than Sayulita, but there is usually something to do 2-5 nights a week depending on the season, and then you can always go to Sayulita if you need more of a vibe sometimes.

Deciding Where to Live

In response to numerous emails asking about the differences between the handful of towns north of Puerto Vallarta, here’s a Cliff’s Notes summary of the differences in case you’re sussing out which is better for you. All three would have similar costs of living.  And then I include a couple other towns and thoughts in case you’re looking at other Mexican towns:

Bucerias: Sprawling, no defined downtown area, neighborhoods stacked behind a big road and a beach. Very close to the PV, several big resorts. Less heavy with expats than any other surrounding town. No defined personality.
Sayulita: Very small, beach is very crowded with surfers because the water is good for swimming, entirely walk-able within the town. Lots of restaurants, shops, a language school, etc. Touristy but a very clear personality with organic markets, yoga shops, surfers, etc. More of a nightlife than San Pancho (a later nightlife I should say).
San Pancho: Tiny, one main road, a handful of options for restaurants. One, sometimes two, coffee shops. Beach is gorgeous but not very safe for kids swimming (though some do) because of strong waves/undertow. Tight-knit group of expats, can’t leave home without seeing someone you know. Local kids have free reign of the whole town. Lots of musicians and something going on each night of the week in high season at one of the pubs/bars.
Guanajuato/San Miguel: In the interior, these two towns just exude pretty colonial charm. San Miguel del Allende is smaller and more popular with expats, while Guanajuato is a decent sized city with a great vibe, an affordable cost of living, and a decent-but-not-overwhelming expat community.
Oaxaca: I lived here for six months and found it is one of the most affordable expat cities in Mexico. The community is different than what you find in San Miguel or PV, it seems there are more opportunities to integrate into Mexican life. This is the food heart of Mexico, there are many indigenous cultures in and around the city, and the only real drawback is the political nature of the city — there are a lot of strikes and protests from the teachers unions and other groups.
Yucatan: Hugely popular with expats (and spring breakers), a bit pricier than the west coast, gorgeous beaches and diving. Very touristy region in general but convenient and safe.

Happy travels!

Cost of Living Comparison

Still researching the right spot to live? Our Cost of Living Guides share extensive resources or all the major expat spots around the world. These guides include thorough breakdowns of the culture, quality of life, vibe, and — importantly — budget breakdowns so you can better plan which spot in the world best meets your needs.

If there is ever anything that I can do to help, please do reach out on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and let’s talk about how we can make your travel dream a reality.