SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, Mexico — With its moderate climate, clear air, two major art schools and many language classes, San Miguel de Allende has long been a haven for tourists, artists, writers, expats and retirees from Canada and the U.S. The city’s historical significance and influx of foreign money have ensured its cobbled streets and colonial architecture are remarkably well-preserved, and filled it with galleries, shops and restaurants.
If you prefer culture and history to beaches and beer, with a relaxed pace and a high standard of conservation that even forbids the installation of traffic lights, San Miguel is the perfect antidote to the coastal resorts. Just a few hours drive northwest of Mexico City by bus, the city was declared a national historical monument in 1926 and its centre given UNESCO World Heritage listing in 2008.
The best way to take in its charms and history is on foot. And the best place to start is in the leafy green town plaza, or Jardin Principal, in the shadow of the strange pink pseudo-gothic spires of the Parroquia, or parish church.
Buy a ticket for a trolley tour at the kiosk next to the cathedral, or visit the helpful tourist office on the north side of the plaza to book guided walks ranging from gallery visits to tours of beautiful homes and gardens, as well as hikes and excursions to the nearby hot springs. But the best approach is just to put on some good shoes and start walking the narrow and winding cobbled streets, with their friendly inhabitants, red and ochre buildings, fountains and churches.
To set your perambulations in a historical context, start with a visit to the former home of the town’s namesake Ignacio de Allende, now a museum, across from the church on the southwest corner of the plaza.
Mexico’s independence day is not Cinco de Mayo (May 5), as many other North Americans mistakenly believe, but Sept. 16. It’s a day that calls for real celebration here since the revolution that led to Mexico’s break from Spain had its genesis in Allende’s mansion.
In September 1810, when Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla declared independence from the Spanish crown, the conspiracy had been brewing for some time with secret meetings at Allende’s home. Allende is lauded as a valiant revolutionary fighter and leader, and although his capture and execution in 1811 secured his status as a martyr, it prevented him from seeing his country gain independence 10 years later.
The pride local people take in their city’s role in Mexican history makes Sept. 16 a fun and festive time to visit, but with its mild climate, San Miguel is a year-round destination.
With a newfound sense of the city’s history, you can set off for two institutions with significance to more recent times: Bellas Artes (or Centro Cultural Ignacio Ramirez) in a former monastery, and the much larger Instituto Allende. Bellas Artes features an unfinished mural by renowned artist David Alfaro Siqueiros and a good bookstore, and the Allende a more recent mural by David Leonardo depicting Ignacio Allende’s role in Mexican history, as well as several galleries, shops and restaurants.
To delve further back into the city’s past, and to take a peaceful break from the stores, art and churches, walk south of the centre, or east of Instituto Allende, to the tree-lined paths of Benito Juarez park and El Chorro above it. The zig-zag routes of El Chorro lead past bougainvillea and patios to the spring where the city was founded in 1542 by a Franciscan friar who was the city’s original namesake, Juan de San Miguel. The water now flows from a fountain down to a plaza with public washing basins, where local women still do their laundry.
Continuing past the fountain and cultural centre at the top of the park, the path eventually leads to the Mirador, or viewpoint, for a spectacular look down at the city’s domed and spired churches and red, brown, and ochre buildings that blend into the surrounding dry fields and hills. The viewpoint also offers souvenir stands and a restaurant for refreshments.
Although San Miguel de Allende is important for its place in Mexican history, many of the foreigners who settled there over the years made significant contributions. One legacy is that of American Stirling Dickinson, a botanist, artist, writer and humanitarian, who arrived in 1937, and proceeded to co-found the city’s first art school and to build rural schools and the Civil Hospital. He also managed and played for the local baseball team, which once boasted of winning 86 consecutive games.
His orchid collection, started in 1940, keeps his memory alive. Housed in the ruins of an old tannery overlooking the city, Los Pocitos has always been open to the public. With four greenhouses, gardens and patios filled with domestic and imported orchid species — some rare, some hybrids and many prizewinners — as well as numerous cacti, it’s a tranquil pleasant place to spend an hour or two, before walking down the narrow streets back to town for a refreshment.
For a more extensive exploration of flora and fauna, the Botanical Gardens northeast of town are worth a visit. It’s a bit far to walk, but taxis are reasonably priced and will even return at a set time to bring you back. The gardens, best visited in the morning or late afternoon, include numerous cacti, succulents and other plants, as well as an abundance of birds and wildlife. Its pathways wind through close to 100 hectares of dry chaparral, wetlands and a spectacular canyon.
The antidote to aches from all that walking is a soaking in one of the calming hot springs north of the city. Taboada is the most popular, with its warm-water Olympic pool and smaller hot spa pool, but several others, including Las Grutas, offer plenty of enjoyment.
After a day exploring the city or relaxing at the hot springs, most evenings start on one of the benches or cafes of the Jardin, watching young people flirt, listening to mariachi bands or taking in other live music, getting a shoeshine or having a drink or bite at one of the restaurants around the plaza. Rincon de Don Tomas is especially good, with excellent coffees and fabulous Mexican dishes, including chicken in red or yellow mole sauce, made with rich spice mixes that include chocolate in the red, and cumin and sesame in the yellow. Even the pre-meal snacks of tortilla chips, chicharon (fried pork rind) and excellent salsa are memorable.
On weekend evenings, following some wandering minstrels and actors for a recorrido offers a pleasant diversion for a couple of hours. This melodramatic theatrical and musical walking tour through the streets of the city, with refreshments, costs about $10.
From the centre, it’s off to one of the numerous excellent restaurants or bars nearby. Many have live music and food ranging from Mexican to New Orleans style to Italian and even Thai.
The only real danger of visiting San Miguel de Allende is you may want to join the many foreigners who stayed to add to the vibrant cultural mix of this lively and artistic city, and never left.
NEED TO KNOW
— The closest airports to San Miguel de Allende are in Mexico City, Queretaro and Leon. Easiest access is through Mexico City, about 3.5- hours by bus. Many buses, including “deluxe class,” leave throughout the day from Terminal Norte. If you’d rather avoid Mexico City you can take a bus directly from the airport to Queretaro, then transfer to a bus for San Miguel de Allende, about an hour away.
— San Miguel has many lovely hotels in almost every price range, from the clean, inexpensive and popular Quinta Loreto (about $40/night) to the lovely converted old sprawling monastery Posada de Las Monjas (about $50/night), many high-end boutique hotels and even a Best Western. Long-term accommodation is also easy to find.
— Taxis are plentiful and inexpensive. Always agree on a price before getting in, as they aren’t metered.
— Admission to the Historical Museum/Allende Mansion is about $4. For the Orchid Gardens, a donation of roughly $2 is suggested. Admission to the Botanical Gardens is about $4, and a taxi ride is about $3 to $4 each way.
— The bilingual newspaper Atencion San Miguel has information about local events and classes. On Thursdays from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., the public library hosts drop-in sessions where Spanish and English speakers can practise their language skills and meet new friends. Besides language and art lessons, you can also find cooking, dance and other courses in the city.