The silver mines in Mexico's central highlands provided the incredible wealth that propelled Spain to world prominence in the 16th century. It also created Guanajuato, the crown jewel of Mexico's colonial cities.
Though it’s located just two hour’s flight time from Dallas and Houston, Guanajuato has remained relatively obscure compared with the nearby and much more discovered expat destinations of San Miguel de Allende and Ajijic. Guanajuato is arguably more charming and romantic than either of those cities. It’s also temptingly affordable.
Perhaps Guanajuato’s steep canyon walls and twisted up-and-down alleyways have discouraged those expats who can't imagine life without an automobile or who have trouble getting around on foot. If neither of those descriptions applies to you, you’d do well to take a look at what this historic city has to offer, from its welcoming plazas filled with the omnipresent melodies of mariachis and troubadours to its old world architectural marvels.
Guanajuato has been called the most romantic city in Mexico, and the infectious sentiment is apparent everywhere. You’re likely to see kissing students in the parks and retirees, expats, and Guanajuatenses alike strolling along hand-in-hand along the cobbled streets. One American couple, Mike Anderson and his wife, Ana, has been living in Guanajuato for about 20 years. “For us, this city is the small-town Latin incarnation of Hemingway's moveable feast,” Anderson says. Some expats compare Guanajuato to the small, medieval towns of Tuscany and Provence. However, Guanajuato is more animated and less expensive than those other top choices for the romantic retiree.
An expat couple can expect to live well in Guanajuato on a budget of about $1,300 to $1,700 per month, including rent, entertaining ,and dining out. Anderson says his costs for groceries, restaurants, and entertainment are 20 to 30 percent cheaper than in his last U.S. residence, Huntsville, Ala. “Our cost of living in Guanajuato is notably cheaper than it was where we lived in the American south and southwest,” says Anderson. “Property taxes are negligible, and the moderate weather translates to low utility bills.” He can also walk everywhere, so transportation costs are minimal.
The combination of a southern latitude with a high altitude (about 6,500 feet) means moderate weather throughout the year. Anderson wears shorts and T-shirts in March through November and jeans and long-sleeved shirts December through February.
Anderson says he doesn’t feel unsafe living in this part of Mexico. “Guanajuato is a long way away, both physically and mentally, from the narco-violence affecting the northern border of this country,” he says. “We are just as perplexed as our friends back in the States by the news reports of the violence in that region of Mexico.”
The university and state and city governments sponsor many cultural activities throughout the year including theater, concerts, dance, chamber music, and film and food festivals. Many of these activities are free or low-cost for residents. Some local museums host art or artifact expositions several times per year. “There are book and art inaugurations in the museums, private shops, and restaurants, most of which provide tasty complimentary snacks,” says Anderson.
TV buffs have the choice of cable and three satellite systems, with some programs and many movies in English. Avid readers of books in English will find several thousand volumes in the English library, and an American woman runs an English bookstore and coffee klatch in the historic center. The daily English newspaper, The News, published in Mexico City, is sold in local newsstands.
Everyone living in Guanajuato's center gets daily exercise by virtue of their regular errands. To get anywhere, you walk, often along sometimes steep streets and alleyways. For the more energetic, there is hiking, rock climbing, swimming, bicycling, dance classes, aerobics, and yoga. Valenciana hosts Guanajuato's only golf course, but the nearby cities of León, Irapuato, and San Miguel de Allende provide nine more courses. A local bicycle group makes countryside excursions most weekends, and small hiking groups coordinate via community websites.
U.S.-style shopping is available at the modern mall located on the south edge of town, a five-minute bus ride from the center. The nearby town of León has the big-box stores familiar to North Americans including Costco, Sam's Club, Walmart, Home Depot, Sears, and Office Max, as well as upscale Mexican boutiques. León is the leather manufacturing capital of Mexico, with hundreds of shoe and leather goods stores.
In the evenings, it's difficult to escape the street music in the center of town. In the social plaza, the Jardín Unión, the mariachis and norteños bands vie with each other for paying customers sitting in the sidewalk cafés. It's not uncommon to see two or three bands playing simultaneously just a few yards apart, a cacophony that the Mexicans seem to love. They dance among the tables.
In front of the nearby San Diego church, the troubadours of the callejoneadas assemble their audiences of Mexican and foreign visitors by singing romantic serenades imported from 19th-century Spain, then they stroll through the alleyways singing, telling jokes and stories, and dancing. It's a contagious performance that rouses the Mexicans and a few uninhibited foreigners to sing and dance along. In other plazas, charro minstrels (gentlemen cowboys) move among the sidewalk cafés, offering rancheros (Mexican romantic songs), some excellent and some awful, for a tip. And, for a modest fee, you can still hire the mariachis to serenade that special someone.
A popular weekly event in the Plaza San Fernando is the danzon, a slow ballroom-style dance that only the Mexican seniors dance well. These retirees are incredibly energetic, mixing danzon with mambo and bolero.
Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter. Her book, How To Retire Overseas—Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.