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.
Last week, in the discussion of comparing the popular Mexican Retirement Destinations of Lake Chapala and San Miguel de Allende, Kevin focused on Chapala. This week, he will offer you his perspective on San Miguel.
San Miguel de Allende is a small but very cosmopolitan city, not a collection of rural villages, so the feel is very different. Moreover, San Miguel is a famous place within Mexico, with nearly 500 years of cultural heritage and close proximity to towns such as Dolores Hidalgo that were the epicenter of the Mexican revolution.
San Miguel is above all a city of and for the arts. The entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, meaning, among other things, that traffic lights, neon signs and even fire hydrants are forbidden. There are dozens and dozens of world class art galleries and schools and a year-round calendar of jazz, classical music and theater that put many cities of ten times the size to shame.
San Miguel is located at 6400 feet (1400 feet higher than Lake Chapala) in the vast fertile plains known as El Bajio. Climate-wise the feeling is quite high and dry – like Santa Fe, New Mexico but without the snow or harsh winters. Year-round temperatures average about 5 degrees hotter in the summer and 5 degrees colder in the winter than at Lakeside, and in the colder months of January and February you’ll need a down jacket or heavy fleece in the mornings and will spend some extra money on firewood or propane heat.
San Miguel is hilly, and while it’s perfectly possible to rent a place that’s a flat walk to centro there are plenty of hills in town that would make a San Franciscan feel right at home. Overall it is certainly not a place for the less than able-bodied. This isn’t to say that Lakeside, with its cobblestoned streets, is an ADA-accessible paradise, but for some the steepness and/or higher altitude of San Miguel will rule it out.
San Miguel isn’t directly on the way to or from anywhere, which also has advantages and disadvantages. Mexico City, with its vast population, is about 4 hours away and has one airport that serves San Miguel, while the industrial city of Léon (1.5 hours) and the hopping hi-technology community of Querétaro (1 hour) have smaller airports with international service to Texas and Los Angeles.
On the plus side, San Miguel is far from any drug trafficking transport corridors and has thus far been spared from that unfortunate part of current Mexican reality. It also attracts a different kind of Mexican visitor than Lakeside, drawing primarily wealthy individuals from Mexico City to Monterrey in search of fine arts and a peaceful respite. For those who drive from the U.S., San Miguel is a far easier haul than Lakeside, with a straight shot and one long day (11 hours or less) from Laredo, all on toll roads.
Culturally and culinarily San Miguel is to Lake Chapala what San Francisco is to a small town in the American Midwest, with an exponentially greater number of choices both of Mexican food and of international cuisines. The same holds true of arts and entertainment.
San Miguel has a wonderful bilingual library called the Biblioteca that houses one of the largest English-language book collections in Latin America, but unlike Lakeside where so much revolves around the Lake Chapala society there is no one central hub of activity in San Miguel. Instead one finds many intersecting groups with special interests, from the visual arts to music, from yoga and meditation to organic produce or foreign films, meeting at a diverse range of venues all over the city. There are at least three lively web forums, most of which are Yahoo groups that are lightly moderated, and the Biblioteca sells several excellent guidebooks written by locals.
The most important local print news resource is a well written bilingual newspaper called Atención that’s published by the aforementioned Biblioteca. The bilingual and bi cultural nature of that paper speaks volumes about the difference in overall vibe between the expat populations in San Miguel vs. Lakeside, with far more gringos in San Miguel making some degree of effort to speak Spanish and engage with local Mexican culture (of course there are exceptions and I also don’t mean to slight the many decades of wonderful charitable volunteer work by many at Lakeside).
For information on cost of living and how to decide which place is for read Part III