He came, he saw, he fell in love with Guanajuato. When Willis Martin stood in the Jardín Central of Guanajuato and saw the rainbow-splashed homes spilling down the hillsides and the spider web of narrow streets radiating throughout this historic colonial city, he new he was home.
An urban planner by education, 73-year-old Willis Martin knows a few things about what makes great cities tick. And Guanajuato ticked all of the right boxes for him.
A Michigan boy, Martin graduated from high school in Grand Rapids and graduated from Michigan State University in Lansing in 1966 with a bachelor’s degree in urban planning.
While in school, he was inspired by President Kennedy’s appeal to join the Peace Corps and found an urban planning spot with the organization in Tegucigalpa, Honduras after graduation.
“I remember sitting in my dormitory room at Michigan State when Kennedy was assassinated thinking about the Peace Corps and what a great organization it was,” Martin said. “I was very lucky to find something in my field of work and learn Spanish at the same time.”
After his stint with the Peace Corps, Martin returned to Michigan State for his master’s degree in urban planning and was then offered a lectureship at the Central University in Quito, Ecuador. Now fluent in Spanish, Martin also taught urban planning at the school for several semesters.
He returned to Lansing to teach at his alma mater for several years before leaving the university life for a land development job with a real estate firm in Illinois. That job laid the groundwork for a long career with the Pulte Home Corporation in Phoenix, Arizona.
“Working with Pulte and my Spanish language skill gave me an opportunity to travel quite a bit to Latin America,” he said. “I spent time in Chile and Buenos Aires for the company.”
But Mexico exerted the strongest pull on Martin. He vacationed in the country for 30 years before deciding to retire to Guanajuato in 2008.
“I always liked Mexico,” he said, “and visited it often because we had friends in Sonora. About 18 years ago we went to San Miguel de Allende and on the way back to the airport we stopped for breakfast in Guanajuato. As an urban planner I was fascinated by the city and came back to visit about two dozen times over the next 18 years.”
The largest producer of silver in the world during the Spanish colonial period, Guanajuato now is the capital of the state of Guanajuato and a bustling university town of over 175,000 people. Unique to the city is its auto tunnels, built to divert traffic away from the center of the city. Guanajuato is also a designated World Heritage Site by the United Nations for some of the best-preserved examples of Baroque architecture in North America.
“I’ve traveled all over Mexico and have probably visited 20 different cities,” Martin said, “but I like Guanajuato best because it’s an urban planner’s dream. It’s a town where walking is easy – unless you’re walking up one of the steep hills that surround the city – because vehicles are restricted. It has a very Italian hill town feel about it. I especially love the callejones or narrow streets and alleyways of Guanajuato. Probably 70 percent of the homes in the central part of the city are accessible mainly from callejones. Some of them are so narrow you can extend your arms and touch both walls.”
In 2007, Martin found a piece of land not far from the center of the city that bordered a small river and was tree-lined. He put US$10,000 down on the property and built a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath home with about 1,800 square feet of space for about US$115,000. On his flat roof, Martin created a garden with about four hundred fruit, vegetable and herb plants. His annual property tax is about US$55.
“We’re about a 12-minute walk from the Jardin Central and all of the restaurants and shops,” he said. “We have many friends that live on the hillsides and along the panoramic highway with great views of the city, but the downside of living there is the walk home. Coming down is not a problem but going home is another matter. Most take taxis.”
The hills of Guanajuato and the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables worked their magic on Martin when he first moved there.
“When I moved here,” he said, “I lost 44 pounds in six months just walking around and eating better. The local food is excellent and healthy. My wife and I eat out a lot, maybe four or five times a week. A dinner at one of the fancier restaurants in town that overlooks the Jardín Central is under US$30 for two, including a dessert.”
Guanajuato – like most central highlands colonial towns – offers spring-like weather year-round. Even in January, high temperatures are in the 70s F and lows dip mostly into the 40s. Snow generally is reserved for higher elevations. Summer brings a few 90 F days, but mostly 80s F.
Martin said Guanajuato offers many cultural activities year-round, including the city’s own symphony orchestra, which plays at the century-old Juarez Theater. In October of each year, the Cervantino Festival – reportedly Latin America’s largest music festival – fills nearly 50 theaters, plazas and other venues in and near Guanajuato. The city historically has always had more cultural events than other cities of similar size, primarily because of the cultural tradition that began when Guanajuato’s silver mines produced great wealth.
The University of Guanajuato is the center of many of the city’s cultural activities. With over 17,000 students – about 10 percent of Guanajuato’s residents – the university keeps things lively throughout the year.
“Many expats in Guanajuato rent their homes,” Martin said, “but have to compete to a certain degree with students because there are no dormitories at the university. Students generally rent rooms in homes, though. A three-bedroom apartment in city-center averages about US$350 a month.”
Martin recommended that anyone moving to Guanajuato rent, at least for a period of time, to see if they like a particular neighborhood. For example, he said noise in Mexico – from barking dogs to parties to radios being played loudly – is generally much higher in Mexico than the U.S., Canada and other many other places.
“The eastern part of town is probably the best area to live,” he said, “but it depends upon what you want. Do you want a view? Do you want to be close to downtown? Do you want a quiet neighborhood? You can find anything you want at a very reasonable price.”
Because his wife is Mexican and speaks no English, most of Martin’s circle of friends and family are Mexican, although he told us that a group of expats meets for Sunday breakfast on a regular basis.
“Leticia is a homeopathic doctor,” he said. “She helps me stay healthy. I don’t use Americans drugs any longer, only homeopathic and natural drugs.”
Martin said Guanajuato’s location in the center of Mexico is perfect for exploring most of the country and has very good air connections to the U.S. and Canada for expats.
“The Guanajuato airport is about 20-minutes from the city and has a lot of direct flights to the states now,” he said. “The international airport at Guadalajara is about two-and-a-half hours away by car and Mexico City is about four-and-a-half hours.”
We asked Martin what advice he would give to aspiring expats who were considering Guanajuato as a place to live.
“I would say you should rent first. Just come down and see it. Spend a week and explore Guanajuato to get a good sense of the place. There are enough taxi drivers who speak enough English to show you around and answer many of your questions. For about US$10, you can get a good feel for the city.”
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