French Fries or Foie Gras? Comparing the Famous Expat Locations Ajijic and San Miguel de Allende
We have been asked several times to compare the lifestyle of the very well known and established expat locations San Miguel de Allende with Ajijic, both in the Mexican Highlands. Let’s start with what they have in common:
“Gringolandia,” Yes, But With Plenty of Local Flavor
While no reliable figures are available, a reasonable guess is that Ajijic and San Miguel de Allende may each have somewhere around 10,000 or so expats in the high season. However, just because there are lots of expats doesn’t mean you can’t find any Mexicans living in the area. Quite the contrary! While there are some higher concentrations of expats, in both areas, expats are very much the minority amongst the locals, and both areas have a good-sized population of wealthier Mexicans who have second homes there.
Surf’s Not Up, Dude
Neither San Miguel de Allende nor Ajijic are located near the beach. While this is great news if you’re afraid of hurricanes, it’s bad news if you’re an avid scuba diver or surfer. By car, San Miguel de Allende is eight to nine hours away from the nearest beach, while Ajijic is a bit closer. From Ajijic, you can hang ten in Puerto Vallarta in about five hours and within three hours, you could be snorkeling in Manzanillo, where Dudley Moore pursued Bo Derrick in “10.”
It’s Really Cool to be in the Mountains
Ajijic is at about 5,000 feet elevation, while San Miguel de Allende is a bit higher, at around 5,700 feet. All other things being equal, the higher the elevation, the lower the temperature. So on a day when you could be sweating in a 90+ degrees Fahrenheit day at the beach, at that same moment, in San Miguel de Allende or Ajijic, you could be walking your dog or playing tennis at an extremely comfortable 75 degrees. This is one of the main selling points of both areas.
The additional advantage of Ajijic is that it is on the shore of the largest lake in Mexico, Lake Chapala, which further moderates the temperatures. While San Miguel de Allende has extremely good weather, one can easily argue that the weather in Ajijic is even better on account of the lake, which will tend to make it less cold in the winters and at night, and less warm in the summers and during the day. Believe me; it’s true. After being a while in Ajijic, you’ll laugh (or perhaps even titter with unabashed glee) at the consistency of the temperatures, all year round. Ajijic will also tend to be less dry than San Miguel de Allende, without being humid.
A Short Diversion With a Riddle, Sprinkled With Revenge
Before wrapping up what is the same or similar between San Miguel de Allende and Ajijic, here’s a riddle:
When does five equal zero?
In both places, five equals zero about 90% of the time when it’s the five circles on your smart phone with Moviestar cellular service that tells you that you have the highest level of cell phone connectivity, when you absolutely cannot complete a call. If you want your phone to work in either place, don’t use Moviestar.
Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, here’s where Ajijic and San Miguel de Allende differ.
Did We Just Pass It?
After reading and hearing so much about Ajijic, we were extremely excited about going there. Imagine our disappointment on our first trip when, in total amazement, we realized we had driven right through the Ajijic area on the carretera (main road) without even knowing it and had to turn around and try again. And its not that we weren’t looking-- we were!
There is really no landmark or really even a distinctive sign marking Ajijic. The same thing is definitely not true of San Miguel de Allende. Even from several miles away, the iconic and almost fairyland-like Parroquia (in this cae, a cathedral) elegantly and gracefully presides over the entire area, visible from miles away, gracing Centro San Miguel de Allende and all the surroundings, it’s various shades of pink seemingly ascending to the heavens, with its towers in a shape reminiscent of a sand castle. Does Ajijic have anything like that? Not really. In Ajijic, it’s gorgeous Lake Chapala, impressive tropical hills and a magnificent view of what looks to be an extinct volcano on the other side of the lake.
In San Miguel de Allende, the focal point is the Parroquia, with glamor and sophistication increasing in intensity in a roughly concentric pattern as you approach the singularity. In Ajijic, one tends to focus on the lake and very beautiful natural surroundings throughout the many dispersed communities, which, collectively, the locals call “Lakeside.”
Circles or Rectangles / Up and Down or Sideways?
While San Miguel de Allende is laid out in a circle with a city center, Ajijic is more of an amorphous and jagged rectangle. On one approach into San Miguel de Allende, just over the bridge, you are greeted with a beautiful, upscale, gated residential development, integrated into the core of the city. In Ajijic, when you arrive down Colon Street (which is one way and very narrow), you find small shops and nothing obvious to compare to the gated splendor of San Miguel de Allende in the central area.
As mentioned above, there is nothing obvious to even let you know you have arrived in Ajijic, other than a very peaceful plaza two blocks in, and then, three small blocks later, it’s over—you’ve dead-ended into the malecon along the lake. Along the way, you’ll find little shops and many very good, very inexpensive restaurants with colorful, mostly humble storefronts. Any gated communities in Ajijic tend to be on the mountain side of the carretera and are generally built horizontally, as opposed to the more urban (and urbane) vertical feel you get while in San Miguel de Allende. Here’s a video of a residential street in San Miguel de Allende.
Eva Gabor or Eddie Albert?
For the most part, while Ajijic is definitely moving in the direction of San Miguel de Allende, San Miguel de Allende is higher end and more sophisticated than Ajijic. The restaurants are tonier, and the buildings have more detailed and expensive casings around their doors, windows and columns. While Ajijic is for the most part, “meat and potatoes”, San Miguel de Allende is for the most part “brie and a finely aged merlot.”
Joshua Trees and Cactus or Palm Trees and Waterfalls?
While the weather and foliage in Ajijic has rounded, gentle edges, San Miguel de Allende is starker. Ajijic has the largest lake in Mexico to moderate its temperature, while San Miguel does not, so San Miguel is slightly hotter in the day and slightly colder at night than Ajijic. While the mountains in Ajijic are reminiscent of the tropics, the terrain in San Miguel de Allende is more reminiscent of the pampas in Argentina or the drier areas of Southern California. You can feel the sun and the cold in San Miguel more than in Ajijic because of the drier air. However, this same dry air can make the sunrises and sunsets in San Miguel de Allende pretty spectacular, while, in Ajijic, they are more muted and blend into the lake like an impressionistic painting.
Would You Like a Starbucks With hat Extra Zero?
While very few homes in the Ajijic area are priced at over $1 million, it is not unusual at all to hear people in San Miguel de Allende talk about prices of homes starting with the phrase “one point” or even “two point,” especially towards the center of the city… not too far from the Parroquia… and Starbucks.
To be fair, San Miguel de Allende does have much more affordable housing away from the exact centro but still walking distance to that triple venti, half sweet, non-fat, caramel macchiato, if you’re in pretty good shape. Ajijic doesn’t have a Starbucks, but it does have fresh coffee beans trucked in from Veracruz and sold from the back of that truck right on the carretera.
The Lake Chapala Society Rocks!
While both Ajijic and San Miguel de Allende have well-developed expat organizations, Ajijic’s Lake Chapala Society is in a class of its own. In the dozens of expat locations we cover in five countries, none are the equal of the Lake Chapala Society. In this one place, you can socialize with other expats; get answers to your questions; get your eyes, skin and ears examined; meet the US consulate; go to dances like the Lake Chapala Society Woodstock Festival (video); play cards; hear lectures; etc., etc., etc. It is a great help to anyone moving into the area and a great center of expat life.
Not Quite Bali Hai, But a Reasonable Facsimile
People will tell you that you can go hiking around San Miguel de Allende, but it really doesn’t compare to Ajijic, because the hiking and mountains of Ajijic are both fantastic. While San Miguel de Allende has high desert rolling hills, Ajijic has towering mountains graced with tropical foliage and waterfalls in the rainy season right off the lake, and volcanoes in the distance. While in Ajijic, I hiked several times literally minutes from my front door (video), immediately encountered a stream, and within 15 minutes, I was enjoying a waterfall. While this is common in Ajijic, there is nothing like this verdant paradise in the San Miguel de Allende area.
Look at This! (Or Not)
An expat who moved from Ajijic to San Miguel de Allende told us that the reason he moved was that, when he had visitors from the States, there was very little to take them to see or do in Ajijic, while in San Miguel de Allende, there was more. I believe this is a fair observation… although not necessarily a damning one for Ajijic. San Miguel de Allende is definitely more impressive and showier. Whether this is good or bad depends on your perspective.
Here’s a video of a procession, complete with music and dancing, we just happened upon while in San Miguel de Allende.
High Roller or Low Baller?
The prices in Ajijic tend to be lower; many times, much lower. While if you search for it, you can find some bargains in San Miguel de Allende and the prices are definitely lower than most (but not all) places in the US, the prices in San Miguel de Allende tend to be higher than in Ajijic. This is especially true with housing, and of course, those tony restaurants. Ajijic is very noticeably less expensive overall, even for the same quality and experience.
Serenity or Nightlife and Chic Gallery Openings?
Ajijic has the lake and surroundings, which can be extremely beautiful and relaxing, and give off a vibe of peace, while San Miguel de Allende has nothing like it. For Ajijic, think: “tranquilo”… unless you are looking for a restaurant at 8 PM, in which case, you may get a bit agitated, because there are very, very few open. Ajijic has a slower and easier pace of life than San Miguel de Allende. Ajijic is a town, while San Miguel de Allende is a small city, complete with city traffic, more congestion, more activity and more excitement.
Here’s a video of a parody song we made up about Ajijic that was played at a local restaurant-- "Ajijic... and the Livin' is Easy".
Which is best for you? While I’m intentionally overstating the case here and above in order to draw a contrast, it really comes down to this: San Francisco or the suburbs? Imported caviar or a great BLT? Leased BMW 3 Series or paid for 7 year-old Ford F-150 truck? I could go on, but you get the picture.
To read the next story, go to How Traveling and Living Abroad Gave Me a Better Perspective on Time and Happiness
Photographs alternate between Ajijic and San Miguel de Allende.
To read the previous story, go to San Miguel de Allende: A Colonial, Artsy Town Rich In Culture, Pageantry and Expats
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To see Q & A about San Miguel de Allende answered by expats already living there, go here. To see answers about Ajijic, go here.
To see videos of San Miguel de Allende, go to our San Miguel de Allende YouTube Playlist. To see videos about Ajijic, go to our Ajijic YouTube Playlist.
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To see more videos of the trip, see our YouTube channel.
(Map data 2016 copyright Google INEGI)
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