Most expats in Mexico live in well-known cities like San Miguel de Allende, Ajijic and Puerto Vallarta and other coastal enclaves. But if you are thinking about moving to Mexico or moving within the country, Pueblos Mágicos could be a great living option for expats.
What do San Miguel Allende and Ajijic have in common? Yes, a ton of expats. But that was not always the case.
In the early 20th century, both towns were villages in the middle of nowhere. That was their initial appeal for certain foreigners who were looking to get away and into an “authentic” Mexican experience. In the case of San Miguel, this idea was promoted heavily by a small private art school that had the brilliant idea of getting Americans who had served in the military to accept GI Bill scholarships.
Both locations experienced a snowball effect, bringing family, friends and acquaintances. Over time, this made it easier for the less adventurous to relocate, but in both places, the original feel of the town has been irrevocably changed.
Filled with cafes, restaurants serving non-Mexican food, English language libraries, social groups and more, the feel in San Miguel and Ajijic is much closer to California or Arizona than deep in the heart of Mexico. The change now brings in a very different type of expat, often looking for a relatively inexpensive place to retire and maybe some superficial contact with Mexico. Real estate prices have risen significantly in both areas, pushing locals and even poorer expats out.
The same phenomenon can be seen in other places where expats have congregated, such as Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlán, Mérida, Tepoztlán (south of Mexico City) and San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, but not (yet) to the extent seen in San Miguel and Ajijic.
Are there other options available for those able and willing to integrate into a Mexican community not overrun by expats?
Absolutely. There are small towns all over Mexico in all states and in all types of natural environments. But how to find the right one?
Perhaps the best place to begin is Mexico’s list of Pueblos Mágicos, or Magical Towns. The current list contains the names of 132 towns in the country designated as Pueblos Mágicos by the Secretariat of Tourism (SECTUR) since 2001. The main goal of the program is to help economically depressed towns get a piece of the gargantuan tourism industry.
The Pueblos Mágicos were depressed because they had lost their traditional economic base. For example, old mining towns are well-represented on the list not only because of the boom-and-bust nature of mining, but because of the eye-catching architecture that was built during the boom years.
Initially, the chosen towns were limited to those within a certain distance of a metropolitan area so that Mexican city dwellers could made weekend trips to enjoy the towns’ traditional way of life, architecture, historic significance and, of course, food. This is seen in some of the first Pueblos Mágicos to be listed, like Huasca de Ocampo, Hidalgo; Mexcatitlán, Nayarit; Tepoztlán, Morelos; and, Real de Catorce, San Luis Potosí.
Since then, the list has exploded to include other towns, such as those near major tourist draws, like the towns next to Teotihuacan and Mitla in Oaxaca, sharing the same name. Very recently, they began including some oceanside towns. This is interesting because previously one of the purposes of Pueblos Mágicos was to counter decades of beach promotion.
All of Mexico’s states have at least one Pueblo Mágico, but some, like Michoacán, México, Hidalgo, Jalisco and Puebla have taken far more advantage of the program than others. It is not surprising that the Pueblos tend to concentrate in the center of the country, where most of Mexico’s economic activity occurs.
Some of the towns on the list have already been discovered by expats, including Taxco; Tepoztlan; Alamos, Sonora; San Cristóbal de las Casas, and newcomer Atlixco, Puebla.
But many are truly hidden gems, such as Orizaba, Veracruz; Teúl de Gonzalez, Zacatecas; Cosalá, Sinaloa and Tapijulapa, Tabasco. Climates range from high mountains with forests (and a real winter) to hot and humid year-round with a seaside breeze.
One advantage to considering a Pueblo Mágico is that there is a vetting system, both in being added to the list and staying on it. Factors include building maintenance, control of street vending, medical and public safety services and infrastructure, such as internet and cell phone access. Towns must renew their status every year. Some have lost it (almost always temporarily) generally because of an overload of street vendors, a spike in crime and/or failure to maintain statistics. The other important benefit is that most of the towns are a day or less drive from a metropolitan area.
However, the list is not perfect. If you are interested, you should spend some time checking out Pueblo Mágicos that you think might meet your needs to find out about their real stories. For example, Fernando Mendoza, a promoter of Pueblos Mágicos since the program’s inception, says that most are or are becoming more open to outsiders, even to live there, since municipalities choose to participate in the program. However, some towns, such as Pahuatlan, Puebla and Capulalpan, Huautla and Tepozcolula in Oaxaca, are new to the list and are still relatively closed, socially speaking.
Another issue for many expats, especially digital nomads, is Internet connectivity. All the towns have Internet, but speeds and dependability vary quite a bit, in no small part due to the lack of an extensive national fiber optic system. One factor to look at is to see how close the town is to a major conduit connecting two major population centers. Despite their relative isolation, certain towns in northern Veracruz, such as Córdoba and Orizaba, have good connections because they lie between the port of Veracruz and Mexico City.
In all towns, inclusion in the list means a boom in tourism infrastructure, so hotels and Airbnbs are easily available for initial visits.
The Pueblos Mágicos list was created with domestic tourism in mind, but incredibly, SECTUR has no information about them published in any language other than Spanish, though you can use Google translate. Of course, learning Spanish is a requirement and necessity of living in these small towns anyway.
The list is a great place to start, but it is not the only resource out there. States have started other initiatives to promote their hidden jewels. One of these is the creation of tour routes, usually promoting a regional agricultural product and/or handcraft. The State of México has even created its own recommended list, which it calls the Pueblos con Encanto, or Villages with Charm.