Not that long ago, an artist friend implored, “Stacia, you must go to San Miguel de Allende. You belong there.” She described a magical, cobblestone village of artists and writers located high in the mountains of the Mexican heartland, where time has stood still. No large hotels. No traffic lights. No crime. No humidity. It was the “no humidity” that sold me.
As my tour bus started slowly rolling down, down, down the narrow streets leading to San Miguel’s center, my heart soared up, up, up. My friend was right. Mexico’s charming artist colony was truly magico with pink steeples lost in the clouds, purple mountains, colonial architecture, and lush vegetation. This is where Frida Khalo held her “salons,” Jack Kerouac drank his last tequila, and condos are now spreading like crabgrass to accommodate thousands of American retirees.
My love affair with San Miguel started where most local romances begin, at the Jardin, a public park nestled between the Parroquia, an 18th-century pseudo-gothic church that resembles Fantasyland, and the San Miguel Tourism Office. By day, the park is a well-shaded meeting place for locals, tourists, and American ex-pats. By night, the entire town congregates in the park to listen to strolling mariachis, indulge children with balloons, and to conduct courtships in the traditional Mexican style. In the cool shade of the arcade running along the side of the Jardin, Indian women squat on the ground making colorful flower arrangements in baskets.
Just steps away, the ubiquitous Starbucks lays claim to a prime corner location. I don’t know what Juan Valdez has to say about this, but I think the coffee tastes better at just about any Mexican café. My favorite was El Petite Four, an adorable French pastry shop-café-lunch spot a block-and-a-half from the Jardin. A glass wall is all that separates patrons from the kitchen where flour and water are turned into swan-shaped puff pastry and other delicacies. I had a mozzarella, tomato, and basil sandwich on a baguette for thirty-five pesos ($3.50) and walked away with a raspberry-almond crème tart that rivaled those from the best Parisian patisserie.
Here’s the deal. If you are crazy about Mexican food, San Miguel de Allende has cafes, upscale restaurants, and street vendors dishing up regional specialties on every block. Los Milagros serves up traditional Mexican cuisine with a folkloric atmosphere and live music at night. You”ll want to try chunks of the roasted corn with chiles and lime sold in the Market. But, if you are like me, and want to take a break from the chilies and beans, San Miguel also offers outstanding international cuisine. For Italian food, go to Bella Italia. Want a burger and fries? Head for Harry’s New Orleans Café & Oyster Bar. Need a bagel with a schmear? Just ask where the closest bagel shop is. There’s more than one.
Named by Condé Nast Traveler as one of the Top Ten destinations in the world, and taking first place for “ambience and friendliness,” San Miguel is a shopaholic’s dream. Whether you crave luxury leathers, silver jewelry, hand-painted ceramics, original paintings or folkloric crafts, the diversity and quality is unlimited. Pick up a free Walking and Shopping Guide at the Tourism Office. While you’re there, ask for the free bi-monthly guidebook Inside/San Miguel. Start with the Market Place where vendors sell fresh produce, roasted corn, ceramics, hand-embroidered table linens, and inexpensive jewelry. Be aware that some so-called local crafts might be manufactured in Nepal or China. Best buys are hand-stitched table linens, crocheted jewelry, and ceramics. >>>
After you’ve checked prices in the Market, head for the Yup-scale boutiques. I went gaga for folk art and ceramics at Zocalo, run by Texan ex-pats Rick and Deb Hall. David’s silver jewelry shop had me hyperventilating. If Sex and the City were set in San Miguel, Carrie would salivate over the shoes at Martha”s, the linen clothes at Lino y Mas, and furnishings at La Aurora, an art and design complex just outside the town. There are numerous galleries tucked into the nooks and crannies of San Miguel. Check out the landscapes of American ex-pat artist Frank Gardner at his gallery; his beautifully crafted paintings capture the subtle beauty of rural Mexican life.
What? There’s more to life than fine dining and shopping? Take a cooking class at Sazon, the acclaimed cooking school now owned by Orient Express, Ltd. Rent an all-terrain vehicle by the hour or day to navigate San Miguel’s steep, cobblestone streets. Love horses? Go to Rancho de la Capilla where expert guides and horsemen will take you on a ride as relaxing or exciting as you demand. Learn weaving, photography, painting, or Spanish at Instituto Allende, the prestigious art and language school that literally put San Miguel on the map when it opened in 1951. As for nightlife, almost every restaurant in San Miguel features live music. But if you really want to get into the swing of things, no night is complete without a stroll through the Jardin, where groups of mariachis compete for your attention and pesos.
Want to run with the bulls? No need to go to Pamplona. At the annual Fiesta Sanmiguelada in September, you can test your machismo against el toro as hundreds of aspiring toreadors and one unhappy bull take to the streets. In June, the Fiesta de San Antonio de Padua features fireworks, live music, processions, and bullfights. During Holy Week, the city celebrates La Virgen de los Dolores. And for reasons unknown or long forgotten, St. Patrick’s Day is a big blowout in San Miguel with parades, Irish food and music. Who knew?
I stayed at Casa Luna, a muy romatico and rustico B&B run by American ex-pat Dianne Kushner. Rated “One of the world’s best unknown hotels” by Travel & Leisure, Casa Luna is actually two separate B&B’s with a short walk between. Casa Luna Pila Seca has a more folkloric décor. If you’re a Khalo fan, ask for the Frida Khalo Blue suite with private terrace. Breakfast, which comes with your room, is a leisurely affair with fresh fruit, yogurt, eggs scrambled with potatoes and oregano, moist carrot-walnut bread, homemade jams, and endless cups of coffee. If you prefer a more elegant, light-filled ambience (with less chatchkas) request the Casa Luna Quebrada location and a room with a terrace.
If you prefer 5-star luxury to folkloric charm (and don’t mind paying for it) stay at Dos Casas, a jewel box of a hotel featuring exquisite Zen décor and an intimate restaurant. Or go for the gold and check into any one of San Miguel’s Orient Express Hotels. You will be assured of every amenity and service you desire. The most centrally located of the chain is Hotel Sierra Nevada.
Queretaro (pronounced Care-RET-terro) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located 136 miles north of Mexico City, about an hour’s drive from San Miguel de Allende. You can easily see its main attractions in one day. My favorite was the Museo Regional de Queretaro, originally built as a convent by a wealthy aristocrat who spared no expense when his daughter decided to take the veil. (The sort of thing Donald Trump would erect should Ivanka choose a spiritual path.) Avenida Libertad, a flower-bedecked, pedestrian alley filled with tiny shops and kiosks hawking jewelry and crafts, will charm souvenir hunters. Prices in Queretaro are lower than San Miguel, not just for souvenirs but also for restaurants and hotels. The luxury boutique hotel Doña Urraca charges only $130 a night for drop-dead elegance, huge marble bathrooms, and fluffy robes. The former mansion boasts a gourmet restaurant and a full-service, rooftop spa.
Imagine a Hollywood stage set for a Western movie set in the 1920s. Now add the Rock of Gibraltar and you’ve got Bernal, a tiny picturesque town sitting in the shadow of the world’s third largest monolith. You don’t need a whole day to take in the sites of Bernal. An hour or two will do. Have lunch or dinner at Piave, an Italian restaurant where the no-frills décor belies 5-star gourmet cuisine.
There are only two reasons to go to the town of Eziekiel Montes: to visit La Redonda Vineyard and Azteca Hacienda. La Redonda produces sauvigon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet malbec, and two sparkling white wines under its Orlandi label. Ironically, it also produces a Kosher wine distributed in Mexico City. I found their chilled sauvignon blanc to be excellent, especially when combined with the fine Italian cuisine served on the vineyard’s terrace. Close by, Los Azteca Hacienda Mexicana offers one-hour, guided horseback riding trips to Bernal, as well as dressage and lariat exhibitions.
San Miguel Tourism Office
Hotels in San Miguel
Queretaro Tourism Office
Casa Luna B&B
Dos Casas Hotel
Doña Urraca Hotel
Rancho de la Capilla
Sazon Cooking School
Los Azteca Hacienda Mexicana
La Redonda Vineyards