Slow Travel in Mexico: A Family FIRE Adventure, Part II

In the fall of 2019, my family and I took advantage of our newfound freedom — I retired from medicine two months earlier — and embarked on a two-month adventure in Mexico.

It was actually an open-ended trip as we bought one-way tickets, but we knew we wanted to be home for the holidays. We also had a plane to catch out of northern Michigan to Spain in early January, so we knew we’d be coming home by Christmas at the latest.

In Part I of this post, which I encourage you to go back and read if you have not yet, I detailed our itinerary, how we got around within each city and between cities, a feel for each of the cities we visited, and shared dozens of photos taken with my Olympus micro four-thirds setup.

Today, I’ll wrap up this travel report by describing our days, our Airbnb stays, and sharing what stood out in each of the cities we lived in. I’ll also discuss why we love this part of the nation, touch on safety in Mexico (a very important topic, obviously), show our approximate spend for the two months, and talk about how we would have slow-traveled differently if given the chance to do it over.

Now that we have the freedom to do so, we may very well plan a similar trip in the future. At the moment, though, there are so many other exciting places that we haven’t yet seen, so it’s tough to say when we’ll be back!

 

Slow Travel in Mexico: A Family FIRE Adventure, Part II

 

Our Days in Mexico

 

This was designed to be a family slow travel trip, and our days in Guanajuato embodied that theme. We had already done most of the touristy stuff on a previous trip to Guanajuato, and there’s not all that much tourist stuff anyway, so our days there were more about just living in Mexico.

We never woke up to an alarm.

We spent time exercising or taking long walks nearly every day.

We worked on learning the Spanish language with the Duolingo app and classes at Escuela Falcon.

We enjoyed many meals out but also took the time to prepare most lunches and maybe half of our dinners at home.

We obviously had no work commute. In nine weeks, I was not behind the wheel of an automobile for even one second. It was a very low-stress stretch of time.

Our boys would do their homeschooling work four to five days a week. I used that time to get some blogging work done. We’d also learn together about our surroundings, the places we were planning to visit, and we all became better writers. My wife’s first guest post was finalized and published during this trip.

When you travel for months at a time, it’s not a vacation. It’s just life in different and changing surroundings.

 

Our Stays in Mexico

 

The only time we saw the inside of a hotel room on this trip was the night before we left the United States early in the morning. For our time in Mexico, we stayed exclusively in Airbnb apartments.

In Guanajuato, we had a three-story townhome just around the corner from the language school my wife and kids attended. A tight spiral staircase connected the first-floor living room, bathroom, and kitchen, the second-floor master suite and second bedroom, and the third-floor third bedroom, patio, and laundry room.

I wouldn’t call it luxurious, but for less than $25 a day, we got a great location and plenty of space to spread out. When you book with Airbnb for at least 28 days, the monthly discounts can be substantial!

We also stayed close to the center of town in San Miguel, finding a two-bedroom apartment with a kitchenette just a block north of the main town plaza. At under $60 a night for a prime location, I was quite happy with these accommodations.

In Mexico City, we took a chance on a place and learned not to take chances. The pictures weren’t great, and there weren’t many reviews of the place, but the reviews that had been left were brief but positive.

We spent about $50 a night for what was advertised as a three-bedroom place. Note to Airbnb hosts: putting a twin bed where a sofa ought to be does not give you the right to count the living room as another bedroom.

When you can feel the individual coils of the mattresses, have nowhere comfortable to sit, get only a warm trickle for a shower, and are frightened by the jerry-rigged electric wiring, you realize you should have ponied up another $20 a night for a decent place.

We lived and learned. Our days were busy so we weren’t spending a whole lot of time there, but I did leave a rare negative review of the apartment that was not all as advertised and in need of some serious work.

When we got to our home in Queretaro, we didn’t want to leave. It was also about $50 a night, maybe $55, but it was a full-fledged home with a front and back yard, a full-sized kitchen, two bathrooms, and three actual bedrooms with comfortable beds and pillows.

The place was all-white with lots of windows — so bright compared to our previous accommodations. Where we compromised a little, unknowingly, was in location. While we were just north of the town center in La Era neighborhood, the blocks are deceptively long in Queretaro. What looks like six blocks on the map can be a couple of kilometers. We were only a 20-minute walk from downtown, but if we were to return, I’d stay in or just east of the center of town.

Despite having one lackluster stay out of four (which was at least partially my own stupid fault), I do love the variety and flexibility offered by Airbnb. Most plays offer at least some discount at 7+ days and a larger percentage off when you book for 28+ days, and you don’t have to ask for it. The original and new lower price will be displayed when you enter your dates.

If you’ve not signed up for Airbnb before, my referral link will get you $40 off your first stay and $15 your first Airbnb experience.

 

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The Best of Guanajuato, San Miguel, Mexico City, and Queretaro

 

Guanajuato Celebrations

 

What we loved most about Guanajuato were the celebrations. We were there for the Cervantina, but without a command of the language, most of the events were less enticing as they would be if we could understand Spanish at the speed it’s spoken.

Just as the Cervantina ended, the Day of the Dead (El Dia de los Muertos) was upon us. Guanajuato celebrates with an awesome tradition of shutting down a full kilometer of one of the main underground traffic tunnels and turning it into one big fiesta.

The subterranean stretch (Un Túnel de Tradición) has live music on one end, a movie stage on the other, and hundreds of pop-up cafes, bars, food trucks, and vendors.

They even bring some of the mummies, enclosed in glass, down from the Mummy Museum to the tunnels for public viewing. The whole event is quite a spectacle.

My wife and I went one evening, we took our kids the next afternoon, and I returned again that second night just to take it in one last time before things went back to traffic as normal and business as usual.

 

 

San Miguel de Allende Hot Springs

 

There is a picturesque park with numerous talented art vendors in the south part of town, and the Tuesday market was something to behold, but I would say the highlight for us was the hot springs.

It may be the highlight because this was the only day in nine weeks that we all donned our swimsuits, but we all enjoyed our day at Escondido Springs. Just up the road was La Gruta, which also gets good reviews. It happens to be closed on Monday and Tuesday, so we didn’t get a chance to go there.

Hopping in and out of pools, I didn’t want to drag my camera or phone along, so I’ll have to share some other pictures in and around town from San Miguel.

 

 

 

 

Mexico City Museums

 

The musuems.

You could visit a museum a day for a month and not run out. We spent about four hours at the Archeology Museum and it felt like we rushed through it. The Children’s Museum was a great stop for our kids, as were the National Zoo and the Inbursa Aquarium.

Seeing the once-private collection of Carlos Slim, who was recently the world’s richest person, was amazing. Each floor of Museo Soumaya had so many unique pieces, and I’m not much of an art guy. The variety — there were antique music boxes, outfits, coins, miniaturized homes, ancient carved ivory, large statues, paintings, and more — is what impressed me most and kept my interest.

The public parks are a close second. They are large, clean, and completely fenced in for the most part.

 

 

Queretaro Beer

 

The beer!

Queretaro was our last stop. Although there are a number of museums, we were all museumed out after Mexico City. I’ve heard that Mucal, the Calendar Museum, is pretty darned cool, but that will have to wait for another trip.

The food was good, but we had already enjoying tasty meals throughout Mexico’s central highlands for two months at that point. There were some nice parks, too, but not as nice as those we found to the south in Mexico City.

The cerveza, however, is what stood out to me.

We met our friends on a Sunday afternoon at Cerveceria de Hercules, a huge indoor / outdoor hot spot in an old factory. The tap list was extensive with a much greater variety than I had encountered in our Mexican travels.

I’ve seen peanut butter beers (typically brewed with PB2 powder) but only in stouts, porters, and PB&J ales. Hercules had a peanut butter milkshake IPA, and it was surprisingly good. The peanut butter flavor was subtle and only in the finish, much like the curry in their curry IPA. Yeah, they had that beer, too.

I didn’t try the 13% ABV barrel-aged imperial stout, but they had one of those on tap, along with a good variety of lighter, simpler fare.

On the three-mile walk home from Hercules, we passed the Hoppy House. The name intrigued me, obviously, so I made a note to check it out online later on. I learned that they had a Wednesday and Thursday happy hour from 6 pm to 8 pm where all 12 oz. pours of domestic beers were 50 pesos (about $2.60 USD).

Guess where we met our friends that Thursday? I wondered if “domestic” would mean what it means in The States — only mass-produced fizzy lagers rather than all beers actually brewed domestically.

I have good news for my thirsty friends planning to visit Queretaro. All twenty-some Mexican beers on the Hoppy House draft list were indeed considered “domestic.”

That included the hazy New England IPA I enjoyed, the berry milkshake IPA I ordered for my wife, and the thick barrel-aged imperial stout I ordered as my second and final beer of the evening. It wasn’t 13% like the similar offering from Hercules, but it was a serious beer at a 10% ABV, especially as a generous 12 oz. serving.

 

 

Why We Love This Part of Mexico

 

No ocean. No beaches. Not a Senor Frogs or Carlos ‘N Charlie’s in sight.

While Mexico City is experiencing a surge in tourism and San Miguel has a foothold as an ex-pat favorite, the capital city and central highlands of Mexico is not the first place most people think of when think of vacation or travel in Mexico.

We took our first trip to Guanajuato based on the description of a language school in an old Travel + Leisure article. We weren’t quite sure what to expect, but what we found was an authentic and friendly city where we live comfortably and affordable while educating our kids in a relatively safe environment.

The weather at this time of year is perfect. Highs in the 70s, lows around 50, and an abundance of sunshine. We talk about having such nice summers in northern Minnesota and northern Michigan, but they don’t hold a candle to the ideal and predictable weather of Mexico in the late fall and winter.

Don’t get me wrong. We do enjoy visiting the ocean and beaches, and if we had just one week to travel, we’d probably choose a beach destination. Now that we’re comfortable with the ease of bus travel, we may include a beach stop on our next Mexican vacation. Or maybe we’ll start at the beach and work our way inland.

Either way, I could see us spending at least a few weeks again in each of the cities where we spent most of our time on this trip.

 

 

Safety in Mexico

 

As a father and a person who likes to avoid conflict and danger, safety is at the forefront of my mind. I wouldn’t take my family to an area with an excessively high crime rate or that’s known to be unsafe for foreigners.

There have been many high-profile crimes and gruesome scenes in recent years in Mexico. The vast majority of this ugliness is related to the drug trade and organized crime carried out by drug cartels.

There are a number of cities and states in Mexico that I would not bring my family. The U.S. State Department is a good place to get up-to-date information on places that should be avoided.

As of early 2020, that includes the states of Colima, Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa, and Tamaulipas. Everywhere we went was color-coded yellow on the State Department’s map, or Level 2 (exercise increased caution), the safest level granted in Mexico.

In addition to avoiding certain locations, there are some things you can do anywhere in the world to reduce your risk of being victimized. Don’t wear or flash valuables. Keep your money in a front pocket and don’t carry too much. Avoid being out and about late, late at night. Don’t get wasted or wander alone. Avoid dark alleys and hitchhikers with chainsaws.

Keep your wits about you, pay attention to your surroundings, stay in cities and neighborhoods known to be relatively safe, and you’re unlikely to encounter problems. I generally felt as safe walking and jogging around Mexico as I would have in similar-sized cities in the United States.

The only time I felt unsafe at any point in our nine weeks was during a jog in Guanajuato that took me out of town where a pack of four hangry dogs barked and growled at me for a few frightening minutes.

You can look up a city’s crime index on a site like Numbeo. Mexico City is up there, but considered safer than half-a-dozen U.S. cities. Some parts of town are very nice; others, not so much.

Queretaro shows up at #246, just below cities like Boise, San Diego, Pittsburgh, and Oslo, Norway.

 

What I Would Have Done Differently

 

If I were given nine weeks to spend in this part of the country again, I would either divide the time into three weeks each in Guanajuato, Mexico City, and Queretaro or spend four weeks each in Guanajuato and Mexico City with one week in Queretaro.

The benefit of stretching the stays out to four weeks can be huge savings on Airbnb accommodations. Maybe we just need to ask the boss if I can have twelve weeks off so we could spend four weeks in each city. I’d probably greenlight the request.

If I had even more time, we’d probably make our way to one of the coasts. We could make our way west to the Puerto Vallarta region. I visited Mazatlan some thirty-odd years ago and wouldn’t mind returning.

We could also head east to the Yucatan peninsula, visiting Mayan ruins like those in Chichen Itza and sites near Tulum. We could hit the beach in Cancun or Playa del Carmen and ferry over to the islands of Isla Mujeres and Cozumel.

Oh, and we would definitely stay in a nicer place in Mexico City and for a longer timeframe. I believe I mentioned that before, but it deserves to be said twice.

 

Affordable Slow Travel

 

Travel does not have to be expensive. We probably spent less for this nine week adventure than we did on a single week at Disney World in 2018, and we did that trip relatively affordably in the off-season of mid-September.

How much did this two-plus-month trip cost us?

We spent a total of about $2,300 on accommodations. Our flights cost us a total of 55,000 Aadvantage miles and about $500 in fees due to the last-minute nature of the flights (more on that in Part I). We dropped about $200 on bus tickets.

$3,000 plus some airline miles. That’s what we spent on over two months of travel.

Yes, we ate food each and every day, but that’s something we would have done back home or anywhere else in the world. Since we had kitchens and very affordable restaurants and groceries available, I doubt we spent more on dining than we would have back home. Probably less.

We also spent money on entertainment. Again, this is an expense we’ll incur whether home or away. It’s true that we see more sights and generally venture out more when traveling, but in Mexico, many of those experiences are low or no cost.

I’m also not counting the one-week side trip I took to Ecuador, the costs of which were reimbursed. Also, it was a trip I wouldn’t have taken if not for the invitation to speak.

We did spend about $700 on in-person Spanish language classes for three people over five weeks at Escuela Falcon. We also spend on education when home. We’ve spent thousands of dollars on piano, guitar, and ukelele lessons for our kids in the U.S. A Spanish tutor back home would have cost more.

There were some other cost savings, too. We turned our heat way down in our home and I was able to monitor the temperature in our house via our Ecobee thermostat and associated app.

We used no water back home, had no trash service, and used very little electricity while away for nine weeks. We didn’t buy any gasoline and had our autos on “storage mode” with our insurer.

Keeping a small footprint back home with a $90,000 house and even cheaper cabin, our baseline expenses are very manageable when we’re away.

By combining credit card travel rewards, long-term Airbnb stays, and low-cost destinations, travel doesn’t have to cost much more than staying home.

Our post-FIRE budget guesstimate includes $20,000 for travel each year. As I write this, we are in the middle of a two-month slow travel trip to Spain. We are spending more than we did in Mexico, but it’s still a very affordable trip. We might only burn through half of that travel budget in year one.

 


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Do you have experience with travel in Mexico? Any favorite slow travel destinations or additional travel tips?

 

13 thoughts on “Slow Travel in Mexico: A Family FIRE Adventure, Part II”

  1. Slow travel is so appealing! While I am not FIRE’d yet, I am interested in taking up residence in other parts of the world for 3-6 months at a time. If someone would like to pick up a short-term job (besides teaching English), does it seem easy to do? What are ex-pats doing for work?

    Reply
  2. Subscribe to get more great content like this, an awesome spreadsheet, and more!
  3. We have slowly learned that lesson on Airbnbs. It’s usually worth the $20/nt upgrade get a great place instead of a lackluster place that might not have great reviews and might be downright misleading in the description/photos. Divided by four that’s $5/day which is what you’d pay in the US for just about anything without thinking much about it (a beer, a trip on transit, half an uber, etc).

    Reply
    • What’s that saying?

      “If it sounds to good to be true…”

      Someday, I’ll learn.

      The worst part is the owner / manager of the property could sense a bad review coming from me, so he pre-emptively left a negative and false review of us. Fortunately, we have only stellar reviews except that one.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

      Reply
  4. Thanks for sharing your family’s adventures and your experiences! Love your blog and spreadsheets as well. Hoping to live this way in 10 years. My wife and I love Tulum (the town and beach road, not the all-inclusive resorts), but it is getting ridiculously expensive and very crowded. Easy 1.5 hour drive from Cancun airport though and safe. We have been very happy staying at Cabanas Tulum if that area ever peeks your interest. But I wouldn’t say you’re going to get a true Mexican experience there. Great beaches, easy biking, good ruins at Coba, and there are many cenotes to jump in. Let me know if you want more info. As for other beach/vacation spots in Mexico on my radar: friends of mine enjoyed Isla Holbox a few years back, Troncones beach on the pacific side looks quiet and lovely, and have you thought about Valle de Bravo on your next trip through Mexico City?

    Reply
  5. When travelling in Mexico (or anywhere slightly less developed than US/Europe), what’s your practice with eating and drinking? Only cooked/boiled/fermented tap water? Or over the course of 9 weeks you know you’ll get sick once and you can get through it?

    Reply
    • I do enjoy the fermented water! 🍻

      In Mexico and Central America, we carry Microdyne (they sell it everywhere down there) and/or Aquadyne tabs to treat water to soak fruits and veggies and / or for drinking water.

      They can give an off flavor, so I also like to use flavored drink drops or powdered mixes. Mexico has like 20 flavors of Tang! I also use the stuff in the states, because I like Kool-Aid.

      I still use the tap water to brush my teeth — maybe it helps build up a bit of a tolerance or immunity to the water… or maybe wishful thinking.

      But that’s what I do.

      I should also add that most rental apartments will have a 5-gallon water dispenser, and most neighborhood tiendas will swap out your empties for a sealed, full jug for about $2 USD. We went through a lot of those in Mexico.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

      Reply
  6. Yay! Glad your travels are going well. You’re living the life that I hope my wife and I will be living in a few years 🙂

    I’ve been to MX several times, and the safety aspect is what I usually get grilled on the most. Like you said, it can be dangerous if you’re out looking to score drugs at 3 am in a bad part of town – but one could say the same thing about many places in the US. As long as you don’t don’t do stupid s%^$ and exercise basic travelling precautions, you will probably be fine. My family and I have never once felt unsafe in all the times I’ve been down there.

    You may have mentioned it earlier, but…was your (presumably?) limited fluency in Spanish an issue at all? I’ve tended to focus our trips on the Riviera Maya, in part because English is widely spoken out there due to the tourism element. Just wondering how much English is spoken in places that don’t seem to be tourism hotspots (well, maybe not SMA due to the expat population there) and whether that’s a huge barrier or anything.

    Keep up the posts on your adventures PoF – lots of people like me living vicariously through you!!

    Reply
    • We’re slowly working on it. My wife is a bit further along than I am. We know enough to communicate our questions or needs in simple terms, but struggle to understand most responses.

      In many cases, the people were talking to are in a similar place with English as a second language. We can usually get by well enough, but I would love to have more of a command of the language someday. Traveling to places where English isn’t widely spoken or understood does force your hand a bit, which I view as a good thing these days.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

      Reply
  7. I am bummed to hear about the airbnb in CDMX, because a small upgrade in price can result in a big delta in terms of luxury experienced as Justin observed.

    On the other hand, your appetite seems whet for further adventure, and it seems a net win in terms of seeing the world and experiencing everything from Dia de Los Muertos to Noche de Los Borachos.

    I’m curious to know how the peripatetic lifetsyle is going for the boys – are they adapting well? Do they feel cosmopolitan or rootless, or some combination thereof?

    Thanks for sharing your wins and setbacks,

    CD

    Reply
  8. Loved your blog post !
    my wife and I are currently in Merida, Yucatan and about to return home after our two week stay. We used our Chase rewards to fly roundtrip from LAX to Merida for US$67. Our Airbnb ,1 big bedroom, a/c, pool , wifi and within walking distance to an upscale mall is US$30 per night. We rented a car for 2 days, visiting Celestun (flamingos), Campeche(pirates) and Uxmal(ruins). Using Uber to get around town or walking. Big International expat community here and attitude toward gay and lesbian people seems pretty chill.
    Lots to see and do here and we feel very safe. Police from the City, State, and Federal agencies are visible and but seem quite relaxed.
    Spanish class US$10/hr and we will continue with our well qualified teacher via Zoom or Skype when we return home. I speak Spanish fairly well and my wife is learning. Absolutely no issues getting around. I recommend Google translate app (download to use offline) and Facebook groups in your area of travel to find events and activities at low cost and recommendations for service providers ( great dentists, etc)
    I know Mexican people are a mix of cultures but there feels like much more social cohesion here.
    We will definitely return and consider longer stays in the future

    Reply

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