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The gate on the Malecón in Puerto Vallarta with Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in framed in the center.

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4 Cities in Mexico

From the beaches to the mountains, a tour of popular Mexican destinations offers a variety of warm experiences

As the creator and editor of Savvy Senior—a nationally syndicated newspaper column for boomers, seniors and their families—forever boyfriend Jim Miller covers all aspects of aging, including retiring abroad. For years, he has noticed a pattern. Of the top destinations for retirees, many are in Mexico. Sure, sunny beaches, warm weather and a low cost of living are all prime motivators. But what goes into choosing, say, Ajijic on Lake Chapala, or San Miguel Allende in the west highlands for retirement.

Last December we took two quick flights, one from Oklahoma City to Houston, and one to Puerto Vallarta, to find out.

With four cities on our itinerary, the only way to get to them is by car. Be forewarned: Mexican auto insurance is required to drive legally in the country, and liability coverage is mandatory. Although we had purchased insurance through Expedia before arriving, it was not enough. After sorting this out, insurance is in order, and we load up a tiny Nissan Versa and head to our hotel in the old part of the city.

Behind a tiny gated door in Zona Romantica is Garlands del Rio, a former mansion on the Rio Cuale. It is not luxurious, but it is rather charming and comfortable. Our room opens to a balcony and directly across is Isla Cuale, or Cuale Island, with shaded walkways lined with trinket stands, shops and restaurants. Heavy rains caused by a hurricane four months prior flooded this area and destroyed part of the Insurgentes Street Bridge that connects to the island. Unfortunately, the bridge is right outside our window and loud reconstruction is ongoing during our stay.

The city’s largest public beach, Playa de Los Muertos, is short walk away. What a treat in the middle of December, and we people watch on the pier in the warm sun. While it is fun having dinner on the beach and watching the sunset, you have to contend with a barrage of wandering street vendors selling everything from clothing to trinkets. If tequila and mescal is your thing, you can drink it in a myriad of ways, so we order the margarita of the day at El Dorado, and later, flaming tequila coffee for dessert.

The first full day we spend in the city center meandering on the Malecón, a mile-long, paved walkway hugging the shoreline. A collection of contemporary sculptures sprinkled throughout make for fun photos. The Church of Our Lady Guadalupe is also worth a stop. Then we make a steep climb to the highest point in the city, Mirador de la Cruz. I am grateful that part of our regular workout routine is stair climbing. There are hundreds of them to get to the top, but the effort is worth it for the panoramic views of the entire coast.

Dinner was in the beautiful Café des Artists, where advance reservations are required. Located in an antique house in the city center, it’s a treat to dine in the back, which is open during the dry season. Garden is not quite the appropriate word to describe the large and lush botanical surroundings.

Our last day, we take the advice of our hotel manager and drive out to the beaches south of Puerto Vallarta. The two-lane road is dicey and winding. Surprisingly, you can’t drive directly to the beach, which we learned after taking a wrong turn at Boca De Tomatlan. We dead end in a fishing village parking lot. That turned out to be a good thing, as we met Mario, owner of Mario’s Fishing and Snorkeling Tours, who offered to take us out to Yelapa, the furthest beach accessible only by boat.

Completely secluded and inhabited by a handful of year-round residents, the main attraction in Yelapa is its 150-foot waterfall. Tucked into the jungle, the path to it takes you through the old village. After missing the turn to get to the beach, we amble along a dirt road lined with houses, farms and small shops, turn back, and eventually find Mario at a beachside restaurant. After lunch and a nap near the water, we take a very windy and bumpy ride back.

The next day, we pack up and leave, taking a congested, twisty, two-lane road to Sayulita, a small beach town an hour from Puerto Vallarta. Famous for its big waves for beginning surfers, Sayulita is a haven for wanderers, seekers and bohemians. When our room is not ready at the Petit Hotel Hafa, we head to Mary’s, a hole-in-the-wall spot known for tacos. Delicious.

Sayulita reminds me of a ski town, but on the beach.

I am a bit worried when the hotel manager hands us earplugs at check-in. An afternoon on the crowded public beach is followed by nap on the roof of our hotel and dinner seaside. At midnight we are awakened by a concert in the town square celebrating Our Lady of Guadalupe. It goes on until 5 a.m. Now we know why we were given earplugs.

One day is plenty here, and after lots of caffeine, we drive to Ajijic (ah hee-heek), a beautiful town on Lake Chapala, the largest in Mexico. It took most of the day and, after the two-lane highway experience, I am surprised by the incredible, but expensive, turnpikes.

Late in the afternoon we arrive and check in at Casa del Sol, several blocks off the main highway. Ajijic is small, with a short promenade along the lake, a handful of shops, and a senior center in a park-like center. I wonder about accessibility as the streets are cobblestone and the curbs high. A lot of retirees here live in gated neighborhoods up in the hills. Allegedly, with the exception of Kenya, Ajijic has the best climate on the planet, warm and sunny every day, even during rainy season. At least that is what the locals tell us. With a very quiet, laid-back vibe, this town has lots of charm.

A four-hour-plus, hilly drive over the main trucking route from Ajijic to Guadalajara and Leon brings us to San Miguel de Allende, or SMA, a gorgeous slice of Europe in the central highlands of Mexico. Known for its baroque Spanish architecture, arts scene and festivals, SMA’s historic city center is a UNESCO World Heritage site. After checking in to the Hotel La Morada, we head to the rooftop bar at the luxurious Rosewood Hotel for drinks and to watch the sun set.  

The next day, we take an historical walking tour with Dali Amaro of Discovery Tours SMA. Included on the itinerary is the a pink-towered, neo-Gothic Parroquia de San Miguel Archangel church and the 18th-century Tempolo de San Francisco church next to it. Both are in the city center in front of the public garden.

Baja Fish Taquitos is so good we went there twice for lunch. We climb to the city high point, El Mirador, a little challenging due to the higher elevation, and stroll along Aldama Street, where there are artisan shops and boutiques. Our second day we check out Fabrica La Aurora, a factory converted into dozens of art studios, architectural shops and galleries with gardens and outdoor sitting areas. We also check out the textile market before heading home.

The appeal of the Nayarit, Jalisco and Guanajuato states of Mexico for retirees is understandable, especially for those we met who came from cold, snowy climates. Each city we visited has its particular charms. That said, Puerto Vallarta is crowded, as is Sayulita, while Ajijic is quiet and easy to get access from Guadalajara. SMA, often at the top of Most Beautiful Cities lists, is less accessible and services not always reliable. Also, tourists are everywhere. I would say they are all worthy of an extended visit but advise thinking twice before packing up and making one a forever home.

  • The gate on the Malecón in Puerto Vallarta with Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in framed in the center.
  • A view from the high point to the city center in San Miguel de Allende
  • Jim Miller on the beach in Puerto Vallarta with the Muelle de Playa Los Muertos behind him (Photo by Susan Grossman)
  • Aldama Street in San Miguel de Allende. Church of the Immaculate Conception is in the background.
  • Parroquia de San Miguel Archangel Church at sunset in San Miguel de Allende
  • Margarita of the Day at El Dorado, Puerto Vallarta, featuring mezcal and a burnt slice of grapefruit.
  • Drinks on the rooftop of the Rosewood Hotel, San Miguel de Allende
  • On the shores of Lake Chapala in Ajijic