After decades of success with his own company in North Carolina, Joseph Toone moved to Mexico and became an expert guide to the culture of San Miguel de Allende.
Toone, 56, bought a home and moved to San Miguel in 2008 when the deep recession impacted his documentation and training business in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“The first year I was here,” he said, “I got certified to teach English because I thought it would give me something to do. I had a student then who asked me to be her dance partner, but I told her that I didn’t know how to dance. I did it, though, and we became very good at Danzón, which is a style of dance from Cuba. We would perform at festivals around town, and eventually throughout Mexico.”
Toone told us that after each festival he would do research to find out more about the cultural and historical significance of the festivals he had attended. That led to a series of books called “San Miguel de Allende Secrets,” top sellers in Amazon’s history and travel categories.
But the arrival of the global pandemic slowed book sales, so Toone turned to coloring books, which have skyrocketed in sales since March of this year.
“I have always taken photos of the little Mexican Maria dolls, the dolls with the black yarn hair,” he said. “People seemed to like them on social media, so I converted my photos into drawings for a coloring book. Books sales have slowed, but my coloring book is doing well because people want to stay at home and color.”
Before the virus began exacting its toll on San Miguel de Allende and the rest of the world, Toone had leveraged his research on the culture and history of Mexico and San Miguel de Allende into a successful tour business called Joseph Toone Tours.
“My tours are geared toward visitors who want to learn a little more than here’s a church built in 1812,” he explained. “For those who want to go deeper, I’m able to explain the history and cultural significance of what they are seeing. It’s been great fun because every year what people are interested in changes, which changes my focus.”Too
When he first started doing tours, it was primarily for specific events, like the Day of the Dead, but a best-selling book began creating new business for him.
“I had a big event at the Katrina Museum and the Skeleton Museum and then things began skyrocketing for me with as many as 70 people joining the tour daily in the week leading up to the Day of the Dead.”
Toone is an expert guide to the culture of San Miguel de Allende. His two-hour morning walking tour is the most popular and costs about US$25. Business, though, ground to a trickle in the spring as tourism dried up in San Miguel and the rest of Mexico.
“It decimated us,” he said, “although we have traditionally gotten most of our tourists from Mexico City. They are mostly very upscale visitors who are attracted to the beauty of San Miguel and our outstanding restaurants. Many have purchased second or third homes here.”
Toone was born and raised in America’s chocolate capital, Hershey, Pennsylvania, but left after high school to attend Temple University in Philadelphia. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in film and then signed on with the U.S. Department of State for a one-year assignment in Paris. Returning to the U.S. capital, he got a job with Wang, a large technology company at the time and enrolled at Marymount University where he received a master’s degree in communications.
A job with GTE took him to North Carolina’s technology-rich research triangle where he left the company to start his own business.
“I started the company in the early 1990s to capitalize on all of the Fortune 500 companies that had facilities in the area,” he said. “Toone, Paper and Screen focused primarily on providing documentation and training services.”
By the time the economy crashed in 2008, Toone had purchased a home in San Miguel de Allende large enough for him and his three children.
“My kids were just finishing high school and I got an offer to buy my company around that time, so I thought ‘why not?’
He bought a 5,000 sq. ft. home close to the center of San Miguel, large enough to accommodate his family, for US$650,000. The home has three-bedrooms, five-bathrooms, an office, a family room and a very long living room that Toone uses to hold dance classes.
Toone said San Miguel has a large expat population, but the actual number of expats living there is not all that reliable.
“Many are Canadian “snowbirds” who have second homes here,” he said. “They come down October through March, or right after Christmas and go back around Easter. A lot of them have second or third homes in San Miguel.”
San Miguel de Allende has a well-deserved reputation for being home to many upscale expats who can afford to retire early and buy more expensive homes than would be found in other colonial highland cities.
“If you come down for just economic reasons,” he said, “you’re going to be very frustrated. San Miguel is one of the most expensive cities in Mexico. If you want your pension to go further, there is the rest of Mexico to move to. You won’t have the culture, the restaurants or the opportunities that San Miguel has to offer, but that’s the trade-off.”
Toone did say that he knows someone who pays US$1,200 a month for an unfurnished two-bedroom and two-bathroom townhouse there. He also thinks someone could live on US$2,000 a month if they could find a one-bedroom apartment away from Centro and live frugally.
As for what he loves about living in San Miguel, Toone told us,
“Most people would probably say the weather, but for me, it would be more the opportunities. There are just things I can do all day here that I couldn’t do back home. I couldn’t go to an old folks’ home and teach dancing just because of the liability issues and the insurance costs, for example. I also couldn’t spend my day immersed in history, culture and traditions and talk and write about them. It’s really hard to stay negative when you’re having fun doing something interesting every day in San Miguel de Allende.”
You can also read Toone’s Saints, Sinners and Virgins monthly blog at Expats In Mexico.