Light rain was falling when I arrived at the airport in Leon, Mexico, searching for the shuttle that would take me to San Miguel de Allende. A sign listing all the passengers on my shuttle made clear it would be crowded.
I jumped on board, taking a seat near the door. Not a great choice. Passengers departing before me carelessly left the door open too long, and raindrops pelted me every time. Even more annoying was the man behind me who talked incessantly, telling another passenger everything to do and see in San Miguel. I wished he’d shut up. I wanted to discover all of it for myself.
The shuttle driver finally located the house on Calle del Castillo belonging to Merrily and Paul, my great friends since college, and they welcomed me warmly, ushering me inside. The house was a wonderful surprise, modern and comfortable, and I felt very lucky to be in their sheltering arms.
For the next few days, the three of us set out together every day, covering a host of sites in and around this charming city set in Mexico’s central highlands.
Why go to San Miguel? First, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, an extremely beautiful city filled with historic and architecturally-astounding buildings. Next, although parts of Mexico have sadly seen a measure of violent crime in recent years, San Miguel is still a peaceful sanctuary where one feels totally safe. And although it’s perhaps best known in the U.S. as a city inundated with American ex-pats, the overwhelming majority of the population is made up of warm and friendly mexicanos. Unlike the Mexican resort cities like Puerto Vallarta (my favorite) and Acapulco, San Miguel is a much more authentically Mexican city. You may want to spend a vacation of a few days there, or linger much, much longer. Or, like Merrily and Paul, you may even want to move there, joining the five thousand or so ex-pats who have made San Miguel their home.
In case you’re wondering how the lengthy name of the city came about, here’s a brief history lesson: When the Spaniards arrived in this part of Mexico during the 16th century and established a colony, many of the indigenous inhabitants fled. A Franciscan friar took advantage of their departure and founded a Spanish settlement that evolved in the 17th century into a beautiful town called San Miguel el Grande.
During the next hundred years, when many people who by now considered themselves Mexicans rose up against Spanish rule, Ignacio Allende was a prominent local leader. He was executed by the Spanish, but he was not forgotten. After the Mexican army defeated the Spanish in their War of Independence, the city was renamed San Miguel de Allende to honor him.
Today’s city has the Spanish to thank for many of its striking buildings, constructed during the colonial period. The most magnificent is the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, a pink-hued Neo-Gothic cathedral dominating the Centro Histórico, the historic center of town, directly across from the leafy park, El Jardin. Originally built in the 16th century, a local architect did a smashing renovation about 300 years later. Its pink sandstone towers present a facade unlike that of any other church I’ve ever seen, resembling a set right out of a Disney fairytale, and when it’s illuminated at night, it has a truly magical vibe.
The city contains a host of other remarkable sights. Instead of listing all of them, I’ll highlight just a few. One of the must-sees is El Jardin (pronounced har-deen), the leafy green park in the center of the city. It’s a vibrant gathering place, filled with both locals and tourists. Groups of mariachi musicians play there every evening, and all around its perimeter are vendors featuring kids’ toys, balloons, and lots of food, including some pretty wild varieties of ice cream (helado), including elote (corn), queso (cheese), and guayaba (guava).
El Jardin is also the place where tours of the city center begin. These tours, organized by a local children’s charity called Patronato de Ninos, are offered at 9:45 a.m. three times a week. They’re led by a diverse group of cheerful and knowledgeable guides (mine was an American ex-pat wearing an exquisite locally-embroidered dress).
Another highlight is the Fábrica de Aurora, a former textile factory whose machinery has been preserved and can be viewed through large glass windows. It’s been totally renovated and now houses a wide range of art galleries, craft studios, and delightful places to eat and drink. A bit north of the city, it’s well worth the trip.
Farther outside the city (about eight miles from downtown San Miguel) is the town of Atontonilco. Its centerpiece is another World Heritage Site, an astonishing church called the Santuario de Jesus Nazareno de Atononilco. The church’s walls and ceilings are covered with paintings of religious stories and figures, a remarkable achievement by an artist who spent 30 years of his life creating this result.
We arrived on a Saturday and encountered not just one but two weddings being held in the church. While the first wedding was being celebrated, the second wedding party lined up outside, awaiting its turn. On the city streets outside the church, friendly locals offered items for sale, most notably whips of various sizes. Whips? Yes, whips–mainly of the “cat-o’-nine-tails” variety. Why? Because the sanctuary has a long history as a Catholic-pilgrimage destination, and that history includes self-flagellation by some of the pilgrims. For kicks, you might want to buy a souvenir whip while you’re there.
Speaking of shopping: If that pursuit interests you, San Miguel offers a wide range of possibilities. Merrily and Paul first guided me to a largely low-rent and authentic option (my choice). Descending to a small alleyway, we found the Mercado de Artesanía, a distinctly non-posh assortment of stands tended by local artisans and their families. There I purchased trivets and other items made of pewter, earrings made of silver and abalone shell, and colorful embroidered blouses and pillow covers. Besides admiring their wares, I relished meeting the artisans and speaking with them in my high-school-level Spanish (Merrily helped).
We then went on to some actual shops, like Martha’s shoe store, where she sells the famous “San Miguel” shoes in many different colors; delightful candy shops; and the highly unusual “oil cloth” store, where the brawny young proprietor makes useful items—like tote bags and luggage tags—out of a variety of bright oil cloth patterns. (I hadn’t seen so much oil cloth since I was a kid in Mom’s postwar kitchen!) I later sought out stores offering artisanal products like ceramics and jewelry. My favorite purchases were the ceramic trees-of-life I bought for both of my daughters.
If the art scene is your thing, be sure to check out Bellas Artes, an art school and cultural center in downtown San Miguel. Stroll through the arcades surrounding its beautiful courtyard and view exhibits by local artists. As for art galleries, they’re everywhere you look. Many of the ex-pats living in San Miguel are part of a well-established artists’ colony, and anyone interested in art will have no problem finding the kind of artwork he or she prefers.
And then there are the fiestas. Mexico has a huge number of outdoor fiestas and religious celebrations, all observed with great exuberance. I was extremely lucky to be in San Miguel during one of its notable events, the celebration called the Fiesta del Seňor de la Conquista. I won’t elaborate on its history and religious connotations. But I was blown away by what I saw and heard.
When we entered the area surrounding El Jardin, we saw crowds gathered in and around it to watch a multitude of dancers garbed in wild costumes, many with brightly colored feathers, masks, and most notably, shells artfully attached to their legs. As they danced, the shells vibrated, making a wonderful and raucous noise. The dancing, accompanied by music, went on all day Friday and continued on Saturday.
Combining indigenous traditions with Catholic ones, this fiesta struck me as extraordinary. But it’s just one in a long list of festivals like it. In fact, if you happen to be in San Miguel around Easter, you’ll witness an even more spectacular celebration—two full weeks of processions and pageantry.
Here’s one more thing about San Miguel: Great food and drink are available everywhere. (Just avoid local tap water.) For recommendations, check a recent guidebook or ask locals like Merrily and Paul. The food is delicious and prices are remarkably low.
And just in case you long for familiar surroundings, there’s a busy Starbucks in the center of town and, believe it or not, a place called the Bagel Café!