Quit Your Job And Live By The Sea: 3 Cheap (and Secret) Beach Towns
Do you often dream of quitting your day job or retiring early and moving to a beach town that’s so cheap you can live for next to nothing in a tropical paradise? A new report from the editors of International Living reveals three secret, affordable beach getaways that will help make that daydream a reality. The location: Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, where you’ll find off-the-radar coastal communities that are so cheap you might not need to work.
“Most vacationers who know of Mexico’s Yucatán beaches immediately think of Cancún, Playa del Carmen or Tulum. They’re gorgeous stretches of coast, to be sure. But there are quieter, less-touristed spots that provide the same eye-popping views, but with fewer crowds and less expense,” says Suzan Haskins, a senior editor at International Living.
Haskins hails from the Midwest, where she spent nearly 25 years working in corporate advertising and marketing. Finally, in 2000, she said “not another winter in Omaha” and began looking for a place to live where the climate was better, life moved at a slower pace and she could do more of the things she had always wanted to do. After trying out Ecuador, Haskins and her husband moved to Mexico in late 2002. In 2006 they relocated to Panama and then Nicaragua before returning to Mérida in Mexico’s Yucatán state, where they renovated a colonial home and continue to enjoy the good life.
Here, we caught up with Haskins to get her take on three cheap, out-of-the-way beach retreats in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula that provide the opportunity for a quieter, easier and much more affordable life.
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Where It’s Located: “Holbox Island—where the Caribbean Sea meets the Gulf of Mexico—is one of our favorite getaway spots,” says Haskins. Tiny Holbox (pronounced ol-bosh) is set at the northern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula. To get there, you’ll need to drive about two hours from Cancún to the town of Chiquila, park your vehicle and take a ferry to the narrow 26-mile-long island. Or you can take a small plane from Cancún, which arrives on the island’s simple little airstrip. There’s really only one town to speak of: Only a small area on the western end of the island has been developed.
Why It’s Great: Life in bohemian, laidback Holbox is all about the white-sand beach and being in or on the water. “There are hardly any cars. Instead, you get around by golf cart, moped or on foot,” says Haskins, who reports that the people who come here—including those who stay long term—tend to be nature lovers. Holbox is one of the world’s best places to swim with whale sharks. “Swimming with these gentle giants is an experience not to be missed,” says Haskins. There are no condo towers, gated communities or large resorts. “You’ll find small, boutique-style hotels and mom-and-pop restaurants, most serving fabulously fresh seafood and lobster (try the lobster pizza!),” says Haskins. The downsides, according to Haskins: no shopping, no healthcare facilities and during hurricane season the island is particularly vulnerable. “It is barely above sea level, so most expats that live here tend to be very resilient and/or build very sturdy well-engineered homes on tall pillars,” says Haskins.
The Cost: Life on Holbox is cheap: Think $10 lobster dinners. A couple could live a comfortable life for about $2,000 a month. “We know people who spend far more and others that spend less,” says Haskins. “It all depends on the kind of lifestyle you are after.”
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Where It’s Located: The small beachside village of Mahahual is about four hours south of Cancún on Mexico’s gorgeous Caribbean Coast. Unlike the heavily touristed beaches of the Riviera Maya farther north, the Costa Maya is unpopulated and set against a backdrop of lowland jungle for some 62 miles. Located at the literal end of the road, Mahahual is one of only two towns to access this spectacular environment.
Why It’s Great: “If you love white-sand beaches and warm, turquoise waters, that’s what you’ll find in Mahahual,” says Haskins. There’s no traffic, no high-rises—only sand-floored beach bars and hammocks everywhere you look. Mahahual is far less touristed than Cancún, although its cruise ship port is bringing in increasing numbers of day trippers. Because it is far from Cancún’s international airport, though, you won’t find big resorts or the thumping nightclubs and upscale restaurants. “Mahahual has a hip-but-rustic feel,” says Haskins. “Almost everyone you’ll meet here is not ‘local’ but has found their way here from somewhere else, giving this an international vibe. You’ll find Italians, Argentinians, French, Germans, Americans, Canadians—many of whom have started businesses.”
The Cost: “Because it is not as discovered as the Riviera Maya nor does it have nearly as many amenities (any major shopping or healthcare needs are done in the town of Chetumal, an hour away) prices for real estate are much lower than you’ll find along the Riviera Maya,” says Haskins. Most people tend to buy property in one of the many beachside communities scattered north and south of Mahahual, where it is still possible to find a true oceanfront home or lot on which to build a home. You can get a nice beachfront lot for less than $100,000. For example, five beachfront lots near Puerto Angel, just 20 minutes from Mahahual, were recently for sale for $69,000 each. “You can’t even touch these prices in the Riviera Maya,” says Haskins. A couple can live comfortably in Mahahual for less than $2,000 a month.
Where It’s Located: A former fishing village, Chelem is located on Mexico’s Gulf Coast, about a 40-minute drive from the city of Mérida (which was just named by “Best Small City in the World” by Conde Nast Traveler).
Why It’s Great: With its slower pace and rich culture, Chelem provides the opportunity for a simple life by the beach and is a favorite of expats doing everything from selling real estate to running restaurants. Its proximity to Mérida makes it extra appealing. “Every amenity anyone could possibly want or need can be found in Mérida, including sprawling shopping malls, excellent hospitals and even Costco,” says Haskins. “And, of course, the international airport offers convenient, low-cost fares to get to the States and Canada.” According to International Living, expat Geoff Kent moved to Chelem with his wife and two young kids in 2018, and they are considering opening a small coffee shop or donut store. “We have a pretty typical life for a family with young kids,” says Kent. “Get the kids off to school in the morning, help them with homework in the evening.” Besides Chelem, there are several other communities along this stretch of coast with good-sized foreign populations, including Progreso, Chuburna, Chicxulub, Telchac Puerto and San Crisanto.
The Cost: In Chelem, a four-bedroom, two-bathroom home with a pool one block from the ocean rents for about $600 a month. A bus ride to the nearby town of Progreso is about 50 cents. Weekly groceries for a family of four is about $150 and gas for cooking and hot water is another $25 per month. In total, a family of four can live on about $1,800 a month.
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