Three guitar players in beautiful black Mexican suits serenade a women, in the Jardin Allende, in the heart of San Miguel. The American woman is flattered and having the time of her life. Is it only my bullshit detector that sounds the alarm?
The scene at least tells a lot about present-day San Miguel de Allende and the dizzying development it experienced in the last five to ten years. From a relatively obscure, dilapidated old town hours away from the big cities into a home for American expats. A picture-perfect colonial city, that was even recommended to me by Mexicans. So is it worth the trip? One day in San Miguel de Allende…
Only the Starbucks at the central square gives away that this place has become a popular destination for tourists and expats alike. But of course we stay away from the multinational coffee gorilla.
English-speaking people all around though at the Cafe de La Parroquia. It’s not the staff of course, who only speak Spanish at a furious pace. This beautiful place is a favorite amongst the American pensioners that live here part of the year. The coffee is excellent, the gallo pinto as dry and impossible to eat as almost everywhere else in Mexico. So it really is a local treat, and the inner courtyard gives it some bonus points for charm (the Lavanda cafe around the corner is a good alternative by the way).
It’s a beautiful example of a colonial house that has been renovated in recent years. Once you start walking around, after your breakfast, you will find the entire city center is full of them. Real estate agencies everywhere as well, showing pictures of villas with swimming pools, patios and other dreamlike features at eye-watering prices. Around ten years ago American artists discovered this place and started the wave of renovations. In those days, the place was still affordable: now it is anything but.
Nonetheless it makes for a beautiful romantic walk. Start at the central square to admire the pink-stoned church. Go past the Plaza de Toros bull ring (if you are lucky the doors are open for a sneak peek), then go down El Chorro street and take the staircase up. From there you have beautiful views over the center and the entire region actually.
Head down again to the Jardin Allende towards the Centro Cultural Ignacio Ramirez El Nigromante. Once you enter, be amazed by the perfect inner courtyard. This cultural center actually has a room with a huge surprise: an unfinished mural by Siqueiros, one of the Big Three of Mexican painters. This is an excellent place as well for a coffee and maybe even a small pre-lunch.
After coffee it is time to explore the northern area of the center. Go to Insurgentes street and visit the public library: upon entering take an immediate left into the book and souvenir store, to be dumbstruck by the painted ceilings. In a shop!!!
Halfway the Callejon de Loreto you can turn right. This is the back entrance of the Mercado San Miguel, which slowly opens up to you. This one is funny, vibrant and thank god not nearly as crazy as other Mexican markets. Stock up on liquids as well before the next stage 🙂 (expert tip: also take some fresh juices, they are ridiculously cheap and delicious everywhere)
Now things get difficult, as we head off the beaten track. Because probably the most beautiful thing of San Miguel de Allende is hidden on the eastern edge, up the hill beyond an area with ridiculously luxurious new villas. The Charco del Ingenio is a truly magnificent botanical garden. Built around an artificial lake, at the edge of a canyon overlooking the entire region, this one provides an excellent overview of the vegetation in these dry lands.
First things first though, get some post-lunch here at the cafe. And then stroll around this huge place, which takes at least an hour to just walk around. This is even the one and only place where I saw a snake, on a pathway just outside the official part of the garden. Which of course made me have a nice detour…
Going back to the center, it is time to visit the Plaza Civica. This is a great location to sit and have a well-deserved break, enjoying life going past you all around. Plenty of churches around here as well to admire, before you can refresh yourself at the hotel.
Now, in the evening hours colonial cities really become almost too beautiful and touristy. This, though, is also a perfect time to stroll around a bit. Enjoy the views of the pink church, and if you really want to be serenaded, this is your chance.
After a long day like this, obviously you have deserved some proper energy food. What better place to go than an Italian restaurant? La Grotta pizzeria is a cosy thingy, not too cheap but with great wine that is usually hard to find in beer-loving Mexico. And then it’s time to wrap things up…
Worth the while? Definitely, but not for much more than a full day. As perfect as it is, it is also a bit of an open air museum. Guanajuato, a couple of hours away by bus, is not as tidy but definitely more vibrant and fun 🙂
Good to know:
- Getting there and away: take a long-distance bus from nearby Queretaro. That city itself is connected to Mexico City and Guadalajara. Instead of going to (or coming from) one of the two big cities, you can also combine San Miguel with a visit to Guanajuato, a mere 80 kilometres away and also served by all major long-distance buses in the area
- Getting around: the bus terminal is in the western part of town, a twenty minute walk outside of the city centre. You can walk from there, grab a taxi, or take one of the smelly local diesel buses. Within the city center everything is within walking distance
- Art scene: as real estate used to be so cheap, there are still a lot of national and international artists in San Miguel de Allende. Therefore, you can find a string of truly truly excellent galleries, especially around the Centro Cultural