If you travel beyond the beaches in Mexico you’ll probably know about San Miguel de Allende. It’s the sort of place that expats write books about. It’s cultured and a little exotic.
San Miguel is often described as a colonial gem where artists go in winter and many retire to. The first was Stirling Dickinson, fresh from Princeton University, who so liked what he saw when he stopped by in 1934 that he encouraged thousands of Americans and Canadians to join him, and the flow never stopped.
I’ve made a few visits, the last being in March 2015 after travelling to places where few gringos venture. San Miguel was the last point on the itinerary and I arrived with that (rather tiresome) ‘traveller versus tourist’ attitude, me being the traveller. But I left smitten because San Miguel was at its best.
The weather can be perfect at that time of year—just warm enough. (It can be uncomfortably cold in January though, and this is coming from a Canadian.) I was staying at a small hotel a block from the Jardín, the central square known by everyone. At 6:00 am fireworks started going off outside my room and the sound was so deafening that I thought the second revolution was coming. And indeed, hundreds had arrived to do battle with the conquistadors but instead of using weapons they were doing it through dance and drumming.
The event went on for two days, captured by gringos who ran around with cameras bearing the longest of lenses. The dancers didn’t seem to care; they just kept doing what they were doing. What struck me was that everyone seemed to be having a good time (other than the guy working at the tourist bureau who took out his bad mood on everyone).
Throughout my stay I kept observing gringo women, some travelling in groups, some on their own, walking by with a definite sense of purpose. They had somewhere to go, something important to do. They’d smile as if to invite me to come along too.
I went to an exhibit at the Bellas Artes and after parting a white curtain came upon a room filled with hanging life size photos of nude gringos. I went on a house tour with many others to visit the over-the-top home of artist Anado McLauchlin and his husband Richard Schultz and it sure lived up to its billing of being “the happiest place in San Miguel” and a celebration of everyday life.
If you go to the botanical gardens you might see retired American university professors pulling out weeds. Others are teaching English at the library (which has the largest selection of English books in the country) or taking visitors on walking tours for a small fee that goes to charity. There are many good deeds going on here.
People say that San Miguel has become expensive and there certainly are exclusive neighbourhoods. But if you walk in another direction you’ll find more affordable ones with a nice mix of gringos and Mexicans. And while there are trendy galleries, shops and restaurants, there are also traditional markets and crafts.
I met a retired American couple at the B&B where I was staying in Mexico City and they told me that they go to San Miguel for two weeks every winter and always during the Writers’ Conference. Now just have a look at this year’s line-up and who wouldn’t want to go to that!
I travel frequently and like the challenge of new places. But the notion of going to San Miguel and meeting up with the same women (and maybe a male or two) each and every year has a certain appeal. I can picture myself striding down a cobblestone street, intent to get to yoga or Spanish class on time.
It’s the sort of place that makes the second stage of life compelling.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
Riding the buses™ 2016