This article is from the November 1997 The Mexico File newsletter.
San Miguel de Allende, For Many, The End of the Road
by David Simmonds
This is the place where, in 1968, Neal Casady took his final road trip. Casady was the friend of author Jack Kerouac and the model for the maniacal Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s classic novel, On The Road. Casady’s death was somewhat less classic, however. He died walking down the railroad tracks toward Celaya full of drugs and despair. I can think of few places quite as pretty to buy the farm. Today, of course, many Americans and other gringos are buying much more than farms in San Miguel de Allende. It is estimated that between 2,500 and 4,000 foreigners live here most of the year. Many more come to visit for short and extended periods of time. It may have the highest number of foreigners per capita than any town in Mexico. The fact that many of the oldest and most beautiful mansions have been bought by non-Mexicans has not been lost on the locals. There seems to be, if not an overt, then an underlying, feeling of resentment by many native families. They are friendly enough to the visitor, but not to the degree that you can see in numerous other towns throughout the country. The presence of people with money has also raised the prices in town for everyone. It’s not expensive by American standards, but for a local minimum-wage earner the pesos don’t go very far. That aside, San Miguel is truly a wonderful town, one that should not be missed by any Mexico traveler.
HARD NOT TO LIKE San Miguel’s great beauty has been preserved primarily through its 1926 designation as a Mexican National Monument. There are no stoplights and no modern construction has been allowed in the central area of the city. The old mansions and street-side buildings constructed centuries ago have been gracefully restored. This is what Santa Fe, New Mexico, would impossibly like to be.I had not been to San Miguel in a number of years and I was quite certain I was not going to like what I found on my recent trip. My normally jaded outlook was on full alert, ready to sneer at and deride the self-important, would-be artist types whom you can encounter wherever they congregate. I absolutely knew I would hate it.
Wrong again, pendejo. Really, what’s not to like? I knew I would appreciate the town’s beauty. It’s the people I was not looking forward to. But it’s not like that. I liked practically everyone I met. There are many middle-class American retirees who just happened to have found a swell place to spend their remaining years. O.K., so many of them are Texans, but so was my dad and he was the best. Besides, Spanish spoken with a Texas twang almost creates a new language. Spexan?
The town is a magnet for artists and writers. This makes San Miguel kind of an unreal place, apart from the rest of the world. It’s a ready-made Hollywood movie set, complete with perfect lighting, cobbled streets, colorful characters and character.
The center of town is the Plaza Principal, commonly called the jardín. This is the meeting place and general hangout for Mexicans and gringos alike. Its many trees are also home to a well-fed pigeon population, so choose your bench seat wisely. On the south side of the jardín sits the one-of-a-kind Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel. This Gothic structure built of local sandstone was designed by self-proclaimed but untrained local Indian, Zeferino Gutiérrez, who had copied the design from a French postcard. The irony is that people have been coming to San Miguel ever since to be the artist that their hearts have told them they can be. Zeferino led the way, however unintentionally. The church is a beautiful sight, especially at night when it is lighted and standing guard over the town.
SPENDING A DAY OR A LIFETIME
Even though it’s a fairly small town and there are not many museums, the days click by rapidly. You can easily stay busy for a week just being a tourist. The streets surrounding the jardín are filled with an abundance of art galleries, restaurants, shops, tiendas, and small hosteleries. Absent are neon lights and garish signs advertising their presence. Generally, you have to look in the doorway to see what’s inside, and you may often be surprised by a beautiful plant-filled courtyard containing world-class artwork or a small café serving some of the best food in Mexico outside Mexico City. Behind many of the massive, wooden street-side doorways lie private homes. You can view some of the homes via the weekly House and Garden tour conducted every Sunday at 12:15 pm. You meet at the Biblioteca Pública for the two-hour tour (more or less, depending on the abundance of blue hair in attendance) and the cost is around $5 US. The other way to see more homes is to befriend some of the local expats and hope for an invitation. It’s really not that hard to do. I found them to be quite friendly to outsiders, unlike the fine citizens of Paris (boy, do they have short memories) where I spent three weeks this summer. Why Paris instead of Mexico? Ask my wife. Besides, we did a house trade and flew standby, so it was a trip we couldn’t pass up. Fortunately, we had been there a couple of times before, because this time we took our three-year-old and his attention span doesn’t accommodate museums or mostly anything else that doesn’t include Buzz Lightyear or Barney.The aforementioned Biblioteca Pública (public library) at Insurgentes 25 is a good place to buy used books in English, check out the bulletin board for events and to meet some of the locals. They also publish the English-language weekly newspaper, Atención. You can pick it up most conveniently at the jardín along with the English-language dailies from Mexico City, The News and Mexico City Times.
Many people are drawn to San Miguel to learn Spanish, photography or to take art classes. The Instituto Allende, housed in an 18th century mansion, offers courses ranging from sculpting to weaving to Spanish. Filled with courtyards, the campus also includes a library, café, various classrooms, a theater and about all the charm you can handle. Classes can begin at any time, with the exception of the language classes.
Another center of culture is the Escuela de Bellas Artes. Housed in the former monastery of the contiguous La Concepción church, the Bellas Artes is operated by the government as a school. Art exhibits are usually on display and I even met some gringas who were taking salsa-dance lessons and yoga classes. Also offered are classes in ballet, ceramics, textiles, music, drawing and painting. The patio courtyard is as fine as you will see anywhere. There is an unfinished mural by the renowned David Alfaro Siqueiros on the ground floor. Under the courtyard portolas is the restaurant Las Musas, serving a fine cup of coffee and pasta.
There are numerous churches in San Miguel of varying styles and history. Perhaps none is more impressive than La Concepción, just a block and a half down Canal from the jardín. Topped by a dome which is thought to be copied from a picture of Les Invalides in Paris, the church is one of the few cloisters still in existence in Mexico. The approximately fifty nuns who live behind the walls are never seen, living a life of poverty and silence. Silent at least until they start clanging those thunderous church bells at all hours.
This is a great walking town. The weather is near-perfect year round and its location on the side of a hill provides continuous views. You can spend a few days just admiring the wooden doors lining the streets, wondering what lies behind. Or glancing into the occasional open doorway, always surprised by the serene beauty therein.
San Miguel is loaded with shops selling metalwork. You will find world-class original pieces in silver, copper, bronze, tin and brass. I recently bought some silver jewelry for my wife for less money than I would have paid in Taxco. There is folk art available from not only Mexico, but from as far away as Africa.
Antique pieces from throughout the country can be found in many little shops. Need a yoke or a hand-carved door or a wagon wheel for the den back home? You can buy it here and have it shipped. Rather than my trying to feature certain shops or services to the exclusion of so many others, I suggest finding your own. It won’t take long and you get that incomparable sense of discovery.
You will probably want to stop by the tourist office, to the left of the Parroquia on the jardín. It’s next to La Terraza restaurant which has a great crema de cilantro soup served on the outdoor patio. The tourist office will give you a map and answer most of your questions, although the travel agency Viajes San Miguel (Sollano No. 4, suite 3) is happy to provide the same service and, quite frankly, they do a better job. It is owned by an engaging and interesting German, Detlev Kappstein, who has known San Miguel for nearly 30 years. He can arrange tours, book hotels, and provide any number of services for your stay.
PAY A LITTLE, PAY A LOT
Actually, there are no dirt cheap hotels in San Miguel, except for the San Miguel International Hostel. But you can find nice, centrally located rooms in the $20-$40 US range that you will find very acceptable.I stayed at Posada de las Monjas just a couple of blocks west of the jardín. Housed in a former monastery for the La Concepción church, the hotel has been run by the same family for 65 years. The hotel lobby was at one time the home of the padre of the church since it was decreed that he couldn’t reside on the same property as the nuns. Today you will be greeted by Juan Luis (“Just call me Johnny”), the grandson of the original hotelier. Johnny makes it clear that “mi casa es su casa” and he means it. What I liked most about the hotel is that the rooms have a lot of natural light, unlike many centuries-old hotels that have porthole-sized windows facing already dark courtyards. Many of the rooms face out over the valley to the west with numerous patio areas where you can sit and admire.
I also stayed at Hotel Mesón de San Antonio, which I can easily recommend. Again another nice courtyard with a small swimming pool and my room was in the style of a townhouse with the bedroom upstairs. It even had a color TV with cable that I will admit to watching one evening before dinner (it was an NFL game).
Detlev Kappstein, the travel agency owner, opined that he thought the best values were the Posada San Francisco on the jardín and the Posada de la Aldea near the Instituto Allende. If Detlev thinks so, that’s good enough for me…so consider each of these when planning your trip. Both are moderately priced.
At the other end of the scale is Casa de Sierra Nevada. You’re pushing $200 US per night here, and I’m not sure that there is $150 US difference between that and , let’s say, the Posada Carmina. Not my 150 bucks, anyway.
There are good restaurants all over town. Confer with some the locals for the current favorites, because like restaurants everywhere, they come and go. Tough business to be in. I had a great meal of chiles en nogada at Restaurant Bugambilia at Hidalgo 42. Another favorite was El Correo at Correo 23 with the best soups in town.
Everyone I talked to had suggestions for the best food in San Miguel, and this means there are many places from which to choose. You may gain a few pounds on this trip.
For those of you who want more to do than walk, eat, gaze, take classes and siesta, there are horseback riding, day trips to smaller nearby villages and terrific hot springs. I suggest checking with Detlev Kappstein for all your needs (415-2-25-37; 2-28-32; 2-29-34; or 2-25-38 fax).
YES, THIS IS MEXICO
Some might get the impression that San Miguel really isn’t Mexican enough, that the interlopers from the north have tried to clone a Taos/Aspen combination with better tacos. But they would be wrong. This town has been here since 1542 and it has an important history. The open air markets and the Sunday bullfights are as authentic and real as the cobbled streets that claimed my big toe in a late night stumble to my hotel room. A multi cultural population mix is usually seen as a benefit to a region. Most of the world’s great cities are populated with people from elsewhere. Does it make London any less English or New York any less American to have citizens from throughout the world? Of course not. But for some reason many people traveling in Mexico expect to find nothing but direct descendants of Moctezuma slapping tortillas and sacrificing virgins. And although certainly much of Mexico is steeped in centuries-old tradition, with many Indian dialects still in common use, the country is changing and growing. In many ways San Miguel represents a model in how it accommodates newcomers from everywhere, still maintaining its original architecture and customs. Only now you can eat from an international menu and buy cold Gatorade on a hot afternoon and that’s not a bad thing. If you want a town that hasn’t much changed in the last hundred years, well you don’t have to go that far to find it. But appreciate San Miguel de Allende for what it is. Just stay off the railroad tracks if you’re going to Celaya.