From Big City To Off-Grid Living: My Journey To Xache, Mexico

From New York City To Off-Grid In The Jungles Of Mexico

I am sitting in a palapa, a grass thatch-roofed Mayan structure, in the village of Xache, about two hours from Tulum, Mexico, where I live. I’m making corn tortillas over a wood fire in the company of two Mayan women. My efforts are unimpressive, but I persevere. My reward is their smiles and encouragement.

We have come to Xache to deliver a handmade bookcase (built by my husband Thomas, a builder and master carpenter) to the local bilingual Spanish-Mayan school. Currently the school’s “library” is a jumble of books on a dirt floor. With the aid of bookshelves, we hope to begin organizing the collection.

So how did I get from Falls Village, Connecticut, and New York City to Xache? It has been a journey that I never could have imagined…

About 15 years ago, Thomas and I came to Tulum on vacation. We fell so in love with the beach, the sleepy town, and the proximity to the United States that we returned every year after that. We were still years from retirement, but each time that we came back for our annual April vacation, we mused on the possibility of making Tulum our retirement home.

On one of our trips we looked at real estate in town. One, a small complex of duplex apartments with a community pool, seemed OK—until we realized that right next to us were barking dogs, unfinished houses, and garbage…

We decided against that condo but were then turned on to a new, “green” development in the jungle.

Thomas, a country boy at heart, jumped at the opportunity to trek through snake-laden jungle while, I, the New York City girl, recoiled in horror.

But he persuaded me to take the plunge. We walked through jungle on barely defined roads looking at the available lots. It took great imagination to envision a home on the sites, but, after many discussions and a fair number of arguments, we decided to commit to one lot we liked in particular.

We bought in 2007, took possession in 2008, and started construction in 2010. We have been living in our beautiful hacienda home since 2013.

The setting is a sustainable community within a 1,500-acre virgin- and old-growth jungle and wildlife preserve. It is pure, beautiful, natural, and peaceful.

We use solar power and live off the grid, but we enjoy the modern conveniences of electronics, internet, telephone, a pool, and even a dishwasher. The difference is that we are conscious of how much energy we choose to use and therefore can limit our carbon footprint.

Tulum is a magical place. There are Americans, Canadians, Europeans, and Latin Americans living here, many retirees, but there are also younger people coming to reinvent themselves or to invest in new businesses. New restaurants and hotels are springing up monthly. Our town is in the midst of what I often think of as the gold rush… a time to explore, invest, and redefine.

Tulum has become one of the premiere tourist destinations in the world, and while that can be a pain during high season, the commerce sustains our local population.

If you are attracted to this region as we were, I suggest that you live here for a few months before taking the leap. It will give you time to take in the initial culture shock and decide if this is indeed a place for you.

I also recommend you start studying Spanish before you come. Although many people here speak English, I feel that it is important to make the effort to learn to speak at least a bit of the local language. And, practically speaking, it makes getting around so much easier.

We are living in relative luxury amidst the peace and tranquility of the jungle some 12.5 kms from Tulum center. If we set out for the beach one morning in the high season but find the beach road swollen with visitors, we simply retreat to our little piece of heaven. We can return to the beach anytime…

Living here, it helps if you like nature. Our forest is filled with toucans, spider monkeys, birds, agoutis, bats, coatis, turkeys, foxes, squirrels, and on occasion a reclusive jaguar.

We are part of a beach community, a tourist community, a jungle community, and, close to my heart, a Mayan community, where I am privileged to do most of my volunteer work.

Our community has formed a charitable association committee attached to our Homeowners Association. A portion of our annual dues go into a fund that provide grants to help the local community. As president of this committee, I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to make a positive local impact through educational, environmental, health, and community programs.

Our current volunteer projects include supporting a local Save the Children center (where I volunteer teaching English), an English-language program at a local public primary school (teaching third graders and sponsoring workshops), and a year-long environmental program with the primary school of our neighboring village, Macario Gómez.

We are also funding an “escuelita” (community center) in Macario where kids come after school to read, learn English, do arts and crafts and science projects, and to study literature.

Our newest venture is a nature program, facilitated by two world-renowned researchers on spider monkeys, in the town of Chemax. Through these kinds of programs, we are working to help children and adults create healthier and richer lives, while respecting and protecting their culture and environment.

How do we fill our days?

Some days I wake up to the sound of the birds calling and take off on a nature walk, hoping for a chance to see them up close…

Then we have lunch at the beach… swim in the cenotes… visit Mayan ruins and the nearby cities of Valladolid and Mérida…

Other days, I take a yoga class or work out at the gym… go for my Spanish or cooking lessons…

And some days I just lie by the community pool and soak in the sunshine and magic of Tulum…

Aline Libassi
Full-time Expat in Mexico