Shannon: My chat is with Anthony Head, an American who found himself an Expat in Mexico, owning a bar and living in Playa Del Carmen for 10 years with his wife, Cheri. His book Driftwood: Stories from the Margarita Road has won the Kirkus Award for Best Book of 2020 and the IRDA Best First Fiction award.
Who is Anthony Head and what is your background?
I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit and had a typical Fifties Midwestern upbringing, with traditional parents and an older brother. As a result of my upbringing, I went to college and then on to law school after high school. Like most people I knew, my plans for the future always centered on a career and family.
Everything changed when I visited a friend on the west coast. As a result, my eyes were opened to how large and exciting the world could be. I knew then I wanted to experience life in other places.
The morning after my last law school exam, I moved to San Francisco—a vibrant, cosmopolitan city unlike anywhere I had ever seen. For the first time, I saw and met people of every color and nationality. As a result, I began to explore and appreciate different cultures.
The next several decades brought marriage, the birth of my son, a thriving law practice, a black belt in karate, opening a martial arts school and other entrepreneurial endeavors, and lots of travel and adventure.
How did you end up an expat in Mexico in the beach town of Playa del Carmen, Mexico?
Wanderlust overcame me in my mid 40s, and my wife Cheri and I began to travel extensively. We visited Europe, the Caribbean, many parts of the US (New Orleans, Key West, and Hawaii) and Mexico, where we returned repeatedly.
Cheri and I fell in love with Mexico the moment we crossed the border at Tijuana. It was a natural choice for us, as it was a foreign land within driving distance. We started with short weekend trips down the Baja peninsula, to places like Rosarito Beach, Puerto Nuevo, Tecate, and San Felipe.
The more time we spent there, the more we fell in love with Mexico and its people. We began to drive the length of the Baja. We explored the artist colonies and small towns of the Pacific coast, the cactus forests of the central desert, and the exquisite beauty of the bays and harbors of the Sea of Cortez (often called the poor man’s Tahiti).
Everywhere we went, we were greeted with warmth and friendship. We discovered an openness in Mexico that didn’t exist back home.
At some point, we decided we wanted to see the Caribbean side of the country and planned a trip to Cancun.
Sadly, Cancun disappointed us. Our style of travel had always focused on interacting with the local people. Because of that, we either camped or stayed wherever the locals did. That was not possible in Cancun. We arrived to find a giant bustling city that seemed to be populated more by American tourists than local Mexican families.
After a few days in a huge resort hotel, we knew we wanted to find the real Mexican Caribe. So, we rented a car and headed south. We had read about a little town called Playa del Carmen and decided to check it out.
About an hour later, we found Playa del Carmen. Or, you could say we found paradise. Back then (about twenty years ago), Playa was not the major tourist attraction it is today. Much to our delight, the travel industry had not yet discovered it.
The streets were all either unpaved or covered in cobblestone. There were no giant resort hotels, only quaint posadas and hostels. The town was populated by “Playense”: the free-spirited and warm-hearted Mexican and Mayan folks who loved being near the sea. The beaches were undeveloped, open to all, and unbelievably beautiful. A small expat community from the U.S., Canada, Italy, and Argentina created a “city of the world” atmosphere.
Before our trip was over, we had fallen deeply in love with Playa del Carmen. It was then we began to seriously consider the idea—long a dream of ours—of living in a foreign country and being expats in Mexico.
You purchased a hotel there. How did that come about and how was your experience starting a business?
After discovering Playa, we began to make regular trips there. It started as one trip a year and quickly became two or three. Finding ourselves with an empty nest (our son having grown up and starting his own life), Cheri and I started talking about actually moving to Playa and becoming true expats in Mexico.
We had always considered opening a bed and breakfast or small hotel—which in retrospect is hilarious given that we had absolutely no experience in the hospitality business. We took an evening class in San Francisco about how to run a bed and breakfast, so we figured we were good to go. Thank goodness we didn’t let our naiveté slow us down!
Expat in Mexico: Buying Real Estate in Playa Del Carmen
We began to look at hotels for sale in the Playa area but couldn’t find anything that didn’t have a high cost. Then one day we met an American at a beach bar who was selling a small, dilapidated youth hostel for an affordable price. We checked it out, and it was perfect.
We took out a loan for the down payment and made an offer. And just like that, we owned a hotel in Mexico!
Boy, was that ever a scary moment! We researched the hell out of the legalities about living in Mexico and buying real estate, tourist visas, residency visas, health care and pretty much everything about being an expat in Mexico and spent months planning all the details. Then we packed our large van with what we thought we’d need for our new life, including our three cats and an English bulldog, and headed south.
We spent several challenging months turning the rundown property into a charming little hotel that we renamed the Luna Blue. (The many stories of our renovation struggles, our first hurricane, learning to do business in another language, and so much more will be part of my upcoming memoir.)
People seemed to really like what we did with the place, and within six months Tripadvisor listed us as the #1 most popular hotel in town. It took an unbelievable amount of work…but it was worth it!
We continued to improve and update the hotel the entire time we lived there. Eventually, we added a swimming pool and a small open-air bar. It was truly a labor of love.
What is the most memorable expat in Mexico story you recall?
It’s impossible to choose just one story from all our years and adventures in Mexico. That being said, one of my favorite stories is about a time Cheri and I were camping in the Baja along the Bahia Concepcion. Our car got stuck in some loose sand, and despite our best efforts, we could not free it.
As I stood there in the burning desert sun, I could see a few houses in the distance. I suddenly noticed a pickup truck leave one of the houses and speed towards us.
As it approached, I saw an elderly man driving and five or six young men in the back of the truck. When they stopped, the young men jumped out, started digging sand around the tires, and attached a towrope between our vehicles.
The man told me his sons would soon have the car free. I offered him some cash for his troubles. He seemed insulted. “You are a guest in my country. I do not take money to help my guests.” He then invited us to his house for lunch. This will always represent Mexico to me.
If you could give anyone one piece of advice about moving to Mexico what would it be?
Again, there are too many pieces of advice to pick just one. But I can definitely offer my top three:
1. Visit the place you want to live in before becoming an expat in Mexico. Don’t rely on books and videos to give you the feel for any particular area. Go and spend some time there, and get to know the people.
2. Don’t move to a new country like Mexico expecting to live like a tourist on vacation. You need to plan on becoming a local; eat what the locals do; live like the locals do and try to learn spanish and speak spanish. Do not limit your new friends and neighbors to other expats in Mexico. Many expats communities become “little Americas.” If you live in Mexico, embrace your Mexican neighbors.
3. Always remember you are a guest in your adopted home, no matter how long you live there. It will not be America so don’t expect it to be. Be respectful, courteous, and open to new adventures.
How long were you in Mexico and why did you leave?
Despite our initial “three to five year” plan, Cheri and I ended up living in Playa del Carmen for ten years.
We left Mexico for a number of different reasons. Our loan had come due, necessitating the sale of the hotel and bar. I had suffered a massive heart attack, and health insurance and treatment was not easily available in our part of Mexico. We wanted to be closer to Cheri’s mom, who was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. Also, we missed our son and our friends in the States. And Playa del Carmen was no longer the small town we fell in love with. It had become a bustling tourist city. So, we decided to return to California.
The lesson is that things change even when you live in another country. Nothing stays the same forever.
How did the idea for your book come about and over what time period was it written?
I was always amazed by the life Cheri and I were living in Mexico, as well as by the stories we heard from other expats, travelers, and tourists. I always felt if those stories were told they would show a clear picture of the kind of person who was brave or crazy enough to become an expat, and of the wildly various ways (good and bad) the expat world could be experienced.
After returning to California, I began writing a book based on those stories. It took me about five years. In the end, I think I wrote it partially to pay homage to the wonderful people I met in Mexico and to the lives they shared with me. I hope I did right by them.
By writing the book about my adopted home I was able to go home again for a while – if only in my heart and on the written page.
And I am currently writing another book about…you guessed it…living in Mexico!
Are you ready to retire in Mexico? Check out Huatulco Mexico: The Best Place to Retire