Expat Center vs. Immersion Center

I just spent the weekend in San Miguel Allende, perhaps the most popular place for expatriates in all of Mexico, but definitely the most popular non-beach location. There are somewhere between 7,000 and 15,000 gringos—most in post-retirement age—who live here at least part of the year. Nobody really knows for sure. They make up around 10% of the population and have had an outsized impact on the city in other ways, especially since most of them are quite wealthy in local terms. No doubt, they have transformed, upgraded, and beautified the city to an amazing extent. (Just check out this piece on luxury real estate in San Miguel de Allende for a taste.)

Upon getting back, I found this following reader question in the comments of an earlier post and I’m bringing it up here because it’s relevant in many other countries too that are magnets for expatriates.

My husband and I are coming to San Miguel de Allende for four months and will explore living in Mexico. Can you tell us if there is a “cultural” life in Guanajuato? We considered SMA because of theater/music/art etc… but are quite open to anywhere else. How is the day to day life? And would it be suitable for older people like us (not quite antiques but not as spry as we were before!)

Why we moved where we did

My family moved to Guanajuato for several reasons, one being that we wanted to become reasonably fluent in Spanish and knew there wasn’t much chance of that happening in San Miguel de Allende. I’ve been there four times now and always hear more English spoken on the streets and in restaurants than Spanish. I meet people who have lived there 6, 10, even 20 years and still aren’t close to fluent. They seldom need to use the language of their adopted country, so they don’t.

Also, Guanajuato is a university town, a young city. Its counterpart down the road is full of retirees. Yes there’s culture here—but home-grown culture. A local symphony, a multi-week music and arts festival, performances from Latino artists every week.

But Guanajuato is more of a walking city—a huffing and puffing city actually with all the steep hills—so people who have mobility issues or like to drive and park everywhere aren’t going to be as happy here. There are fewer elements of home as well, whereas in San Miguel you can do or get most anything you were used to before. But really for us, the question was, do we want to live in a real Mexican city or one that has been inextricably altered by the expats? One that is priced for Mexicans or one where the Mexicans are priced out of the historic center?

The Rest of the World

This is not just a Mexican question, of course. There are plenty of places just in Latin America where the foreign influence has been pervasive: Roatan Island in Honduras, Ambergris Caye in Belize, Jaco in Costa Rica, and Puerto Vallarta in Mexico, for a start. (You can generally figure out if a place has passed this tipping point just by looking at the real estate prices compared to the rest of the country.)

There are also plenty of examples in other parts of the world as well, like the “Costa del Concrete” in Spain or parts of the Greek Islands. There are also pockets spread throughout Asia, especially Thailand and the Philippines.

So do you want to “go native” completely, or do you want to be in a place where you can just interact with your own kind and not have to worry about pesky language or cultural barriers?

Perhaps the sweet spot is finding a place that’s somewhere in between. When I taught English in Turkey and Korea, both times I was in a suburb of the main city. So I could mingle with a few expats (mostly other English teachers), but we were just dots in a sea of locals. Because of that, I got serious cultural immersion but had a built-in social and support group.

As in where I am in Guanajuato, there are a lot of these sweet spot locations scattered around the world. Go find them yourself, learn the language, and get the benefit of far lower prices without completely giving up things you enjoy, like cultural activities and a good variety of food. The best part is, that’s another excuse to travel in a slow manner, spending enough time in places to really get a full impression. When you find your own sweet spot—one that never makes you feel like you’re in a theme park—you’ll probably know it’s the right one for you.

8 Responses to “Expat Center vs. Immersion Center”
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