At the monthly pancake breakfast of the San Felipe Association of Retired Persons, the talk is about how Beverly Stillwell, 71, is paying only $1,700 for bridgework "that would easily cost $4,000 in the States." How Nellie Kidwell, 84, forks over only $49 a year in property taxes for her two-bedroom, two-bath home near the beach. And how Rose Lahey's timid boyfriend won't drive down from California because "he's paranoid about Mexican bandidos." Says Lahey, 55, a retired letter carrier: "You're safer here than in L.A. any day--and it's better than going postal."
San Felipe is one of a handful of Mexican towns that have become magnets for gringo retirees, and another reason why it's often hard to tell where one country stops and the other begins. About 125 miles south of the border, this once tiny fishing village now stretches along the blue-green waters of the Sea of Cortez into a 50-mile-long cordon of dusty RV parks and mid-market subdivisions, all catering to seniors. Some 24,000 Mexicans and 9,000 nortenos coexist here, more apart than together. There are separate services in English and Spanish at the Baptist church; Alcoholics Anonymous offers meetings for Anglos at 6, for Mexicans at 8. But everyone strolls along the seaside malecon to hear the mariachis and goes to the same black-market dealers for illegal hookups to U.S. DirecTV satellites. "It's great," says Lou Wells, 67, a former railroad clerk. "We get hbo, Showtime, and we can watch $150 pay-per-view fights for free!"
Cheap is one reason why many snowbirds spend 10 months a year in Mexico and then "vacation" back north during the hot summer. They can live comfortably on $500 a month, renting a plot for a trailer. Splurging, they can build an adobe mansion with a hot tub and a view of the sea for $80,000. A local doctor makes house calls for less than $20; prescription drugs often cost less than a third of their price in the U.S.--and for serious medical problems, a U.S. hospital is a three-hour drive away. At twilight, the dune buggies, piloted by ecstatic septuagenarians, dash through the desert sunsets.
San Felipe is no luxury resort. Few of the settlements have electricity. But refrigerators run on propane and computers on solar panels. Cell phones substitute for land lines. E-mail is offered through The Net, a computer service run by physicist Tony Colleraine, who retired early from defense contractor General Atomics and now hustles Mexican businesses to advertise on www.sanfelipe.com.mx
Everyone makes adjustments to survive. "It terrified me that they don't put their babies in car seats," says Judy Hubbard, 64, a day-care provider from East Hampton, N.Y. "And the town doesn't pick up garbage for days. But I learned to live and let live." Now she volunteers as a counselor for methamphetamine addicts from the town slums.