A Little Musing… On Beach-Vibes in Mexico and How the U.S. Has Lost It’s Sense of Community

Last updated on August 29, 2020

Our home culture shapes the fabric of our understanding of the world. If we are raised in one country, we have one leading culture creating the schema for how we interpret everything from love to family to community. I grew up in the US, and no amount of travel will change that single fact. The views I bring to my travels were nurtured in an environment very different from many of the places I visit.

From this perspective, however, I can look at those differences and see them as that—more than chalking it up to a novelty and moving on, during my travels I look for the cultural patterns beneath the surface to understand and how they shape our lives. My life, of course, but also the everyday lives of people all over the world. There are niggling differences in some cases, and sweeping, deep differences in others. Many times this goes beyond location, religion, and race. It comes down to community.

pretty cat
The prettiest cat I’ve seen in ages gave me a cautious welcome as I wandered the streets of San Pancho, Mexico.

By and large the overarching themes among cultures are similar. We all eat, we want education for the next generation, and research shows that even in the poorest of countries we crave a job that offers dignity and fulfillment. The nuances of getting there however—and how we achieve these things inside of societies—differ. Sometimes the differences do rest within religion, and many are often due to natural resources and wealth disparities too; things outside of the control of many people. There’s a lot that can be attributed to the developing aspect of these countries. But some differences are cultural and deep within the nature of how people choose to live and create the foundation of their lives.

To this end, once I left home for the first time, I began to find many economies built around a different foundation than what I had always known. Although mega stores exist all over the world now, in many places the towns operate under what I like to call single-purpose economies. That’s the best I can come up with to describe the fact that in many places I have visited, including my current home in San Pancho, Mexico, a single, weekly shopping trip to Target is not only unheard of, but it’s not desired either.

Stereotypes and generalizations are misleading, and so I don’t mean to paint too broad of a brush stroke here by intimating that no one likes the culture of multi-purpose mega-stores that expanded outward from the U.S. These stores play a needed role back home, and a similar role in other communities all over the world. Here in my tiny beach town, however, specialized shops and services continue to flourish far past their counterparts in most of the U.S., where corporations and chain stores have mostly beat the mom-and-pop shops into oblivion.

The tortilla shop in San Pancho, Mexico.
The one-stop shop for fresh, hand-made tortillas in San Pancho.

Now in some parts of small-town America still, and even the huge urban centers, there are micro-economies built around shops, businesses, and people with very niche jobs. Here in Mexico though, and it is not isolated to my small town, the single-purpose shops have stood out these past weeks in stark relief to the life I joined when I was back home last year. While Walmart is a monthly run for many Mexican families (and expats too!), life here is still mostly fueled by a network of niche shops that sell (and excel in) something.

Still not quite sure what I mean? Well, an average week sees me heading to the tortillería for freshly cooked tortillas—any variety imaginable on offer and I tend to purchase a stack of fresh tortillas, as well as a bag of deep-fried corn chips for my guacamole. Tortillas is all they sell; nothing else. Just tortillas.

Then the lavandería is a short bike ride away and returns freshly washed and pressed clothing. I don’t visit the carnicería, but the carnivores in town alternate the general meat-aria with the pollería—home of fresh chicken cut to order in any way shape or size you could desire for your dinner.

speacialty shops in mexico

Each shop serves a purpose, and through that specialization they serve this tiny town in a way the large superstores 40 minutes away never could. Back home I walk into a Target and walk out with my weekly groceries, prescriptions, and a new outfit if I choose. It’s convenient, to be sure. But what is lost in the convenience? I ask myself if I am, perhaps, romanticizing this notion. In the states, I am well and pleased to head to a single super market, conduct my business, and head home—as an American I tend to accept the bubbles we have created.

But here, romantic or not, I like it. And the locals perpetuate this system perhaps for the very same reason I love it too: It fosters community, connectedness, and a sense of independence mostly lost in the States. Even in the most connected of neighborhoods, with friendly faces and that aspect of community, I see us often operating as little islands in our commerce. This behavior has removed us not only from relating to each other, but often with the building blocks of life, our food.

I can rarely pinpoint why precisely I so resonate with life outside the United States, but this idea here—of interdependence—holds a piece of the reason. Mexico is but one of the countries where the niche shops and the single-purpose economy creates a system of communicating and interacting with others. Throughout Asia, India, and Europe even, there are more opportunities for connecting to a single person — their story and history — as you go about your own life.

churro vendor
The churro vendor sets up shop in preparation for the late afternoon snackers wandering around Sayulita.

In shopping for fruits and veggies from the produce trucks weaving through town, I meet the sons of farmers nearby. Weekly markets bring in vegetables from a bit farther afield, more variety but still a friendly face to share their story. I have lived in this small Mexican town for six weeks and already the fried chicken vendor (who I never eat from because we have already established she doesn’t offer vegetarian food) smiles and waves as my bicycle zips along the road.

The root of this idea began years ago because this type of economy is present in most places I visit, including many areas of Europe. But it struck me this past week because I see the way it fosters friendships and community in a way I often miss when I go home.  I have friends back home, just as I have them here in town, but those more grounded friendships are simply the foundation of enjoying this community. I equally love the network of friendly faces and shop owners who make up this town—and that is not something I have back home.

This economy of specialized skills and shops, if nothing else, allows me to integrate more immediately into each placed I visit, it opens the world up a bit because people live their lives more openly. I’ve talked about my love for the sidewalk cafe culture in Bosnia and community spaces in Cuba, and this plays into that same idea.

Love your world in tile relief in San Pancho, Mexico.
“Love your world” in colorful tiles lines the outside wall of a primary school in San Pancho, Mexico.

The desire to create a community where you know your neighbors enough to leave your front door wide open, or you pass by you actually stop for a chat. Arriving in a new city over-and-over again — as I have done these past few years — sounds adventure-filled, but it can be a lonely business as you settle in, look around and spread the tentative web of friendships. Within two weeks of arriving here, however, the shop owners pegged me as a regular face, and with that status has come a familiarity that breeds idle chit-chat, lazy conversations, and a refreshing friendliness.

This same thing was often the case in Chiang Mai, Thailand, although the language barrier often prevented anything more than recognition and smiles in many cases. Here however, with Spanish easily on hand, I have people who ask after my day, children chase me down to say hello, and shop owners wave as I pedal past.

Back home, in our rush for convenience, I fear we are missing the whole point. I have been taking the advice of everyone who commented on my post about life and uncertainty earlier this month, and I am relaxing. Sunsets on the beach, whale watching with friends, and days spent exploring and photographing my town, meeting people, talking, and sometimes just letting the tiny shops and smiling locals pull me deeper into this charming beachside community in Mexico.

22 thoughts on “A Little Musing… On Beach-Vibes in Mexico and How the U.S. Has Lost It’s Sense of Community”

  1. This article definitely cleared some of my thoughts. I was also trying to pinpoint how America is so different from other countries in terms of how it interacts locally.
    I was thinking its the driving and highway culture instead of walking. But i agree with you 100%.

    Im from Nj and i went on vacation to Morocco and ended up marrying from someone there, and during the process, i noticed how the life in my wifes small town of Chefchouen is so different from what im used to in Nj. For one, there are no mega stores there, and specialty stores run the city. 2nd you can pretty much walk most places in her town by foot within 20-30 minutes, and most people cannot afford cars. So when they walk, they are more likely to interact with each other face to face. There, the neighbors help each other regularly. Little kids go into their neighbors houses for snacks or if they fall down and need a bandade or just to hang. Neighbors also visit for gossip. Cafe culture is dominant where the men socialize. And its a small town of 40k people so you natrually see the same faces after a while. And there is a shopping center of specialty stores where everyone walks.

    I wish we had more of this in NJ where theres an outdoor shopping center of small specialty stores where people walk and hang out by. I guess a parable would be the outlet malls but somehow its still very different.

  2. Just happened upon your post and it happens to be the exact reason I chose to move to Puerto Vallarta. Interconnectedness. Lovely read…reminded me of all the things I now miss being back in the U.S.

    • Thank you Caroline, it’s truly magical to live in a place that hasn’t lost the community aspect of life and living. :)

  3. What a lovely style of writing you have in sharing your travels with us!
    I am moving to Mexico, had settled on Chapala, but am now considering other towns. I’m disabled but can walk, thankfully for a bit.
    I need advice on Realtors because people advise to get one for a long term rental. How did you find your places? My daughter and I are going down in the areas Lake Chapala, etc, in December and need advice, please. I speak Spanish, but won’t understand contrasts in Spanish.

    Thank you for all the recommendations.

    • I don’t have contacts in Chapala, but I suggest find some expat groups for that region—there are surely several since it’s an expat-heavy area—and search through their recommendations!

  4. We’ve had exactly the same experience in our 3 years of living in Mexico, although we live on a sailboat moving up and down the Pacific coast rather than having a home in one town. You can find everything you need, but you will do a bit of walking from store to store to get it.

    We often have to find parts for our boat, so in addition to going to the little markets to buy food, we end up at the wide variety of hardware stores to buy parts. Often a store will have 20 identical screws or bolts of one particular size and type and none of any other… so it’s nothing like going to Ace Hardware at home. In fact, many hardware stores specialize in very specific things. You can go to a store that sells only screws, nuts and bolt and absolutely nothing else!!… very different than back home in the States.

    Great post – I really enjoyed your take on the little local stores in Mexico and the pic of “ama tu mundo” is lovely.

    I wrote a similar post for our fellow sailors so they know what it will be like to go food shopping once they sail down from San Diego!! http://roadslesstraveled.us/mexico-cruising-guide-sailing-ex-pat-lifestyle-tips-2/

    • What a wonderful way as well to see it — the way we travel really does inform our travels and though it was no doubt frustrating at times to find the parts, I expect that more than once you had unexpected conversations in these wanderings.

      Your post is incredibly thorough too! No doubt your fellow boaters and will find so much to help them navigate the cultural differences and shopping down here. Thank you for sharing some of your story and for stopping in :)

    • Thanks so much I can’t wait to get there!
      All there is in California is madness and stress and it’s too darn expensive

  5. Great post, Shannon! This is exactly what I love about Latin America. The sense of connection and community permeate every aspect of daily life. It’s something I miss so much whenever I return to the US. I’ll be heading to Mexico shortly and can’t wait to be a part of that connected community again.

  6. Thoroughly enjoyed this experience … vicariously.

    The freshness of the simple life and its realities bring a certain contentment and healthy new perspectives about our own lives and that of others. These only add to whatever comes next.
    Lesson – Keep it simple sweetheart (KISS!) :)

    I like the feel of your experiences … even from far away!

    • It is lovely here! I am nearby Almost Fearless and a few other bloggers and been a wonderful way to wind down and learn how to enjoy some beach time! :)

  7. I really enjoyed this post. Does having each business specialized in this way also result in fresher and better quality products too? (You don’t say specifically, but you seem to imply that’s the case.)

    • Yes, I think that by and large that is the case for sure — they buy much smaller quantities of food and goods and simply refresh as needed, so there is a lot of new fruits and veggies driving into town daily from the countryside. Thanks for stopping in Owen! :)

  8. Nice point of view, I really enjoyed the speciality shop aspect of things when I was living in the Galapagos Islands. I had my favourite place for bread and pastries another for eggs (eggs sold at just random places there), another for fruits and veggies….and so on. It helped to get to know people and in some ways made shopping more fun!

    • It does make it more fun! You get to go out and wander to different parts of town to collect your goods, and then interact with all the people between home and these shops! The Galapagos is on my bucket list, how long did you live there? :)

  9. How lovely to see the shops of San Pancho here! It feels like a very healthy and sustainable way to live – knowing where your purchases come from and how they were made. It has always felt a little unnatural, buying mass-produced items with little understanding of where they came from. I think it helps nurture our connection to the earth and each other. I also think running one’s own business helps empower people and give a sense of pride. For me, I find it frustrating and sad when that is taken away due to the rise of mass corporations.

    • What a lovely little town you guys found here, it really does hit on so many wonderful aspects of community and life in general. The pride you mentioned, yes, it’s really important and you’re right, I think that part plays a big role in the dynamics — that everyone has jobs they can be proud to have (versus nameless cashier at superstore) empowers the community and deepens everyone’s connection to each other at the same time. :)

  10. Not to the same extent, but I have discovered this a bit in NYC. I can’t drive to the big box stores and strip malls when I need something here. Instead, I’ve discovered the hardware store around the corner from my apartment (they know to be prepared for a barrage of questions when I arrive) and the Chinese laundry/tailor across the street and the local grocery store on the corner. Even my local gym has a bowl of apples out on the counter! It’s almost as if the LES is a little town in a big, big city :)

    • I thought about NY in particular when I tried to think about how that city has cultivated specialty in a way most of the other big cities in the US still haven’t. But perhaps the sheer diversity in the city has helped keep other traditions like this alive — if target had their way they would be on every corner. You all are convincing me NY is the next place I should hunker down! (love, love that your gym is so friendly like that :)


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