This article is from the November 2003 The Mexico File newsletter.
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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 Miguel.”

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.

For more information on San Miguel online, check out –