To Move Abroad, Find the Place That Speaks to You

living abroad

Each year I publish a long post on the cheapest places to live in the world. I’ll do another this summer. Invariably people stumble upon it through a search and start asking variations of “Where should I go live when I move?”

The problem is, nobody can answer that question but you.

I’m moving back to Guanajuato, Mexico this August with my family, for two years this time. I’ve traveled all over the world, so why this particular place? What made this one the one? Just like the “How did you meet your wife” answer, this one has a story behind it.

Guanajuato city center

For much of my travel writing career I reviewed hotels in various countries for a trade publication used by travel agents. I did this from Guam to India, Egypt to Argentina, Kentucky to Kathmandu. About five years ago I got an assignment to do the same in three places in Mexico: Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende, and Guanajuato. Within 24 hours of arriving in that last one, I sent an e-mail to my wife saying, “I’ve found the place we should move to.”

See, we’d been talking about moving abroad for a year, but weren’t really sure where. A Spanish-speaking country in Latin America was about as much as we had decided. We had talked about Argentina, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and other places, but I was ready to throw all those out the window.

A few months later we took a two-month vacation during the summer school break, through Mexico and Belize. Once month of that was spent in a rental apartment in Guanajuato, taking Spanish lessons at Escuela Mexicana and seeing if my enthusiasm was shared by the wife and daughter. It was, so the trial run outcome was a plan to move back a year later.

living in Mexico

We spent a year living here. We loved it so much we bought a house. I’m getting that ready now and we’re returning for two years. My daughter will go to school in Spanish again and I’ll finally get truly fluent.

So why did this place speak to me, and to my spouse? Data-driven types always want the items they could put on a spreadsheet, which is why International Living does some serious number-crunching each year for its “best places to retire” round-up.

Those things do matter, so here are the ones for where I live, besides the obvious cost of living savings you get almost anywhere in Mexico. It’s a mostly pedestrian city, with traffic going through tunnels first built to divert water. It was founded in the 1500s, as a silver mining city, so there’s lots of great architecture spanning hundreds of years. There are almost no straight lines in the curvy layout, which is unusual for a Spanish colonial city, and colorful houses cascade down the hills, reached by narrow alleys like you see in medieval Europe. The weather is divine, at 6,500 feet it seldom gets too hot or too cold. There’s sunshine around 340 days per year. There’s an international airport 40 minutes away and on a bus ride of five hours or less I can reach Guadalajara or Mexico City for more direct flights.

Put all that together and it looks great on paper. But the real reason we moved here? It just feels right.

international living

You can’t get “feels right” from any number of books, articles, or pros/cons lists. You need to go, to spend some time, to live like a local for a bit.

In other words, to live abroad you first have to travel abroad. There’s no shortcut for that.

  1. William Peregoy

    Good thoughts. Sounds like you found a place that really spoke to you. It spoke to you instantly on arrival, huh?

    I’m not sure I’ve found something like that yet… Guess I’ll have to keep traveling.

    • Tim Leffel

      William, my first question about a day after visiting any place is, “Could I live here?” I’ve found a lot of places where I could live and be happy, so it doesn’t mean there has to be “the one.” But just as you would date a lot of people you wouldn’t marry, if you can find a place that seems to hit all your buttons, that’s a keeper. Keep looking, but keep dating too! Nothing wrong with living somewhere for a while and then moving on.

  2. Anthony

    On the podcast called The Expat Files which is on PRN Network (Dr. Gary Null) Johnny the host constantly complains about the state of safety and economics of Mexico and says its not a good time to relocate their.

    What say you Tim?

    PS, I will be checking out Brazil this Sept/Oct.

    • Tim Leffel

      I don’t listen to that podcast, but from your description it sounds like he’s either visiting the wrong places or is living in the wrong place. If it’s the latter, it’s time to move or go home.

      Most of Mexico is as safe or safer than most of the USA. I certainly feel far safer in Guanajuato than I do in Tampa or Nashville – my last two U.S. homes. There’s far less gun violence and a mugging is about the worst you ever hear of. Probably 95% of the Mexican crime on the news is narcos vs. narcos, like you have in St. Louis, New Orleans, or Detroit.

      As for the economics, Mexico is booming. Double the growth of their neighbors to the north. That may mean prices are inching up, but I’m writing from Mexico right now and I estimate my living expenses when I come back down for a couple years will be around half of what they are in the mid-sized city of Tampa. If you came from San Francisco or New York, well less than half.

      • Anthony

        His complaints are mostly about –

        1) Too many Gringos in certain places. He’s mainly talking about the resort towns on the Caribbean coast. Claims it drives up cost of housing.

        2) He’ll say crime is out of control and then point to a Gringo tourist being mugged and robbed and drug cartel activity (control of certain districts).

        3) He also talks about the aquifers are drying up and that fresh water will be harder to come by over the next decade.

        I will say he’s often comes from a Libertarian point of view, though he’s lived outside the US for twenty + years and hasn’t returned to the US visit even once.

        Currently he lives in Guatemala, in a small town not far from Guatemala City (30-40 mins by car).

        I just wanted to get your take because I feel Mexico is generally okay to live-in and its affordable.

        • Tim Leffel

          Good god – Guatemala is FAR more dangerous than Mexico. Especially near the capital. At least in Mexico murderers generally get caught and convicted eventually.

  3. Johnny Witt

    Enchanting place and one of my favorites in all of Mexico. Always nice to sit on one of the squares in the shade of the Indian Laurel Trees and nurse a Fria with the requisite Botanas. Nice Cafe Culture there. Congrats on your move!

  4. gary

    I’m just jealous … congrats on your move, Tim.

  5. Christa Thompson

    From Tampa Tacos Bus to Mexico! Tim. Wow! I feel like I should congratulate you. I am more into committing myself to motherhood than a zip code. I can certainly see why you would want to leave both Tampa and Nashville. I spent 4 years in Tampa before putting Lakewood Ranch on my drivers license. No bueno. Admittedly I’ll be sad to see you go. You’re my pseudo mentor! Maybe I will be lucky enough to run into you at a TBEX.

    Here’s to the good life. :-)

  6. miaa

    good for you huh

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