If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home. ― James Michener
I think it’s safe to say that most everybody has fallen in love at some point in their lives. Whether it’s with another person, their child, a calling or an idea, everyone has had an endearment of something or someone in some way at some point. I was warned before we set foot in San Miguel de Allende (hereby known as SMA) that it was special, that it had something that drew people to it like a magnet. But, what could that something be? It’s a city, like many others, so what could it possibly have that other places don’t to make so many zombielike and helpless against it’s charms? What about it makes those ex-pats who flock here give up their homes and move hundreds or thousands of miles away to be called a San Miguelian? The answer is fairly simple yet complex. There is no single answer but a further in-depth look into the city will give you a peak into its magic.History. The Spanish founded the settlement of SMA in the mid 1500s. It was referred to as San Miguel el Grande until 1826 when the name was changed to San Miguel de Allende to honor Ignacio Allende a hero in the Mexican independence movement. When silver was discovered in nearby Zacatecas the town of SMA became and important stop on the silver trade route from Guanajuato to Mexico City. Declared a World UNESCO site in 2008, the strict standards by which the town must adhere to to maintain it’s status makes the flavor of the town authentically traditional, authentically historical and authentically Mexican.
Cutlure. Mexican culture is alive and well in SMA. While the larger cities in Mexico are becoming more and more like large US cities, the smaller cities in Mexico cling to their traditional way of life. Typically, the blight of American fast food is the first to infiltrate a culture. There is a Starbuck’s coffee in el jardín in the center of town and a McDonald’s at the local mall on the outskirts of the city but it seems that for the most part US chains do not run rampant in SMA. There are some fast food options but it seems they’ve decided to make their own spin on fast food rather than adopt the typical chains of fried chicken, hamburgers and pizza from their neighbors north of the border.
Tradition. We were lucky enough to witness the El Señor de La Conquista Festival in SMA which celebrates the Indian heritage in the area. Colorful costumes, dancing and loud drums ensure a good time is had by all. We will also be here for one of the most celebratory times of year in Mexico, Holy Week and Easter and we are thrilled to be able to be a part of the festivities. Another interesting event that occurred during our time in SMA was the visit of Pope Benedict to Leon and the capital city of Guanajuato. We were an hour or so away from his holiness but the excitement was palpable in SMA with the overflow of people who came to see him. Most celebrations are centered around the church and there never seems to be a shortage of reasons to party in SMA. On any given night you can hear music, see spectacles and hear fireworks.
Art. There a numerous art galleries and countless artists in SMA. With their mediums as diverse as their backgrounds you can wander in and out of galleries and never see the same beauty twice. Photography, paintings, fabric crafts, sculpture, jewelry and ceramics offer just a taste of the talents that artists bring to the city. Artists also display their work in bars and restaurants around town as well as the Biblioteca Publica de San Miguel. If you’re not comfortable with the stuffiness an art gallery can bring you’re never far from art on the street or just around the corner. Most mornings, there is an outdoor art show in the local Parque de Juarez for those wishing to sell their wares and spread their unique outlook on San Miguel and the world.
Music. In his play ‘The Morning Bride’ (1697), William Congreve wrote: “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” While music may have this pastoral effect, in San Miguel it certainly can rile things up as well. With a steady influx of classical musicians the more modern sect can be found on any given night. In addition to Mozart, Bach and Handel the lively tones of Brazilian jazz, flamenco guitar, blues and rock and roll are but a few steps from each other on the calles of SMA. In addition to a large chamber music festival each summer there is never a shortage of world-class musicians performing in the many theaters and churches.
Literature. Not to be left out, the written word is alive and well in SMA. An annual writer’s conference is the predominant event in the literary world in this area as well as numerous book signings, poetry readings and lectures in the biblioteca. Of course there are many internet cafés and private access to record the wonders of SMA and Mexico in general through the glory of the computer. (Much like what I’ve done here ; )
Food. SMA is littered with restaurants and you don’t have to look far for international cuisine as well as local favorites. Many restaurants in the centro area offer Italian, Chinese, American and seafood options and they often have a Mexican twist or flavor added to their menus. If it’s snacks you crave, street vendors sell typical street food, fresh fruit, corn on the cob or salty/sweet snacks. Just outside the centro area are myriad restaurants with authentic Mexican foods like pozole or menudo.
Climate. Let’s be real. We’re from Chicago. It gets cold there in the winter. With an average fluctuation of between 75-85 degrees in SMA the temptation of such a mild climate is appealing to say the least. However, in March of 2012, Chicago saw some of the warmest weather ever recorded for that time of year. Figures. (However, at the time of this writing, it is 49° F and raining in Chicago)
People. Let’s face it, nowhere in the world is worth visiting if the people are rude. Without exception the native and ex-pat people of SMA are terrific. Fun loving, happy and helpful, everyone is always very accommodating. The local bar, La Sirena Gorda (the Fat Mermaid) has made us feel at home since the first day we walked in. The second day they made us feel like family knowing exactly what we wanted to drink without needing to ask. Now, after being here a month they just say ‘Hola amigos.’ and bring 2 cervezas. Nice. Through the magic of the internet, even before we arrived we’d made friends with a transplant from the US. From a chance encounter with a flight instructor/pilot from the area we’ve met a local who heads the nearby university. Through my volunteer efforts we’ve met people from the US, Canada, Philippines and Mexico. Without doubt a big part of the draw to SMA is the people. What a treat it is to meet others from around the globe as well as from down the street.
With so many things to offer, SMA seems to have it all ‘goin’ on’. It’s a delightful place for everyone no matter what their talents are or where their interests lie. It seems that the melting pot idea is thriving here in central Mexico and the willingness of the Mexican people to share their ideals, traditions and culture with the rest of the world makes this location a compelling notion. So, suffice it to say, after 24 years of being married, Rich and I have fallen in love again. Fallen in love with our fellow man, with Mexico and absolutely with San Miguel de Allende.