|Where's Sherry? San Miguel de Allende, Mexico!|
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
By Sherry White
Are you a culture-loving, adventure-seeking, slightly offbeat, creative soul? Yes? Then San Miguel de Allende, Mexico is the perfect destination for you.
I began my adventure to San Miguel de Allende by boarding an early morning flight in New York, along with my five-year-old Jack Russell Terrier, Bella. Together, we flew to Dallas, then continued on a 2-hour flight to Leon, Mexico. Upon arrival in Leon, I trotted Bella to the agricultural office where I was required to show a very courteous man Miss B's "traveling papers", a simple document from the veterinarian, which stated that Bella was up-to-date on her vaccinations for rabies and the like. A few moments later we were released, where we found ourselves in front of what can only be described as a traffic light. This apparatus greets all travelers upon arrival in Mexico. I pressed a large button and, much like a gamble in Vegas, waited to see what my fate would be; green light means go, red light means stop (then go have a chat with the immigration officer) and I'm not entirely sure what fate yellow would bring. Fortunately, green flashed and we walked on through, ready to begin our 30-day sojourn.
From the airport in Leon, it took about 90 minutes to drive to my rented one-bedroom casita located in the heart of San Miguel. I contracted a private car service ($90USD, plus tip) for the one-way trip, which in hindsight, was brilliant considering the duration of our journey. Van service is available at a more reasonable cost ($25USD per person, one-way) and it's possible to rent a car. But be forewarned: parking is scarce in San Miguel and standard procedure for parking violations is to have your license plates removed from your vehicle and taken to the local police station ... a place that no traveler wants to visit.
A BRIEF HISTORY
And so, I arrived in San Miguel de Allende, a brightly hued, magical, firecracker of a colonial town, located in the state of Guanajuato, just about smack dab in the middle of Mexico and sitting roughly 6,000 feet on top of the highlands, or the Bajio, of Mexico. Founded in 1542 by a Franciscan monk, San Miguel was an important stop on the silver route from Zacatecas, but as the wealth from the mineral trade faded so did San Miguel. By 1900, San Miguel was in danger of becoming a ghost town. After WWII, San Miguel saw the arrival of American GIs who were attracted to the town because their educational grants went further at the Instituto Allende, a US Accredited Art School, than similar schools in the United States. Since that time, artists of all varieties have made a home for themselves in San Miguel de Allende. These days, there is an ever-growing population of expatriates from the US and Canada due largely to the advantageous exchange rate between the US/CDN dollar and the Mexican peso, the temperate climate and the abundance of year-round cultural activities. With a total population of 85,000, it is estimated that the number of expatriates living in San Miguel today ranges between 8,000 and 10,000. Despite the influx of expats and their abundant supply of cash, this town is definitely of the third world variety. In San Miguel de Allende, you can walk down the street among dogs (no leashes or collars necessary) and donkeys (loaded down with goods). Or, you might observe the chief of police dressed in colonial duds holding a huge walky-talky in one hand, the reins of his trusty steed in the other, while at the same time skillfully dodging the Range Rovers, BMWs and Harleys that occupy the narrow and sometimes steep cobblestone streets! It was disconcerting to see real estate ads for homes priced for millions of US dollars, when there were people (mostly women and most of whom were elderly) begging in the street. There is plenty of work to be done to bridge the gap between the wealthy and the poor in Mexico, but one advantage of the growing expatriate community in San Miguel is the emergence of a number of community outreach programs including health programs for children and aid for the elderly.
THINGS TO DO
San Miguel offers a wide variety of activities. Concerts, plays, lectures, readings and art openings fill the weekly schedule and periodically, larger festivals offer world-renowned entertainment. While I was in San Miguel, I attended a theatre festival and a multicultural festival, designed to promote the diversity of the community in San Miguel. I also viewed a documentary film written, directed and produced by Caren Cross, an American woman, living in San Miguel. Lost and Found in Mexico tells Caren's story and the stories of several other Americans who have chosen to live in San Miguel. Featured stories included those of Nancy, a cancer survivor from New York; Sue, an author who came to San Miguel to write a book and ended up falling in love with a younger Mexican man; and Jim, a high-powered lawyer from Texas. All activities in San Miguel are listed in Atencion, the quintessential bible for all English-speaking residents and visitors. This weekly newspaper is published every Friday and costs 8 pesos or about 50 cents. The best on-line resource I found for everything San Miguel was Portal San Miguel.
Many visitors, myself included, flock to San Miguel for its varied educational opportunities. Ongoing classes are available in the arts (painting, sculpting, jewelry-making, pottery, dance), language (mainly Spanish, of course), Mexican cooking and fitness/spiritual retreats (yoga, Pilates, Buddhist meditation). During my stay, I enrolled in a three-week silver jewelry-making course and a Spanish course at the Instituto Allende. My attempt to learn Spanish lasted about 10 minutes ... it seems I was such a novice (meaning no knowledge of Spanish, whatsoever) that the school didn't even have an appropriate class for me. This was also partially due to the fact that I was there in May, the lowest tourist season of the year, meaning that the number of students seeking Spanish instruction did not warrant a true beginner's class. Lesson learned: if you travel to San Miguel in May with an educational goal in mind, make sure you plan ahead to ensure that you find just what you're looking for.
San Miguel is known all through Mexico for being the town that has a fiesta for just about any reason and for celebrating just about everything by setting off fireworks. A word to the wise: if you aren't fond of being awakened by the blast of an M80 at 4am, be sure to pack your earplugs. Also, be sure to do your homework before choosing your accommodations in San Miguel. The casita I rented was lovely; however, it was located on a busy street in a very active neighborhood. If you rent a house, you'll most likely find a "noise clause" in your contract -- that should have been ample warning to me! However, I had limited choices since I was traveling with my dog. Accommodations can be found in quieter areas, but be aware of the fact that visiting San Miguel is not likely to be the most tranquil getaway. I, however, did find what I believe is the closest to tranquility you can find in San Miguel. I spent the final three days of my stay at the Posada Corazon B&B. This truly beautiful inn exemplifies typical Mexican architecture of the 1960s. It's spacious, yet maintains the coziness of a family home. Its lush gardens and mature trees provide a refuge for a wide variety of birds and is located just a short walk from the Jardin (Main Square). The inn has only six rooms, one of which has a private pool. Each room has unique rustic accents and neutral-colored cotton bed linens. My room had wood-paneled walls and a private entrance from the garden. Breakfast is included and is prepared using organic ingredients grown on the property. There are no TVs or telephones in the rooms, but there is free wireless Internet service. You can watch TV in the common living area and there's a large selection of books and DVDs available. Rates vary by season, but are reasonable. I was able to negotiate a rate of $90USD per night, which included a very yummy breakfast; a choice of fruit or fruit juice, several egg selections or the house special French toast and coffee or tea. One morning, I was also offered homemade tamales that were simply wonderful.
Eating in San Miguel is pleasurable and generally affordable. There are restaurants on nearly every street corner and the food choices are international, though of course there is excellent Mexican food to be had, too. Other cuisine options include American, Italian, Asian (including sushi), French, Brazilian, Argentinean and fusion. My favorite spots for breakfast were El Petit Four (Mesones 99-1) where you can indulge in what I believe to be the best cappuccinos and croissants in town; for dog-friendly outdoor noshing, Rincon de Don Tomas (Jardin) is your best bet. My best dinner was had while attending a Mexican cooking class. The menu that evening included, Fresh Guava Water, Tomatillo Salsa, Salsa Negra, Grilled Vegetable and Goat Cheese Stuffed Poblano Chiles, Raspberry Chipotle Brownies, Spiced Mexican Coffee and, of course, a round of refreshing margaritas made from the finest Mexican tequila. The class was held at the residence of Chef Kris Rudolph, owner of El Buen Cafe (Jesus 23). The cost of the class (including meal) was $45 USD per person. In addition to a regular schedule of three-hour cooking classes, Kris also runs cooking vacations. Visit www.mexicocooks.com for more information.
My adventure in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico was everything I wanted yet nothing I expected. It's not easy to get there, it's noisy, the streets are dirty and dusty, but the local residents are warm and friendly and you are sure to meet an interesting and eclectic bunch of transplants and fellow travelers. I say, pack your walking shoes, sunscreen and earplugs and give it a try!
Sherry Lynn White is a friend of 'Georgie Jet' (Johnny's sister). She's a certified fitness professional (yoga & Pilates), a budding artist (jewelry design and abstract painting), and a self-described travel junkie. It was her privilege and delight to share the tale of her most recent travel adventure with her beloved Jack Russell Terrier, Bella, to San Miguel de Allende, with Johnny Jet readers.
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All information presented here is accurate at the time of publication but prices, dates and other details are all subject to change. Please confirm all information before making any travel arrangements.
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