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My two months in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Story and photos by Francoise Yohalem
When my friend Maida suggested that we share a house in San Miguel de Allende for part of the winter, I didn’t hesitate.  I have always loved Mexican culture, and already had an enticing glimpse of San Miguel when, three years earlier, I led a team of Global Volunteers to Queretaro, a larger city nearby.  San Miguel, Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajato, and Queretaro – all designated UNESCO heritage sites – are four of Mexico’s colonial silver-mining towns. They are located in the center of the country, about 4 hours Northwest of Mexico City, in an arid mountainous area surrounded by the rugged curtain of the Sierra Madre.

The setting
San Miguel – founded in 1521 – is the smallest of these historic colonial towns and has become a favorite nesting place for American, Canadian, and European “ex-pats” and “snowbirds.” It is also a favorite destination for international tourists who come here to relax, enjoy the warmer weather, take in the rich artistic and cultural scene, learn some Spanish, catch a “fiesta,” and dine in one of the many excellent restaurants around town. Many of the foreign residents are well integrated into some of the modest Mexican neighborhoods surrounding the beautiful historic center while others are ensconced within gated communities or in one of the opulent homes dotting the hillsides that enjoy privileged views. Walking along the bumpy streets and treacherous sidewalks, it is fun to stop and peek behind the heavy carved doors to admire the splendid patios, lush gardens, draped bougainvilleas, and giant cacti of all shapes usually surrounding a stone fountain…. hidden oasis of peace, quiet, and luxury.

Located at just above 6,000 ft. in the Mexican altiplano, San Miguel claims nearly “perfect” weather all year around.  December and January temperatures are usually in the 60’s to 70’s during the day, and can go down to 40’s at night (more on our weather below!)

To get to San Miguel, one can fly via Houston or Dallas to the Leon/Guanajato airport, which is located 1 h. 15 minutes from San Miguel with regular shuttle service.

Our “casita” and our street
Maida and I – and “Buster” (Maida’s Boston Terrier) – are sharing a small 2 bedroom, 3 bath row house on a narrow street, a “Privada” which we found out does not mean private or quiet. It serves as a neighborhood playground in the evening and gets animated with kids shouting, playing loud music, or celebrating something or nothing with firecrackers… often until the early morning….when the roosters take over! The house has 3 levels and the roof terrace is ideal for drying our laundry and enjoying a beautiful view of the sunset. We love the colorful Mexican tiles in the kitchen and bathrooms, and the cheerful yellow and ochre walls. Our front door has a simple lock and we do not feel concerned about our safety.

Our house is two blocks from the busy food and crafts market, and a 10 minute slow uphill walk to the “jardin” surrounded by the main baroque buildings, churches, businesses, and restaurants. With its carefully pruned laurel trees, the “jardin” is a focal point for both locals and gringos as they meet, read the paper, eat, listen to the music, dance, paint…or just people watch.

Several distinctive daily street sounds have become familiar. Three times a week, a sharp metallic ring tells us that the garbage truck is waiting down the street, and, as we join the procession of neighbors carrying bags, everyone says “hola” and smiles. Then there is a “musical” gas truck announcing its arrival in the neighborhood. The man who sells a selection of spicy sauces has a weird shout that drives Buster crazy, and there is the milk man, ice cream vendor, the man who sharpens knives, and – most important – the water truck! (I forgot the church bells!)

Taking in, sharing, and giving
Although we were told the total ex-pat community is only around 7,000 out of about 120,000 inhabitants – its presence and influence has transformed this community, bringing business, jobs, and also a lot of good will and generous support for many local charitable organizations. Every other gringo – and even more so gringa – we have met here is actively involved in volunteer work and championing many worthwhile causes with children, older people, teaching English, nutrition, feeding the poor, or rescuing animals. Maida and I have already connected with a couple of organizations and started doing some volunteer work.

The local library, or “Biblioteca,” funded some 50 years ago by an American, is the cultural heart of the town and a magnet for the international community. It also reaches out into the local community, offering free classes to kids in many subjects, and supporting several charities. Besides boasting the second largest selection of books in English in Latin America, the Biblioteca has an active theater, and offers a packed schedule of daily movies, lectures, discussions, as well as music and dance programs, and a friendly café. One can attend lectures about early Mexican civilizations, history, nutrition, cooking, international political and environmental issues. On the program this week: “Mesoamerican cosmological meaning of the eagle and the cactus tree” and “Diego Rivera and the cultural dimension of the Mexican Revolution,” are two of the topics.

I have joined a bi-weekly Spanish conversation group which meets at the library where I enjoy practicing my Spanish. The Biblioteca also organizes art and crafts fairs, as well as a Sunday house and garden tour (300 homes open their doors, many with extraordinary gardens and impressive art collections), all proceeds benefiting one of the charitable organizations it sponsors. The weekly bilingual newspaper “Atencion” (90+ pages!) keeps us informed of all happenings around town, and every Friday we peruse the pages and check what we would like to attend. Prices for events range from $4.50 for a lecture or a movie (sometimes with a margarita or popcorn!) to up to $12.00 for a quality concert.

There are about 100 NGOs in San Miguel. The Center for Global Justice (“promoting social justice and decrying corporate globalization”) may be the most radical. It sponsors several co-ops in rural communities nearby, organizes workshops on diverse social issues as well as trips to Cuba. The Empowerment Center and the Wellness Institute are among many organizations offering alternative therapies for healing the mind, body, and spirit. There are several yoga and meditation groups.

The modern “settlers
We were told that the full time gringo community here includes three types of settlers: 1) wealthy couples who have one or more homes – mostly in the US – and have purchased another home here where they come during a few weeks or months; 2) people who have visited and have literally fallen in love with San Miguel, its art scene, the local culture, the nurturing small town atmosphere, and have settled here permanently; and a large community of retirees – from the US and Canada – who have found that they can have a better quality of life here on their modest income (health insurance issues yet to be resolved.)

Besides the international community there are some very wealthy “aristocratic” Mexican families who come to San Miguel on weekends from Mexico city or live in one of the ancient haciendas in the countryside. And then there is the larger group struggling to make a living, working in local businesses and restaurants, or for the city, and many in the homes of the richer ones: cleaning, cooking, or tending the gardens. San Miguel has suffered from the world wide economic crises as tourism has shrunk considerably and the real estate boom has slowed down. Publicity about the violence caused by the drug cartels has scared people away, although everything here feels quiet and safe. This has meant less work for the locals and a daily struggle to feed the families, especially in the surrounding campo.

An Art Mecca
And there is the ART SCENE!  Two venerable art institutions: The Instituto Allende and Bellas Artes offer a variety of quality art classes as well as other educational programs. These schools are housed in historic buildings that are works of art in themselves: cloister arcades enclosing a lovely patio filled with plants and flowers, romantic spaces away from the busy street, usually with  a fountain,  an intimate café, and stunning murals by Alfred Sisquero (in Bellas Artes) and David Leonardo at the Instituto Allende.

All around town there are dozens of art galleries, showing everything from traditional crafts to contemporary works. La Fabrica Aurora is San Miguel’s “Torpedo Factory.” More than 100 years old, it was a textile factory which was transformed in artists’ studios and design shops. There are many more artists, both in town and in the countryside, who have home studios and also teach. Each week there are several art openings in one of the many galleries. During our stay, a team of artists from the Corcoran School of Art in Washington came to teach a workshop on Talavera tile painting as part of an exchange program with the Bellas Artes School.  We had fun taking the one-week class, although the results were nothing to brag about!

San Miguel also attracts musicians, as well as an important community of writers who have their own clubs and events, and are looking forward to Barbara Kingsolver’s keynote speech at the upcoming annual writers’ conference.

Enjoying the culture
I have always respected and loved Latin culture, and my Spanish is good enough to allow me to communicate with the locals. The Mexicans we meet daily around our neighborhood are extremely polite and courteous.  It is always “Buenos Dias” or “Buenas Tardes” with a smile (they are quite intrigued by Buster, and not sure he is a real dog!). When, only a few days after we arrived, Maida tripped and fell on the street, several people rushed to help her and expressed their concern (she became one of the “Fallen Women of San Miguel”… and we have met a few more!).  We went to the local hospital where she received good care and several stitches, all for less than $10.00!

We love watching families play in the central park. There is a lot hugging and loving between parents and children. Young mothers are carrying their babies proudly and tenderly against their heart, all wrapped up in bright blankets, and little girls are dressed to look like princesses. We enjoyed witnessing the religious traditions around Christmas as families walked up the street carrying baby dolls in their arms to be blessed in one of the many churches before placing it in their crèche at home. We participated in New Year’s celebration on a mild starry night as we mixed in with a lively crowd of foreigners and Mexicans, gathered on the plaza in front of the main baroque cathedral: the “Parroquia.” That evening, we actually met every one of our new “friends”!  As mariachi bands competed on a stage, people danced and anticipation grew. At midnight, the bells rang wildly and fireworks exploded over our heads in every direction. We felt so privileged to be here, in small, beautiful and friendly San Miguel, and not in the jungle of Times Square!

Besides the religious and traditional celebrations, San Miguel seems to find an excuse for an event or fiesta every week, usually a mixture of ancient mythology and modern Catholicism. After the traditional evening “posadas” (religious  processions) before Christmas, and the New Year celebration, on January 4th,  day of the Epiphany, the Three Kings came through the streets to deliver presents to the children, and we ate the traditional cake “Rosca,” careful not to break a tooth on the tiny baby Jesus hidden inside! A few days later, an indigenous group carried offerings of wheat to the Aztec Gods, also to be blessed by the priest. On January 17th, St. Anthony’s Day, people took their “decorated” animals to be blessed at one of the churches.

Still in January, on the 241st birthday of San Miguel’s most famous son and Independence leader, General Ignacio Allende, the city celebrated for 3 days. Marching bands, a military parade, and hundreds of school children followed the mighty Allende on his horse, surrounded by dozens of other caballeros in uniform and carriages filled with pretty ladies pausing for photos in front of Allende’s historic home on the plaza. That evening, the fireworks were even more spectacular and the grand finale was a “castillo” or wooden construction that culminated in a flaming portrait of Allende and the words “Viva Allende” which burnt wildly and exploded into millions of multi-colored sparks!

On January 20th, thousands of people started from San Miguel on a 9-day pilgrimage to San Juan de Los Lagos…whole families camping and praying all the way to this site of miracles. (The first day of the pilgrimage was a “March against Domestic Violence” organized by a local women’s group.)
Finally, this week, the Fiesta of the Candelaria has started. Of obscure religious origin, it also marks the beginning of a one week “Feria de las Flowers” or Plant Fair, unique to San Miguel.  The Park Juarez is filled with vendors who have come from all over to sell their beautiful flowers, herbs, decorative and medicinal plants.  The Feria also celebrates its pre-Hispanic roots by a blessing of the crop seeds based on a local Chichimeca tradition.

2010 marks a very special year for Mexico!  It is the bicentennial of the beginning of Mexico’s Independence, and the centennial of the Revolution. Many ambitious infrastructure projects have been started around town to spruce up for the forthcoming celebrations – mostly in the fall. Welcome work for local men, but quite a mess to put up with!

From tortillas to margaritas
After almost two months here, we have stayed healthy and enjoyed a lot of good Mexican cuisine, especially the wonderful fresh fruit and vegetables we have been buying almost daily at our local markets. Some of those are unfamiliar and exotic, and we are not too sure how to use them!  Maida is a great cook, much more adventurous and creative than I am, and I have been banished from the kitchen, except to wash the dishes and chop garlic and onions.  She is also a tireless shopper, and going to the market is a real expedition since she is relentless when it comes to checking and comparing quality and prices from many merchants, and I have to do the asking.  But we have eaten very well, both at home and in reasonably priced restaurants around town, and have enjoyed all types of Mexican foods, starting with a staple tortilla that is transformed into many types of tacos depending on the filling and the sauces. We yet have to try many of the famous Mexican delicacies that take hours of preparation, such as chile rellenos or the famous mole sauces. Sometimes we stand in line with locals to purchase one of the delicious juicy rotisserie chicken! Maida is always happy to have company and can prepare a delicious meal without fussing. If she is not sure of a recipe, she does not try to find it, but makes it up, and it is usually delicious!

San Miguel has hundreds of restaurants, from modest and delicious Mexican cafes or “taquerias” to more formal and expensive European cuisine establishments. At our favorite restaurant, “Tacos Don Felix,” we usually eat a Mexican dish and drink “the best margarita in town” all for about $12.00. Don Felix welcomes us as if we are part of the family, and we have brought many other guests there. As far as plain tortillas, we can buy them – by the kilo – up the street, still warm. For 2 pesos worth of tortillas (less than 20 cents) we have more than we can eat (actually they have very little taste anyway). This is every Mexican family’s survival food, and we were told that for a large family, it has become very expensive.

From San Miguel there are many organized to trips to other nearby colonial towns as well as other parts of Mexico. When our friend Binnie and her daughter Nina came to visit us for a few days, we took a local bus to Delores Hidalgo (where the colorful Talavera ceramic is made in dozens of fabricas) and to beautiful Guanajuato. These two cities are filled with history, museums, interesting sites, and shopping opportunities. On the way, we passed a series of hot springs “spas” which we did not try this time. The Instituto Allende and many private companies have excellent guided tours, including to Mexico City and other destinations around the country, and as far as the beaches of Baja California, Copper Canyon, and some of the mighty Aztec and Mayan sites. The local luxury buses are very comfortable and very reasonable.

Maida and I were also lucky to make a 3-day trip to Mexico City where we stayed in my friend Maria Luisa’s lovely house.  From there, we took recommended taxis downtown, joined a guided excursion to the spectacular ruins of Teotihuacan, and spent most of another day in the remarkable Museum of Anthropology (one could easily spend a week there!). We also visited Frida and Diego’s “Blue House” in the Coyoacan neighborhood. We were careful, but did not feel threatened.

Next winter I would like to visit Oaxaca before Christmas for the Festival of the Radishes, and go to the mountains of the state of Michoacan, some 4 hours away, to witness the amazing spectacle of hundreds of millions of  Monarch butterflies getting ready for their long migration north (mid February is the best time).

We were told us to expect mild weather during the winter months – although it would get cold at night. Definitively not the rainy season.  While the North East of the U.S. was in the grips of three “monster storms” and extreme weather, San Miguel did experience colder than usual temperatures, and several days of rain created some flooding and concern. The houses here don’t have heating – except for area gas heaters – but they are all concrete and tile and they can be very cold.  On a sunny day (and we did have many!) it was much warmer outside than inside, so we did a lot of walking around!
Future Plans?
In only a few weeks in San Miguel we have met an extraordinary number of interesting, talented, and like-minded people we have immediately connected with. People talk to each other and engage easily, and I can see making good friends. This is a beautiful, friendly, environment with plenty to do.  One can volunteer for several worthwhile causes. Although the rentals are not cheap, there are reasonable B&Bs and sharing a house or apartment makes sense.

I would love to return next winter – maybe for 4 months – if I can rent out my apartment in Chevy Chase. And I certainly hope that many of my friends will come and spend some time here too!

Hasta Luego Amigos!