Our friend Denise posed a great question last week in a comment: I would be curious to hear your thoughts about expats, and specifically why you are opposed to a larger expat population where you settle. I attempted to answer the question in a reply to her comment, but realized that the answer required not only more room but quite a bit more thought on my part.
The number and presence of expats we encountered in San Miguel de Allende was a new experience for Brett and me. We have wracked our brains and memories trying to remember any other location we’ve visited where we encountered so many foreign residents. We know that large expat communities exist in cities like Florence, Bordeaux, or Lisbon but we never encountered any Americans or Canadians in any numbers other than on the wine tours we took in Bordeaux (one of my fondest memories there is the young American girl who sat next to us on the tour bus so, she said, she could hear American English spoken. She’d been in Bordeaux for almost a year and missed hearing and speaking English. We included her in our conversation both coming and going on the tour and had a great visit). We’ve visited Japan many, many times but rarely run into other expats during our stays, and certainly not in the concentrations we encountered in San Miguel de Allende. Expats seemed to be present everywhere there, in restaurants, shops, markets, walking down the streets, etc. We ate in restaurants where every customer was an expat or tourist, and the waiters spoke English to everyone. We walked down streets of Centro and other neighborhoods and heard nothing but English spoken. Other than the gardeners and other occasional workers, we heard only English in the condo complex where we stayed. Everyone we met or encountered was nice, and the easy availability of English certainly made our time in SMA easier, but it was a strange experience for us and in the end one of the things that put us off living there in the future.
San Miguel de Allende is not an especially big city although it is expanding and growing. It’s a charming place to visit, full of history, bright colors, colonial architecture, beautiful churches and parks, extensive shopping, and a lively and affordable restaurant scene. The cost of living, compared to the U.S., is enticingly low, but it’s actually one of the most expensive cities in Mexico. Americans have been coming to SMA since the post-WWII years, when GIs came to live in SMA and study art on their GI bill funds and Stirling Dickinson opened the Instituto Allende. The city is now a haven for artists, and after being named the Best City in the World in 2021 by Condé Nast Travel & Leisure, it’s a place tourists, both foreign and local, feel they need to see. So many had sung its praises that we felt we should experience it too. Many visitors, especially retirees, fall in love with the city while they are there and decide to relocate. There are real estate offices all over the place, and building going on everywhere as the city expands to fill the need for housing. Prices are climbing however – currently the median price of a colonial home in Centro has risen to over $500K.
The number of expats and tourists we encountered in SMA reminded us somewhat of our time on Kaua’i and the changes we saw happening. We had the unique experience of living there for around a year while the island was closed to tourists, and then witnessing how quickly things changed as visitors, mainland investors, and wealthy retirees returned when the island opened back up again. The explosion of the island housing market was one of most noticeable changes, with prices rising into the stratosphere as properties were snapped up at inflated prices. Young, local families became completely priced out of the market. Also, once-quiet venues and beaches became filled with visitors who didn’t want anyone, local or otherwise, messing with their “Kaua’i experience.”
Encountering so many American or Canadian expats in SMA, I often thought, Do you know you are changing things here? Like pebbles tossed into a stream, expats cause places to change in ways that might not be immediately recognizable or affect them. While the cost of living might be low for an expat, the prices that locals pay for housing, for food, for other necessities go up, sometimes rapidly. Local water sources and other infrastructure become more strained, and traffic in and out of cities, and in the city centers, becomes crowded and often stop and go. Expats do bring benefits to a city, including charitable efforts, but those benefits can be harder to see or not seen at all until after a long time has passed. We weren’t especially looking for it, but during our time in SMA we didn’t see a whole lot of exchange between expats and the local community other than on the surface. Expats tended to cluster with other expats, although we know it did go deeper than that in some cases.
Will we cause things to change by moving to Mazatlán and becoming expats? Of course. Will there be lots of other expats there? Probably. We look forward to meeting some of them, making friends, and learning from those who have lived there for a while. But we’re also hoping for numbers where expats are not to be found everywhere, every day, in every place we go. Our goal will be to find ways to make a positive impact on our new location, to add to it versus just reaping the benefits, and to get to know our neighbors.
The number of expats in San Miguel de Allende was uncomfortable for us. While we weren’t looking for some “authentic Mexican” experience while we were there, we were unprepared for the numbers and presence of Americans and Canadians we encountered. We are educating ourselves about Mazatlán now so we know what to expect, where we might want to live, and so forth and educating ourselves to fit into the culture rather than having the culture fit us.