Part-Time Living in Guanajuato, Mexico

We discovered our colonial highland home by accident. We were on a year’s sabbatical, exploring the popular expat haven of San Miguel de Allende, when a couple we knew invited us to join them on a day trip to the nearby town of Guanajuato.

We climbed the steps from the underground parking lot to a view of lively plazas, colonial-style buildings in bright orange and turquoise, and plentiful pedestrian areas. After an hour’s stroll, we knew this was where we wanted to base ourselves in Mexico.

After that first visit in 1999, we kept returning. One person, then another, invited us to housesit. Expats regaled us with their stories of buying and remodeling houses. The more we listened, the more feasible it sounded—a challenge and adventure, but something we could pull off. Having sold a house in the San Francisco Bay area, we had sufficient funds to embark on this adventure.

I had always yearned for a part-time international base, but I didn’t want to be too far from my family. As it turns out, Guanajuato is more accessible and affordable for my family members on the U.S. East Coast than our other home, which we rent, in the remote corner of Eureka, California.

We love Guanajuato’s steep callejones (alleys), the elevation (7,000 feet), the car-free lifestyle, and the hills surrounding the city. We can walk out our front door and within 10 minutes are hiking above town. And Mexicans are friendly, open to foreigners, and forgiving of language errors. Guanajuato’s high, dry, colorful Spanish ambience is the perfect complement to our damp, coastal, English-language life in Northern California.

The search for a house wasn’t easy. Few real estate offices existed in 2005. For three weeks, we followed up on word-of-mouth until we found our home: a 150-year-old adobe house on a quiet street in el centro, within walking distance of, well, everything. It cost $107,000 and is listed as an Inmueble Catalogado(Listed Property) in Mexico’s National Historic Register. Over the next three years, we spent about $90,000 on an extensive remodeling job involving an architect, permits, and lots of dust! But it was worth every cent and all the trouble.

Now we live in Guanajuato a third of the year and rent our home on Vacation Rentals by Owner other times, using the services of a local rental manager.

Like most expats here, we don’t have—or want—a car. Driving is tricky because of the complicated topography, narrow streets, and underground tunnels. Parking is limited, too.

Instead, we walk everywhere, though buses (40 to 50 cents) and taxis ($2 to $4) are plentiful. Fruterías (produce shops) are dotted all over town, but locals and expats alike also shop at the two supermarkets in town, Comercial Mexicana and Mega. Some people drive or take the bus to the big city of León, 30 to 45 minutes away, where they can buy in bulk at Costco or Sam’s Club. Local, in-season produce costs much less than in the States.

If we want to eat out, we can enjoy Japanese food at Delica Mitsu on a narrow alley near Plazuela San Fernando, Arabic food at Habibi, or yummy mushroom quesadillas at our local watering hole, Café Santo, a minute down the street—all for less than $5.

Thanks to our city’s steep hills, we don’t need a gym. Between walking around town, hiking twice a week, and doing bodyweight/kettlebell exercises at home, it’s easy to stay fit. We brought bicycles here, and we cycle on Sundays, but due to the tangle of steps, ramps, alleys, and steep inclines, we don’t use the bikes for errands.

We spend nothing on heating. In winter, Guanajuato can be cool in the early mornings and evenings, but we just layer up and dress warmly. Utilities and property tax come to about $100 a month.

For entertainment, we attend weekly symphony concerts at the Teatro Principal, put on by the university-run professional orchestra. We also catch current movies and international films, priced between $3 and $6, held in a small theater adjoining the baroque church La Compañía. Because Mexicans tend to spend a lot of time outside, the plazas are filled with mime artists and impromptu musicians. Another cost is Spanish classes. We each pay our private tutor about $10 an hour, twice a week.

We love our simple, economical lifestyle in Mexico, but the low cost wasn’t what motivated us to live here. The vitality and beauty of the streets, the thrill of learning another language and making Mexican friends, the challenge of understanding a culture so different from our own…the list of reasons goes on and on. Every time I re-enter the city after time away, I see the bright colors, and I shiver with anticipation.

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