Retiring in Mexico is a dream for many baby boomers, and one of the places that has welcomed the most northern retirees is the pretty colonial city of San Miguel de Allende. So on my visit to Mexico City, I thought I’d take the four-hour bus trip to see what this retirement haven is like.
Unfortunately, I arrived on a Sunday afternoon, to find what can best be described as a tourist invasion. Every square metre in downtown San Miguel seemed to be occupied by a tourist, or several, and getting served in a restaurant was near -impossible. Ducking through the front door of my hotel, I dodged a man charging tourists to take photos with his burro.
Still, as I discovered in Mexico City, first impressions can be misleading. And the next morning, with the weekenders departed back where they came from, the city’s real charm began to emerge. And it is a charming place. The centro, or colonial downtown district, is one of the prettiest I’ve seen in Latin America. It’s little wonder San Miguel is designated a UNESCO world heritage site.
The heart of town is the central square — called the jardin, or garden, because of the lovely little park on one side. That’s where the locals, including a lot of expat retirees, spend their time watching the passing scene and looking out on San Miguel’s most spectacular asset, La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcánge. Like the Eiffel Tower, the huge church is both unique and impossible to miss. With its pink stone spires rising high into the blue Mexican sky, it adds a dramatic flourish to the skyline from blocks away.
Unlike some historic places, San Miguel doesn’t lose its charm once you leave the town square. Virtually all the streets in the centro look as if they’ve been frozen in time since the 1700s. The buildings are well-kept, and most are painted in pastel colours of pink and ochre, giving the whole town a kind of rosy glow. The effect becomes magical at sunset.
That doesn’t mean time has forgotten San Miguel. The jardin is ringed with bars and restaurants catering to the tourist crowd. And here and there, you walk through a centuries-old doorway to find yourself in a modern mall, filled with craft and jewellery shops and trendy eateries.
In fact, a love of the arts is one of the things that draws many to the city. San Miguel’s popularity began with an influx of ex-GIs who moved in after World War II to study art on their education grants. The tradition grew from there, and today art galleries and craft shops seem to be everywhere. And if you really appreciate art, you need to walk the few blocks to the edge of downtown and see La Aurora.
Once a cloth factory, La Aurora is now one of the most extensive and impressive art complexes I’ve seen outside a major city. Gallery after gallery is filled with everything from traditional Mexican woodwork and indigenous masks to sculptures and huge paintings by prominent artists. You could easily spend half a day there, and you’d likely still miss a lot.
That’s all good for visitors like me. But what’s San Miguel de Allende like to live in? Is it the place that makes retiring in Mexico a workable project? According to the 10,000 or so gringos who spend all or some of their year there, the answer is yes.
San Miguel is 2,000 metres (7,000 feet) above sea level, so its climate is ideal for those who don’t like the sweltering Mexican heat. In winter, mornings and evenings can be cool enough to require a jacket – my room was equipped with a heater, and I used it. But by late morning most days, the sun is shining and it’s t-shirt weather. (There is a rainy season, however, from May to September.)
And while it’s likely not the cheapest place in Mexico, San Miguel is a bargain compared with Canada or the U.S. Even in the tourist restaurants, a good meal with a beer costs less than $15 Canadian per person, and once you get away from the jardin, you’ll pay Mexican prices for things. You won’t go without, either: big-box food stores dot the edges of town, which are beginning to look a bit like an American suburb.
Housing? A basic house can be had for less than $150,000 Cdn, especially if you get out of the downtown area. There are lovely-looking condo developments in the downtown area, and northern-style subdivisions are springing up on the outskirts for those who really want to get away from it all. Long-term rentals start at less than $1,000 a month.
Of course, if you fancy a mansion, you can have one, and pay more than $1 million U.S. for it. There are companies in town that will design and build you one: real estate offices are a common sight in San Miguel. And if you’re living that high, you can have a maid and a gardener, too.
Medical care is a big issue for those retiring in Mexico. But Suzan Haskins of International Living, an authority on expat living, says the public and private hospitals in the area provide good care. If serious procedures are needed, big-city hospitals are an hour away in Queretaro. (This International Living article gives a little more detail on San Miguel’s advantages.)
And if you are spooked by Mexico’s reputation as a country plagued by drug violence, colonial enclaves like San Miguel are far removed from the hot spots. Still, there’s a good police presence around the downtown.
To me, one of the drawbacks of retiring to a smaller town or city is boredom: there’s just not that much to do. But San Miguel has an answer for that. Looking for a place to have breakfast one morning, I ran into Patrick, an expat from Alaska spending the winter in San Miguel with his wife.
Over a plate of huevos rancheros, he assured me there was no reason to be bored in San Miguel. The expat community has generated an extensive list of volunteer organizations, including one that raises money to build houses for the needy. In fact, he had just started on a part-time stint as a local tour guide.
Colonial charm, a thriving arts community, good housing, lots to do and prices cheap enough to live on your public pensions: what’s not to like?
Well, for one thing, there’s that invasion of tourists, which seems to turn the downtown into a colonial Disneyland every weekend. And San Miguel is a city with a big U.S. and Canadian presence, which changes the feel of the place. However, that also means there are lots of other expats to hang out with. As well, if you need to be near the beach, San Miguel is not for you: the nearest coastline is hundreds of kilometres away.
On a quick visit, I found San Miguel to be beautiful and charming, but a little slow. However, I’m a city boy, and a short visit doesn’t expose you to the real life of the place. For a Canadian or an American interested in retiring in Mexico, San Miguel seems to be both comfortable and interesting. In fact, in 2013, Conde Nast magazine named San Miguel de Allende the world’s most livable city. And who am I to argue with Conde Nast?