"All men should strive to learn before they die, what they are running from, and to, and why."
- James Thurber
I'll bookend this post with two recommendations for those who are either already living as expats in México or considering doing so. One is to download and read the survey of expats found at this link.
The other is to read the book above (available from Amazon on Kindle) by long-time San Miguel de Allende resident John Scherber.
Scherber's book profiles expats who've chosen to live in areas of México that don't have much of an expat population. To his credit he doesn't generalize from their experiences and goes to considerable lengths to find and interview people who are deeply invested in and knowledgeable about the places they've chosen.
The reason I recommend reading the expat survey and Scherber's book back-to-back is that together they do a great job of living up to James Thurber's advice. In the past 12-18 months there's been a phenomenal exodus of newbie expats moving to all of the well-known expat havens and my best guess is that this tsunami of newcomers is still in its early phase. Across the board I'm seeing a great deal of "running from" but without much sense of the "to" part of the equation. People are fleeing an America they no longer recognize run by a sociopathic moron, are entering retirement age with minimal savings and realizing they need to move where they can live on Social Security alone, or have done a few hours of research on the internet and have come to the conclusion they can live better for less while still in their working years by becoming a digital nomad south of the border.
Into the Heart of Mexico, meanwhile, is about the exact opposite sort of expat: one who is running towards engagement with Mexican culture with all of its challenges and contradictions. About half of the expats profiled are married to Mexicans but all of them are wedded to not just the country as a whole but the particular place they've chosen in a way that couldn't be more different from the asterisked presence ("I'm here for the winters; or for good until I have a medical emergency or my kids need me; I'm here but just as home base since I travel to the U.S. and elsewhere as often as I'm "home") that is the rule rather than the exception at Lake Chapala or San Miguel de Allende.
Another thing that comes through loud and clear in Scherber's book is that the "heart" of México is found in those states with the strongest indigenous presence, Oaxaca and Michoacán in particular, but also of course including Chiapas and Puebla. Living in these places means not just learning Spanish but dealing with a dominant indigenous culture that looks at both light-skinned descendants of the conquistadors and white tourists as "gringos," while also dealing with the systemic poverty, lack of infrastructure and frequent political instability that go hand-in-hand with choosing to live in the parts of the country that are richest in culture and cuisine but poorest by every other metric.
My prediction at the moment is that most of those who are fleeing to places like Lake Chapala and San Miguel de Allende will end up returning to the U.S., but probably not before they've ruined the local real estate and rental markets and caused local's resentment of their antics to do serious damage. At Lake Chapala in just the past year we've already seen the rental market so distorted by newbies who get all of their notions of what to pay from Facebook groups and avaricious realtors rather than on-the-ground exploration that one of the key motivators for making the move - lower cost of living - has already gone by the wayside except for those cashing out of real estate in one of the coastal "bubble" markets. Lake Chapala and San Miguel are already well on their way to becoming inland versions of San Jose del Cabo or Cancun, except that the latter two places were tourist traps from inception.
In our particular case we have always loved México (Oaxaca and Chiapas especially) but never wanted to be full-time residents. We did so anyway (along with many others) as health care and insurance refugees pre-Obamacare. We have a handful of friends who are as gaga about Mayan ruins and mezcal, 3 p.m. comida and all-night fiestas as we are about the villages of Haut Provence or the porticos of Bologna and they are the ones whose example we'd try to emulate if we had it to do over again.
Given what the U.S. is going through at the moment we feel that it's impossible to plan ahead more than a year or two. Politically and health-care wise things seem sure to get a whole lot better or a whole lot worse over that time frame and so for us the best option given our love of solitude in nature on foot and by bicycle (things that simply aren't possible in México) is to live in a low-cost U.S. locale within an easy drive of a border crossing, keep our footprint light and our options open. Should circumstances force us to return south for the duration we'd make sure to choose a place far removed from the newbie invasion.