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We wasted no time making plans to take advantage of my newfound freedom as a part-time anesthesiologist. October was busy with a couple of conferences, but when our work schedule was published, the better part of my November and beginning of December were wide open.
My wife and I had been dreaming of a Spanish immersion experience. For the last year, we had been watching Calico Spanish videos with our boys, beefing up our vocab with Duolingo, and the two of us had studied the language for at least a couple years in high school.
In our spare time, we diligently set out to find the perfect family experience. There were schools in Costa Rica; we’ve been there and loved it. We found others throughout Central and South America. These were true immersion experiences. Homestays, classes throughout the days, and a price tag to reflect the intense nature of the total immersion.
We realized that we didn’t necessarily want to be fully submerged in the waters of a foreign language. Maybe we’d be happier finding a wading pool, dipping our toes in, and proceeding further if the waters proved to be warm and piranha-free. An article from Travel & Leisure led us to the perfect wading pool in a picturesque place I’d never heard of.
Why Guanajuato, Mexico?
I’ll be honest. The middle of Mexico was not on my radar. There are no beaches, no monkeys, and the media only seems to talk about drug trafficking, tainted alcohol, and somebody’s plan for a wall.
Conversely, Costa Rica has beaches, monkeys, fewer drug issues, and even fewer wall issues.
When my wife told me about the school where we could do as little or as much as we wanted, I asked where was this place… Guana what now?
Located in the central highlands at an elevation of 6,600 feet, Guanajuato is a city of about 170,000 with a large student population. It is known as the most beautiful city in Mexico, and for good reason with the colorful buildings lining the hillsides overlooking the vibrant town center. Historically, the city featured prominently in Mexico’s fight for independence, a fact highlighted by the oversized statue of Pipila, which from a distance bears a striking resemblance to that of Jebediah Springfield.
I checked the U.S. State Department’s website for any travel warnings, and the city of Guanajuato was not on their radar. That was comforting, but the fact that I was compelled to check proved that I was still a tad uneasy about our destination.
Well, that’s a relief. We almost never felt uncomfortable in our three weeks south of the border.* We were advised to avoid the tunnels at night (much of the traffic is routed beneath the city in a complex network of tunnels). The nights are a non-issue. We’ve got kids who go to bed before 8 pm. We didn’t hit the town below or above ground in the later evening hours. We found Guanajuato to be a festive city with friendly people, and quite walkable if you’ve trained on a stairmaster.
The real reason we chose Guanajuato, though, was to attend Escuela Falcon. It offered just what we were looking for, had numerous excellent reviews, and the cost of attendance is very reasonable.
Booking Flights and Accommodations for Guanajuato
I’ve been collecting and redeeming travel rewards points for a few years now. I had accumulated over 150,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points and had hesitated to use them, knowing how flexible they were. I wanted to be sure I was getting a good value with them.
I learned that round-trip flights to Mexico could be booked for 35,000 United MileagePlus award miles each and that my Chase points could be converted 1:1 to United Miles.
The flights were going for about $800 apiece, but instead of spending the $3,200, I redeemed my points for miles, and paid only the taxes and fees for the international flights, saving about $3,000. I’ve heard of much better redemption ratios, but I was not unhappy getting better than 2 cents per point redeemed.
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We flew into Guanajuato International, between Leon and Guanajuato with a brief layover in Houston. A taxi ride to our apartment was about $28 US, and the Uber we later took to the airport set us back about $16 US.
Like we did when we traveled as a family to Paris and Reykjavik, we used AirBNB to book a 2-bedroom, 2 bathroom apartment with a kitchen and washing machine. We were able to find a place close to the school** with amazing views, WiFi, and most of the other comforts of home for $400 a week.
I highly recommend AirBNB, having used it around the world, and can offer you $40 off your first stay if you register via this link.
**By close to the school, I mean above the school. On a 2D map, it was about 1/4 mile away. In reality, it was about 200 steps downhill, and more importantly, 200 steps uphill to get home. At 6600 feet of elevation, our daily commute was a real workout! I was not surprised to have a resting heart rate of 57 when we returned home.
Our Daily Routine in Guanajuato
As the title indicates, this trip gave us a glimpse of what FIRE with kids could look like. We had three weeks to live the good life before returning to reality, but we could have easily stayed three months if my schedule allowed.
We did some of what we normally do back home, including laundry, dishes, grocery shopping, etc… I did my blogging thing, and we all sat down for a breakfast of fresh fruit and scrambled eggs together nearly every single day.
We then meandered our way through alleyways and staircases down the big hill to school for a bit, and we often stuck around the historic downtown for an afternoon excursion arranged by the school.
We prepared dinner at home at least half the time, and we dined out fairly often. A sit-down dinner for our family of four usually cost us roughly $12 to $20. Our evening routine looked a lot like it does at home. Reading, reflecting, brushing teeth, etcetera.
Once the boys were down, we usually treated ourselves to a cerveza or two. The patio, with its expansive view of the city was inviting, but the crisp evening air would send us in to the sofa for reading, writing, and Netflix. We finally finished Mad Men and started Arrested Development once again. With Spanish subtitles, I like to consider that TV time to have been a form of studying. A lazy one, yes, but I didn’t learn de acuerdo to mean “OK” in the classroom; Don Draper taught me that.
Attending Escuela Falcon Language School
We attended Escuela Falcon for an hour or two from late morning to early afternoon Monday through Friday each week. We booked group classes, but the groups were quite small. As in, my wife and I were one group, and our boys were another group of their own.
We all took classes to help with vocabulary, conversation, and grammar. My wife and boys took additional classes in dance and painting that they thoroughly enjoyed. The teachers were awesome. Our language teacher was an engineer for a yogurt company taking a break from the grind. The painting teacher was a landscape architect. All were friendly and enthusiastic, making learning easy and fun.
The students were a mix of retirees from the US and Canada, college-aged students from the far east, location-independent adventurers in their thirties, and families like ours.
We wish there had been more kids, and we heard there were in the summertime, but we just missed a family with kids about the same age as ours that was coming in for several weeks just as we were leaving.
It was a bummer on the timing, but our boys did make a Spanish-speaking friend at the school. The eight-year old son of the main cook was there every afternoon, and the boys played great together in spite of the language gap. Our boys decided to leave their Plus Plus toys with him when we left. Yes, we enticed them to do so by offering to pick up another set when we got home, but it was still a cute gesture.
Every afternoon or evening, the school offered a unique experience for its students. There were guided tours of museums, Spanish language movie nights, walking tours of the city, and “intercambio” happy hours with Spanish speakers learning English and vice versa. These were all valuable to us, allowing us to get to know other students and staff members better in a casual setting, and came at no additional cost.
Our Cost of Living in Guanajuato
Speaking of cost, my wife and boys each completed 21 hours of instruction, and I slacked off, completed 15 hours, for a total of 78 hours of small group classes (2 pupils to 1 teacher) over three weeks. We paid a one-time registration fee of $30 each, and $45 to $65 a week each for the classes. Altogether, our total schooling costs for the three weeks added up to about $750. Escuela Falcon offers discounts of 15% to 20% for eight-week packages. We may be back for that discount.
Meals and groceries were very affordable. A generous serving of enchiladas verde con pollo (green enchiladas with chicken) would go for $3 to $5 in a restaurant. The Negra Modelo a.k.a. cerveza might be another $1.50. Ice cream cones could be had for as little as 5 pesos (about 28 cents in 2017) for a small soft serve, to a little over $1 for a standard cone. I already miss the coconut helado, which is a flavor I’ve been known to make on my own at home because it’s hard to find stateside but is ubiquitous in Mexico.
As mentioned above, our furnished AirBNB apartment was about $400 a week, but we knew people renting smaller places for $400 a month. The vast majority of our transportation was done by foot, and the bus costs very little when we did have a reason to take it. Uber proved to be the better way to get to and from the airport, but the taxi was very reasonable, as well.
Attractions and entertainment were incredibly affordable. Museum entrance fees were in the range of $1 to $3 US. We visited a wax museum, several homes of historical figures, and not one, but two mummy museums. The history behind the mummies is fascinating; most of them come from the 19th and 20th centuries when locals couldn’t afford the perpetual burial tax and bodies were customarily exhumed.
Altogether, we spent close to $1,000 a week, but it would not be difficult to live well there on half or less if you weren’t attending school and had a long-term lease on an apartment.
Highlights from Guanajuato
Food, toys, and souvenirs galore. Our boys bought Jacob’s ladders and knock-off Rubik’s cubes. The only souvenirs I brought home were pictures (shot with Olympus EM-10).
Cerro del Cubilete
For $2 US apiece, we took a bus ride an hour each way to visit a massive structure of Cristo Rey, which is visible from many towns throughout the central highlands. The mountaintop is at an elevation of 8,900 feet and the statue itself is over 80 feet tall. We happened upon an indoor / outdoor mass and three of us took communion. One of us is not quite eligible for first communion and was very unhappy.
The Beer Company
Artesenal (craft) beers from all over Mexico and around the world. We were certainly not limited to pale, fizzy lagers on this south-of-the-border trip.
These were somewhat reminiscent of the body exhibits that have been on display at various science museums, but without the careful preservation and dissection.
Don Quijote Museum
Larger than most area museums, and full of Don Quijote themed art in various mediums. The story behind the collector is compelling. Eulalio Ferrer survived an ordeal in a French refugee camp with a copy of Don Quijote, and went on to become a successful businessman in Mexico. His collection of Quijote memorabilia is now the museum, and the fictional Spaniard and his sidekick Sancho Panza are prominent figures in Guanajuato.
San Miguel de Allende and Dolores Hidalgo
We took a long day trip to these nearby towns on a guided tour. The tour was completely in Spanish, and we got back much later than we had anticipated, but I can definitely see us going back to spend more time in San Miguel someday. The parks and plazas with their manicured trees were gorgeous and lively on a Saturday evening.
This was, after all, the reason we chose to visit Guanajuato, and the school did not disappoint. The school’s coordinator, Ana, was great with communication before our trip and while we were there. She has family in Mexico, but grew up in California and around the U.S. She helped ensure we got everything we wanted out of our time at Escuala Falcon.
We didn’t see a single cloud until day seven, and not once did we have a day that would even qualify as partly cloudy. The daytime highs were upper 60s to upper 70s Farenheit, and the overnight lows were typically in the 40s. For this Minnesotan, the weather was perfect in November.
Whether you’re in the town center looking up at the cascade of color created by the homes dotting the hillside, or looking down from our perch on the winding Panorámica, the views were simply stunning.
La Bufa Hike
We hiked to a popular overlook on La Bufa our last full day in Guanajuato. It was a bit challenging in places, but we managed pretty well. Once again, the views were stunning. We went with a few friends from school, and relaxed with a tasty meal at La Santurrona Gastropub to celebrate our accomplishment.
*We experienced our one real lowlight on this hike, too. A woman and her mother pointed us in the direction of the peak, only to return 20 to 30 minutes later to ask if we had seen the man in the blue shirt that sneaked up on them and stole a backpack. I actually had seen him, perched above the trail, apparently looking for a target. I felt terrible for the women and was reminded that there are bad people everywhere. I think traveling as a larger group kept us safe that day.
We met a number of very cool people doing exciting things with their lives. The type of person that attends a language school in the mountains of Mexico tends to have different qualities than the people you’ll meet at the all-inclusive in Cancun. Not that there’s anything wrong with the latter, but that’s a very different and less authentic Mexican experience.
There was the gentleman my parents’ age who we struggled to keep up with on the La Bufa hike, the gal who has hiked El Camino de Santiago six times, the couple from California who sold or gave away everything to travel the world, the Canadian linguist who escaped for the winter, and the Pittsburghers who were familiar with my blog and are beginning to live out their FI dreams. All great people.
I could definitely see us returning to Guanajuato for a more extended family stay as early retirees. Destinations sharing some of the same qualities (picturesque, not freezing cold, relatively inexpensive) will also be on our list of locations to explore with slow travel.
Six months ago, I had never heard of Guanajuato. Now, it’s established itself as the site of one our best family trips ever. Introduce a few monkeys, and maybe a nearby beach, and you just might have the perfect spot.
[Post-Publication Update: We loved Guanajuato so much, we returned for more than 6 weeks as part of a two-month trip to Mexico to celebrate our freedom after retiring from medicine at 43.
Read about the new adventures we had and additional cities we visited:
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Have you experienced this style of slow or semi-slow travel? Any destinations you would recommend or have on your short list for the future? Let us know where and why in the comments below!
Physician on FIRE has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Physician on FIRE and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.