John McWilliams sank his roots in Ajijic in 1998 and has been shouting the praises of his new hometown ever since. This Lake Chapala promoter has successfully built a business around introducing aspiring expats to the biggest expat community in Mexico.
“My partner and I came to Ajijic in 1996 on vacation for a month and stayed in a little casita my sister had on her property,” McWilliams said. “Like so many people that come here we fell in love with the place. We came back one month later just to make sure it was the place for us, but we didn’t make the move to Mexico until more than a year later.”
McWilliams, 71, was born and raised in a tiny town in northern Louisiana and attended North Western University in Natchitoches for one year before moving to Shreveport to attend cosmetology school. He soon owned his own salon but after four years in Shreveport moved to Houston to open a new salon at the entrance to an exclusive country club.
“When I first started my salon in Houston,” he said, “everyone played golf and had lots of money. They didn’t pinch pennies so my salon prospered.”
But the energy downturn in the 1980s affected his business, so McWilliams and his partner, Earl French, began looking for a new business. They found just what they were looking for in nearby Galveston, on the Gulf Coast.
“We bought a four-story Victorian bed and breakfast hotel in the historic district in 1990,” he said, “but we kept it open only on the weekends for nearly three years. Each Monday we would drive back to Houston to work at our regular jobs.”
In 1994, McWiliams sold his salon and moved to Galveston with his partner to manage the Queen Anne Bed & Breakfast full-time. They also saw an opportunity to open a complementary antique business in Galveston – Queen Anne Antiques.
“Our timing was great,” he said, “because people were buying and restoring properties in the historic area of Galveston at that time and were looking for antiques. We furnished not only our B&B with beautiful antiques but many of the homes in the area.”
But running both businesses became too much for McWilliams and French. They sold the antiques store in 1996, hired a manger for their B&B and headed south to stay with McWilliams’ sister in Ajijic on Lake Chapala for a long vacation.
During their third trip to visit his sister, they found an old 8,000 square feet hacienda sitting on one-third of an acre in Ajijic and bought it for US$180,000. Luckily, the manager back in Galveston decided to purchase their B&B and they were able to liquidate rental properties they owned in Houston. They were able to buy the hacienda for just 10 percent down with a balloon payment after one year, a rarity at a time when all home sales were cash purchases.
“It was the worst house in the neighborhood,” McWilliams said, “but we loved restoring old properties. We always looked for fixer-uppers because they’re the best deals. When we started construction on the old hacienda on Aldama, it was the talk of the town. There were so many rumors flying around. Some said it was going to be a mental institution and some said the governor of the state of Jalisco was going to occupy it. It took a full year but it was worth it. We had a beautiful 5-bedroom B&B.”
When Hacienda Aldama opened its doors in 2000 it was one of five B&Bs in Ajijic, but by the time they decided to sell the property in 2004 there seemed to be B&Bs on every corner.
“The B&B market became very competitive,” he said, “and we weren’t sure what to do. But we got our answer from a frequent guest who had a business introducing people to the area. When he was in town he would stay at our B&B. But, sadly, he became ill and could no longer continue his business. That’s how we got into our current business.”
They called their new business Retiring Lakeside in Mexico, a service to provide aspiring expats who are considering a move to Lake Chapala with a five-day information seminar acquainting them with the local area.
They bought a 6,000 square feet home in the Rancho del Oro neighborhood of Ajijic, which is high on the mountainside that overlooks Lake Chapala but just one mile from the central plaza in town.
“We bought a very large house with two spacious guest rooms on the ground floor with en suite baths and a big den in between them,” he said. “It works great because the guests are downstairs in complete privacy and Earl and I share the upstairs, which has a master bedroom, kitchen and living room. Guests can also enjoy the large solar-heated pool on the property.”
The five-day orientation visit, which costs US$950, includes pick-up and drop-off at the Guadalajara airport, a room with a view of the lake, a large breakfast, legal and insurance advice, moving advice, a housing tour with a realtor and a tour of the Lake Chapala area –including grocery stores. Guadalajara is the last stop in the orientation and includes visits to historic sites and shopping areas, including tourist favorite Tlaquepaque.
“We normally start on Wednesday but leave Saturday for them as a free day to explore or do whatever they want,” McWilliams said. “Sunday we reserve for our tour of Guadalajara. It’s been a successful program because at least 80 of our guests have relocated here permanently. Maybe more.”
McWilliams said he speaks just enough Spanish to be understood because English is so widely spoken in the Lake Chapala area.
“We speak little Spanish because so many people speak English here,” he said. “I really wish sometimes that I could speak Spanish. There is a very nice older gentleman who lives in our neighborhood. I would just like to sit down and talk with him, but we end up just greeting each other. We smile a lot and that’s all.”
McWilliams said business has been strong for the past year as more Americans and aspiring expats from other countries eye Mexico as a retirement spot or a place to start a new life.
“We’re very happy with our business right now,” he said. “There has been a lot of interest in moving to Mexico lately. We enjoy our job and enjoy people. Many have become our friends and that’s not a bad way to earn a living.”