Since the 1930’s, expatriates have moved to San Miguel de Allende to reinvent their lives. But even as the city changes and grows, John Davidson discovers, its spirit prevails.
We were rolling across the green highlands of central Mexico, in the state of Guanajuato, white cumulus clouds hanging on the horizon, when I realized that Valente Juaréz, the driver who’d picked me up at the airport in León, had asked if I believed in miracles. Not wanting to offend, I said I believed in luck, coincidence; not wanting to lie, I said no, I didn’t believe in miracles.
He nodded, satisfied we meant the same things. Semantics, I imagined him thinking. How we’d gotten into metaphysics I didn’t know. We had had a pleasant conversation during most of the 1½-hour trip; now I was worrying about our destination, wondering if I would recognize San Miguel de Allende after 13 years and fearing a repeat of the unnerving experience of returning to Mexican towns I remembered fondly, only to discover that they had disappeared inside a crust of commercial development. American friends who live part-time in San Miguel had been telling me the town had changed dramatically in the past three years. Breathlessly, they reported that two big shopping centers were being built on the edge of town, that the central plaza—called El Jardín—across from the parish church, La Parroquia, had been redone, and that two high-end international hotel chains were entering the market. Moreover, rich Americans were buying up everything. Houses that had sold for tens of thousands five years ago were now going for millions. It sounded like the beginning of Aspen Syndrome—charming and eccentric small town becomes so desirable that local people are forced to move. Unwelcome visions appeared: hordes of lost-looking tourists filling the cobblestoned streets, the 500-year-old town turned into a shopping arcade.
I was scanning the countryside for high-rise buildings when Señor Juárez waved his hand toward the windshield, announcing, "Aquí está San Miguel." Nothing looked even vaguely familiar. We passed a raw-looking development of boxy row houses plunked down in a pasture, then a huge Pollo Feliz (Happy Chicken) restaurant, part of a Mexican chain, and the steel skeleton of a new shopping center. At last the massive gray stone walls of the Instituto Allende—the art and language school that has brought American students to San Miguel for 50-plus years—came into view, and we started up Zacateros Street toward the heart of the colonial town I remembered. The sound of tires on cobblestones, the narrow street embraced by high stucco walls in shades of red (cayenne, rust, clay); it all came back as a physical rather than mental memory. El Jardín looked exactly as I recalled it, people sitting on benches beneath small trees with canopies clipped into geometric boxes, and a woman selling helotes—roasted ears of corn—from a cart. Everyone seemed to be facing La Parroquia, as grand and fanciful as Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, but here, rather than melting, the architecture soars, the rose-colored spires flaming against the deep blue sky. Evening was settling. Up the hill above town, someone was shooting fireworks, which sounded like a mortar round; a puff of smoke followed each explosion. When I looked back toward where we had been, the street framed a view of the green plateau and, in the far distance, the Sierra de Guanajuato, its peaks turning dark sage-blue.
Many beautiful towns keep you at bay. A traveler can admire, shop, eat, sleep but never break the surface. San Miguel, however, takes you in, befriends you. Here, the town is the thing, the promise of community. The streets and sidewalks are narrow. People talk to each other, engage easily. More than likely, you will see a sprinkling of Americans crossing El Jardín or sitting on its benches, but they aren’t necessarily tourists. According to Christopher Finkelstein, secretary of the San Miguel City Council, 12,000 to 14,000 of the city’s population of 80,000 are expatriates, roughly 70 percent of them from the United States. They don’t just reside in San Miguel—they also own and run small businesses. Americans, Canadians, Italians, and Argentinians have started cafés, bakeries, guesthouses, clothing stores, art galleries, language schools, day spas, and bars. They teach cooking classes, arrange traditional Mexican weddings for non-Mexicans, and lead architectural tours. They write guides and publish a newspaper, an art magazine, and a telephone directory for expatriates. They realize their fantasy of living in a Mexican town by translating it for others. Gradually, over the past 50-odd years, they’ve turned San Miguel from a quiet historical artifact into a cosmopolitan center with more restaurants, nightlife, and good shops than in much larger cities in the United States.
Luckily for locals and travelers alike, San Miguel is somewhat remote, on a mesa a mile above sea level, and almost four hours by car from Mexico City. Buses don’t disgorge passengers, and the crowds disembarking from cruise ships are many miles away. Despite my friends’ dire reports, San Miguel’s intimacy didn’t seem compromised. The historic district, the city’s core, covers 68 square blocks, and for the most part runs up the hill. This is where most of the action is: not just restaurants, hotels, shops but also schools, churches, local services. The impulse is to follow your nose, make your own discoveries.
My first morning in town, I ambled west from the Jardín, on Canal, keeping my eye on the tile dome of Templo de las Monjas (the Nuns), as the Church of the Conception is called, a block and a half from La Parroquia. By comparison, the yellow stucco façade of this church is modest, but just around the corner, on Hernández Macías, the Escuela de Bellas Artes (School of Fine Arts), a former convent built in 1765, exerts its own gravitational pull, drawing passersby into its classic Spanish-colonial courtyard. Along two levels of covered porches supported by a rhythm of arches are classrooms and studios for visiting students and resident-artist instructors.
In what was once the nuns’ refectory there is an unfinished mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros, depicting the life and death of Ignacio Allende, a San Miguelense who, along with Father Hidalgo, of the nearby town Dolores Hidalgo, helped lead the movement in 1810 to free Mexico from Spain. San Miguel at that time was a flourishing commercial center on the so-called silver route from the mines in Zacatecas to Mexico City; with the War of Independence, which concluded in 1821, the economy collapsed; by the time of the famously cataclysmic Mexican Revolution, from 1910 to 1917, the city was nearly a ghost town.
In recovery from that traumatic war, the Mexican people fashioned a new identity incorporating their pre-Hispanic past. The government began investing in the arts; the muralists Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and José Orozco created a new Modernism, establishing Mexico as an artistic leader amid the cross-cultural ferment in the Americas. With similar foresight, the government moved to preserve the country’s architectural heritage, declaring parts of San Miguel and other endangered colonial cities national monuments.
When José Mojica, a gay Mexican opera singer and movie star, discovered San Miguel in the 30’s, it was a magnificent ruin, full of fantastical churches and empty mansions. Mojica told friends about the town, and celebrities and artists began to join him there, including Chilean poets—and future Nobel laureates—Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, and Felipe Cossío del Pomar, a Peruvian writer who founded the Bellas Artes in 1938.
The young American director, Stirling Dickinson, advertised Bellas Artes’s school in the United States as a place where vets on the GI Bill could study and live in relative style. It worked: by 1948, Life magazine was touting the town as a "GI paradise." (Siqueiros, the most radical of Mexico’s muralists, a Stalinist who collaborated in the assassination of Leon Trotsky, actually taught fresco painting to GI’s.) Cossío del Pomar and Dickinson went on to cofound another school, the Instituto Allende, with Nell Fernandez, a former Arkansas beauty queen married to Enrique Fernandez Martinez, once the governor of Guanajuato. The Instituto drew international students well into the 1970’s and 80’s. Although today neither school is the economic catalyst it once was, without them San Miguel might have been a very different place.
After a couple of days, I started to recognize faces on the street, and it seemed that every time I crossed the Jardín, Sylvia Samuelson would be standing in her doorway, watching the life of the town eddying around her. She arrived in 1952—when "there were forty expats here, and furnished apartments with bills paid went for $10"—and opened the city’s first art gallery, Galería San Miguel, in 1962. After more than 50 years here, she remained fascinated, and I could see why. I would go to my room at Dos Casas, an elegant six-room guesthouse owned by architect Alberto Lapòsse, and feel myself torn. The terrace had two canopied chaise longues beneath a gauzy awning and looked across a sunken Jacuzzi and a small hedge of oleander to the city climbing up the hillside, church domes and spires rising above. It was like being aboard a yacht docked in the middle of town. I’d imagine myself lounging there, then start out again, fearful I might miss something.
San Miguel is a city of walls, big, formidable walls that edge right up to the sidewalk. But again and again, I felt I was being let in. One of my favorite places came to be Berlin, a bar and café on Umurán, where the owner, Detlev Kappstein, like the most relaxed of hosts at a private party, seemed to have as much fun as anyone else in the local arty crowd of Americans, Europeans, and Mexicans. The room was convivial, the smoke thick, the conversation spirited.
In my daily travels I kept passing La Cartuja, a restaurant I remembered fondly from a New Year’s Eve years before, but it never appeared to be open. It wasn’t listed in the guides I had, and no one seemed to know it. Thinking it might be closed during the day, I went one night, only to find the door locked. But the following evening, with rain shining the cobblestones, the door opened into an absolutely empty dining room with a reserved sign on every table. Soon the owner, Jesús Diaz de Vidar, came out, a fit and dapper man with a neatly clipped goatee and an ascot round his neck. Was the restaurant open?my guest and I asked. "Si, está abierto"; it was always open, he said in a distinctly old-country accent, his whirring r’s the Latin equivalent of a Scottish burr. The reserved signs?No problem. He whisked one away. Could we see the menu?There was no menu; he would tell us what he’d prepared. He did, and then escorted us to a table. We could have been in the Pyrenees. Racks of dusty wine bottles lined the walls. Shelves sagged beneath the weight of peaches and pears curing in jars of aguardiente. The mood for our dinner was set by one very loud crack of thunder that rattled the entire town. While rain drummed on the roof, Don Jesús brought a carafe of red wine with plates of pickled baby carrots, Spanish ham, and cheese. A classic paella and rabbit in a rich, dark wine sauce followed.
The weather and the empty room were so eerie, I found myself increasingly curious about this restaurateur who showed no anxiety about his lack of customers. Each time he came to the table, I asked a question or two, and by the end of the meal a portrait of the man had emerged. He said his family had emigrated from Spain in 1946. He cooks all of the food himself and runs the restaurant with the help of his son. He makes his own wine from grapes he grows on land on the edge of town. He’d also grown and pickled the carrots we’d just eaten, and the fruit in the jars came from his orchard.
"And your customers?" I indicated all the empty tables.
"Oh, if you come at two in the afternoon,"—I’d always passed earlier, it turned out—"every table is full and the air is full of smoke. Everyone drinks lots of wine, then they have Cognac and smoke cigars." (Mexican senator Luis Alberto Villarreal, a former mayor of San Miguel, later told me that La Cartuja was his favorite restaurant in town.)
After dessert, Diaz de Vidar took us through the kitchen into a tiny adjoining shop, strong with the smell of leather, where he sells saddles of various styles—Spanish, Mexican, English. Besides running the restaurant and tending his vines and orchard, he raises and rides horses.
Diaz de Vidar was singular, but I kept meeting people like him in one important respect: they had come to San Miguel to reinvent themselves, to live the lives they truly wanted.
Directly across from Bellas Artes, on Calle Mesones, are several attractive shops. Stopping in Casa de Papel, a stationer’s, I fell into conversation with an American wearing Chanel sunglasses pushed back on her head. With a Mrs. Dalloway air, she gave me her card (people exchange business cards here like old-fashioned calling cards). A few doors down, an encounter with an Israeli living in the area contrasted with the pleasantries just exchanged. "Americans are stealing San Miguel from the Mexicans," she told me angrily.
That might surprise the 60 percent of the city’s tourists who are Mexican nationals. San Miguel is famous for year-round patriotic and religious festivals. Easter is huge, but September has the most impressive fiestas. On September 16, Mexican Independence Day, people from all over the country come to celebrate with fireworks, dances, bullfights, and a rodeo in the cradle of their freedom. Some Americans may fault San Miguel for a lack of authenticity, but urban Mexicans go there to participate in their traditional culture.
In my casual weeklong poll, it was mostly the American expats who were nervous about the latest influx of their compatriots—especially those building 10,000-square-foot mansions in gated communities that advertise locations "just three minutes from town." The expat community, some wealthy, others not, all of them able to live better in Mexico than in the United States, tends to be liberal and anti-Bush. Nonetheless, their adopted country has its own deeply entrenched class system, a long history of dramatic income disparity. The Mexicans I spoke to, from my driver, Valente Juárez, straight up the hill to the mayor, said they were happy to see rich Americans come to their town. For Señor Juárez, San Miguel’s booming economy has enabled his daughter to start a local tourism company, for which he works as a driver. "It’s good," he assured me. "She has her kids in a school where they’re learning English. Everything is good."
"Everyone benefits from foreign investment," Jesús Correa, San Miguel’s mayor, said. "Unskilled workers, accountants, lawyers, doctors, architects, and contractors—we all benefit. We’ve been living in harmony with foreigners for forty years." This feeling was echoed by Senator Villarreal, a 13th-generation San Miguelense, Correa’s predecessor and the first mayor to actively involve foreign residents in city issues. "We believe the government must be for everybody, not just the people born and raised in San Miguel. These people live here, they’re San Miguelenses."
"But don’t they drive up prices so high that Mexicans can’t afford to live here?" I asked.
"No, we have neighborhoods outside the historic district that are less expensive. If a Mexican sells his property, then I blame him."
Billie Halpert lives in a 300-year-old colonial house a block from La Parroquia. In a town famous for great houses, hers is considered one of the finest, yet you’d never notice it from the street: just a wooden door in one of those tall, thick red walls. I visited her and her husband of seven years, Luis Halpert, and two of her grown daughters. "San Miguel has always been a place where people of like minds congregate," said Billie, who also made a point of estimating that local charities garner 90 percent of their support from Americans in San Miguel. "CASA provides family planning, and the first midwifery school in Mexico has just opened here. Feed the Hungry builds kitchens at rural schools and provides meals to 3,000 children a day. And we have the best bilingual library, La Biblioteca, in Mexico."
Travelers, of course, won’t see much of this. What they will notice, particularly if they are familiar with the urban landscape of Mexico City or other parts of the country, is that the streets are clean, women and children aren’t begging on the sidewalks, walls aren’t topped with broken glass or razor wire, and it feels safe to walk around at all times of the day or night.
Listening to the Halperts, it occurred to me that they weren’t the typical American family. Daughters Lis and Vivian Bisgaard look Nordic and don’t have Spanish last names, but they grew up in Mexico and culturally they are Mexican. They speak the sort of colloquial, affectionate Spanish that can’t be taught, that is the soul of identity. Their stepfather, Luis Halpert, was born and raised in Mexico City, but he spent his entire professional life practicing urology in Portland, Oregon. Billie did the opposite: born in California, she had her family in Mexico City before moving to San Miguel to open an art gallery.
Were they American or Mexican?A lot of the people one sees on the streets of San Miguel are bicultural, because so many World War II vets who studied at Bellas Artes married into San Miguel families. You meet Mexicans with English and German last names, and if you glance through Juarde, the expatriate telephone directory, a surprising number of surnames are Spanish. San Miguel is a study in how fluid nationality can be.
From the Jardín, it’s an easy stroll to Benito Juárez Park, a small French-style garden that was recently restored for its 100th birthday. El Chorro, the town’s waterworks and public laundry, is next to the park. The tubs look like a sculptured fountain, but Mexican women still come to wash clothes in them, and one occasionally sees a thirsty horse drinking. Chorro means "spout" or "spring," and this spring determined the location of the town when the Franciscan Juan de San Miguel arrived in 1542. Today, the hillside above El Chorro is covered with exquisite houses. There are so many lovely ones, and so many artisans and shops to embellish and furnish them, they could support a shelter magazine devoted only to San Miguel. The library sponsors a Sunday house tour that rarely lacks participants.
Since I wouldn’t be in town on a Sunday, I called a real estate agent to show me around. Joanie Barcal of Allende Properties, who moved from California to San Miguel 17 years ago, turned out to be a sensitive guide. Mixed in with the colonial mansions she showed me on the hill above El Chorro were houses that looked centuries old but were in fact relatively new: fantasies of bougainvillea-draped courtyards, locally hand-carved stone fireplaces and enormous tiled kitchens. She herself seemed amazed that properties here were selling so quickly and for so much. "For the first time I’m getting calls from people wanting to buy without ever having been here," she said. Looking out over San Miguel from the balcony of one empty house, we could see the field behind the Instituto Allende where an anonymous developer (at press time) is building a resort hotel and condominiums with concierge services. Back in town, Orient- Express has bought San Miguel’s premier hotel, the Sierra Nevada, and started a cooking school and kitchen shop.
One day, I took a taxi to Atotonilco, a village 15 or 20 minutes from town, to La Gruta, one of several thermal baths in the area. A rock-paved road leads to the village and its famous adobe church, El Santuario de Atotonilco, built in the 1700’s and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its exterior suggests a very big clay oven, but inside, the most extraordinary frescoes, depicting biblical scenes, cover every inch of wall space. Guidebooks refer to the church as "the Sistine Chapel of the Americas," but the paintings are so frantic and obsessive, they recall Hieronymus Bosch rather than Michelangelo. The lighting is abysmal, but you can’t miss the central image, a child-size effigy of Christ in a glass box. Naked, except for what appears to be a white silk slip, he rests against a pedestal, blood running down his legs, his back flailed to a pulp, his hands grimed with blood up to his wrists.
Next to the church, nuns run a spotlessly clean café and religious gift shop, and across the street is a row of little stands where campesinos sell tacos and souvenirs. I was the only customer, giving one of them plenty of time to show off his knotted rope whips and crowns of thorns. He cheerfully demonstrated how to use a whip, swinging it over his shoulders to flagellate his back, while describing the penitentes, who make pilgrimages to the church to participate in Christ’s suffering by whipping themselves, crawling around the shrine on bleeding knees, and sleeping on its cold stone floors.
After buying a small carved wooden pig, I had my taxi head back to La Gruta, which had a pleasantly abandoned look. Between the entrance and the natural hot springs were a small café and terraced gardens and lawns, where a Mexican family was having a picnic lunch. I followed the gravel path to the ticket office, changed in a stone cubicle, and went out to the pools. At the first one, an elderly American in a cowboy hat was talking about a bridge game with two middle-aged blond women whom I took to be his daughters, while in the water another American woman floated silently on her back, staring up at the sky, her arms extended behind her head.
The first pool lapped into a smaller, shallower, warmer one, where two Mexican women were coaxing a reluctant girl into the water. I waded from there into the third, main pool, which was deeper and warmer still and surrounded by banana trees and bougainvillea. At one end, a Mexican couple, hair streaming into their faces, took turns standing beneath the chorro, a spout of warm water pouring out of a pipe, pounding down onto their shoulders. I moved past them to the opening of a long, covered tunnel, where the water was about four feet deep. The light was dim, but visible ahead was a circular grotto with a stone column at the center supporting a rocky ceiling that let chinks of light beam down to the water. The slightest sound echoed; little waves marked my passage. I could hear the Mexican couple in the distance, the splash of the spout.
Did I want the chorro?they asked in Spanish when I came back out.
Not wishing to disturb them, I said I could take a turn later.
"No, no, do it now," they insisted, "It’s going to stop."
When to Go
April through May and September to mid-December are ideal times to visit, for pleasant weather and a series of traditional Mexican fiestas. Summer brings Texans fleeing the heat; in winter, Americans and Canadians come seeking warmth.
Continental flies out of Houston and Dallas direct to León. Travelers departing from New York must change in Texas, or take a direct flight to Mexico City for a connection to León.
Where to Stay
Casa de Sierra Nevada 35 Hospicio; 800/701-1561; www.casadesierranevada.com; doubles from $290.
Dos Casas 101 Quebrada; 52-415/154-4073; www.livingdoscasas.com; doubles from $240.
Hotel Posada Carmina A bargain and a delight, this old-fashioned family-run hotel has 24 rooms and a courtyard restaurant serving Spanish dishes. 7 Cuna de Allende; 52-415/152-8888; www.posadacarmina.com; doubles from $96.
The Oasis A new four-room hotel in an 18th-century building, with interiors by local firm Mitu Atelier. 1A Chiquitos; 210/745-1457; www.oasissanmiguel.com; doubles from $260.
Where to Eat
La Buena Vida Stylish expats pack into this tiny bakery for coffee, pastries, and artisanal breads. 72-5 Hernández Macías; 52-415/152-2211; breakfast for two $10.
Café de la Parroquya Authentic Mexican breakfast—fresh fruit, excellent coffee, chilaquiles in green sauce, omelettes—and daily lunch specials served in a leafy courtyard a few steps from the Jardín. 11 Jesús; 52-415/152-3161; breakfast for two $6.50, lunch $14.60.
La Capilla Mexican-American fusion cuisine in the shadow of La Parroquia. 10 Cuna de Allende; 52-415/152-0698; dinner for two $60.
La Cartuja 107 Hernández Macías; 52-415/ 152-2057; lunch/dinner for two $80.
El Correo A cozy local favorite in a colonial building across from the post office. Try steak arrachera, sopa de tlapeño and enchiladas, tacos, and flautas. 3 Correo; 52-415/152-4951; lunch for two $18.
Ristorante da Andrea At 300-year-old Hacienda de Landeta, a few miles out of town, an Italian restaurateur oversees exquisite handmade pasta and fish that swims away. Carr. de Dr. Mora, Km. 2.5; 52-415/120-3481; dinner for two $50.
Where to Go Out
Berlin Bar and Café 19 Umurán; 52-415/154-9432.
Where to Shop
La Antigua Everything is white—handmade tablecloths, napkins, guayaberas, and other textiles—in this very Mexican shop. 9A Canal; 52-415/152-1043.
Bazar Unicornio An uncurated treasure trove of Mexican antiques, secondhand books, and folk art, both vintage and contemporary. 80 Hernández Macías; 52-415/152-1306.
Diva Mexican-flavored contemporary clothes: lots of linen, silk scarves, embroidered rebozos, jewelry. 72-4 Hernández Macías; 52-415/152-4980.
Goldie Designs Diane Goldie’s classic women’s clothing, original jewelry made with natural stones, and leather accessories. 19 Zacateros; 52-415/154-7420.
San Miguel Shoe Inspired by the town’s treacherous cobblestones, Santiago Gallardo Muñiz, from León, designs what local wits call combat cocktail sandals—sturdy enough to preserve women’s ankles, fashionable enough for a party. Three locations. 30 Reloj, 40 Hidalgo, 48 Mesones; 52-415/154-4702.
Zócalo In this stylish shop, American owners Rick and Debra Hall sell fine folk art, hand-selected from all over Mexico. 110 Hernández Macías; 52-415/152-0663.
What to Do
La Gruta Carr. San Miguel a Dolores, Km. 10; 52-415/185-2099.
House and Garden Tour See some of San Miguel’s finest houses and learn about colonial architecture. Tours leave the local library on Sundays at noon. Biblioteca Pública, 25 Insurgentes; 52-415/152-1210.
La Otra Cada de México This private collection of masks provides a surprising look at ceremonial beliefs and practices in Mexico today. By appointment. 32 Cuesta de San José; 52-415/154-4324.
El Santuario de Atotonilco Seven miles north of San Miguel on Dolores Hidalgo Hwy.; at juncture, turn west and drive two miles; 52-415/185-2050.