San Cristobal vs Oaxaca vs San Miguel: Mountain towns of Mexico

We spent the winter in the Baja peninsula, and we loved it there.

But I couldn't believe that that was the busy season, sure in Cabo San Lucas it was crazy (when is it not) but in just about everywhere else it was delightful. The weather was awesome, sure it was dry and could get hot, but the wind helped and we seemed to always be by the ocean which keeps things cool.

We then took the ferry to the mainland of Mexico in late April. You know, spring time.

We had done our research about when the best times were to be where but we didn't realize how much we wanted to stay in Mexico and do slower travel. So that meant we'd be renewing our visas (in the worst way possible!) and spending the rest of 2016 in Mexico. Or at least we have the option to. :)

As we drove down the coast of Mexico we were doing a couple of things:

  1. Getting to Guatemala for the most epic visa run... seriously you need to read about it if you haven't.
  2. Checking out a couple of places that people rave about, seeing if we'd like it there. (Yes to Zihuatanejo!)
  3. Watching the heat rise, realizing people were right about the Mexican summers, and that even beach living doesn't help.

Mexico Pacific Coast Drive Plan

By the time we landed Gracie in Puerto Arista, Chiapas for the epic visa run we realized we needed to head for the hills. We loved that all "winter" long the kids were playing outside, the screen door was getting plenty of use, and the air conditioners were getting none. However, May taught us that it was so hot out (often more than 90 degrees F with 90% humidity) we couldn't rightly expect the kids to be outside when we didn't want to be outside. So we made a plan to check out two mountain cities.

There are really four "hotspots" for cool/moderate temperatures in Mexico during the summer. Most expats and even some locals will head to one of these four spots for the summer. Of these four spots we thought we knew that we'd enjoy one of the two closer ones to where we parked Gracie. But we didn't know which one. And we were getting conflicting information about which one would be better temperatures, internet, and if we could find a place to park Gracie.

Not to mention Gracie doesn't do mountains well. I mean she can climb them, faster than many of the dumptrucks, but the switchbacks have done crazy things to the insides of our houses and the insides of our passengers. It's expensive in fuel, hard on the brakes, and we go much slower than in the van. Our crazy visa run in the van taught us how we can actually zip around in the van.

So we made a plan to change things up. We'd leave the Motorhome and trailer behind in "storage" and drive with the minivan to these two mountain cities, stay in an airbnb house in each place for a week and by then we'd know if we liked it enough to spend a couple months there. We'd find a place to park Gracie for a couple of months and live there. After the summer we could head for the Yucatan and checkout other parts of Mexico.

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Gracie in "storage"... seems pretty posh to me ;)

First up San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas

It was a simple drive to get here, and it went really quite well, but we were definitely surprised at what we found.

Tiny Tiny Tiny streets, traffic galore, and perfect, if not slightly chilly temperatures. We were here in the first week of June and it rained nearly every day. But it was only in the later afternoon/evenings combined with a  fantastic thunderstorm most days. Some were light drizzle for hours, others were frog-drowning, river-in-the-road, washout producing downpours. But it was wonderful. We loved it!

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Our Airbnb hosts made an early dinner for us on our first day there... spicy but really tasty. This is an outdoor eating space where we ate most of our meals.

The people of San Cristobal are wonderful. True it's a bit more of a tourist town than we typically like, but the Zapotec (indigenous people of the area) seem to have kept many parts of their culture alive and it just brings such life to this town. It is a colonial spanish town so there are incredible buildings and architecture as well as fun spain-like narrow cobblestone streets. But you still have the marcados we love. There were some streetfood options, but it was more of a sit down restaurant type in the city center as that's the tourist destination.

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This was our first introduction to the tiny streets of mountain towns. While we were in San Cristobal we didn't take too many pictures, we had phone problems and just didn't capture all the beauty of the city.

First, do not call it San Cristobal. Every time we did that in other parts of Mexico people would correct us that ist's San Cristobal de las Casas. Fortunately it shortens well to type it as SCDLC. (I guess we as Americans have a propensity for nicknames and shortening things, like it's not Washington DC, it's just DC, or LA versus Los Angeles. I really just want to call it San Cris or San Cristobal but that only works inside our family unit :)

As for campgrounds, meh. We looked at one which was just a parking lot. We could make it work, and when we left San Cris we were planning on heading to that campground if we returned. The other campground was more difficult to get to (narrow streets with tight turns) but was covered in green grass. However it was very mosquito ridden and the ground was quite damp/muddy. Not to mention it was full of overlanders. Having a bunch of gringos around can be fun, but also means we have to make sure the kids stay closer, and that MooMoo (the dog) would behave--she is a fierce guard dog and doesn't like anyone else near Gracie. So that campground presented a lot of stress.

As for the road to get there, great! Gracie would struggle with some of the hills, but other than that there weren't terrible switchbacks. We would avoid the downtown like the plague though!

Onward to Oaxaca

In the US and elsewhere I've read that this city is referred to as Oaxaca Ciudad. (literally Oaxaca City) and that makes sense because the state is Oaxaca. However when you get here you realize that, no, this is Oaxaca. The state is Oaxaca and the city is Oaxaca (wah-HA-kuh).

To make matters even more complex, Mexico City is indeed not Mexico City. It is simply Mexico. So while in Oaxaca, Mexico it is fair to say "I'm going to drive to Oaxaca and then after that we're going to Mexico." (wait, aren't you already in Mexico, and aren't you already in Oaxaca!!!)

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A baptism happened inside this church, when they came out the quinceanera (15 year old birthday party) went inside. After this there were fireworks and a parade with a band. While we took this picture another baptism parade came behind us.

We knew from driving the coast in Oaxaca that we loved the people of the state of Oaxaca. But we didn't know what the mountain town of Oaxaca would be like.

After a visit to the village of San Cristobal we had no idea what we were about to drive into.

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How we roll in a market. This is in one of Oaxaca's two larger markets, Mercado 20 de Noviembre which is inside a building with a roof. (other markets are outside with tarps hung over the rows so people will still walk through when it's raining, but let's just say they're not planning for 6 foot giants when they hang those tarps.

Oaxaca (the city) is huge. There is a cool centro (downtown) which is walkable and has awesome markets and incredible architecture as well as things to explore. The traffic is worse here but the roads are wider and the distances longer. There's no quaint feeling here.  Big city!

But the food. Everyone talks about the food. And we were not disappointed. We still crave some of the meals from our time here in Oaxaca.

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This is a Tamale (A tamale is corn meal around something, in this case mole (MO-lay) and chicken, then wrapped in corn husks and steamed). But the mole in Oaxaca has chocolate in it.  Not much in the looks category but the taste is out of this world incredible!!!.  

Almost right away upon arrival we knew we wouldn't like it here, it's not dirty like trash thrown everywhere, it's just more dirty like city traffic pollution. Noise, traffic and less cool culture. Plus it's just a larger city with more people and more separation. (think suburbs and regions of a city separated by highways, mountains etc)

We never found (didn't try too hard) the campgrounds, as we knew we weren't going to set up shop here.

It was a bit warmer, as we went swimming in the pool our house had. San Cristobal calls for pants and shoes, Oaxaca is still a shorts and sandles place.

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Oaxaca countryside.

The roads to get here were more difficult as the whole state of Oaxaca seems to be covered in mountains. We love the state and the people and the food and the views, we got to see and do some incredible things in this region. But on the whole when compared to SCDLC it loses out. Sorry Oaxaca, you were a close second place (so far).

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This is Hierve el Agua, one of the many touristy things we did in Oaxaca (because we knew we weren't going to be back we did the sites as best we could in our week there). That may look like a waterfall, but it's referred to as the petrified waterfall. That's actually sediment that has reformed as rock as the water slowly trickles down. Think of it as a drop of water that forms an icicle. Only it's not frozen, its rock that it leaves behind... and what a gorgeous backdrop!

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The sediment formed pools, and a couple of "dams" have been built so you can go swimming there, as the water flows over it continues to leave sediment behind and creates this really cool place. The water actually comes from underground springs. While it does come bubbling out of the ground on top of a mountain it is not hot at all, in fact it's slightly chilly.

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The latest Kortman family photo! -- It's funny how people don't know how to frame the background and you ... if the person (an expat/foreigner, not a local) would have taken one step to the right we could have seen the whole "waterfall" in the background. Oh well, here's us in the raw.... real life.

One final note on Oaxaca. We knew of the striking teachers in Oaxaca, but didn't know the severity of it and how we left just at the right time (without our knowing it). The teachers have put on a series of road blockades (one that kept us from getting out of Oaxaca) and 6 were shot in clashes with the police this past weekend. If you want more of the background story check out here. We had no idea that the roadblock we were stuck at was going on for 4 days when we got there, and went on for 3 more days afterwards until police shot tear gas from helicopters on the protestors. Some really kind locals who were also stuck in the blockade found a way around (think the worst two track up 1,500 feet and single lane sketchy bridges) and we followed them. It's only took us two hours to bypass the blockade, but others (semis) had to wait a week. There are now grocery and fuel shortages in the state.

Then there's San Miguel de Allende

Again, you cannot call it San Miguel, there are too many San Miguels in Mexico. Fortunately there are enough expats living here that SMA is an acceptable shorthand.

SMA was not on our radar. We knew of it as one of the four hotspots, but it was too far north, and we loved what people wrote and said about SCDLC and Oaxaca. What we heard about SMA is that the weather is great/perfect year round and it has all the comforts of home because of the large retired expat community. Essentially the more gringos you put in a place the more gringo style services exist. While we like those benefits, we're not wild about all the gringos. And there are a ton of them here.

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Plaza Civica, a favorite hangout for us and our pigeon chasing kiddos.

As for culture, architecture and small town feel SMA has it!

As for the roads to get here, in general they're fine, highways and such, but we'll be taking the RV a different way to get here so I'm not sure what I'll be facing with that yet.

As for a campground we found a good one, with plenty of space etc. The only negative is the cost, about $550/month (they charge extra for the size of the RV, and extra for the kids, aka a kid tax). But in the grand scheme of things we couldn't find an airbnb for a month for less than $1,000/month, so by living in this campground we've saving money.

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SMA is built into a mountain/hill so theres the "upside" and the downside. This is the view from our second house in SMA, our first is on the mountain up there.

Oh and the weather? Warmer than San Cristóbal de Las Casas, cooler than Oaxaca. Indeed it's about perfect, Stay in the sun walking for 10 minutes and you'll start to sweat, move to the shade and relax. No need for A/Cs or fans. The evenings cool off to make sleeping nice. What they say about the weather in San Miguel de Allende, that it's perfect year round, seems true in June.

I am writing this from SMA, after our first week here.

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While San Cristobal introduced us to tiny streets San Miguel introduced us to a Callejón, an alley or side street. Wide enough for a scooter or maybe a quad, but no cars could fit... so it was fun to walk down and let the kids have some freedom in walking/running.

 

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Is it safe? Yes there's no robberies etc. But the steps/walking might kill you ;)

 

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The walk to the city (seen in the background) from our first house involved some 200 steps down in a Callejón. Kinda fun to see how high up our house was.

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One of the wider street intersections in el centro (downtown) of San Miguel de Allende

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So many cathedrals, so many plazas. What's not to love here?

While SMA meets our requirements for internet, campgrounds (albeit expensive), and cool culture/markets/etc. It has something that neither Oaxaca or SCDLC have:

A high concentration of Naturopathic Doctors, Chiropractors, Massage therapists, and natural/organic supplement stores.

So, yup, we're choosing San Miguel de Allende for the doctors.

We're going to eventually get Alia connected with one, but we're starting with Becky. She's had a number of health concerns that have grown over the last 6 years, one of the major symptoms is that she cannot lose weight. She's sick of looking like she's pregnant, and at some point we realized that since we're going to be sitting still for a couple of months shouldn't we find a doctor with whom we can get some attention for Becky's situation?

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Cobblestone Streets of SMA, if you notice the sign on the corner of the building it's an angel. that's the Archangel Michael, the namesake of San Miguel de Allende.

We've often said we have the freedom to move to the best doctor for whatever we need. Meaning if one of our kids got cancer we could move to the place nearest the best doctor/cancer facility for their specific form of cancer. So when it came down to Becky's health concerns (we didn't have a diagnosis but had some ideas) we knew we wanted to see a Naturopath and we discovered that there are a bunch of great options here in SMA.

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Dogs everywhere... it's hard to take MooMoo for a walk since they all bark at her!

So we've finished our first week here, seen two NDs, a chiropractor, and had a massage. We've poked our heads around the plazas and saw the annual Los Locos parade. We've determined that yes, indeed, we will enjoy spending a couple months here.

Would it be better than San Cristobal de Las Casas? If I had a choice I think I'd move the doctors to SCDLC as things are cheaper there, I miss the Zapotec people, and the food options. But I'm looking forward to connecting with more expats/digital nomads here.

The Split Up

So it's been over three weeks (approaching 4) since we've seen Gracie. We miss her, but we also realize we can live in a minivan. This time away has been good for our relationship with her and may have set us up to sell her and downsize. Yeah we'll write more about that later, we're just in the initial thinking freely phases, what if we had a 20' vehicle instead of a 37'? What if we didn't have a separate vehicle which we had to tow behind etc?

But for now the mission is to bring Gracie up to San Miguel de Allende, so we can live in her and figure out if someone would want to buy her.

So tomorrow I'm taking a taxi to the airport, two flights, a bus, and another taxi to hopefully arrive at Gracie. I know she has a flat tire on her tag axle and so I'll need to get that attended to but hopefully nothing else is too badly wrong with her from being "stored." Hoping for no theft or vandalism. Saturday morning I begin the long trek of bringing Gracie to San Miguel de Allende.

It's a 13 hour drive according to Google Maps, but with the hills, mountains and who knows what else could go wrong with Gracie I'm giving myself a week to return. Becky and the kids are staying in San Miguel to continue with the treatments, save on flight costs, and enable me to drive longer (I can eat street food for lunch and keep going better than the whole crew can.

So this will be a challenging leg of our journey, Becky and I don't do well when we're apart. A lot of other location independent families will split up to save on costs etc for traveling or sleeping or whatever, but our family has never worked well that way. So the next week will be full of challenges for both of us, for me it's missing my navigator, co pilot, partner, and friend, as well as driving troubles internet issues (I still need to work!) and potential issues with Gracie. For Becky it's missing her partner in crime, dealing with challenging kids with no break (single parent of 4 for a week). Cultural stress and potentially driving/getting around in town.

We'll survive, but it'll be good to have our house, our belongings, our crew and our sanity all back in one place. Who knows, maybe I make good time and can get here on Monday. Or it might not be until next Friday. Either way it'll be great to be back!

Paul Kortman

Dad of 4, husband, blogger, digital marketer, follower of Jesus. I podcast at nomadtogether.com and own connexdigitalmarketing.com We're on this crazy journey to travel the world as a lifestyle. Looking for help in how to live as a digital nomad family? Join this Facebook Group!

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14 Comments

  1. Susan Pasko

    Re doctors… I highly recommend Yvette Maesta and Nocholas Ransom. Both are skilled NDs and he is also an acupuncturist. I am also here in DMA to attend to my health, mostly because of these two. Feel free to PM me for more info.

    Reply
    • Paul Kortman

      We are currently seeing Dr Ransom… he seems great! and we’ve heard great things about both!

      Reply
  2. Gini

    A cheaper alternative with even MORE doctors would have been Jocotepec (west end of Lake Chapala) with your RV camper since there is an RV park there near the lake. However, since you guys are younger and you obviously can afford San Miguel, it’s probably a better choice…

    Reply
    • Paul Kortman

      You have my attention though I’m always looking for cheaper. What makes it cheaper there?

      Reply
  3. Cindi

    Another cool weather place is the Pueblo Magico Orizaba, and the next town Cordoba, in the mountains of Veracruz state. Downtown Orizaba has a great Mercado, and we did not see many gringos

    Reply
  4. Emilie Vardaman

    Wow. I am glad I was in Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas more than thirty year ago! No traffic problems then. I could walk in the middle of the street!
    But I have long wanted to go back to both places and may just have to tackle the traffic.
    San Miguel de Allende? Perfect, except for the number of gringos. I really want to live in more of a Mexican community. I will have to continue my search.

    Reply
  5. dany

    Hey Paul!, it’s Dany here!, we met you and your family at the roadblock in Oaxaca. Just remember to avoid Oaxaca in your journey back to San Miguel de Allende…

    Reply
    • Paul Kortman

      Awesome I’m outside of coatzacoalcos headed for Puebla again. I avoided Oaxaca on purpose (Gracie could NOT have done what we did!) but Chiapas had trouble too today. However I was able to drive right through!

      Thanks so much for your help that day. It was a great blessing to our whole crew!

      Reply
  6. Rebecca

    This is an interesting article. We’re currently in SMA having visited the other 2 cities in the past year. We actually like it the least of the 3 and loved Oaxaca City. It felt the most authentic of the 3. Though SMA is definitely beautiful.

    Reply
    • Paul Kortman

      How long are you in SMA? We’re here for July/Aug. It’d be fun to meet up!

      Reply
  7. Diana

    Paul, glad to see you and your family are enjoying SMA. I’ve been here since February and staying for 1 year. It’s a fabulous place!

    Today someone gave me the name of a naturopath, Yvette Maestas, who I have found is in the same office as your wife’s Dr – Nicholas Ransom. I was wondering what you and Becky think of the treatment she has received from this practice? I am looking for someone for my own intestinal issues…

    Reply
    • Paul Kortman

      Hi Diana,

      Nicholas and Yvette are husband and wife. We would have loved to have been seen by Yvette, but she has opted to spend more time with her newborn (which I totally am encouraged by!) So we’re seeing Nicholas. The fun part is that they consult with each other, AND Dr Nick is incredible. I have nothing but good things to say about him and his treatments. We’re still trying to work out what’s going on but it’s a process.

      Oh and SMA is very wonderful!

      Reply
  8. Diana

    Paul, thank you so much!

    Diana

    Reply

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