Difference between revisions of "San Miguel de Allende"
Revision as of 04:43, 31 July 2008
San Miguel de Allende is a small colonial town in the Bajio mountains of central Mexico, about 170 miles northwest of Mexico City. Founded as "San Miguel" in 1542 by a San Franciscan Monk named San Miguel El Grande, it became a centerpiece in the war for Mexican independence from Spain; it was renamed San Miguel de Allende after Ignacio Allende, a hero of the independence movement. In danger of becoming a ghost town in the early 20th century, the town was declared a national monument in 1926 and building became heavily restricted in the town's historic centro district, allowing the city to keep the colorful native facades that have become the backdrop of many famous works of art and even modern motion pictures.
A series of artist colonies were founded in San Miguel in the 1950s, including the famous Instituto Allende, and many G.I.s moved their families here following World War II either to attend one of these colonies or to escape the Polio scares raging through many U.S. cities. The result was a healthy American expatriate population that exists today mostly as elderly retirees and second-generation business owners. This population, combined with the Mexican wealthy (especially actors and politicians) that have rediscovered San Miguel as a Malibu-like retreat from Mexico City, has created an eclectic mix of Old World Mexican charm, American hospitality, and a party atmosphere that makes San Miguel a world-class destination for adventurous travelers.
San Miguel is, first and foremost, a city built for relaxing. A Spanish colonial town of perhaps 140,000 people, it's a heritage site protected by the Mexican government in order to maintain its character. In July of 2008 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's a tourist destination, an art colony, and a retirement community for a few thousand foreigners, mostly Americans, Canadians, and Europeans. In spite of the increased number of foreigners over the past perhaps 20 years, it still is charming enough that many Mexicans visit for special holidays, and there are more than a few visitors who buy a house within a few days of their first arrival.
Weather is typical of central mountainous Mexico. It varies little, and even in the hottest months (May and June) when daytime temperatures can reach 100F (over 35C), the dry air makes it tolerable and cool mountain breezes tend to make evenings delightful. Winter evenings (from December to February) can get cold, even down to freezing overnight, but it warms up quickly in the morning. The rainy season extends from June to September when days are pleasant for sightseeing until heavy downpours (usually late in the afternoon and evening) cool and freshen the air. Ultimately, the climate has the lazy, quiet air and temperance of Palm Springs, encouraging long hours of swimming and pool-side tanning, reading or napping, or just lying in a hammock and forgetting the world exists.
One of the most difficult aspects of visiting San Miguel de Allende is actually getting there. Its remoteness is definitely part of the charm of the city - your afternoon nap will never be disturbed by the sound of an overhead plane or a train pulling in - but reaching San Miguel, and eventually escaping, are tribulations in and of themselves.
If you're an experienced driver in Mexico, you'll have few problems reaching San Miguel. It's only a few hours from Léon and Queretaro, and maybe a half-day's drive from Mexico City. The only difficulty will come when you actually reach San Miguel - parking spaces are an absolute premium here, so you'll want to arrange to have a spot for your car waiting when you arrive. Additionally, these roads were never designed for modern traffic, so traveling in San Miguel with your car can be a nightmare.
If you've never driven through Mexico, you probably should not make San Miguel your first time. Located in the mountains, the city is only accessible via a few perilously winding roads. Combined with a native propensity to drive like bats-out-of-Hell, this can make a trip through the mountains unpleasant - and nothing is more frustrating than being unable to enjoy the scenery of the mountains (which is spectacular, of course) because someone is tailgating you at 90 miles an hour on a thin mountain path originally meant as a trail for goats.
Your best bet is a combination of a flight (if you live outside central Mexico) and a taxi or bus ride.
The closest airports to San Miguel are in Léon (BJX, about 70 miles away) and Queretaro (QRO, about 45 miles away). Traveling to either of these ports will make your final journey a relatively inexpensive (between US$30 and US$50) hour cab ride or an even cheaper bus ride (around US$10 to US$15); the trip will take 1-2 hours.
Your flight will be much cheaper if you go through Mexico City (MEX), and it would probably mean one less connecting flight since most flights to Leon and Queretaro pass through Mexico City. However, you will then have a 4-5 hour bus or taxi ride from Mexico City to San Miguel as follows.
If you fly into Mexico City and need to reach San Miguel, do not try to take a taxi from the airport. The taxi drivers in Mexico City are well trained to screw you out of your money by charging you three or four times the cost of a trip to San Miguel - it's simply not worth the hassle. If you're Hell-bent on flying into Mexico City and NOT taking a bus, call ahead to the hotel or B&B where you're staying and ask them to send a taxi from San Miguel. Yes, they may charge you for both the trip to and from the airport, but it will be infinitely less expensive than if you try to pick up a taxi from the street outside the Mexico City airport. For safety reasons, it is very important not to "pick up a taxi from the street outside the Mexico City airport." Take one of the official airport taxis to your hotel. These "Transporte Terrestre" taxis are the only ones allowed inside the airport. You will buy a zone-priced ticket ahead of time inside the airport by walking all the way down to the right (several hundred yards) after exiting the international arrivals area.
If you fly into a regional airport like Léon or Queretaro, taking a taxi the rest of your way is much safer - just make sure you use an approved taxi service (the green and white cars are official taxis). Even still, if you don't know San Miguel that well, you may want to consider calling ahead to your hotel or B&B and having them provide transport - regional taxis may know how to get you to San Miguel, but only a taxi or car sent by your lodging will know how to get you straight to them.
By far the most convenient airport to fly into is Leon (BJX). Arrange for a ride beforehand with one of the many shuttle services listed on San Miguel websites. Average price about $25-30 per person. This will almost alway be cheaper than taking a taxi from the airport--and the driver will know the town of San Miguel much better than a taxi driver from the airport. There is no easy way to get from the Leon airport to San Miguel by bus. You can also arrange for a shuttle from the Mexico City airport.
If you do want to take the bus but want to minimize the hassles associated with it, here are a few tips:
Maybe 90% of San Miguel's attractions are within walking distance. Just keep in mind that because San Miguel was built into the side of a mountain, it can turn out to be difficult to traverse, some inclines are 15 or 20 degrees. Furthermore, the streets are cobbled and narrow - some were nothing but goat tracks before they were paved - and many have fallen into disrepair. Curbs are often a high step away from the road. All in all, the town can be unforgiving to an inexperienced walker. For this reason, it is advisable to bring comfortable shoes.
Driving in San Miguel is even more nightmarish. There was a time when the city was not so wealthy and only taxis could be found on these roads. Now that the real estate market has boomed, an influx of money has made cars more affordable and now the average resident is more likely to own one - good news for the economy, but bad news for the roads. Many two-way streets in San Miguel are too narrow to support two lanes of traffic, and it's not uncommon for a street to become so choked with cars that drivers have to get out and negotiate which one is going to back up to a wider street to let the other pass. Many streets are one-way so look for an arrow on the side of a building indicating which direction the traffic is going. A double arrow indicates a two-way street. Watch out for very steep streets. They can get even steeper than you realize and at least one in San Miguel is so narrow at the bottom that no more than a medium-sized car with its side mirrors pulled in can safely maneuver between the buildings. Scratches on the walls attest to drivers who have literally had to scrape between the buildings. Backing up the hill is not an option.
For this reason, and for the serious lack of parking spaces, it is strongly recommended avoiding driving a car within San Miguel. Taxis are extremely inexpensive and reliable, and they can take you anywhere in or outside San Miguel you'd want to go when you don't feel like walking. Additionally, San Miguel has its own pleasant and reliable bus system that serves the entire town, including out-of-the-way areas like Gigante and the bus depot. Leave your car in a parking lot in the outskirts of the City - it's entirely unnecessary here, and its suspension will thank you.
Another warning on driving a car into San Miguel: if you manage to find a parking place on the streets rather than in one of the (pay) parking lots in town, do NOT leave it parked for more than 24 hours, or the police will come by and remove your rear license plate. You can get it back by going to the police station on the main square, but it will cost you MN$ 99 in fees. There are no signs warning about this.
Catch a taxi to any destination within San Miguel for a flat rate of only 20 pesos (25 pesos after dark). In-town taxis are abundant and a great option after an afternoon of shopping.
By Tourist Trolley
Two different companies provide Sighseeing rides using trolley-looking buses that cost $60 pesos. You can ask for tickets in the main tourist office just in the main square. The ride lasts 1.5 hours (if traffic allows) and reaches the top of a hill for a fantastic sight of the town.
When you're ready to absorb the city itself, San Miguel has plenty to see. You can spend a day just exploring the buildings, walking randomly along its streets and exploring some of the facades and architecture that have made San Miguel famous. Painters and cameramen have captured sites like La Parroquia and El Mirador countless times, and whole books have captured the beauty of the doorways along the street. Even Hollywood has taken notice of San Miguel, filming movies like "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" and "And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself" almost entirely here.
Any type of Mexican artwork that you can think of. In addition to its cultural staples, San Miguel de Allende is known for its amazing shopping. Being near the geographical center of the country, artisans from every part of Mexico have been known to send their artwork to San Miguel to be sold. Whenever possible buy directly from the artisan. Many amazingly, talented artists are not able to support their families due to the low prices they receive for their art. At times it is very necessary to barter and at other times inappropriate -- use your intuition and allow for mistakes. We can afford to be generous in this developing nation!
The best place to get great quality Mexican and international art is at Fabrica La Aurora. This old textile factory has been converted into a unique art and design center that now houses over 30 artists, galleries, restaurants, antique shops, and specialty stores. It is about 10 minutes from the main square down Hidalgo Street on Calzada de la Aurora. Inside the Fabrica la Aurora you will see galleries such as Galeria Atelier. See galeria/atelier .
The streets around the Jardin are full of specialty shops selling common souvenirs, clothing, art, furniture, and Mexican tile. The open-air Mercado Ignacio Ramirez (Ignacio Ramirez market) a few blocks from the zocalo (locally called the "Jardin") is several blocks long where you'll find reasonably-priced jewelry from beads to silver, tile, mirrors, and other accessories for the home. It winds down the side of a hill, ending on yet another street of stores where you'll find (among other things) local pewter which can be very attractive and a real bargain.
Fair Trade Shopping includes the following:
Casa de Las Artesania de Michoacan, Calzada de la Aurora #23, a non-profit shop where the artist profits 60% of the retail price.
Save the Children shop on Hidalgo, this store offers crafts from various villages around Mexico. Artists receive a fair price for their arts and crafts, entire villages have become sustainable through Save The Children Mexico projects.
There is also a women’s co-op shop.
Ladies: don't forget to pick up a pair of San Miguel shoes as soon as you arrive. Your walk around town will be much more comfortable.
Local restaurants to support include: ChaChaCha’s located on 28 de Abril owned and operated by Mexican couple, Rinconcito on Refugio is close by too, try the Mar y Tierra.
Fresh coffee at La Ventana on Urmaran or Café Etc. on Reloj, both practice Fair Trade.
Visit Mama Mia (see above) or the trendy black and red Mexicana, just off the main square for an amazing evening. Located across from the hotel Mansion Virreyes, For a great nightcap, Berlin is just up the street. It's a great chill bar. The German owners are very welcoming and the food is sublime.
If you can't find something to do in San Miguel at night, you're not looking hard enough. If you can't find something to do on a Saturday night, you're outright blind. This city is filled with clubs, bars, dance halls, and restaurants, and almost all of them have SOME plan for every night of the week. Following are just a few options, try these out, but also seeking your own favorite hang-out.
And there are many more.
Casa Carmen  Lovely bed and breakfast close to El Jardin. Eleven guest rooms range from $70 per night +$25.00 per additional guest. Breakfast and lunch are served in a very comfortable dining room. The food is outstanding - including soup, entree and dessert at lunch time. Comfortable interior courtyard and rooftop garden. Owner made us a sandwiches to take on the overnight bus home - very warm and friendly.
San Miguel de Allende is for Mexican standards a safe place day and night, no wonder thousands of retired americans chose this city as their home. Use common sense, don't leave valuables out in plain sight.
Consulate of the U.S.A. Hernandez Marcias 72. Phone 152-2357
Post Office The central post office can be found in Correo street 16 on the corner with Corregidora street, a block away from the main square.