San Miguel! Que Pasa?
How Can a Little Mexican Town Rank Right Up There with London,
Paris, and Rome?
by Gordon Jett
Gordon Jett is a regular, frequent,
and much appreciated contributor to Mexico File. He and his wife,
Betty, have lived in San Miguel de Allende for the last eight years.
During that time they have traveled from the Gulf Coast to the Pacific
Coast, and from the US border to the Belize border. But they always go
home to San Miguel.
San Miguel de Allende is a small town
about 150 miles north of Mexico City. It was briefly involved in the
War of Independence in 1810, but became a pretty sleepy place after
that. A few artists and writers drifted down from the States in the
1960's and 1970's, but not much else happened. But it is a beautiful
place, and, as word spread, its tourism increased.
Suddenly, in the last two years, San
Miguel literally exploded. First, Conde Nast Traveler magazine listed
San Miguel in the top ten foreign tourist destinations. Then Modern
Maturity, (the AARP magazine), listed San Miguel among the top 15
places in the world to retire. And more recently, the June 2002 issue
of Money named San Miguel as one of the eight best places to retire,
the only one located outside of the U.S.
Based on ambience, friendliness,
culture, entertainment and restaurants, San Miguel is right up there
with London, Rome and Paris. Those three have an average population of
seven million. San Miguel has fewer than 100,000. And I can assure you
that San Miguel, though prices are rising, is still far cheaper than
its continental cousins.
Weather? Our is perfect, we admit. At
6,200 feet above sea level, our temperature rarely goes over 80 or
under 40. We do have a couple of months of rainy season, but like
Camelot, it usually rains only at night.
Scenery? Yeah, ours is pretty good. If
you like old buildings, San Miguel is one of three town in all of
Mexico that have been declared National Historical Monuments. That
means that most of the town looks exactly as it did in the 16th and
17th centuries. You can’t even paint your house with a color that
hasn’t been approved by the local preservation honchos. The streets
are narrow (built for burros, not cars) and paved with cobblestones.
We’re spread out (someone said “splashed”) on a hillside, with puffy
clouds reflecting in the many fountains and our nearby lake. Lots of
jacaranda trees turn purple in the spring. Plenty of bougainvillea
plans bloom all year around. You’ll see a pot or two (or twenty) of
lovingly cared for geraniums on every balcony. Someone called San
Miguel “eye candy” – and it most certainly is.
I guess culture is one of our strong
points too. Our Bibleoteca is a good example. It’s the largest
bilingual public library in all of Latin American outside of Mexico
City. But that’s just for openers. It houses a weekly English language
newspaper, Atencion – as well as gourmet restaurant, a computer
learning center, as well as a small theater where both plays and films
are shown. The Bibleoteca also has a gift shop and a second hand shop,
in addition to hosting the House and Garden Tours that let people see
behind the justly famous doors of San Miguel.
Little Theater in San Miguel may be
small, but oh my! There is a play reading group, a Shakespeare reading
group, and two full scale theater groups. It’s rare to see a
performance here that doesn’t have a cast member who played the part
on Broadway – or at least in summer stock. Your writer has
participated in two original musicals recently, each with a cast of
over forty. And that is just the home grown talent. San Miguel imports
musical talent from all over the world, ranging from string quartets
to the best of jazz. Yeah – we got culture!
Graphic arts here are just as important
as performing arts. Two world renowned art schools, the Bellas Artes
and the Instituto dominate the scene, but dozens of small studios and
artists lofts keep the walls of the shops in town covered with
original art. Indigenous artists display their exquisite wares in many
places as well.
Good restaurants are always a high
priority for tourists, and they certainly have their choice here. In
addition to attracting gringos and other tourists from all over the
world, San Miguel is a weekend playpen for “chilangos.” This is a
slightly disparaging name for residents of Mexico City. Every Friday
night and Saturday morning the roads to San Miguel are packed with
cars with “DF” (Federal District) license plates. They come to party –
and for Mexicans, that means eating well.
We have a Chinese restaurant that
compares favorably with one we loved in Singapore. And we have a Cajun
restaurant that my wife (who used to live in New Orleans) says is as
good as anything in New Orleans. We have a little breakfast place that
has bagels that make ex-New Yorkers cry. We have an Italian restaurant
that makes manicotti like Mamma used to make. And of course we have
Mexican restaurants that range from push carts to plush. I prefer the
push carts, myself.
I must admit that our first attraction
to retiring in Mexico was the cost of living. We had intended to check
out Guadalajara, Cuernavaca, Chapala, and a couple of other places
before settling down somewhere. But, as luck would have it, San Miguel
was the first place we visited. It was twelve years ago. We bought a
house the second day we were here. And that, we learned, is not an
unusual occurrence. We may have been impulsive, but we wake up each
morning and thank our lucky stars that we made at least one great
major decision in our lives.
Of course we enjoy all of the
attributes I’ve mentioned and more. But the longer we live here, the
more we appreciate something not yet mentioned. The people who choose
San Miguel, either for a few days or a few months, a year or for a
lifetime, are special people. We have lived in Singapore and in
Australia – and we learned then that people who are flexible and
adventurous enough to live in a foreign country are usually very
worthwhile folks, and fun to know. They tend to be people who travel,
paint, write, sing, act, cook, eat, garden, and enjoy life with great
gusto. And an unbelievable number continue to do so well into their
eighties or nineties!
If your idea of heaven is a mega-hotel,
a beach, and a fancy floor show, I’m sorry, but we can’t accommodate
you. But if you enjoy timeless beauty, a mellow lifestyle, and meeting
people who are getting the most out of life – “Bienvenidos a San
How to Get to San Miguel
San Miguel is 550 miles south of
McAllen, Texas, an easy two-day drive on good roads. Most of the route
is Mexico 57, the main north/south route to Mexico City. There is
heavy truck traffic, but plenty of food and fuel – and a good
overnight stop in Matahuela. If you are coming down Mexico’s west
coast, San Miguel is an easy four-hour drive east of Guadalajara, with
good roads all the way.