San Miguelification

September 4, 2020

For several months, I’ve often pondered when might be a good time to make a visit to Toronto, where a bunch of small but essential tasks await me. And my answer each time has been “Not yet.” I’d have to travel on an intercity bus, go through an airport, onto a plane … You know where this goes.

The same reticence doesn’t seem to apply to a small coterie of people coming here to Mexico. Confident in their knowledge that Covid-19 is overrated and unlikely to kill them, they show up scouting for a place that would be better than where they live currently. 

A week or so back, I helped a Californian couple who couldn’t order their coffee in Spanish. The husband was using his Italian, which is not that different to Spanish, but still different enough. They made their requests, I made mine, and I went and sat at a table near them, explaining that the local regulations required distancing, and that non-compliant places have been closed by the authorities.

We chatted a bit, and they explained how they felt their home state was becoming unlivable, even before the fires and the pandemic. They planned to make their new home in Mexico, and while they’d first headed to San Miguel de Allende, they’d heard of Tepoztlan and had come to check it out. And they liked it.

San Miguel, if you don’t know it, is full of millionaires, and million-dollar homes. It’s about as Mexican as Rosedale is typical of Ontario, or Westmount is typical of rural Quebec. I went there once, to visit a well-off Canadian friend, and I’ve never been back. 

San Miguel de Allende, with its distinctive church.

Recently I read an article about wealthy people decamping to New Zealand. They couldn’t seem to grasp, the article’s author pointed out, that the country is how it is because the people there have a respect for certain things, including preserving the natural environment, or acknowledging the Maori people’s contributions. The country didn’t become what it is through having the uber-rich build bunkers on private estates.

The California couple, who in person were pleasant if prone to certain conspiracy theories, had the same problem, I felt. They thought they could leave behind the problems that they themselves no doubt helped create. The relatively small expat community here has some wealthier members, but most of us are not much richer than our Mexican neighbours. We live cheap, and we appreciate it.

We’re also aware that the more people with money come here, the more housing and food will cost for everyone. Local rents have doubled in the past five years, and gone up more than that in the preferred areas. All this affects local working people who themselves need homes, and have families to feed. 

In writing this blog, I do try to point out the downsides to life here. It’s no sub-tropical paradise, and I’m not writing an ongoing advertisement. My corner of Mexico can be challenging in several ways. The locals help, more than you might expect, but they owe us nothing. It’s their village, and their town, and they’re usually happier when visitors … visit. Then go away again.

I hope, then, that we don’t become the next San Miguel de Allende, or Lake Chapala, which has a gringo community of 30,000 retirees along its shores. My cost of living is fine for me now, but I wouldn’t appreciate a big hike in it. Nor do I want every conversation I hear or share to be in English. I didn’t come here for that. You never learn the secrets if you don’t listen in Spanish.

A friend of mine suggested that if San Miguel looks too expensive for people, and they want to see if Tepoztlan would be a better fit, they need the following advice: Drive south from Mexico City, and don’t stop till you see a sign saying “Guatemala, 5 km.” Tepoztlan will be a half hour’s drive past what looks deceptively like a border post.

Yes, that’s mean, and no, I wouldn’t do it. But if your country is starting to suck big-time, please consider that maybe it’s because people there consider they have an inalienable to ‘develop’ anything they can buy. And that trying that here will just replicate the problems you think you’re escaping.

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