This is the story of two towns in Mexico's colonial highlands.
One is a sleepy village on the north shore of Mexico's largest lake. Life moves slowly here and its rhythms are measured by the chiming of church bells and the laughter of children walking to school. Its views are dominated by the wide, placid expanse of Lake Chapala, once endangered, but now lapping again at the piers and pilings of shoreline buildings. On the town square, tiny carnivals set up kiddy rides and people lunch at sidewalk restaurants on cold beer and fresh fish tacos. Walking the cobblestone streets are people from all over the world, mingling with the locals and drinking in the relaxing, dreamy atmosphere.
The other is nestled in the cradle of Mexican independence, the high plain northwest of Mexico City called the Bajio. Its vistas look out on the surrounding Sierra Madres, majestic mountain ranges that ring the place like distant fortress walls. The town square is guarded by a sugar-cake church called La Parroquia, designed they say by a self-taught Indian artisan from postcards he'd seen of French cathedrals. The Spanish colonial buildings and narrow cobbled streets seem locked in another, more cultured time, which in fact they are by law. But inside the meticulously preserved facades, modern culture and sensibility hums like electricity. Jazz can be heard coming from clubs in the evenings, the smell of exotic cuisine waft from restaurant windows, and artists from dozens of countries strive to capture the highland sunlight that fills the town like honey.
You've probably guessed by now. One town is Ajijic, the quiet haven sought out by expatriates for its ease of living and beautiful surroundings. The other is San Miguel de Allende, a perennial favorite with globe-trotters for very much the same reasons. These two towns share the essential elements that make colonial highland towns such wonderful places for expats like us to spend some or all of our time--foremost being the weather, which is positively idyllic and spring-like year-round in both places.
However, these two premier spots for enjoying La Vida Mexico have distinctly different "feels" for anyone who visits them. Folks in Ajijic shun San Miguel's bustle and modern energy. They see the three world-class golf courses going in around San Miguel as a minus, not as plus.
On the other hand, folks from San Miguel are quickly bored by Ajijic's laid-back lifestyle and fishing village appearance. They view Ajijic's lack of nightlife and colonial charm, not as relaxing advantages, but as deficits.
Is one town better than the other? Talk about a completely subjective choice. And as we spend more time exploring each place, we constantly feel blessed that we have the choice at all. So many countries offer one topography, one advantage, one way of life for expats. Here in Mexico, we have choices within choices. Which of the West Coast beaches is best? What area of the Mexican Caribbean has the greatest potential? And which colonial highland town is tops on the list?
That depends completely on what you're looking for, and that's why you must come and see for yourself. We love them both, and lucky for us, it's only a four-hour drive between. Best of both worlds? We have it.
Suzan Haskins and Dan Prescher
For International Living in Mexico