San Miguel de Allende’s colorful, low-key vibe charms visitors
It seems I’m always defending San Miguel de Allende these days. The colonial city in the Sierra Madre northeast of Mexico City may be a UNESCO World Heritage site, but its detractors refer to it as a Mexican Disneyland. Until recently, I shared those sentiments, holding on to memories of a youthful visit in the 1980s. Recent buzz made it sound far too pretentious, like a backdrop for photo spreads in Architectural Digest, Gourmet and AARP. I was prepared for disappointment when I returned in 2010 to visit a friend, but a funny thing happened. I had such a good time I went back the following year. As San Miguel resident Jane Onstott, an Ohio/Anaheim native who’s lived in Spain, Honduras and the Galapagos says, "Life is just so easy here."
The air shimmers clear blue and the climate is mild nearly year round. Ornate pink canterra spires on the Gothic Parroquía de San Miguel Arcangel dominate a cityscape of ochre, rose and gold colonial mansions and houses lining narrow cobblestone streets. The pace is so slow bent-over ladies in blue housedresses stay in step with fashionistas in Madonna-worthy boots. Drivers are so courteous there’s no need for semaforos (traffic lights). No wonder more than 10,000 foreigners have taken up residence here. Wealthy Mexicans and expats have hired famed architects to create nouveau haciendas in hills above the city, and companies like Rosewood have opened handsome hotels and residential enclaves. Artfully dressed couples browse and graze, sipping cappuccinos at sidewalk cafes.
Chic amenities aren’t the only attraction, however. San Miguel’s faithfully restored colonial-era churches, convents and mansions are among Mexico’s most beautiful and its festivals among the country’s most lavish. Church bells chime incessantly, costumed groups from throughout the country join daylong parades and fireworks blast off at midnight. San Miguel de Allende’s combination of architecture, culture, traditions and classy hotels, restaurants and shops make it a popular weekend getaway from Mexico City and second home for expats. "The fact is it’s beautiful, it’s easy to get around and it’s charming," says Onstott, who chose the city for her base while traveling around the country for her website, www.mexicoguru.com. "It’s close to Mexico City and not too far from the beaches. It’s ridiculously easy to get hooked on this city."
American art students first started arriving by the hundreds to San Miguel de Allende in the 1940s, when World War II veterans studied art at the Instituto Allende and the Centro Culturál Ignacio Ramírez "El Nigromante" under the GI Bill. San Miguel became so popular with vets Life Magazine published an article about this "GI Paradise" in 1948 and more foreigners arrived. Both institutions still educate a steady influx of national and international students. Photo and art workshops are held frequently throughout the city, and the literary community supports an annual writers conference.
Given San Miguel’s vibrant arts scene, shopping is a main attraction. The centro is filled with galleries and shops displaying fine paintings, sculptures, jewelry and the San Miguel shoe, designed to withstand uneven sidewalks and cobblestones. Beyond the centro’s offerings, 50 shops, galleries and studios are clustered in the Fabrica La Aurora, a former textile factory in the outskirts of downtown. There are plenty of treasures that don’t boast hefty price tags as well. At the centro’s busy Mercado de Artesanías, vendors display pottery created throughout San Miguel’s home state of Guanajuato along with tin-framed mirrors, hand-embroidered tablecloths and silky woven shawls. The selection changes constantly—these days, flowered oilcloth bags and placemats are all the rage. If you’re a folk art fiend, be sure to visit the Galería Atotonilco about five miles north of San Miguel, where collectors Mayer Shacter and Susan Page have filled a 3,000 square foot exhibition space with an amazing array of pottery, textiles, masks, jewelry and just about any Mexican craft you can imagine. Some items, including gorgeous embroidered huipiles from Chiapas and Guatemala, are for sale.
Some of the city’s finest homes now hold stylish hotels and B&Bs, offering a wide range of possibilities. Casa de Sierra Nevada set high standards for San Miguel lodgings when it opened in a house built in 1580 for the archbishop. Rooms now fill six immaculately restored mansions near the jardín, along with the town’s first cooking school, Sazón. The neighboring Casa Misha is a study in gracious living, with seven rooms in two immaculately reconstructed houses and several terraces where silver-service breakfasts are served with a backdrop of church domes. Both hotels are costly, but plenty of moderate accommodations have won loyal followings. Among the best is the inexpensive Posada Corazón set amid gardens just steps from the Parroquia. Non-guests are welcome to stop in for an organic breakfast in the hotel’s cozy library.
Two new hotels have raised the bar for service, style and sophistication. Stylish Mexicans bored with colonial digs now flock to the new ultra-modern Hotel Matilda. Sleek white buildings filled with contemporary art, including photographer Spencer Tunick’s shot of thousands of nude people gathered in Mexico City’s Zócalo, frame an infinity pool and sun deck, and the restaurant and bar draw chic locals along with guests. The new Rosewood San Miguel de Allende reflects the city’s traditional setting with massive rose-hued limestone colonial-style buildings, stone columns, arched porticos, splashing fountains and gleaming hardwood floors. The 67-room hotel is at the heart of Rosewood’s residential compound of 29 luxurious private homes in one of San Miguel’s wealthiest enclaves. The main draw for outsiders is the Luna Rooftop Tapas Bar commanding outstanding views of sparkling lights illuminating church domes and steeples and mansions scattered along high hillsides.
Such highfalutin accommodations seem pretentious and off-putting for travelers who favor more ethnic destinations like Chiapas and Oaxaca. But there are plenty of Mexico fans who have traveled all over the country and find themselves returning again and again to San Miguel de Allende. "Yes, I read that one guidebook called downtown Miguel de Allende Disneyland," said Onstott, who lives in a downscale neighborhood at the edge of the centro and has mixed feelings about the city’s popularity with tourists and expats. "Sometimes I wish they would all go away, but then I realize I’m just as much of a gate crasher as they are. And I’m not going anywhere soon."
Maribeth Mellin has received Mexico’s prestigious Pluma de Plata for her book Traveler’s Mexico Companion.