Matamoros, Mexico Report of what it's like to live there - 08/31/16
Personal Experiences from Matamoros, Mexico
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
Prior posts - Santo Domingo, Frankfurt, Brussels plus other overseas assignments pre-foreign service in Colombia and Athens.
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?
Mesa, Arizona - Flight from Harlingen, TX about six or seven hours depending on lay overs in Houston. Southwest and United fly out of Harlingen but all flights go through Houston. Other airlines fly out of Brownsville as well. We are not authorized to use the Matamoros airport except for official travel because we can only go to the airport when transported in an armored vehicle.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
EFM to a Foreign Service Specialist.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Gorgeous huge house in a lovely community of really huge houses. Commute time is less than ten minutes by car.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Due to the security situation, we do all of our shopping in the US in Brownsville, TX. There is one grocery store in our "green zone" in Matamoros but I have only been there twice. In Brownsville there is a Sam's Club, HEB grocery stores, and several Walmart Super Centers. On Saturday mornings there is a local farmer's market. The nearest Costco and Sprouts is an hour away and there are no organic stores in Brownsville. However, HEB and Walmart are beginning to carry more organic options. HEB even carries grass fed beef and dairy.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Nothing. Everything is available across the border in Texas.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Within our "green zone" there are a few restaurants used frequently by consulate staff but I have not personally eaten in any of them. Tacos are supposedly amazing here in Matamoros. Many places will deliver.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Not bad at our house but others have had cockroaches, killer bees, and a couple of poisonous snakes (Coral snakes). Mosquitoes are an ever present problem so repellent is essential, especially in light of Zika, Dengue etc.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Staff from the mail room cross over daily to mail through the US Post and we also have access to pouch.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Very inexpensive. I do not have a maid but almost everyone else does. I think they pay like US$20 per day. I pay my gardener 250 pesos each time he comes, which is less than US$20 depending on the exchange rate.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The consulate has a small but nice gym with an elliptical, tread mill, bike, free weights, bands, etc. There are no gyms in our green zone but there are several options in Brownsville.
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?
We do not use them in Mexico at all. We use the ATM at the consulate to get pesos when needed and pay everything in cash. We use our credit cards and debit cards in Brownsville.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There are no English language churches in our green zone so everyone goes to church in Brownsville. There are one or two Spanish language Catholic churches in the green zone and there may be other spanish speaking denominations represented but I do not know what they are. In Brownsville there are most religions represented.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
To function in Matamoros with local businesses etc, Spanish is necessary. However, it is possible to hardly ever interact with locals by doing all business in Brownsville. Most of the educated Mexican nationals that live in our housing areas speak English.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. There are few accommodations made in the infrastructure (such as it is - I mean, really, this is a border town in Mexico after all.)
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
No. Not authorized to use them.
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?
Bring something that has a pretty good clearance (although some folks use Mazdas etc) because the roads are not great. I also recommend leaving behind anything that is new and shiny (i.e. expensive). You do not want to do anything to call attention to yourself in any way here.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, but high-speed in name and in reality are not always the same thing here in Mexico. Our internet was already installed when we arrived in our home. We spend 400 pesos a month for local phone and internet, so that is less than US$30.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We have one phone for use in the US and one phone for use in Mexico (provided by the consulate to EFMs). We also have a special antennae my husband rigged (one of the benefits to being married to an IMS guy) on the roof of our house that lets us get cell signal from across the river in the US to use our cell phone as home. The Mexican cell service is prepay - no contract.
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?
Yes. We do not have a pet but we have heard good things about the service that is available here to pet owners. Cheap and good.
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 work in the consulate and it seems there are always job announcements. However, the wait time for clearances can be incredibly long. Some spouses work in Texas and cross over every day for work.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
In Brownsville there are lots of opportunities. The Rio Grand Valley is the poorest part of the US with much of the population non-English speaking, undocumented, and low-income. Due to the security situation in Matamoros, we do not have much freedom to be involved in volunteer opportunities at post.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Sharp casual at work. The wealthy Mexicans dress very nicely when out in public. I am seldom out in public in Mexico due to the security situation.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
YES!! Kidnapping, burglary, robbery, murder, carjackings, gun battles between warring drug cartels or between the narcos and the federales, etc etc. However, the very narrow sliver of Matamoros in which we are authorized to travel seems to be calm for the most part. The federal police are quite visible in their trucks with their automatic weapons etc. We have an alarm system in our home, bars on all the doors and windows, and a roving security patrol. Caution and good judgement are called for and that reduces the risk. American consulate personnel are not the targets. It is just a matter of not being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Private American citizens who venture into Matamoros and Tamaulipas do run some serious risks.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Can't drink the water but we have bottled water and a distiller. We get all of our medical care across the border in Texas. Orthodontia is cheap in Matamoros and there are quite a few options.
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?
Good in our green zone. A nice breeze off the coast keeps the air moving.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
We use air purifiers in our home to cut down on dust.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Stress due to security situation as well as the fact that things just don't seem to work as expected i.e. - trash pickup is sporadic, repairs by local companies are slow in coming and often do not seem to actually resolve the issue etc.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Hot humid summers (90-100F), cool humid winters. No snow of course, just rain. Above freezing.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
The little children of consulate families often attend the local Montessori school. All others cross the border every day and attend private schools in Brownsville. The school system is not stellar and some families have not been happy with the schools. For others, it seems fine for the lower grades. There are some magnet schools that seem to be better than the regular public schools.
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?
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Maybe through the schools in Brownsville? Nothing here in Matamoros.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
It is common for families of Direct Hire Americans to take SMA and live in the US while the employee resides alone in Matamoros due to the school and security situations. Morales seems good among those of us who have chosen to live at post. Post has some get togethers - which improves morale by building relationships among community members but we really do not socialize together as much as I would like. I know I should take the bull by the horns and host more.
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?
CLO sponsered happy hours, welcome parties, Principal Officer sponsered gatherings at the official residence where there is a pool. I do not know if there are expats from other communities and I do most of my socializing in Brownsville with my church group.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Not great for families with teenagers since they have no freedom and it is not easy to always cross to the US due to lengthy lines at the border etc. It has been nice for my husband and me (empty nesters) because we enjoy being together.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
We made a trip to Mexico City and loved seeing the sights there.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Nothing in Matamoros that we are allowed to do but South Padre Island is a half hour into Texas across the border and it is beautiful. There are also some interesting historical sights related to the Mexican American war.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
I have heard that there are fairs periodically to which craftsmen bring their wares but they haven't occurred in our green zone as of yet. Our area recently was slightly expanded and there is supposed to be a street where leather items are sold but I haven't visited it yet.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The hardship allowance and the ability to save money. Its proximity to the US (we go several times a week and can buy American products).
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
Air fare and travel from Brownsville and Harlingen to the rest of the US is not as convenient or inexpensive as we expected. I also wish we would have realized how tiny our green zone would be and that we would have little to no opportunity to really experience the local culture (except for on the US side.)
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, because it satisfied our desire to be closer to family and to save money.Also, the island is a great attraction.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Any American products - you can get it all easily. Also, your desire to experience the Mexican culture and country side first hand. Not allowed to travel except by air to any other city.
4. But don't forget your:
Positive attitude, self-entertainment skills, and surf boards etc if you want to visit South Padre Island.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
I have heard that the movie Sicario might give you some idea of what goes on in the darker parts of the society.