Nuevo Laredo, Mexico Report of what it's like to live there - 12/13/22
Personal Experiences from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
This was our first with the State Department. We did live overseas (in England) while doing my Masters, but that wasn't nearly the same kind of experience.
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?
Austin, Texas. This was a real benefit of this posting, especially during the pandemic, when travel by air was such a problem. We were about 3 hours drive, straight up I-35, to our traditional home. Having the Global Entry card made travel to/from Texas very easy, and that being our home was very convenient. The only time of year when travel to/from is hindered is during Paisano Season. The periods around the holiday's in which Mexican/American families travel home for the holidays in mass. The resulting lines at the border crossings can become very very long. I witnessed the lines of cars at least 3 miles long while at post, and I've seen pictures of them double that in other years.
3. What years did you live here?
September 2020 through August 2022.
4. How long have you lived here?
We lived there for two years.
5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
This was my first tour as an FSO. I worked at the Consulate, in the Consular section. I spent most of my tour adjudicating visas.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
The house itself was very nice. Posh, even. *see exception below about Mexican construction. We had more than enough space, and the interiors were very spacious. The lighting was all inset, and gave the house a very modern feel. We had two AC units which did a good job of keeping the place comfortable in the long hot summers. Overall, I was quite happy with the housing we received, and though much the same of the other houses in the pool that I was able to see.
I would add that Mexican construction and maintenance is not equal to American norms. Many things are done to the point of functional and aesthetic minimums with longer term concerns pushed under the rug. As an example, the light over our dining room table was literally just one of those old shop-type sockets with a bare bulb sticking out. It turns out this was because there were no studs behind the sheetrock, thus nothing to attach a heavier lighting fixture to.
The commute was the shortest in my working life. It was walkable in under ten minutes, bicycled in fewer than five minutes, and driven in two minutes. The only noteworthy part of this is that the infrastructure is much like the housing construction, and you have to be aware while driving/walking/bicycling. Sidewalks are kind of obstacle courses. The roads themselves could quickly be hazardous to your car if you weren't paying attention. For example, manhole covers were often missing right in the middle of the street.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
We mostly shopped at the HEBs. I write this in plural, because we shopped at the one in Nuevo Laredo as well as the one in Laredo, Texas. For large, bi-weekly shopping trips we crossed and shopped in Texas. I'm a big fan of the HEB stores, and frankly think they are the best grocery chain in the whole of the US. The one on the north end of Laredo is a good example. It's shiny and new and large, and the prices are very fair. The HEB in Nuevo Laredo was smaller, dingier, and the selection was limited, but it was still mostly pretty good. I still miss the prices and quality of produce in Nuevo Laredo.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
None. With access to Texas, and specifically HEB, we had anything we would normally get in Anytown, US.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
The restuarant scene is scant. There are a few delivery places that we used regularly, but none that I would even recommend. In our experience, if you wanted a full restaurant experience, you were better off just crossing into Texas. I will admit that others in the Consulate community seemed more pleased with the restaurants in NVL, but I couldn't relate.
Be aware that delivery here is much much cheaper than in the US. Rappi, an app, makes it pretty simple and cheap to get take out, IF you can find a place that you find enticing.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
First, I want to say that the Consulate management team was vigilant in helping keep the pests at bay. That being said, this city is in a river bottom, and urban, and the wastewater systems are poorly constructed. We had issues mostly with two types of pests. The first, and worst, were the roaches. They were very large, flying, and seemingly indestructible. We kept our kitchen and counters very clean, and that helped a lot, but sometimes they would just come at ya. The others were these super tiny flying insects that I don't have name for. They were harmless, but disturbing. They seemed to swarm into corners to die. We'd wake up in the morning and there would be a random corner in the home with 'dirt' all over the floor. It wasn't dirt, it was thousands of dead flying insects, so small that they 'dusted' the floor. It was weird, but we swept them up and went on with out lives.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We had a USPS post office box and another address for larger items, both in Laredo Texas. The mailroom would send over a collection driver twice per week and we received on Tue and Fri. This was very convenient for incoming packages, notably stuff like Amazon.
Two minor inconveniences. First, this didn't work so well on shipping outbound. I'm sure it could have, but I never bothered, and just took outbound packages to Texas when going over to shop or something and shipped from there. Secondly, boxes over a certain size won't fit through the scanner, and thus create a bit of chaos in terms of them being brought to the Consulate for you to pick up. When this happened the mail team was accomodating and helpful, but it was awkward.
I have high regard for the mail/shipping team, they were always nice and friendly and helpful.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
We had a single domestic helper that came and cleaned once per week. We, traditionally, are not the type of family that hires in-home help, but it was so cheap that we just took advantage of the opportunity. We became friends with our domestic hire (at least I like to think so, it's hard to tell when someone is also employee) and did our best to bring some benefits to her as an extension of the Consulate community. She also worked one-day-per-week for other families in the community. There seems to be a couple of regulars that are kind of inherited as families come/go. Some people had full time nannies and I believe they were generally happy with them, but I've no experience.
Don't be shocked by the exit fee associated with domestic help. We paid ours $35 for the one day/week. Howeve, when you depart post you are legally obligated to a variety of separation fees/benefits. In the larger picture, this shouldn't dissuade you, because it doesn't really effect the average over a couple of years at post by much, but just don't be surprised by the several hundred dollars of expense when you are departing post.
In summary, I don't expect I will every be as happy with domestic help as I was here.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Not sure, but I don't think there's much excepting the gym at the consulate. It was a reasonably good gym, but I never used it. We had so much space at home that we turned one of the extra spaces into a home gym.
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?
Use of cc is fine, we didn't have any problems. Use of cash is very common. In our daily lives, I'd say we found cc useful at larger places like the grocery store, but having cash on hand was a necessity for most small/medium businesses. We only ever used the ATM at the consulate. It did malfunction once and I had to jump through some hoops to get my $300 US back, but over a two year span.. not a big deal.
Pro-tip. The ATM has set peso withdrawal amounts up to 4000. You can put in a custom amount to reduce the frequency of your visits to the ATM. I found I could manually pull amounts up to 6000 pesos.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
No idea. I doubt there are any. I don't attend a church, and did not seek out this type of thing.
On the other hand, I would expect most common religious services could be found on the US side, and probably most in English or Spanish.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
I have two thoughts on this. Since the consulate community is pretty tightly-woven, and the need to exist outside the community is limited, and the US side is sooo close, I think a person could find contentment with nearly no Spanish language skills. That being said, the best part of the experience for me was connecting with locals whenever possible, and this does require Spanish. Many NVL locals speak enough English to help you out, for example at the grocery store, but speaking Spanish seems to be very appreciated. I recommend it, but don't think I'd label it a 'have-to'. There are language lessons available within the Consulate for both employees as well as family members. Also, considering the cost of hiring people on the local market, I'd guess you could get a personal tutor pretty cheap.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes, very much so. The infrastructure is a mess, side walks are a mess, it's all just a mess.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
I only ever used personal transport. I'm pretty sure anything else is off limits to the consulate community. In any case, you could walk anywhere within the travel boundry.
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?
Any car will do. There are some very fine vehicles driven around town by locals. Personally, I wouldn't bring anything that I was afraid of getting a minor ding or two (parking is tight at stores, etc), and I wouldn't bring anything with a very low suspension. Also, the driving here is a bit crazy. I wouldn't feel safe on a motorcycle (there are lots of them on the streets, but I wouldn't).
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Internet was set up and turned on upon arrival, which was much appreciated.
Outages were common. We were without internet for over two weeks at one point, after a storm. We finally just installed a second service provider in our home, so that we had insurance. It was an extra $20/mo US, and just worth the extra. From that point on we always had internet, but we did frequently have to swap to the backup when it service with the primary was out.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Our US ATT plan worked on the border.
We did pick up local sims and put them in our second sim slots.
Plans were cheap.
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?
We did not have pets, so I cannot say. I do know that several of the consulate community adopted while here. There are lots of unhomed pets available.
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?
The Consulate management work hard to provide work opportunities for the EFMs. I don't think that it was quite the case that anybody who wanted work had it, but it was close. The choice of work might be limited, as it's a smaller post, but there were positions available.
As for working on the local economy, I think most Americans would not find local wages enticing. There were a few EFMs within the community while I was there that worked online, and this seemed to be a good option. Specifically, as this post is on similar timezone as the US. (only one hour after East coast)
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
There were organized events, put on by the Community Liaison Office (CLO), but for a regular, job-like opportunity, I can't say.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
As my first post I can't really put this in relation to other posts. I can say that most days were dress pants and a button down shirt (no tie). Fridays in the consular section we tended to wear Hawaiian shirts or Guyabaras.
In public, it's basically like the US. Though, I did notice that women here did less of the yoga pants at the grocery story type of thing and men wore less shorts than I'd expect in this climate. I think it's expected to be just a bit more 'made up' in public, but not much more than in US.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
The elephant in the room is the Cartel. This is a high-risk post for a reason. While I was posted there, the consulate was attacked, as was one of the consulate family homes. The bullet holes in the glass was a long term reminder of the real dangers of the post. Nobody was hurt, and the consulate security posture was adjusted in response. You will never be all the way safe here, but the measures put in place are reasonable, and deter/minimize the threat. Also, In my opinion the consulate community is safer than the locals, but this is just an individual opinion.
In terms of lower level crime like mugging, pickpocketing, car break ins, home break ins, we had no issues, and I don't think there really is a big risk of this kind of thing. For perspective, I felt safer in my day-to-day life in Nuevo Laredo than I did in China Town in Washington, DC.
There is a hard no-go outside of an area around the consulate of a few square miles. You cannot drive to the airport, nor use the highway to Monterrey without making arrangements with the security team at post.
Summary: I think most Americans are over-hyped about the threat of cartel in these kinds of places. That doesn't mean that the threat isn't real, but that it can, and is, mitigated reasonably well.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical in Mexico is cheap, and generally pretty good. The onstaff medical assistant at the Consulate is a wonderful resource for finding local services.
If you can't find what you are comfortable in Mexico, the US is right there, and Laredo has decent hospitals.
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?
Dust. SO much dust. Everything we owned was always covered with a fine layer of dust.
Also, cedar pollen allergies are a real issue.
Aside from that there is no real pollution type issues in the air.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Cedar pollen, dust. I can't think of anything else.
The food at restaurants was fine, I know of no-one who got food sick while I was there. The consulate provides bottled water.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
The post can feel claustrophobic because of the small size of the travel perimeter. You have to be willing to escape to Texas. This is compounded by the sense of Cartel impacting the larger community all the time. In my opinion, their presence is kind of pervasive and lends to a constant low level anxiety. Also, the housing is all within tall walls, with razor wire, and security lighting, which, to me, gives the sense that you live inside a prison. If you let it, it can grind down your sense of calm.
The community is a great resource for this kind of thing. People tend to gather at the Consulate pool. While I was there, one member was hosting regular board games at their family's home. Lean in on the community, and that helps.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Dry and hot. Summers are long. When it rains, it tends to pour, and the streets quickly become rivers. Winters are mild, with occasional freezes, but mostly very mild.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
I think there were roughly 35 direct hires, and the community is relatively small. Morale is very high. It was a good first experience for myself and my wife.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Most socialization was at the Consulate pool, or at peoples' homes.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I doubt a singleton would find this a good post for dating. There is reasonable access to large US metro areas like San Antonio. Families would do best here, mostly because of the sense of isolation.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I think so. I cannot speak from personal experience, but, there were a few LGBT people in the community when I was there, and they seemed well-embraced.
5. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
The local staff was amazingly warm and welcoming. I cannot say enough positive things about my experiences with the Mexicans who worked within the consulate section, whom I had the fortune to get to know.
Outside the Consulate, people were friendly, but I didn't make any local friends.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
The role of gender in Mexican society seems more deeply engrained in family and work roles, but I think that's improving. Mexicans also have racial tensions in their society, specifically in the realm of an Indigenous/Spanish spectrum which translates to a darker/lighter skin profile. Most of this is observable and noteworthy, but didn't seem to be present within the Consulate itself.
I personally don't recall experiencing any racism, or gender issues while at post (full-disclosure, this is from the perspective of a middle age, white, male).
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
The local staff were my favorite part of the experience, while at post. We also spent several weeks in Mexico City, which is a gem of a city. I thought Cancun was underwhelming.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Padre Island (in Texas) is a great place to spend a long weekend.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
I don't think this is a good shopping post. Most of what is available is also available in the states. The exceptions are is the pottery dealer on Guerrero street.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Access to the US. Of all the posts in the State Department pantheon, the border posts shine for their access to the whole of the US.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, I feel lucky that it was our first post. The community was great.
2. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction — Linda Gordon
*While this is about an event in Arizona, it does a great job exploring the creation of the racialization of Mexicans in the US.
War on the Border: Villa, Pershing, the Texas Rangers, and an American Invasion - Jeff Guinn
*Great context for the Texas/Mexico relationship
And, a Podcast by Mike Duncan, called Revolutions. He does a whole section on the Mexican revolution that does a great job of explaining some of the inherant stresses in Mexican society.