Picture yourself on a golden sand beach about 40 miles north of Manzanillo where the sun shines almost every day of the year and winter is just a memory. Photographer Jeanne McGee discovered picture perfect Melaque, Mexico years ago, built a home and recently moved there full-time after living the “snowbird” life for many years.
McGee, 63, is a native of Bellingham, Washington, just north of Seattle, but has been visiting Mexico for nearly 40 years.
“I had a boyfriend and we would travel down to Mexico as far as Barra de Navidad and Melaque where it was warm enough for us,” she said. “Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta were too cold, so we kept on going until we came to Melaque. It was perfect.”
After graduating from Bellingham High School in 1972, McGee took a few art classes and became interested in photography and fused glass art. Her father was a talented amateur photographer.
“I remember when I was around 10 I filled out a questionnaire that came in a photography magazine my father received,” she said. Photography is what I wanted to do. The magazine sent my questionnaire back to me and told me I should wait until I was an adult!”
But McGee did not become a professional photographer immediately after school. She studied at the internationally known Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Washington to learn the art of stained glass. She worked in that medium for 10 years before deciding that photography really was her true passion. She started her own photography business – The Art of Photography – in the early 1990s and soon had a flourishing business.
“At one time I was probably doing 35 weddings, 100 high school seniors, 50 families and 40 children a year,” she said. “I was working hard but loving it.”
Now married and earning a good living in Bellingham, McGee and her husband began incrementally building the home in Melaque where she now lives.
“We began building our home in 2000 and finally finished most of the construction in 2007,” she said. “There is still more to be done, but we got a divorce and a few things didn’t get completed.”
Her home is just two blocks from the beach and has two levels, with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen and a living room upstairs and a two-bedroom and one-bathroom rental unit downstairs. The home also has a two-car garage, a pool and a large patio and outdoor eating area.
“If you were trying to build this house today,” she said, “it would probably cost about US$300,000.
McGee has been using the home’s extensive outdoor space for her art shows for the past seven years.
“The patio area is huge,” she said. “It’s big enough to build my art gallery if I wanted to do that, and if I could buy my ex-husband out. But he doesn’t want to sell, so I’m thinking of moving to a more centrally located place, like neighboring San Patricio.”
Melaque is about an hour’s drive north of the Pacific port city of Manzanillo and four hours south of Puerto Vallarta. It sits on the southern end of the Costalegre, which is a series of beautiful beaches, capes and bays in the state of Jalisco.
“We’re a little over two miles north of Barra de Navidad on Playa de Navidad,” McGee said. “I think there must be around 8,000 people who live in Melaque and adjacent communities. You can add another 4,000 or more during the winter months when “snowbirds” and tourists arrive.”
Like many expats who fell in love with Mexico, it is the Mexican people who first captured her heart and gave her a reason to live in Melaque permanently.
“There is such a nice community of expats and Mexicans here,” she said. “Sometimes I like going to Ajijic with its nice year-round weather, but it’s just so much about expats there. I think we have a really nice mix of cultures in Melaque.”
She has been trying to learn Spanish for the past 15 years with modest results. Last year, McGee traveled to Guatemala for a four-week immersion class, which has helped her somewhat, but she is far from fluent.
McGee has been busy showing her photography at her home gallery, known locally as Galeria Amiga de Casa Camrá, and hopes to build a following so she can open her own store-front gallery this year.
“I’d like to show photography but also showcase lots of Mexican artists at my gallery,” she said. “I went to Ajijic for its big art show show, the Feria Maestros del Arte, in November and bought a few pieces that I tried out at my first art show in Melaque. I just wanted to get a feel for what people want.”
McGee’s day-to-day life in Melaque is made easier by its relatively low cost of living, especially considering its idyllic location on the Costa Allegre.
“I spend no more than about US$40 a week on groceries,” she said, “or perhaps a bit more if I have friends coming over, which is fairly often. My Internet connection runs about US$35 a month and electricity about US$60 a month, but I don’t have air-conditioning, just fans.”
She said Melaque and the surrounding area also is home to many excellent local restaurants and the tab for two is very reasonable.
“We have some wonderful restaurants here,” she said. “In our area alone I can think of five that are very good, and that’s not counting our great taco stands! Dining out on filet mignon or shrimp will cost about US$10 per person plus a little over US$3 for an alcoholic drink.”
McGee said that living in Melaque has proved to be the fulfillment of a long-held dream.
“I love living by the beach,” she said. “It was a dream I’ve had ever since I was a little kid. My dream finally has come true.”
She also loves both the Mexican and expat friends she has developed over the years in Melaque. Many are Canadian but travelers from all corners of the world find their way to the sunny warmth of the Costalegre.
“I also love bringing in artists and helping to create an art culture here,” she said. “I’m really excited to be involved with the art center we are building. A benefactor provided the land and the first $100,000 pesos to get it started. It will be such a wonderful addition to the local community. It will offer Spanish and English language classes, art instruction taught by Mexican artists, a movie theater, a lecture section, a café and a gallery on the ground floor.”
The warm, tropical climate rounds out McGee’s top three reasons why she loves living in Melaque. She made it very clear that she does note like being cold. When she thinks Puerto Vallarta is not warm enough, she means it.
Although she is in love with her Mexican hometown she said it might not be for everyone.
“You should come down here and live for awhile,” she said, “and think about what you want. If you want lots of social activities, Melaque may not be the place for you. Lake Chapala has much more of that. If you want culture, the cities and historical areas have that. But if you want to interact with your Mexican neighbors and enjoy a great beachfront lifestyle in a tropical climate, Melaque could be your new home.”