Of all the expat destinations we cover for Best Places in the World to Retire, including writing about them on our Mexico road trip, few generate as much interest as San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. It's easy to see why.
Culture and the Arts
The physical and cultural center of San Miguel de Allende is the iconic and otherworldly Parroquia (cathedral), which can be seen from miles away. This architectural gem is a fitting center to the city, because the modern, expat-related history of San Miguel de Allende begins with the arts.
A self-taught student of San Miguel de Allende history, Daniel Ortiz told us that it all started when an art school was established in San Miguel de Allende that could accept payments from students using the U.S. GI Bill. "A lot of them came to study and never left," says Ortiz. "Some married local San Miguelenses. Especially after World War II, this wave of Americans shaped the artistic and overall community of San Miguel de Allende."
The recent American art school arrivals found lots to like about San Miguel de Allende that was already there from the colonial period and unchanged. Lane Simmons, who moved from Austin, Tex. to San Miguel de Allende in 1995, said that the happy historical events helped to essentially freeze the colonial look. "After the mining era, San Miguel became, for all practical purposes, a ghost town," explained Simmons. "So San Miguel's historical architecture got preserved well before most of the town's post-colonial era growth and development occurred."
"The architecture of San Miguel de Allende is the old colonial style many hundreds of years old," said Jonathan Peters, who moved from Atlanta to San Miguel de Allende with his wife and children. "You can be walking down the street and see the most nondescript facade that has the most spectacular house behind its doors."
Not unlike many of the early American expats to the area, Ian Clement's mother moved from the U.S. to San Miguel de Allende to pursue her interests in the arts. As an attorney, Clement observes firsthand how Americans respond to San Miguel de Allende. "They're either very much turned off by the fact that things are slower and people have a different energy, or they fall in love with that aspect of Latin America."
Many (but certainly not all) of the expats in San Miguel de Allende are retired. "Most of my clients have already lived a life of 10-hour days for years," says Clement. "My clients just love that in San Miguel de Allende you can let your hair down."
Nancy Howze, who moved to San Miguel de Allende many years ago from Alabama, agreed. "Mexicans can do anything. But if you expect perfection, you're in the wrong country. Everything in San Miguel de Allende is made by hand, and hands don't make things the way machines do. For me, that's the beauty here in San Miguel de Allende."
"The best thing you can do in San Miguel de Allende is to go to the El Jardin (the town square). Free cultural events are offered there continuously. The main kiosk turns into a salsa dance floor on Sundays," said Melanie Lansing, a former Fulbright Scholar living near centro San Miguel de Allende.
"It is a very colorful sight to observe the locals, tourists, expats, and burros (donkeys) passing by. In the mornings the Jardin is referred to as 'The Gringos' Lounge' because a lot of the older expats sit in the Jardin and chat with their newspapers in hand. In the afternoons, you will find more Mexican families and couples. Going to the Jardin is really a wonderful place to experience life in San Miguel while you take in the beauty of the Parroquia and the sights and smells of the local businesses."
Gretel Chazaro manages a gated community about 15 minutes by car from San Miguel de Allende centro. "There is nightlife and entertainment for everyone in San Miguel de Allende," said Chazaro. "There's a club for gay people and there's a club for straight people. We have cheap restaurants and discos to really fancy ones. There are bars for older people. There is an Irish pub. We also have old cantinas."
Gretel's brother, Eric Chazaro, enjoys San Miguel de Allende from yet another angle. "One of my favorite things to do in San Miguel de Allende, because it is also one of my passions, is to eat well," said Chazaro. "San Miguel de Allende has become a gastronomical destination. For such a small city, the number of restaurants and the variety and quality of the restaurants that you see is amazing."
In addition to San Miguel de Allende being a hub for artists, great architecture and food, it's also a place where you can find a procession breaking out at any time of day or night.
On New Year's Day, you could be in Chicago, where you could be bundled up in an average high of 32 Fahrenheit, or you could be in your tee-shirt in San Miguel de Allende, where it averages around 73. At the summer solstice you could be in Dallas experiencing 91 humid degrees, or you could be wearing a different tee-shirt and enjoying a much drier 75 in San Miguel de Allende.
"The weather in San Miguel de Allende very much reminds me of San Diego, California," reports Kat Ballou, originally from Reno, Nev., "Air-conditioning is not really necessary. January is the coldest month but not a challenge. Warmer clothes and a portable heater are usually good enough, or a cozy fire in the fireplace."
Cost of Living
The cost for personal services is extremely low in San Miguel de Allende. "If you want someone to work for you once a week, you pay them 60 pesos (U.S. $3) per hour," reports Jim Castro, who is originally from San Jose, Calif. According to Castro, "The cost for a week is even more reasonable -- about U.S. $73."
"A full time gardener in San Miguel de Allende will charge about $100 a week," says Wesley Gleason, who used to live in Atlanta. "In addition to gardening, they do odd jobs, and act as a handyman and driver."
Judy Newell moved from California to San Miguel de Allende to retire, but wound up back in business and acting in the town's local playhouse. When she was a travel writer, she wrote an article about San Miguel de Allende titled, "Women Are Safe Here."
Newel told us, "I interviewed several older ladies who had lived in San Miguel for up to thirty years who told me about how they could walk home at night from parties in town wearing their jewelry and carrying their purse, and they had no fear whatsoever."
Newel said that, while non-violent crimes have risen in San Miguel de Allende, he feels "as safe as walking around in Orange County"
Former Atlanta resident Ivy del Pozzo, has lived in San Miguel de Allende for many years. Consistent with what we heard from other long time San Miguel de Allende expats, she told us, "There are certain areas in San Miguel that I wouldn't go into just like there are areas that I won't go into in the United States. I am a single woman and I don't feel afraid to live here in San Miguel de Allende. I watch where I go and I am careful about what I do."
"I feel very safe here, and so does my adult daughter," said Howze. "When I recently told my friends here I going to visit Chicago, they told me, 'I can't believe you're going to Chicago. I hope you're going to be careful because it's so dangerous.'"
This article is commentary by an independent contributor.