San Miguel de Allende: A colonial delight
San Miguel de Allende, nestled in mountainous central Mexico, is part of the “bajio” region of Guanajuato. This “low” region actually averages about 6,500 feet, but is so-called for being a relatively flat area ringed by mountains.
San Miguel de Allende was founded in 1542 and figured prominently in the Mexican War of Independence. General Ignacio Allende, one of San Miguel’s native sons, was a leading player in the war against Spain for independence. Allende, captured in battle and beheaded, is a national hero. San Miguel el Grande renamed itself “San Miguel de Allende” in 1826 in honour of his actions.
In the 1950s, San Miguel de Allende became a destination known for its beautiful colonial-era architecture, its thermal springs and mild climate. In the 1960s, the town became a centre for American expatriates. Canadians soon started to join their American counterparts, and there is now a large and thriving American/Canadian community comprised mainly of retirees. Out of a total population of approximately 85,000, expats number about 6,000 to 8,000.
What to see and do
San Miguel has been a designated historical landmark since 1930. As such the town has preserved its colonial heritage by banning new style construction, neon signs and other types of “modernisation”. The colonial buildings remain in the same style as when they were originally constructed.
The Jardin Principal is in the centre of the town and is truly a focal point of much of the daily activity for tourists and expats alike. Mexicans and foreigners mingle as they relax on benches shaded by large trees and watch the passers-by. Around the square are numerous cafes, restaurants and stores with interesting displays of Mexican goods.
San Miguel’s parish church, the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel, is literally several steps away from the Jardin. Construction of the building was started in 1689 and completed in 1730 with its baroque-style towers. The neo-gothic tower that has made it an internationally recognised landmark was added in 1880. The master builder apparently based the design of the new construction on European postcards.
For tourists and expats a good starting point to find out what is happening in the town is the Bibliotequa Publica. This is a non-profit institution which has made available thousands of books in English and Spanish and where you can pick up a local English language newspaper. Drop by and have a coffee and share the expats’ local knowledge.
There is an active theatre community with 3 theatres and the town has a two- screen movie theatre that shows relatively recent US films with Spanish subtitles. During the week of July, San Miguel and Guanajuato co-host the Expresion en Corto International Film Festival, Mexico’s largest competitive film festival and the most prestigious of its kind in Latin America. The festival is free to the public and screens over 400 films in 16 venues, including San Miguel’s Jardin Principal.
San Miguel is also world renowned for its community of artists, many of whom, while known internationally, have chosen to live and exhibit in the numerous art galleries around the town. And if you choose to take up art classes, you will be spoiled for choice.
There are many fine restaurants in San Miguel serving typical Mexican dishes as well as a wide range of international cuisine. Prices are generally cheaper than you would pay at home in a town with so much choice.
There are numerous hotels within walking distance of the centre. Many of these are housed in restored colonial mansions, maintaining the traditional architecture and décor of the region. Or if you prefer, there are several charming B&B’s within a few minutes walk of the Jardin.
San Miguel enjoys a very pleasant climate year round. Average temperatures range from the low 70’s to the mid 80’s during the day and from the mid 40’s to the low 60’s at night. Humidity is relatively low. Expect afternoon rain showers from June through October.
The closest airports to San Miguel are Aeropuerto del Baijo (BJX) and Aeropuerto Internacional de Querétaro (QRO), about 170 kms. and 70 kms. respectively from San Miguel. However, connection times are not always convenient.
A very viable alternative is the Benito Juarez Airport (airport code: MEX) in Mexico City, which is about 4 hours from San Miguel. The Mexico City airport has a larger choice of flights served by a broad range of international airlines from across the world. Generally, flights to Mexico City are cheaper than flights to BJX or QRO and there is frequent coach service to San Miguel and Querétaro from the airport.
First class coaches are inexpensive, fully air-conditioned and boast reclining seats, movies, toilet facilities and a snack and beverage as part of the fare.
The journey from MEX to San Miguel takes about 4 hours with a change in Querétaro. Alternatively, you can complete the journey from Querétaro to San Miguel for about $30.00.
Walking around San Miguel enables you to see the fascinating architecture up close. However, some of the streets and sidewalks are steep, paved with cobblestones and sometimes uneven flagstones. Be prepared. Take a pair of good walking shoes with you so that you can enjoy the sites and not worry about your feet. A sharp-minded local shoe-maker has designed women’s sandals specifically for walking in San Miguel. They are sold in several shops in the town, are incredibly comfortable, available in numerous colours and seem to be worn by all the expats!
Sandra Reid is an Associate of Mexican Vacation Properties.
Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Bryan Busovicki