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San Miguel de Allende Today

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."

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