San Miguel de Allende, Mexico #1
INTRODUCTION TO SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE
In the rear seat of a van with 6 strangers, bouncing through quintessential Mexican countryside on the climbing road from the Leon/Guanajuato international airport (BJX) to San Miguel de Allende (or “SMA” for short). The view out of dust-blotched windows is of scrublands populated by wood or adobe shacks barely roofed by sheets of tin, scrawny cattle grazing thorny acacia bushes, goats butting heads, and sagging ropes decorated with colorful children’s clothes while heavily lined and weathered old women relax in stingy shade. Visiting friends housesitting in SMA, I’m hoping our house will be fancier than these, and imagining all the interesting things we might do.
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO SMA AHEAD OF TIME
The narrowly cobblestone-lined colonial mountain town of SMA is one place where it pays to do a lot of pre-trip research to squeeze maximum enjoyment and experiences out of a limited visit. There is so much going on at any one time, it takes a lot of organization to prioritize a 10 day visit. In this first of two posts, I want to share with you what I researched and experienced in this eclectic international community in the hopes of encouraging you to visit and enjoy this magical village as I did.
BEST TRAVEL ADVICE – WHEN TO GO?
At an elevation of about 7,000 feet, the climate is very moderate all year around, with high temperatures ranging from 73o to 88o F. A dry season from November thru April provides assurance that your carefully-planned outdoor activities won’t be rained out. If you choose to travel in “winter”, be aware that nights in the mountains can be in the range of 40o to 50o F. Be sure to pack a warm jacket.
PLAN YOUR TRAVEL – HOW TO GET TO SMA
Located about 170 miles northwest of Mexico City’s Benito Juarez International Airport (MEX), it can take about 4 hours on a modern and comfortable bus (with TV!) to get to SMA. Most people opt to take direct US flights into Leon (BJX), which is roughly 60 miles to the west. From Leon, vanpools are available for about $29 or you can take a taxi, which will run you $90 – $100 for up to three people. Renting a car is not recommended due to the difficulty of driving the narrow, winding and steep roads of SMA. [More on that below.]
GETTING AROUND SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE
This is the best option to enjoy the imposing beauty and baroque decorative elements of Spanish colonial architecture. The city’s main attractions are mostly within walking distance of one another. Unfortunately, the uneven cobblestone streets and walkways on steep paths can be a challenge as you make your way to the sites. Wear sturdy and supportive walking shoes. Do as I say and not as I do –> don’t wear flip-flops and turn your ankle!
This is the most common method. About $2 USD flat rate will get you to anywhere in the city during the day. At night the rate can be higher, but shouldn’t exceed $3.50 USD. ALWAYS be certain to verify the rate with your driver before you get into the taxi. It is proper etiquette to tip your driver 10 to 15 percent of your total fare.
In addition to narrow, winding, bumpy and steep roads, parking in the city proper is very limited. Driving in San Miguel is really more trouble than it’s worth. If you want to visit nearby towns or attractions (highly recommended), a car can come in handy. At city center, San Miguel Rent a Car offers standard rental options. A driver’s license from your country of residence is all you need to rent a car in San Miguel. Well, okay, a credit card too… You may also see locals running errands around town on all-terrain vehicles (ATV’s). Trust me – not recommended for tourists.
A FASCINATING HISTORY
San Miguel de Allende was once an important stop on the silver route between Zacatecas and Mexico City. In fact, defunct silver mines dot the state of Guanajuato and many offer fascinating tours demonstrating centuries-old mining techniques. A short drive from SMA, surrounded by cacti and arid hills, the town of “Mineral de Pozos” was founded in 1576 to exploit the rich gold and silver mines nearby. During its heyday, 17 gold and silver mines had a thousand men toiling in each. “Pozos” became one of the most prominent silver-producing cities in the world. By the early twentieth century, Pozos was a prosperous city of 50,000 inhabitants. As the veins predictably became depleted, the town slowly faded. The last mine was closed in 1950.
SAN MIGUEL YESTERDAY AND TODAY
The town of SMA is an interesting contradiction of quaint and cosmopolitan. Like elsewhere in the “bajio” (heartland) state of Guanajuato, it’s liberally populated with well-preserved buildings from the 1600 and 1700’s. With charming cobblestone streets, hidden courtyards, stunning architectural details and lavishly designed interiors, San Miguel de Allende is arguably the prettiest town in Mexico, while offering all the modern amenities like reliable internet and cable TV.
WORLD HERITAGE SITES
In 2008, UNESCO recognized San Miguel de Allende and the neighboring Sanctuary of Jesus de Atotonilco (pronounced “ah-toe-toe-NEAL-coe”) as World Heritage of Humanity sites, citing the town’s religious and civil architecture as a demonstration of the evolution of different trends and styles, from Baroque to late 19th century Neo-Gothic. The church, El Santuario de Atotonilco, is acknowledged as the cradle of the Mexican war of independence. From here in 1810, Miguel Hidalgo, a Catholic priest widely considered to be the father of independence, took an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe from his church’s altar as an inspirational banner to rally the people. History attests to the ultimate success of this evocation in an amazing country where everywhere the past remains highly relevant to the present.
TRAVEL REVIEW – WHY VISIT SMA?
As an artist, writer, photographer, and wildlife biologist, I visited for the colors, the quality of the light, the vibrant art scene, the palpable sense of history stretching backward in time to pre-Hispanic civilizations, the flowers, the birds, the world renowned cuisine, the scope of music, the beloved elders, the children, the many parades, the unbounded joy of life expressed in daily life as well as festivals, the many healthy markets and a welcomed relief from a high stress job to a more human-adapted pace of life.
This is a land of beautifully painted facades, inset with carved wooden doors ornamented by graceful wrought iron accents. Passing through those doors, delightful open air courtyards grace the homes, filled with fountains and greenery serenaded by the contented chirping of birds in residence. Yes, I love it here!
THINGS TO DO IN SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE
BEGIN WITH THE GUIDE TO EVERYTHING
For a comprehensive list of everything San Miguel de Allende, visit the website known as “ACCESS San Miguel”. This list includes restaurants, bars, bakeries, chocolates, ice cream, lodging, antiques, doctors, dentists, stores, galleries, cooking classes, dance classes, language schools, spas, real estate, etc. In other words, it is a guide to everything and anything you might need or want in SMA.
SELECT YOUR FAVORITE EVENTS
Whatever your interests, you’ll find something in San Miguel de Allende: Chamber music festival, Jazz and blues festival, Writer’s conferences, LGBT, Latin jazz, Dance classes, Motorcycle club, Mountain biking, Holidays, Blessing of the horses, Rodeos, Photography classes, Walking tours, Recording studios, Art classes, Parades, Puppets, Mariachis, Sculpture classes, Massage, Spa, Meditation, Open-air markets, Day of the Dead, ATV tours, Hot air ballooning, well…you get the idea.
Two especially good comprehensive websites compete to present the best weekly and monthly event listings. Where’s The Bathroom Travel recommends that you check out both to customize your visit. Although they share the same name, “San Miguel Events”, their contents frequently differ. Both are English Language sites.
STILL MORE TO DO IN SAN MIGUEL
I have another SMA travel tip for you. Whatever your interest, just launch your favorite internet search engine and type in the activity followed by “San Miguel de Allende”. I guarantee you’ll find yet another treasure trove of options!
Especially for you, our beloved reader, here’s an additional bonus in the form of an attraction that defies classification and provides an hour or two of fun for the entire family. A beautiful Mexican Toy Museum – “Las Esquino: Museo del Juguete Popular Mexicano” is located at Nuñez #40. Admission is just a few U$D.
THE CUISINE SCENE
The foodie fascination of both residents and tourists has been fed by many top quality restaurants dispersed throughout the old town and surroundings. Recently, the U.S. reality series “Top Chef” filmed their season finale here, and further excited the nascent food frenzy. If you check the guides mentioned earlier in this post, you will find that many food tours and cooking schools are located in SMA. Here is my favorite in each category.
Taste of San Miguel Food Tour This vibrant and passionate company offers several 3 hour tours, not to an uncharted desert isle (Gilligan’s), but of Mexican cuisine at its best at off-the-beaten-path eateries. Day and evening tours available. !Muy delicioso!
Marilau’s Mexican Ancestry Cooking School Although it’s much harder to pick a single favorite in this category, Marilau’s personal attention made this a standout. With eyes closed, experience at first hand the savory scents of roasting fresh chiles, toasting dry chile, roast tomatoes, cilantro, tomatillos, cumin, cinnamon, and other traditional Mexican ingredients. You will work your culinary alchemy in Marilau’s own kitchen using her heirloom cooking instruments in small personalized classes. Upon completing the instruction, I felt more like I had joined a long and proud heritage of Mexican family chefs than I had finished a cooking class. The sense of welcome and belonging made the experience truly special.
DINING OUT – SHORT LIST OF FAVORITES
This is just a favorite list of mine for an evening’s treat on the town with friends and family. There are plenty more great options. Very good quality inexpensive food is widely available throughout town if that is your preference. Please keep in mind when you view menus that the prices are in Mexican pesos. Although the current exchange rate is between 12 and 14 pesos per dollar, quickly divide the menu price in pesos by 10 to get a rough price equivalent in US dollars.
|La Parada||Peruvian cuisine|
|Café Rama||Creative international cuisine with Mexican ingredients|
|Nirvana||Elegant, secluded and romantic|
|The Restaurant||Global comfort food, organic & local for lunch or dinner. Expensive but great for foodies.|
|Rosewood Hotel||Fabulous Luna rooftop tapas bar with an amazing view.|
|Hecho en Mexico||Ex-Pat hangout with open courtyard and excellent musical entertainment.|
NIRVANA IS HEAVEN
Please Join Us Next Week for Part 2
Please join us for San Miguel de Allende-Part 2 next week (May 17). This is the first time we are offering a split post, but there is just so much going on in San Miguel de Allende, it’s impossible to do it justice in a single entry. So come on back next week to get detailed travel info on the top 5 activities in SMA’s arsenal of fun!
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