Living Large In This Lively, Colorful Snowbird’s Paradise

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico was discovered, you could say, in 1937, by the American writer and artist Stirling Dickinson and the wealthy Peruvian artist Cossio del Pomar. Cossio was so impressed with the potential of the colonial city when he saw it that he purchased and renovated several properties in the center of town. His efforts attracted famous artists, actors, writers, musicians, and other creative people of the time, who, likewise, invested in further restoration of San Miguel’s beautiful old haciendas.

Cossio’s principal contribution, though, was the establishment of an art school. The first school opened in an ex-convent that had been the quarters of a cavalry regiment. Cossio arranged private financing for the project and then worked with Stirling Dickinson to attract some of the biggest names in Mexican art to form the faculty. The couple marketed their curriculum throughout North and South America, opening the doors of their Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes in 1938.

The first group of 12 students arrived to find a town without a single restaurant or adequate lodging, but the opening of the school quickly created a commercial boom. Stores, eateries, lodgings, and cantinas popped up to service the students and faculty. The school suffered declining enrollments during World War II, but the post-war G.I. Bill kick-started interest again as American veterans took advantage of education subsidies to attend the school starting in 1946. The gifted artists and teachers who settled in San Miguel during this period were significant in converting San Miguel de Allende into a world-class artist colony, attracting first artists but, as time passed, another group of folks who appreciated the community the artists had formed–retirees.

The explosion of foreign retirees moving to San Miguel began in earnest in the 1970s. At the start of that decade, the city had a total estimated population of about 15,000, including 1,000 expats. The expat population increased to about 2,500 by 1990 and then to somewhere between 7,500 and 10,000 today (among a total current-day population of about 75,000).

Why so hard to pin down how many foreign retirees and expats in residence? In part because much of the foreign population is only part-year. San Miguel de Allende is one of today’s best snowbird destinations, attracting Americans keen to escape winter up north. San Miguel’s climate is mild and spring-like year-round.

The historic center is a time-warp back to the 18th century. Spanish-colonial architecture dominates, including close to 50 public fountains and hundreds of private patio fountains. Most streets are cobblestoned, either round or flat stones that make walking in high heels a perilous adventure. On the other hand, as long as you’ve got the shoes for it, this is a city that begs to be explored on foot, with some 20 churches hidden among the crooked streets and everywhere balconies overflowing with bougainvillea.

Most of the colonial-era public buildings and churches were built of stone in beautiful hues of speckled gray, red, and pink. Older residences were constructed of stuccoed rock or adobe, with stone door and window lintels, and painted in extravagant colors that might be considered sinful in more conservative locales.

The large, colorful buildings in San Miguel’s historic center have been increasingly renovated into restaurants, hotels, and tourist shops. Walking through town, it can seem that nearly every dwelling has been converted to commercial use. San Miguel is a fully mature tourist destination approaching international service levels. The resident retiree benefits from all this infrastructure.

San Miguel is not one of the world’s cheapest places to retire. It is, though, a top choice if you want your reasonable retirement budget to buy you an extraordinary quality of life. A couple with a budget of $2,000 to $2,500 per month could live large, as they say, in the splendid surroundings of this historic city.

Just ask Jim and Iven Kelley-Dobson, who moved from Wichita, Kansas, to San Miguel three years ago.

“We have to admit we have never much been the type to count our pennies, now pesos. We do what we want. That being said, taking out of the equation a car payment because we don’t have a car and factoring in the reduced utilities, thanks to the mild climate, we easily spend 40% less monthly cash out of pocket. Definitely, we are able to indulge in a lot more discretionary spending. We have a housekeeper, for example, for 12 hours a week for the same cost we paid our housekeeper in Kansas for 4 hours per week. And lawn care in Kansas cost us for one week what we pay in one month for our gardener here.

“Thanks to the climate, the need for gas in winter and electricity in summer is greatly reduced,” Jim and Iven continue. “We spend for a year in gas what we would spend in two months in winter back in Kansas. We also pay a lot less in electricity. Our yearly expenditure for electricity again is equal to two months of our bill during the hot Kansas summer.

“Dining out in ‘expensive’ fine-dining restaurants is about the same cost as back in Kansas,” the couple continues. “However once you get to know the small off-the-beaten-path restaurants, you’ll be paying in coins and small bills.

“Groceries are not much less when purchased in the larger grocery stores. Buying fruits and vegetable at the mercado, meats at a tienda, eating fresh and local, though, one can spend more than 50% less for food.”

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