Terry Baumgart grew up in Sacramento, California and loved the time she spent at her grandparent’s cabin at Lake Tahoe, surrounded by mountains and forests and a crystal-clear lake. Now at age 72, she and her husband are living high in the sky in Zirahuén, Mexico, a place she calls her “mini-Tahoe.”
“Lake Zirahuén is a small lake, but like Tahoe, it is very deep and surrounded by mountains studded with pine trees,” Baumgart said. “Our elevation of around 7,000 ft. is actually higher than Tahoe, so it gets a little cool here.”
Zirahuén, a small town of fewer than 5,000 people, is halfway between Pátzcuaro and Uruapan, the state of Michoacán’s second largest city.
“Although we live in an idyllic location, perched above a mountain lake, we are only a twenty-minute drive from either city,” she told us. “We don’t have a gas station or a post office, so we are a pretty tiny town.”
Baumgart was born and raised in Sacramento and received her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Sacramento State University in 1972, before working in local county government, mainly in the probation department. Later, she returned to Sacramento State to earn a master’s degree to become a licensed therapist at Monterey County Mental Health. For years she worked in counseling for school districts in Monterey County before deciding to start a family center for primarily Mexican and Mexican-American families in Salinas, California. Her interest in helping these families grew from the time she spent living and traveling in Mexico.
“After I received my master’s degree I lived in Mexico City teaching English to mostly children, but also some adults and companies,” Baumgart said. “But it wasn’t what I wanted to do. Then I saw an ad in the English language newspaper for an English teacher. I picked this little town in the state of Mexico at the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. It was such a fabulous experience. It really improved my Spanish, which really helped me in my work. I wound up living there for a couple of years and then returned every chance I could get to explore Mexico, almost every state!”
Along the way, Baumgart squeezed in time to receive a doctorate in her field of study at the University of San Francisco. After a “bucket list” trip to South America, a friend called her and offered her a job in San Francisco, which lasted three years. While in San Francisco, she met her husband Jim, who is now 85.
“We loved San Francisco, but it was just too expensive to retire there,” said Baumgart. “I had bought a little house in the state of Mexico in the 1980s and we thought we might spend six months in Mexico and six months in California, but Jim wanted to live there full-time and I said, ‘Why not!’ We went to places like San Miguel de Allende but ended up in Patzcuaro where we rented a place in a gated community for a while. Jim did not like the noise there, so we searched again and found our slice of heaven in Zirahuén.”
The couple found a property high on a hill overlooking the lake, surrounded by a dense forest of pine trees and, most importantly, it was quiet.
“We bought a home that was just half built and made it our own,” she said. “We designed it for retirement, so it is all on one floor and about 4,000 sq. ft. My husband broke his hip while we were building our house, so having just one floor made a big difference. It has lots of glass in front to view the lake and sits on a very large lot, which makes it not only very private, but also allowed us to have a variety of animals and a big vegetable garden. I now have five donkeys, six dogs, two chickens and a small parrot in the house.”
They moved in about 11 years ago and spent under US$200,000 to build their home. The land was an additional expense.
“Our decision to build a retirement home on one floor was a good one in retrospect,” said Baumgart. “Jim requires nursing care now and it is so much easier to look after him. We employ nurses 24-hours-a day and they stay with us while on duty. Most are pre-bachelor degree level, which works fine for us. Pre-bachelor level nursing certification requires some practical experience working in hospitals, so they know what they are doing. We pay about US$1,000 a month for this around-the-clock nursing care, which is so much less expensive than what we would have paid in the U.S.”
Baumgart may live in a very small town in Michoacán, but she is far from being socially isolated. Beyond her large network of friends in the area, both expats and Mexicans, she is the Michoacán handcrafts coordinator for the annual Feria Maestros del Arte handcrafts festival held in Chapala, on the northern shore of Lake Chapala. Founded by Ajijic resident Marianne Carlson about 20 years ago, it is one of the premier artisan festivals in the country.
“The first time I went to the fair I fell in love with it,” she said. “I got to know Marianne and she needed a coordinator for my state, so I got the job. It was perfect for me because I am the kind of person that really likes to feel a sense of purpose in life. I love Mexican art, it helps the local economy and I get to help artisans earn a better living. I go to all of the little towns in Michoacán to find marvelous handcraft products to be exhibited at the Feria. For example, Santa Clara del Cobre, or Santa Clara of the Copper, is our county seat. This state is also well known for its rebozos, the shawls that are made on backstrap looms. We also are known for clays and ceramics and wood toys, among others.”
Baumgart told me she has absolutely no regrets about moving to Mexico permanently, except for missing Trader Joe’s. But she takes care of that need by driving to the capital city of Morelia, about an hour away by car, to fly to visit family in California. A small price to pay for living in her self-described paradise.
“I love living in nature and being such an integral part of a small community,” she said. “Being fluent in Spanish helps greatly, of course. I have joined a senior citizens Ballet Folkloric group here that gives me a sense of connection with women my own age. I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I don’t feel like a stranger here.”
Climbing the local Virgin Mountain peak is another way she is sinking her roots more deeply into Zirahuén.
“It is an old tradition locally to climb the peak, in fact the whole town used to go up there for certain festivals. I joined a group and became one of the leaders of that group. We would climb the mountain every month, which was a fabulous experience. You get on top of the world, looking out on the lake. You can even see Pátzcuaro Lake from there.”
Home is where the heart is, and Baumgart has given her heart gladly and fully to her new home high in the mountains of Michoacán.