With more than a million expats calling it home, Mexico is the #1 runaway choice for North Americans looking to retire abroad. And why not? The cost of living is quite low. The temperatures are never cold. Excellent affordable healthcare is available in the big cities. Along the US border, short flights are cheap and plentiful (heck, you can even drive there!).
The sheer size of the country provides a smorgasbord of lifestyle options, from the beach to the mountains, and big cities to rural villages. For those who want to immerse themselves in the atmosphere of a colonial city, two stand out favorites: Mérida and San Miguel de Allende.
That’s not all we’re saying. Readers’ Choice Awards Condé Nast Traveller San Miguel was just named the best small city in the world for the third year in a row, while Mérida was chosen as the fourth best large city. WOW!
After spending weeks everywhere, we enthusiastically declare that the awards are well deserved. In addition, both are consistently ranked among the safest places in Mexico.
However, these two expat havens are beautiful very different, so let’s dive in and find out which one might be best for you.
Mérida is located on the northwestern part of the Yucatan Peninsula and is the capital of the state. You can drive to the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico in 40 minutes and to Cancun, the top tourist destination in the country, in about 3.5 hours. There are also many important archaeological sites nearby. A flight from Mérida international airport to Houston takes only 2 hours.
San Miguel de Allende is located in the highlands of Mexico, about 4 hours drive from Mexico City. There are two international airports, one in Guanajuato and the other in Querétaro, about 1.5 hours away. Flight time to Houston from either location is 2 hours.
Pro tip: Mérida offers a wealth of recreational options within easy driving distance. San Miguel is a bit more remote.
Mérida, the largest city in southeastern Mexico with a population of nearly 1 million, manages to maintain a small-town feel. That’s because the city has two very different segments – the historic colonial center and the modern northern suburbs.
Anchored by its central square, Plaza Grande, the historic center is relatively pedestrian-friendly. Every Sunday morning, Paseo de Montejo – a grand boulevard patterned after the Champs-Élysées of Paris and lined with ornate mansions – is closed to vehicular traffic and transformed into a huge party of cyclists, skaters, and walkers; and lots of music, eating, and drinking.
The suburban area of Mérida feels more like the United States than Mexico. Think sleek highrises; huge malls (one has an ice skating rink inside); multiplex cinemas; US big box stores such as Costco, Walmart, and Home Depot; and tons of popular chain restaurants.
San Miguel barely qualifies as a city, with a population of 175,000. Despite its small size, walking around the town is not as easy as you might think. The topography is extremely hilly. Although cobblestone streets and narrow stone-paved paths are an essential part of San Miguel’s charm, you need to be constantly alert when you’re out and about.
Pro tip: Both places have challenges in terms of convenience. For Mérida, it is the heat; San Miguel has those steep hills and uneven surfaces. Solution: Uber. Waiting times are short and fares are very cheap.
Although both places are labeled “colonial”, each has a distinct architectural style. Walking down the streets of the historic district of Mérida, rows of high pastel walls with doors are built up to the edge of the side streets. You are left to imagine what is on the other side.
We had the opportunity to tour a number of properties for sale and saw everything from awkward layouts to large homes with beautiful pools and exquisite gardens.
San Miguel de Allende, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a beautiful jewel box. Everywhere you look you feel like a movie set. The narrow cobblestone streets and beautifully preserved buildings inspire photo after photo. The hills surrounding the Cathedral of San Miguel Arcángel, the city’s most prominent landmark, dominate the skyline.
An expat confided to us, “Mérida has three seasons – hot, hotter and hotter!” With temperatures regularly approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit with oppressive humidity between May and September, locals don’t even venture out in the evenings.
It’s easy to understand why the city has such a lively nightlife with so many rooftop bars and restaurants where you can enjoy the cooling evening breezes.
Expats recommend having a residence with air conditioning and a swimming pool. But to point out: Electricity in Mexico can be expensive, and if use exceeds a certain amount, rates increase exponentially.
Because San Miguel is located at an altitude of 6,200 feet and relatively close to the equator, its climate is pleasantly mild throughout the year. Highs range from the low 70s to mid 80s with comfortable humidity levels.
Pro Tip: In our conversations with Mérida expats, the happiest were usually from states with the same warm weather. People living in colder northern climates are well advised to book an extended visit to Mérida during the summer months before making a final decision to relocate there.
5. Cost of Living
No matter where you are in Mexico, your dollar will go much further than the US or Canada. That said, it’s hard to be precise on the topic of “cost of living” because of the wide range of differences. standards living.
Real estate, whether renting or buying, is more expensive in San Miguel, especially in the historic district. Expats have been coming here since the end of World War II (more on that below), so most of the market’s properties were built long ago.
In Mérida, however, there are many investment opportunities. We met some expats who earn excellent incomes buying, refurbishing and selling refurbs. But beware: diving into this profession can be dangerous to your financial health without carefully assembling a reliable construction and legal team.
On average, a couple renting can expect to spend about $1,500 per month in Mérida, not including international travel. In San Miguel, a budget of $1,800 will provide a very comfortable lifestyle.
6. Food And Drink
Whatever your definition of “Mexican food,” be prepared to be amazed when you sample the country’s authentic cuisine. Familiar Tex-Mex is notably absent from any menu (Taco Bell has twice failed to establish a foothold in Mexico).
What you are served also varies from region to region. Mérida’s rich cultural heritage is on full display with its unique gastronomy. Cochinita pibil is a traditional pork dish marinated in sour orange and slowly roasted in a banana leaf. Sopa de lima, or Yucatan-style lime soup, may sound strange but it is absolutely delicious.
Due to the thriving expat presence and a steady stream of wealthy tourists from Mexico City, San Miguel offers an amazing variety of excellent food for such a large city. The chocolate croissants we ate at Panio were as good as the ones we tried in Paris (and way cheaper). Dinner on the roof of Casa Nostra is divine.
When you think of alcoholic beverages in Mexico, tequila and beer immediately come to mind, right? If so, you’ll be surprised to learn that there are beautiful vineyards to be found outside of San Miguel. We enjoyed a professional tour and an excellent tasting menu at Tres Raíces.
San Miguel was in poor condition when artist Stirling Dickinson arrived in the 1930s. However, he was captivated by the city’s natural beauty and founded an art school that began to attract US residents after World War II. And they’ve been coming ever since, renovating properties and opening many art galleries, shops and restaurants.
Today, it is estimated that 10 percent of the population is made up of foreigners. It’s easy to meet fellow expats and learning Spanish is really optional.
While San Miguel has been an expat magnet for many years, Mérida has seen a recent surge in interest. Part of this is driven by the digital nomad demographic, as well as the fact that the city has become one of the newest LGBTQ+ destinations in Mexico.
Because there are around 10,000 expats (half of them snowbirds) in a city where a million people live, it is necessary to try to find a community in Mérida but it is not difficult at all. Expat hangouts like Hennessy’s Irish Pub and Rosas & Xocolate are great places to start. There are also many Facebook groups that you can join.
Mérida and San Miguel de Allende are two great cities internationally recognized for excellence. How do you decide which one is best for you?
Both places are extremely safe, foreigner-friendly, have an established expat presence, and offer a very affordable cost of living.
Of all the factors to consider, climate and topography are the most striking contrast. The weather is Mérida warm; San Miguel offers moderate stays throughout the year. Since it is only a short distance from the Gulf of Mexico, Mérida is flat. San Miguel is hilly — especially so on the outskirts of the city.
If you can’t make up your mind, we have good news: Volaris, the second largest airline in Mexico, announced new non-stop flights between Mérida and Guanajuato, the closest city to San Miguel, starting soon in 2023. After a long visit to the two best expat destinations, you will know which one is right for you.
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