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What are the best places to live in Mexico?
I spent a year in the country to find out.
As a digital nomad, Dan and I move to a new city every five or six weeks, so we lived in eight cities in Mexico during our year-long stay. This is my definitive ranking of which ones we loved, and which ones we couldn’t wait to leave when our time was up.
I’m also including a few small towns I visited (but didn’t live in) and a couple of cities I wanted to get to but just couldn’t make it.
In total, this guide will cover what it’s like to live in Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta, Oaxaca, Playa del Carmen, Puebla, Queretaro, San Miguel de Allende, and Guadalajara.
Then, I’ll widen the net with extra info on small towns I visited like Bernal, Sayulita, Tulum, Cholula, Bacalar, Taxco, Tepoztlán, Orizaba, and Dolores Hidalgo. Finally, I’ll touch on the destinations I couldn’t reach – but wanted to – like Chiapas, Guanajuato, Merida, and the Baja Peninsula.
I know that everyone has different priorities when it comes to choosing the best cities in Mexico, so this guide will cover the pros and cons of each with just a little bit of of my personal opinion splashed in to help you make the right choice for you!
Let’s dive in!
Oh, Puebla. I wanted to like you more.
Puebla is the 4th largest city in Mexico at 1.5 million people and is located about two hours east of Mexico City. So, the main issue with Puebla is that everything you can see and visit from the city – like the hiking and national parks around it – is also accessible from Mexico City posing the question of why you would choose Puebla over CDMX as a home base.
There aren’t may convincing reasons to except for your budget. The cost of living in Puebla is way lower than Mexico City – restaurant prices are 26% lower and rent is a shocking 58% lower. But, these lower prices come with a lower quality of life.
Downtown Puebla is pretty but the buildings have so much historical protection / guidelines to upkeep them that most of them are left empty. There are some historical sites, but the food, nightlife, and day-to-day things you need like meetups, markets, and events aren’t quite there yet.
Of everywhere that I lived in Mexico, Puebla was the most unremarkable – not bad, just, not very interesting in any way. It’s good for a day or weekend trip, but that’s all you need.
Read my Puebla travel guide for more details.
7. San Miguel de Allende
Next up is San Miguel de Allende. This place caters to a certain crowd and is full of older, American expats who retired there from the US.
Unfortunately, it seemed like locals and expats mostly kept to their own groups, and I heard a ton of English in shops and restaurants rather than Spanish. Other cons are the small size of the city, lack of nature, and the higher cost of living – for example, rent in San Miguel is 23% higher than in Mexico City.
Still, San Miguel is a gorgeous colonial city and it has a lot of galleries and boutiques selling local art and products. We were in San Miguel in September and there were cultural events like shows, performances, fireworks, and parades happening in the city for the month-long celebration of Grito de Dolores, Mexico’s independence day.
Like Puebla, I think San Miguel de Allende is better for a short visit and is not the best place to live in Mexico because of the divide between local and expat communities and the lack of easily accessible nature.
- 4 Best Day Trips from San Miguel de Allende
- 17 Best Instagram Spots in San Miguel de Allende
- How to Spend a Perfect Birthday in San Miguel de Allende
6. Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen was the first place I lived in Mexico. I think it has the same problems as San Miguel de Allende – tourists and expats who don’t integrate into the local community – but it comes out ahead of San Miguel because it also has one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
The cost of living in Playa is lower than you might expect, and the value for the money is definitely there.
When Dan and I lived here, we were able to walk to the beach and downtown from our studio every day and take day and weekend trips to world-class vacation destinations like Tulum simply by hopping on a bus.
The crowds were too much for me eventually and the tourist hoards are not conducive to normal life of working and making friends so ultimately, while beautiful, Playa del Carmen comes in at a distance number six on my list of the best places to live in Mexico.
Book your stay on Airbnb or read more about living in Playa del Carmen:
- Cost of living in Playa del Carmen: One Month Budget
- The Complete Guide to Playa del Carmen Coworking Spaces
- Don’t Miss These 4 Unique Restaurants in Playa del Carmen
5. Puerto Vallarta
If you want to live on the water in Mexico, Puerto Vallarta, on Mexico’s Pacific coast, is significantly better than Playa del Carmen and the Riviera Maya.
While Playa and Cancun were pretty much built entirely for tourists, Puerto Vallarta has other industries and a city and history beyond just the cruise ships that come through. It has more of an identity.
Puerto Vallarta is also surrounded by hills and mountains so it has awesome hiking and a more beautiful coastline than the flat Riviera Maya. Huge expat communities of retirees and the LGBTQ community do exist here, but in the context of the larger city of Puerto Vallarta vs. San Miguel and Playa, it’s not as overwhelming.
All in all, I found the beaches, nature, and hiking to be phenomenal in PV and the cost of living and quality of life good too.
This is the first city on my list that I recommend living in. It’s not my personal favorite, but if you want beaches and expats and warm weather, Puerto Vallarta is one of the best cities in Mexico for a permanent move.
I love Oaxaca. So much so, that Dan and I actually met with a realtor and somewhat-seriously discussed the option of buying property here. Oaxaca is a special place with an invigorating energy.
The pros of living in Oaxaca: it’s colorful, peaceful, vibrant, alive.
With a population of 250k people, it avoids the crowds and pollution that plague so many other cities in Mexico. Oaxaca has also held on to their indigenous roots so visitors are immersed in the culture via galleries, food, ruins, and museums and can experience Mexico a little more deeply than is possible on the coasts.
Oaxaca is surrounded by mountains and nature that I could spend years exploring and the cost of living is incredibly low (rent is 42% lower than in Mexico City). Oaxaca is also home to the Day of the Dead celebrations in November, a beautiful event that should be on every traveler’s bucket list.
The list of cons of living in Oaxaca is much smaller, but there are a few. Namely, Oaxaca’s location. Alone in the mountains, leaving the city will require a domestic flight to Mexico City or Guadalajara (two of the only places their tiny airport flies) or a six+ hour bus ride to Puebla or CDMX.
If you want a quiet place to buy a home, live slow, and become a part of the local community rather than live alongside it, Oaxaca is undoubtedly one of the best places to live in Mexico. If you’re looking for excitement, a fast pace of life, or want to be able to travel often, it may not be the city for you.
3. Mexico City
Mexico City is such an amazing place. It’s one of my favorite places to live not just in Mexico but in the entire world.
However, Mexico City has a lot of problems that keep it from the top of this list: traffic (it can take hours just to get across the city), pollution (ranked the 36th most polluted city in the world on Wikipedia), crowds, crime, high cost of living – basically, all the things that any big city suffers from, amplified by the fact that 20 million people live here.
Still, I love it.
Mexico City is also surrounded by amazing national parks and hiking destinations and has an easy-to-use bus system that makes getting out to them without a car a breeze. Mexico City’s central location also makes taking buses or cheap flights to explore the rest of the country both easy and affordable.
There are tons of expats, digital nomads, and local groups and meetups to make friends at and an endless list of shows, concerts, sports, and events to attend. If you’re a night owl, you’ll quickly find that this is truly a city that never sleeps.
Living in Mexico City is like living in NYC, if NYC was affordable to the average person. I love the chaos and energy and diversity, and if you’re a city-dweller, you will too. Mexico City is absolutely one of the best places to live in Mexico and I’ll defend that statement ’til I die.
Queretaro doesn’t come up on many tourist and travel itineraries but it is one of the top five tech cities in Mexico.
Because the economy is not based on tourism, expats can live a normal life and integrate into the community much easier than in other places. I also found the city to be clean and the colonial center was romantic, beautiful, and walkable for pedestrians.
Queretaro is in Mexico’s wine region so it’s surrounded by vineyards for a day or weekend getaway. There’s also a lot of beautiful hiking and nature nearby (1/3 of the state of Queretaro is a protected biosphere reserve) and has an overall pleasant climate (not as cold as Mexico City but not as humid and hot as the coasts).
It has enough international food, breweries, bars, and events to keep you busy and is definitely one of the most livable cities in Mexico for expats and locals alike. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this off-the-radar city but after spending six weeks in Queretaro, I’m convinced it’s one of the best cities in Mexico.
- Top 10 Instagram spots in Queretaro
- The Best Vineyard in Queretaro for a Romantic Getaway
- How to go hiking in the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve
I’m never saving the best for last again.
Dan and I were SO excited to move to finally move Guadalajara at the end of our time in Mexico… and then three days into our stay, we were forced to fly home. Unfortunately, we arrived in March 2020, just in time for the disaster-that-shall-not-be-named to ruin our travel plans along with everyone elses.
So, how did Guadalajara still get the top spot on my list of best places to live in Mexico?
Honestly, it’s because after living in the other seven cities and visiting countless more, I know what I like, and I know Guadalajara would have fit the bill.
I loved Mexico City, but it was too big and polluted. I loved Queretaro, but it was just a little too small and quiet. Guadalajara is just right – cleaner, cheaper, and less crowded than Mexico City but larger and more exciting than Queretaro.
Guadalajara is also known as the ‘Silicon Valley of Mexico’ and has an established tech and industry economy which makes it good for jobs (if you don’t work remote) and good for the overall quality of life for everyone in the city.
Because of that, even though I was ultimately only able to spend three days in Guadalajara, I honestly still believe it deserves the top spot on this list. If I moved back to Mexico today, Guadalajara would be my top choice to settle down in.
Book your stay on Airbnb to see if you agree with me!
Laguna Bacalar in the town of Bacalar, a Pueblo Magico in the Riviera Maya
Bonus: Small Towns and Pueblo Magicos
Though I only lived in the cities above, I visited plenty more on day and weekend trips. Most of them were Pueblos Magicos, small towns that achieve a variety of tourism milestones to get an extra little tourism distinction from the Mexican government.
Most of them are near major cities and can be the perfect in between for a quiet home base near a place with more amenities. For example, Bernal is an hour outside of Queretaro, Sayulita is an hour outside of Puerto Vallarta, Tulum is an hour outside of Playa del Carmen, Dolores Hidalgo is an hour outside of San Miguel de Allende, and Tepoztlan is an hour outside of Mexico City. Cholula is about 20 minutes outside of Puebla.
Others are a bit more remote, like Bacalar, Taxco, and Orizaba. Each one is a self-contained town with schools, grocery stores, and small downtown areas, but they’re much quieter and have less infrastructure than the major cities on this list.
Of the many Pueblo Magicos I’ve been to, the only two I would live in long-term are Bernal and Sayulita, but you may feel differently. Widen your search with this list of 100+ Pueblo Magicos in Mexico if they sound appealing to you.
Beach in La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur
Bonus: 4 More Places to Live in Mexico
With only a year in Mexico, there was plenty that I missed.
Some cities that I wanted to live in, but didn’t get the chance to, are Merida on the Yucatan Peninsula (similar to Playa del Carmen), Guanajuato in central Mexico (similar to San Miguel de Allende), La Paz and Ensenada on the Baja Peninsula (similar to Puerto Vallarta), and Chiapas in southern Mexico (similar to Oaxaca).
Consider giving them a quick Google search on your hunt for the best place to live in Mexico if you’re still undecided! Then, comment below and let me know your final choice!
Ready to go?
This article is part of the Miscellaneous Mexico City series. Read the rest below:
Or, check out the complete Mexico Series for 50+ more articles on what to see, eat, drink, do, and discover in the country.
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