On my last day in San Miguel de Allende, I always visit El Jardín—the central square around which life in this colonial city revolves—one more time. I walk over to the pink, neo-Gothic Parroquiá parish church, go in, light a candle, and say a little prayer that one day soon, my husband, Jack, and I will return to this magical place where time stands still. It has become my ritual. It is a gift to be here.
San Miguel de Allende is one of several mountain towns in central Mexico. But what sets it apart is how its history and people have conspired to create an oasis of art and culture rarely found in modern times. As in Charleston, preservation takes precedence over technology, and visitors are treated as family.
So just what has drawn us to San Miguel three times in one year? Is it the crisp air, the intensity of the colors, the scents of flowers and exotic fruits, the warmth of the people? It is all of that and then some. On each of our trips, we have sampled many sabores (flavors) of the city and are left craving more.
Our first visit provided a dramatic introduction. Jack and I arrived on November 1—All Saints’ Day—and found ourselves drawn to a Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration in El Jardín that night. There, we saw dancing skeletons—families with faces painted and arms laden with special foods, vibrant flowers, and candy skulls as they made their preparations to visit deceased relatives in nearby cemeteries. Local vendors offered sweets and other delicacies, while mariachi bands competed to play popular songs. Coming from a culture where death is a somber affair, it was wonderful to experience such joy in celebrating the memories of loved ones.
The next morning, we returned to El Jardín to find business as usual even as city workers swept up the remnants of the previous evening’s gaiety. And so began what became a wonderful daily ritual. Every morning, from our rented casita in the Centro Histórico, we make the trek to El Jardín for a café con leche and an intimate view of the goings on—the faithful heading into the church naves, children playing with simple toys, vendors selling from their carts. From there, our daily discoveries begin.
Like Charleston, San Miguel is a walking town—one with five centuries of preserved architecture to consider and absorb. Each day strolling its cobblestone streets, we pass flower-draped walls and indigenous Indian women selling dolls and trinkets. And like Charleston, good manners are expected. Learn the proper way to greet someone on the street or in a store. Buenos dias. ¿Como estas? Muy bien, gracias. Your reward will be a glimpse into the lives of the wonderful people here.
Culinary adventures await around each corner. The famous cooking school, Sazón, is just up the street, offering a class in making squash blossom soup. Or there’s the Mercado Ignacio Ramirez with its irresistible array of fresh fruits and vegetables. Buy some jicama or a fresh papaya and remember to pick up a few limónes (limes), which serve as a tasty addition to everything.
Dining out is a true adventure in cultural diversity. We have feasted on rich, tender beef at El Tomato Argentinian restaurant and enjoyed six courses of Italian-Mexican fusion at Cafe Firenze. Along Calle Nueva alone, one can eat like a king or a pauper: there’s the new luxurious Rosewood Hotel with its fine Restaurant 1826, while just a few doors down at the Cafe Rama, the flavors of Asia and Mexico blend to create delicious salads and light entrées. Or for a delectably inexpensive taste of Mexico, the most popular taco stand in San Miguel sits at the busy intersection at the end of the street.
Between meals, we sample the city’s cultural offerings. At the Casa de la Cuesta on the edge of the Centro Histórico, we find a folk art gallery and mask museum. Here, American expat owners Heidi and Bill LeVasseur artfully display the ancient story of Mexican indigenous tribes in colorful and sometimes terrifying masks. For history and architecture buffs, El Museo Histórico de San Miguel de Allende—the birthplace of Mexican War of Independence hero Don Ignacio de Allende, for whom the town was renamed in 1826—has been restored by the state of Guanajuato and houses the furnishings and art enjoyed by the hero.
Art galleries dot the historic district, showcasing the work of modern Mexican artists as well as American creatives, many of whom have taken up residence here. Charleston artists Béa Aaronson and Stephen Eaker live over their gallery at Casa Verde, where they moved in 2008. Like so many expatriates in San Miguel, they visited, fell in love with the town, and uprooted themselves without looking back.
The antiques shops house excellent pieces of 18th- and 19th-century furniture. Silver jewelry is ubiquitous, with many silversmiths offering modern as well as historical designs and patterns. After a day of wandering through treasure-filled shops, I usually reward myself with a cup of coffee and a few handmade truffles from the Chocolates Johfrej shop on Jesús Street.
One sunny afternoon, we head just outside the city limits to the Santuario de Atotonilco, a complex of 18th-century sanctuaries and an UNESCO World Heritage Site, where recently restored murals reflect the wages of sin promised by a priest if his flock did not toe the line. On another day, we venture to La Gruta, one of several hot springs just outside of San Miguel. Many families visit to “take the water” and then enjoy a lunch under the quiet grove of trees. For 90 pesos (about $7), one can dip into several natural spring-fed pools or venture into the underground source of the mineral waters long thought to be healing.
Going further afield, we drive about an hour to Guanajuato, the state capital where the buildings cling to the steep hillsides and stone-lined tunnels take cars deep underground to get across town. Once the source of two-thirds of the world’s silver, the city is now a more urban alternative to San Miguel. There, the childhood home of Diego Rivera has been restored and made into a museum, where his daughter provides a wonderful collection of his artwork. And at the Exhacienda San Gabriel de Barrera, a grand colonial mansion and gardens, one can glimpse into the Spanish mine owners’ luxurious lifestyles, afforded by the back-breaking work of indigenous laborers. Lunch outside in the central square at Casa Valadez is the perfect complement to the day.
Still, Jack and I always return to our favorite spot in San Miguel—El Jardín, where life is shared by all. Mariachi bands will play your favorite tune for 100 pesos while couples stroll and children play late into the night. It’s the best spot to watch, listen, and let San Miguel work its magic on you.
¡Via Con Dios!
Brush up on your Spanish, book your flight, and get to know San Miguel de Allende firsthand
Continental and Delta have flights out of Charleston connecting in Houston or Dallas to the cities of Leon or Guanajuato, which are about an hour drive from San Miguel. Ideal months to visit are February through May and September through mid-December, as summer is the rainy season, and Christmas is a busy time for Mexican tourists.
The Rosewood: Opened in March 2011, the Rosewood Hotel near the Centro Histórico is the newest in the luxury category and offers its gourmet 1826 Restaurant, full-service spa, and child care. The rooftop bar is the place to be at sunset. Rooms start at $350 per night. 1-888-ROSEWOOD, www.rosewoodhotels.com
La Case de la Noche: Calling all artists, this centrally located, character-filled B&B offers large rooms and a series of interior courtyards with an ever-changing art exhibit. Rooms start at $60 and some have the use of a private studio. (831) 373-8888, www.casadelanoche.com
Posadas de las Monjas: This former convent in the historic district has Spartan, clean rooms with no TVs. Rooms from $50; (415) 152-0171, www.posadaslasmonjas.com
VRBO.com: Vacation Rental By Owner is a great site for finding everything from a one-bedroom casita to a palatial mansion. vrbo.com. The Altermans’ favorite rental is a casita at Cinco Flores, a walled compound just two minutes from El Jardín. www.cincoflores.com
Cafe Firenze: Italian with an elegant flair. Plaza de San Antonio, # 2 sur, www.cafefirenzesanmiguel.com
Café Rama: Reasonably priced Mexican-Asian fusion. Calle Nueva #7, www.cafe-rama.com
El Pegaso: With a continental menu, it’s a favorite for all meals. Corregidora #64, one block off El Jardín
El Tomato: Argentine steak house. Mesones #62, www.eltomato.com
La Burger: Spectacular burgers just a short drive from town. Carr Dolores Hidalgo, 7 miles north of town
Casa Verde Gallery: Visit Charleston artist expats Béa Aaronson and Stephen Eaker at their home/art gallery. Prolongacion de la Pila Seca # 65-C; www.artcasaverde.com
Fabrica La Aurora: An art and design center housed in a former textile factory. www.fabricalaaurora.com
La Gruta: The hot springs are a 10-minute drive from the Jardín with a full restaurant, changing rooms, and great ambience.
Other Face of Mexico Mask Museum: Ceremonial and tribal masks of indigenous tribes. By appointment only. Cuesta de San Jose #32; www.casedelacuesta.com