By Lauryn Axelrod
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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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