San Miguel Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico. She stands at the front of the tour bus as we file back on board. Sporting a white blouse with large silver buttons fashioned in animal shapes, she looks right at home.

"My name is Roxanne," says the crisp forty-something home tour guide, "and I've lived here for two years. My husband and I moved here from Los Angeles."

Roxanne and her husband are among an estimated 5,000 Americans who are full time residents of this Colonial city in central Mexico. Attracted by the idea of early retirement, a near perfect climate, a historic city, an active art scene, and a cost of living that is dramatically lower than urban America's. Roxanne is quick to let you know she's happy with her decision to move here.

She and a cadre of volunteers devote every Sunday to the weekly House and Garden Tour. Each week, more than two hundred visitors pay for tours of three of San Miguel's notable homes. The proceeds are used to support programs for reading, education, and health in the area.

The house we've just been through, all 220 of us, is straight out of Architectural Digest, recently completed, and beautifully furnished. It's an investment, including artwork, of at least $2 million. But it would cost far more in the United States.

What intrigues me is the inconceivable chasm between the value of the house and the cost of the maid. The common figure is that you can have a full-time maid in Mexico for less than $200 a month. So this house and its contents may represent 833 years of her work

But I haven't come here to see grand houses or to experience, however vicariously, the lifestyles of the fairly rich and possibly famous. I've just been seduced, once again, by our national craving for more.

My real mission is completely different. It is to answer two simple questions.

If you don't have a lot of money, can you retire in Mexico? Can you live a different, simpler life?

Don't get me wrong, we're not talking about a kind of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid withdrawal from the U.S. market. This is not about slumming in a third world economy. This is about living well with less money.

Suppose you've never saved a lot of money, that you've had one or another disaster, and that you find yourself at the brink of old age or downsized into early retirement. Suppose you didn't win the lottery. Suppose none of your employers ever heard of 401k plans or pensions. Suppose what you've got is a funky little house, an aging Oldsmobile, and the prospect of Social Security as your primary source of support?

What can you do? Where can you live?

Mexico.

I say this with some confidence now because San Miguel is one of the most expensive places to live in all of Mexico. If you can live afford to live here, the other spots--- such as Lake Chapala, Guanajuato, Merida, Oaxaca, or Cuernavaca--- are likely to cost less. Even beach spots like Mazatlan, Manzanillo, or Puerto Vallarta may cost less.

So lets start with some baseline figures.

According to the Social Security website (www.ssa.gov), the average monthly Social Security check for a single retired worker this year is $845. The average retired couple receives $1,410. The maximum Social Security benefit for a worker retiring this year is $1,536. This means two maximum earners who didn't have a dime squirreled away at Fidelity, Vanguard, or T. Rowe Price could still have a monthly Social Security income of $3,072.

Now let's match that against estimated budgets in Mexico.

In "Living Overseas--- Mexico" (Living Overseas Books, pb, $16.95), writer Robert Johnston says, "Two people can live comfortably for less than $1,000 a month. A monthly income of $2,000 or more can provide luxuries only dreamed of in the U.S." Here's the budget he provides for a couple:

Average Monthly Budget for Two People

Expense Amount
Rent $300
Electricity, gas $ 30
Water $ 10
Housekeeper (5 days/week, part time) $ 70
Food $200
Telephone (local calls) $ 15
Transportation (bus-taxi) $ 30
Entertainment (once a week) $ 80
Health Insurance $ 50
Miscellaneous $100
Total $885

Source: Living Overseas--- Mexico, 1998

Mr. Johnston isn't alone in making such low estimates of living costs. "Mexico" Mike Nelson, whose "Live Better South of the Border in Mexico"(Fulcrum Publishing, pb, $16.95) is now in its third edition, writes "…as a general rule, you can live on about two-thirds of what you live on at home. Most foreigners have incomes of $800-$1,200 a month. You can live on less if you are willing to be very frugal or choose a small town. No matter what you spend, your quality of life will be better."

Ken Luboff, author of "Live Well in Mexico: How to Relocate, Retire, and Increase Your Standard of Living" (John Muir Publications, pb, 1999) writes in his book, "Friends of ours rent a house for about $500 a month and live well for about $1,200 a month, total, including the cost of a part-time maid and gardener. Barbara and I own a house and live a more luxurious lifestyle for less than $20,000 a year."

After a week of exploring, visiting houses, and checking prices, I am convinced--- Living in Mexico is a real option even if you don't have a dime in savings.

Tuesday: Rent or Buy?

Sidebar: A Visitors Guide.

One of the nice things about visiting San Miguel is that you may not have to go through Mexico City. From Dallas, for instance, you can fly American Airlines direct to Leon in about two and a half hours. From there you can travel by private van for about $22 a person, or by cab for $60. Either way, you're only an hour and a half from the city of San Miguel. Door-to-door time is about 6 hours, which is a real plus compared to indirect flights to places like Manzanillo.

Accommodations in San Miguel range from the luxurious Casa de Sierra Nevada, where the least expensive room is $195 a night, to small hotels and bed and breakfasts where you can stay for $55 a night, including breakfast for two. My wife and I stayed in the Casa Luna B&B, $110 a night plus tax for a large room with boveda ceiling and fireplace overlooking a lovely garden. Better still, the room offered a terrace from which we could watch the sunsets, the egrets coming to roost at the park, and the evening flights of geese. Ask for "the Red Room." Two other rooms with wonderful light and private patios are the Frida Kahlo Blue Folk Art Room and the Mountain View Room, also $110 per night plus tax. (web page: www.casaluna.com )

You can also rent fully furnished apartments by the week or month at very attractive rates (like $350 a week or less than $700 a month). You can explore on the infosma webpage: www.infosma.com.

The best guide to San Miguel is only available in the city. It's "The Insider's Guide to San Miguel" by Archie Dean, with information on everything from hotels and restaurants to hardware stores and Internet connections. It's $17. The other publication you need is the weekly "Atencion San Miguel", a five-peso tabloid with a weekly schedule of everything going on in the city. Available Sunday.

Like Santa Fe, New Mexico, San Miguel has more restaurants than most cities its size. For a really pleasant outdoor meal, try the comida special at Café de la Parroquia. For 55 pesos (about $5.50) I had a glass of tamarindo juice, rolls with salsa, vegetable soup, chicken cooked with a subtle ginger sauce and mashed potatoes, apple struedel, and coffee. For a splurge, have lunch or dinner on the terrace at La Capilla or in the courtyard at Bugambilia. (web page: www.infosma.com/bugambilia). You'll also enjoy the happy hour with music at Casa de Sierra Nevada en el Parque. Wherever you go, the margaritas are good. I say that as Founder and Patron' of The Santa Fe Society for the Consumption of Historic Tequila.

The central section of the city reminded me of time spent, years ago, in Rome and Barcelona. The air was as soft as rainwater. You'll wonder why you feel so good and then, slowly, you'll realize that in addition to the incredible light and air, you haven't had to drive a car in days, TV hasn't assaulted you, and you haven't seen a single franchise.

It's a good feeling.