San Miguel de Allende (San Miguel or even SMA for short) is a colonial city located in what is referred to as the heart of Mexico. It is an expat haven and a visit there will ensure you encounter Americans and Canadians who now either live permanently or a great part of the year (particularly Winter months) in San Miguel. We have been fortunate to visit here twice to house sit and care for Princess the dog and three cats – Dulce, Tigger and Blackie, all with their own unique personalities. The traditional Mexican home with all the modern conveniences was in a gated community a small way out of town, but we were fortunate to have use of the owner’s car during our stay. Their daily maid and gardener were also on hand should we require anything and having them was a good way for us to practice our Spanish, and their English, resulting more in Spanglish than either distinct language.
San Miguel, like most colonial Mexican cities is based around a central square. In this case it is referred to as the Jardin, opposite the Paroquia or main Cathedral of the city. It is quite a hilly city so get used to walking up (and down) hills, and when combined with the altitude (1900m), you get a good work out. The central area of the city is very walkable and with the amount of traffic, narrow one way streets and limited parking, walking is the preferred option. Uber operates in the city and taxis are plentiful and cheap.
There is certainly no shortage of places to eat and drink with numerous cafes and restaurants, the majority of which cater for international, particularly English speaking guests. Some of our favourite, (and often frequented) places included Ten Ten Pie (on Sterling Dickinson) for the lemon chicken, Panio and its sister restaurant in Centro, Cumpanio for the breakfast. Try the soft boiled egg at Cumpanio and eggs benedict at Panio and the jugo verde (green juice) at Mercado Sano is perfect for your daily fruit and vegetable intake. Cocktails on the roof of Rosewood Hotel as the sun goes down is a very relaxed way to end the day with spectacular views, although the cocktails are certainly priced to capture the tourist/expat dollar. A short distance from the Rosewood is Paprika, another great restaurant where we had salads, tapas and both vegetarian and beef lasagna – all very good and reasonably priced. Paprika, like many eateries have live musicians, particularly Friday and Saturday nights and are usually good to outstanding. The Inside Café, located in Centro with excellent coffee is owned and run by a New Zealand woman and her Mexican husband. The menu, including a special brunch on Sunday, is very good. They also claim to have the best cheese sandwich in the world – Christopher thought it was pretty damn good! La Comer, also referred to by its old name of Mega is a large supermarket on the edge of town if you need any food supplies and the internal café has the best panque limon (lemon cake).
A late addition (following a visit from Guanajuato to catch up with our home owners) is Luna de Queso which serves soups, salads and delicious sandwiches. Along with the cafe/restaurant there is also a deli full of excellent gourmet foods, both local and imported. We’ll definitely be regulars here next time we are in SMA.
San Miguel is located centrally for numerous day trips including Dolores Hidalgo, Atoltonilco, Mineral de Pozas and Guanajuato. Both Dolores Hidalgo & Guanajuato can be reached by public bus from the bus terminal, although we recommend several days in Guanajuato as there is lots to see. To visit Dolores Hidalgo, we caught a local bus from San Miguel Centro to the bus terminal and then another bus to Dolores Hidalgo, returning later in the day. A no frills bus, it only takes about an hour. Dolores Hidalgo was key in the Mexican revolution and it is also famous for its pottery artwork and helados (ice cream) which can be purchased from the vendors on the main square.
Mineral de Pozas is a ghost mining town, although the recent housing developments we observed may see it change drastically in the near future. We visited here with a guide from Follow Me Tours which was well worth it. The neglected silver, mercury and gold mines are not well sign posted nor centrally located so having a guide certainly means you aren’t left looking for a needle in a haystack. Our guide, Aldo was excellent whose knowledge of the town and Mexico in general was brilliant.
The Sanctuary of Atotonilco is a church complex and a World Heritage Site referred to as the ‘Sistine Chapel of Mexico.’ We were fortunate that our home owner drove us there following their return from their trip and it certainly is well worth visiting. The murals and artwork within the church are amazing and recent restoration work, particularly of the chapel to the left as you enter is breath taking. The church is connected to the events of the Mexican War of Independence in the early 19th century. The tiny town (population of around 600) is also famous for its nearby thermal springs and you can spend a day at the springs. La Gruta is the most popular, although we will have to leave visiting here on our next visit as we ran out of time.
Art & Murals
San Miguel, like most of Mexico is a haven for artists and many local shops and galleries have excellent artworks and sculptures. Galeria San Francisco on the main square has interesting exhibitions with the added bonus of great views of the La Paroquia. The murals in the area known as Guadalupe (just outside of Centro) are quite amazing and we joined a tour led by Colleen, who explains their background and the continuing movement around graffiti art in this area. As Centro is world heritage listed with significant restrictions on colours, artworks etc, Guadalupe was chosen as it was nearby with plenty of blank walls. The tour starts as Via Organica (an excellent organic café/restaurant) and is conducted several times a week. Several international artists have painted murals and the butterfly that goes around the corner of a building is quite amazing. One quote painted on a wall says, ‘Vivir es Maravilloso’ or ‘Living is wonderful!’
Also in the area of Guadalupe is Fabrica La Aurora which is an old cotton factory which has been turned into artist workshops and galleries, also with an excellent café. We visited here a couple of times and it is easy to spend a few hours in the complex as it is quite large. Among the galleries are some of the original factory machinery, giving it somewhat of an industrial feel. There are photos on the hallway walls not far from the entrance which depict the working cotton factory and are interesting to give the history of the complex.
Mexico celebrates every day of the year it seems and they are very dedicated to honouring saints and key historical events. One of our visits coincided with the Patron Saint Festival, or the Feast of St Michael the Archangel (San Miguel). This festival, reportedly the largest celebration of the year in San Miguel started at 4am on Saturday morning with fireworks. Little did we know that this meant fireworks were fired from the Cathedral INTO the crowd for more than an hour. We, like many others were ducking for cover and hiding behind park benches to avoid being hit whilst others were dancing directly in the line of fire. Regular fireworks shot high above the square in the national colours of red, green and white were also part of the hour long ‘explosive’ event. It culminated in huge tower like structures of fireworks being lit and they spun and lit up in sequence, spraying even more fireworks over the crowd.
The next day paper-mache dolls were paraded through the streets. These dolls, with fireworks attached were then hoisted high in the air and as they were spun around the children gathered to collect the lollies which showered them when the poor dolly exploded! Sort of like an exploding pinata or kinder surprise! Following that spectacle more than 300 horses, ridden by their cowboys paraded into the square and assembled in front of La Paroquia for a blessing. A short while later a parade started that went for more than two hours. It consisted of several huge floral tributes erected on huge frames and more than seventy traditional groups showcasing magnificent costumes and traditional dance and music. The floral tributes were erected around the square and the Cathedral whilst the parade continued and it was a great celebration. If in San Miguel on the last weekend in September, certainly make the effort to get to the square, although taking a motorcycle helmet, (some of the locals actually wore them), is advisable for the fireworks display.
Atencion & Biblioteca
Being a gringo town, San Miguel is well setup for expats. The Bibiloteca, located in Centro is a hub and library with a full calendar of events including hacienda tours, film screenings, seminars and they also have a list of local tours with some of the cost going towards local charities or education. It also includes a lending library and conversational Spanish gatherings.
Our homeowners also introduced us to Atencion which is the local newspaper published each Friday. It is in both English and Spanish (in the same paper). This became our bible whilst in SMA as it had a calendar of all the events on during the coming week, along with local news and stories of interest. It lists local theatre productions (in English) and we attended a number of these during our visits including an evening of one act plays and a staged reading of a play that preceded an open forum on ‘Dying in San Miguel’. Such events are great places to meet other travellers and locals. We even met two Aussies from Sydney at one play and subsequently caught up with them for drinks and dinner.
On the hill overlooking San Miguel are the Botanical Gardens, known as El Charco del Ingenio. They provide an interesting way to spend a couple of hours with extensive walking tracks throughout the gardens. There are numerous varieties of cactus and don’t expect lush green gardens like England although the greenhouse certainly displays how you can create a wonderful landscape using desert type plants. Oh, and the café at the entrance is quite good too and the coffee is reasonable.
Any traveller in Mexico, particularly if you are housesitting, will no doubt end up in San Miguel de Allende at some stage and it certainly is worth spending some time here. Getting out and exploring San Miguel is very easy and you never know what festival you will find yourself caught up in or even who you may run into – we met a friend, Georgette from Ajijic who was visiting for the weekend. We accompanied her to the ‘Blessing of the Animals’ at the local church. You just never know what is going to happen in SMA but rest assured, you will be in for a fun, action packed time.