By Carole Reedy
It’s easy enough to understand the draw of San Miguel de Allende for first-time visitors. The sheer number of articles in newspapers and magazines, its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the awards it’s received from Travel + Leisure just in 2016: Number 1 City in Mexico, Central, and South America; Number 3 in the World’s Best Cities; and Fourth Friendliest City in the World continue to attract tourists from all over the world.
But there’s another dimension to the popularity of this small colonial city: the repeat visitors. These people naturally come in different varieties. There are the partygoers from Mexico City who invade each weekend to frequent the bars and fine restaurants. And then there are the weddings. In March the city hosted 18 of them. Wedding couples and their guests come from all over Mexico and the world to be married here. It’s such fun to observe not just the wedding party but also the guests, who are always dressed to the nines.
Then there are the US and Canadian repeaters who make the pilgrimage to SMA each winter for anywhere from two to five months, November to April. In the summer months, you can observe the ladies from Texas, dressed and jeweled to the hilt.
Why do they return? These factors differ for everyone, of course, but they boil down to five definable categories, that explain why the world returns to this proud city.
The Ambiance: Ask any visitor for his or her first impression of San Miguel and undoubtedly you’ll hear “the sky, the sun, and the air.” These three elements encompass the smells, colors, feel, and vision of the town. Years ago, artists started coming to the region for the quality of the light, which enhanced their work. Slowly, other foreigners discovered this magical place.
The Colors: “San Miguel de Allende offers a color palette on the streets that hearkens back to another time.” This from repeat visitor Martha Larson, who in the past year has traveled extensively throughout Europe and the US and worked in South America, but continues to return to San Miguel de Allende every year. She goes on to say that the light and heat provide the distinct pigments of the city. Many think of San Miguel in terms of color, usually pink or a combination of the red rocks of Sedona. Of course, Mexico is a country of bright colors, and here you find bold yellows and magnetic blues dominating the landscape.
The People: As in all of Mexico, you’ll be welcomed with open arms. Taxi drivers will want to know where you’re from and why you continue to visit. Shopkeepers will be gracious, and anyone on the street will help you find your way down the cobblestone roads. All service people speak English, but are delighted to help you with your broken Spanish if you choose.
The Food: As in most popular tourist areas, restaurants come and go, but some of the old standbys remain. For me, a visit isn’t complete without a stop at Hecho en Mexico (Calle Ancha de San Antonio 8) for a Reuben sandwich, which, trust me, is hard to find anywhere in Mexico. All the food at this locale is tasty and there’s a grand variety of salads and main courses at reasonable prices. The menu boasts both Mexican and gringo favorites.
This visit, a friend took us to a new restaurant called Agua Miel (Calle Pipila 3A), a small eatery with an equally small menu of taste treats. We went for brunch, and even the bean enchiladas were tantalizing. In addition, don’t miss their delicate version of eggs Benedict. If you are in the mood for something sweet, the waffles are just the thing. There is also a dinner menu, served after 3 PM.
The finest coffee in town is found in the tiny Zenteno Café (Calle del Dr. Ignacio Hernández Macías 136, at the sharp-angled corner of Calle Tenerías). You can stop for a coffee and pastry and then take home a kilo of the finest organic beans from Veracruz.
Culture and Education: Residents and full- or part-time visitors thrive on the variety and quantity of cultural and educational activities here. It’s apparently never-ending, each month offering diverse festivals, artists from the world over, classes, and seminars.
Several venues offer Spanish classes at all levels. Highly recommended is Liceo de la Lengua (Callejón de Pueblito 5, in the centro). Here a pleasant courtyard with adjoining “classrooms” welcomes students who come for an hour daily for as many weeks as needed at their level. The Instituto Allende ( Calle Ancha de San Antonio 20) also offers a variety of classes, and private tutors can be found by reading the Atención San Miguel, the weekly newspaper with everything you need to know about the week’s activities as a tourist or resident, it comes out on Friday.
Play readings, concerts at St Paul’s Church, chamber music, jazz festivals, and writers conferences are annual events that draw sold-out audiences.
There are painting and sculpture classes, and always the presence of the Urban Sketchers, whom you’ll see in various locations, seated on their stools, intent on drawing the beauty of the city. Active tourists can swim in local hot springs and spas, or participate in water aerobics at a number of hotel pools.
Shoppers will enjoy the Tuesday Market, referred to by the locals as La Placita (east of downtown right off Route 111). Here you will find everything from soup to nuts, literally. Bargain hunters should dash to Fantasia- a consignment store in which one finds the most marvelous designer clothes at reasonable prices. Owner Gayle McClure personally chooses the items she sells for the clientele she has harvested over the years. It is located in a small shopping center called La Pueblita (28 Sterling Dickenson Road). I have yet to find the bargains, quality and diversity of clothing here in Mexico City that I find in San Miguel de Allende. Of course, the traditional fine artisan items of the highest quality abound in the stores throughout the city.