Monterrey, Mexico Report of what it's like to live there - 10/22/10
Personal Experiences from Monterrey, Mexico
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No. St. Petersburg, Russia, and Ekaterinburg, Russia.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Tulsa, Oklahoma. It's about five hours with connections.
3. How long have you lived here?
I lived there for 13 months (end of July 2009-end of August 2010).
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
My husband is in the U.S. Foreign Service.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Consulate housing is mostly apartments or townhouses, though they do have some smaller apartments that are nice for single officers. Not too many people have yards, but some do. All the consulate housing is in San Pedro. The commutes are awful, because after the hurricane there are still many road closings and bridges that are out. The consulate now picks up all the officers in an armored vehicle because of the security situation.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
The HEBs in San Pedro are basically like shopping in any supermarket in south Texas. The prices are cheaper than in the States, though out of season items are simply not available sometimes.(If you are a fan of natural peanut butter, however, you will need to bring some with you - they only have one kind of PB and it is in a tiny little jar.)
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Peanut butter. If you like to drink, finding tonic water was a pain, and whiskeys are much more expensive (the trade-off is that tequila is very affordable, however).
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Monterrey is not known for its cuisine. As far as local fast food is concerned - you basically can choose from a million kinds of tacos. Though there are also some roast chicken places. Monterrey has tons of American restaurants (Chili's, Starbucks, KFC, McDonald's...)The local food is supposedly cabrito, but no one eats that on a daily basis.
5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?
San Pedro has a vegetarian restaurant/health food store. It is expensive and the variety is not great, but it's there, but typically for a vegetarian it is not easy because regios really love beef. Gluten allergies are usually not a huge problem, because you can always order corn tortillas - it's apparently very easy to explain "no wheat" or "no flour" (sin harina, sin trigo).
6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Lots of cockroaches. We also got moths in our kitchen.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Inexpensive, easy to find. If you're with the consulate, you'll be able to get a recommendation through the consulate community - everyone's muchacha is always looking to pick up an extra day.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes, but they are much more expensive than in the U.S.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Several people we knew had their cards cloned, and there are some ATMs that are sketchy. Occasionally a credit card simply won't run, but that was not a common problem.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Yes. We are not church-goers, but there were three or four churches that others went to.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
TV - yes, you can get an English package. It's geared towards Mexicans, so the programming is in English and the commercials are in Spanish. There is also a separate package that has local news out of Colorado. I think it was about $70 USD per month.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
A little. I speak Spanish pretty well, but even so, many times at the restaurant or grocery store people would switch into English (of their own accord).A lot of people in Monterrey have lived in the States and/or studied English their entire lives. Regarding speaking Spanish, if you took Spanish in high school, there are going to be a lot of vocabulary words specific to Mexico that are unfamiliar. It can help to hire a local tutor for a short period of time to help out with that. However, I tried taking lessons for longer and was really dissatisfied with them (they were rather pointless - going over basics that I already knew - when I'd specifically said several times I needed help with advanced grammar, and also expensive. I had this experience in three different language schools).
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
The sidewalks are not in great condition, and often when crossing the street you are taking your life into your hands. It did not seem especially disability-friendly to me.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
We weren't allowed to use public transport, except for cabs that we called, but cabs were very cheap - from our house to the airport took about 45 minutes and usually cost only about $30.(We were really surprised at the taxi prices in Guadalajara and Veracruz when we visited - it's much pricier there.)
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Leave your Hummer at home - people will assume you are part of one of the cartels. Other than that, just about any car will be fine, though I would not drive a tiny car (like a Smart Car or a Geo) because traffic is insane.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, but it's not as fast as it claims to be. The DSL is ridiculously slow - it's best to go with Cablevision instead.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
The consulate provided cell phones for all employees and spouses.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
We found the vets to be great for our cats.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Most expats were transferred there, rather than finding the job locally. I don't know that you would be able to find something other than teaching English if you are looking locally, but I knew several teachers who supported themselves by teaching.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Work is dressy. Clothing in public can be casual, but even when it's casual, it's stylish. Monterrey is a very affluent city by Mexican standards, and San Pedro (where the consulate housing is) is affluent even by U.S. standards.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Yes, lots. By the time I left, I basically was afraid to leave the house. Just things like, one day I missed going to the gym because I couldn't find my car keys, and thank god I couldn't, because I found out that there was a shooting at the mall where the gym is at that time. The consulate no longer allows children because of a shootout at ASFM in August 2010.Travel is very restricted - consulate personnel are no longer allowed to be outside of San Pedro at night, and trips to all the local small towns (Santiago, etc.) are forbidden.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Our experience and the experience of everyone we talked to was great. But it's a "you get what you pay for" situation. For instance, I went to a doctor about a minor problem, spent 20 minutes with the doctor (no nurses or orderlies), he turned out to know English and spoke to me in English, was very nice, in the end charged only $100 USD. (In the U.S. it would have been 2 minutes with a harried doctor for $400 or so.)Later, I cut my hand and the guy they had stitch it up was their plastic surgeon!However, I've heard that if you are going to one of the hospitals in the poorer neighborhoods the quality is terrible.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
The air quality is not great, but it's not awful. The pollution is worse than Mexico City's, but since it is so dry, it's not too bad on people with allergies.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It's like south Texas, plus 10-20 degrees F.It's a very dry, desert climate (I used tons more lotion there than I ever have in my life).Winters rarely get much colder than the low 40s, summers are up past 110 sometimes.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
We don't have kids. Other kids we knew went to ASFM or San Roberto. There are also an Irish school and a French school, but I don't know anything about them.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
Lots of locals have nannies. I think they are paid about the same as housekeepers. We paid our cleaning lady 300 pesos a day (6-8 hours of work), which was considered generous. Many people pay 200-250 for a full day's work.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
2. Morale among expats:
Now it is low.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Clubs, bars, restaurants, some museums. VIP movies are cheap, so we went to a lot of those.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
When security is good, it's a great city for singles, because there is a lot to do, lots of clubs and bars, you can take salsa lessons, etc. Likewise, when security is good, it's great for kids - there are parks, museums, etc. When security is not good, like now, I would think it's better for couples, because you're going to be spending a lot of time at home.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Good, but not great. There are some clubs, but gay life is still pretty under the radar.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
As a woman I was often treated condescendingly by locals. For instance, when I called the internet provider's customer service, the technician acted like I was an idiot for insisting the connection was down and told me the problem was with my computer. I told him I have two and neither one was working, though they were both working 10 minutes ago, and then he refused to let me speak to a supervisor. I eventually hung up and called back again when I could speak with a female customer service rep. I didn't detect religious prejudices, but I know that the people at post who were darker-complected (Southeast Asian or African-American descent) have experienced many negative comments and poor treatment from all kinds of people (visa applicants, the guys who run the parking facility, waiters at restaurants).
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Monterrey has a decent number of local attractions - the Grutas de Garcia, Santiago, the Paseo Sta. Lucia, Horno 3, etc. The security situation degraded by the time I left that all of these places were off-limits, but when it was safe, these were really fun to do.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Grutas de Garcia, Santiago, Paseo Sta. Lucia, Horno 3.There is a big running culture and you can go to a 10K almost every weekend if you want.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Monterrey does not have any local artesania traditions, but you could spend it on travel to other cities in Mexico.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
My family is in Oklahoma and my husband's family is in Texas, so it was nice to be able to fly to visit frequently. Also, being in Central time zone enabled me to telecommute for my U.S.-based job. Monterrey is disappointing if you're expecting it to be exotic - it is a business city, and it is very U.S.-oriented. It's more like San Antonio South than like Mexico. But the people are very friendly.
11. Can you save money?
Yes, if you're not living the high life. There are plenty of expensive restaurants and clubs if you want to go to them, but there are even more options that are fine for a middle-class budget.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
At this point in time, no. Once the security situation is better, yes.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
GPS. It's useless with all the road closings after the hurricane.
3. But don't forget your:
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
The Perfect Game.
6. Do you have any other comments?
Despite the security situation, which came to color our entire lives in Monterrey, I really loved living there. The people are amazingly nice and friendly. We got really close to our neighbors, and the local staff at the consulate are also quite friendly (they are of course busy with their own family and friends, but still just in general welcoming).