It had been nearly five years since Peter and I returned to San Miguel de Allende, one of our favorite places to visit in Mexico. Blame it on the pandemic or busy lives, but here we are at the tail end of an 80-day stay and madly in love with this gorgeous colonial city again.
So where is SMA—as the locals call it? Unlike most Mexican tourist destinations, this mid-sized city is not near a coast. Instead, you’ll find SMA in the heart of Mexico, about four hours’ drive northwest of Mexico City. Here you’ll find an arid landscape with rugged mountainous terrain, deep canyons, and lots of cacti. It’s the land of the vaquero—the precursor to the American cowboy—and there’s a decidedly Wild West feel to the surrounding countryside.
SMA became a colony for ex-pats beginning in the 1940s when a group of artists from the U.S. moved here to take advantage of the low cost of living, rich culture, and excellent climate. The city is still attracting ex-pats, mostly retired, who come for the same reasons.
As I look out my window, the garden is a colorful collage of fuschia and violet bougainvillea, lavender jacaranda blooms, and the first unfurling of sunshine-yellow cacti flowers. Hummingbirds flit among the blooms, and in the distance a rooster crows and a donkey brays a comical, sad groan, as if to say, “I’m so hungry. Could someone pleeeez feed me?”
There’s a running joke about ex-pats drinking the Kool-Aid and, on their first visit, buying a house. Well, this isn’t our first visit, but we did end up buying a home here in San Miguel de Allende, where we plan to spend the next few winters. We love that there’s a ready-made community of adventurous ex-pats who enjoy living life to the fullest—not hard to do here. In fact, if you come here and don’t fall in love with this magical city, something must be wrong with you. Here are the top three reasons everyone loves San Miguel de Allende.
Mexico’s Low Cost of Living
Real Estate Is Especially Affordable
Let’s face it. Life is getting more expensive by the minute. Mexico isn’t escaping inflation, but the government is taking steps to protect its citizens. The price of gas, for example, hasn’t exploded in Mexico, thanks to price controls put in place. Food, for the most part is inexpensive, especially fresh produce. For the mega-shopper, there’s a Costco in Queretaro, about an hour’s drive (and also incidentally home to the closest airport).
Where you’ll find big savings is in real estate. Prices are attractive here, and you can get a lot of house for your money. Home expenses like electricity, water, and gas are also affordable, and property taxes are a fraction of what you pay in the states. If you need a little help around the house, you can have your home cleaned once a week for $25. Need a gardener? Also $25 for a day’s work.
Now that working remotely is widely accepted, younger folks are swarming to SMA and bringing their families. Ex-pats aren’t just coming from the U.S. either. We’ve met folks from Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Canada. The region is also welcoming an influx of foreign companies, who do business here because the cost of labor is low. Of course, as San Miguel becomes more popular, there is a tendency for the cost of living to rise, as it has over the past decade. But for now anyway, it’s still a bargain.
Incredibly Mild Climate Attracts Ex-Pats
Perfect for Enjoying Myriad Outdoor Activities
San Miguel de Allende has two seasons: perfect and nearly perfect. It’s April as I write this, and the nearly perfect season is beginning. It lasts until September and is marred only by occasional showers. For some people, summer is their favorite season because the rain adds life and freshness to an otherwise dry, dusty climate. I’ll admit I’ve never been to SMA is summer, so I can’t really comment on what it’s like. I can imagine, however, that some of the roads in the surrounding villages become quite muddy, since dirt roads are common. I do know that I am missing rain. We’ve had exactly two brief rain showers in the 80 days we’ve been here.
From September to April, the weather is perfect: daytime temps in the 70s and 80s, sunny skies, low humidity, and cool nights. Locals might say that the temps in January and February are too cold for their liking, but putting on an occasional light jacket in the morning or evening is not a problem for me. Wearing hats and sunscreen is important here, as is using moisturizer, especially for those of us with dry skin.
With a climate this ideal, there’s no end to outdoor activities you can enjoy in SMA. With mountains all around, hiking is popular. Trail rides are another way to enjoy the scenery. Peter and I recently ventured up a mountain just outside of SMA on horseback, led by a guide. The trails were steep, but the horses were surefooted, and we made it to the summit without any stumbles. The views from the top? Priceless. San Miguel is also home to a large lake, where guided kayaking trips are available.
There are also amazing hot springs in the region, so a favorite pastime is swimming and/or soaking in the local pools. One of our favorites is La Gruta, where there are six pools with temperatures varying from warm to hot. Trust me, there’s nothing nicer than sliding into a pool of warm mineral spring-fed water on a cool sunny morning under a perfect blue sky surrounded by birds singing and palm fronds swishing in a gentle breeze.
Xoté is a family-friendly attraction with plummeting slides and six pools—not quite as warm as La Gruta’s but still pleasant. Peter and I like to go early and do laps in Xoté’s large pools. Both places offer food and beverages, so they’re perfect for an all-day outing. We try to go once a week and spend the day swimming, reading, and relaxing. Best part? Admission fees are affordable at about $10 per adult.
Mexico’s Rich Culture and Ties to the Past
There’s Always Something to Celebrate in San Miguel de Allende
For thousands of years, pre-Hispanic people known as the Otomi lived in this region. Not far from San Miguel de Allende is an archaeological site known as Cañada de la Virgen complete with pyramids, ancient ruins, burial grounds, and even a few sacred bones. We have visited the site twice with local archaeologist Albert Coffee. He tells stories about the Otomi and their achievements in science, agriculture, and astronomy. The tour is very worthwhile, and every time I go, I feel a sense of connection to life’s mysteries.
This region still teems with culture today. Hardly a weekend goes by without some kind of parade, festival, or celebration in San Miguel’s “centro.” Most activities take place in front of the Parroquoia de San Miguel Arcángel, a huge, pink church that rises up like a frosty wedding cake in the heart of the city. Built in neo-Gothic style in the 17th century, the Catholic church features a lofty sanctuary, gilded statues, and crystal chandeliers.
One of the most festive times to visit is during Day of the Dead, November 1-2, where the city is alive with color and excitement as people create altars to commemorate their loved ones who have died. The altars are beautiful and poignant at the same time, featuring framed photos of loved ones and mementos of their lives. You’ll also find food and drink on the altars, for the Mexicans believe the souls of their loved ones return every year to visit.
During the day native Mexicans hold parades, dressed in leather and feathers and beating drums, and at night the Katrina and Diego parades takes place. Don’t be surprised to see a few ex-pats strolling in their gowns and tuxes, faces painted white, lips black, and eyes decorated in a spider pattern.
Of course, the culture of a place is expressed in its cuisine, and San Miguel is noteworthy for its excellent variety of restaurants as well as the number of them (over 550). From elevated Mexican dishes to fresh-from-the-sea sushi to tender steaks, foodies will be in heaven here. Peter and I have only just begun to sample the tasty cuisine in SMA and look forward to eating out often when we return next winter. Did I mention prices in restaurants are about half of what you pay in the U.S.?
Many restaurants have outdoor terraces where diners sit under shady trees decorated with tin stars, glass hearts, and ribbons. One of our favorites is Luna de Queso, a relaxing oasis on a hot day, where they serve huge deli sandwiches, power bowls, and crispy French fries. I know it’s not Mexican food, but sometimes a hearty sandwich on a freshly baked ciabatta hits the spot.
There is so much more I can say about San Miguel de Allende, but the obvious way to learn more is to discover it for yourself. And you don’t have to take my word for it. Travel and Leisure and Forbes magazines have both named it the Best Small City in the World.
Of course, spending winters in Mexico doesn’t mean I am not committed to my life and work in Virginia’s Tidewater region. I was born in Virginia and I hope to grow old there. But while Peter and I are young and fit, this adventure south of the border seems like the right path for us. Come see us in paradise.
What You Need To Know To Go
How To Get Here
If you’re coming for a visit, I’d suggest flying into Queretaro or Leon. American Airlines offers flights to both airports. Once you’re here, you can catch a bus to SMA with www.bajigo.com. You don’t need a car here because taxis are affordable and readily available.
Where To Stay
If you’re looking for luxury, look no further than the Rosewood San Miguel de Allende. Other lovely hotels include Casa de Sierra Nevada, Live Aqua Urban Resort San Miguel de Allende, Dôce 18 Concept House. For a more mid-priced stay, we recommend Hilo Rojo Hotel Boutique, Casa Mia Suites, and Hotel Casa Aliz.
Where To Eat
One of our favorite rooftop bars is La Azotea, where the guac is to die for and a bargain at only $4. Other favorite restaurants include Luna de Queso (Try the Luna Antigua, a hearty sandwich with pastrami, mortadella, swiss cheese, smoked pork, homemade pickles, herb mayo and Dijon mustard served on a homemade ciabatta roll.), El Pagaso, and Los Milagros.
Find out things to do and much more at www.visitmexico.com/en/guanajuato/san-miguel-de-allende.