John Swanson traded college for the perilous life of crab fishing in in the icy waters off Alaska. But after a lifetime of being cold, he swapped Seattle for the sunshine of Puerto Vallarta, where the local mantra is laugh or leave.
“I’m from the Seattle-area and have lived in cold climates all of my life,” the sixty-two-year-old said. “It had always been my long-term goal to live somewhere warm and sunny, and Vallarta is the place. I had come to Puerto Vallarta almost every year of my professional career and loved it, so I got to thinking more and more about moving. Finally, I just cut the cable or, as my brother used to say, ‘chewed through the leash.’ I sold everything and made Vallarta my new home.”
Swanson’s heritage, like many in America’s Pacific Northwest, is Scandinavian, so he was excited to spend his last year of high school in a small town in southern Sweden as a Rotary International foreign exchange student. After graduation he enrolled as a music major at what is now Western Washington University, but the call of the wild – and dreams of riches – led him north to Alaska to try his hand at crab fishing in the freezing waters of the Bering Sea, one of the world’s most dangerous, but lucrative, jobs.
“It was kind of like the gold rush days,” he said. “It took me two years of working on boats for free to finally get a paying job up there. My first season I got just a quarter-share, but it was worth it.”
Swanson worked on crab boats for 11 years, accumulating enough cash to purchase a waterfront property in Seattle in his early 20s. He used his cash to build on to his house to provide rental income and also decided to get a real estate license, which proved to be very advantageous when he opened his own real estate firm later in Puerto Vallarta.
“My first year in Vallarta was 1990,” Swanson said. “Initially, I would come down for a month or two, but each successive year I would spend more time in Mexico and less time in Seattle. In the late 90s I got married in Seattle and we had our son, Donovan, in 2000.”
When he moved to Vallarta full-time nearly two decades ago, his first job was organizing travel for wedding parties, not an enviable position to have, according to Swanson. He did, however, learn how to advise brides on how to avoid Montezuma’s Revenge.
“So many brides asked about it that I actually took a seminar on the subject from a physician who was the head doctor for the U.S. Army in Viet Nam,” he said. “The secret is to drink a little Pepto-Bismol before you come to Mexico. It kills the bacteria in your intestines before you arrive. You can then eat whatever you want.”
Before he bought his home in Puerto Vallarta’s Hotel Zone just north of Centro, Swanson rented a condo overlooking Mismaloya Cove, about seven miles south of Puerto Vallarta.
“Living on the beautiful south coast of the Bay of Banderas is something I loved,” he said, “but convenience quickly rose to the top of my list of stuff I needed in my life. I now live about five-minutes from Plaza Caracol, a large shopping center. I like the area because it’s flat land, not mountainous, and has everything I need close by, like hospitals, schools, soccer fields, restaurants and shopping.”
He bought a 1,000 sq. ft. two-bedroom and one-and-a-half-bathroom condo in the Marbella Condos complex for about US$100,000 and spent more money upgrading the materials and amenities.
“My place is not on the beach, which many people are looking for,” Swanson said. “It wasn’t my highest priority, particularly since I spent 11 years living and working on a boat. I really grew to love trees and flowers and lawn.”
His knowledge of the real estate business and the license he acquired in Seattle were big pluses when he established his own real estate firm – Boardwalk Realty – in 2013.
“I started in real estate in 2004 in Vallarta and went through the good times and the bad times,” he said, “before deciding to strike out on my own. My partner and I believed there was a lot of pent-up demand for homes in warm, sunny climates, especially among Americans and Canadians looking for either retirement or adventure in one of the best cities for expats in Mexico. Thankfully, we were right.”
Swanson has visited other cities on Mexico’s West Coast but Puerto Vallarta captured his heart from the first time he visited.
“Geographically, it is such a unique place and it offers a wide variety of lifestyles,” he said. “Depending on who you are and what kind of life you’re looking for, you’ll be able to find the right area that will fit perfectly.”
Swanson said Puerto Vallarta is an international resort city, so it is somewhat more expensive to live there than inland expat centers like Lake Chapala.
“I would guess that Vallarta may be about one-third more expensive to live in than Chapala,” he said, “but it depends on the type of lifestyle you want to have. If you want to frequent the best restaurants downtown – Puerto Vallarta is a real dining mecca in Mexico – then your living costs will be higher. But if you put it in the context of moving from large cities in the U.S., like Seattle, the cost of living here is about half.”
Puerto Vallarta is home to Costco, Walmart, Sam’s Club, Office Depot and other big box stores as well as pricey upscale shopping centers. But less than 20-minutes northeast of Centro by bus is Pitillal, a real Mexican suburb where many local people live and shop. Prices there are more reflective of the non-tourist economy and much easier on the pocketbook.
Vallarta’s Zona Romantica, just south of the Cuale River, is a hot spot for food and entertainment in Puerto Vallarta, an area Swanson knows well. He has played guitar with the Texas Embassy Blues Band at Nacho Daddy on \ for the past 10 years. The band also plays at the Old Town Farmer’s Market and at many charity events in the area. Swanson learned his licks while playing with bands in Seattle and also plays the mandolin.
Listening to Swanson talk about Puerto Vallarta, you would think he was paid by the local Chamber of Commerce. But it is really his big heart and love for his adopted hometown, which he willingly shares with everyone.
“It’s a funny thing, local people, myself included, love to talk about the town,” he said. “It’s almost like passing-the-torch as new people arrive. Those of us who have been down here for a long time just love to share our experiences, both the good and the bad. We have a saying down here: ‘Laugh or leave.’ Whether you’re from America, Canada or somewhere else, Puerto Vallarta is the place to slow down and enjoy life.”