San Miguel de Allende

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Unexpected San Miguel de Allende

I enjoyed my 10 days in San Miguel de Allende more than I expected. My previous visits to Mexico were at chain hotels and gated beach resorts far removed from Mexican culture. San Miguel is completely different. It’s inland, mountainous, arid, with tourism based on culture rather than a beach.  I was surprised to see little North American influence despite the plethora of US and Canadian retirees living here. Remarkably the only North American chain I saw was a Starbucks with minimal signage and an open courtyard full of plants and non-industrial furniture.  

Hillside San Miguel de Allende

Starbucks Courtyard 

I’m in San Miguel with a group of artists from Fort Myers Beach Art Association. The majority of the artists are staying in a small hotel, while our group of 4 rented a lovely casa from Airbnb. Although I’m an acrylic artist I knew I couldn’t be in a new city and spend hours painting. I knew I’d be itching to wander and walk. I decided to sketch and write in a journal adding watercolor to bring out the bright colors of San Miguel. 

Our Airbnb Casa

Casa Robelina is large and spacious with three bedrooms with ensuite bath on the first floor and a fourth bedroom/bath on the second floor. On the next level there’s a beautiful covered rooftop deck with views of the Parroquia, and sunset. Our rooftop sitting area is covered from the sun and there’s usually a breeze. Perfect for cocktails before going out to dinner.  

Our Casa Private courtyard.  End of Day check on our devices.  What did we miss at home? 

Sunset Champagne

Cocktail hour, Milly, Kathy, Jeanne, Sue and Phyllis

The City Center 

The “centro”, (city center), where most of the tourists gather consists of a beautiful church (Parroquia San Miguel Archangel) on the highest point of the city, a park (Jardin Principal) and a few adjacent pedestrian streets. People with brooms keep the streets spotless and small neat shops and restaurants are everywhere. Many of the restaurants are rooftop with views of the Parroquia. 

The buildings are colonial, they are attached and have few outside features. However, if you happen to walk by when the street door is open you see wonderful courtyards, often with a working fountain, plants, and nice places to eat and relax away from the outside world. Many of the large centrally located residences have been converted into restaurants, offices, and shops.  

 

Typical courtyard restaurant

Fountain in El Jardin 

 

El Jardin the heart of San Miguel de Allende 

The Jardin is where tourists and locals co-mingle. Locals come to the Jardin in the evenings and weekends to visit with friends, share gossip, and let their kids run around.  It’s truly the city center in every way. The tourists are attracted by the beautiful Church and stay to watch and mingle with the locals. Kids are laughing and chasing one another, there are lines at the ice cream vendor, men selling colorful balloons, mariachi bands competing with one another from different sides of the park, mothers dancing with kids, photographers and painters capturing the churches grandeur, and women sitting on the church steps selling homemade dolls. Weekends often bring special events like puppet plays and fireworks. In the background, there is the sound of the church bells ringing for the hour, the half-hour and the quarter-hour. The bells are heard all over the city. There is a small police presence probably to keep the kids from getting too rowdy. The city feels safe and we have no qualms about returning to our Casa a few blocks from the Centro after dinner.  

Balloon man selling in front of the Parroquia 

El Jardin tourist train

Street buskers

Character in puppet play in front of the Parroquia 

 

San Miguel de Allende an Artist’s Inspiration

The Parroquia is a joy to behold! It looks like a giant pink wedding cake during the day and with the lights on at night a pink wedding cake with candles. No wonder its the pride of the city. It shines like a beautiful beacon. The Parroquia was built in the 1700s with a traditional Mexican facade but in 1880 a local bricklayer and self-taught architect created the current facade using lithographs and a postcard of a European Gothic church as his guide.  The pinkish color of the stone and the lights at night add a Mexican touch that fits into the feel of the city.  At dusk the sun reflecting off the pink stone is magnificent.  

Skyline from the Instituo Allende Visual Art School 

Our first look at the city

On the first day, my artist friends went to the centro to paint. Between the church, the gardens, and the people there’s a lot to paint. Locals stopped by to admire, and critique the paintings, and to practice their English.  The gardens are full of tourists and locals enjoying the sunny weather.  The air is dry and the sun hot but the park has plenty of shade from the numerous manicured laurel trees that effectively create a canopy over the park. It was fun to watch but I was itching to explore the city.  

There are several streets just off the centro that have shops and restaurants basically geared to tourists and I started there.  By midmorning, I hadn’t found any likely coffee shops with WIFI so I stopped at Starbucks.  I found the attached courtyard and decided it was the perfect place to write and sketch. The courtyard was quiet and I took my coffee to one of the mismatched wrought iron tables.  It’s open-air with an overhang covering couches, small tables, and plants, the floor is cobblestone, its charming and peaceful.  

I bumped into Sue painting down the street from her hotel

Outside the Centro

After exploring the several blocks of the “centro” I expanded out beyond the pedestrian streets to the real San Miguel. The city is amazingly clean, even beyond the tourist area, which is spotless. The houses are attached with little decoration on the outside, perhaps an elaborate door. The atmosphere changes once out of the centro.  Old cars line the streets, trucks bounce along the cobbles, people are walking with a purpose, its a workday. The buildings are older, the streets not as easy to navigate. Small shops selling practical goods and services line the streets. Everyone is moving at a faster pace.    

Shop in the downtown market 

One of the many murals throughout the city 

San Miguel art comes in all forms

This shop pet dog is well looked after

The people of San Miguel de Allende 

The people in stores and restaurants are friendly and helpful.  Although the majority speak little English, a few words and some sign language gets the job done.  

The air is very dry and the dust follows you everywhere. Store owners wash the floor before opening and throw the soapy water out their door to the street cobbles.  Families walk together but parents seem more relaxed.  I saw a little girl about 5 carrying a young toddler while running on the cobbled street. They were both giggling and the older seemed quite capable but I cringed. I suspect kids start being responsible for a sibling quite young here. No helicopter or snowplow parents among the working class in SMA!

Posada de la Aldrea

On Thursday we visited Jeanne’s friend Suzanne, who was staying at Posada de la Aldrea. I was a short walk from our Casa and we brought our paints.  We weren’t expecting such a charming place and were blown away by the beauty of the grounds, an oasis in a busy part of SMA. I’ve been trying to figure out the history of the buildings but can find nothing online and the hotel doesn’t have any answers.  There’s a chapel, several outbuildings, manicured lawns and gardens, topiaries, and sculptures. It looks as if it was a convent or large hacienda with a chapel but nothing turns up on google. Everywhere you look there’s something to paint or photograph. 

Phyllis painting at Posada de Aldrea 

Critiquing each others paintings at Posada de la Aldrea 

Dining in San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel has many good restaurants but one that stood out is Quince (pronounced kinsay). The rooftop restaurant is located opposite the walls of the Parroquia so as soon as you go to the roof you immediately see the lights and contours of the church, it’s quite breathtaking. The restaurant is bustling, there’s a large busy lighted bar, cool music, bustling young waitstaff, an unexpected modern vibe.   San Miquel is so charmingly Mexican that a hip restaurant like Quince seems out of place, if you took away the sound of the church bells and add the sound of surf, I could be back in St Barth – but with Mexican food!   San Miguel has many good restaurants in the city center that offer authentic Mexican food.  Most seem to be open-air either on rooftops or in courtyards and have a menu outside with prices. 

San Miguel Weather

It’s very dry in this part of Mexico and there’s’ a constant light breeze. We expected it to be cool in the evening and although the temperature drops gradually after the sun goes down, I rarely felt cold. We had no rain for the entire 10 days.  I can see why people retire here for the low cost and good weather.  

Art Walk at Fabrica de Aurora 

We’re fortunate to be in San Miguel for the monthly Art Walk at the Fabrica de Aurora. The Art Walk is held the first Saturday of the month in a converted fabric factory. It’s a bit of a maze to walk through but everywhere you look there are studios with art in every form. Not only paintings and photographs but fabrics, furniture, and accessories both antique and contemporary. Artists and locals mingle, lots of artsy people (or wannabees) in interesting outfits. Women in boho, men with long hair, linen shirts, and stylish hats. Plenty of old hippies! I liked the art but the people watching was delicious! We had an interesting discussion with Merry Calderoni, a stunning looking woman of a certain age who does some lovely contemporary pieces,  and some dark mixed media pieces depicting the Mexican revolution. She explained that women played a large part in the revolution, not the least of which was holding down the homefront during the war.  

Expats in San Miguel de Allende

There are many expats in SMA, American, Canadian, and European coming here to retire for the climate and the prices. I was told they number 10-15% of the population. The expats seem to have taken over the local library, Biblioteca Publico, and give generously for children’s literacy. We signed up for the House and Garden tour of San Miguel, sponsored by the library.  The library hosts these popular tours almost every Sunday. The tours are a big moneymaker for supporting the library and children’s education. Several expat volunteers act as docents.

The first house was described as a transformed brothel (Madam Turca’s Casa de la Noche) now a beautiful B&B with 14 rooms! The second and third houses were oasis behind simple outer walls and nondescript entrances. Magnificent gardens with streams and cutout courtyards, eclectic art everywhere, mixtures of “French formal, English country and Mexican colorful” the brochure says.  I describe them as quirky, functional, and eclectic!  Not really a true look at SMA homes but fun regardless.  

Inconspicuous entrance to one of the houses on the House tour

Murals of SMA city on the wall of one of the houses 

Living room 

Our little foursome rooftop at one of the houses 

 

During our time in San Miguel, we took a library-sponsored historical walking tour of the city, led by an expat.  We went to the Cañada de la Virgen archaeological site with Albert Coffee Tours and had a very interesting private lunch and tour at Museo de Astronomia Prehispanica with archaeoastronomer Dr. Rossana Quiroz Ennis.  We also visited the Chapel of Jimmy Ray. 

 

 

About

I'm in my sixties with the world at my feet and thoughts mostly of "where to next?". I retired in 2017, sold my house in Massachusetts and most of my furniture and "stuff." When not traveling you can find me in Florida in the winter and Rhode Island in the summer. Travel has been a passion from a young age, over the years I've discovered I'm a traveler, not a tourist. I prefer traveling solo, with a travel friend, or small groups. Whenever possible I would rather spend time in one place rather than moving around. I'll never turn down an opportunity to go to France, but my travels have taken me all over the world. I've met some incredible people and had some fantastic experiences.

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