Note: Updated from 5 years in Retrospect to 10 years in Retrospect, January 2021
I’m often asked why I moved to Mexico, what makes me want to stay, what I love or don’t love about it, and, well, my answer isn’t a concise one. I’ve lived here for over 10 years now, and my reflections and realizations have grown over time. What started as newness, travel, and adventure, has deepened into something more profound – wisdom I’ve gained, a perspective I’ve broadened. The good news (or the bad news, depending on how you look at it …) is that I have this blog to tell you all of the ins and outs of my experience living abroad in Mexico and all that I have learned in the process. Of course, this will be completely subjective. I don’t claim to hold any special knowledge; it’s just my personal opinion, based on my values and tastes.
Why I moved
If I trace back the origins of my move to Mexico, there are many indicators that could’ve foreshadowed my move. My passion for travel, for experiencing new places and cultures, my attraction to trying new things, and my growing dislike of living in the US, were fertile soil for the seed planted by the disasters of Hurricane Katrina. Many of you likely remember the devastation it left in its path. Among those affected were my parents, who lost both their home and business. I had just finished college and, living in another city, my housing hadn’t been affected. We were lucky to share a special few months where they gracefully mourned the life they had lost and gathered their guts to make a big international move. Rising from the ashes of their loss, moving to San Miguel de Allende seemed as likely as any other place. They had no plans or commitments, no furniture to move (other than the stubborn dog), and nothing holding them back, only an insurance check for the lifetime of memories they had lost. It was time for them to establish the next phase of their lives.
I went with them to Mexico on their moving trip to help them get settled, show up in a supportive way, and naturally, explore an area of Mexico that was new to me. That was the first of many trips. As I started my graduate work the following fall, I had already visited 3 times, and over the next 2 years, I spent time between each semester there. I liked it more every time that I went. By the time I completed my Master’s Degree, I knew that I wanted to move to San Miguel. It was a desire that had been brewing in me for 2 years. what I didn’t know, however, is that I would stay, truly making Mexico my new home.
Here’s What I Knew
At that point in my life, I had already traveled a fair amount and knew that cultural and natural discovery, learning about people and their landscapes was my passion. Writing, what I’d studied for both of my degrees, was also my passion, and the two married together nicely. So far, I had taught middle school in Ghana, worked in a Romanian orphanage, hiked the 4-day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, studied abroad in Paris, and traveled around Greece, Hungary, Bolivia, Thailand, Jamaica, and Mexico.
On another note that will come into play later, I’d begun my spiritual journey at the age of twelve, learning Qi Gong, Tai Chi, yoga, and meditation, primarily from my Uncle who taught those things. Over the years I delved deeper into learning about Eastern philosophies and went on to take Religious Studies as my minor in my undergrad. My grad school experience at Naropa, a Buddhist University, catapulted my previous practice to another level. I knew that the lifestyle of the United States wasn’t the right fit for what I wanted for my life, but I could only begin to imagine what a perfect fit Mexico would be for finding profound awareness of the present moment.
Lastly, I didn’t intend to stay. As I discovered my passion to connect with the world on a deeper level, I knew that it meant living in a place, not just breezing through, because it takes time to really understand the undercurrents of a place. (Now, over 10 years later I can attest that I continue to find new revelations.) My naive idea was that I would stay for 3-5 years, travel as much as possible in Mexico, and then move to another geographic region with the same intention. How I could’ve imagined “knowing” the 31 states of Mexico in 3-5 years is laughable! After almost 13 years in the country, I’ve visited 18 states at varying levels of depth and passed through a handful of others. And, funny enough, I couldn’t tell you which is my favorite. Even a top 5 would be a challenge! It is so immense and varied, each state like its own country, full of its own bounty of natural and cultural riches. The point is, I’m not done yet. I still have a lot to learn and Mexico is a gracious teacher. Perhaps not for everyone, but I’m eternally grateful for all of the wisdom and beauty she has shared with me thus far.
San Miguel de Allende: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
My first impression of San Miguel was dazzling. It was October of 2005; it hadn’t won Best City in the world yet, and though it certainly had a large community of foreigners, it was only a fraction of what it became. The streets were quiet and sleepy. Every day was the perfect temperature with blue skies and full sun. It was the pace of life that charmed me most, the relaxed way people went about their business, and the friendly hellos from colorful strangers on the street. Then there was the breath-taking colonial architecture and vibrant colors, the incredible cuisine (both Mexican and international), the appreciation and celebration of ritual and tradition, the mesquite and nopal-decorated Sierra Madres framing the city, and a teeming community of artists of all mediums. There was a spark of creativity, intoxicating natural and man-made aesthetics, and a carefree feeling to everything that I was immediately drawn to. It felt like going back in time to something easier, simpler.
After living in San Miguel for a while, I began to see its double-sided nature. Like most things, in many ways, the items in the “good” category can also belong to the “bad” category when seen from a different angle. When I originally wrote this blog, just after my 5-year mark, things seemed much clearer than I see them now. Rather than break the points into categories, I’m going to let you decide for yourselves. I think it really depends on what kind of experience you want from your life as to whether the challenges are worth it.
“Quality of Life” = Weather, Living Spaces, Cost of living, Friendliness
Waking up in a place that’s beautiful, warm, and friendly, full of incredible possibilities of collaboration and creative inspiration, is what I consider having a good quality of life. Having less stress, being creative, and experiencing new things is what I value. Mexican Culture is famously social and kind, and the foreigners attracted to San Miguel also tend to be the generally good-natured and loquacious types (though there are exceptions, naturally), so the city ranks high on friendliness.
Year-round sunshine and moderate temperatures are major plusses. I need the sun and don’t do well in the cold, but that’s me. Those aspects of San Miguel’s weather are ideal. However, it is really dry. Skin-crackingly dry. My favorite time of year is the rainy season when the landscape is refreshed with new life. Additionally, it’s a high-elevation location, which is something I like because I enjoy the mountains and the physical conditioning of being active here.
Different types of housing are available, from incredible homes to basic apartments, furnished and not, just depends on what you’re looking for. Many homes were built in the classic Hacienda style with large walls on the outside and a central patio or garden space with rooms around. Most amenities are the same, however, heat/AC, dishwashers, and bathtubs are almost non-existent.
Due to gentrification, the cost of living in San Miguel is now similar to living in the States, particularly when considering rent, and things like restaurants and shopping. Many other amenities are slightly less expensive, like major grocery stores, electricity (for some, depending on the “tier” of your living space), and so forth. Other things are significantly less expensive, but you have to be intentional in seeking them out, like going to local markets, butchers, and other local providers. It’s important to note that the foreign presence is driving up prices for everyone, and the locals take on the brunt of that burden. For the same reason, haggling or cutting corners when hiring local people for anything is beyond disrespectful. It’s downright rude.
This term means different things for different people. To me, “quality of life” shouldn’t be code for getting away with something, getting more than what is fair.
Cultural Values: the Joy of the Now, Family and Friends
One of the greatest lessons that I’ve learned while living in Mexico is how to appreciate the present moment. Coming from a culture that seems permanently stuck in a future that never arrives, getting off of the psychological hamster wheel was transformative for me. Mexico reveres family, particularly elders, familial bonds, taking time to be together often, sometimes daily for long lunches or dinners, and cultivating long-lasting friendships where they invest energy in really caring for and helping each other. Friends are always ready to rally together and help each other, and there is a sense that the community is always looking out for its members. There is a deep sense of connection.
This all-as-one mentality is encouraging and inspiring. It means less homelessness, orphans, and retirement homes. On the other hand, the same mentality can make change a very slow process. The mindset makes Mexico one of the happiest countries on the planet, but one with limited breakthroughs in new discoveries or unconventional thinking.
Valuing the present moment, time with loved ones, and enjoying your life means there is always a cause for celebration. Being from Louisiana, this was one of the things that made me feel at home. There are easily 200 festivals, one for each and every saint, blessing horses, Day of the Dead, and a myriad of national and international festivals around art, fashion, music, film, gastronomy, wine, and other cultural events. If you are a social butterfly, love to meet new people and experience new things, it’s an amazing place to be. There is always something happening in which you can partake.
Flexibility of the Tangible and Intangible
I’m not just in favor of this because I struggle to be on time. In Mexico, everything starts later and ends later. Meals are eaten later, gatherings tend to start later, and stores tend to open later and stay open later. Due to cultural values of respecting family, a communal lunchtime is observed from 2-4 so the family can eat together and rest a bit before returning to work. It’s no big deal to be late, especially in a social setting. Professional activities still respect meeting times, but the general atmosphere around the concept of time is relaxed. There is a sense that the present moment is to be enjoyed, meaning there is no destination at which to arrive – there is only here and now.
This cyclic view of time (in contrast to the linear form that I grew up with) means that while you may be productive, you aren’t defined by your productivity. The cultural values support this too. again, you may work incredibly hard, but at the end of the day, you do it to be fully present with those you love, to laugh, to relax and to enjoy your life. Time to rest and relax is a priority, and that’s reflected in the flexible nature of time.
I want to share a funny anecdote from when I first moved to San Miguel. I had called a repairman and made an appointment for Tuesday at 3. Tuesday came and went with no word. Strangely, the next Tuesday at 3 he showed up. I was puzzled. I asked if I had the date wrong because I had expected him the week before. “No,” he shrugged. “But it’s Tuesday.” Last Tuesday, this Tuesday, next Tuesday – It didn’t really matter. That was the message he conveyed to me. I was dumbfounded and enlightened at the same time.
For me, assimilating this way of thinking was like getting into a hot bath. At first, the water was unbearably hot and I thought I wouldn’t be able to fully get in. After a while, however, I surrendered to the heat and became a more relaxed, less anxious, happier version of myself. (That’s what baths do to everyone, right?) Besides the specific lesson that time is a human construct and only rules our lives as much as we let it, it also taught me to flow more and be less rigid, let go of control, and be happy no matter what circumstances arise.
But what about logistics? What makes Mexico easier, more convenient, and better than living in the States? Likely nothing. Logistics can be a nightmare AND they can be an incredibly annoying spiritual teacher. No one is in a hurry to do anything (except drive), so long lines may feel endless, seemingly basic processes can take inordinate amounts of time, and systems are simply not created with the intention of efficiency. We often say if you can accomplish one thing in a day, you’ve done well. You learn patience, to be still, and to be. A large part of choosing this lifestyle is surrendering to the lessons it has to teach you. If you’re not ready to be schooled in how much you let your life live you, then this isn’t your ideal environment.
Simplifying: Living Better and Living on Less
While all of the amenities you could ever want are available, living in Mexico has a different feel. Many modern conveniences that I had come to expect in the US aren’t as common here, and life is completely unphased by their absence. Let’s be honest, there is an unnecessary gadget for everything these days and in a sense, all of that stuff weighs you down. Besides gadgets specific to every task imaginable, there is technology that makes us lazy by automating menial tasks, and there is a sense that more and bigger is inherently better. American culture has also become synonymous with throwaway culture as those gadgets and tech are made to break and are almost always replaced rather than repaired. Fast fashion tempts people to buy more than they need, not thinking of the consequences and then throwing away the cheap items when they inevitably break. It’s a cycle of consumption that leads straight to the trash.
And look, I’m no saint. I’ve certainly had moments when I’ve bought into ideas I later regretted, buying things I didn’t need or realized that they were super cheap for a good reason. Mexico isn’t exempt from this. Recently, many stores have begun selling cheap online items, like Shein, because it’s easy. However, in general, Mexico has more tendency to repair than to trash things. Even as something falls apart, there is an intention to seek out what is still useful, and there is an innovative quality to the re-using of broken or old things. My sense is that the culture is generally less wasteful, and accumulates less unnecessary stuff.
To give you more of a sense, open-air markets are full of thrifted things, tons of repair shops exist to fix everything from electronics to mechanical items that break, and people find uses for many unfixable things that others might consider trash. Let me share a few examples. One friend of mine had a large chopping knife. The handle had fallen off and couldn’t be used easily for chopping. When I asked her about it she said it worked perfectly as a gardening tool now. Where I currently live in the jungle, they harvest a lot of rubber from rubber trees. A notch and a canal are cut into the tree so the sap runs into a receptacle, which more often than not, is an upcycled plastic water bottle. While many areas of Mexico don’t have official recycling facilities, people have taken matters into their own hands, sorting trash, collecting metals, glass, and plastics and then selling them to companies who use the materials. It’s common to get shoes fixed, even re-soled, at the cobbler and to get clothes mended (or even re-imagined) by a seamstress.
Besides the frugality that promotes minimalism and the realization for many who move to Mexico from a place like the US that your stuff can weigh you down, there is also a culture of eating fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats, often locally sourced and sold in open-air markets. Mexican cuisine may not always be the healthiest, but abundant fresh ingredients are easily accessible, inexpensive, and of high-quality. In San Miguel, there is access to organics with a weekly market. There’s also a butcher who provides locally-sourced free-range meats, in many cases harvested daily. There is a certain simplicity in eating fresh, natural food and having easy access to it. For more on where to grocery shop, check out my previous blog on my favorite places to go.
The Culture of Vale Madres / The Culture of Not Giving a Shit
A common saying in Mexico, the meaning is someone who doesn’t care about the consequences of their actions. This lack of caring comes from an intense appreciation for the present moment. There’s a sense that I’m going to live this moment to its fullest no matter the outcome, or in a less evolved sense, not caring about what happens because caring requires effort. Both versions of this cultural attitude have the potential to be harmful. But, it can’t go unsaid – it’s one of the reasons why Mexico ranks as one of the happiest countries on the planet. When you don’t worry about the future, the decision-making process is based on short-term pleasures and results.
To share a few examples of what I mean, you can consider the number of unplanned pregnancies. Lots of enjoyment at the moment, not much thought as to the repercussions. Similarly, Mexico is second in obesity, and the #1 killer in Mexico is diabetes. The attitude of enjoying right now and not worrying about the damage it will cause means that many people don’t change their habits or lifestyles even when they are in danger, continuing to drink coke every day despite having diabetes, for example.
In the same way that someone might not take care of their health because they won’t reap the rewards in the short term, efforts to take care of the environment reflect the same attitude. Take the national problem of littering: if it doesn’t affect me right here and now, then why care? This is a typical way of thinking.
There is another saying that goes: El que no tranza, no avanza (The one who doesn’t cheat doesn’t get ahead.) This attitude renders short-term results that may have long term consequences. You might say that this type of thinking is at the root of many things, from why normal people bribe their way through government paperwork to why people choose to get involved with gang activity in Mexico. It’s the source of the rampant corruption we see in the government and in the private sectors, as well.
Legalities and Bureaucracy
One reason why many foreigners are attracted to Mexico is the laissez-faire way that things are handled, including legal and social protocols. There is an overwhelming sense of personal freedom. You’re free to do just about anything, but on the other hand, no one will take responsibility for your actions and decisions either. There’s no one to sue if you slip and fall or if the coffee is too hot. Coming from a highly regulated and litigious society, it’s desirable to many of us rebel bohemian types.
While personal responsibility is attractive, it does present a significant risk. The lack of regulations means there may be little to no enforcement of health and safety standards, leading to a lack of hygiene in restaurants and lack of safety precautions regarding dangerous activities.
There are no requirements to speak of in order to get a driver’s license, for example, and fireworks can be used by anyone anytime without rules. One of my favorite places in all of Mexico, Jaral de Berrio, is a dilapidated old estate with massive holes throughout the structure that are quite dangerous. They’re neither marked off nor have any rails or protective measures in place.
In startling contrast, when there is a regulation in place, it’s followed to the letter, which often includes a litany of requirements, an abundance of copies, and a drawn out bureaucratic process. For example, to open a bank account you need an original birth certificate and a couple of months’ time. For my job at the university, I needed an original birth certificate as well, and to have my original diplomas notarized in their country of origin.
In general, processes are slow and tedious – every page is stamped and signed, and in blue ink, not black. There is a near obsession with the precision of signatures. For example, the bank rejected my first application after a month of waiting because my signature wasn’t identical to the one on my nearly 10-year-old passport.
The Culture of Vale Madres means that often simple tasks are done incorrectly and you’re left dealing with the repercussions, like an electric meter that reads incorrectly and you can’t fix it while your electric bill skyrockets. The point is, it’s inefficient and no one cares. There isn’t an incentive nor intention to be efficient. Customer service is non-existent, and the general attitude is to put your head down, be patient, and eventually, it will get resolved. This can be an incredible teacher, feeling that our needs and problems aren’t as important a maybe we think they are and that we are subject to a system that doesn’t care whether we get things done in a timely or reasonable fashion. It’ll happen when it happens (*shrug*).
Let me pause here and say that I can’t imagine the challenges of the US immigration process. I come from a privileged perspective. I know that it is a nightmare. So, as I share this next example, I do so not to compare it to immigration elsewhere, but rather to give you a snapshot of what bureaucracy looks like in Mexico.
The immigration process is constantly changing, and frequently, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. You’ll get different answers from different government agencies, the website may or may not work, and the travel associated with getting your visa can be messy at best. It isn’t insurmountable, but it is frustrating and costly. If you want to know more about the specific requirements for foreign visas in Mexico – check out my blog on it. I received so much misinformation that I compiled what I learned to help you out.
Additionally, if you have a car there are policies on foreign plated cars and NAFTA difficulties to consider. All cars must have Mexican plates, even if they belong to foreigners. As a tourist or temporary resident, you can have a foreign car with a special sticker. After 4 years though, you’re required to change your status to permanent (or return to the tourist visa), in which case the car must be nationalized. Be forewarned that only cars made in America, Mexico, or Canada can be legally nationalized, in keeping with NAFTA.
While infrastructure inside San Miguel keeps the downtown clean and tidy with manicured gardens and fountains, and uniform architecture in classic colonial colors, the outskirts of the city receive little attention. That means the government enforces fewer environmental laws in the area surrounding the city. Common occurrences include trash burning for the purposes of disposal, as the government doesn’t have the infrastructure to pick up trash in some areas, as well as melting down plastics and tires to make “bricks” for construction. Neighborhoods downwind complain, but the government has taken little action.
Meanwhile, as San Miguel has become more and more popular for foreigners and nationals alike, it continues to win awards. The influx of visitors has caused traffic problems. While major construction projects have made the flow of traffic better in certain congested areas, the lack of enforcement regarding emission violations has caused an increase in air pollution. Since it’s really a walking town, the exhaust can be quite unpleasant, and while the overall air quality is better than most places, we are seeing a visible change.
Moreover, the Presa, our freshwater reserve is terribly polluted, receiving water from the contaminated Laja River. Both of which receive raw sewage and industrial runoff. Open sewage runs through less-developed parts of the town as well, while the mayor chooses to redesign existing gardens and ornamental statues in the more touristy parts of the town. There are local groups that clean up the Presa, for example, but no major change is made if there isn’t governmental enforcement.
Again, we can look at the Culture of Vale Madres for the roots of this problem. People aren’t thinking ahead and taking care of the land because they aren’t experiencing immediate consequences. Instead, the immediate problems take precedence, and pollution is just a secondary effect. Governmental bodies don’t act to protect the environment for the same reasons, they won’t reap the rewards immediately so they don’t tackle the truly important projects, choosing to stay on the surface and get immediate recognition instead.
Nowhere is perfect. For me, the good greatly outweighs the bad. It’s truly a magical place, but, like many places, it’s in need of some governmental reform. I’d like to see a Mayor brave enough to make larger environmental changes regardless of whether he could see the project completed in his term.