By Nancy Seeley
San Miguel de Allende, like Zihuatanejo, is a Mexican city with enough charm and natural beauty to keep expats like me coming back (and, in the case of Zihua, staying for well over a decade) – but there the similarities end. You’ve already experienced the allure of our Pacific coast fishing village. Read on to see if the markedly different appeal of San Miguel tempts you.
San Miguel proudly claims the distinction of being located in the cradle of Mexican independence. It’s a mere stone’s throw from Dolores Hidalgo, credited with sparking the 1810 revolt that made this year’s bicentennial celebration a reality (2010). Though I wasn’t there in 2010 to see the reenactment of El Grito, Father Miguel Hidalgo’s famous 11 p.m. shout for freedom, I did spend the night of Sept. 15 in San Miguel’s Jardin Principal several years ago. What an experience! Once the electrifying words were spoken, the enthusiastic crowd began determinedly marching around the four-block square, packed in so tightly there was little chance of escape once the forward movement began. Momentum pulled us all past the stunning rose-hued Parroquia, fireworks went off, and national pride was a visible commodity.
Located in the state of Guanajuato about 150 miles from Zihuatanejo, San Miguel is near the geographical center of Mexico. It was founded in 1542, still boasts dozens of winding cobblestone streets preserving the appearance of yesteryear, and offers a delightful climate ranging from warm days to cool, dry nights perfect for comfortable sleeping. Coming from sea level, it may take a few days of acclimating to the 6,400-foot altitude, but the laid-back atmosphere doesn’t demand you do anything very quickly. There’s about 2,500 Canadian and U.S. “transplants” living here much of the year – enough so that you hear English spoken in el centro nearly as much as Spanish during the high season for tourism.
Here you will find Mexico’s cultural soul at places like the Instituto Allende (Institute for Fine Arts), the Centro Cultural “El Nigromante” (National Institute for Fine Arts), and the building housing favorite son and revolutionary hero Ignacio Allende’s birthplace – now a museum – to name but a few. For expats, the Biblioteca Publica (English Public Library) is both a social and educational refuge. The Teatro Angela Peralta regularly hosts plays, concerts, and other educational offerings. The mere act of walking around town shows you a dazzling array of architectural styles encompassing nearly 500 years of changing designs. AND, for those of us deficient in Spanish language skills, San Miguel offers courses ranging from casual conversation to those featuring intense immersion geared at fostering rapid results.
Then there are the green spaces – and what a joy they are. In the southern area of el centro you’ll find small El Chorro Park with its aerobically challenging series of stairs. Cimb to the very top, turn left, and in a few blocks you’ll reach a mirador (scenic lookout) overlooking the city. Near El Chorro is the much larger Parque Benito Juarez, offering a variety of paths to stroll and, beginning this year, a wonderful organic tianguis (open air market) every Saturday featuring everything from produce, cheese and flowers to breads, wines and crafts.
My personal favorite spot is El Charco del Ingenio, a 220-acre botanical garden at the northeastern edge of the city which occupies an enormous canyon chock full of plants, including carefully-tended displays of endangered varieties. One can hike for hours, and the vistas are breathtaking. The onsite café and gift shop add to the ambiance, and temascales (traditional herbal sweatlodges) are frequently offered.
When in San Miguel, explore the many, many opportunities for fine dining and shopping. You can’t walk half a block in the downtown area without encountering a restaurant, gallery, or boutique. Accommodations vary from the economical to the ultra-luxurious. The outlying areas of San Miguel offer further temptations, but I’ve run out of room if there’s to be space left for a selection of photos urging you to take some time to explore another part of this beautiful country.