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.