Judy King is an Iowa farm girl who leads a simple life in Ajijic on the northwestern shore of Lake Chapala. And that is just the way she wants it.
A local resident for nearly 30 years, King saw lakeside for the first time in 1990 when she visited Guadalajara. It did not take her long to decide to make Mexico her new home.
“First of all, I think it was a God thing,” King told us. “I think it was what I was supposed to do next with my life. Secondly, for some odd reason, this area felt like a blend of San Diego and Iowa. It was the climate and the exotic palm trees and exotic flowers I had seen in San Diego, and yet there were daises and forget-me-nots that I had seen in Iowa. And this was a rural area. I saw pigs and cows and other things that made me feel like home. It felt like where I was supposed to be. I felt like I had come home. So many people who have moved here said exactly that.”
King, now 74, was born and raised in Dennison, Iowa, halfway between Omaha, Nebraska and Sioux City, Iowa. A sixth-generation farm girl, she graduated from high school in 1963 and then headed south to Missouri where she enrolled at Northwest Missouri Teachers College as a journalism major. After a few years in school, she met her first husband, married and raised three children at their family farm in Bedford, Iowa.
When her children were old enough for school, King opened an arts and crafts store in town, which she owned for about five years. When her marriage went south, she sold the store and went to work for a newspaper in Hopkins, Missouri.
“I was the ad department at the newspaper for about four years,” she said. “Then I moved to San Diego to help my dad manage an apartment complex when he fell and broke his hip. I worked in property management for a while and then met a man, married and moved up the coast to Laguna Niguel. But sadly, he developed cancer and passed away.”
She was not a fan of California’s notorious “June gloom” coastal fog and moved to Mission Viejo for sunshine where her friends urged her to take a vacation. King chose Guadalajara.
“I picked Guadalajara because of the music, the dance, the architecture, the history and the culture,” she said. “I was ill with chronic fatigue syndrome, so on the third day I came back to the hotel and saw a group belonging to a tour called ‘Retirement Mexico 101.’ Every morning at breakfast there was a new speaker, including a dentist, doctor, realtor and other local people, to provide insights on services and life in the area. I went home and told my friends I was moving to Mexico. They thought I had lost my mind.”
She began taking Spanish lessons at a local community college before returning to Guadalajara in August of 1990 for one last look. Finally convinced she had made the right decision, she packed her bright red 1964 Thunderbird and headed south, until she reached the state of Sinaloa.
“I blew the engine and ended up in the dark at a mechanic’s shop along the side of the road,” she said. “I left the car there, gave the mechanic about US$400 to repair it and rented a car to drive to Lake Chapala. He rebuilt the engine and he and his wife drove the car down around Christmas. I bought them bus tickets to go back home.”
During her visits to Guadalajara, she initially thought it would be fun to live in Tlaquepaque with its large, Victorian homes, just 15-minutes south of city-center. But when she saw Lake Chapala, she felt more at home with its small-town ambience.
“There weren’t many people living along the lake in 1990,” she said. “There have been many changes since then. Notably, there were very few American products available, but now we have virtually everything. There’s a Walmart store about a half-mile down the road from where I live in Ajijic.”
King said the biggest change in the almost 30 years she has lived lakeside has been traffic.
“The two-lane road that runs through town just doesn’t handle it anymore,” she said. “It’s not just expats that create traffic. It’s also a vast increase in Mexican cars and vehicles. There’s not a whole lot they can do. They widened the main road a bit this year, but the houses and businesses are right up to the edge of the shoulder of the road.”
She has owned three homes over the years, all in the same Ajijic neighborhood, but has rented a three-bedroom place with one-and-a-half baths on one floor for the past nine years.
“I have a little garden in back just big enough for the dogs,” she said. “I rent it from a Mexican owner Mexican-style, which means I pay for all the repairs and am responsible for everything. Because of that I pay a very low rent, just $4,500 pesos a month. I also pay the water bill, don’t have a view and have no pool. I’m where I want to be: living in a Mexican neighborhood.”
Her Spanish language skill has helped her integrate into the neighborhood, which is just four blocks from Ajijic’s main plaza.
“I have a huge vocabulary,” she said. “I haven’t carried a dictionary with me since around 1997 and generally get the verb tense right about half the time.”
After nearly three decades in the neighborhood, King is invited to local weddings, quinceañera’s, baptisms and many other events held by Mexican families, but most of her support groups are from the expat community.
“There are more than 100 expat groups that meet every month,” she said, “and about four different groups that put on a regular concert series every year. In addition to that, there are a bunch of programs at the auditorium, three little theater groups and a half dozen music groups. No one will be bored.”
Because of the area’s large retired expat population, medical facilities have sprung up to serve the community. King said that Guadalajara’s excellent hospitals are about 40-minutes away, but local facilities and doctors are very good and provide most medical services.
Lake Chapala, like many interior Mexico locations, also has a very reasonable cost of living that should please anyone contemplating a move to the area, depending upon the type of lifestyle you want to live. King prefers to lead a simple lifestyle.
“I go out to eat maybe four times a week,” she said. “I have a maid just one day a week, my gardener comes for six-hours a week and I drive a 2002 model car. I used to go to the theater and concerts when I first moved here, but not so much anymore.”
King used to do weekly seminars for newcomers to Lake Chapala and has very good advice for anyone moving to the area.
“One of my mantras was don’t come for the economy or the climate. You need to come for the adventure. The adventure of living in Mexico is learning the language, the history and the culture. It’s participating in the activities, enjoying new and interesting things. Eventually, if you are coming for the adventure, then the fact that the plumber doesn’t show up when you wanted him to becomes part of the adventure and part of the stories you tell. Those are the people who are successful. The people who come and want to make it all like it is back home don’t do as well. You have got to be able to adapt. If not, it’s not going to work out.”