We just returned from a two week trip—9 nights in SMA and 6 nights in GTO (it was supposed to be 8 and 7, but my husband’s food poisoning in SMA causes us to stay there one extra night and shorten our stay in GTO). Since I was one of those people who ahead of time was wondering what the differences are between the two locales and was wondering if SMA is too touristy, I thought I’d report back.
First, a bit about us so you know who is writing this because I've learned that you need to know if the people who are giving advice are looking for similar things as you are. We are in our sixties and very well-traveled throughout the world. My Spanish is quite basic but functional. We prefer to rent apartments or houses in close and convenient neighborhoods rather than hotels or houses right in the heart of the noisy and bustling city when we travel, and we prefer to settle in and get to know a place rather than just spend our time running around doing touristy things all of the time. We are not shoppers, and we are not looking for nightlife. One of the purposes of this trip was to try out locales to see if we’d want to rent there for a month in the future.
In a nutshell, we’d return to SMA but not GTO. In our opinion, GTO is worth maybe 3 or 4 days. Why? GTO is a lovely city with a very European feel to it, but for us there were a few things that didn’t make it a good fit. We like to spend our days wandering through neighborhoods and areas and not just walking the more touristy, busy main central areas with all of the shopping etc. GTO’s topography is such that the city is relatively flat right in the heart of downtown, with lots of tunnels going through it to alleviate traffic. Everything else is uphill—steeply uphill—and after awhile we ran out of places to walk. We just weren’t interested in spending our walking time climbing.
We’d heard ahead of time that GTO is not tourist or English-speaker friendly, but that didn’t concern us because we’ve always managed to get around and find things and order in restaurants on our own. However, GTO is in another league from any place we’ve been, and there really is no tourist information or infrastructure and there are no small entrepreneurs who want to work with tourists (not that we found anyway). The city’s Tourist Info booths (the main office mentioned in all of the guide books is defunct) are staffed with indifferent people, and they don’t speak English. The one map they hand out is totally worthless. My advice is before you leave home print out several different varieties of Google maps of the heart of the city, and when you arrive see if any of them make sense.
Because we were getting bored and couldn’t find anything else, we took the all-day tour to outlying areas offered by the Tourist Office. Total waste of time and money—see my other posting in the GTO forum on a summary of the tour. Since I speak a little Spanish we did fine in GTO, but don’t expect English menus or English-speaking waiters. On our own we took a taxi to the outskirts of GTO to the San Gabriel de Barrea hacienda and managed to get back with a bus. We enjoyed the several museums we visited in the town, and many of the churches are Baroque masterpieces very reminiscent of those we’ve seen in Spain. Don’t get me wrong; GTO is a lovely place for a few days and has much to offer, but for us it isn’t a place that we feel we could be happy for more than a few days.
I’d been really worried that SMA would be touristy, and in parts it is. But, just like many other places in the world once you get away from the heart of tourist-central much of that feel disappears. And, we found that a great number of the tourists there were Mexican nationals—many, many from Mexico City. To us, a city is what you make of it. If all you do is hang around the main downtown area with its boutiques and pricey restaurants and tourist-oriented shops, the city will seem aimed just at tourists. But, if you make different choices, you’ll find a very interesting and lovely town.
The city is definitely more accommodating to English speakers, but we found that this was true mainly in tourist-central and in the more central and pricey restaurants that cater to foreign tourists. Once you left tourist-central, this ended. Don’t expect everyone to speak English because most places we were—shops and restaurants-- there were only Spanish speakers. We took advantage of some of the tours—the Sunday house and garden tour, and the walking tour offered by volunteers—and we visited many churches and other places of interest. Mostly though, we walked and walked and walked exploring all different locales. There were several things we wanted to do but just ran out of time. Although we could have, we never took a taxi in San Miguel finding that it is a very walkable place.
One more thing I want to mention is location to set yourself up in in both cities. I’d read here that if you want to rent in GTO to find that place first, and then after that is organized to find a place in SMA because there are many more rentals in SMA than GTO. It is true, and I had some problems in finding a place in GTO. I'd also heard that right in the heart of the city can be quite noisy at night so try to get a bit out of the main downtown area. In GTO we took an apartment there in a quiet neighborhood that had a lovely, lovely view but was way up a steep hill off the Panoramica (the ring road that circles the heights of the city). This location definitely lessened our enjoyment of the city for two reasons—it was a really, really steep walk up that hill and we weren’t really in a neighborhood that offered any amenities like small stores or restaurants. Plus, we were warned by the owner to take taxis after dark (because the smaller callejones or streets anywhere in the city could be unsafe at night), so that also lessened spontaneity.
On the other hand, in SMA we rented a house in the nearly flat colonia of San Antonio, primarily because I'd been warned about perhaps not wanting to do all of that climbing to return to a rental in a place like Balcones. (And, after one day taking a hike up onto those lovely higher neighborhoods, we decided we were happy we didn't have to make the climb or take a taxi all of the time.) We liked our location a lot because there were many small stores and restaurants within a few blocks. We felt like we were part of a real Mexican neighborhood, and we were able to walk 2 to 6 blocks at night to local restaurants.
So, that is our take on the two cities for us. I hope this helped some people.