The colonial cities and towns of Mexico, with their leafy public squares, Baroque churches, vibrant markets, and colorful architecture are quite special. Oaxaca, Querétaro, Guanajuato, even much bigger Guadalajara…all are worth visiting. For years, the small city of San Miguel de Allende, acclaimed by countless travel writers as among the very best, alluded me. One planned visit was canceled after I caught the flu. Another was aborted following a schedule change at work. But this past March, I finally made it to San Miguel de Allende…
…and it was worth the wait.
Located in Guanajuato State, midway between the aforementioned cities of Querétaro and Guanajuato, San Miguel (for short) is roughly 3.5 hours by bus from Terminal de Autobuses Central del Norte, the north bus station of Mexico City. Executive class buses (the only way to travel) leave several times each day, sometimes stopping in Tepotzotlán and always stopping in Querétaro. From QRO, it is just one hour to San Miguel.
My hostel, Lool Beh, was a new-ish establishment in working class Colonia Guadalupe. I was told that it was a 15-minute walk from the bus station to Lool Beh, but the place was hard to find, and it took me over 40 minutes by foot, all told (getting lost along the way). There was construction on my street, Alfonso Esparza Oteo (#17), but the residential neighborhood was otherwise quiet, and featured some memorable street art. Lool Beh also offers spa services and complimentary breakfast, so I was surprised to find myself being the only guest for three of my four nights there. Dorm beds are $12/night and private rooms cost $35 USD/night, which sounds expensive until you factor in that San Miguel is one of the priciest cities in inland Mexico.
It was after dark by the time I finished checking in, and I grabbed dinner at Gombo’s Pizza, which had excellent service and featured much more than just pizza on the menu. The restaurante, on Calle Hidalgo, was less than two blocks from the the main square, El Jardin. The square, built into a hill, has concentric rows of park benches, tree plantings, the requisite kiosk, and the usual collection of sidewalk cafés and historic buildings. The massive pink parish church, El Parroquia de San Miguel, is one of two churches adjacent to the square, and I snuck a peak inside as the last misa (mass) of the day was letting out. Easter Sunday was still a few weeks away, but the frequency of services was already ramping up, and it wasn’t until my last day in town that I was able to snap a few pictures of the interior without interrupting mass.
A 15-minute walk along mostly darkened streets took me back to Hostal Lool Beh. Fortunately, San Miguel is one of the safest cities in Mexico, and nothing ever felt amiss about walking around late at night.
The entirety of the following day – my first full day in San Miguel – was spent in and around the Centro Histórico. I popped into the parish church a second time, and peeked inside several other churches as well. Nowhere in Latin America is Spanish Baroque more ornate, nor Catholic iconography more pronounced, than in Mexico. One of the churches, La Concepción, has an attached monastery that now functions a cultural center. Some impressive art, most of it temporary exhibitions by local artists or students of San Miguel’s Instituto Allende, was on display, but the star attraction was, and is, a full-room mural by Mexican Master David Alfaro Siqueiros. Alas, photography was prohibited.
The biggest point of historical interest to travelers visiting San Miguel is the Museo Histórico de San Miguel de Allende, more commonly referred to as the birthplace of Ignacio Allende. Allende, who joined Father Miguel Hidalgo, Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez, and other conspirators in launching Mexico’s revolution against Spain, was born in this spacious home that sits kitty-corner from El Jardin. Although Allende was a decorated soldier and captain of the Spanish Army, he grew to sympathize with those struggling for independence, and changed sides. This act of treason resulted in his execution in Chihuahua; his remains are entombed inside El Ángel, the Independence Column that sits in the middle of Paseo de Reforma in Mexico City, while his name was added to the end of “San Miguel,” the original name for the city of his birth. The museum, which is closed on Mondays, merits a visit.
San Miguel is built on a series of hills, and I knew that I wanted to go *up* to seek out a better view. I made my way up Calle Correo, crossing busy Real a Querétaro, and continuing through an archway on Calle Santo Domingo. Houses grew nicer, and more modern, the higher I climbed, and many of them bore “for sale” signs. I knew that the best view was behind me and obscured by hedges, so I retraced my steps to Real a Querétaro, turning left (south), where the road climbed again, this time towards a mirador (scenic lookout). I stopped off along the way at a sign that read “El Jardin” but was labeled as “Los Pocitos” on my map. There was a supposed orchid garden at the sight of Los Pocitos, but all I found was a narrow gorge and some teenage school girls playing hooky and drinking cervezas. Orchids or not, this was a lovely spot.
The mirador that I mentioned in the previous paragraph was also lovely. The pink spire of the parish church just barely popped into view. I wish there was a signboard denoting other points of interest, particularly the mountains and body of water that comprised the furthest sights visible from the mirador. I chose a different route for my return hike to the Centro Histórico, passing yet another church as well as the source of a year-round spring – the water source that attracted the first Spanish settlers to San Miguel over 450 years ago. A park, named after indigenous Mexican president Benito Juárez, occupied several acres of land below the spring, and it was the perfect patch of shade for me to get out of the hot sun for a bit, and for me to do some pull-ups, too, toning my arms as well as my legs. 🙂
Famished, I ate at Gombo’s Pizza again, and walked off my dinner by making an after-dark circuit of some of the same streets I strolled earlier in the day. Two separate groups of Aztec dancers danced around the square to a constant drum rhythm. Break dancers moved to a different beat near the central kiosk, and heat lamps were clearly ablaze at several rooftop terraces around the Centro Histórico. A good day.
I slept in the next morning and spent most of my waking hours visiting the town of Dolores Hidalgo. An hour by half-hourly bus from both San Miguel and Guanajuato, this provincial town is to Miguel Hidalgo what San Miguel is to Ignacio Allende. I will write more about my day trip to Dolores Hidalgo in a future blog post, but I do wish to share this sunset picture, taken from the bus station in San Miguel upon my return:
Much of my third full day was spent in day tripping mode as well, although that day’s sights were just a few kilometers outside the city. The first place visited, the pueblito (small village) of Atotonilco, is a common pilgrimage destination for Catholics, courtesy of its ornate, UNESCO-recognized Santuario (sanctuary church). At least four chapels, each covered floor-to-ceiling in gold/wood gilding and wall/ceiling frescoes, dazzle the eye and tantalize your camera. Regional artist Miguel Antonio Martínez de Pocasangre, who painted the murals over three decades, received such acclaim for his work that the Santuario was later referred to as the “Sistine Chapel of Mexico.” So what’s the story? During the 18th century, local priest Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro (who also has a church named after him in San Miguel) supposedly saw an apparition of Jesus carrying his cross, and interpreted this vision as instructions to build a church.
I have seen prettier churches and livelier villages throughout my travels around Mexico and Latin America, but the ceiling and wall art was impressive enough to make the $200-peso cab ride worth it. I did part with additional peso coins in the form of donations to beggars sitting outside the church entrance. One beggar was a shy indigenous woman, while the other was a put-upon mother hand-feeding a fully grown man-child with advanced cerebral palsy. I will cast my cynicism aside and hope that they find the miracle they are looking for.
A 15-minute walk along a cobblestone road that connects Atotonilco to the main highway led me to my choice of balnearios (thermal baths), improbably located just off the side of the road and a highlight of my trip to San Miguel.
The thermal bath complex of La Gruta doesn’t look like much from the outside, but it contains three heated pools set amidst landscaped gardens. The warmest pool features a long tunnel that leads to a grotto, illuminated by a natural skylight and featuring a man-made waterfall inside said grotto. I didn’t know what to expect but spent quite a bit of time inside the grotto, being careful to stay hydrated. Public displays of affection (PDA) in Mexico can be quite revolting at times, so I was pleasantly surprised that the young Mexican couples at La Gruta were on their best behavior. Most visitors were Americans and Canadians on the wrong side of 40. (More on that later.)
I didn’t visit other balnearios in the area so I cannot compare experiences or say which thermal bath is best, but I enjoyed my three hours at La Gruta and can heartily recommend it; towels and swimsuits are available for purchase. La Gruta closes before dusk but taxi pickups are easy to arrange.
I spent my last night in San Miguel walking around Colonia Guadalupe. I marveled at the street art, ate a football-sized pambazo, washed it down with an adult beverage at a stationary food truck, and followed that up with a second.
As I sat down for breakfast on my fourth and final morning in San Miguel, I was so used to being the only guest in the hostel that I was taken aback when two other guests entered the dining room that I almost spit out my coffee. Someone once said that everything happens for a reason, and it turned out that those guests, Eduardo of Baja California Sur and Sarahi of Mexico City, were planning on visiting the botanic gardens on the city’s outskirts, same as me!
My city map suggested that a 45-minute walk, all uphill, would take us to the main entrance of the botanic gardens, known formally as El Charco del Ingenio. The hostel owner recommended going by bus instead, and the ride, which itself lasted almost 30 minutes, dropped us off near the little-visited back entrance. There was no ticket kiosk, and the only sign denoting that we had, in fact, reached the right place was faded almost beyond legibility. In we went!
This easternmost section of garden was dotted with desert shrubs and the occasional ruined building. Black, ashy dirt suggested that these grounds were the recent target of a controlled burn. A barbed wire fence separated one section of preserve from the rest. A small lake, which we would later discover was man-made, was as still as the humid air of mid-August, with only the occasional bird landing – and our clomping feet, perhaps – to disturb the peace.
We made our way west along dusty trail, passing under cacti branches and keeping an eye out for snakes. It wasn’t long before the sound of other tourists – Americans, loud and brash – came into earshot. We saw that the lake ended at a dam, and that a group of conservationists had marched across the lip of the dam to an astrological temple on the other side.
The spillway was closed, so the other side of the dam was deep, dry canyon. We returned to the main trail, then followed it uphill towards the main entrance. Before exiting, we explored the high ground, took in the view, and hiked to a precipice that offered a view of the aqueduct on the opposite canyon wall, and of an oasis of green on the canyon floor. The 30-minute walk from the main entrance, downhill towards the Centro Histórico, took us, first, past more spacious homes, many of them still under construction, and second, through the market, which covered four city blocks and, except for one covered produce section, catered more to tourists than to locals. I bought an elote, which is Mexican corn-on-the-cob, adorned with mayo, cheese, and chili powder. Good stuff!
Eduardo, Sarahi, and I said our goodbyes to one another at El Jardin, although little did I know that I would run into Sarahi just one hour later, at the bus station! I peeked into the spectacular parish church one last time, and finally had the place to myself…for all of ten seconds. But as they say in Mexico, ni modo.
San Miguel is a strange place. Beautiful, to be certain. But also strange. Ever since the 1960’s, San Miguel de Allende has attracted wealthy older Americans – retirees and snowbirds, mostly – who winter in Mexico or move there outright. Sure, the weather is nice; summers can be rainy but it never snows, and even the coldest, windiest winter nights are never that cold. Was it the art scene, firmly established over the last six decades, that first attracted cultured gringos to San Miguel, or was it the balnearios? And what is it that keeps them coming back? It certainly isn’t the hilly streets, with high curbs and uneven cobblestones that seemingly exist solely to sprain one’s ankle.
I don’t mean to sound as if I am complaining. San Miguel is one of the few “tourist towns” in Latin America in which the supply/demand surplus isn’t off-kilter; usually there is more supply of budget lodgings, restaurants, and handicrafts than there are travelers willing to spend their money. In San Miguel, it is just the opposite. Restaurants do a decent business, even on weekdays. Budget accommodation, if anything, is in short supply. Hawkers of wooden flutes and handmade dolls ply the main streets, but never in the overwhelming numbers that you may find in Tequisquiapan, Granada, or Cuzco (to name just three such places).
Yeah, I liked San Miguel. I liked it a lot. In fact, I would add it to the shortlist of cities such as Venice, Chiang Mai, and nearby Guanajuato – cities in which my time spent was so close to perfect that I hesitate to return, lest my second time there be less memorable than my first.
Okay, I grant you that if I never return to San Miguel, that is less tourism money going into the hands of the city’s hard working people. But how is this for a marketing slogan: “San Miguel de Allende: a city so perfect that you’ll never want to come back!”
Think about it.