An expatriate, or “expat”, is someone who has deliberately moved away from their native country for the specific purpose of establishing a new life in a foreign land. I’m not talking about a temporary relocation for work, or a semester abroad for school. An expat isn’t one of those vagabond types who takes off on a road trip and somehow manages to stay gone for months, or years. They’re not the folks who live in motor homes, and most definitely not the snowbirds who migrate for the winter to avoid cold weather. Expats are the folks who choose to leave the familiar, permanently, in exchange for the strange.
Some do it for love: love of a person, love of a place, or love of an exotic profession that doesn’t exist back in their original home. Most often? It’s about money–and, typically, it’s not about making money, it’s about stretching what you’ve already got. There are many retirees, especially among those who exit the work force early, who flock to countries with a slower pace of life and a lower cost of living. There are regions in Europe that qualify–the Costa del Sol in Spain, most of southern Italy, even parts of France can be a bargain when compared to New York, or California. Some Asian countries, like Thailand, Malaysia, and Viet Nam–those can be wonderful places to live, at a fraction of what it costs in Dallas or Detroit (especially when you factor in the cost of health care, which is almost always far cheaper overseas). For citizens of the U.S. and Canada, Latin America is highly attractive, if only because it’s so close, and there are several countries south of the border that actively seek to attract the AARP crowd: Panama, Ecuador, Costa Rica. They make it easy to get long term Visas, easy to buy and sell property, and you’ll be entitled to discounted rates on everything from bus fare to your electric bill.
Click the link (above) to access the International Living website
International Living is a monthly magazine specifically geared toward expatriates and expatriate wannabes, and every year, in January, they publish an admittedly subjective ranking of the world’s top retirement havens, based on an averaged score of ten different lifestyle factors, from Infrastructure to Health Care, Cost of Living to Climate. This year, Panama took top honors with an averaged score of 93.5 (out of a possible 100). Ecuador was a close second, at 92.4, and number three? Mexico, at 89.3! That’s surprising, but in a good way, because a lot of folks are still gun shy (literally) about Mexico. Most of the people I know are wary of traveling there, much less living there, because of all the negative press about drug gang violence, particularly in the northern border areas. But the thing is, the border areas are not the spots where the expats tend to cluster. Most of the country is perfectly safe, and while there are some common sense precautions that you should take when traveling in Mexico (or anywhere else), it’s not something you need to fear. (See my recent post, Mexican Road Trip: 2015, for details about my own recent experience). All told, there are close to a million U.S. Citizens living in Mexico. Did you just do a slight double-take? Yes, you heard me right–a million! Some are dual nationals, many travel back and forth between the two countries, but there are a dozen cities and towns that I can name off the top of my head that host large expat communities, and plenty of those folks live in Mexico year ’round. Puerto Vallarta, made famous by Liz Taylor and Richard Burton back in the ’60’s, and just as beautiful as ever. La Paz, in Baja California Sur, world famous for its fishing. Merida, a colonial city in the Yucatan that I’ve touched on in this blog (a recent post titled Southern Colonials). Then there’s Lake Chapala, south of Guadalajara, with one of the largest concentrations of American retirees outside the United States. At least 10,000 American ‘pensionados‘ call the Lake Chapala area home!
One place in particular always rises to the top in any discussion of Mexican expat havens: that’s the lovely colonial city of San Miguel de Allende, in the state of Guanajuato. San Miguel is located in the central mountains, 170 miles north of Mexico City, and just 630 miles south of Piedras Negras on the Texas border. That’s about a ten hour drive. One long day if you get an early start, two easy days if you elect to break the journey somewhere in the middle. (Saltillo, maybe).
At an elevation of 6200 feet, and a tropical latitude (just south of the Tropic of Cancer), the climate is as ideal as the location, with average highs around 80 degrees and lovely cool nights. The city itself is another of those charming colonials, a UNESCO World Heritage site with beautifully preserved, centuries-old buildings lining steep cobblestone streets. Between the out-and-out expatriates and the chilangos, (a somewhat disparaging term for people from Mexico City), close to 20% of the population is from somewhere else, and San Miguel has what is generally considered the second largest concentration of American expat retirees after Lake Chapala, somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 seemingly very happy people.
A portion of San Miguel’s American Expat contingent, hamming it up on the Dia de Los Muertos. Representative? I hope so! These guys were great!
Some would say that the mere presence of so many foreigners in a relatively small city like San Miguel permanently alters it. That may be true. In fact, it most certainly IS true, but it isn’t necessarily such a bad thing. I was there for the three day celebration of the Dia de los Muertos, and the first day, which coincides with Halloween, was a celebration for families. El Jardin, the main plaza in San Miguel, was a scene of absolute joy, and unanimity–families, all in costume, children laughing, everyone posing for photographs, calling their friends over, everyone posing together and wall to wall smiles. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so thoroughly included in any celebration I’ve ever attended in a foreign country, and I’m sure a lot of that had to do with the fact that so many Americans live there, and were such a big part of the crowd that night. The division between nationalities was less pronounced than I’ve ever seen it, and I found that very, very refreshing. One thing I will say (and I can’t emphasize it strongly enough): if you’re going to do any serious traveling in Latin America, much less if you’re contemplating living there? Learn Spanish. Make an effort. It’s not only appreciated by the people that you deal with, once you get it down? It will open up a whole new world to you. (Click thumbnails to expand photos).
There’s a lot more that I could write about San Miguel de Allende, surely, but nothing that hasn’t been done, and re-done, by people far closer to the source of the story than I could ever hope to be. Suffice to say that it’s a wonderful town, with a fascinating history, beautiful architecture, and some great people, of just about every nationality–but most especially Mexican. No matter how many foreigners move to San Miguel de Allende, no matter how many foreign businesses are opened or how many tourists flood the streets, it will always be, at its heart, pure Mexico.
One thing about it that deserves a mention: because of its popularity, the cost of living, particularly as regards rents and the cost of real estate, is higher than in most other parts of the country. You won’t find bargains here, so if that’s what motivates you, best to look at other locations that are, perhaps, less traveled.
Click the thumbnail (above) to access a gallery of photos from San Miguel de Allende
In the next few days, I’ll be posting a separate article about the Dia de Los Muertos celebration in San Miguel de Allende. In the meanwhile, you can click the link below to access a gallery of photographs from the remarkable three day fiesta:
Click the thumbnail (above) to access a gallery of photos from the Dia de Los Muertos