In this report, our Guest Star Walt from the United States, responds to the question, “Is Oaxaca or Guanajuato better for retiring cheap in Mexico?”
Dan: What are the two cities you would like to compare today?
Walt: Well, I will compare Oaxaca and Guanajuato Mexico, because I have experience living in both cities.
Dan: How long did you live in each city and how recently did you live in each city?
Walt: I am back in the US temporarily, but my wife is from Oaxaca, Mexico.
My relationship with Oaxaca spans more than 30 years. Actually physically living in Oaxaca as a resident totals 3 and a half years. Most recently, in 2018.
We also lived in Guanajuato, Mexico for 3 years, from 2014-2017
So total time physically living in Mexico between both cities was six and a half years. But since my wife is from Oaxaca, we would also go back and visit every summer.
Dan: What were your typical budgets to live in each city and for how many people?
Walt: Well when I was single and sharing an apartment with some students back in 1988 in Oaxaca, my food and lodging were $150 a month, and that gave me an extra $50 for additional expenses.
I was very thin back then.
More recently, from 2014-2018, I was telecommuting from Mexico, working for a software company in the US. We were four. My wife, myself, and our two children.
To be honest, I didn’t really track our budget that closely, but I would say that in general terms, for a family of four, our expenses were less than half of what they were living in the US.
Dan: What did you pay in rent in each city and were your accommodations comparable in size and amenities?
Walt: In Oaxaca, we own a small, two-bedroom apartment that we bought back in 2006 for $25,000. So we don’t pay rent when we live in Oaxaca. My wife’s family also has a small adobe house on a pear orchard on communal land up in the Sierra Norte, about 45 minutes outside Oaxaca. So sometimes we’ll go up there to get away from the city. A lot of property in Mexico, by the way, is not private property, a lot of property is owned by the community.
In Guanajuato, we rented a beautiful three-bedroom house for 9000 MXN pesos (I guess that was about $450 USD) a month, with a beautiful view overlooking the city. So the size of the accommodations and the cost for living in each place was quite different.
Dan: Which city has better Healthcare (insurance or self, quality care, distance, costs/expenses)
Walt: In regards to healthcare, I was on a US Insurance Plan the last time we lived in Oaxaca and Guanajuato. But Healthcare in both places was so much less expensive, we simply paid everything out of pocket.
My wife had three operations when we were in Guanajuato. The cost of those three operations was less than the co-pay would have been for one operation in the US.
Also, for minor things, we went to a pharmacy doctor and paid the equivalent of about $3 dollars per visit.
From my experience, I would say the cost and quality of medical care were similar in both cities.
I had an amazing dentist in Guanajuato though. I felt he was better than any dentist I saw in Oaxaca, and even some of the dentists I have had in the US. He charged a little more than the dentists who treated me in Oaxaca, but it was worth it. I paid about $25 US for a cleaning.
Dan: Which city has better Internet (reliable, stable, speed, price)
Walt: I used Telmex in both Oaxaca and Guanajuato, so the speed and price were comparable. In both places, the Internet speed was sufficient to telecommute with my customers in the US. I guess it was about $30 US a month.
Dan: Which city had better Accommodations for the money (are they in the center or do you need a car, costs, and size, gated or local)
Walt: Our apartment in Oaxaca is actually located in a small town just outside of Oaxaca called Santa Lucia. From Santa Lucia, it’s about a 45-minute walk to the city center of Oaxaca. Or, you could take a bus or a taxi and get there in about 10 minutes, depending on traffic.
Guanajuato is sort of shaped like a bowl. And on the top ring of that bowl is a road called the Panoramic that overlooks the city down below. We lived on the Panoramic. So walking down the Callejon ( a Callejon is like a narrow alleyway) into the city center is about a 5-minute walk. I remember that callejon walk very well, because it was exactly 254 steps down to the city center. So for anyone moving to Guanajuato, you don’t need to purchase a stair climber. Just walk up and down the callejones. It’s great exercise.
Dan: Which city is better for Eating Out (food carts, restaurants, prices examples, international variety)
Walt: Of course, Oaxaca is the culinary capital of Mexico. So there’s really no comparison in terms of food, Oaxaca wins. Oaxaca is also a larger city. So there are just many more options in terms of restaurants and places to eat. Best place to eat in Oaxaca? That’s easy. The house of my wife’s aunt, Tia Lolita. Of course, restaurant prices vary quite a bit in Oaxaca. It’s more expensive in the beautiful, Spanish colonial center of town, though still pretty reasonable. In local neighborhood restaurants, you can get a full meal for between 3 to 5 dollars.
Guanajuato wasn’t bad either and eating out wasn’t expensive. Keep in mind that Guanajuato is a University town, so lots of inexpensive restaurants to choose from. Also in Guanajuato, some international restaurants were not that expensive. La Vie en Rose is a French Pastry shop near the Teatro Principal and Delica Mitsu Campanero, a Japanese Restaurant. My son, of course, always headed to the Mercados for an inexpensive meal that was about $3 dollars.
Dan: Which city felt Safer (feel safe, victim of any crimes, police corruption, narcos)
Walt: Did not experience any police corruption in either Guanajuato or Oaxaca. The only real issues with police for me have been driving foreign plated cars in Mexico City. I have driven all over Mexico in the past 30 years without a problem. But Mexico City? I do not recommend driving a car in Mexico City. If you want to go into Mexico City, take a bus or a plane, and use public transportation while you’re there.
In regards to crime, yes, in Guanajuato, we had our van broken into and two tennis racquets were stolen. We also had a computer stolen from our house when we were not at home. In hindsight, I would choose a more secure house. If I bought a home in Guanajuato, I would have a video camera outside and perhaps even inside the home. My neighbor was also broken into while I was living in Guanajuato. He’d lived in that same neighborhood for 30 years and had never experienced a break-in before. But of course, things like this happen.
The only instance of crime in Oaxaca was when I was in my twenties. I was arranging my luggage on the top rack of a bus and someone picked my pocket and exited the back of the bus before the bus left the station. Of course in my twenties, I was essentially broke, so I don’t know if you could really call that much of a crime.
Dan: Which city had better Shopping (public markets, ex-pat grocery stores, int’l selection, prices)
Walt: There are more options in terms of shopping and ex-pat grocery stores in Oaxaca than there are in Guanajuato. That said, the city of Leon is 30 minutes from Guanajuato, and is the seventh-largest city in Mexico. So if you feel the need to go to a mall, a Walmart, Sam’s Club, or a Costco, you have everything you need close to Guanajuato by simply taking a short, 30 minute trip to Leon.
Oaxaca and Guanajuato both have public markets, but there are more numerous public markets in Oaxaca.
Dan: Which city had better cultural Entertainment (Theatres, museums, live music, parks, art galleries)
Walt: In terms of entertainment, Guanajuato has El Cervantino, which is an international arts festival that takes place each year in the fall. It’s amazing, and a lot of the events and musical performances you can attend for free. They also have an International Film Festival in Guanajuato where they present films in various theaters throughout the town. When we were there, they closed off one of the subterranean tunnels and showed movies in the evenings inside the tunnel. And of course, there is the University of Guanajuato Symphony Orchestra, which everyone enjoys. You could also go on a Callejonada, which consists of walking through Guanajuato’s narrow streets or callejones with a troop of musicians who play and sing traditional songs and tell jokes to the audience along the way.
The city of Leon, as I said is only 30 minutes away, and they have a wonderful state fair in Leon each year. Leon also has an annual, international hot air balloon festival.
Oaxaca is amazing in terms of festivals and its rich indigenous cultural history, its pottery, textiles, and wood carvings. Of course, the Guelaguetza Festival with the traditional dancing and the night of the radishes where creative carvings of radishes are displayed in the center of town are popular. Oaxaca also hosts a couple of Mescal Fairs each year. Like Tequilla Mescal is a drink made from Cactus. And Oaxaca is famous for it’s Mescal. There is always some cultural or artistic event going on in Oaxaca. And Oaxaca has numerous, interesting small towns throughout the state and beaches are not too far away. There is ecotourism developing in the Sierra Norte region where you can rent a cabin, go on mountain walks, and eat fresh trout.
Both cities celebrate the Day of the Dead and Mexico’s Independence Day, and those are fun events in both cities.
Dan: Which city is more favorable for Walkability (distance to coffee shops, quaint surroundings, shopping, must have car)
Walt: As far as walkability, I would say Guanajuato is more pedestrian-friendly. Or perhaps more accurately, I would say less car-friendly, because there are all of these narrow alleyways throughout town that you cannot drive cars on. Guanajuato is also less spread out, so it’s easy to walk through most of the town in a matter of minutes. That said, it may not be so pedestrian-friendly for seniors, particularly if you are choosing or needing to walk up or down steep, narrow side streets. It’s something to consider if you’re older and planning a move to Guanajuato.
Oaxaca is more spread out and the city itself has flatter terrain than Guanajuato. There are a lot more cars, buses, and traffic to deal with in Oaxaca. There are also strikes that occur in Oaxaca fairly frequently, where major roads are temporarily blocked off by protestors. The state of Oaxaca is also prone to Earthquakes. I have never experienced one while living there but have experienced several tremors where you are in a store, the earth starts shaking, and the merchandise begins to fall off the shelves.
Dan: Which city has a cheaper cost of living assuming a comparable house or apartment?
Walt: In terms of the cost of living, I would say that Oaxaca and Guanajuato are pretty comparable. Oaxaca might be a little more expensive in terms of restaurants, in the city center. There are also tourists in Guanajuato. But since Guanajuato is a big University town and a lot of the restaurants cater to students, restaurant prices are quite accessible.
Dan: Which did you prefer living no matter the cost?
It’s hard to say which I prefer. When I retire, I might consider buying a small home in Guanajuato. And since we already have an apartment in Oaxaca, I could see us splitting time between both cities, in addition to doing some traveling outside of the country. But using Guanajuato and Oaxaca as our home base.
One thing I really enjoy about Guanajuato is, being a University town, it just exudes very youthful energy, and I really like that. It’s also such a lovely and picturesque town. I prefer the climate of Guanajuato over Oaxaca too. Guanajuato is higher up in the mountains and near the top of the mountains where we lived, you can really hear the wind at night. I also like the fact that Guanajuato is closer to other major cities in Mexico that I enjoy visiting, such as Queretaro and Mexico City. If you like the beach, though perhaps Guanajuato is not for you, as there are no beaches close by.
Guanajuato is located in the center of the country. On the downside, retirees have to think about how they’ll manage, maneuvering up and down those callejones or alleyways in Guanajuato, if they live in an area of town like that. Also, Guanajuato is not car-friendly, but that’s one reason why I like it so much.
There is a small ex-pat community in Guanajuato. They get together on Sundays for brunch at different restaurants throughout the city. At least they used to, prior to covid.
In Oaxaca, it’s a larger city. There’s more to do and the architecture in the center of Oaxaca is breathtaking. There are also the outlying regions and towns to explore, each with their unique cultural traditions and festivals. Oaxaca state is blessed with the beautiful mountains of the Sierra Norte and beaches like Huatulco and Puerto Escondito. There’s also an expat community in Oaxaca. Expats tend to congregate somewhat at the Oaxaca Lending Library.
Dan: What other observations come to mind about the two cities that I have not asked?
Walt: One other observation would be relocating with kids and the issue of attending school. Public school teachers in Oaxaca tend to go on strike a lot. At least that was our experience. And that may be an issue. In our case, our kids attended private school in Oaxaca so that they weren’t out of school for an extended period. When we moved to Guanajuato, there was a decent public school option and the school teachers in Guanajuato don’t strike like they do in Oaxaca.
One other general point I’d like to make is that since more people are telecommuting these days, perhaps there’s more of an option for families to travel and live outside their native country. Personally, I think that’s one of the greatest gifts you could provide to your kids – having them become fluent in another language at an early age so they are able to function and really understand a different culture.
I’ve been traveling back and forth to Mexico for over 30 years and feel I have a pretty good grasp of the language and a fairly good understanding of the country. But my understanding is only a fraction of what my children have learned, growing up in Mexico, developing childhood friendships, and attending public and private schools there.
Sometimes parents may be concerned that their kids might fall behind in their schoolwork if they move them to a different country or they have other worries. But I think the lessons my children learned while living in a different culture and learning a different language at an early age are really invaluable. And since more of us are telecommuting, I think more families should consider it.
Dan: Thank you Walt, for all this very helpful information about two of my favorite cities in Mexico!
This is Dan of Vagabond Awake, the YouTube Channel for VagabondBuddha.com. The world is your home. What time will you be home for dinner?