San Miguel de Allende v. Patzcuaro

Chiles en nogada and tacos, that’s the difference between San Miguel de Allende and Patzcuaro as expat venues. Both have their strong points, and both have their shortcomings. Neither is Nirvana, although those who live there might claim otherwise.

San Miguel de Allende offers up more expat amenities like mail forwarding services, English-speaking Mexicans, gourmet stores with everything from Hamburger Helper to white balsamic vinegar on the shelves, AA in more flavors that you could ever begin to count, classes and support groups, charities and opportunities to perform good deeds, an Anglican church, Kabbalah study groups, rival animal rescue efforts, art walks, opportunities for the fey and chichi, a zillion good restaurants and a few bad ones, serious crime and scandal among the expats, the American consular agency, English-language libraries and bookstores, the Rosewood, Café Rama, the Longhorn Smokehouse, Via Organica, poseurs and pukka, organized tours and events, Zimbabwean drum concerts, summer camp for adults, Unitarians, an English-language town newspaper, Catholic mass in English, social x-rays, no less than 87 different kinds of cheese offered in a single storefront, beauty shops run by guys with French-ish names, imported wares from Europe and Morocco and Bali, ladies who lunch and men who golf, affluent hippies, and Chilangos on holiday. Nary a week goes by without one more glowing write-up touting the town as the world’s favorite Christmas venue, retirement spot, and safe place for women to visit. There’s an A-list, a B-list, a C-list, and those who aren’t on anyone’s list, sometimes by choice, often not. Gringos may not be as easily remembered, since they do all tend to resemble one another when there’s a critical mass.

Calling itself the “Not San Miguel,” Patzcuaro is a more DIY lifestyle. Sure, there are opportunities to perform community service and good deeds, a small English-language library, a monthly gringo cocktail party, a spay-neuter clinic, informal hiking groups, close circles of friends, a New Age and Buddhist store selling incense and amulets, Ivo’s bakery, a café the expats refer to as “The Office,” acrylic and cotton tablecloths, a Costco salvage store, piano concerts, imported wares from China, and Chilangos on holiday. Any write-up in the travel section will focus more upon local culture and artesania than the expats. Those expats looking for religion, classes, and AA had better be prepared to speak some Spanish. There’s really no A-list. It’s the kind of place where anyone wearing fancy socks is putting on airs. Scandal and innuendo can spread faster than an autumn wildfire fueled by Santa Ana winds, but serious crime among the expats is rare. Resident expats stick out more (which means that their good deeds, and bad, are also more likely to be remembered) in Patzcuaro.

If San Miguel de Allende is Berkeley-Sedona-Naples-Palm Springs, then Patzcuaro is the Hill Country. For me, both are The Hamptons, my getaways.

In Gangs of San Miguel, Rich Lander prepared canonical lists of what San Miguel’s expats wore – from the clown suits to the classic. A man could wear a tutu and flowered leggings in that town, and no one would give him a second look – unless, of course, he happened to be wearing Bass Weejuns. Patzcuaro’s fashion is the anti-fashion. Its gringos wear whatever they happen to have on. They’re comfortable with that. Tilley Endurables and L.L. Bean, well-worn, are about as fancy as it gets in that town.

San Miguel de Allende has its eponymous sandal, its denizens shod in something fashionable which can still navigate cobblestone streets. Patzcuaro is just old-shoe. San Miguel de Allende sports more year-round tans and veneered teeth than Patzcuaro, where the look is more Midwestern than manicured.

San Miguelenses have to drive to Celaya, an overgrown farm town, or Queretaro to satisfy their Costco, Home Depot, and Walmart jones. Patzcuarenses have to drive 36 miles to the state capital of Morelia to fill their shopping needs at Costco, Sam’s, Superama, seek advanced medical care, and eat a restaurant that doesn’t end a meal with chongos, flan, peaches in syrup or arroz con leche.

In San Miguel de Allende, finding someone to navigate ordinary shoals of life is a walk in the park. There are facilitators who’ll get fumbling foreigners their immigration status, driver’s license, and even old-age discount cards. A service will venture out to the wilds of Celaya’s Costco, shop and deliver. Patzcuaro’s expats are on their own, and they are ingenious about creating satisfactory solutions and workarounds which more than make up for the lack of services.

Foreigners in San Miguel de Allende are an activist lot, ready to organize, boycott, picket, and march at the drop of a hat, whether the cause du jour is Starbucks, disenfranchised Albanian dwarves, the Republican Party, or global warming. All Patzcuaro’s expats have to worry about are OXXO, Farmacia Guadalajara, and global warming.

Compliment a San Miguel expat on a duo of nattily-groomed, well-trained standard poodles, and the first thing you’ll hear is that the dogs were rescued. Say the same to some foreigner with street dog on a leash in Patzcuaro, and you’ll just get a nod.

Politically, the denizens of each venue cloak themselves in chadors of liberalism, heaping praise upon themselves for being politically correct and ever so aware. Conservatives, country club Republicans and libertarians lurk in both venues, but they’re a quiet sort, keeping to themselves for the most part. One time as I finished eating with four San Miguel expats at a restaurant in Buenos Aires, I decided to come out of the closet, disclosing to them that I voted for George Bush. You would’ve thought I’d told them I was Winnie Ruth Judd. They were incredulous, insisting that all expats were intelligent people, and ergo, liberal to the core. I thought they were really rather rude. The expats of Patzcuaro don’t pay much attention to political affiliations, and if they do, they’re generally polite about it.

San Miguel boasts more mansions and deluxe living situations than Patzcuaro, and, in general, housing is more expensive than in Patzcuaro. However, there are ways to spend a lot of money and a whole lot less money in both towns.

When I visit San Miguel de Allende, expats ask me when I’m going to move there, as if there were no other place to live in the entire republic. No one ever asks me that in Patzcuaro. No one even tries to sell me a house in Patzcuaro, for that matter.

Both towns are about the same distance from international airports. Both are served by deluxe bus lines.  Only 243 kilometers separate San Miguel de Allende and Patzcuaro. And yet both could not be farther apart.

There’s no end to literature that San Miguel’s expats have propounded about the town. Tony Cohan’s On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel is just one of the many. Patzcuaro’s expats read and write, but they somehow just don’t have the need to broadcast that they’ve been sprinkled with magic fairy dust. One delightful exception was the now-dead Charles Patterson’s Miscellaneous: An Artist’sNotebook, which took on the lake’s foreign community the same way Truman Capote did in Answered Prayers.

Am I biased? Sure, I am. I have the best of all worlds, because I get to live in Morelia. And that’s a story for another day.

36 comments on “San Miguel de Allende v. Patzcuaro

  1. Babs says:

    I agree with you about 90% of what you wrote. I never knew there is an A, B and C list in San Miguel. 99% of my friends don’t either. Who cares?
    Anyway, when I moved to Mexico I wanted to move to Patzcuaro. I still love it and the indigenous flavor of the area. I know I would be happy there BUT it is too damn cold every time I’m there.
    When I discussed moving there 13 years ago, a couple who has lived there forever told me that as a single woman I would probably prefer San Miguel as there wasn’t much to do in Patz. Hmmm, I’ve always wondered. But that wouldn’t have deterred me. It was always about the weather and nothing else.


    • The weather in Patzcuaro is a feature, not a deal-killer. That’s what fireplaces, sweaters, fuzzy slippers and hot toddies are for. There is plenty to do in Patzcuaro for a single man or woman. It’s just a matter of creating your own diversions and entertainment.I have never heard any expat living there complain of being bored.


  2. Steve Cotton says:

    And what does it say about me that I claim to like both towns, then choose to live in neither — or even near by? I have my own theory. But I do not come out well in the end in either version..


  3. Norma Robinson says:

    Jennifer so true. I have a sceret major crush on John McCain but Stand With Wendy on Abortion Rights in Texas so I certainly don’t go to Democrats abroad. I have two white rescued poodles, live in Club de Golfe. If one of the Hot Air Ballons lands on my roof I may shred it but I love the neighborhood Heliport I do have something special though: A single Jewish man mid 60s retired attorney and straight. Think I could sell him on the Civil List. I am NOT donating to charity


    • Do you have any idea what a single Jewish mid-60s retired lawyer who is straight would bring in San Miguel,even as a time share or fractional ownership? Major bucks.Potential buyers wouldn’t even ask for psychological testing or a Dun & Bradstreet. A heartbeat is good enough. You should hold out for a substantial commission.


  4. Kim G says:

    What the heck are “social x-rays?”


    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where this is starting to sound a bit like some sort of Boston/New York rivalry.


  5. Tancho says:

    Great comparison, we chose Patzcuaro because it reminded us more of Santa Fe than any other place and it had fewer Gringos to worry about. If we wanted Gringos we would have gone to SMA or Chapala where there is absolutly no need to know or understand the Spanish language.
    Now back to my hot toddy (Dec is my time for Hot Buttered Rum) while i toss some more wood in the fireplaces…….


  6. Don Cuevas says:

    We just live near Pátzcuaro but 20 minutes drive away, on a ranch community midway between somewhere and nowhere. We are considered isolated by some of our gringo friends. We are the only gringos we know of who have folding, plastic furniture and are not ashamed of it. We don’t know much from fashion. (Although I did buy a fancy Tardan Panama hat while in mexico City, and just jot some cool eyeglasses at Costco in Morelia.) We also have cow manure in the street. We learned to step carefully and got used to it.

    When it gets cold here, we put on more clothing or blankets and may turn on the portable propane heater. (Now, for example.)

    Don Cuevas


  7. John Calypso says:

    Great entry. I would lean to Pátzcuaro for sure – but much prefer my choices of Xico and Puerto Escondido – much farther off the beaten path – and that suits me greatly.


  8. This post is lamentable. First, I don’t like to see any mention of Patzcuaro anywhere in English. And offering it up as a possible alternative to the silly burg of San Miguel is a horror. It gives folks ideas. Listen, people: You’ll freeze your keister off in winter in Patzcuaro. Do you really want to walk around bundled up like Inuits for months on end?Fireplaces work for romance. They are lousy for heating. Trust me. I have two. And there really is nothing to do in Patzcuaro. You will be bored out of your skull. And speaking of skulls, there are the narcos! It is very dangerous to live in Patzcuaro. You may lose your head.

    San Miguel. Trust me. You will love it there. Be safe. Be happy. Enjoy your waning years.


    • Patzman says:

      Thank you señor Zapata for setting the record straight on you know where.
      Nice summary ms red shoes.


      • Patzman says:

        It is a mystery to me why Morelia doesn’t have a larger expat population.


        • We try to scare them off with fancy-ass shopping centers and plush golf courses.There’s the lure of Star Medica, Office Depots, Home Depot, Costco, two Sam’s Clubs, a handful of Walmarts, an Uruguayan steakhouse and a Cuban restaurant, proximity to a neat little and efficiently-run airport, and the trappings that go with living in a state capital. Actually, Morelia has several expat populations, but they keep themselves well-hidden.


        • Were it not for the big bother it would be, I would pack up and move to Morelia, buy a nice high-rise condo near Altozano. Far superior to the freezing, boring environs of Patzcuaro. And less Gringos per square foot.


          • You woud like living in Morelia, but you would rail against the quality of construction of those high-rises. The benefit of living in the city is not seeing vast quantities of gringos perr M2. At the beach, Messers. Cotton and Calypso likely witness more gringos on a daily basis than I do up here in the hood.


    • Actually, the question was posed some time ago on Quora, and I just expanded upon it. As far as I’m concerned, the Lake Chapala area isn’t even in the running.


  9. Felipe, you may have missed your calling as head of a very exclusive cooperative board on the Upper East Side. You know, the kind that keeps the likes of Lady Gaga and assorted riffraff from buying in.


  10. Don Cuevas says:

    Will you write a comparative analysis of Lakeside vs Pátzcuaro and SMA?

    Don Cuevas


  11. No, no, no. One comparison is enough. And I really do not like the Lake Chapala area at all.


  12. Pat Reynolds says:

    I’d rather be at Lake Chapala if only for the weather. Unfortunately, it’s Gringolandia with lots of gringo influence on the local population. But opportunities abound in every arena you mentioned and that makes up for all the caca stuff other gringos bring with them to this idyllic place.. But don’t let this sway anyone into moving here–we don’t need anymore of us.


  13. Carole Kocian says:

    Village people. Always willing to help but not willing to become intrinsically intertwined with any group of movers and shakers


  14. If I ever left Mérida for somewhere else in México, Pátzcuaro would be my pick.Neither SMA nor Lake Chapala sound like places where I would fit in.



  15. Bev says:

    Ever since a Mexican peddler looked at my shoes and observed the red and yellow bag I carried most often used by Mexican men to carry their 2 liters of beer home and proclaimed me unworthy to come into his store, I have to assume Patzcuaro is more to my taste. Haven’t visited either but would in a heartbeat. Your cleverly written blog posts always make me laugh. You did not disappoint today!


  16. […] better choice for anyone who is trying to decide between San Miguel de Allende and Patzcuaro would be to consider Morelia. It has all that both these towns have – and more. And I’m going […]


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