San Miguel de Allende: Colonial Mexico Charms
When I told people I was going to Mexico and NOT staying on the beach, a look of sincere confusion would cross their faces. “Oh, so you’re going to Mexico City, then?” they’d ask. “No, San Miguel de Allende.” San Miguel…what?
Neither a sun-soaked beach nor a mega-metropolitan center, San Miguel is nestled in the heart of central Mexico and is a colonial gem. Perched more than 6,000 feet above sea level, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is hands down one of the most charming destinations I’ve ever visited and it offered me a peek into the sleepy villages of Mexico’s past.
My husband and I were there to attend the San Miguel Writers’ Conference. We flew into Mexico City on a warm, clear day and then piled into a private car for the four-hour drive to San Miguel. We watched in jet-lagged silence as the sprawling city of 26 milllion peeled away in layers and the Mexico countryside opened up outside our windows. “It looks like California,” we said to one another. And slowly, slowly we climbed, the landscape around us collecting first into gentle mounds, then soaring hills, and finally steep peaks. Nestled among them was San Miguel, a city hewn from stone that stair steps up and down the uneven topography.
The city was founded 1542 by a Franciscan monk and was by the 1900s practically a ghost town. But in 1938 a Peruvian artist founded the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes and the town’s path forever changed. It was this art school that began to attract American G.I.s to the city after World War II. They were dazzled by the town’s beauty, and their G.I. Bill money went further south of the border. Soon luminaries like Diego Rivera were brought in to teach the students and eventually The Beats followed. Today, the town has a significant ex-pat artist and retirement-aged community living peacfully among the locals.
There aren’t many sights per se in San Miguel. What you come for is the city itself. Though cosmopolitan in so many ways, the city lies within the most conservative state in Mexico, meaning that life hasn’t changed that much for the residents. As my husband and I strolled the jardin after dinner, we saw multi-generational families doing the same, mother and father holding hands, teenagers carrying infants. And though we had almost never seen so many churches in our lives, each was filled to the brim come Sunday morning.
Art still reigns supreme in San Miguel and the writers conference was no exception. Barbara Kingsolver was the keynote speaker and at night we attended fantastical parties, each evening trying to one up the last. But always the emphasis was on traditional Mexico. I arrived at a fiesta one evening only to have a shot-glass-size terracotta pot placed around my neck. “For tequila,” the lady said and I smiled. We snacked on jicama dipped in dried chilies and later there would be an eye-scorching fireworks display, a pinata, and even ten-foot-tall dancing puppets.
And yet, where art goes, luxury follows. You can certainly do San Miguel on a shoe-string budget, but the posh small inns are so affordable that you probably won’t want to. We stayed at the new guest house from the founders of The Oasis San Miguel. Both properties looked torn from the pages of a high-end design magazine and the staff was incredibly gracious. Each morning started with an included, made-to-order, traditional Mexican breakfast and guests were enveloped in luxurious amenities, such as spa-like bathrooms, free in-room WiFi, and Turkish bathrobes. We never, ever wanted to leave and coming home was a letdown after staying in such a dream-like environment.
San Miguel made me fall head over heels for our neighbor to the south. My husband and I couldn’t get over how different the real Mexico was compared to the stories on the nightly news. We almost never felt so safe on vacation, the weather was cool and dry, and drunk Spring Breakers were nowhere to be seen. If you’ve been considering a trip to Mexico and you want to really experience the culture, I can’t recommend San Miguel enough.
My name: Alison Presley
Nickname: Presbo, because I'm good police.
How I earn my keep: I'm the manager of Travelocity's Travel for Good program. Visit Travel for Good to learn more about our green travel and voluntourism initiatives!
What kind of traveler am I: I'm an intrepid food explorer. I usually starve myself on the plane (not that that's too hard to do) so that the moment my toes touch foreign soil I'm ready to sample new and exciting cuisine. I like to dine everywhere from hole-in-the-wall local secrets to Michelin Guide gems. Cannelés, poi, boiled peanuts, oxtail soup, poutine--there's no stopping this adventurous palate.
Greatest travel lesson I've learned: It doesn't cost a lot of money to do good. Offsetting your carbon impact only adds a few bucks to your trip, green hotels are very affordable, and volunteering locally during your vacation is a great way to give back and learn about the culture.