As an army brat, Wes Jacobs knew a lot about living in foreign cultures, so after his military commitment was over in 2019 he headed to Cartagena, Columbia to learn Spanish before starting a medical tourism business in the safest city in Mexico, Mérida.
“When I got out of the army, I wanted to start a medical tourism business,” said Jacobs, who is 28-years-old. “I had been working on a business plan for about a year to help people in the United states travel to Mexico and Latin America to take advantage of very high-quality healthcare at much more affordable prices. In order to do that, I figured the first step would be to learn Spanish to be able to connect with decision-makers and dentists and doctors here in Mexico and understand the business culture.”
Born at Fort Rucker, Alabama, his helicopter pilot dad moved his family to Germany and England before settling in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he graduated from high school.
“The real seeds of my expat life began during my four years at the Virginia Military Academy in Lexington, Virginia,” he said. “I spent two months between my freshman and sophomore years studying Arabic in Morocco and living with a family. My sophomore year, I lived in Canberra, Australia studying at the Australian National University. And in year three at VMI, I taught English at Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy in Thailand. I got more and more comfortable just being out of the United States and out of American culture. After years of living abroad, I feel like a fish in water, not out of it.”
As a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army, he spent most of his time at Joint Base Lewis McChord, just south of Seattle, Washington, working for the Pacific Command and with the Indian Army, South Korea, Japan, Australia and Thailand, which enhanced his ability to work with different cultures. He also had the opportunity to live three months in the Philippines.
“I finished my service commitment in 2019, got out of the army in October and within five days I was on a flight to Cartagena, Colombia. I sold or donated most of my furniture and the rest went into storage at my dad’s place in San Francisco,” he explained. “I went to Cartagena on the assumption that Columbian Spanish was fairly neutral, and that was the place to go if I wanted to have a very understandable accent to do business in Latin America.”
He found a Spanish language school in Cartagena and studied Spanish 20 hours a week for six months. He liked the rigid structure of the learning process and quickly learned the language, which improved even more after he met his girlfriend Maya at the school.
“As we spent more and more time together,” he said, “my Spanish improved greatly. Now we speak Spanish exclusively at home.”
Jacobs decided to leave Columbia and move to Mérida recently because he lived in a working-class neighborhood in Cartagena that was becoming more dangerous, and Mérida is consistently ranked as the safest city in Mexico.
“You can see the state of Yucatán is rated a one on the U.S. Department of State’s threat assessment map, which categorizes each state in Mexico one through four, with one being the safest and four the least safe,” he said. “Mérida is completely safe, much like the safest cities in the U.S. or Europe.”
“Mexico also has a more liberal immigration policy than Columbia,” Jacobs told me. “Expats holding tourist visas had to leave Columbia every 90 days to renew their visas, while Mexico’s requirement is a more generous every six months. We can also apply for long-term visas here.”
Jacobs said moving to Mérida was a very specific business decision.
“I started my business in March of last year and began facilitating patients in August, 2020,” he said. “Much of our business is done in Mexico, so it made a lot of sense for us. We work in four cities in Mexico: Tijuana, Mexico City, Playa del Carmen and Los Algodones, which is a small town across the border from the retiree hot spot Yuma, Arizona. Los Algodones is unique because it is home to the highest concentration of practicing dentists in the world, about 400 clinics and 800 dentists.”
His new business, Apollo Medical Travel, works with 17 different clinics, of which 14 are dental clinics and three are ambulatory surgery centers that offer plastic surgery and general surgery. In addition to the four Mexican cities, his company also offers services in San José, Costa Rica and three cities in Colombia.”
“We have facilitated some pretty major surgeries,” Jacobs said. “U.S. medical and dental procedures are so expensive, many cannot afford them, even with insurance. For example, if you want full-mouth dental implants, be prepared to pay about US$50,000 in the United States. Through my network, you can access the best periodontists and prosthodontists to do the same work for about US$15,000.”
Jacobs and his girlfriend are getting to know Mérida and are spending most of their time now in finding a place to live.
“We have been looking for a place to rent and have been very happy with what we have found so far,” Jacobs said. “A two- bedroom apartment or a small house a bit farther from the center of the city rent for US$750 to $900 a month. They are very well appointed, in safe neighborhoods and relatively quiet. Most also have good Internet service, which is a must for us.”
The Mérida cost of living is appealing to Jacobs, also. He said when they go out for dinner, they can get a very good meal with drinks for about 120 pesos per person, or US$6. The couple has also been pleased with the affordability of visiting local museums and other local attractions.
“So many of the things you can do here are free,” he said, “because there are lots of musicians playing in restaurants, public screenings of movies in the parks and beautiful galleries to visit.”
Jacobs said Mérida is very easy to explore because it is laid out on a grid, with odd numbered streets running east to west and even numbers north to south. Streets get smaller as you go east and larger as you go south, so you can always know where you are in the city. The older part of Mérida has brick roads.
“It is so easy to get around here,” he said, ”which is a real plus, but safety is really the key reason why we are in Mérida. Because it is so safe it attracts a very cosmopolitan group of people. We have friends from China, France and many other countries. They are all open-minded, curious and interesting people to hang out with. The variety, quality and price of food are also high on my list of things to love about living in Mérida.”
But perhaps the best reason of all for relocating to Mérida was the enthusiasm other expats have for their city.
“I think you can get a sort of sense of the place and the kind of people who live there from Facebook communities. And the expat Yucatán groups all raved about this place. I thought it might be over-hyped, but it definitely is not.”
You can learn more about living in Mérida in our Cities section.