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.

  1. Melanie

    I think it depends a lot too on whether you really care about learning the language or not. If you’re in a country like Korea or Vietnam, becoming fluent in that language is not going to take you very far once you leave there. So you’re going to hang out with people who speak English. With French, Spanish, or Chinese, there’s much more of a reason to keep at it.

  2. DML

    Melanie, I agree with you! When I lived in Korea years ago, I only learned enough to survive there as I knew it would not be very beneficial to me in the future. If I had been in Japan at that time (not many English teachers or expats living in China when I was there) I would have made more of an effort to learn the language of the country. However, now that I am in a Spanish speaking country it’s a whole different story!

  3. Allen Mowery

    I absolutely love Guanajuato and have been there a couple times, once just to visit the mummy museum. It’s an absolutely beautiful town, and the surrounding mountains and tunnel streets only add to its awesomeness ;-) Can’t wait to go back and take my wife/family there for the first time!

  4. Julia

    I have been to San Miguel four times, three of them to take Spanish courses. I love the city and its people. Yes there are a lot of English speakers there and most are not able to hold a long conversation in Spanish, that could be for many reasons. Most of the foreigners there are short term visitors for a few days, weeks or a month or two. Longterm residents usually speak some Spanish and a small percentage are what is called high functional some others are bilingual. In other than the tourist area Spanish is the language and the Mexican culture is the culture.

    The biggest group of visitors to San Miguel are not English speakers they are Spanish speakers visiting the city to better understand their heritage and enjoy the events there celebrating Mexican traditions. These events are not put on to entertain visitors ala Disney Land they are a part of the life and heritage of Mexico.

    • tim

      Sorry Julia, but as someone who lived a short bus ride away and interviewed many locals for articles, I’d say you’re being way too kind. You can get away with English only almost anywhere in San Miguel (including at the bus station—a rarity elsewhere). I’ve met lots of SMA residents who Spanish was far worse than mine and I’ll freely admit mine is pretty sucky. The main difference was, I’d lived in the country less then a year. They had been living there a decade or more and still struggled to string sentences together. There’s one consolation though: Ajijic is worse.

  5. Shari

    Hi, I live in Canada too, am now retired and am looking for a cheap place to live permanently. I would prefer some place where the native population out-weighs the foriegn. Of the foriegn I would love it to be international rather then from one country predominently. I am not looking for work but would love to volunteer in some capacity. I have traveled a fair bit so would not be put out with things not being americanized. I would prefer it really. I do need the internet however, don’t think I could live without that. Small village would be nice, good climate and available local food is good. Can anyone help?

    • tim

      Shari, there are hundreds of places that fit the bill for this. You need to read a lot and start traveling to find the right one. Nobody can tell you what place is right for you personally. An International Living subscription would be a good first step if you’re not taking off immediately. They run a good annual conference too. Plenty of free articles on EscapeArtist.com

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