By Carol Antman for The Island Eye News
Adrian Otto had recently moved to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico when she was awakened by a loud noise: Bang, bang, bang. “I dived under my bed. I thought it was a drive-by shooting,” she said.
No. Just some of the town’s frequent fireworks. After being there a few years, she told me, “I feel safer here than in the United States.” I heard that repeatedly from expats who comprise about 10% of the town’s population. Adrian was attracted by the town’s beautiful environment: “Everywhere I looked was full of natural beauty.” It’s a UNESCO Heritage site. But the pace of life took some adjustment. I took a taxi ride and wondered, “why is this taxi going so slow?” No one is in a hurry here. I was astounded to see that in the historic town center – population 60,000 – there are no stop signs. Cars approach intersections and patiently take turns; no one honks, and pedestrians are always afforded the right of way. When Adrian lived nearby on Sullivan’s Island, we loved watching her pet guinea pigs scampering around her yard.
Some play in a cage on her courtyard now where passersby stop to say hello. She’s continued to invest in real estate and now owns two houses in the Guadeloupe neighborhood, which is famous for its colorful murals. Her renovated home is filled with local art, much of it depicting animals in reference to her careers as a veterinarian and a jockey.
The popularity of San Miguel for expats is attributable to Chicagoan Stirling Dickinson, who wandered into El Jardin, the town square, in 1937 and thought “My God, what a sight! What a place. I’m going to stay here.” He co-founded an art institute and, after World War II, recruited hundreds of veterans to study there.
The G.I. Bill afforded them a much better lifestyle than in the United States. That art center became the Allende Institute, which continues to offer a large variety of classes that contribute to the city’s sophisticated arts scene. During the month I spent in San Miguel, I asked many expats why they’d moved there – the main reason was financial. The cost of living is much lower than in the United States, which is very appealing to digital nomads and retirees, who make up 80% of the expat community. Many are single women. Girlfriend groups are apparent at restaurants and events, and several told me how easy it is to make friends since everyone crosses paths at the numerous concerts, plays, tours and classes. There’s a huge English language library and more than 100 nonprofit organizations where many volunteer. It’s an easy place to live. The climate is temperate. The tourist infrastructure is developed. People walk the steep cobblestone streets everywhere or take inexpensive transportation. There’s a notable absence of pushy street vendors.
Like Charleston, San Miguel has been voted No. 1 in the world in magazines, but it seems to have handled it gracefully. Another reason people cited for the move is politics. One woman was caring for her aging mother several years ago and researching an affordable place to relocate when her mother was gone.
“Then Trump got elected and we both moved to San Miguel,” she said. Many told me they’d left the United States because of gun violence. In fact, violent crime is very low in San Miguel; there are no drug cartels there. When I told people where I was going, many said to me, “You’re going to Mexico? Isn’t it dangerous?”
And there were expats saying they’d moved to Mexico because it’s safer. How ironic.
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