San Miguel de Allende or Panama…?
After residing in Panama for six months each year for eleven years I now find myself at a crossroads. Due to sad and unforeseen circumstances I was forced to sell my home there and return to Canada. However, the winters have not become any warmer there and prices are skyrocketing so as a result I am pining to be a snowbird again.
I recently spent a few months in San Miguel de Allende and it was love at first sight. Exactly the way I feel about Panama. Now I am torn and in a quandary as to where my new ex-pat home should be. Being a person who loves to travel (my extended family call me the gypsy), but also needs roots or a sort of home base, my current mission is to ascertain which of these two exceptional places will win that position. Please join me on my journey.
San Miguel de Allende:
Whoever is a history buff, as I am, will fall in love with San Miguel. It is a lovely old colonial place, which actually has 200,000 residents but feels like your local small town. It has maintained its old world charm, from the Spanish style buildings to the quaint cobblestone streets and is like going backwards in a time machine. Immediately it felt to me like it wrapped its arms around me and welcomed me home where I belonged. Who knows, perhaps I lived here in a prior life.
In any case it is a stunning city that oozes history, including some of the oldest and most glorious churches and cathedrals found anywhere. It is an arts and cultural center northwest of Mexico City, nestled in the mountains. The local people are extremely creative and talented artisans from creators of stunning silver jewellery to paintings, murals, and crafts. Fabrica La Aurora, which was once a huge textile factory, has been converted to galleries showcasing paintings, sculptures, and artisan products from local artists.
Conde Nast Travel has repeatedly declared it one of the top ten cities in the world in which to retire. It has been declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thereby retaining all the old world architecture and characteristics. This includes the famous pink parrochia which is one of the most beautiful and architecturally amazing structures I have ever seen. The streets are immaculately clean. No stray garbage allowed here.
The temperatures here, to me, are perfect. I spent April and May enjoying nothing but bright sunny days with a few days of gentle cleansing rain thrown in. May is the hottest month here but the heat was never stifling. Temperatures range from 30-35. I was also here in October and it was what I refer to as “long slacks and sweater weather.” Nights can get quite chilly. January is the coolest month. The air is much dryer here than the humidity in Panama to which I had become accustomed.
Mexican people are friendly, kind, joyous, and welcoming to the many ex-pats. The two coincide in harmony and mutual respect.
I find prices to be a bit higher than in some other ex-pat havens, although still considerably cheaper than in Canada or the US. Fresh fruit and vegetable stands are everywhere with amazing prices and spectacular flavor.
Homes are priced according to location and style and vary a great deal. The historical houses located in the original parishes, most of which have been meticulously preserved, are costly and rarely go on the market. Those built more recently must still adhere to the esthetics complimentary to the history and tradition of colonial times, thereby preserving the old world charm.
In keeping with this style there are numerous newer subdivisions consisting of condos, duplexes, and single family dwellings in the more outlying areas that are very affordable. A few gated communities exist throughout these areas, some including a golf course, almost all with pools and activity centers.
Owning a vehicle in San Miguel de Allende is optional, unless you live in one of the outer areas. Most people walk everywhere with the exception of those venturing out of town to neighbouring cities such as Queretaro, Guanajuato, or Delores Hidalgo. Taxis are very reasonable and buses are downright cheap. There is a dependable and enjoyable shuttle service operating province wide. Prices vary depending on whether you prefer their private shuttle or do not mind sharing with others (usually only one to four people). I use the shuttle to travel to and from the airport as there is no airport in San Miguel. Price for a shared shuttle, which is an hour and a bit to Guanajuato, is equivalent to $30.00 US dollars.
Healthcare here is excellent and relatively inexpensive. Dentistry is state of the art and it is obvious that it is well used as there is a dentist on almost every street. Many people come from all over the world to have their dental work performed in Mexico. Everything from regular cleaning and fillings to implants and numerous other surgeries. If they are unable to do it here they will refer patients to Mexico City or other bigger centers.
As for residencies, that subject is far too involved to go into here. They are many and varied and curiously, the necessary monetary requirements can change from one consulate to another. I feel that it is wise to do your due diligence thoroughly. International Living has extensive knowledge in this regard and will gladly point you in the right direction. My only advice is to simply get a six month tourist visa for your first fact finding visit.
San Miguel de Allende is about as safe as you can get anywhere in the turbulent world in which we live. It is away from all the well know resorts and big cities. It is a quiet peace loving enclave of like minded people. The only loud noises you hear are the hugely noisy firecrackers that they set off with any excuse.
In conclusion, I adore San Miguel de Allende and could gladly stay here forever. It ticks almost all the boxes for me, including wiggling its way into my heart.
And now on to Panama:
I have now arrived in Boquete, Panama and feel as though I have come home. Even though my situation is very different this time I still have a soft spot in my heart for this isthmus.
The weather here now is perfect although the rainy season is imminent. Everything is lush and green here on the mountain where I have rented a small apartment. The view out my huge window is magnificent, showcasing Volcan Baru, the local mountain focal point, as well as the town of Boquete nestled snugly below in the beautiful valley of the extinct volcano.
Panama is very diverse climate-wise, comprised of numerous micro climates from perpetual sun and heat throughout the lower elevations to cooler temperatures and more wind at higher elevations.
As an aside, another nearby example of an ex-pat area in the highlands is Volcan, which seems to be having a surge of popularity currently. I have been informed that many people from other countries are flocking to this area. In keeping with this, their entire infrastructure and road system has been upgraded. The weather here is perfect for those who prefer cooler temperatures and shy away from intense heat. The surrounding scenery is stunning and all the amenities are in place.
Boquete shows many improvements and upgrades as well. Residential subdivisions are springing up all along the highway between David and Boquete, a sure sign of its popularity with ex-pats seeking a quieter and safer life.
One huge and long awaited plus here in Boquete is the recycling system which they have struggled with for years but now have down to a science.
Healthcare remains excellent and state of the art, including a new modern medical clinic and a holistic medicine center. There are several excellent hospitals in nearby David which is approximately a twenty minute drive from Boquete. There are available insurance packages and the cost of most doctor visits and small procedures are easily paid out of pocket.
The cost of living between San Miguel de Allende and Boquete is quite similar. Gasoline prices are comparable and much less expensive than Canada. Groceries, liquor, and pharmaceuticals remain much cheaper than the US or Canada. Eating in restaurants, in both San Miguel and Boquete, are affordable and delicious. While waiting for a dental appointment in Boquete I had lunch at a little Mediterranean restaurant closeby. It was delightful and the waiter was friendly and spoke excellent English. As an example of pricing I had a huge green salad, main course of chicken breast in garlic sauce with roasted potatoes, and a mouth watering slice of chocolate cheesecake for just over $8.00 US.
I was gratified to see that Panamanian people are as happy, joyous, and kind as I remembered them to be. They remain very respectful of the elderly and of their families. I have always appreciated their special “jubilado” lines for retired folks in all banks, government offices, and other public places. I was welcomed with open arms by my Panamanian and ex-pat friends alike. The ex-pat community in Boquete is thriving and is extremely active in improving the lives of all who live there.
Residencies have become more rigid here in Panama than they were back when I obtained mine but are still attainable. Again, International Living has a plethora of information from experts on this subject.
There are many similarities between Mexico and Panama, as well as some contrasts. Both countries hold their histories and traditions very dear to their hearts and celebrate them with loud colorful parades and activities, always with the inevitable fireworks.
One curiosity made me smile. While living in Panama I grew accustomed to the constant blaring of car horns in the bigger cities. To the untrained ear it appears to be a random cacophany of raucous sound. But then it becomes obvious that Panamanian drivers have an intricate system, almost like another language and all understand the varied horn nuances. Conversely, in San Miguel it is illegal to use your car horn in traffic.
Sadly it will be necessary for me to return to Canada in a few days and I am no closer to choosing a favorite between these two cities. I foresee several sleepless nights in the forseeable future as I wrestle with which of these remarkable places I will choose to make my forever home.
In this regard I highly recommend that those of you who are considering retirement, or an alternate place to work and raise your families, should do your due diligence and consider choosing one of these two enchanting locations.