Guest blog post by Kevin Knox
Kevin is a semi-retired coffee taster and buyer, world traveler, gourmand and student of yoga and meditation. He and his wife, Erin, currently spend their time between San Miguel de Allende, and Chapala, Mexico. To follow his writings and musings, click on his blog here.
Why I am writing this piece
My wife and I recently moved to San Miguel de Allende after two years of living at Lake Chapala and several more years of exploring small-town retirement hotspots in the U.S. Billy and Akaisha, inspirations and mentors for us as for so many others, have kindly asked me to share a few comments about these two Mexican retirement havens.
While we’ve spent a few months in San Miguel we’re still newcomers and just learning the ropes. Our newbie status notwithstanding, I’m hearing from more and more people who’ve heard about but not visited one or the other of these places asking for information and advice, so at the risk of being presumptuous I thought I’d offer some impressions based on our admittedly limited experience.
Common Clichés & Stereotypes
Perhaps because they are the two most important expat retirement havens in Mexico, stereotypes and misinformation between the two communities are abundant. When we lived at Lake Chapala we were frequently discouraged from even visiting San Miguel: “It’s too cold, too expensive, too snooty – you’ll hate it!” we were told.
Conversely, when we first visited San Miguel and let it be known we’d lived at Lake Chapala, we heard things along these lines: “Oh, Lake Chapala. Don’t you pretty much have to be 75 years old, ex-military, belong to the American Legion, smoke and drink like crazy and live on a fixed income to fit in there?”
Needless to say both stereotypes are inaccurate, yet arose from tiny kernels of truth.
Lake Chapala, or “Lakeside” as it’s known among local expats, comprises the town of Chapala and several villages, from San Antonio Tlayacapan to Jocotepec, on the north shore of Mexico’s largest freshwater lake. The cumulative population of these places is around 100,000, which is pretty close to that of San Miguel de Allende, with around 85,000 in the city proper and perhaps 140,000 in the greater metro area.
While both places are well-known as havens for American and Canadian expats, we gringos comprise only about 5-10% of the population, depending on the season. This translates to 5,000-10,000 (a total guesstimate – there simply are no accurate numbers) foreign residents: just enough for there to be an established infrastructure of English-language news, clubs and activities.
Both places are strongly seasonal in their expat occupancy, though this is truer of Lakeside than San Miguel. High season is from roughly November through March, and “high high” season is January and February, in both places, with many expats residing in Mexico seasonally.
Lake Chapala is a beautiful natural setting that’s only 40 minutes away from Guadalajara, the third-largest city in Mexico, with a population approaching 8 million. That proximity has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand you have an excellent international airport only half an hour away, which is great for those who return frequently to the U.S. or Canada, and of course shopping opportunities in such a huge city are limitless.
On the downside, Lake Chapala is inundated with partying weekend visitors from the big city, and increasingly functions as a southern suburb of Guadalajara. Big city crime, including a significant level of activity from the narco cartels, has also made its presence felt at Lakeside in recent years. There’s just one major road into and out of all of Lakeside, so on occasion one can feel a bit trapped, geographically.
The advantages of Lake Chapala are also numerous, starting with the lake itself, which is beautiful in every season. Being on water moderates temperatures, giving Lakeside one of the best climates in the world, with year-round highs ranging from the low 70’s to high 80’s and comfortable lows in the high 50’s to mid 40’s, with lovely rains in the summer months and a lengthy dry season that stretches from November through May. The climate is significantly gentler than San Miguel’s, as is the vegetation (think Santa Barbara or Italian Riviera for Lakeside vs. a warmer version of Santa Fe for San Miguel).
One has a sense of living in nature at Lakeside, and most homes have covered porches or verandas where locals spend much of their time. The pace is slow, the streets are cobblestoned and opportunities for recreation, from tennis to hiking, are abundant.
The epicenter of the expat community at Lakeside is the village of Ajijic and the Lake Chapala Society, a long-established haven for expats. It offers beautiful gardens, an excellent book and DVD library and has a wide range of classes and activities. Local English media includes the Guadalajara Reporter weekly newspaper and a couple of monthly publications with heavy real estate promotion emphasis, the Lake Chapala Review and the Coldwell Banker sponsored Ojo del Lago. The only truly popular web forum for the area, Chapala.com, is also Coldwell Banker-sponsored and is moderated with a heavy hand.
With regard to the Mexican community, there are really two distinctive communities at Lakeside. Historically and even today in large measure this is a rural, agricultural place, and while employment in service industries and construction has boomed in recent decades the lake is still the world headquarters for Driscoll berry farms, while the entire south shore of the lake is primarily used for agriculture and fishing.
Contrasting sharply with the dominant small village agricultural working class are wealthy second home owners from Guadalajara, for whom the lake is a weekend and holiday playground.
For specifics on San Miguel in Mexico Retirement Locations, Part II