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San Miguel de Allende Guanajuato

San Miguel de Allende, Paradise for Gringos Et Al

Eight thousand gringos can't all be wrong, can they? That's the estimated number of ex-pats (gringos and other foreigners, actually) that call San Miguel “mi casa,” or at least, “mi part-time casa.” But somehow this UNESCO World Heritage Site manages to preserve its brilliant Mexican charm.

A little more than an hour north of Querétaro by car and about four hours north of Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende has a desert-mountain climate with lots of succulents, cacti, and other dry-landscape plants in the surrounding hills. Many of the lovely new and refurbished homes here wisely have xeriscape landscaping, which is good because the water table is in serious trouble. This 16th-century town---once a supply center along the Camino Real---has in the last 20 years experienced an exponential jump in population.

People who live here know that this is a fiesta town. San Miguel parties more---accompanied by rockets and firecrackers booming long into the night---than probably anywhere else in Mexico. In addition to the traditional fiestas, summer brings the classical music season and the Guanajuato Film Festival. September is one long month of partying in celebration of Mexican Independence and San Miguel’s patron saint. In November there’s the Jazz and Blues Festival, and the events just go on and on.

All year long art films and classics are shown in several small video theaters. The town’s wonderful public library (with the second-largest collection of English-language books in Mexico) offers music, films, and lectures. Retirees who make their homes in San Miguel mark their calendars with weekly chess and Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit matches to keep the gray matter alive. There's pretty much something to do every day of the week. Both locals and visitors pick up the weekly bilingual news rag Atención San Miguel to find out what's up.

Much of the action happens at or not far from the pretty central plaza, el Jardín. Wrought iron benches under geometrically pruned Indian laurel trees are the perfect venue for loafing, chatting with friends, and admiring the town's unusual, Europe-inspired temple: La Parroquia (parish church). Shops, cafes, and banks face the square from under deeply arched porticos.

Cultural Venues and Places to Shop, Browse, Eat and Let Loose

San Miguel has been attracting students since the 1950s. The most well-known places to study---art, yoga, painting, sculpture, weaving, English, Spanish, and more---are Bellas Artes and El Instituto Allende. Concerts are sometimes held at these venues or at the Public Library, one of the town's many ornate churches, or the Angela Peralta Theater.

There are lots of pretty restaurants and cafés throughout town, and many bars serve food as well. San Miguel has tons of art galleries and shops selling folk art from all around Mexico. One of the newest and most fascinating places to browse for home furnishings and fine art is high-end La Aurora, where about 50 different galleries occupy a refurbished cotton mill. It's about a 10-minute walk north of the plaza.

If you're looking for bargains, shop at the Artisan's Market off Calle Loreto. For fruits and veggies, beautiful cut flowers, and cooked food check out one of the town’s two most important daily markets: El Mercado Agustín Ramírez or San Juan de Dios. The Tuesday market (located across the street from La Luciérnega Mall), is an itinerant market carrying everything from plants and candy of every description to pirated DVDs and CDs, hot snacks, and piles of Gap and Hollister rejects and knock-offs.

Get Outta Town

It's hard to power-walk on San Miguel's uneven cobblestone streets. If you don't watch your step you'll wind up twisting an ankle or falling on your fanny. Those who want to jog or walk fast for exercise might head to Parque Juárez, about three blocks south of the main plaza. Other options for exercise outside town include a trip to El Charco del Ingenio, a lovely botanical garden with plants of the area and a nice cafe and botanical gift shop. You can also walk in the adjacent La Landeta Park free of charge.

Out in the tawny hills surrounding town there are hot springs like La Escondida and and La Gruta to visit, both with beautiful green areas. These water parks have changing rooms, restaurants, and plenty of places to hang out in the sun or shade; they are popular with children and grandparents and most everyone in between. About a half hour outside San Miguel, La Cañada de la Virgen archaeological site is well worth a visit.

Beyond all the art, colonial buildings and things to do, San Miguel has an enviable location. In Mexico’s heartland, it's very close to such other colonial cities as Guanajuato, Dolores Hidalgo, and Querétaro, and a reasonable distance from Mexico City, San Luis Potosí, Puebla, Tlaxcala, and Zacatecas.

So check out San Miguel de Allende and Mexico’s heartland, the place to be for entertainment, shopping, good eats, and, in addition to its stunning architecture, plenty of history and culture.


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