Diplomats from Toronto
YL: When did you move to the Yucatan and from where did you move?
Sara and Neil: We took the big leap to sell our Toronto home in the summer of 2013 and we hit the ground running in Merida late October of that same year.
YL: Why did you move?
Sara and Neil: We truly love wandering the world and immersing ourselves in other cultures. Together we spent 5 years living and working in Asia, mainly in China and Taiwan. While we were there, we spent any spare time we had traveling throughout Japan, South East Asia, Indonesia, East Timor and beyond. We've also travelled around Europe and the fringes of Africa. We truly enjoy learning about the many different cultures, customs and cuisines. We developed a dream of opening our own little boutique hotel. Merida seemed to be the perfect fit.
YL: What were you doing in Toronto before you moved?
Sara and Neil: Neil was working for TIFF (The Toronto International Film Festival). He led the digital department which oversaw the website, video, and talent photography. Sara has an education and background in Interior Design but has since transitioned into the hospitality field, most recently as Spa Director of the Trump International Hotel.
YL: Why did you choose the city you now live in over other places in the world?
Sara and Neil: We had originally considered islands in the south of Thailand and Bali, but the distance from Toronto and our family was just too much. We had vacationed in Playa Del Carmen and Tulum and had considered these locations but quickly realized that we were seeking more culture than these tourist towns could offer. We broadened our search and came across Merida. We didn't know a soul when we arrived to look at property but we quickly made friends who introduced us to a real estate agent and the doors began to open. Merida is a special place steeped in history that attracts culture seekers looking to step back in time. It also has a solid expat community, vibrant tourism industry, a great climate… it was an easy decision.
YL: Did you buy a house right away or rent first? Do you think you made the right decision?
Sara and Neil: We came to Merida to house shop for five days in July of 2013, looking at everything from ruins to over-budget completed casas. We looked at everything from half-finished homes to complete fixer uppers. The very last house we saw on our last day showed potential and we got on the plane back to Toronto, exhilarated and dreaming of the possibilities. We returned to life in Toronto and decided to turn everything upside down. We sold our home and many of our worldly possessions. Some friends and family thought we were crazy but it was and continues to be the right decision for us.
YL: Are you doing now what you intended to do when you moved here? If not, why not?
Sara and Neil: We have settled nicely into our new lives in Merida and have followed what we set out to do: open The Diplomat Boutique Hotel, create a life with a slower pace and reap the benefits of working for ourselves.
YL: What are the most interesting things about living here for you?
Sara and Neil: Being immersed in a culture other than your own is always interesting. Every day there are new discoveries, challenges to overcome and things to learn. Adventures are at our doorstep.
YL: What do you absolutely love about living here?
Sara and Neil: The spice of the habanero, the sweetness of exotic fruits, hot off the comal (griddle) tortillas and fresh local flavors.
YL: What do you miss from your “former life”?
Sara and Neil: The variety of ethnic foods can’t be beat in Toronto and, of course, we miss our family and friends. Luckily, since we own a hotel, we have a nice place for them to stay when they come visit.
YL: What don’t you miss from your “former life”?
Sara and Neil: The pace of life. We don’t think humans were designed to only have 3 weeks of holidays per year. We needed more time to travel, enjoy life and explore the world.
YL: What is your favorite local food?
Sara and Neil: We love the variety of fresh local fruits. Heading to the market is always an adventure for our taste buds. We recently found jackfruit (Sara’s favorite) in the market in Oxkutzcab and passion fruit in Muna. We love to eat foods we have never experienced before, and then we love to share that. We think it is one reason to travel.
YL: What is your favorite time of year here and why?
Sara and Neil: We love late October and the celebrations of Hanal Pixan and Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The layering of history, religion and tradition coming to life on the streets of Merida is fascinating.
YL: Where do you take guests who visit you here to show them something really special?
Sara and Neil: We love introducing our friends and family to the history of the area, spending a day at a hacienda and cenote hunting. One of our personal favorites is Hacienda Yaxcopoil on a Sunday afternoon when the locals are playing baseball and sipping ice cold beer in the adjoining fields. We love to be a part of it all and get a true feeling of small town life in the Yucatan.
YL: The last time you went out to dinner, where did you go and why?
Sara and Neil: We went to Apoala. Their chef, Sarah, creates amazing flavors, the service is amazing and we’re slightly addicted to their cocktail menu and flor de calabaza (zucchini flower) appetizer.
YL: How is the city where you live different for residents than it is for tourists?
Sara and Neil: As residents, we are fortunate that we can fully enjoy the beauty of the Yucatan. We love experimenting with the many exotic fruits and vegetables, and we love being part of the community and attending the cultural events that seem to be always happening. We get to dig a little deeper into what makes this part of the world so wonderful. Not to mention that our cottage country is now the Mayan Riviera, Chiapas and even Belize!
YL: Do you have friends from the local community or do you pretty much hang with the expat crowd?
Sara and Neil: We have a good mix of both. We have made some wonderful friends here. It’s always great to spend time with experienced expats. And we love learning from the locals because they provide us with insight into the inner workings of the Mexican culture.
YL: If you are working or own a business, what is it like owning and running a business here or working here? How is it different from doing the same thing in your country of origin?
Sara and Neil: Doing business in another language and country isn’t always easy. We feel we were fortunate to meet good people that have pointed us in the right direction. Problems arise in any business, no matter what country you are in. We feel that if we have a great team supporting us, anything is possible.
YL: Do you find it more or less difficult to make a living here than in your country of origin?
Sara and Neil: Although we knew that we were seeking a slower pace of life, making that adjustment is easier said than done. Timelines are much different in Mexico especially when it comes to construction and bureaucracy. We soon had to adjust our mindset and expectations. Instead of having a list a mile long we became proud if we were able to accomplish two menial tasks per day. Going to the bank could mean an entire day of waiting in lines and running back and forth trying to get answers and appropriate documentation. We are learning the art of waiting and we appreciate the immense amount of patience required sometimes.
YL: Are your work habits different here?
Sara and Neil: Since becoming entrepreneurs, our work habits have most definitely changed. We are passionate about what we do, so it feels like we are working every waking moment. Nearly every thought of ours revolves around how we can make things better, how we can exceed expectations and how we can provide the best possible service.
YL: Did you speak Spanish when you moved here? Where did you learn Spanish (if you did)? Is the language barrier a problem for you in your daily life?
Sara and Neil: When we got here, we spoke not a lick of Spanish! We started out learning construction Spanish from the masons. They also tried to teach us some Mayan, which was interesting. Then we learned our market Spanish and we’re still learning to put it all together. We have traveled through many different countries, and so we’ve developed an ability to get our message across using charades and creative body language.
YL: What interesting Spanish word or saying have you learned lately? What does it mean and how did you learn it?
Sara and Neil: Que Onda? A local friend taught us this slang phrase, which means “What’s up?”
YL: Are you a Mexican citizen? Do you plan to become one?
Sara and Neil: Not yet, but maybe someday.
YL: Have you traveled much within Mexico? If so, where and what has been your favorite location to visit? What did you see there that you liked so much?
Sara and Neil: Before moving to Mexico, we explored both coasts quite a bit, including Puerto Escondido. We loved the amazing beaches there and the chill surf culture. We have also explored and love the small pueblos of the Yucatan, with the friendly Mayan people, the bustling markets and the crumbling colonial architecture. We now find also ourselves in Tulum more often than we’d like to admit.
YL: How are you treated by Mexicans? Do you feel resented or welcome?
Sara and Neil: In our travels to dozens of countries, we’ve learned that a smile is universal and that if you treat people with respect, they will return this sentiment to you. The lovely thing about Yucatecans is that they will often return it tenfold. We feel welcomed and cared for here.
YL: How do you feel about the economic prospects of Mexico? Of the Yucatan?
Sara and Neil: As the attraction to the Mayan Riviera grows, we think people who love travel will continue to seek out culture. We think as that happens, those explorers will make their way to Merida. So we expect that means good economic prospects for Merida.
YL: What are some changes you are hoping for in the city in which you live? Do you see any progress towards these changes?
Sara and Neil: We’d love to see more great restaurants open that offer excellent service, fresh flavors and original ideas. There is progress and the people of Merida seem ready to support it.
YL: What are your plans for the future here?
Sara and Neil: Perhaps this will be the first Diplomat Boutique Hotel and others will follow, or we may look to expand the brand to other areas. It’s all up for discussion over a few margaritas.
YL: What is the one most important piece of advice you would give someone buying property and/or planning a move to the Yucatan?
Sara and Neil: Learn about the different neighborhoods (barrios) and figure out which one suits you the best. There are many choices and differences. Also, find an experienced agent that’s responsive to your questions and will guide you through the process.
YL: If you could say something to all the people of Mexico, what would you say?
Sara and Neil: Be proud of the people you are, the history that has brought you here and the culture that is so much a part of your everyday life.
Sara and Neil run the Diplomat Boutiqe Hotel in downtown Merida, Yucatan.