Guanajuato + San Miguel de Allende: Exploring Expat Cities

I first left the United States in 2007, when I visited Mexico. Over the following years, I drove into Canada twice. But it wasn’t until 2010 that I traveled outside of the United States for what felt like a sizable amount of time: A summer in Italy.

In 2012, I joined Peace Corps, moved to Ethiopia, and – minus a year and a half stint in Texas to get all of my teaching certifications – I’ve been overseas ever since.

So it’s no surprise that Chandler and I decided to look into some expat cities while we were in Mexico this summer. Without universal healthcare, the United States can be a difficult place to retire in. We’ve enjoyed the places we’ve lived – Ethiopia, Ghana, Jordan – but wouldn’t call any of them “home.” We love our summers in Europe, but aren’t sure that we’d want to live there year round (cold, dark, etc).

But San Miguel de Allende and – to a lesser extent – Guanajuato, come up time and time again as fantastic expat cities.

We flew from Oaxaca to the León Del Bajio Airport, just 15 miles outside of Guanajuato. It was an easy taxi drive to our Airbnb, which was the nicest place we’d stayed since arriving in Mexico over a month and half prior.

To be honest, I’m not sure I needed much more than this tasteful aesthetic with its perfect bathtub, but Guanajuato had more to offer. We were staying above the city, so our place had gorgeous views of the valley below.

It took us about 15-20 minutes to walk down to city center, but the views along the way more than made up for the physical exertion.

We didn’t have much on our list for this city, other than to wander around and get a vibe of the place. We found some spectacular restaurants: Bahn Mi (pad thai, curry, & pho) & Habibti Falafel (wraps) topped the list, but we also enjoyed getting poke bowls at Uliuli and eating them in the park. That said, there’s not a large variety of restaurants in the city.

Additionally, we also had a few museums on our list – nothing life changing, but everything in Oaxaca had been closed and Playa del Carmen was definitely more outdoors, so we were excited to see what might have made its way to Guanajuato.

We started with Museo Casa Diego Rivera. We had low expectations, since Rivera had only lived there as a child, but there was a surprisingly fun exhibit of Ernesto García Cabral’s work, in addition to the house itself. The top floors housed some pieces by Rivera himself, like the two featured below: Market of Tehuantepec and Portrait of a Woman in Blue (unfinished).

A quick 30 minute (max) stop was the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo Primer Deposito. Chandler loves contemporary art museums and I love Max Ernst (we didn’t know how he had made his way to Mexico, but we could swear one of the pieces in the museum looked like his work), so we thought it would be a perfect stop for us.

It was surprisingly small. Just a few rooms, connected to a cafe that held pieces for sale, but we did enjoy a few of them. Namely, the first sculpture by Jose Luis Cuevas and the second (that turned out not to be Ernst!) by Sergio Hernández.

But by far, our favorite museum in Guanajuato was also the most bizarre. It begins with a legend:

“More than 80 years ago a lad of barely twenty years of age was detained in a French concentration camp…He, and his family, had fled Santander to escape prosecution and death during the dire times of the Spanish Civil War. It was 1936…an Extremadura soldier – offered to exchange the pack (of cigarettes) for a book…It was Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes…He opened the book and in its pages he found a perennial flash of light betwixt the darkness and the confinement of the refugee camp. After a long journey, he arrived in Mexico by chance with his little book in his pocket; he never let it go during his entire life. That lad was named Eulalio Ferrer. That small book was the seed from which the Museo Iconográfico del Quijote…was later born.”

Which means this is a museum dedicated entirely to Don Quixote – all of the paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and more tie back into the story. Which is pretty awesome, if you ask me.

The first column is a series, painted by Fernando Del Paso, the second column contains pieces by Leonardo Nierman & Jazzamoart (Francisco Javier Vázquez), and the final painting is by José Vela Zanetti.

Guanajuato was a charming city, but after just a few days we had exhausted our list of things to do. Conveniently, San Miguel de Allende is just an hour’s drive away – we had initially planned to simply take the bus, but our taxi driver made us an offer we couldn’t refuse : )

Just like in Guanajuato, we were blown away by our Airbnb. This time, we were in the heart of San Miguel (no hiking required), but it was clear a lot of time and love had gone into the home.

But San Miguel was what we had come to the region to see – we wanted to understand what expats love about the city.

We encountered top-notch grocery stores, vegan restaurants tailor-made for us, the best being: Don Taco Tequila (pictured below, excellent vegan tacos AND drinks) & Soltribe (incredible nachos – and everything else – we absolutely loved chatting with the owner and the other customers, not our usual thing, but this type of place attracts our people).

Mercado Del Carmen is a market with a wide variety of restaurants and while we enjoyed the Indian food at Bhaji, we definitely would have gone back for the Japanese, Middle Eastern, and other food stalls.

We found ourselves discovering a city that was in love with the color pink – from the churches to the town square to the flowers that could be found everywhere from the buildings to women’s hair.

But we quickly learned that while San Miguel might be a nice place to retire, for those looking for new experiences, the city is oddly lacking.

We tried shopping, but I’m about three decades younger than the target audience. San Miguel lacks Oaxaca’s hip print shops and Guanajuato’s quirky museums. We found ourselves with very little to occupy our time.

We typically avoid markets (that don’t include food!), but with multiple empty days on our hands, we got pretty touristy and went to the Ignacio Ramírez Market and the Mercado de Artisanías. We didn’t walk away with much, just a few embroidered pieces, but it was a surprisingly calm way to spend an afternoon.

San Miguel is the type of place where total strangers (always other expats) come up to you on a regular basis. I’m not sure if they’re just always looking for new friends, but we met a wide array of characters. One recommended a night of impersonations, including Lady Gaga and Prince. Another talked about his architecture business and how he loves living long-distance from his wife who teaches in the United States. But nearly all of them steered us toward the Rooftop at Selina.

I looked it up later, and this bar makes no one’s list of best views of the city, which I have to admit surprised me. We didn’t get a lot from San Miguel, but it – along with Guanajuato – made for pretty relaxing stops. The Rooftop at Selina turned out to be a great way to end the week.

Having experienced the best that Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende have to offer, it’s easy to say retirement expat cities definitely aren’t for us – just yet. We’ll continue exploring cities and places that have a bit more to offer us.

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