An Immersive Summer in Mexico

Because my husband works from home, we decided to spend some of last summer away from the blistering heat of Austin. We figured as long as we had Wi-Fi, we’d be able to connect as if we had never left. In July, we picked up the family and set off for San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato, Mexico.  

Summers in Austin are really hot, with daytime temperatures above 100 degrees. This past year, we decided we wanted a milder climate – and the experience of exploring a new city. We settled on San Miguel de Allende, a city located in central Mexico’s Guanajuato State. Surrounded by rolling hills, temperatures in the city are cool in the morning and rise throughout the day during the summer. And while July is the wettest month, we figured an occasional afternoon shower was still preferable to Austin’s high temperatures.

San Miguel has seen a boom in tourism recently, in part due to coverage in magazines like Travel + Leisure, which named San Miguel The World’s Best City in 2017. Its popularity can be traced back to the 1940s, when two art schools were established, Bellas Artes and Instituto Allende, which brought well-known artists and writers to the area. With a mild climate, a comparatively low cost of living, and a small-town feel, a large expat community now calls the city home. The colonial architecture is beautiful, and San Miguel is unique in its relative lack of streetlights. The narrow cobblestone streets, colorful doorways, and hidden courtyards make walking through town a pleasant daily activity.

So how did I prepare my kids for our big summer adventure? I didn’t! I told them we were going – and that was it! They’re young enough to have a limited concept of time, and I’ve discovered that if I don’t make a big deal out of something, neither will they. I did do some preliminary research into available camps (more on that below), but decided I didn’t want to make a final decision until we got there. We were winging it!

Housing and Costs

I was anxious about finding a place to rent, but locating a property through Airbnb was easy. The reviews, photos, and direct communication with property owners made the process smooth and pleasant. Once we made our reservation, our host was very helpful in recommending which airport to fly into, and she even recommended camps for my kids. I was really excited about staying in an authentic Mexican home – though I wondered how I would do without a dishwasher!

You may be wondering how we made our summer away possible from a financial perspective. I started by making a list of all of our monthly expenses, outside of our mortgage and monthly utilities, and compared the cost of one month in Austin to the cost of one month spent in Mexico. Because life in Mexico is simply much cheaper than in the United States, I realized we would actually come out ahead. Of course, if you want to offset some of your mortgage costs, there are also house swaps to consider, or renting out your home on Airbnb.

I can hear you asking, “But what about airfare?” We used our air miles for flights. If you’re able to plan ahead, there are definitely deals to be found on Frontier, Southwest, and Interjet. And because San Miguel is served by two regional airports, Del Bajio (BJX) and Queretaro (QRO), you also have more flight options.

 

 Traveling In and Around Mexico

Travel websites, the US consulate, and various blogs try to dissuade travelers from driving in Mexico. Lots of not-so-safe activities do occur, and driving between cities carries a risk. Since we decided that driving wouldn’t be part of our plan, I took to Facebook to try to learn the best way to get from Queretaro Airport to San Miguel de Allende.

I found two Facebook groups that were particularly helpful in planning our arrival and life in San Miguel: San Miguel de Allende Friends and San Miguel de Allende Kids. These groups suggested BajioGo as an airport shuttle service, but I was also connected to local drivers, and discovered the price difference was nominal. We paid $45 dollars for transit from the airport to San Miguel, with a driver who was both punctual and professional, and we were able to use our kids’ booster seats.

I also learned that the two most highly regarded bus lines in Mexico are Primer Plus and ETN. My sister-in-law, who lives in Mexico City, used Primer Plus when she came to visit us in San Miguel. (The bus lines are a good option if you’re traveling from city to city, but neither operates service to San Miguel directly from the airport.) She reported that the bus service, which ran about $30 per person for the four-hour ride, was comfortable, spacious, and even included a light snack.

When my cousin visited from the States, she elected to use BajioGo. The shuttle service picked her up from the airport (with a name sign), and brought her directly to my home in San Miguel de Allende. Because she was riding alone, the fare came to $100. (The company also provides tours and car rentals, and they operate a local office in San Miguel de Allende.) If you’re interested in BajioGo, I suggest calling them directly.

Communications

We didn’t set up a separate data plan for Mexico, which was rarely a problem, given that every coffee shop, store, and restaurant has free Wi-Fi. Tip: Be sure to learn to say, “¿Tienes Wi-Fi?” “¿Cual es la contraseña?” (Do you have Wi-Fi? What’s the password?) Those phrases will come in handy.

I highly recommend using WhatsApp as your primary means of communication on your smartphone. The phone and messaging app is the way most people communicate internationally because it doesn’t use data, and it’s the easiest way to message over Wi-Fi. (You can also create chat groups so that you can keep everyone back home updated on your vacation!)

Kids’ Camps in San Miguel

Those Facebook groups I mentioned were also instrumental in helping me find kids’ camp options in San Miguel. Two of the city’s largest hotels, the Rosewood and Real de Minas, operate kids’ camps. They also offer day passes for pool usage if you need some R&R.

 During the summer of 2017, the Rosewood hotel offered an art camp called Little Picasso (10-2pm). Real de Minas had an all day camp (9am-2pm) that offered a mix of arts and crafts, games, sports, and songs, and which included swim time.

Because my goal for our summer was for my children to use as much Spanish as possible, I decided to enroll them at Real de Minas when we discovered there would be more local kiddos in attendance. The hotel was also within walking distance from our house. My children enjoyed their three weeks there, and they definitely came away speaking more Spanish – and singing “Despacito,” which became the song of our summer!

I also highly recommend the art camp at Fabrica de Aurora, led by Hiru ArteStudios. (They also offer workshops for adults, which we didn’t take part in, but which looked amazing.) My children enjoyed their daily art classes (three hours/day), where they created clay sculptures, among other activities.

We selected camps based on the distance from our San Miguel “home,” daily duration, and cost. But there were many other camps that also looked fantastic, including Coyote Canyon, Gravityworks, Instituto de Arte y Español, Josefina School, and Luby Camp.

Getting Around San Miguel

Getting around in San Miguel de Allende is very easy: You either walk (Free!); ride the bus (7 pesos/person, children age 6 and under are free); or take a taxi (40 pesos anywhere inside San Miguel de Allende). Green taxis are easy to flag down during the day, though a little harder to hail in the evening. Streets are safe to walk even in the evenings, though as with anywhere, I recommend staying on well-lit streets. If you don’t want to walk and you can’t find a cab, Uber is also available. We used Uber for a few evenings out on the town, but most of the time we walked where we needed to go, or hailed a taxi from the main avenue.

Road Trips around San Miguel

There were times during our visit when we wanted to get out of the city and explore the outskirts of town. There are hot springs frequented by locals about 15 minutes outside of San Miguel, and we found that both Escondido Place and La Gruta were really nice. (Though the water at La Gruta was warmer.)

It’s possible to take a bus to the springs, but getting back can be a hassle. My recommendation is to book a round trip taxi ride for $15-$20. Our driver, Mara, was amazing.

I also recommend a visit to Santuario de Atotonilco, about 30 minutes outside of San Miguel by bus. If you want to go to Guanajuato City, which is about 1.5 hours away, you can book a tour with BajioGo or take a bus service to the city. Guanajuato City is very walkable, and all the main sites are close together. The only one you may have to take a taxi to is the Museum of Mummies – which we didn’t visit because my children freaked out when I mentioned it! We chose to use a driver to visit Guanajuato City, which ran about $200. If I had the opportunity to do it again, I would consider either BajioGo or a bus ($15/person).

Canine Concerns

I knew spending a summer in a developing country would be eye-opening and likely give rise to a lot of questions from my kids. My children live in their comfy bubble here in the States, unaware of many of the harsher realities of the broader world. Their first surprise on arriving in Mexico was the number of dogs roaming the streets. They couldn’t understand why there were dogs out walking alone, or why I would tell them not to touch them. The reality is, the culture in Mexico is different from the U.S. when it comes to caring for pets. One big issue is the lack of sterilization. Even dogs with owners are free to roam, and they inevitably reproduce. There is a large effort to control the dog population, and sterilization services are offered at only 15 pesos (less than $1), but it has yet to become common practice.

However, even this issue had an upside for us during our stay. There was a dog in our neighborhood named Lucas. He was very friendly and spent his day walking up and down the main street. A couple of homes gave him regular handouts, and restaurants didn’t seem to mind his presence. Local diners knew him by name and would drop scraps for him on the floor, but when evening came, Lucas would head home. Even though he represented part of what we perceived as a problem, Lucas became a positive part of our experience.

Unfortunately, dog fights are still legal in Mexico, and many dogs are abused. You don’t often see people playing with dogs here; instead, they’re often perceived as a nuisance and shooed away. Being dog people, we decided to connect with a couple of canine rescue operations in San Miguel, and we got a glimpse of the ugly reality. I also joined a Facebook group of advocates and volunteers, Adopciones Perrunas SMA, who are addressing the issue. More support, education, and change is needed in Mexico to help these animals.

Privilege and Poverty

When living abroad, some challenges are greater than others. For our family, one of the biggest was seeing mothers and young, malnourished children begging for a couple of pesos in the streets. Poverty and lack of access to education are serious problems in Mexico, and we often felt that these women and children were entirely overlooked, as we watched people pass by without acknowledging them. While the United States has its own significant issues, this put into perspective how many of our seemingly important concerns are “first-world” problems.

When walking in the plaza one day, we encountered a young girl selling hand-crafted goods with her baby brother in tow. I invited her for an ice cream and later purchased a woven heart from her. When we sat down to chat, she told me she lived in Queretaro, where she did in fact go to school. She said she spent her summers in San Miguel, selling goods with her mom and taking care of her brother. This little girl didn’t have soccer practice or dance lessons on her schedule. Her job was to do her part to help her family survive.

Sometimes, it’s easy to look away and ignore what’s in front of you. But what do we teach our children when we do? I want my kids to appreciate everything they have – but also to learn humility. I want them to understand that we are all more alike than different, and that while some of us are more “fortunate” than others, we all deserve food, shelter, love, and an education. I hope to show – and inspire – acts of kindness, so that my kids might do the same, even if it’s simply in the form of an ice cream and a few minutes of conversation.

The People of San Miguel

I cannot say enough good things about the people of San Miguel de Allende. “¡Buen dia!” is the greeting people use when passing on the street. When you see the same person daily, you naturally develop a relationship. We stayed four blocks away from San Miguel’s main avenue, Ancha de San Antonio. But instead of a 10-minute walk from our house, it took 45 minutes to get there, because my children had developed relationships with everyone along the way.

Our mornings began with a stop at the bakery down the street, La Hogaza (off of Sterling Dickinson), which had the best almond croissants. My son would hand over his 20 pesos and take a croissant to go while we chatted with the owner. The next stop was the organic fruit stand where my daughter would ask to buy a banana. Next to that was the carpenter, a nice older man who always stopped to say hello, then the vet’s office, where we would greet the dogs.

Thirty minutes in, and we would still be a block away from the main avenue. The last block would go quickly, unless there were people gathered outside the yoga studio – which inevitably there were – and my daughter would start up a conversation. Our last stop was always El Mercado Sano, where we would purchase organic produce and a green shake to go. With their famous farmers’ market filled with great food, music, and authentic goods, El Mercado Sano is a great place to visit on the weekends.

Reflections on Community

In San Miguel, there were no self-checkouts and no drive-thrus. Instead, our one-on-one interactions allowed us to develop relationships within the community. And those daily interactions gave us so many opportunities to demonstrate to our children how to talk to adults with respect, and how to greet people and be polite.

While Mexico can be perceived as unsafe in certain ways – when there are four riders to one motorcycle, for example, or a mom holding three kids in the front seat of a car – we also saw another side to it: When an older gentleman offered to hold my kids while I tried to balance myself on the bus. Or when a man took off his belt to create a makeshift seatbelt for my child. And when a woman reached out to stop my daughter as she tried to run out of the museum. The authentic human interaction we experienced was perhaps the most important aspect of our trip.

Rules and regulations, modernization, and technological advancements can be great, but when they compromise human interaction, individuals and societies suffer. Since returning to the States, I’ve thought a lot about how we can take action to be more connected and develop our tribu – our tribe – right here at home. As a family, we’re working at it daily, one interaction at a time.

 

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