San Miguel de Allende was founded in 1542 and sits at 6,000 feet in the mountains about 100 miles north of Mexico City. With a pending UNESCO World Heritage status, the town appears mostly as it did a century ago: narrow cobblestone streets that wind through neighborhoods full of homes brightly painted in the Spanish colonial style of its wealthy silver mining past.
San Miguel received an influx of expatriates after World War II, when many former GIs discovered their education grants stretched further at the town’s 57-year-old art school, Instituto Allende, than at home in the United States. Since then, the American and Canadian expat population has grown to about 10,000 residents (in a population of 80,000), who have decided that the mild mountain climate, art scene and laid-back atmosphere suit them well.
We spent our first week in a rented apartment a few minutes’ walk from the middle of town, commonly known as El Jardin, or the garden. The Jardin is San Miguel’s literal and psychological center; it is here that the heart of the place beats. Every day residents find time to sit on the wrought-iron benches under the lush trees in the shadow of La Parroquia, Church of St. Michael the Archangel (constructed in 1683), listening to mariachi bands and snacking on churros, sugary fried pastry dough. While clowns entertain the children, flower sellers and food vendors offer their wares.
One of San Miguel’s attractions is its thermal hot springs, located near the outskirts. Since San Miguel is a walking town (serpentine cobblestone calles do not allow for much parking), a pampering trip to the hot springs after a long day of strolling and shopping is a must. A 10-minute cab ride will take you to La Gruta, a natural mineral spring with a man-made cave complete with waterfall. Its varying-temperature pools will melt your cares away.
San Miguel is also an ideal starting point for day trips into nearby towns. One popular destination is Dolores Hidalgo, where in 1810 the cry rang out that began Mexico’s war seeking independence from Spain and arguably changed the course of history in North America.
Today, Dolores Hidalgo is known for its ice cream and beautiful handmade pottery. Ice cream vendors perch at all four corners of the central square, and the flavors are legendary—from shrimp to tequila to avocado. Dolores Hidalgo is one of the premier places in Mexico to buy Talavera pottery at a fraction of the prices in the United States or even nearby San Miguel. The streets are lined with shops where you can see the artists at work, painting with intricate glazes.
Another interesting excursion is literally a trip through the underground past of San Miguel. Its silver mining history has left behind historic mines that are open to the public. The La Valenciana Mine, started by the Spanish in 1558, has played a major role in Mexican silver production and has a shop where you can find beautiful artisanal silver jewelry at reasonable prices.
After a week of exploring the streets of San Miguel, we checked into an apartment at our second destination, Guanajuato. Founded by the Spanish in the early 16th century and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1988, Guanajuato is the capital of the Mexican state of the same name. This is more of a workers’ town than San Miguel, lacking that town’s influx of foreigners but no less rich in culture or romance. The muralist Diego Rivera was born here in 1886; his home has been converted into a museum, a modest building now housing dozens of his original works, along with galleries with pieces by guest artists on rotating display.
No trip to Guanajuato is complete without a stroll down Calle de Besos (the Street of Kisses), a passageway so narrow that legend has it two lovers kept apart were able to kiss across the gap. Guanajuato is also home to Museo de las Momias, or the Museum of Mummies, where you can see the mummified remains of residents whose relatives were unable to pay rent on their tombs. It’s a bit gruesome, but nonetheless part of the colorful history of this place. Luckily for today’s locals, the practice of disinterring the impoverished dead ended in 1958.
One of the common pleasures of walking through San Miguel and Guanajuato is the enticing array of smells around every corner. Fresh-baked pastries, homemade tortillas, fresh-cut flowers and slow-cooking carnitas beckon; sidewalk taco stands and tamale vendors tempt. Yet more ineffable attractions also permeate. Colonial Mexico has much to offer those who venture beyond the beach: a deep feeling of tradition and history bound with honor; respect for family; a disarming friendliness that will entrance you; and a sense of magic and mystery that will bring you back again and again.
Image 2: San Miguel; mutlicolored homes light up at dusk.
Image 3: San Miguel; one of many local musicians.
Image 4: San Miguel; father and son share a moment waiting for the local bus.