Discovering San Miguel de Allende

I grow nostalgic for Mexico. This is not peculiar as I lived and taught there for seven years but I don’t actually miss the city in which I lived, that huge industrial giant without charm or sidewalks. I miss small-town Mexico and siestas and ice cold lemonade served on the verandah of a picture-perfect courtyard. One of our favourite long weekend destinations was San Miguel de Allende, a small colonial town in Mexico’s interior with which I fell madly in love on my very first visit in 1999. It’s a decade long love affair from which I have never quite recovered.

In the centre of San Miguel, you will find el Jardin (the garden), a perfectly groomed square with enough benches for all the bottoms that need a seat and trees enough to provide shade from the impossibly hot Mexican sun. In the evenings, the garden people find themselves serenaded by bands of mariachis. On the tiny streets that surround the square there are small, exquisite stores and boutiques selling (mostly) authentic Mexican folk art. Wedged in between the boutiques are beautifully decorated restaurants serving chilequiles, chicken with mole, tamales and all manner of Mexican comfort food. After every extraordinary meal, we pat our tummies and say, “Never a bad meal in San Miguel!” You can walk everywhere in town and most people walk there very slowly. What’s the hurry? Semana Santa, or Easter, is a an extraordinary time to visit; the two Good Friday parades involve almost every local in San Miguel and, on Sunday morning, a band of brave men blow up a series of life-sized papier mache figures that represent Judas. (These figures are made locally and some of them are painted with the names of local people!) We refer to this event the “Exploding Judases” but that’s probably not the real name. I once sat beside a young Texan woman and we agreed that the explosions were incredibly cathartic and possibly a good substitute for therapy. Finally, at the end of our San Miguel day, we would walk home to our hotel, Posada Carmina, where the ancient night porter would totter slowly over to the huge black wooden door, let us in, and wish us a pleasant night. “Sleep with the angels,” he would say. Sleep with the angels.

Sure, I noticed that there were a number of ex-pats who lived there. They had probably fallen in love with the same town I had. I was not prepared to hold that against them.

On my third visit to San Miguel, I went with three girlfriends. Still madly in love with the town, I was shocked to hear two of my friends pronounce it too precious, too “twee.” (I had never heard that expression before). It was clear that San Miguel had not stolen their hearts although they were both able to overlook some things in order to enjoy the food and shopping. For me, San Miguel was a place that allowed me to slow down from the too-hectic pace of life in the north of Mexico. A place that gave me permission to pay attention to small but extraordinary details like the way the sharp rays of midday sunlight sliced through my bedroom window. I admired the way that people lived their daily lives: buying fruits and vegetables from the market, and stopping (on the way and home again) to chat with friends and neighbours. I had my shoes shined in the square and, although this is an activity normally reserved for men, no one in San Miguel seemed to care about such conventions. I recorded, in my journal, what I had observed and how it made me feel. I let San Miguel wash over me and I was heavy with happiness.

A year later, I took my mom and dad for a visit. I could see my mother’s eyes fill up with stars for the small town. Dad just wanted a cool place to sit and read the Truck Trader. At dinner, the waiters and waitresses spoke perfect English to my parents. “We had no idea you spoke English!” we said to a young woman who had opened a sweet little supper spot in the same building as her mother’s well-established breakfast/lunch restaurant. She made a sweeping gesture at the primarily English speaking clientele and smiled. “How could I not?” We kept speaking Spanish, however, because we speak Spanish. It was also about this time, though, that we really became conscious of the ex-pat culture in San Miguel: linen-wearing hordes of art-buying, house-buying, book-writing older folks from the USA and from my own Canadian great white north. We were a little afraid of these people; they didn’t seem quite right to us. It was about that time that we decided that San Miguel was a great place to visit but we wouldn’t to live there.

We traveled to the town two or three more times before moving to Barcelona. It was still our place, our sweet little escape from pollution and heavy traffic and the anonymity that goes with living in a really large city. Our last trip was cancelled and I felt bereft at the loss of San Miguel, robbed of my opportunity to say goodbye.

Two of my dearest friends are preparing to leave Mexico and move to Thailand. Of all the “last” trips they could have made… Playa del Carmen, Oaxaca, Chiapas, they chose San Miguel de Allende. I felt that they were taking me with them to say good-bye even though I left Mexico two years ago. My friend, Jenny, blogged about their trip, detailing the pleasures of this last visit and, at the end, she posted a picture of a Starbucks. At first I thought this was a joke, a clever Photoshop trick or another town with a square that looked eerily like that of San Miguel. I ran a Google search and, sure enough, this lovely UNESCO Heritage site is now the home of a Starbucks. Now I am not anti-Starbucks. There is one quite close to our apartment, on Passeig de Gracia, and I have had several lovely cups of coffee there and to go. But the Starbucks in San Miguel de Allende signals the end of an era.

As a person who travels a great deal, I must come to terms with the way that my travel changes the world. I like to think of myself as a fairly low-impact traveler, one who learns the language (or essential phrases at least), and who stays at little guest houses and not at posh five star hotels. I try to resist the impulse to photograph the beautiful faces of local people. It is our mission to leave as light a travel footprint as possible.

But the truth is that we tourists and travellers and expats alike change the places that we travel just by virtue of our being there. A young guide in San Miguel once told me that he and his family can no longer afford to eat at local restaurants. They travel several miles to nearby Dolores Hidalgo for family celebrations. He wasn’t bitter; in fact he said he was quite grateful for his job as a guide as it paid well and was the best job he could find at home after he finished university.

San Miguel de Allende is in its second wave of colonization. First the Spanish arrived and “discovered” the New World (and we all know how that story turned out). Now, at the beginning of the 21st Century, the new colonists are the “North Americans”, a term that Mexicans use to describe Americans and Canadians but never themselves. That Starbuck sign breaks my heart a little. Not because we have ruined the town but because progress and growth are complicated. Some locals say that many things about San Miguel are actually better; there are more jobs, buildings are not crumbling apart, and many ex-pats do charitable work in the town. Opportunities exist where none did before. But it’s not the same town as it was before we arrived.

Photo Credits:
Starbucks in San Miguel is shared here with permission from Jenny Johnson. All other photos: Luz María Nieto Caraveo at Flickr

2 comments

  1. Hi Heather!You got all the way through to the end of the post… I think I'll have to send you a prize.I think, having read about some of your travels, that you would very much like San Miguel de Allende.One thing I didn't mention was the great opportunities for photography. Even the interiors of restaurants are photogenic. My last visit to San Miguel was before I moved to a digital photo so I don't have those shots on my computer. (Thank goodness for Flickr).This town is like a really fantastic pajama part for adults who love great food, art and Mexican culture.

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