San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
A Mexican hotel room in the dark. 5 AM. I snap awake. Loud bangs, like sprays of gunfire, echo through the city streets. Uh oh, what was that? I’m lying on my beck in bed, next to my wife. She’s stirring. I fumble around for my iphone and find it. My face is glowing white in its light as I check Twitter to find out what’s going on. San Miguel de Allende is full of tourists—surely someone is asking the same question. Nope, no reports of gunfire. A few moments later, more bangs. And some more. I’m only slightly nervous at this point. If this were a Middle Eastern country I would be barricading the hotel room door by now. But my rational brain knows better. Look at the facts here. No one is firing back. I hear no one screaming. No sirens. Must be nothing. Am I the only one in this city of 140,000 who is bothered by this noise? My wife is concerned now, and asks me what is going on. I shake my head and go back to sleep.
Later that morning I ask the front desk about the noises. Oh, those were fireworks, the woman says with a laugh. In San Miguel, she says there is a tradition in which people walk a route connecting the city’s main churches, throwing fireworks to honor Saint someone or other. It’s represents a pilgrimage. So not only were the noises not gunshots, they were symbolic of something completely opposite–a pious celebration.
This “close call”, fabricated in my own mind, reflected a stereotype many Americans have of Mexico. Unfortunately these stereotypes persist even after overall violence in Mexico has been on the decline. My view is that if you’re not running drugs and involving yourself in gang activity as a tourist in Mexico, you’re probably going to be very safe. This calculation figured into our decision to visit San Miguel, one of Mexico’s most beautiful colonial-era cities, for our anniversary. Its reputation as an artist’s colony and food haven has brought tourists and expats down for decades and we wanted to see it for ourselves. Plus, it has no Zika
It was a bit of a schlep to get down to San Miguel from Washington, DC, but we’ve done worse. We flew through Houston (3 hours) to Leon (1.5 hours) with a 1.5 hour layover. From either place it was about a 1.5 hour car ride.
What to see
San Miguel is in central Mexico. This is the cactus-strewn, yellow-brown, hot, and dry Mexico you probably think of when you hear ‘Mexico’. Like most colonial-era cities founded by the Spanish, San Miguel is laid out in a grid with a main plaza at the center, bounded by buildings of almost every color, with two sides of the square lined with vaulted colonnades.
The plaza is known as el Jardin, a sort of garden with trees and flower beds intersected by walkways lined with elegant wrought iron benches. The city’s most prominent landmark, the 18th century La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, or parish church of San Miguel, towers over the city center. From here the city’s cobblestoned streets extend in each cardinal direction past buildings color coordinated in, usually, red, yellow, white, or pink.
Other points of interest were Benito Juarez Park, where we worked out one morning on the makeshift gym equipment. I was winded after a short jog; San Miguel lies at 6,500 feet above sea level.
A short walk up the hill from the park are a series of steps that zig zag up a flower-lined route up to the Santa Cruz del Chorro chapel. Nearby there is a great overlook of the city.
The food was spectacular. I used Yelp and TripAdvisor to select a few of them, but found others the old-fashioned way—just walking around. This is how we found a cevicheria called Cevicheria la muy muy, right off the main plaza. I may be the Donald Trump of restaurant reviewers—in that he is most heavily influenced by the last adviser who has his ear—but this was seriously the best ceviche I ever had.
Down the street is Doce 18 Concept House, a hip indoor mall and restaurant complex with a food court. Emily and I ate here one night, with me getting a mediocre pizza at San Mike (the only sub-quality food exp I had in the city) and Emily trying out the veggie tacos at Taco Lab. We shared a fondue-inspired mac and cheese snack the day before from Mac and Soup.
For our first night, we tried Aperi, one of the nicest restaurants in the city. It is located in the boutique hotel Dos Casas, and has a cool indoor layout half in an inner courtyard, half indoors. I had the suckling pig, which had crispy skin on the top and bottom of the meat, served in a cut shaped like an IPhone 6 plus. We also met the chef, Matteo Salas, who came out to ask how everything was.
Another place worth trying is Cumpanio, a restaurant-bakery combo. We went there for our first meal. Thinking that tips in Mexico were included in the bill, I only really rounded up in our bill. Realizing my mistake later that night, I went back to the restaurant the next day and tipped our waiter. That he remembered how much my bill was and how much I tipped confirmed my mistake.
What trip to Mexico could be complete without gorging on tacos? For that we went to Don Taco Tequila, whetting our appetites with margaritas and guac before stuffing our faces with all types of tacos. I’m afraid I damaged my palate for the main event, having been overly confident in my ability to handle habanero salsa during our appetizers.
The city has a few cafes here and there but they weren’t very common. There was actually a Starbucks, which had a beautiful outdoor patio area. One place I really liked was El Café de La Mancha, where I had an excellent macchiato and apple cake that caused me to lose track of time. The young owner, in the nicest way possible, informed me it was closing time and I had to leave.
Aside from the food, the other big attraction in San Miguel is shopping. The streets are lined with hundreds of shops selling everything from high end clothes and art to everyday items meant for sale to the locals. Generally the farther you get away from the Jardin, the more likely the store caters to the city’s local population. It is in the center that you find upscale boutiques selling clothing and bags by Mexican designers. Emily found a lot of great stuff for herself and to give away as gifts. The dollar to peso exchange rate was really strong (18 pesos per USD) so shopping was a bargain.
For food and other specialty items, I recommend Via Organica, a grocery store, café, and restaurant all rolled up into one. I picked up some goat milk soaps—my latest interest as a soap consumer–and Chiapas-grown coffee beans.
San Miguel is art heaven, and its provenance as an art colony is evident on every street. While there are many small galleries throughout the city, the biggest, and really a destination in itself, is Fabrica la Aurora, a renovated textile mill with art galleries filled with works by Mexican and expat artists. There is also a nice little restaurant in the courtyard with outdoor seating and a quirky café called Geek and Coffee next to a artificial pond and a shaded lawn.
We stayed at Casa 1810, a stylish yet down-to-earth boutique hotel located a half a block south of the city’s main plaza. Its 14 rustic style rooms feature grey stone and wood that make you feel like you’re at a hacienda in the countryside. We were in a corner room on the third floor right next to the hotel’s hot tub/mini pool, which we basically had to ourselves—from the few people we saw in the hotel and at breakfast, I think only 4 of the rooms were occupied. Breakfast, included in our rate, was a la carte, and featured some of the best food we had during our trip. Hotels in San Miguel are expensive relative to the prices for everything else in the city.
We were only in San Miguel for three days and didn’t feel like filling our days with activities, but we did go on one short excursion to La Gruta Spa, about a 15 minute drive outside of the city. For about $8 you get access to four pools, including two that are heated naturally from an underground spring. From the heated outside pool you can get to an underground sauna by walking through a narrow passageway filled with waist-deep water. If you’re claustrophobic or don’t like saunas stay out. We actually took an Uber out to the baths ($9) and just stayed in touch with the driver via text to coordinate a pick up time, paying him cash for the trip home. Wow, Mexico has Uber now?
We also got great massages at La Mano Spa downtown. An hour for 38$. Emily even got some fish pedicure. You place your feet in a big fishtank and have the fish eat your dead skin. wtf
Emily and I had an amazing time in San Miguel. The city deserves its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. We loved getting lost walking around its compact downtown of cobblestoned streets and seeing the colonial-era buildings painted in every color imaginable and adorned with bouquets of flowers. Nice people, safe, just a little bit of a hike to get down there, but well worth the visit, if you can assure yourself that those firecrackers are not in fact drug cartel hits.