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Life in the Cloud Forest of Xalapa, Veracruz

Life in the cloud forest of Xalapa, Veracruz
Credit: Sarah DeVries

Sarah DeVries was in her third year of college in Indiana when she spent her study abroad year in the cloud forest of Xalapa, Veracruz. She had no idea that someday it would be her home.

Sarah DeVries Veracruz, Mexico
Sarah DeVries

“I chose Xalapa over Quito, Ecuador and Barcelona, Spain because the Spanish language program there had fewer students and instruction was a lot more personal,” DeVries said. “Xalapa was kind of a cool and artsy town in the cloud forest with a wonderful climate. It was also the place I met my future husband.”

DeVries, 37, grew up in Waco, Texas and moved to Fort Worth when she was 14. After high school graduation she headed north to Indiana to study sociology and Spanish at Manchester University, just west of Fort Wayne. After graduating in 2004 with a double major, she moved to Querétaro to live with Carlos, who was a few years younger.

“Carlos was studying at the university there, so I got a job teaching English at one of the English institutes,” she said. “But after a year, he got a scholarship to study in France and I moved to North Carolina to live with my sister for a year. By 2006, we were both back in Querétaro, Carlos studying and me teaching English at the John F. Kennedy American School of Querétaro. It was mainly for Mexican kids from upper-middle class families and a few Americans.”

The two married in 2011 and returned to Xalapa so Carlos could continue his studies. He received his engineering degree from the Tecnológico de Xalapa and his master’s degree and doctorate in artificial intelligence from the highly-regarded Universidad Veracruzana, also in Xalapa.

Xalapa, the capital of the state of Veracruz, is in the foothills of the Macuiltepetl volcano and is surrounded by cool cloud forests. About 4,600 ft. in elevation, it is a city of over 400,000 people and home to a number of universities. The state’s largest city, Veracruz, is 55 miles southeast and Mexico City lies just over 200 miles to the west.

Xalapa, Veracruz
Credit: Sarah DeVries

“Xalapa was here at least a century before the Spaniards arrived,” she told us. “If you look at a map of the city, it looks like a balled-up piece of string. There are not really any grid patterns to the streets and they are quite narrow. When I first came here, there was hardly any traffic, but now everyone drives and traffic is really a mess.”

DeVries said the city’s vibe is very intellectual with all of the universities located there, and very artsy. Xalapa’s theaters and museums offer many events throughout the year and musicians and dancers frequently perform in the city’s center. The Orquesta Sinfónica de Xalapa was founded in 1929 and is widely considered Mexico’s oldest symphony orchestra.

“The culture and arts here are wonderful, but I also love the food,” DeVries said. “I think Veracruz has the best food in all of Mexico. My favorite food is called picadas, which is basically like corn tortillas that are thicker and folded up around the corners, kind of like a little pizza. You put beans, salsa, cheese and chicken or other things on top of it.”

The cost of living in Xalapa is inexpensive. DeVries said she can fill her shopping bag with fruits and vegetables for about 150 pesos, or less than US$8. Taxi rates are also quite low. Even better, she pays just 6,000 pesos, about US$315, a month for her home.

“This is actually the nicest house I’ve ever lived in,” she said. “We have three bedrooms and three bathrooms and a back yard that backs up to a forest. The location is great, too. We’re about a 25-minute walk to Centro, but live on the edge of town next to a beautiful park. I feel like we have the best of both worlds. We live in nature, but fruit stores and other shopping are close by.”

DeVries contributes to the family income by teaching English online for a Chinese company, but is trying to transition into freelance writing. Although she has taught English for years, she does not like the odd hours she works.

Sarah DeVries and daughter in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico
Sarah DeVries and Lisa

“China is thirteen hours ahead of us and Beijing is where most of my students are located,” she said. “It means that I often have to be up at 3 a.m. to teach, which is a problem. I have a five-year-old daughter, Lisa, and the hours are difficult.”

She has been writing articles for Mexico News Daily and recently began contributing a new blog, La Sirena Tejana, for Expats In Mexico.

Integration has not been a problem for this fluent Spanish-speaker. Married to a Mexican citizen with an extended family in Xalapa and Querétaro, she feels as comfortable in Mexico as in her home state of Texas. She also has local expat friends.

“I’m a friend of the study abroad program director I met years ago,” she said. “I also know other expats in the area. Most are over 50 and attracted by the low cost of living and the artsy vibe here. Younger expats usually come for a few years and then move on.”

DeVries loves the cloud forest of Xalapa climate of her adopted home, but hates it when the temperature drops below 50 F.

“It’s nice to be in the mountains,” she said, “because the weather at this elevation is pretty much always perfect. I don’t like it when it gets into the lower 50s, or below, at night, but the climate is great for coffee growing. This area is one of Mexico’s most important places for coffee production, and I love Mexican coffee!”

There are lots of things to love about Xalapa, but the abundance of music is the thing she likes best about living there.

“There is always live music to be had here,” she said. “We have a world-class orchestra, live music in many of our local cafes and restaurants and music even on our local buses. Someone gets on the bus and just starts to play the guitar. I love being surrounded by music and there is always a place to find it.”

She also loves the feel of nature in the cloud forest of Xalapa, reflected in the verdant green foliage that surrounds her and the city’s majestic mountain setting.

“I also love that Mexicans are such friendly people,” she said. “I think the fact that Xalapa is a university town with lots of students is part of it, which gives this place a more intellectual vibe.”

DeVries advises aspiring expats thinking about living in Mexico to be ready to have their expectations challenged.

“You won’t find punctuality here. As an American, I haven’t been able to shake this in almost twenty years of living here. It’s just not in the cultural DNA of Mexico, but it is in the U.S. and many other countries. It’s one of the hardest things to get used to. Americans are also much more informal. We don’t normally use sir or madam to address people. Here, it’s a big deal. Manners are important and it’s considered impolite or rude if you don’t address people properly.”