For months, my family and I had been looking forward to our first big post-retirement adventure. Two months in Ecuador!
Yes, I said Ecuador. We had the flights booked, Airbnb homes reserved and pre-paid, bags packed, and we were ready to rock and roll.
But Ecuador was not ready for us.
We just happened to have scheduled our flights to occur on October 13, 2019, the peak of the worst civil unrest the South American nation has seen in years. Without travel insurance or a credit card that would provide it as a perk (we’ve since remedied that), we had no choice but to wait and see what would happen with our flights.
I was not about to put my family in harm’s way, so the day before our scheduled flights to Ecuador, I booked four one-way flights to Mexico. Unsurprisingly, the flights to Ecuador were cancelled, as were most flights into the capital city of Quito that day.
And so we began our open-ended adventure in the sunny mountainous region of Mexico.
Two Months in Mexico: A Slow Travel Family FIRE Adventure
The trip wasn’t completely open-ended. We were planning to be home for the holidays and had round-trip flights from northern Michigan to Spain booked for early January, so we knew we’d be heading back home eventually.
Also, when booking the outgoing flights, I learned that American Airlines charges an extra $75 a head when redeeming miles for a trip occurring within the next three weeks.
We had accrued more than enough Aadvantage miles from prior credit card welcome bonuses to fly the four of us to Mexico and back, but the extra $300 fee was an unpleasant surprise. Still, I’d rather pony up three hundred bucks than inhale the smoke from burning buses and feel the sting of tear gas in my eyes, so I wasn’t too upset to pay the price for a last-minute flight.
Why We Chose Mexico
Two years earlier, we spent three weeks in Guanajuato at the same time of year. I detailed that trip in the aptly titled Three Weeks in Guanajuato, a Preview of Life After FIRE.
We loved everything about that trip. Our boys left asking if we could come back for a year someday. With this trip happening on very short notice and with no time to research different destinations, we went with a known and loved entity.
The proximity to Ecuador was also a factor in our decision-making. We originally chose Ecuador based on a one-week commitment I had in mid-October to attend and speak at an Above the Clouds Chautauqua retreat. I didn’t know if the event would be happening or not, but I didn’t want to be somewhere in the Australian outback when potentially finding out that it was indeed on.
Before we booked Mexico, I did check some flights and found that I could get from the airport in Guanajuato to Quito, Ecuador and back for a reasonable price. Things did settle down there and by the time I set foot in Ecuador mid-November, there was no visible trace of the damage that had been done.
Our Mexican Itinerary
I expected to get the third degree going through customs and immigration. “So, you booked these one-way flights to Mexico yesterday… would you mind joining me behind that door labeled ‘Cavity Search’?”
Happily, we made it into the country with no difficult questions and our pants on. We were lucky to find an available Airbnb place near the city center for a very reasonable price during what we learned was a very busy time for tourism in the town of Guanajuato.
The 47th Annual Cervantina, a three-week music and cultural festival, had just begun. This made the always-lively and colorful town even more bustling with activity.
We decided to stay in Guanajuato until after my return from the potential trip to Ecuador. That left us with about three weeks in Mexico before we would want to return home to celebrate Christmas with our families.
I had read good things about Mexico City from trustworthy people like Crispy Doc, Justin from Root of Good, and Travels with Bruno. We had digital nomad friends living in Queretaro and heard some good things about it, but to be honest I had never heard of the place until this trip.
We also booked a two-day side trip to visit San Miguel de Allende before my Ecuador trip. We had done a day trip to the city about 90 minutes away before and wanted a couple more days to soak it in.
In summary, the itinerary would be Guanajuato -> San Miguel -> Guanajuato -> me to Ecuador -> me back to Guanajuato -> Mexico City -> Queretaro -> home.
Based on location, it would have made more sense to visit Queretaro before Mexico City, as it is situated between Guanajuato and Mexico City, but our friends in Queretaro had plans to head home with family for Thanksgiving and we adjusted our plans accordingly.
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Getting Around in Mexico
Hopping around from city to city is both easy and quite comfortable. They have first class buses that are nicer than any coach bus I’ve been on in the United States, and every decent-sized town has a central bus station.
Fares ranged from under $5 USD a person for a trip under an hour’s length to about $30 per person for a four-hour trip, and the kids were sometimes half priced. We were usually on Primera Plus, and there are numerous other carriers depending on where you want to go. We could have hopped on a bus to the Caribbean or Pacific coasts for under $100 apiece.
Within the cities we visited, we did a lot of walking. Guanajuato is extremely walkable, as much of the car traffic is routed through tunnels underground. In a city of well over 100,000 people, there’s not a single traffic light (above ground, at least) in the heart of the city and there doesn’t need to be. The streets that are open to car traffic are windy and the cars move slowly out of necessity.
Queretaro is a busier place and the streets are laid out on a grid. San Miguel is similar, but smaller. Expect to wait for a green light to cross busy roads and keep your head on a swivel as I’d estimate that fewer than half of drivers in Mexico use turn signals when turning and crosswalks don’t mean much. Speed limits are optional and cars zoom through town.
Mexico City has 22 million people. Need I say more? The roads are busy and the cars move fast. The subway system is extensive, seemingly reliable, and dirt cheap. It’s 5 pesos (about 25 cents in 2020) to ride with unlimited transfers. At peak times, the trains can be very crowded, so keep that in mind and keep your family together!
Uber is omnipresent (uberpresent?) in the cities we visited and it’s very cost-effective. The going rate seemed to be in the range of $2 to $4 USD per 10 minutes of driving time. So a 15-minute trip might be $3 to $5 USD and a 45-minute trip in the range of $10 to $15. Such a bargain.
The cities of Querataro and Mexico City also had bike share programs and those electric scooters were common in Mexico City. We didn’t take advantage of these, but it’s good to know the option is there.
Getting around Mexico was not a problem at all. Even getting home to the U.S. was easy. American Airlines took us from Queretaro to Grand Rapids, MI with one easy layover in Dallas.
A Feel For the Cities We Visited
The city of Guanajuato remains our favorite. Nostalgia may play a role as it was the site of our first slow travel experience, but there’s more to it than that.
There’s a majestic quality to the way the city envelops you. Picture the cascading buildings of Italy’s Amalfi coast and a mirror image of it directly opposite with a festive town center in the middle. Add a few Mariachi bands, great Mexican food and drink, subtract the ocean, and you’ve got Guanajuato.
While it doesn’t have the feel of a Mexican tourist town, it is, in fact, a tourist destination. But most of the tourists are domestic travelers from other parts of Mexico. You’ll also see some Asian visitors and a few Americans and Canadians here and there, but people as tall and pale as me are few and far between.
The city is known for its Mummy Museum, the statue of Pipila overlooking the center of town, and the University of Guanajuato. The restaurants cater to locals, students, and Mexican visitors. The fare is affordable, tasty, and always served with at least a couple of spicy sauces.
San Miguel de Allende
San Miguel is a popular spot for American and Canadian expatriates, with an estimated 10,000 of the city’s 160,000 residents being American citizens. Locals quoted numbers much higher, and I imagine there’s a strong seasonal population of snowbirds that make the Americano numbers swell in the winter.
We only spent two days here on this trip. Honestly, that was enough for us.
It’s a very nice town with a gorgeous central plaza, but for better or worse, it also feels like it caters a bit too much to the expats.
Although the town similar in size to Guanajuato, there are dozens of fine dining spots where English is probably the first language in San Miguel. Conversely, there doesn’t seem to be nearly as many taco stands or authentic Mexican restaurants, at least not in the heart of town.
We did have an excellent rooftop meal at Sabrero Taqueria, though. I’d go back to that joint in a heartbeat.
We were there for the renowned weekly Tuesday Market. It’s a huge flea market where you can buy anything under the sun. This is a great place to find “street food,” and we enjoyed some fish & chips and cecina tacos there.
The city is also known for the hot springs just north of town. We thought we’d spend a couple of hours at Escondido Place, but we ended up staying for closer to five hours. With seven or eight different pools with temperatures ranging from ambient to very warm, it was a good mix and a relaxing place to stay for half a day. La Gruta is a similar spot just up the road, but it was closed the day we were in town.
Some people might prefer the glitzier feel of San Miguel to the more middle-class Guanajuato, but we preferred the less-crowded roads and cultural authenticity of Guanajuato.
Our next stop was Mexico City, which we visited from late November to early December. Ten days was hardly enough time to begin exploring this cosmopolitan city nestled among the mountains, but we made the most of our time there.
We ditched the slow travel mindset when we realized just how much there was to see and how little time we had to see it all.
The feel you get for Mexico City is going to depend on where you stay. We were in La Condesa, very close to the lungs of the city known as Chapultapec Park and the neighboring neighborhood of Roma. Our neighborhood was full of tree-lined streets with small shops, cafes, and bakeries amongst the residential areas and neighborhood parks.
As is true of any large city, some parts are in better shape than others. There were some parts near the center of town that we walked through during the day that I wouldn’t enthusiastically return to at night. On the other hand, I did venture out on a solo trip to visit a few craft breweries on foot one evening in the La Condesa and Roma neighborhoods and I felt comfortable with my surroundings there.
The city is known for world-class museums and we visited at least one of them nearly every day. Some are always free, like Carlos Slim’s amazing Soumaya Museum. Others are free on certain days like the National History Museum on and the Museum of Popular Art (great for kids) on Sundays. Those that did have an entrance fee were very affordable at under $5 USD per person.
The parks are also fantastic with miles of traffic-free trails to run and large, modern play structures. I ran a few miles in Chapultepec Park our first morning and planned to do so every other day, but instead, we put on 6 to 10 miles just walking to and from our tourist destinations nearly every day. The park is a great place to find a playground, trinket, snack, or luchador mask. The National Zoo there is also free and incredible.
Santiago de Queretaro
If Mexico City was too big and Guanajuato a bit on the small side, Queretaro could be considered just right. A city of about 600,000 with a strong economy and a lovely colonial town center, it was a great place to spend our last week and a half.
Queretaro looked like a larger version of San Miguel. There was less of an expat presence, but the aerospace and other industries bring international travelers to town regularly.
The town center was all dressed up for Christmas when we were there early-to-mid December. There were nativity scenes, huge artificial Christmas trees, lights galore, live music stages, and even a skating rink with legit ice in one of the plazas.
I watched the kids and their parents skate circles around the frozen block. I didn’t see any future NHL stars, but it was fun to see the locals enjoy a rare experience like that!
The best running path I found in town was along the “river” / drainage ditch that runs east-west just north of the center of town. It wasn’t great due to the frequent bridges and heavy cross-traffic, but I was able to get some miles in with a few brief interruptions in my stride here and there.
Queretaro was also home to the best craft beer scene I found in any of these four cities we visited in Mexico and the most exquisite-looking indoor-outdoor shopping mall I’ve ever stepped foot in anywhere. They spared no expense building Paseo Queretaro, which opened in September of 2018.
It was a magical two months, and I can see us repeating a similar trip again someday. Stay tuned for Part II of this post in which I’ll talk about our typical days, where we stayed, and the best of each city. I’ll also touch on safety when visiting Mexico and the many benefits of slow travel.
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Have you visited colonial Mexico or the capital city? Share your favorite spots, memories, and tips in the comment box below?