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Interview with Kirsten – an American expat living in Mexico

Updated 27 Oct 2023

Kirsten and her husband were fed up with the American rat race, so in 2013, they decided to sell it all and move to Penang, Malaysia, to rewire their lives. She says that while it was a hard decision, it was so incredibly rewarding. Fast-forward nearly a decade, and they were ready for a new adventure, so they packed their bags and landed in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

On Kirsten's blog, Sand In My Curls, you’ll find practical, down-to-earth info about the realities of expat life, warts and all. Her mission is to teach expats how to handle the ups and downs and the ins and outs of moving overseas.

Since she and her husband soaked up life in Malaysia, her blog is bursting with stories about her epic escapades in Asia. Now that they've set up shop in Puerto Vallarta, she can take you on a journey through the daily life of an expat. From savouring local flavours to navigating the quirks of a new culture, she'll be your guide to what it's really like living the expat dream. Get ready for a first-hand look at expat life that's as authentic as an abuela’s salsa.

About Kirsten

Q: Where are you originally from? 
A: Chicago

Q: Where are you currently living? 
A: Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Q: When did you move here? 
A: Jan 2022

Q: Is this your first expat experience? 
A: Nope. We spent nine years living in Penang, Malaysia, before moving here.

Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family? 
A: With my hubs, Mark

Q: Why did you move; what do you do? 
A: After nine years in Penang and being trapped during Covid, we felt it was time to be closer to our families in the US. We came to Puerto Vallarta for a month because we weren’t sure where we wanted to live, and 1.5 years later, we are still here. 

I’m a freelance writer and editor for various websites, blogs, and magazines.

Living in Puerto Vallarta

Q: What do you enjoy most about Puerto Vallarta? How would you rate the quality of life compared to your home country? 
A: The vibrancy. Vallarta is effervescent! Because it is a huge tourist destination, there are waves upon waves of happy people coming here to relax and enjoy the beach and the food. New vacationers always bring fresh and positive energy to town. It also makes the locals happy since they benefit from the tourism. So everyone’s happy. 

We will always love Chicago, but the people and energy in PV are always positive and upbeat. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Chicago.

Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about home? 
A: No real negative experiences. We’ve been away from the US for a decade, so the only things I miss from there are my family and friends and our favorite Chicago restaurants. 

What do I miss about Penang? The family we chose. And the food. I see a theme here. Oh, and also how multicultural it is. Almost everyone in Puerto Vallarta is Mexican, American, or Canadian. The people in Penang are from all over the world, which makes for incredibly interesting parties. We hosted a Thanksgiving party with 19 people from six countries; it felt like a UN gathering, only for fun.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock? 
A: Apartments in Penang are massive and extremely affordable (read = super cheap). That’s not the case here. We are paying more than double for a place half the size. We weren’t prepared for that mindset shift when we started apartment hunting. 

No real culture shock. PV is pretty Americanised; I mean, we have Costco, Walmart, and Office Depot here. If we can't find it here, we always have Amazon. I have more culture shock going back to the US.

Q: How would you rate the public transport in Puerto Vallarta? 
A: We only have buses here, and they are pretty good. But there is no AC, so when it’s sweltering here and the buses are packed, be prepared to stand and sweat. And if you are a germaphobe, stay clear because it’s not just your sweat that you’ll be soaked in.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Puerto Vallarta? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend? 
A: Every interaction we’ve had with a doctor here has been fantastic. They actually give you all the time you need, listen to you, and give you their cell phone number. Plus, it costs pennies on the dollar. It’s far better than any healthcare we’ve got in the US. The only hospital we've been to is Med-Assist, and we highly recommend it.

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Puerto Vallarta? Are there any areas expats should avoid? 
A: This is a good-sized city, so there is definitely petty crime and some drug use. Don’t walk around flashing your wealth or drunk super late at night, and watch your belongings – you’ll be fine. It’s no different in any big city. 

I’m far safer here than I am in Chicago. And since it’s such a touristy city, there is a large police presence. Mexico is very smart, and they do everything to protect their tourism business. Any safety issues, especially with tourists, would dramatically decrease the number of people coming here to spend money, which drives this economy. 

Also, when you tell people you live in Mexico, the first thing they think about is the cartel. Unless you buy drugs off the street or start dealing drugs, it’s highly unlikely you’ll encounter any issues or see any cartel activity.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in the city? What different options are available for expats? 
A: You can find rentals from $400 to $4000. It all depends on what you are looking for and your comfort level. The $400 places are small, have no A/C, and are far from the beach, but they are out there.

Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in? 
A: The best areas to live in Puerto Vallarta are the Romantic Zone, Centro, 5 de Diciembre and Versalles. It all depends on what kind of lifestyle you are looking for. For more info, check out this blog.

Meeting people and making friends in Mexico

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular groups? Have you ever experienced discrimination here? 
A: Puerto Vallarta is a very tolerant place. After all, it’s the gay capital of Mexico, so the people here are very open-minded. 

Mexico is a country rooted in tourism. They are used to foreigners. Everyone is happy as long as you are here, spending money and supporting the locals. It’s when you spend all day sitting in a café or restaurant and order one cup of coffee that the shop owner gets a little upset. And rightfully so.

Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people? 
A: At the beginning, it wasn’t easy making friends because we worked from home and didn’t have a lot of time to get out and about. However, we recently joined a bunch of Facebook groups that have regular events, and now we are starting to find our tribe.

Q: Have you made friends with locals, or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals? 
A: We have local and expat friends. There are a zillion Facebook groups for locals and expats. Join the ones that interest you and attend the events. We’ve found that’s the best way to meet people.

Working in Puerto Vallarta

Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant? 
A: We are here on a temporary visa, which we did ourselves. However, we hired someone for the three-year extension to make our lives easier.

Final thoughts

Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals? 
A: There is no perfect time to move. There is no perfect place. And some of your people may try to discourage you. But don’t listen. People have told me that the grass isn’t always greener, but there is a whole world to explore, so why not see it for yourself? Don’t rely on social media to live vicariously; go and explore on your own.

You have to do you, which can oftentimes be more difficult. In the decade of living overseas, I haven’t met one person who regretted their decision. 

Follow your heart. Follow your dreams. And if the worst thing that happens is you move back to your home country, then you’ve gained perspective of what life is like in another country. You really have nothing to lose. 

Feel free to reach out through Sand in My Curls if you have specific questions or need advice.

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