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Sunset in the town square. (Lauryn Axelrod photo)Sunset in the town square. (Lauryn Axelrod photo)

Alternative Mexico:

Living the Good Life in San Miguel De Allende

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 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.

Founded in 1542 by Fray Juan de San Miguel, and home to the heroes of the Mexican Independence, San Miguel (or SMA as it is called by the local expats) is a perfectly preserved Colonial city of 130,000 people. With clean-swept cobblestone streets, brightly painted haciendas urbanos, a shady and peaceful Jardín, gorgeous churches, and a fiesta every week (it seems), it is reminiscent of old Mexico - graceful, gentile, and urbane.


There's a reason for this. In 1926, San Miguel was declared a National Monument, and no ugly modern development has intruded since: there are no traffic lights, billboards, flashing neon signs or fast-food chains within the city center.

In the 1930's, the Instituto Allende, a national art school, was established and SMA became an artists' colony -- a mecca for aspiring painters and artisans from Mexico and beyond. Those aesthetic sensibilities helped preserve and develop the towns' character and appeal.

Today, the number of artists and artisans has grown along with other art schools, workshops, boutiques, galleries, and markets. The expat population has also grown (numbering between 2-5,000, depending upon the season), and with it came Spanish language schools, the largest bilingual library in Mexico (Biblióteca Publico), English language papers, theatre, concerts, lectures and restaurants.

Combine all these things - throw in cool, sunny, dry weather most of the year, reasonable accommodations, an astounding number of happenings and goings-on for a small town, and the ability to walk anywhere -- and you have a near perfect destination for alternative travel.

There are no fewer than six Spanish language schools in San Miguel, (click here for a complete list) all offering inexpensive and intensive group or one-on-one lessons for a few hours or a few months, held in shady courtyards. Most schools also offer courses in Mexican history and culture, and some can arrange inexpensive accommodations with a local family.

The most popular and well-established is the Instituto Allende, Latin America's oldest and largest arts and language school for English speakers. Housed in the sprawling, lush former palace of the Counts of Canal, the Instituto offers beginners through advanced students the opportunity to study one, two, four or six hours per day, for one week or months at a time, either in a conversational group or one-on-one.

The Instituto also offers lectures and, of course, art classes in painting, weaving, silversmithing, ceramics, photography, sculpture, lithography, and more taught by well-known local and expat artists.

Other popular schools include Warren Hardy Spanish, which offers 2 1/2 week courses designed to get you speaking Spanish fast, and The Centro Mexicano de Lengua y Cultura de San Miguel, featuring small classes (no more than 5 students at a time), and special courses for teachers, kids and families.

Don't want to take a formal class? Need more practice? Hire one of the 20 or more private tutors in town to come to your hotel, B&B, or apartment for $14-$15/hour. Or join the Conversaciónes con Amigos, a free conversation group that meets at the Biblióteca in the evenings twice weekly.

The best way to take advantage of all SMA has to offer is to combine language studies with art courses. Again, the Instituto Allende is the favored school, offering everything from 6-week courses to a full MFA through the University of Guanajuato. Courses vary monthly, but almost always include the standards.

Bellas Artes (El Nigromante), is a government cultural center named after Ignacio Ramirez, a 19th Century San Miguel intellectual, that offers arts and crafts courses year round, including dance and music. Monthly tuition for foreigners is $80/month, plus lab fees for specific courses. Bellas Artes also offers numerous exhibits, concerts and performances by Mexican and foreign artists and troupes throughout the year.

If all you want to do is take pictures (easy to do in San Miguel), the Academia de Fotografia specializes in photography courses. There are also numerous local and expat artists that offer courses in their studios around town.

If you need something more physical, you can always take yoga, Pilates or other movement courses offered around town. Don an apron and sign up for a Mexican cooking class with one of 5 local chefs, attend a free lecture at the Biblióteca Publico, or a concert at the Teatro Angela Peralta. Catch an English movie at the Biblioteca's Teatro Santa Ana or the Villa Jacaranda Cine-Bar.

Live music - from salsa to gypsy - is offered nightly at Mama Mia and Agave Azul. Just pick up a copy of Atención, the English weekly, on Sunday mornings to see what's happening.

Between classes, make sure to visit the sprawling Tuesday Flea Market to buy anything you might ever need from puppies to bicycle parts. Shop for fresh food and flowers at the covered Mercado, stock up on Huichol Indian beaded bracelets, Oaxacan crafts and woven rugs at the Mercado de Artesanias, or check out any of the literally hundreds of shops that line the cobbled streets.

Silver, ceramics, artisan crafts, antiques, tin, folk art, clothing, art, are all inexpensive and plentiful. Artist studios and galleries are also open to visitors (pick up a gallery guide), as are the churches, including the confection-like, towering Parroquia at the Jardín and the ornate Oratorio.

Make sure to spend at least a few minutes a day relaxing in the shade of the Jardín listening to the strolling estudiantinas (student musicians) or walking through the tropical gardens (with resident snowy egrets) in the Parque Juarez or the Botanical Gardens. Take the Sunday morning House and Garden Tour to get a peak at some of the treasures hidden behind the brightly painted walls of the town.

Attend a bullfight at the Plaza del Toros Oriente (don't miss the Pamplonada- Running of the Bulls-- in September), or dance the night away at one of the local (and almost weekly) fiestas.

No matter what time of year, it's hard to be bored. Most people spend at least a few weeks studying and absorbing the sabor of San Miguel. B&B accommodations can run as low as $35/night, and there are at least one hundred from which to choose.

There is a hostel in town ($8/night), and apartments can be rented for $500/month. Of course you can go upscale, too. The best places to splurge include Casa de Liza en el Parque, a gorgeous B&B near the Parque Juarez with lush grounds, a pool, impeccably decorated casitas and overflowing breakfasts, and Casa de Sierra Madre, the discreet favorite of many visiting celebrities.

Occasionally, you might want to get out of town for excursions: lie in the sun, picnic, and swim in the warm pools at La Gruta hot springs; visit the nearby ceramic village of Dolores Hidalgo or the silver-mining ghost town of Pozos; wander the narrow lanes, underground tunnels, and college town cafes of medieval Guanajuato; take the Saturday morning tour of the nearby grand haciendas and ranchos; go horseback riding or hiking in the hills.

There are also numerous volunteer opportunities in and around San Miguel, from teaching English to working with the elderly or helping improve the environment. All the local social service and volunteer organizations can use your help.

Frankly, it doesn't get a whole lot better than this. But be careful: the expat community here can attest to the seductive nature of San Miguel. All it takes is a few Spanish classes, a few art classes, the allure of cloudless days and starry nights, cheap beer and good food, and home begins to seem much less appealing.

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Tags: storySection: Features
Location: Mexico, North America
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