Tom’s journey to Mexico began 25 years ago with his partner Bruce. The winters in Alaska are long and cold, and like the majority of folks from that state they chose to escape for a little while by enjoying vacation in Hawaii or Mexico. They liked Hawaii, but something about being confined to an island made Tom feel a little stir-crazy, so Mexico became their first choice for a place in the sun.
Tom was a third generation railroader in Montana, Minnesota, Texas and Alaska for almost his entire working life. He did it all… laborer, electrical trolley helper, tie gang machine operator, switchman, yardmaster, brakeman and conductor. During the last 15 years of his career he worked as a train dispatcher for the Alaska Railroad. Bruce, on the other hand, enjoyed a career as a certified public accountant (CPA). Thanks to the excellent internet connections, he still works full-time from Mexico as an accounting consultant with his own firm, Hilton Financial Consulting Services.
During their vacations, they explored a great deal and became very intimate with Mexico’s Pacific coast from Barra de Navidad to Mazatlan. They stumbled across Rincón de Guayabitos about 23 years ago, and enjoyed staying at Bungalows Andrea for a couple of months at a time each year. One year, Tom and Bruce crossed over the estuary and found themselves in La Peñita. They decided that they quite liked the town. It was quieter, had fewer hotels, felt more authentic and held a rustic charm. To them it felt like real Mexico.
The Special Little House in La Peñita
Thoroughly enchanted, Tom and Bruce decided that La Peñita would be their vacation locale the following year and they started looking around town for a house to rent. With a recommendation from Janet Dow, they found a cute little two bedroom house in Colonia Pescadores at the northern end of La Peñita. They rented the home the following year and stayed for several weeks. Of particular interest is the fact that quite a few local folks have rented this charming little house and have become long-term residents after staying there. These folks include Hala Hazzi and Barbara Higgins.
When I spoke to Tom, I was surprised to learn that the little gem of a house he was referring to was in fact the same house my husband Robert and I rented years ago. I booked the house because I was smitten with the photos of the tropical flowers and banana trees in the back yard. At the time, the home was listed on Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO) and was owned by Gene and Marie Grange.
However, when Tom and Bruce rented the home in the 80s, it was owned by Efrain Menendez, an artist from Mexico City. Tom believes that Efrain may have influenced Roberto and Eddie of Xaltemba Restaurant & Galeria to move to this area also. During the interview, Tom said that he was not certain if Roberto and Eddie rented the home but thought that Efrain and Roberto connected on an artistic basis so I emailed Roberto and Eddie to inquire.
Here is what Roberto said: “We indeed rented the house near the beach on Mazatlan street, the owner Efrain Menendez is an architect and painter, we met him through a mutual friend, artist Judith Gutierrez when we were living in Mexico City. The first time I heard of la Peñita was when she gave me a painting and said, “I painted this in La Peñita, you are going to love this place.” Later I met Efrain when he was visiting them and he said, “If you are ever in the area stop and visit me.” Needless to say I had no intention of visiting La Peñita, but on a trip to Puerto Vallarta, Eddie and I decided to pay him a visit. We stayed one day and I knew I had to come back. I rented the house for the summer and painted frescos. Efrain and his wife Alcira moved to Guadalajara and later to Xalapa Veracruz… we still stay in touch.”
After their first stay in La Peñita, Tom and Bruce started looking for another house to rent for the following year. At that time, little information was available on the internet to folks looking for a vacation rental or for real estate in the area. Eventually, Tom found a website which was operated by a local realtor. He emailed the realtor advising that they wished to rent a house close to the beach for the following year. She emailed him back with five rental options, but Tom thought the pricing was way out of line. He emailed her to let her know that they were familiar with the area and that they knew that the prices she quoted were too high. He also told her that they were casually interested in the real estate market and that if someday they decided to buy a home she could be their agent. She sent back five options which were all well priced. Casa Libertad, the home they currently live in, was one of the rental options and it also happened to be for sale.
They were just in the Real Estate Market on a Casual Basis
The following year, they arrived at their beachfront vacation rental and found that they liked the size of the house and the fact that it was close to everything in town. It was perfect.
One day during that vacation, two guys showed up at their front door. One of these guys was Danny Milksi, who Tom says had and still has a very authoritative demeanor. Danny advised that he and his friend were looking at homes for sale, and asked Tom and Bruce if they minded if they looked around. “Sure, why not,” was Tom’s reply. After some time had passed, Tom went upstairs and caught the tail end of Danny’s conversation in which he said to his buddy, “We’ve been looking around for two weeks… this is the best deal on the market and you should put in an offer.” Immediately after Danny and his companion left, Tom went to see the the realtor to make an offer and put a down payment on the home, which everyone now knows as Casa Libertad.
Tom, what exactly was it that you said about being in the market on a casual basis?
Anyhow, that was 12 years ago and Tom says that he and Bruce have never regretted the decision to buy here.
Tom says that back then, buying real estate in Mexico was a long, drawn out and complicated process, so they hired a lawyer to oversee the buying process, and eventually everything worked out just fine. The house they bought came with a “La Mujer con Claves” or “Woman with the Keys” which means it came with a resident caretaker. The “Woman with the Keys” provides cleaning services and ensures that home repairs and maintenance items are attended to. This was ideal for Tom and Bruce as during the early years they would be absentee owners who visited for just a couple of months a year.
Tom and Bruce came to prefer Mexico over Hawaii because it is more exotic and different. They knew they wanted to live on the coast of Mexico, and it became their dream to live here. Plus because it is bigger than an island, Tom had absolutely no worries about developing island fever. Why this area of Pacific Mexico? The fact that Alaska Airlines offered several flights to this area of Mexico strongly influenced their decision.
Tom says, “Mexico is a huge country to explore.” When they first started enjoying vacation in this area of Mexico they had no friends with recommendations, but over many years of extended vacations, they came to believe that someday they would live here, and felt very fortunate indeed to be drawn to this area.
They are both small-town boys and La Peñita fit the bill impeccably! They appreciated the friendliness of the locals and noticed that somehow, a nice quality of expats were being drawn to the area, too. Early friendships with the likes of Janet Dow, Vicky Flores and Bob Howell, Rosalie Hope, Diane and Jim Engen, the Paine Families, Roberto Gil de Montes and Eddie Dominguez and others, further confirmed that this was going to be a fun and worthwhile community to join.
How Living Here Full Time Came to Be
Initially Tom and Bruce were not retired, and enjoyed extended winter vacations here. In the year ahead of Tom’s retirement day on 07/07/07 they sold their large suburban home, bought a downtown condo, remodeled it and began the painful process of downsizing. The winter of 2007-08 was to be their first full winter at Casa Libertad. But as that season ended, neither of them wanted to leave their Mexican home. So they returned to Alaska, loaded up what Bruce’s truck would hold, stored the rest, put the condo up for rent and drove back to Mexico, buying a Jeep in Portland, Oregon on the way.
Now, entering their sixth year of full time residency in Mexico, Bruce still works as a financial consultant and returns to Alaska for business meetings every 40 days or so. Tom takes this time to enjoy several solitary pursuits that Bruce has little time or inclination to join. These include taking off in his Jeep for points unknown, with his bike racked to the back… and his tripod, camera and maps, all set for his next adventure.
Tom loves tamales especially if they come stuffed with green chiles and fresh cheese with molé pipian on the side, however he laments that they are not a regional specialty in this area. Tom adores seafood, especially octopus. Tom and Bruce both love shrimp, and because seafood is so inexpensive in Jaltemba Bay, it is both easy and economical to enjoy a healthy diet.
Tom and Bruce both thoroughly enjoy living in La Peñita and they feel lucky to live in front of the beach. They like the fact that there are so many great restaurants within three blocks of their home, eight in total. However, Bruce loves to cook, so most of the time they stay in.
Tom takes great pleasure in the diversity of the plant and insect life found in Jaltemba Bay and says he enjoys seeing the bizarre and unusual. He recently found an extraordinary orchid on one of his back country trips. Sadly, he will not be able to identify it and confirm its rarity until it flowers.
Adaptations to Life in Mexico
Surprisingly, there have not been too many. Tom and Bruce’s extended vacations in Jaltemba Bay prepared them very well for living here. However, Tom says that there were a couple of surprises and these included the associated home maintenance when you own a home so close to the ocean, and having to replace electronics so frequently due to the corrosive nature of the salt air. Living here is economical, but this is one expense not anticipated. He is now on his third iMac.
Jaltemba Bay Folk – Tom’s Board
Tom started the original forum, Jaltemba Bay Folk, fondly known as Tom’s Board, as a way to participate in the community when he was not here. He saw the board as a great way to stay in touch and bring people and causes together. Tom met and made a lot of friends through the board. Indeed its usefulness was confirmed and participation galvanized when Hurricane Kenna hit Jaltemba Bay in October of 2002. People used it to check on their friends and families’ well being, the state of their homes, and later, to learn what could be done to help the locals most severely impacted.
Over time, the board took on a civic role and became a valuable communication tool to get the word out about events and fundraisers being held in the community. Tom’s Board became a way for people to find out what it was like to live here and because of it, many folks moved here. Tom says that although the words on the board were not always pretty, they provided a realistic picture of life here… we don’t live in paradise!
One year ago, Tom’s Board was adopted by Jaltemba Bay Life. Of course, I asked Tom if he sometimes misses it. His answer was a definite no… it took too much of his time and the 10 year mark seemed like a good place to stop. By the way, he read everything posted on his board and tried to respond to everyone, especially if others did not. He said that he felt a great sense of freedom when he passed it on to Ally and David, and he now has the time to pursue his passions which include photography, writing and design.
He loves to write and to meet new people. Summer is his favorite time of year. He revels in the clean, shiny, green foliage and says that although he loves hanging out with his small circle of friends in the winter, come summer, he takes great pleasure in the peace and solitude of the season.
Tom likes to get out and explore on his own, and being an avid photographer he always takes photos. He particularly enjoys driving his Jeep to out of the way locales, and is currently intrigued by the greater Ameca region. On more local day trips, he sometimes brings friends along. His favorite local trip is the journey along the road from the Highway 200 turnoff for Alta Vista, to the Ameca River at San Juan de Abajo, and via Bucerias back to Jaltemba Bay. He says that this expedition is particularly rewarding because the area is rich in unique plant and bird life. He also enjoys driving the backcountry on the east side of Highway 200, along the road which goes by “the dump” and ends at the estuary in El Monteon. One of his favorite shorter treks is up the El Monteon Creek which he and Bruce explore by bicycle. In season, there are plenty of free mangoes littering the roadway.
His days are busy and always full. He likes architectural design. He is self-taught and has been working on a new design for his home for several years now. He has spent thousands of hours creating the future design, but when he finishes a new design he typically sees that the flow is not quite right and starts over once again.
Photography is another one of Tom’s passions, however he rarely shares his photos because he wants them to be perfect. He told me that if he has to visit a spot several times and that if it ends up taking him 3 years to get the shot, that is just fine. I asked him if he is a perfectionist but he did not want to admit to the fact, because if he admits to it and shares his work, people may expect perfection.
Back in the Day!
When I asked Tom what La Peñita was like back in the early 1990s he said that most changes have been so gradual that they are hard to identify. The most startling change was when the stretch of Highway 200 in front of La Penita was expanded to four lanes from two lanes. It was a sad day when he returned one year, to find that the highway’s center boulevard that he remembers fondly as being lined with an abundance of glorious palms and tunnels of ficus trees was gone. He says that previous to this, the entrance to La Peñita was very inviting. Another change he is not fond of, is the gradual loss of trees which has occurred over the years as the area develops. La Peñita used to be more luxuriant because of the abundance and variety of trees.
Daily Life in La Peñita
Tom enjoys walks on the beach, and riding his bicycle or walking everywhere possible. He loves cycling here because it is an easy way to get around and he finds that the cars are very respectful of cyclists and also notably pedestrians. He is always keen on exploring the surrounding countryside… any day… anytime.
Tom and Bruce enjoy dining out, and some of their favorite restaurants in their area are Xaltemba Restaurant & Galeria, Ristorante-Cafe Soley, El Gigio Italian Pizzeria, El Rincon del Arabe, Irma’s La Casita and Restaurante La Palapa de Guty. On Guty’s, Tom says that it is a shame that more folks don’t know about this little restaurant as they serve great quality seafood and the portions are huge. Many folks attend the Los Amigos de Jaltemba meetings there but don’t check out the tasty cuisine. He states that most folks don’t know that in the old days Guty’s was a lively cantina where many transvestites hung out. The clientele drank a lot of beer and the bill was tallied by counting the number of empty beer bottles on the table. One day, Guty decided to lay a cement floor to replace the sand floor, and on the day the excavator started digging they found thousands of empty beer bottles hidden deep in the sand. “If only those walls could talk!”
About the Author: Christina Stobbs is a writer and photographer who lives in Los Ayala year round with her husband Robert. As a photographer, she feels fortunate to live in an area so rich in flora and fauna, and abundant in natural beauty. She enjoys landscape and wildlife photography, and has a fondness for pelicans. Most recently, she starting selling her photos with stock companies Dreamstime and Big Stock Photos. As a writer, she states that living in Mexico is perfect because each and every day is full of surprises. To view more of Christina’s work, click here.
To read about other interesting folks, click on the “Meet Local Folks” link under categories.