The Right Way to Move to Mexico

Jonathan Lockwood is a wonderful case study for those thinking of taking the plunge and picking up everything to go live and work in a new country. His story is one that is becoming all too common but rarely executed in such a smooth fashion. His use of a digital assistant, an online expat network, a concierge service, and other resources for the transition made for some interesting experiences that we can all learn from.

I met Jonathan a year ago at Jim Karger’s compound in San Miguel de Allende in Central Mexico. We had a great discussion about his decision to leave the US as well as the journey he was on to find his new home. He told me that his decision was a reluctant one but after his own awakening process he felt compelled to go beyond the borders of the United States to look for happiness. By doing this he could not only be able to live in a beautiful exotic location but lower his tax burden and live a freer life at the same time. I found his story to be so relevant to others in his situation that I did a video interview with him about it at that time.

After the interview he, like me, decided that San Miguel de Allende was the place that he would like to call home (at least for a little while). For the year leading up to his arrival we talked over the phone and with one visit he was able to find the new house he would be living in. He is now fully settled in and I thought it would be a good time to go over his trip and see what were some of the lessons that may be helpful to others thinking of doing the same.

James Guzman: Hi Jonathan, it’s great to finally have you down here in San Miguel de Allende. Let’s first get into why you chose to leave Phoenix in the first place.

Jonathan Lockwood: It started with a series of awakenings. At 38 I realized that the religious organization my family has been devoted to for four generations—and that I myself had been promoting—was, for lack of a better term, a cult. It was a bizarre experience most people can’t fully relate to. While it was very difficult, since admitting it meant being fully shunned by my entire family and former community, it also turned out to be the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

JG: Wow, that doesn’t sound like a pleasant experience. How were you able to come to see it as such a positive thing?

JL: Realizing my life was built upon a completely false foundation of beliefs wasn’t something I easily recovered from. I think life-quakes like this wake you up in a lot of ways. I began to see all sorts of areas in which I’d been deceiving myself, particularly in the area of authoritarianism. Libertarian messages began appealing to me. I read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and they made a huge impression on me.

I came to see that, just as my belief in authoritarian religious leaders had been an illusion, so was my belief in authoritarian government leaders. That combined with an awareness of the utterly unsustainable economic trajectory the United States government was on brought me to the decision to expatriate. So I began fantasizing about an actual Galt’s Gulch.

JG: If only one existed! So once you decided to leave how did you begin looking for your new homes?

JL: I would do web searches. At first I discovered some of those seasteading projects. I really did try to open my mind to it, but couldn’t picture being happy living on a ship. Afterward I found out about Doug Casey’s La Estancia de Cafayate in Argentina; then later Galt’s Gulch Chile. I found a lot of good information from the various Dollar Vigilante correspondents throughout the world. I used the following criterion to determine where I wanted to go:

  • Was it freer than where I was?
  • Could I save money by moving there?
  • Was the weather warm and non-humid?
  • Would I need to learn a new language? (I preferred to improve my Spanish than learn a new one.)

First I had to go check out Chile. The Heritage Foundation had identified it as #7 on their Economic Freedom list, the weather in central Chile appeared to be similar to southern or central California and they spoke Spanish there. So I spent a few weeks there in January and February of 2013, renting an apartment in the Las Condes community of Santiago, visiting Valparaiso, Viña del Mar and some of the other coastal cities. I also toured Galt’s Gulch Chile, which is a gorgeous valley surrounded by mountains in the wine growing region of Curacavi. Loved my time in Chile.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Not only was I reading these crazy, best-kept-secret reviews of what it was like here, with the cool restaurants, bars, music and museums, but the weather was consistently warm and, being in a high- desert region, comfortably non-humid. Jim Karger had written some great articles about how liberty- seeking people were starting to see that the next best thing to living in a truly free land was living in one where things were so jacked up it was pretty easy to skate by, living any way you wanted. So I spent a couple of weeks there in June of 2013, and decided San Miguel was the best jumping-off point, especially considering the need to move my studio equipment.

JG: About that, what business are you in?

JL:  I’m a voice talent. I record TV and radio commercial voiceovers and video narrations from my home studio.

JG:  Nice. So you have a lot of studio equipment?

JL:  Well, here’s the thing. State-of-the-art audio recording today is both affordable and compact, but  when you start working with bigger clients the one thing that separates the pros from the amateurs is being able to create a consistently quiet recording environment. So last year I finally invested in a really great double-wall 5×4 vocal booth, and it’s especially necessary now. San Miguel de Allende is an amazing town, but part of the attraction is that there are always celebrations going on; celebrations that include fireworks at all hours of the day and night, parades, street musicians—along with the many very loud church bells. So the booth is a must for me.

The thing is it weighs 1700 pounds and comes in many large pieces. Getting it to Mexico and putting it back together again was the most difficult part of my move. But getting a shipping container and transporting it to South America would have been tougher.

JG: How did you get started planning your move?

JL: As usual with me, I relied on a lot of other people. For 7 years I’ve used a professional organizer named Jill. She calls herself The Paperwork Pro, and working with her is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. She basically helps get in between me and my CPA and just makes sure things related to my business get taken care of, but over the years has helped in a great variety of ways. So I ran a lot of my investigating through her.

First, I made a list of all my monthly expenses. That showed me what I’d need to arrange as it related to my living expenses: Internet, cable, phone, cell phone, utilities, etc. There’s a Yahoo Groups site for San Miguel residents they call “the civil list” or Civil_SMA, which, despite being clunky to navigate and frequented by a good number of crabby people, is well supported and often helpful. I was able to get a good idea of what services were best and how much my local expenses would be. I also searched Craig’s List a lot for rentals there, eventually finding my home from an ad on that site.

The biggest challenge was with phone service. A lot of people suggested things like using Magic Jack, Vonage or some web-based app along with a Mexican cell carrier. But my business requires I both field and make calls—mostly from and to the US—at any time. I didn’t want to make clients call a foreign number, I needed to be able to leave the house when I wanted and, although internet service is quite good in San Miguel, I didn’t want to be 100% dependent on it both at home and through my cell in order for an urgent call to properly forward. A friend of mine suggested a Dual SIM cell, and that sounded like the best solution so I used a virtual assistant to help me sort through all the options.

Between his research and mine, I finally settled on a factory unlocked Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini Duos GT-i9192. This was kind of hard for me since I’m such an iPhone fan, but it’s possibly the best Dual SIM phone out there, so the right way to go in my situation. In the first slot I have a Mexican Telcel SIM, which I use for calls to and from Mexico and data. In the second slot I have an AT&T SIM on their Viva Mexico plan. I’ll be honest: I’m still trying to figure out the way Telcel works, but I haven’t wasted much time since all the Mexican calls, text and data I need only comes to around $30 or so a month. The AT&T plan, which might be more than I need, gives me 450 minutes of talk and 50 texts
for $77 a month. And the extra minutes actually roll over to the next month if you don’t use them, which is great. I did get Magic Jack too, which is hooked up to a little cordless phone in my home. It’s crazy-cheap, the quality’s fine and I like not having to waste my AT&T minutes on, say, a long technical support call.

JG: Great. But how about the move itself? Did you have any trouble moving your stuff across the border?

JL: As I see it you have three options for moving your belongings into Mexico from the US:

  • You can separately hire both a customs broker and a Mexican moving company.
  • You can hire a company that is both a customs broker and a moving company.
  • You can do it yourself.

I think if I were in my 20s and didn’t have much to move, I’d pack my car, maybe a little trailer and take my chances. But I’m 48 now, and I tend to opt for paying people to ensure things go at least a little more smoothly. There is a company in San Miguel that has a stellar reputation for handling everything. The only problem? Moving my stuff from Arizona would have cost me around $10,000. Even if I brought it to Laredo myself, they still would have charged me over $6,000. I found others that were charging between $3,000 and $4,000; that was better. But in checking references I found more than a few absolute horror stories about some of those companies, and I’m not just talking about irritating things; I’m talking about people not getting their stuff for several months or YEARS!

So when I came in April to find a rental home, I just started asking people for recommendations. Two of them told me about Lavinia’s Art Frames in San Miguel. Being a big artist town, these folks went into business not only framing art, but also moving it across the border. Then they started helping people move their belongings across too as a sideline. After a little checking, I found they had a really good reputation.

I talked to Lavinia’s Ian, who explained that while I could take advantage of Mexico’s Menaje de Casa, a government provision to move your stuff without technically paying an import duty, it would require unbelievably exhaustive documentation in both English and Spanish and a fairly big fee anyway. He explained how things work at the border, how his representative would deal with the customs folks and in the end it would be a lot less hassle. In my case, even though I arrived in Laredo very late and we had to wait an extra day to move, it still cost me exactly $3,000 for their services, and that included the customs charges and unloading my stuff in the new house. Plus I was able to follow their rep in my car, which I’d towed from Arizona; so I had my stuff the same day I arrived at my new home. I couldn’t recommend them more.

JG: So you transported your things from Arizona to Laredo?

JL: Yes. That was not fun. I only needed a 14 foot truck, but the day before I was leaving, U-Haul called to tell me only a 20 foot truck was available. So I’m driving an unnecessarily huge truck, towing my Acura on a dolly behind it, with my cat Kimba riding shotgun with me. In the unlikely event you ever find yourself in similar circumstances and without going into too much detail, beware heavy traffic and loose cats!


JG: Ha! Sounds crazy.

JL: Plus I had, not one, but TWO flat tires on the trip. The good news is that U-Haul did an impressive job of getting emergency road service people out to me both times, and neither of them slowed me down more than an hour and a half. Anyway, the rent-a-truck thing went the way you might expect it to, but the point is that Lavinia’s is a savvy group of folks in San Miguel who know what they’re doing and will help you get your stuff across for a very reasonable charge.

JG: So you’ve been in San Miguel de Allende for two months now. What do people who are considering doing the same need to know about the pros and cons?

JL: I’ll address two groups: first, younger people who travel light and still have patience for occasional inconveniences. To you, the potential negatives are that it can be difficult for an American to get a job that might be enough to support himself. Also, although there’s a pretty wide range of demographics here, I’ll estimate that about two-thirds of all expats are in their late 50s or older, so it might not be the vibe you’re looking for. Next, if you’re already used to living inexpensively, San Miguel might not be precisely the Mexican locale you’re imagining if you’re looking to live very cheaply—but it might be. It all depends on the cost of living where you are now and how you’re living. More on that in a bit.

Next, for people 40 or older: you have to be prepared for the fact that things will be a little frustrating here when it comes to interactions with service providers. With some exceptions, you’ll have to make a good effort to flag down your waiter if you need something. You simply can’t expect the cable company is coming when they say they are or that your local lawyer or insurance rep will be in the office when you arrive for your appointment.

I’ll call the next potential negative “personal space factor.” For one thing the charming streets of downtown San Miguel get a little cramped for walking comfortably. They’ll range in width from 3 feet down to maybe 1 foot; you’re not always going to be able to walk side-by-side with your walking partners, and you’ll have to get used to the necessary “dances” that occur when meeting opposing pedestrian traffic. You can get used to this. What might be more annoying to an American is that people may seem less concerned with being in your space. Whether in a grocery store or walking through the city, it seems as if no one is paying attention to how they’re in your way, cutting you off or bumping into you. At first this will seem like disrespect, but if you pay close attention you’ll find that they don’t seem irritated themselves as the same things happen to them. When you accidentally bump into them, you’ll turn to apologize and find they don’t even appear to have noticed. It’s not disrespect, but just a cultural thing I’m learning to deal with.

There are what, to an American, will be considered inconveniences. You may not be able to find all the American brand name products you’re used to—although you will find plenty of them and those you can’t can be ordered through the mail. If you’re bringing a car, seriously consider selling your luxury sedan for something taller and rough-and- tumble like an SUV. Bringing my Acura was the worst decision of my move; the streets, curbs and driveways are not what you’re used to, and you’re likely to bang it up quite a bit.

JG: All right. How about the positives?

JL: Okay, here goes: you will be living in a town that might just be the closest thing to “magical” you’ve ever experienced. It’s like being transported into some 300-year-old European villa you’ve read about in a book. The narrow, cobble-stone streets, the magnificent old buildings, the little parks, the wonderful jardin (garden) right in the city center where families, friends and lovers are sitting on benches beneath meticulously manicured trees, talking and laughing in the presence of enormous, gothic churches and delightful street musicians. But, while you’re almost hypnotized by this old world elegance, you’re also surrounded by a huge number of amazing little restaurants, bars, nightclubs, shops and art galleries!

You will totally understand why Conde Nast last year named it the #1 Best City in the World.

Screen Shot 2014-05-03 at 11.24.05 AMNext positive: while there are certain inconveniences, there are also wonderful conveniences. In Phoenix I paid someone $120 to clean my home once per month. Here I pay $80 per month for a maid who comes TWICE per WEEK. In addition to cleaning my entire home, she actually does my laundry! Maids will even cook for you if you want. I have a masterful local electrician and handyman who has done great work in my recording studio for which he charges only 100 pesos (or presently $7.58 USD) an hour. This compares to $50-$100 an hour in the US. Cab fares anywhere in town will cost from $2.25 to $4.50 USD, and taxis are everywhere. (One exception to the general lack of promptness: when you call a cab it will typically arrive in less time than they tell you.) Costs for things like cell service, cable, Internet or utilities are probably going to be a lot lower than where you are in the US.

Eating out will be much less expensive for most of you. True, sometimes I found that certain restaurants were only a little less expensive than many in the US, but when I factor in everything, like cheaper drinks (including all the common 2-for- 1s,) and the fact that most places are quite a lot less expensive—and I never end up at joints like I did in Phoenix, where I was often dropping $150 to $250 on a date—I’m probably spending less than half on eating out even though I do it more. And let me tell you, there are some fantastic restaurants in San Miguel, serving a great variety of cuisine.

The weather is, to my way of thinking, ideal. There is no month in the year when the average high temperature is below 73F or above 87F. The nighttime temps are almost always in the mid to high 50s, only occasionally dropping to the 40s over winter. Being in the high desert, the humidity is very agreeable. Even in the rainy season when we may start the day at 80% (not odd for early mornings,) by afternoon we’re already down in the 30% range. For some people the weather alone makes this town an outstanding decision.

If learning Spanish gives you anxiety, be assured that you’ll be able to do so at a comfortably slow pace. Most local Mexicans speak a bit or a lot of English, and there are always lots of expats around if you need help.

If you’re younger and are able to work remotely or have your own online business, this is great for you. Depending on what you want, you can probably find a decent place to rent for $400 to $800 a month. If you want something more luxurious, you can have that too. A lot of older people? Yes, but there’s a good number of young ones too. You’ll find many expats to hold a pretty leftist ideology, but the good news is that there’s a growing number of liberty-minded people here as well. And San Miguel has somehow found its way onto the global, libertarian radar as a must-see place. Folks from all over the world are constantly stopping down for a few days or a few weeks to check it out and meet up with the local anti-collectivist enclave.

Colorful Steet, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico

JG: So is San Miguel de Allende the Galt’s Gulch you were looking for?

JL: Ha! I’m no longer looking for Galt’s Gulch. I think the lesson I’ve learned is that there’ll probably never be a shangri la, and that searching for it will probably lead to disappointment. When I look at how those escaping religious persecution came to the “New World” for freedom, but how they soon started creating rules every bit as legalistic and authoritarian—even burning people alive for stepping outside of their own rigid ideology… When I consider how the religion I was born into began as a very open and free group, but soon thereafter turned into a ridiculously dictatorial cult, it’s brought me to the conclusion that the distance between Liberty and Tyranny is usually very short.

If someone out there thinks there can really be something like a Galt’s Gulch, do let me know. I’ll be happy to visit. But in the meantime I’ll be hanging out in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where (at least for the time being) life is easy, inexpensive and a hell of a lot of fun.