Friday, April 17, 2009

San Miguel de Allende

Last week, while most everything was closed in Lagos and San Juan, Chris and I decided to take a quick road trip to San Miguel de Allende, about a four hour trip west of here.

Ever since David Alfaro Siqueiros started offering art classes there in the 1940s, San Miguel has been famous for being a colony of English-speaking Americans. But there's a flip side to its artiness: Today the Lonely Planet calls San Miguel “a Mexican Disneyland for American retirees.” Ouch.

Well, the trusty LP is at least partly right: Immediately upon arriving we heard a lot more English being spoken. We sat down at the first restaurant we found, hungry after our long bus ride, and were surprised to find that not only did our waiter speak to us in English but we could – no way! – eavesdrop on neighboring tables with ease. We quickly found the inevitable English-language bookstore. Of course, we didn’t really need any books, but just wanted to spend some quality time running our fingers along paperback spines, pulling out anything that looked interesting and reading the first few pages… yeah, we miss our bookstores.

After awhile, though, the English-everywhere thing grew a little disconcerting. We’ve lived in Mexico for nine months and know much of the country's geography and history, and for the last month and a half, we’ve been the only gringos in a town few foreign tourists ever visit, the equivalent of, say, Mexican Kansas.

Yet the moment we set foot in San Miguel, everything changed. In San Miguel, we weren’t residents of Mexico, but rather tourists fresh off the boat who should be spoken to only in English, even when we respond in Spanish. We’d stop to look at trinkets at a streetside stand only to find they cost two to four times as much as similar items cost even in Guadalajara. We’d walk down the street, admiring the picture-perfect postcard scenes of cobblestone streets and super-brightly painted buildings, only to realize that they were perhaps a little too perfect: No buildings we have seen anywhere else in Mexico are so brightly painted as those in San Miguel.

Finally we opened the newspaper, trying to get a bit deeper into the world of San Miguel. But we couldn’t escape the full-page real estate ads that confronted us at every turn. All were in English. The worst offered the opportunity to “Live in the Heart of the City You Love…With All the Luxury You Can’t Live Without.” Sigh.

So you might think that, after all that, we’d probably recommend against a visit to San Miguel. Well… Not quite. Once you get past the fact that it is definitely an "upscale" version of the rest of the country (exhibit A: its town square has a Starbucks on the corner), you can actually find much to enjoy in San Miguel.

  • There are several excellent restaurants, including one of the best Mexican restaurants we’ve eaten in all year. (It was upscale, of course – but we decided to treat ourselves in honor of the 9th anniversary of our first date. Is this a legitimate anniversary? Yes. Especially when it's an excuse to eat really good food.)
  • San Miguel is located in the mountains, and so offers beautiful views of the town and surrounding landscape from nearly everywhere. (If you haven't noticed by now, I love mountains, love them, love them, love them, and cannot wait to move to the West Coast.)
  • And there are lots of cultural events – not necessarily Mexican cultural events, but, still, cultural events, like those you might find in a quirky American college town or an arty neighborhood in the city. (The local paper advertised a weeklong workshop on Byzantine Christian icons, to be held in a local monastery later this month. Nothing about this is Mexican… but I was still sorely tempted to sign up.)
In short, my travelers’ review is: San Miguel de Allende is a perfect place to visit if you want to get away from Mexico’s beaches to see some of its inland charm (something any visitor should definitely do at some point), but you don’t speak much Spanish and you're worried about it. If this is you, San Miguel is your gateway to the rest of Mexico!

But if you are us, San Miguel is more like the opposite: It's kind of like a gateway back home, an inland Puerto Vallarta with American ships and airships arriving and departing daily... and we’re not quite ready for that just yet. We will be ready very soon – Chris just booked the return flight for July 13! – but not today, not just yet.

Anyway, here are some photos from San Miguel. Like I said it’s a very scenic, very colorful place, seemingly tailor-made for snapshots, which makes for a fun photo album. Enjoy!

San Miguel de Allende


Zach Parris said...

I love the "Mexican Kansas!"

Zach & Hannah Parris said...

Z and I also celebrate 9 years of togetherness this yearpha. Yay!

Zach & Hannah Parris said...

um...year. I have no idea why it says "yearpha"?