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