By Lauryn Axelrod
Nestled high in the cool hills of the Mexican altiplano, San Miguel De Allende is one the hippest, busiest, most charming towns in Mexico. More importantly, this seductive little city — with clear nights and warm days — offers the alternative traveler numerous inexpensive and high-quality opportunities to study Spanish or the arts.
So much so, that many travelers come to visit and never seem to make it home. In 2008, SMA became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a distinction that few places in the world can claim. Today nearly 4000 Americans live in the city for part of all of the year!
High season runs from December 15 to April1, when the days are clear and sunny, and nights are cool. April through August is low season, with hotter days in the spring and rain in the summer. Still, at 6400 feet it can get cold.
If you can, try to be in SMA for Semana Santa – Easter Week. It gets crowded with Mexican families from Mexico City and surrounding villages, but the festivities and processions are some of the best in Latin America. Some folks say they rival those in Antigua, Guatemala, which makes sense since SMA is very similar in style.
There are daily flights from the US to Léon/Guanajuato airport on American and Continental from Dallas and Houston, with connecting flights from elsewhere in the US. Aeromexico also serves Léon. The best way to get to town from the airport is by shared or private shuttle. A company called Bajaigo has a good fleet of cars and drivers. Or you can take a bus or taxi to San Miguel, only 90 minutes away. You can also fly into Mexico City and take a bus for the 4 1/2-hour drive north.
Canadians are probably best off flying direct to Mexico City to avoid missed flights due to security delays in the US.
Walk. Take a local bus (3 pesos), or grab a taxi for further or uphill destinations. Some people like to bike, but the streets in town are cobbled, so unless you like to jiggle and bounce, use your feet.
There are gazillions of accommodations in town, ranging in price from $35/night to $500. Long-term visitors who aren’t renting houses or apartments can receive discounts and off-season rates are lower.
* Hostel Alcatraz
An IYH hostel in the center of town with patio, TV, purified drinking water and an open kitchen for 70 pesos a night (about $8).
* Guadiana Bed and Breakfast
Located in a quiet residential neighborhood near the Instituto, with 8 rooms, all with private bath. Rooftop terrace with a panoramic view of the city is great for star-gazing and full, made-to-order breakfasts (pancakes with Vermont maple syrup!) should keep you satisfied all day. On-site Spanish tutors and Internet/email access. 10% discounts for weekly stays. More for monthly. $55/single, $65/double.
* La Mansion del Bosque
23 charming, unique rooms around garden patios across the street from the Parque Juarez. Rates include breakfast and a unique, gourmet dinner nightly. An old SMA favorite. Rates from $33 for a single without meals in low season, to $88 for a double suite with meals in high season. Discounts for longer term stays.
* Casa de Liza en el Parque
Six individual, stunningly designed and decorated casitas with kitchens and fireplaces built around gorgeous, lush gardens, pools and an orchid greenhouse. Near Parque Juarez. Excellent breakfasts (try the chilaquiles) and exceptionally friendly staff and owners. On site massage therapist, Lisol, is the best in town. Rooms from $150/night.
* Casa Luna
Nine antique and folk art-filled rooms in a restored 300 year-old Colonial mansion in the heart of the Historic Centro. Outdoor honor bar, incredible breakfasts, gorgeous patios, and cooking classes offered every Friday. Rooms $125-136/night include breakfast.
Apartments are available monthly averaging about $500/month for a clean, safe one-bedroom with maid service. Look in Atención, or on the bulletin boards at the Instituto or in the Jardin.
San Miguel has an enormous number of restaurants for a town its size, ranging from cheap and authentic Mexican dishes to gourmet French and Italian. Most of the better restaurants use purified water and ice and take care with vegetables and fruits. Don’t fear getting Montezuma’s Revenge, but be careful if eating off the street (tempting, oh so tempting!) or in more off-the-beaten-path places.
* El Pegaso
An eclectic mix of great Mexican food and Asian specialities. Fun atmosphere, a local favorite. Located one block from the Jardín.
* El Correo
A popular and inexpensive spot off the main square for breakfast,
lunch or dinner.
* Olé- Olé
Authentic fajitas in an off-the-beaten path location near the Mercado. Bullfight décor.
* El Tomato
The only pure vegetarian restaurant in town, and very good.
For a splurge, check out La Capilla (The Chapel), alongside the Parroquia, with stunning rooftop views, strolling musicians and tasty Mexican specialties. Even worth it for a drink.
For French pastries and gourmet breads in the morning, head to La Buena Vida, a lovely café and bakery near the Bellas Artes. But for a real Mexican bakery experience, visit La Colmena Panaderia (the Blue Door), a SMA institution since 1901. Grab a metal tray, load it up with whatever looks appealing, and the women at the counter add it up and bag it for you. 5-6 delectable goodies will cost you less than a dollar!
La Europea is the best place to buy inexpensive and imported wines. There are also shops that sell Italian cheeses and other imported goodies, if you have such a craving.
For Live Music:
El Viejo Topo brings in a wide variety of acts from all over Mexico and the rest of the world. Their focus is Jazz. See Atencion for schedule.
Pro Musico brings world class classical chamber music concerts to St Paul’s church in the fall through spring.
Atencion, the local English language newspaper has a website that includes the most complete weekly calendar of events. www.atencionsanmiguel.org/
Falling…in love with San Miguel by Carol Schmidt is a wealth of information on vacationing and living in San Miguel. Of particular interest are the ‘Cheap Eats’ and ‘Recommendations’ section. If you have a question you can’t find an answer for anywhere else, post it on Carol’s Blog and you will probably get a quick answer. http://fallinginlovewithsanmiguel.com/welcome.html
Besides SMAmap, we also host Greenmap San Miguel–it is part of the international Greenmap System and is a directory and map of ‘all things green’ in San Miguel.
Without question, the Jardin, the central town square, is the main attraction. Hang out for a few hours, listen to music from strolling musicians, read beneath a shady tree. Or, go church hopping and check out the Parroquia, the Oratorio, or any one of the numerous other churches in town.
For real local flavor, check out the Tuesday Market, a sprawling flea market that takes place all day every Tuesday on the outskirts of town. Buy everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to bicycle repair parts and puppies.
On a hot day, head to La Gruta, a private park on the road to Dolores Hidalgo, with 4 hot spring pools that vary from warm to steaming. Swim the blue canal to the grotto pool and stand in line with everyone else to be baptized by the gushing hot water that flows from a hole in the wall.
The best (and cheapest) activity is walking around town. The cobbled streets, colorful buildings, myriad shops, and parks can keep you occupied for days.
On Saturdays there is an organic market next to Rosewood that locals say is the most happening place in town all week.
However, there are a few tours worth taking. One is the popular Sunday House and Garden Tour which gives you a rare peek at the luxurious gardens and casas hidden behind the imposing Moorish walls of the town. Departs every Sunday at noon from the Biblioteca Publico. $15/pp.
Another worthwhile tour is the Saturday Hacienda Tour, which takes you out of town to visit working ranchos and large haciendas. The Tour is sponsored by the non-profit Centro de Crecimiento and departs from the Jardin at 10:30 am for a three-hour journey.
Tours Mexico Colonial (next door to the Fuji shop by the Jardin) offers daily tours of colonial cities nearby.
Patronato Pro-Ninos, a local non-profit, also offers walking tours of San Miguel on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays departing from the Jardin at 9:15 am. Donation. www.patronatoproninos.org
If you want to take a more in depth tour of nearby towns and villages, check with the Instituto Allende, which offers arts and culture tours of Dolores Hidalgo, Pozos, Queretero and Guanajuato.
That’s easy. San Miguel is one of the best places in all of Latin America to learn Spanish or take art classes. Take your pick and study ’til you drop! For more information on Alternative San Miguel,
see Alternative Mexico: Living the Good Life in San Miguel
* Instituto Allende
* Warren Hardy Spanish
* Academia Hispano Americana
* Instituto Habla Hispana
For a list and contacts of independent tutors, see Atención or the Insider’s Guide to San Miguel.
* Bellas Artes (El Nigromante)
* Instituto Allende
* Academia de Fotografia
Individual instructors in various media include Marguerite Dawit, an Art Institute of Chicago trained artist who offers affordable weekly and monthly courses in painting and drawing in her lush compound north of town. For more individual instructors, see Atención or the Insider’s Guide.
Other classes available include cooking, salsa and Flamenco dancing, yoga, guitar, riding, and more! See Atención for information and contacts.
Again, the Jardin offers some of the best free entertainment in town. Strolling musicians, dancers and others regularly perform. During holidays and fiestas, the Jardin is the center of all activities.
But for more formal entertainment, see the performance schedule at Bellas Artes, which often includes concerts, dances, and plays. There are also art openings at various galleries, lectures at the Biblioteca (in English), and occasional English plays and readings around town. Also, look for posters for bullfights at the Plaza Del Toros. See Atencion for weekly events.
For live music, hang out Mama Mia and Agave Azul, local restaurants/bars that have nightly music ranging from Salsa to Gypsy to American Blues!
The main events include:
* All Soul’s Day (Day of the Dead) on November 2. Halloween Mexican Style.
* Feast of Our Lord of the Conquest (first Friday in March): Indian dancers from the nearby villages celebrate by the Parroquia.
* Semana Santa: Holy Week preceeding Easter. Processions and processions and processions!
* Los Locos: A unique local festival that is reminiscent of Carnival, with masked parades, clowns and music.
A big event in February is the annual writer’s conference which is bilingual. The keynotes, by writers like Barbara Kingsolver and Margaret Atwood, can draw up to 800 fans.
* Estación Internet
High-speed connections right across the street from the Jardin. Convenient and open daily.
* Internet San Miguel
In the centro with high-speed connections, printer, scanner and laptop ports. Serves coffee and drinks. Open late daily.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Because San Miguel is located at a very high altitude (over 6400 feet), and is very dry, wear sunscreen, take care with exertion and make sure to drink lots of water.
Speaking of water, this is Mexico. So, while you can be assured that the better restaurants use purified water for cooking, washing, and ice, you should always drink bottled water and wash veggies in a disinfectant (which you can get at any farmacia) and peel your fruits. Also, be careful about eating from the many street vendors.
All about San Miguel, including lodgings, events and more.
Absolutely make sure you purchase a copy of the Insiders Guide to San Miguel by local expat, Archie Dean. Available locally only, it is an indispensable, updated guide to all you would ever need to know about living, studying, eating, shopping, and more in SMA. You can buy it at the Biblióteca or just about anywhere else in town.
For a colorful, sensual account of an expat writer and artist relocating to San Miguel, read Tony Cohan’s, On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel.
To find maps of San Miguel visit www.smamap.com
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