Puerto Vallarta is an easy place to love. Just ask the nearly 2 million people who visit this popular international beach resort city every year. Wedged between the rugged Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains and the beaches of Banderas Bay, PV or Vallarta, as the locals call the city, is on the checklist of many aspiring expats who are thinking about making Mexico their home.
Who better to tell us a little about why so many expats choose Puerto Vallarta as their new home than an expat who has lived half her life in this self-described “Jewel of the Mexican Riviera?”
Born and raised in Chicago, Maria O’Connor, 52, moved to Puerto Vallarta when she was just 26. “I really hated Chicago weather, and, as trite as that sounds, it was the impetus for my relocation to Puerto Vallarta,” O’Connor said.
Raised in the affluent northern suburbs of Chicago, her father was an investment banker and her mother a concert violinist and schoolteacher. After graduating from the University of Illinois with a degree in history, she worked as a paralegal in Chicago while attending law school at night.
O’Connor visited Puerto Vallarta for the first time in 1985. “When I saw the mountains and the jungle for the first time it was amazing,” she said. “I was absolutely floored. After I graduated from law school in 1990 I knew there was only one place I wanted to live.”
The night before she left for PV, she went out on the town with her two brothers and, she told us, it was 20 degrees below zero. “I almost overslept the morning I was to leave. I did not have time to dry my hair so it froze on the way to the airport. I knew then that I had made the right decision.”
Soon after arriving, O’Connor taught English to hotel workers for a while before working in the local real estate business. Along the way she earned a Mexican law degree at a local university and found her niche handling real estate transactions at Tropicasa Real Estate, becoming the company’s full-time in-house attorney in 2007.
“I am an independent contractor now but I am also still a business partner with Tropicasa,” she said. “I handle transactions for many different real estate firms but I cannot represent a client that is buying real estate through Tropicasa because it would be a conflict of interest.”
Working as an independent contractor suits her just fine. “Since I am no longer an employee of a company I am a lot more free to travel and make my own schedule,” she said. “I can be anywhere in the world and still do my work.”
Just this year she visited Spain for three weeks and has plans for a long fall trip to southern Italy.
“The number one thing that I always tell people is you can find beautiful places all over the world, but Puerto Vallarta has the best people in the world,” she said. “That is the number one reason why I live here.”
She also loves the lifestyle she has in PV because people are less concerned about what you do, where you went to college and how much money you make. They are more interested in what you enjoy doing, not what you do for work. It is not about work in Puerto Vallarta, she said, because people are as much about enjoying time with their friends and family as they are about work.
“People do not bring work home with them,” O’Connor said. “It is really about a real balance between your work and your life.”
She also loves Puerto Vallarta’s climate, which is similar to Hawaii’s, year-round tropical weather with lots of sunshine but high rainfall and humidity during the summer months.
“Puerto Vallarta is on the same latitude as Hawaii,” she said, “which makes for what I think is the perfect weather all year. Some people have a hard time dealing with the high humidity, especially during the summer, but I love it. It is really great for your skin. Often when I travel I actually miss the humidity.”
O’Connor lives in an area of Puerto Vallarta known as “Gringo Gulch,” the hillside above the Cuale River, which divides Centro from Zona Romantica in the downtown area.
“I live on the same street where Elizabeth Taylor had her house,” she said. “It is an old Vallarta style home that was divided into several apartments. My place is one-bedroom and one-and-a-half baths. The whole front of my living room and dining room faces out to the river and bay. It has just three walls and is open to nature. Sometimes rain comes in but mostly it is the breeze off of the bay. I love it because it is about a 15-minute walk to my office.”
She rents her 1,300 sq. ft. apartment for about US$600 a month and has lived there for seven years.
“I know people who pay no more than US$300 a month to rent an apartment but they live outside of the city center,” she said. “If you want to live in a luxury condo or a large home in one of the better Colonias (neighborhoods) you could expect to pay US$1,500 to US$2,000 a month, but usually not more than that. I also recommend that anyone renting pay in pesos, particularly with the current strength of the dollar.”
Over the past 26 years O’Connor has developed a wide circle of friends, both expats and Mexican friends. She credits her fluency in Spanish with helping her develop the social network that helps make her life so happy in PV.
“I have made an effort to learn Spanish because I knew that I would be missing out on a lot if I did not speak the language,” she said. “When I first moved here I would buy a local newspaper and use my Spanish/English dictionary to read it. I knew I had finally succeeded when someone told a joke in Spanish at a nightclub and I laughed.”
O’Connor believes the lower cost of living relative to the U.S. is a major advantage of living in Puerto Vallarta, although it is more expensive than most of the inland cities that attract expats, like the Lake Chapala-area.
“I know a lot of people who are living on just Social Security and are finding their dollars go a lot further here because of the strength of the dollar against the peso,” she said.
The quality of life found in Puerto Vallarta also is important to O’Connor.
“People go back to the states after living or visiting here and have to drive everywhere and have little time to see their friends,” she said. “That does not happen here. There is a lot less talking on the phone or texting here and more time spent enjoying a coffee with a friend. That time with friends is precious to me.”
Like most expats in Mexico, O’Connor is troubled by a continuous stream of U.S. news media reporting on violence in the country.
“I feel completely safe in Puerto Vallarta,” she said, “ and have always felt very safe. I feel safer here than if I lived in the U.S. There are criminals all over the world but we see what is going on up north with the mass shootings, police shootings of black people and other crimes. That is not going to stop any time soon, in my opinion, unless they change the laws in the United States regarding guns. Yes, we have violence in Mexico but it is very region-specific and usually tied to the drug cartels.”
O’Connor seems to have the best of all worlds living in Puerto Vallarta: a hometown she loves, a job that allows her to travel the world and a lifestyle filled with friends and enough leisure time to enjoy them. But most importantly, she never again has to worry about her hair freezing.