On paper, the small town of San Miguel de Allende is unremarkable. There are no Aztec remains, no beaches, no jungles. In short, it has none of the stereotypical Mexican ‘attractions’.
Why, then, do people rave about it? Having moved to Mexico City a few months ago, my partner and I took the opportunity afforded by a clear forecast and a free weekend to find out.
The town is nestled among Mexico’s lush Central Highlands, just 165 miles north of the relentless hustle and bustle of the nation’s capital. Three hours after departing Mexico City, the bus gently turns a corner and immediately I realize we have arrived — the unmistakable gothic spires of the Parroquia de San Ángel Archangel dominate the view of the plateau below.
The 17th century church stands majestically, almost arrogantly, as the town’s undoubted centrepiece. The Neo-Gothic facade was constructed in the late 1800’s by an amateur architect and bricklayer who, legend has it, based his design on a postcard of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia. The perfectly symmetrical pastel-pink granite structure certainly bears resemblance to Gaudi’s great unfinished work. The interior is adorned with gleaming chandeliers and impressive medieval paintings, but it is the building’s picturesque exterior which makes it so memorable (admittedly, medieval art is not my strongpoint).
La Parroquia overlooks the calm jardín. It is midday, and the square is filled people seeking shelter from the blistering summer sun. Sun burnt gringos perch on benches, clutching their water bottles and trying to catch a breath (at over 1,800m, the air is thin). A suited local browses the newspaper on an elevated chair, protected from the sun whilst a shoe shiner scrubs away below. The soft, jazzy tones of a nearby saxophone provide music for the thoughts of an old woman sat in the central kiosko.
After some time shamelessly staring at my map, twisting and turning it in an attempt to get my bearings, one of the many cobblestone side streets draws us in. The houses in San Miguel are colorful, with an abundance of olive-greens, sky blues and blood-reds. A warm mustard tone, prominent throughout the town, strikes a memorable contrast with the deep blue of the sky above.
We are looking for the lavadores, the old hand-washing stations. After zig-zagging past colonial houses and plant-filled terraces, we find them tucked away in a small plaza covered in bougainvillea vines bursting with violet flowers. Although no longer in use, the lavadores are perfectly preserved, and it is easy to imagine women sitting around and chatting here before machinery took over.
The site is by no means a Mexico ‘must see’, but the square does encapsulate something very important to this town – its history. Named after Ignacio Allende, a hero of the Mexican independence movement, relics from the past are everywhere – from the old wooden pharmacies selling local remedies to the specialty shops offering silver arts and crafts, evoking memories of the town’s role as a hub for the Spanish empire’s silver trade in the 16th Century.
After taking some idiotic photos involving pretend cloth washing (available on request), we take the bold decision to trek across the entire town, all 500 metres of it, to locate a cafe with glowing reviews. We find it at the back of the Fabrica La Aurora, an old cotton factory re-modelled into an modern art center, in a pleasant courtyard. The goat’s cheese, avocado and sun-dried tomato panini and guacemole con totopos are delicious.
We came here primarily for the food but, to our surprise, the collection is also spectacular and after lunch we spend a couple of hours wandering around the grounds, pretending to understand the vast array of paintings and sculptures. The curator tells me that the town was something of an artistic centre in it’s heyday in the 1950s.
We emerge in the late afternoon and the sun is not so strong. We are thirsty and so we make for the jardín again in search of a one of the town’s famous roof-top bars. The terrace of La Azoteca fits the bill and we settle down to watch the sunset.
After some time, we realise the sun is setting rather slower than we had anticipated, so I find my pack of cards, take a handful of chilli-coated peanuts and order another bloody mary (not very Mexican, I know, but sometimes nothing else will do). Cuban salsa plays softly in the background and the service is relaxed and friendly. Next to us, a group of fashionable mid-twenties chilangos discuss their recent stateside adventures in a bizarre mix of English and Spanish. My companion, a passionate and proud Mexican, disapproves.
When it eventually arrives, the sunset is spectacular. The dark orange hue casts a silhouette over the Templo de San Francisco while the distant Guanajuato mountains fade into the horizon. Had we not been so involved in our card game, it might have been romantic.
The roof terrace provides a view of the Parroquia and by night it is lit up spectacularly. We leave to take a closer look. It seems the entire town has gathered in the jardín. We take a seat to watch a mariachi band serenading a couple who smile politely (uncomfortably). Suddenly, a group of children interrupt the scene, seemingly oblivious as they frantically pursue a football bouncing erratically on the cobbled ground. One boy brilliantly weaves his way through the gap between the violin and guitarron players while his fellow athletes, rather conventionally, run around the musicians. The band doesn’t miss a note.
There is more noise. A mere ten paces to the left a budding local breakdance group has set up. A giant subwoofer blasts bassy hip hop while topless teenagers twist and spin on the rug, as much to show-off their muscles to the giggling group of girls watching than anything else. Some members of the group are more advanced than others (one slightly larger boy has clearly only recently embarked on his break dancing journey), but they are keeping a sizable crowd entertained.
We’re distracted by screams coming from across the square. Six women in their early 30’s are dressed in matching pink attire, with ‘TEAM BRIDE’ plastered across their tank tops. A pair of them blow kazoos while the rest attempt to sing a song. The words are unintelligible but no matter – they are united in the common goal of making as much noise as possible, and they’re succeeding.
Completing the bizarre mix of sounds, the leader of an emo grunge band growls passionately into his microphone while his bandmates shake jet black hair and strum distorted guitars.
Meanwhile, the great church calmly observes everything, and I wonder whether the amateur 18th century bricklayer would have imagined all those years ago that this would be the scene surrounding his great masterpiece. Perhaps not, but it is a memorable sight and the perfect snapshot into life in this simple yet special Mexican town.
Eventually we make our way through the crowd in search of our dinner. We find the the San Augustin restaurant five minutes from the square. Something of a San Miguel institution, the speciality here arechurros and the room is packed with people happily dunking cinnamon-covered fried dough into steaming hot chocolate. The walls are covered with posters of the work of soap opera actress Margarita Gralia, who opened the restaurant as a homage to her grandfather (who, I presume, was achurros fan). The smell alone is enough to convince us to join the queue snaking out onto the street. After having our fill, we amble back to our hotel and pass out, smiling and exhausted.
We have booked a tour around the ‘Other face of Mexico’ museum the following morning. Despite our time limitations, I was intrigued to see this collection of over 500 masks from around the country.
Run by an American couple, the museum is set on a hill slightly removed from the centre in one of San Miguel’s famous colonial houses. We ring the bell and walk through an open courtyard, complete with fountain and adorned with several masks, to a small building in the back. Each mask has its own description and pieces are splattered across the walls in all shapes, sizes and colors.
Later, the owner, Bill, shows us around his accommodation (the museum doubles-up as a B&B). The rooms all boast panoramic views of the town below and, predictably, a number of Mexican masks. Bill, a veritable mask encyclopedia, tell us that he has been collecting for over 25 years, and it shows. You get the feeling that there are a further 500 hundred hidden away in a basement somewhere.
Time has caught up with us so we hastily make our way to the bus stop, but not without promising to return soon. The 24 hours spent in this unassuming town have been one of the highlights of my time in Mexico so far. It is not hard to see why it is such a popular destination for both Mexicans and expats living in Mexico City.