“We looked at properties in North County San Diego, but we just couldn’t find anything so we decided to move to San Miguel de Allende.”
As the couple from California told me their story, my mind wandered back to my first visit to San Miguel years earlier. The owner of the hotel I stayed at then told me as I checked in that he and his wife had come down for a weekend 20 years earlier and decided to stay. Stories like these are common in this charming colonial town in the state of Guanajuato, about a five-hour drive or bus ride north of Mexico City.
San Miguel de Allende has been a haven for American artists and expatriates for decades. The small-town village atmosphere is suffused with festivals, churches and beautiful garden courtyards. The enchanting nature of the town weaves a spell on visitors, inspiring creative types to follow their muse. My first impression upon arriving in San Miguel was of a wave of vibrantly colored stone and adobe buildings sparkling through the gray, rainy afternoon. My taxi driver paused to wave to familiar faces as he skillfully maneuvered the narrow cobblestone streets to my hotel.
The heart of the town is the Jardin, the town plaza, alongside the ornate Church of La Parroquia. The sight of La Parroquia brought me back instantly to my first visit to San Miguel 15 years ago. The original church dates from the 17th century – but in the late 1800s a local stone mason named Seferino Gutierrez, inspired by pictures of gothic European cathedrals, reconstructed the towers and façade. The structure that resulted is unforgettable.
In the late afternoon and early evening, the Jardin is buzzing with locals and expats, retirees discussing the World Cup, mariachis serenading random couples, artists making sketches, locals gossiping, teens making out, merchants hawking their wares, visitors just hanging out.
As late afternoon eases into the darkness of evening, La Parroquia lights up brilliantly. One can blissfully while away an afternoon sitting in the square for hours, watching the community mingle. Locals and visitors will inevitably come up to talk with you. I met several locals and a woman visiting from New Orleans who discussed with me how the numerous courtyards reminded her of those in New Orleans.
San Miguel de Allende boasts of 30-40 festivals a year, more than any other town in Mexico. They even have their own Running of the Bulls, which they call the Pamplonada. On my third day there, a parade commemorating the death of Ignacio Allende, a hero of Mexico’s independence, marched past the Jardin. San Miguel de Allende, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is justly proud of its rich history.
San Miguel’s relaxed village atmosphere belies its cosmopolitan nature. There are more restaurants, churches, nightlife and interesting shops here than in many larger cities in the U.S. Numerous art and language schools add to the town’s appeal for American visitors, most notably the Instituto Allende, which has attracted Americans wanting to learn Spanish since 1950. The town library has an extensive English language section and is a hangout for many of the Americans here. The expat influence on this community is underscored by the Starbucks nestled on one corner of the Jardin. I pointedly avoided it as the local cafes need the support and are much more memorable.
If you visit San Miguel and stay at the Casa de Huéspedes at 27 Mesones (an excellent bargain), say hello to the proprietor, Selita. She recommended Casa Bertha in Guanajuato to me – a wonderful choice. It turned out to be another excellent value, with the best view in town.