This article is from the February 1998 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Book Review
Live Better South of the Border
Spas & Hot Springs of Mexico

by jennifer j. rose

jennifer j. rose, a contributing editor of The Mexico File, spent twenty years as an Iowa lawyer before bettering her life in Morelia. She can be reached at jrose@giga.com.

LIVE BETTER SOUTH OF THE BORDER, by "Mexico" Mike Nelson.
(USA: Roads Scholar Press, ISBN 1-889489-02-6, 2nd ed., 1997, $16.95)

SPAS & HOT SPRINGS OF MEXICO, by "Mexico" Mike Nelson.
(USA: Roads Scholar Press, ISBN 1-889489-26-3, 1977, $16.95)

Visiting Mexico is one thing. Living here is another. Basking amid sweet breezes and swaying palms, marimba rhythms, strains of "Eres Tu," and romantic vistas, the tourist's Mexico is temporary, amid room-serviced luxury or experiential trysts with simple-pleasured paradise. For most of us, neither is an option for a permanent lifestyle. Reality lands, bringing mundane concerns and excess baggage of money, medical care, reliable phone service, the mail, and nearly every other aspect of Peoria as home becomes Mexico.

Americans living in Mexico evoke certain stereotypes: Chapala or San Miguel de Allende, retired or bohemian, and cheap living. None of these are true. Foreigners in Mexico lead as variegated lives as those anywhere else. At last count, more than 550,000 Americans "officially" reside in Mexico. More and more migrate southward before becoming eligible for that AARP card, settling into communities that might have the all the resort potential of Dayton, abandoning the status and accouterments of their old

lives for the peace and quality of life in Mexico. While medical care and personal services are cheaper in Mexico, many requirements of daily life Statesiders take for granted command dear prices. (A paperback bestseller costs more than twice as much as in the US, and internet access can easily run more than $100 US per month.)

At first blush, I was prepared to categorize Live Better South of the Border as just another "Live in Mexico on $1.99" fairy tale. A second look at the title, Live Better, set me straight. This book's a primer for those contemplating the move, already there, or just plain curious about what it takes to live well south of the Rio Grande.

Cautioning that some readers aren't made for Mexico, Nelson offers up these rules for enjoying life in Mexico:

• You have a spirit of adventure.

• You are not anal-retentive.

• You are willing to accept things as they are.

• You have a sense of humor.

The boilerplate rules for driving, moving your "stuff," immigration permits and working, bank accounts and money, medical care, and housing are covered, along with the loopholes and exceptions.

Now that you've made the decision to live south of the border, the question of location remains. Nelson's capsule sketches of major venues are more than the usual almanac of facts and Chamber of Commerce boosterism. Each city has its positives, negatives, nuances and quirks that may make one expatriate's Nirvana another's Newark.

Many a tourist loves Mexico for its beaches, but the beach is not the place most elect for year-round living. There's the matter of the climate. The same sandy shores which are ideal for that January tan are likely to guarantee a genuine descent into hell come summer. And a revolving door of tourists, while interesting, doesn't make for a stable cohesive community.

Keen to Morelia's conservatism, cultural offerings, and quietly insular society, he writes, "If you simply want a place to be and observe as a third party, rather than be assimilated into either a Mexican or expatriate community, this could be your place," taking the very words out of my mouth when I'm asked why I opted to live in Morelia.

San Miguel de Allende, where "half of the residents were former directors of the Santa Fe art musuem," the organizational, amenity-filled lives of Chapala, the cosmopolitan flavor of Cuernavaca, and really laid-back Puerto Angel, Oaxaca, where "the pigs in the street are quaint at first, but can become a real turnoff," attract different breeds of settlers.

If you've ever bought Mexican car insurance from Sanborn's, you've read those travelogues which detail kilometer by tope every Pemex station and roadside attraction en route. "Mexico" Mike Nelson sired those, and his intuitive powers go beyond the open road. Like a Dutch Uncle, Nelson punctures the common myths with solid advice, anticipating roadblocks and potholes. And like a proper yenta, he serves up some much-needed advice about vulnerability, romance, and obeying Mexican mores as well as warns about common traps that befall many an expatriate. Nelson's tone underscores a genuine warmth and sincerity, as if he cares about his reader more than the everyday journalist does.

Sprinkling vignettes from his hippie days, cornering the market on goat fur cushions, finding a rental in Puerto Escondido, bittersweet romances and unrequited love, Nelson personalizes his Mexico as a sanctuary, a healing ground, and a place to grow. And a place to live better.

Even if living in Mexico isn't in the cards, the waters of Mexico nurture, soothe and heal the weariest traveler.

Spas used to conjure up visions of rich, fortysomething women, slathered, pummeled and anointed, sequestered from the world while a plastic surgeon's handiwork healed among plush surroundings, granola farms in Battle Creek, or extreme fitness. No longer the domain of bored social x-rays, the lame,

and those who crave broccoli, spa culture is in. And the good news is that you don't have to look good in Spandex or have a hard body to enjoy what very well may be the millenium's response to the Sexual Revolution of yore.

A few years ago, I had my first taste of spa life at Rancho Valencia near San Diego, and I was hooked, marking the first time I've checked out of a hotel, feeling like I'd received my money's worth. Instead of toting some useless souvenir home from trips, I headed for the spa, even a day spa, wherever I went. The glow lasted longer than any of the trinkets now stashed in the bodega.

The trouble is, most American spas are incredibly expensive, pervasively perfumed in superiority. The answer lies south of the border, in Mexico, where healing waters have been from the time its earliest inhabitants sought comfort, and where nourishment of body and soul can be had for prices ranging from next-to-nothing to those affordable only by American Express Platinum cardholders, from a simple dip in natural springs on public lands to Dead Sea mud scrubdowns and high colonics.

A certain spa etiquette can numb neophytes, and spa-speak can be a language all to its own, daunting the uninitiated. How naked must one be before that massage? What's the difference between shiatsu and parafango? You're far less likely to appear a complete rube when you're in foreign territory among forgiving strangers than among the cognoscenti you fear encountering at home. Do you really enjoy a cigarette after an invigorating massage? Unfettered by the politically correct, even unrepentant carnivores can find their cravings satisfied at most Mexican spas.

Asked to name just one Mexican spa, more often than not, the only one that comes to the minds of many is the world-class Rancho la Puerta in Tecate, just a few miles east of San Diego. Tony, expensive and trendily New Age, Rancho la Puerta grew from humble beginnings in the 1940's and even through the sixties it remained a plain and simple rustic hideaway accessible to the likes of Miss Stein, my elderly piano teacher, whose looks or pocketbook would never have been mistaken for Katherine Hepburn's.

No mere catalog, "Mexico" Mike's Spas & Hot Springs of Mexico is the Michelin and Zagat of the upscale, the spiritual, mineral water, balnearios, and natural swimming holes of the country. Some, like Hacienda Cocoyoc in Cuatla, not far from Cuernavaca, are all-inclusive high-tech destinations featuring every service from Evian showers to seaweed baths and an alpha-jet capsule. The plainer, earthier Rancho Rio Caliente, about an hour from Guadalajara, on the Huichols' sacred healing grounds, isn't a full-service spa but its underground steam room scented by eucalyptus branches and the unregimented availability of massage and meditation classes encourage relaxation and balance.

Balnearios, which encompass everything from hot, cold, and medicinal waters, abound throughout Mexico. For centuries, Ixtapan de la Sal was celebrated for its hot mineral waters, and clusters of all-inclusive economy spas abound, some well beyond former days of glory and most appearing more institutional than sybaritic. Hacienda Taboada, on the outskirts of San Miguel de Allende, is an upscale romantic hotel famed for its Olympic-sized pool of hot mineral water bearing the same bicarbonate of soda level as Baden-Baden. Comanjilla, near Leon, is known for its lithium content. Nelson details a fair representation of Mexico's reputed 576 balnearios from hotels landscaped by fancy Roman baths and jacuzzis to simple cabins nestled under towering pines.

Sober since the early years of the Reagan Administration, "Mexico" Mike includes a chapter in each book about navigating AA (Alcoholics Anonymous, not AAA) in Mexico, including meeting times and schedules. And that's all part of healing and living better, too.

Both books are available at Roads Scholar Press, 2022 Amy St, Mission, TX 78572-9223, phone 210-580-7760 or 1-800-321-5605, through "Mexico" Mike's website at

http://www.mexicomike.com/products.htm , or by contacting him directly at mexmike@ix.netcom.com .

1998 jennifer j. rose