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The Ideal Retirement Location – Will we stay in Santa Fe?

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I awake at dawn and glance out our bedroom window. A rosy glow, mixed with a scattering of monsoon clouds, is taking shape over Santa Fe Baldy to our east. The rocky peak rises to 12,622 feet, anchoring the Sangre de Cristo range in our backyard. Another day begins in Santa Fe….

After breakfast, I spend the morning at my desk, writing for a few hours. Caroline walks to the farmer’s market for fresh produce, or tends her garden. If we need groceries, Whole Foods or our local co-op are minutes away.

After noon, I head out for a hike or bike on one of the many trail systems minutes from town. I stop on the way to chat with friendly neighbors.

In the evening, we may walk to dinner at one of a number of fine restaurants near us, and catch a show at a nearby theater.

Life is good in Santa Fe.

Ever since we moved west almost two years ago, readers have been asking for a follow-up report on our ideal retirement location. Now is a good time. We’ve recovered from the trauma of selling our family home back east and downsizing. We’ve explored Santa Fe and its surroundings well.

Lately we’ve been asking ourselves, “How do we feel about this place?” and “What comes next?” We even spent a day this spring house hunting with a realtor, to explore our options….

Bottom line: We are happy here. By many measures, this is the highest quality of life we’ve ever enjoyed. We live in a scenic, friendly neighborhood with everything we want or need close by, in a city that is uniquely diverse. We have no regrets about choosing Santa Fe as our first retirement destination.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be our last. To understand why, let me explore the region’s many positives, and a few negatives….

Culture

Northern New Mexico features one of the most diverse landscapes in the country. The culture here follows suit. Whether you love history, or art, or just being outdoors in exotic, varied terrain, the area offers a lifetime of things to see and do.

The city of Santa Fe, central to the region, is home to hundreds of galleries, constituting the nation’s third largest art market. It also has the largest and most important summer opera festival in the country, along with major folk art, and Indian art festivals.

The dining and entertainment options here are comparable to cities many times Santa Fe’s modest size of about 70,000 full-time residents. We still haven’t eaten at all the best restaurants in town, or even returned to some of our favorites for a second meal. There are four movie theaters downtown — two showing small, independent films. And a wide variety of artists, including some of our favorites, perform at the elegant Lensic Performing Arts Center.

You might wonder, with all these attractions, do tourists get in the way of residents who want to enjoy the town? I have very low tolerance for crowds, yet this hasn’t been a problem for me yet. There are a few city blocks, and a few weekends each year, that are too busy for my tastes. The rest of the town, the rest of the year, is spacious and welcoming.

Climate

Santa Fe has four real seasons. Sometimes all in one day!

Year round, we have many days of trademark turquoise-blue skies and multi-hued sunsets. In the fall, we have gorgeous golden aspens. In a typical winter, we get a half-dozen light snowfalls. In the spring, we have slopes of blooming wildflowers and cactus that seem to last for months.

But this is a mountain town with mountain weather patterns. Just about anything can happen on any given day. The climate is even flakier than I expected, and I’m no stranger to mountain weather!

If you’re looking for the placid, predictable dry heat of the true southwestern desert, Santa Fe, at 7,000 feet, is too high and wild for that. But, if you just want to avoid temperature extremes — 90’s and teens are relatively rare for us — and you can roll with the changes, you might like it here.

The surprising frequency of precipitation still doesn’t add up to much water. The landscape in most directions still looks like desert. It’s a bit too dry for Caroline. She misses the green, and even some of the humidity, of the east coast.

Outdoor Recreation

A primary reason we moved to Santa Fe was that we love being outdoors. In that respect, this area has exceeded expectations. The public lands here are extensive, beautiful, and often lightly traveled.

The city has an excellent urban trail system, beginning with bike trails. You can ride much of the length of town on paved, limited-access rail trail. With the help of some less-traveled side streets, it’s possible to get just about anywhere in the city comfortably by bike.

Then there is the beautiful Dale Ball trail system, 34 miles of trails in the foothills between town and the national forest. Like so much western terrain, the Santa Fe foothills appear drab from a distance. But once you start hiking, you find yourself in Zen-like gardens of multi-colored rock, exotic cactus, and singular pine/juniper. The La Tierra trails, in rolling terrain just north of town, are prime territory for mountain biking. There are over 25 miles of well-marked beginner to intermediate trails. The rides are fun, and the views in all directions are incredible.

Finally there are the big mountains, with elevations ranging up to 13,000, feet. The Pecos Wilderness is the major attraction. At 350 square miles, it’s the second largest wilderness in the state. One trailhead is only 15 miles from downtown Santa Fe. This is the Sangre de Cristo range, the southern end of the Rockies. The area is a gem — full of running water, lush forests, and green meadows. We’ve spent many days in the Pecos, surrounded by classic Rocky Mountain vistas, alone except for the deer, elk, and bighorn sheep.

From rocky canyons to sandy mesas to juniper/pinyon pine foothills to aspen/spruce/fir forests and on to wildflower-studded tundra above tree line, this is the most naturally varied area I’ve ever lived. Five of the seven life zones are within a short drive of Santa Fe. Whatever the season, whatever the weather, on any given day you can head a few miles in some direction and find exactly the climate you desire!

Big City

Albuquerque, an easy hour drive away, is our “big city.” But we rarely need its services.

The Albuquerque airport, about an hour from our front door, is a breeze. Traffic is usually light. Parking is easy. The spacious terminal rarely seems crowded.

The small Santa Fe airport is also an option — there are surprisingly cheap direct flights to regional hubs. But we haven’t used it yet.

Occasionally we shop in Albuquerque. But Santa Fe usually has everything we need. If we ever required serious RV work, we’d probably need to visit one of the big dealers in Albuquerque. But, even in that particular department, Santa Fe has met our needs, so far.

Other than one specialist in Albuquerque, we get all our health care minutes from our home in Santa Fe….

Health Care

Access to quality modern health care is very important to most retirees, including us.

We had a short visit to the one and only hospital (Christus St. Vincent) shortly after arriving in town. The care we received from the doctors and nurses there was excellent. Acquaintances of ours have had similar positive experiences there, with both acute and chronic conditions.

It took us a while to settle on a primary care doctor, but we were pleased to have choices, and are very pleased with the one we ultimately made. Likewise, we’ve been able to find excellent specialists for most of our needs, right here in town. My sense is that the quality of life in Santa Fe attracts good, motivated physicians, and that the relative affluence here lets them develop viable practices.

Santa Fe is also a locus for alternative health care of all stripes. You’ll find numerous providers and centers for yoga, massage, retreats, and a wide array of alternative therapies.

Cost of Living

Santa Fe has a reputation for being “expensive.” Is that justified? Other than real estate, which I’ll get to below, I don’t think so.

You can certainly spend a lot of money on a high-end lifestyle here, but the essentials don’t seem to cost more:

We spend less on gas than we did before moving here, because we live so close to everything. Our grocery bill crept up about $100/month in the first year, but we’ve since wrestled that back down to its previous level. Auto and renter’s insurance rates are negligible. Medical expenses continue high, but that’s more related to our age, than our geographical location. We stick to a budget for dining out, else that could be high. We spent a lot updating outdoor gear our first year here, because there is so much to do, but that was largely a one-time expense. And, we pay no property tax and no utilities: It’s all included in our rent.

Altogether, the cost of living in Santa Fe has not been a factor for us.

Real Estate

I suspect that Santa Fe’s reputation for high cost of living stems primarily from its real estate market. The hills around town contain many exclusive and unique neighborhoods, with price tags to suit.

As outlined in my popular post on renting versus buying, Santa Fe is one of those places where you’re well advised to run the numbers, if you’re interested in the most economical approach to housing. For our parameters, renting here is a far better deal than owning.

Recently we spent an afternoon with a realtor, looking at properties for sale. These were mostly modest, 2-3 bedroom places, in nicer neighborhoods, though not the best neighborhoods. Everybody’s tastes and perspectives are different. If you’re coming from California, the market here might look reasonable. But, for us, the price/value relationship is not compelling. We’d probably need to spend $500K for a place we’d be truly comfortable. And we’re already plenty happy, without needing to risk a major chunk of our net worth and freedom just to own property here.

So we’ll continue to rent for the time being. We relish our financial freedom at this point in life. However, our current two-bedroom place, though nice, is a bit constraining. We do miss having a spare office or bedroom on occasion. So one possible scenario for our future is renting a slightly larger place here. We’ll likely shop for one before our lease comes due next, though we’d rather not give up our existing wonderful neighborhood.

In addition to high cost of living, Santa Fe has had a reputation for high property crime rates. Our neighbors urged us to install an alarm system as soon as we moved in, which we did. I’m serious about personal safety. But, truthfully, I don’t feel the issues here are much different from any other city these days. We use common sense — keep doors locked and valuables out of sight — and have had no problems. Recent statistics reflect some improvement.

Community

With the exception of real estate, everything I’ve said so far about Santa Fe sounds great, and it is. But the difference between a great vacation spot and a “home,” is a sense of belonging or community. There, the jury is still out for us on Santa Fe.

We’ve made some very good friends here who share our philosophical and outdoor interests. And we love our neighbors: Maybe it’s the stage of life, but we feel a genuine connection that’s been missing anywhere else we’ve ever lived.

That said, it does not feel like home here yet to me. And I’m not sure it ever will. Most days I feel more like a visitor than a resident. Santa Fe exudes a powerful sense of place, distinctly different from anywhere else in the country. And it’s highly diverse. The ethnic communities have long, separate, and sometimes contentious histories. Even the Anglo community is not necessarily homogeneous. People get along well enough at a superficial level, but it can take a while to make genuine, deep connections.

Where, and when, will we find our “community”? I’ve always been a bit of a loner, a citizen of the online world. Caroline is more about in-person connection, and she’s still searching for her community here. Unless and until she finds it, family and familiar environs could call us to return….

Moving On?

Most days in Santa Fe, I’m out on the trails for a few hours in the afternoon. The systems are so extensive here that only in the last few months have I needed to start repeating sections. The change in perspective is palpable: Maybe it’s time for me to move on? Personality tests say I was born to explore. I like being out on the frontier, mapping new territory. And lately I’ve felt that wanderlust returning….

Recently we spent a morning in Albuquerque, window-shopping for used Class A RVs. These are the big rigs, with large floor plans and lots of storage space. The kind you can live in full-time. They’re cheap, especially compared to homes in Santa Fe: $100K gets you quite a nice unit, one you could resell later for not much less. With one of these, you could move around the country following the seasons, living near family some of the time, visiting other favorite places, and exploring new destinations.

That full-time RV lifestyle still appeals. It’s Plan B right now. Plan A is staying in Santa Fe where we are happy, for as long as that lasts. Perhaps this area will serve as our base for more extensive travels in the coming years. Either way, it’s great keeping our options open.

Whether you’re just a visitor, or you’re able to put down roots and call it home, Santa Fe is a magical place. And it’s hard to see, right now, where we would be happier….