Author: Bruce D.
Date of Trip: January 2012
Early morning roosters yodel in our return to San Miguel, a charming Mexican town where it’s eternal spring. From our condo patio, high on a hillside, I snap pictures of colorful hot air balloons appearing like gigantic fruits in the fog. Sleepy-eyed tourists peer over the edges of the baskets dangling beneath the fruits for an aerial view of a town chock full of history. Squadrons of long necked white egrets beat their way north. Riots of bougainvillea perfume the air, mingling their fragrance with delightful aromas from neighborhood tortilla factories. Thirty-two tortillas, made from either corn, flour or whole wheat cost fifty cents. Church bells toll fifteen minutes to Mass to hurry up the faithful. San Miguel yawns. It has heard it all before.
There are many San Miguels in Mexico but there’s only one San Miguel de Allende, founded fifty years after Columbus wet his boots in the surf of the new world. The town is named after Saint Michael and General Ignacio de Allende y Unzaga who was born in San Miguel and became a heroic patriot in the fight for independence from Spain. It’s a smart move to name your town after a saint and a general if you want to cover the important bases.
San Miguel is four hundred and sixty-two years old. It sits at 6,400 feet in the central highlands of Mexico on an enormous fertile plateau, called, “The Bajio.” This ancient colonial town, in the state of Guanajuato, is considered a crown jewel of Mexico. “Gringolandia,” that giant country to the north, is but a toddler in comparison.
I love to watch San Miguel awaken. Shop keepers slosh buckets of water on narrow sidewalks, sweeping them clean. Mexicans thread their way along sidewalks of great slabs of stone worn smooth by generations. They pick their way on cobblestone streets that have been bathed in the confetti of happiness during thousands of festivals as well as the blood shed for independence.
Mexicans head for work or school. My wife is off to visit one of the two hundred and seventy-eight churches and chapels in the municipality. We’ve been inspired to visit them by Robert de Gast, author of The Churches and Chapels of San Miguel. Robert lives here, is a writer, teacher, photographer and the author of eight books. Don’t miss Robert if he’s giving a lecture.
Later we’ll meet at the main mercado to buy mangoes, limes, pineapple and papayas. Around the corner from the mercado we’ll buy chicken breasts at our favorite poultry shop. A sleepy-eyed fat cat hangs out on a high shelf keeping a squint on business. If you don’t see the cat on the shelf, you’re in the wrong shop.
It’s Friday so I’m off with other expatriates and savvy tourists to the Jardin, or garden, to buy a copy of Atencion, the weekly English language newspaper. It’s one of the three essential keys to unlocking experiences and pleasures in San Miguel. It will be our bible for a month.
The Jardin is a shady square-shaped park with stout black iron benches sprinkled about. A white gazebo in the center of the Jardin serves as a year round stage for a variety of entertainment. Vendors mill about selling balloons, dulces, or sweets, cotton candy, roasted corn on the cob, and soft drinks. On weekends a huge magnificent chestnut colored draft horse with a happy personality pulls an enormous ice cream wagon up alongside the Jardin. Children and adults line up for ice cream cones and then pose for pictures with the horse.
Indian women wrapped in hand woven serapes lay out bouquets of dried flowers for sale under the eves of shops bordering the park. In the evening groups of mariachis and trios gather here to be hired.
The mariachis and trios play music for all occasions. There are tunes for wallowing in the sorrow of a lost love, suffering is a fine art here, and I’ll suffer if I want to, or spirited tunes, like The March of Zacatecas to set you to dancing a polka in the street. But the specialty is strumming romantic ballads designed to telegraph your love and melt her heart.
I purchase my Atencion from the barrel chested black bearded hawker who sells newspapers from a low wall bordering the Jardin. He projects his booming voice like opera star Placido Domingo. I join the early bird readers on the benches in front of La Parroquia, the parish church, to catch the first warming rays of sunlight. Those in the know remind you La Parroquia isn’t a cathedral.
Construction on La Parroquia began in 1683, with the facade formed in 1880 by Ceferino Gutierrez, a self-educated Indian. It’s alleged Gutierrez was influenced by the post cards of European churches.
La Parroquia dominates the town. On special nights the church is breathtaking when a switch is thrown and its towering spires, festooned with lights, resemble columns of fire flies spiraling up in to the midnight blue. The light switch is in the police station. Nobody knows why.
The Jardin serves as the primary meeting spot for the two to five thousand, depending on the season, expats, foreign cognoscente and wannabes, as well as for knowledgeable tourists passing through. This is where you share information on how to get the most out of your visit. You may notice the expats have a pecking order. Full time residents trump all except those who have lived here for thirty or more years. They’re the royals. But everyone, Mexicans and foreigners, go out of their way to help you enjoy your stay.
As the morning warms, the benches facing La Parroquia fill. Many readers pour over Atencion. It has city, national and international news as well as articles on the arts and entertainment, lifestyles, and a calendar of upcoming events, and the goings on at the other two keys to the city, the Instituto Allende and the Biblioteca, or library.
I read South Korea will buy five million dollars worth of mezcal, a type of Mexican tequila. Mezcal is much appreciated by the South Koreans who are among the many non-Mexicans who consider the worm in the bottle to be an aphrodisiac. Mexicans know better.
Interesting, but my primary reason for reading Atencion is to gather information for our visit. In San Miguel we can cram every minute with activity or just loll about in a culture that rejuvenates body and soul.
San Miguel is awash with nearly free concerts. Most cost five dollars and often a margarita is included. Back to back festivals and parades vie for attention. There are classes galore, in English and Spanish, including cooking classes. We recommend taking cooking classes from chef Maria Laura Ricaud, at Tamales del Convento. Maria speaks English well and will share her old family recipes. There are language classes, ceramics, paper making, etching, painting and photography, to name a few.
There are field trips to many nearby points of interest. You can visit the university silver mining town of Guanajuato, a “World Heritage Zone.” Here some of the streets are subterranean and even have underground right and left turns. When you pop up you can tour Diego Rivera’s family home. The University of Guanajuato, established by Jesuits in 1732, has an enrollment of 8,500 and is considered one of the finest schools for music and theater.
The ghost mining town of Pozos, forty minutes away, is worth visiting. Bring your camera. There are ruins, mine shafts, and tunnels, but be careful where you walk. You could drop out of sight. Pozos has two great hotels, the Casa Mexicana and Casa Montana.
In Dolores Hidalgo, home of Father Don Miguel Hidalgo, the parish priest who became the father of his country, you can visit the church where the war for independence was born, buy gorgeous talavera pottery and ice cream in flavors you won’t find back home. Of course they have chocolate, vanilla and strawberry as well as flavors like cheese, avocado, corn nuts, beer, tequila, mango, papaya, water melon and cactus, to name but a few.
Nearby, in Atotonilco, an Indian word for hot water, you can visit the fascinating sanctuary that attracts pilgrims from all over the world. Atotonilco is also a World Heritage Site. If there are retreatants you may not be able to enter.
Two hours away you can experience Mexico unspoiled in Tequisquiapan and Bernal. In Bernal there’s a rock that rivals the Devils Tower in Wyoming. In Bernal dine at the Mesquite Cafe where the food is scrumptious, and you can ponder the rock while you eat and argue if it’s true flying saucers drop by the monolith to pay their respects.
But you don’t have to leave San Miguel. Here you’ll find lectures, art shows, plays, films, bird watching, jazz, ballet, ethnic dance, and even belly dancers. Yes, belly dancers. We watched a splendid troupe of beautifully costumed belly dancers perform on an outdoor stage at the Instituto Allende with the sun kissed La Parroquia as their backdrop.
There’s everything and more in San Miguel, from Bridge to “Coffee With Roul,” who’ll tell you how to coordinate your financial needs at home and in Mexico. Catch Raoul after the muffin sale to raise funds for the school for the deaf. The students baked muffins to die for.
This Friday I’m especially interested in learning what activities will take place at the Biblioteca, one of the worlds most unique libraries. There can be lectures, performances, slide shows, and readings. It’s not surprising the Biblioteca has a large collection of books and other materials in Spanish, but it also has an English collection of 22,000 volumes. The odds are good you’ll find copies of your favorite magazines.
Like the Jardin and the Instituto Allende, the Biblioteca is a place to meet. In the afternoon you’ll see many English speaking expats volunteering here as tutors, helping Mexican students with their studies. Expats and informed tourists know the Biblioteca, Instituto, and Jardin are the essential keys to delightful experiences.
The library has two palm shaded patios. Food and beverages are served on one patio, where two for one drinks of beer, wine and liquor are served from the morning opening till last call. The perfect place to reread War and Peace. I read that the Sunday Home and Garden Show tour is still a fixture of the social scene. The tour departs from the Biblioteca on Sundays at noon. It’s best to buy your ticket before Sunday. It’s common for several hundred people to take the tour.
Home tour tickets are US $15 or the peso equivalent. The funds raised help San Miguel youth. You tour three homes. I’ve yet to visit a home that wasn’t stimulating in style and decoration. One of my favorites would have been suitable for a potentate with a large harem. The owners were asking $650,000.
Sunday morning, with ticket in hand, wait on the patio just inside the entrance to the Biblioteca. Have a steaming cup of hot chocolate and pan dulce, Mexican sweet rolls, and listen to the wonderful music of Tuna Normalista, a group of eleven musicians attired in red and gold velvet Spanish troubadour costumes.
Tuna is Spanish for the fruit of the cactus. A normalista is a student teacher. This marvelous group plays familiar tunes like Besame Mucho and tunes you may not know but will come to love, like San Miguelito. Tuna Normalista is often asked to kick off the Home and Garden tour. Frequently you can hear the group playing at night about the town in better restaurants.
I decide to head over to the Biblioteca, stopping on the way at El Tomato, a vegetarian restaurant on Mesones, for breakfast. Here they disinfect the fruits and vegetables as they do in most of the restaurants that cater primarily to expats and tourists. At El Tomate you sit at glass topped tables, have tasty comida, food, prepared with care, and watch the people passing by. As you exit El Tomate, look across the street and to your left. You’ll see Tio Lucas or Uncle Lukes.
Tio Lucas is a cozy supper club and bar with the best jazz groups in town. It’s simply great for an evening out. Max Altamirano is the most gracious bilingual owner. Max usually gets around to every table to greet his guests and makes you feel he’s honored you have chosen to spend the evening at his club.
At Tio Lucas the portions are large. It’s okay to split an order. Try a Caesar salad. The waiter creates your salad at your table with great fanfare, putting on quite a performance. If you enjoyed the salad show you’ll love what they do with flaming desserts like crepes cajeta.
At the Biblioteca I purchase our tickets for the Home and Garden Show and check the bulletin boards. People leave messages, advertising services, rentals, what they’re selling, as well as requests for roommates, rides, you name it. A poster advertising a concert this evening at the Instituto Allende catches my eye.
Later we shop at the mercado, have a lunch of sopa de fideo con caldo, vermicelli in chicken broth and almendrado de pollo, chicken in almond sauce, on our patio and decide to attend the concert.
San Miguel is built on hills. It’s a walking town but taxis are cheap. Agree on the fare before setting out. We leave two hours early, walking slowly, so we can take our time, as we make new discoveries.
The Instituto Allende is an immense, beautiful colonial building, made of stone and founded in 1938. It’s now part of the University of Guanajuato. In the fifties and sixties famed Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo was artist-in-residence. Now you can study drawing, sculpture, ceramics, weaving, art history, painting, batik, language and much more.
We join the sell out crowd for the concert. As we enter the auditorium we’re offered a margarita. We take our seats. The all male quartet comes out on the stage. The spokesman for the group is a rotund gringo with a guitar parked atop his belly. He speaks excellent English and Spanish and introduces the Mexicans that make up the rest of the group. There’s another guitarist, a local boxing coach on maracas, and the bassist.
They play and sing one tender ballad after the other. Spanish Eyes, Besame Mucho, the standards and the less familiar, but always performed with great style and taste. The gringo does informative and humorous segues between numbers. They’re marvelous. The audience is thrilled. They can do no wrong. It’s the perfect evening.
The quartet has now played for over an hour. We’re getting much more than we counted on for five dollars. They have the audience in the palm of their hands and then a phone rings. And it rings and rings. People are looking around and over their shoulders, ready to glare arrows at the person who didn’t turn off his cell phone. And the phone keeps ringing, but the quartet, professionals to the last, continue playing and singing. The audience is trying to figure out the location of the phone. Slowly they focus their attention on the stage. The phone must be off stage and would a stage hand please answer?
But then the bass player, now strumming away with one hand, reaches into his jacket pocket, pulls out his cell phone and answers.
“Hola. Si. Si. I’m busy now. No, I’m working. Okay. I’ll be home about midnight. Que mas? What else? Si. I’ll stop at the store. Si. I love you too. Bye.”
The audience cracks up. The quartet continues on, finishing the song with a great flourish, having never missed a beat. They bow to a standing ovation and a special salute to the bassist.
We file out of the auditorium. Some music lovers have gathered around the musicians offering their congratulations, shaking hands and asking for autographs. We start back to our home, wending our way along the cobblestone streets. In the near distance we see La Parroquia lit up. Above the spires a full moon garnishes the sky. And, just then, a flight of egrets headed south for the night, is silhouetted against the moon. As Mexicans would say: “Only in Mexico.”
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