Oaxaca de Juárez, or just Oaxaca, has been a tourist magnet for years and is now a hot spot for new expat arrivals in the country. World travelers flock to the city for its world-renowned food, colonial architecture and rich historical and cultural traditions. Anna Eva is no exception. She is the fashion model who found a new life in Oaxaca.
“I had never been to Oaxaca and everybody told me to go see it,” Eva told us. “So, I came here with my girls and I really loved it. I thought I would stay for three or four months, but my whole life changed during that time. Two years later, I’m still here.”
Eva is a true international expat. Born in Palo Alto, California, her parents moved to a small town in Austria near the border with Switzerland when she was just three. After high school, Eva moved back to the Bay Area to attend Foothill College, but dropped out after a few years to earn enough money to live in the famously-expensive Silicon Valley.
“I started working at Philips Lumileds in major account customer service for Germany, Switzerland and Austria in San Jose,” the thirty-three-year-old Eva said. “It paid well but it was a night shift job and I found myself just working and sleeping.”
At 21, she left Philips and opened an art gallery specializing in portrait art, creating some of the art herself, but also showcasing upcoming new artists from San Francisco.
“Many of them were not well known then,” she said, “but over 10 years later, some of them have huge followings. I featured them when they were starving artists and now they’re pretty big names.”
A tall girl, Eva modeled during her teenage years in Austria, but had not considered modeling as a career until some of her art world friends suggested she try it.
“People asked me if I wanted to model their clothes and it turned out I had talent,” she said. “I got really lucky and ended up doing New York fashion week. I ended up just drifting away from the art gallery into modeling, including a three-month modeling assignment in Mexico City.”
Back in San Francisco, she fell in love with a Mexican man from Michoacán who became her partner and the father of her two girls, but the relationship did not last and Eva returned to live with her parents in Austria to get back on her feet. Her entrepreneurial instincts led her to open a yoga and organic kids clothing store while she was pregnant with her second child. It was a big success, but Eva had other plans.
“After a year, I just said winter was coming again and I really don’t like the cold weather. I’m going to start looking for a new place where I can raise the girls. So, I booked a flight first to Portugal and then visited Spain, Morocco, Cuba and finally back to Mexico.”
She decided to spend Christmas with the father of the girls in his hometown in Michoacán.
“We stayed for a month,” she said, “with the hope we might be able to work things out, but we were from two different cultures. I was a very independent woman from Europe and he was used to women in his culture doing things differently.”
She did not want to return to Europe and many of her friends had told her she had to see Oaxaca, so Eva decided to take the girls there for a few months to see if they liked it.
“The girls and I really loved it. I thought we would stay for three or four months, but it’s been two years and I’m still here. I really love the quiet, calm and simple lifestyle. I found a really nice house and the income from my store in Austria and the lower cost of living here allowed me to hire a cleaning lady, a nanny and put the kids into a private school.”
Eva now lives in a two-story, three-bedroom home with large windows and a big garden on a quiet street near a river. Her monthly rent is about US$750 a month and she is just a 10-minute walk to the center of town.
A serial entrepreneur, it did not take her long to get a new business started. She opened Villa Verde in the Jalatlaco neighborhood in Oaxaca, which she told us was recently rated by a travel magazine as the 17th coolest neighborhood in the world.
“I opened it as a hostel, so I rented a really huge building with 10 rooms on two floors and a business area downstairs. I realized after a while, though, that it was not the type of customer I wanted to attract. I redid the concept by renting out the bottom area to organic shops and it’s now a mini organic plaza.”
The top floor has six bedrooms and a playroom for kids and a rooftop “hangout” spot is under construction. When finished, it will have an outdoor kitchen and a 360-degree view of the city.
“We have lots of groups, families and retreats at Villa Verde,” she said. “In January, for example, we have a two-month retreat for artists that someone from New York is holding. She’s inviting different artists each week. We find it’s easier to tend to one big group versus single travelers.”
Yoga classes will be part of Villa Verde once the remodeling of the rooftop is completed.
When Eva first arrived in town she had a bit more time on her hands, which allowed her to meet local expats at a nearby organic market, but she now stays in touch primarily through local online groups.
Eva is a prime example of why the cost of living in Mexico is often hard to define because it depends so much on the type of person you are and the kind of lifestyle you want to have in Mexico.
“I don’t think I’m the best person to ask about cost of living because I like to spend money and live well,” she said. “But I think many expats in Oaxaca live very well on not that much money, especially if you are a young single person. You can rent a room here for about US$175 and still have about US$350 left for food and other expenses. Lots of people I know have Internet-based businesses or teach English and live well on 10,000 pesos a month, which is about US$500.”
The best thing about living in Oaxaca for Eva is the climate, which is always warm but not hot and cool in the evenings for comfortable sleeping, courtesy of the city’s almost mile-high altitude.
Food is also on the top of her list. “Oaxaca is known as a big foodie place. There are many really nice restaurants, some with Michelin stars. And they are really affordable compared to other places in the world. Of course, there are many, many local neighborhood restaurants that are very affordable and have delicious food.”
The city and nearby historical site Monte Albán were named World Heritage Sites by the United Nations in 1987, a fact not lost on Eva.
“I really love the architecture, the colorful houses and the flowers and exotic plants. And it’s really quiet and calm here. It feels like a big city, but yet also feels like a small town. When I first arrived and was walking near Santo Domingo, I just thought I really like this place. I still feel that way.”