Welcome home to San Miguel de Allende

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.

Ignacio Allende

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.

Traditional Indian dancing in San Miguel de Allende

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 ; )

A Mexican twist on an American classic. Cheeseburger with a slab of ham and a mexican salad with jicama, avocado and zesty dressing.

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.

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Left, Right or Straight Ahead?

The virtue of maps, they show what can be done with limited space, they foresee that everything can happen therein. ― José Saramago, The Stone Raft

Ready to hit the open road with the canoe and Apache camper. Elmhurst, Illinois circa 1973

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a fondness for maps. Perhaps it stems from my days as a kid when we would take the obligatory summer road trip in the family station wagon. My parents always had a road atlas in the car as well as many local maps and the memory of my mom spending the whole trip with them open on her lap is vivid. Both of my parents could read a map and read it well, but there was always the inevitable wrong turn or unexpected construction that found us turned around or heading down a dark alley. I clearly remember my dad spreading the maps open on the dining room table for weeks before a trek to study the different routes and which one was the quickest or most interesting depending on the trip .

My, how times have (not) changed. Now, I use maps even more than I did as a kid. Going to a new restaurant in the city, a party, down the block or around the globe, maps are still my consistent companions. Although the foldable, or seemingly not foldable, maps are not as common anymore, I do have several resources for my cartophile tendencies to be sated. iPad, cell phone, google maps, etc are fantastic tools for the modern lifestyle and traveler. The map fascination for me is simple, it’s either: I’ve been there and I know what it’s like or I haven’t been there and I wonder what it’s like.

While Rich was learning to become a private pilot, I was ecstatic at the thought that while he was masterfully minding the controls, I would be his navigation guru. Just like in the car I could spot locations on the map and then out the window or vice versa. Imagine my horror when he casually tossed his sectionals aside in favor of a new iPad with total disregard as to how I would fill my time during long flights! The time was quickly taken up by reading on my kindle, but I often stared out the window wondering where we were and what it was that I was looking at. I’m happy to say that after a whimper and a sigh, I too had an iPad of my very own (his hand-me-down) complete with the latest map apps. (Yes, the old saying is true: If the wife ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy ; )

My love of maps has also served us well during travel. Whether long trips to foreign countries or at home around the U.S. I always find myself with my nose in a map to see where the action is, or in the case of most of our hiking trips, where the action isn’t. Here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico the situation isn’t any different. I carefully scoured maps before we came for the location of our house and it’s distance to the many sights to see. Now that I’m here, I have a good sense of where I’m going, but as with those road trips in the 70′s, there’s always a curveball.

San Miguel de Allende is, like many mexican towns, organized around a town square with a church as the center. Although these streets are on a loose grid, the names of the streets tend to change as they proceed from north to south or east to west as they cross the plaza principal. For example, Calle San Francisco on the east side of the plaza changes to Canal as it exits on the west. Many streets that don’t go near the plaza change names simply because they change in latitude: the street Pila Sec changes to Cuadrante to Hospicio to Garita as it crosses downtown! Another interesting tidbit is that many streets have changed names over the course of history and the old street names can often be seen right next to the newest ones.

Callejon de la Garza, our little street.

Just like the rest of the town the streets are very old and traditional. There is very little here that is paved. The streets are cobblestone and the sidewalks (if there is one) is very uneven and varies in width. The old streets were not designed for modern traffic but that does not mean that people don’t drive their big trucks and some large SUVs through this quaint little town. As in other countries, the fact that women wear the highest of high heels on cobblestones is beyond me, but some young women here do. Rome is making an effort to repave their streets to make it easier for the stiletto wearers, but If they make it to their destination without blowing out a knee or fracturing an ankle, I applaud them. We live on Callejon de la Garza that is relatively flat and a quiet little street. With a main road several blocks up the hill and the main square about a half a mile away, we usually only hear birds, church bells and the occasional rooster.

I guess it’s no surprise that we’ve become very familiar with the streets of San Miguel even in the short amount of time we’ve been here. My obsessive map disorder combined with our desire to go on ‘walk about’ within minutes of landing in a new place have made it easy. Yup, we still make those wrong turns and like my dad I get the maps out long before we hit new soil but therein lies part of the magic, the wonder and the excitement of traveling. What is where and how do i get to it. I have a world map on my wall at home, a topo map app on my cell phone, a US atlas next to my bed, at least three or four maps for every place we’ve ever visited overseas on my shelf, the entire Delorme US National Atlas & Gazetteer Set in my living room and no less than two maps in my purse right now. Sound crazy? I wouldn’t have it any other way.



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Down Mexico Way

If you actually look like your passport photo, you aren’t well enough to travel – Sir Vivian Fuchs 

Usually at 2 am on a monday morning we would be sleeping blissfully having been in bed for about 3 hours with 5 or so more hours to dream. Not so on 27 February, 2012. True, we had been in bed for about 3 hours, but the extra 5 hours of sleep was not going to happen, not then anyway. We stumbled through the chilly house with our belongings and fell into the car we hired to take us to O’Hare for our 5:15 am flight. What, in heavens name, would make us do such a thing you ask? Where could we possibly be going that would make us imitate the walking dead at such an hour? One word… México.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, ‘Oh, heck yeah! Beaches, all-inclusive resorts, 2X1 margaritas and the ability to drink in the street? Sign me up!’. We’ve done the very popular Cancún, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen vacations before and have greatly enjoyed them, but this time it’s different. First off, no beach, no all-inclusive (not that we’d go there anyway) and certainly no 2×1 margaritas. This time we headed for central Mexico and away from what rw2 lovingly refers to as ‘fake’ Mexico. Riviera Maya, while being a fun place to visit, just doesn’t have the true Mexican flair that we’ve come to crave.

Leg #1 from 0RD to IAH was uneventful and we were soon on leg#2 from IAH to QRO. Oops, sorry, slipped into private pilot mode for a second. For the rest of us, that’s: O’Hare-> Houston-> Queratéro. The Queratéro airport is a new and very nice terminal. It is small compared to many U.S. airports but the ever growing need for an airport in this area has been satisfied nicely and was apparent by the majority of our flight being businessmen both U.S. and Mexican. After a quick immigration/customs process we were greeted by our driver Miguel and soon on our way through Queratéro to San Miguel de Allende.

San Miguel de Allende is situated on a hillside in the Bajío region of central Mexico. Since its establishment in 1555 it has seen many changes in its boundaries and population but the discovery of sliver in Zacatecas in the mid 16th century put San Miguel in a prime spot on the silver trade route- 3 hours northwest of Mexico City and 1 hour from Guanajuato, the state capitol.

We were pleasantly surprised by our ‘casa nueva’ for the next 2 months- Casa de Los Cumpleaños. Yes, the house of birthdays! Very fitting seeing that my birthday is in a week and Sarah’s is on the 13th. The spanish style architecture means that there are no hallways. The kitchen is opposite the sleeping quarters and the open courtyard boasts sunshine and fresh air. Likewise, the open living room (sala abierta) provides cool temperatures during the day and a cozy feeling in the evening. The views from the rooftop terrace are breathtaking as you peer down into the valley at the charming town of San Miguel. The mountains off in the distance make for some spectacular sunsets as the warm glow of the day settles upon the rich colors of the town. Most everything is within walking distance: Parque Juárez, La Parroquia, el Jardín, la Biblíoteca Publica, el Mercado etc. and everything else is just a short cab ride away.

So, our temporary sleep deprivation has been very much worth the while and seeing as we’ve only been here for 5 days, we can’t wait to see what the rest of the 2 months will present. La vida es buena.

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