San Miguel de Allende has always been one of my favorite places in Mexico. I first visited this charming colonial town about 25 years ago. Back then it was a bit like falling off the map. There were no cell phones or Internet cafés, and to make a telephone call home, you had to line up at a casita de larga distancia with the locals. San Miguel did get a bit raucous on weekends, but most of the time it was a peaceful Mexican provincial town. The loudest noises to be heard were the crowing of roosters and the clanging of church bells.
Last month I returned to San Miguel after a six-year hiatus. Although I had watched the town grow steadily over the years, I was not prepared for some of the changes that I encountered. The first signs that things were not what they used to be were the sterile shopping malls, movie theater complexes, and American-style fast food restaurants that had sprouted on the outskirts of town. From the bus window, I could also see new housing projects marching like the armies of progress across the sun-browned hills.
The historical city center was also full of surprises. Sightseeing trolley buses made to look like old-fashioned trams prowled the cobblestones. All Terrain Vehicles had replaced burros, and the narrow streets were jammed with cars and pedestrians. Strolling at night had been made hazardous by blinding spotlights embedded in the sidewalks to light up building facades. However, the biggest shocker was the sight of a Starbucks Coffee shop on a busy corner next to the main square, a sure sign that urban hipness had arrived in San Miguel.
San Miguel de Allende was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, an honor it thoroughly deserved. San Miguel is still a lovely town, and I will continue to go back there whenever I can. But I’m afraid that some of the magic has disappeared for me. Frankly, I miss the old, more bohemian San Miguel, and I preferred to get my Starbucks fixes at home.
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San Miguel de Allende – Images by John Mitchell