With more than a million expats estimated to live there, Mexico is far and away the most popular destination for North Americans looking to move abroad. But, with so many places to choose from, where in Mexico should you move? It’s a very large country, after all.
Much depends, of course, on what you’re looking for. There are places in Mexico where you can live totally off the grid, or immerse yourself in a small village where there are no other foreigners. Alternatively, there are cities and neighborhoods where you can live a gringo life, needing really needing Spanish and in fact seeing few locals.
Most expats seek something between these two extremes: places where the transition to Mexico is easy (and so is getting there), amenities abound, and local culture and color are all around. Based on that happy medium, here are seven places to consider when considering living in Mexico.
Puerto Vallarta: An expat haven by the sea
Puerto Vallarta has been an expat haven for over 60 years. What was once a small village on Mexico’s Pacific Coast is now a major international resort, with an urban area that runs for nearly 30 miles along the shore of Banderas Bay. The entire area — from southern Jalisco up to the bay’s northern point at Punta de Mita, in the state of Nayarit — is referred to as Costa Vallarta.
Costa Vallarta offers a seemingly endless number of activities, thanks to the natural attractions and the tourist infrastructure that has built up over time. You can saunter down the malecón, or boardwalk, that stretches along the downtown area and look inside the boutiques, cafés and restaurants. Or you can spend the day on any of the more than half-dozen golf courses in the Puerto Vallarta area. If you want to escape the heat, the nearby Sierra Madre mountains offer exhilarating activities such as hiking, biking and canopy tours that take you swinging from branch to branch. Near the Bay of Banderas are more options — whale watching, boat tours, fishing, sailing, dolphin excursions, kitesurfing, windsurfing and parasailing.
Flights from Puerto Vallarta’s international airport can get you back to the U.S. in just a few hours. Puerto Vallarta is also a popular medical-tourism destination, with several top hospitals offering state-of-the-art medical care.
San Miguel de Allende: Rich in culture
Considered one of the prettiest small towns in Mexico, San Miguel is a Spanish-colonial jewel aglow in pastel colors. With a rich arts-and-crafts tradition, San Miguel has small shops aplenty where you can spend hours admiring (and buying) pottery, painting, sculptures, hammered-tin mirrors and lamps … the list is endless. You can also enjoy its many art galleries, restaurants and scenic plazas.
Like Puerto Vallarta, San Miguel is home to thousands of expats from all over the world. Here you can get by in English if you want, or speak Spanish if you prefer. (In my experience here, if you greet folks in Spanish when you enter a shop, they continue in that language unless you decide otherwise.) And people love its high-desert climate, with warm days and cool nights most of the year, so it’s not surprising that, of the 140,000 people in the metropolitan area, an estimated 10,000 are expats.
There’s no international airport right in San Miguel, so choose from two in the region: León, which is about two hours away by car, and Querétaro, about an hour. Or if you prefer, fly into Mexico City, three hours away, and take a bus to San Miguel.
Mérida: Colonial city living
Like San Miguel, Mérida is a Spanish-colonial city. But Mérida is a very different animal. Unlike small-town San Miguel, Mérida is a metropolis of almost a million people, with universities, major corporations, museums and its own international airport with direct flights to the U.S. In addition, Mérida is in the semitropical Yucatán Peninsula, at the opposite end of the country from San Miguel. It’s just a half-hour by car from the Gulf Coast, where the white-sand beaches are punctuated by little beach towns and you can still find beach homes for around $100,000.
Mérida is one of the safest cities in Mexico. Depending on how many suburbs are included, the population of metropolitan Mérida is approaching 1 million. But when you walk down the tree-lined streets, some paved with hand-laid tiles, you feel as though you are in a city that is much smaller.
Mérida’s expat community numbers about 4,000, but that’s a drop in the bucket for a city this size. As a result, you’ll have more need — as well as opportunity — to learn Spanish here than in Puerto Vallarta or San Miguel. Or learn to sing it — this is a very musical city. You’ll find bands performing in some plaza or other almost every day of the week. And if you think you know Mexican cooking, think again — Yucatán cuisine is distinct, and on display here in Mérida.
Lake Chapala: Mexico’s largest expat hotspot
Lake Chapala is Mexico’s largest lake, and the surrounding area is also home to the largest concentration of U.S. expats in the world. Expatriates from the U.S. and Canadian have been attracted to the Lake Chapala area by homes with gentle arches and hand-painted tiles, and adjoining gardens that bloom year round. It’s a part of the world where it’s easy to afford a cook, a maid and a gardener. Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest lake, is about 50 miles long from east to west but not much more than 12 miles wide at its broadest point.
Chapala is at roughly the same altitude as Denver — a mile high, that is — and the climate is delightful. January is the coolest month around Lake Chapala, with temperatures reaching about 71 degrees Fahrenheit, and May is the warmest month, with highs around 84. Guadalajara, a city of more than 5 million residents, is 45 minutes away by car.
Real-estate shoppers are often impressed with the Chapala area’s cultural and sporting opportunities, including English-language theater, frequent concerts, garden clubs, golf, tennis, hiking, yoga and horseback riding.
On the north side of Lake Chapala, villages combine charm with an increasing amount of sophistication. The town of Chapala itself is the largest, and along its cobblestone streets are taverns, shops, cafés, street vendors and high-quality restaurants. Close by is the community of Vista del Lago, which has a popular country club and golf course.
Ajijic and Chapala are havens for artists and writers. Expats and locals often get together on Wednesdays, when Ajijic’s huge outdoor market is open. It’s a great place to shop for handmade carvings and jewelry, not to mention clothes, flowers, fruits, vegetables, cooked food and household items.
Not far from Ajijic is San Antonio, a village that keeps a much lower profile. Here, a large percentage of expats live in beautiful houses that are secluded behind high walls.
Tulúm: A charming resort town with a Bohemian vibe
Tulúm is a charming and fast-growing resort town on the southern end of Mexico’s famed Riviera Maya. With a palpable Bohemian vibe and a plentiful scattering of yoga practitioners and therapeutic-massage businesses, this growing community retains its backpacker roots. Some say they can feel the presence of the Maya culture that dominated this region over 1,000 years ago. The adjacent and spectacular archeological site is a prominent and impressive testament to this once dominant civilization. At its peak between the 13th and 15th centuries, this ruin was a bustling trade and cultural center, and is now a frequent stop for tourists.
The town of Tulúm, bisected by the coastal highway, is a stone’s throw from the sparkling sand and warm waters of the Caribbean Sea. About 80 miles and two hours by car south of Cancún, the town is no longer the hidden gem it once was, but is now well into the development phase with residential construction on the rise to keep up with those wishing to claim their slice of paradise.
Living in the central town area will not require you to own a car, and walking and bicycling are both quite popular. In fact, it seems there are often as many bikes on the road as there are motorized vehicles. Motor scooters are quite popular for those who would rather not pedal their way around town.
Tulúm’s reputation as a spectacular vacation destination and a growing expat community is well-deserved. With a tropical climate — temperatures averaging in the 80s — Tulúm offers a Caribbean lifestyle without the need to travel to and from an island. Residents enjoy warm, turquoise Caribbean waters, a sparkling, perfect beach and an offshore reef, which provides plentiful opportunities for fishing, scuba diving and snorkeling.
With the introduction of newly constructed houses and condominiums, the population is thought to be well over 20,000, and continues to rise as more people seek an affordable Caribbean lifestyle a bit off the beaten path.
Huatulco: A hidden gem in southern Mexico
Huatulco is a development planned by FONATUR, the Mexican government’s national trust for tourism development. It was one of five destinations picked by FONATUR more than 30 years ago as having world-class potential. In many ways, Huatulco is a small town still emerging as a major destination.
There are only about 56,000 residents, according to official figures, with about 1,000 being expats or pre-retirement, part-time visitors who own property.
Even during rush hour, you can drive from one side of town to the other in about six minutes. You’ll see great — and puzzling — contrasts in Huatulco. This was originally a fishing village, and the larger town that has grown up, thanks to investments in the 1980s and 1990s, has a slight Disney-like quality. In some areas, for instance, you’ll find large public walkways and promenades that have been built with no surrounding businesses to draw tourists and locals to them. The four-lane highway that hugs the coast here is oversized for Huatulco’s current traffic needs. The water-treatment facilities are some of the best in Mexico. And despite its modest population, Huatulco has an international airport with direct jet service to the U.K., U.S. and Canada, as well as to other parts of Mexico.
Fishing, snorkeling and diving are all very popular. Every year Huatulco hosts several fishing tournaments. The biggest tournament, the Torneo de Pez Vela Huatulco (Huatulco Sailfish Tournament), attracts professional sport fishermen.
If you don’t feel like cooking, Huatulco has plenty of restaurant options and a variety of cuisines.
Ensenada: An attractive port city
Ensenada is an attractive city that has long been one of the area’s major ports. Today Ensenada is also a top cruise-ship destination and the site of numerous luxury housing developments.
Fishing, surfing, swimming, scuba diving and sunbathing are popular in Ensenada, as they are in most other oceanside cities in Baja. In Ensenada there’s also golf, tennis, many excellent restaurants, nightclubs, cafés, theater and ballet. What the casual tourist may not know, however, is that Ensenada has several excellent research institutions and Mexico’s highest concentration of scientists, leading many to call Ensenada the “City of Science.” The city is host to several important sporting events during the year, such as regattas and the Baja 1000, an off-track race for motorcycles and a variety of car classifications.
In the winter, the city’s bay, Bahía de Todos Santos, or All Saints Bay, is a great spot for watching gray whales. Although real estate and daily expenses are much lower in Baja than in most parts of the U.S., residents here almost always have a car. Most air travelers either fly to San Diego and cross the border into Mexico or fly to the international airport at Tijuana. (A recently opened “air bridge” now connects San Diego with the Tijuana airport. Travelers have reported taking a mere five minutes to cross the bridge on foot, avoiding the delays that cars crossing the border can experience.)
Many expats in Baja take advantage of healthcare access in San Diego, but others use local facilities. Both Rosarito and Ensenada have fine hospitals. Facilities in Rosarito include the Clínica y Hospital Bonanova and the Sanoviv Institute, as well as several smaller hospitals and public hospitals. In Ensenada you’ll find the Clínica de Especialidades Médicas San Fernando, the Hospital Santa Rosa de Lima and the Hospital Velmar, among others.
Whether or not you choose to settle in any of these picks, they are all worth a visit.
This story originally appeared in International Living.