When I read "la vida cheapo" the first time it came out, I nearly cried. I had planned my second project in San Miguel in early 2000, so the fact that San Miguel was wonderful AND cheap, well that was too good to believe.
My first fieldwork project took place in a small town in southern Guauajuato. It's a nice place, but not a tourist destination. In fact, when I lived here I was probably the biggest tourist attraction going (Come see the gringa and her two guero children!). We were the first American family to live in that town, and although more than half of the adult population had ventured to the U.S. at one time or another, it was still a curiosity that I wanted to live there.
I love that town, it's people, everything about it. But it was not an easy place to live, in fact, it was more akin to camping than anything else. The house often ran out of water, it was freezing at night (the windows were not energy efficient) and we occasionally ran out of propane. When that happened, everything in the house ceased to function. It was cheap to live there, but you certainly didn't feel like this was a big bargain (you get what you pay for).
Living in Mexico can be less expensive than living in the U.S., but the reality is, when lots of Americans come to town, things change. If the apartment I've rented is as good as the web photos, then we'll be in heaven, but we've paid well for it. Monthly rents in San Miguel average $1200/month for a 1 bedroom and $1200-1500 for a two or three bedroom.
Yes, I've read about retirees who've found great places for $400/month, but that's only if you're planning to sign a 12 month lease, and even then I'd really like to see the place first. You can't make the same assumptions about Mexican houses that you can in the U.S. When we found our apartment in San Miguel, I must have e-mailed her 6 times with ever more specific questions abou the apartment: "You mention it's furnished, does it have beds?" "Do we need to bring our own linens?" "How many tinacos (water tanks) does the apartment have?" Does it ever run out of water?"
The restaurants in San Miguel are also great, and it's one of the few places in Guanajuato where I've found variety of great cuisines: Cajun, French, Italian, Asian. But again, these restaurants are not inexpensive, and in some cases are just a pricey as those in major U.S. cities.
This is one paradox I want to explore: how is it that retired Americans can afford this? Or is this just a playground for wealthy retirees, and all the books and writings on the "vida cheapo" just hype?