Dancers at the Parroquia in San Miguel de Allende

Road trip: San Miguel de Allende

gto mapThe bus trip from Guanajuato to San Miguel de Allende only takes about an hour and fifteen minutes, but the two cities feel like different worlds in some ways.

I’m bringing it up because I spent a few days last week in San Miguel, which is the only place in Guanajuato (the state) that most Americans have ever heard of. That’s because in this part of Mexico, San Miguel is Gringo Heaven.

I like San Miguel, it’s a charming colonial town with a beautiful cathedral, old-fashioned anklebreaker cobbled streets and a thriving artists’ scene. Over the years, I’ve run with the bulls downtown (back when they still did that), partied until the wee hours in the local nightclubs (back when I still did that) and enjoyed restaurants and coffee shops that always seemed a notch above the offerings in Guanajuato (which feels a lot more urban than San Miguel).

But I’ve always gravitated to Guanajuato. It was my first love south of the Rio Grande, the first Mexican city I’d lived in, the place where I learned to speak the language and love the culture. I picked it over San Miguel, which had plenty of language schools of its own, because of the gringo factor. My friend Ramon (a Mexican journalist and Zorba-like lover of life and explorer of the world) had warned me: “In San Miguel, everyone will speak English to you,” he said. “Guanajuato, you’ll be forced to speak Spanish.”

He was right. And it’s still that way. San Miguel is the third-most popular destination for American ex-pats, behind Tijuana and Lake Chapala near Guadalajara, according to the 2010 Mexican census. Guanajuato (the city) didn’t make the top 20.

In San Miguel, a good portion of the locals who work in the restaurants and bars and gift shops switch to English when they see norteamericanos coming. The town is dotted with little gated communities filled with north-of-the-border retirees and part-time expats – it also has a lot of artists and fixed-income retirees who rent places among the locals.

In Guanajuato, the restaurants and bars and tour buses are packed with Spanish speakers – the tourists here are overwhelmingly Mexicans from other parts of the country. In the two weeks I’ve been here, I’ve run into two people in the service industry who have a good command of English. There’s no “American section” that I know of. It’s a challenging place to navigate if you don’t speak the language.

It’s not that one is better or worse than the other. It’s just what kind of experience you’re looking for as an outsider. I like coming to Mexico and having to adapt to life here rather than being where a lot of the locals have adapted to us.

Some Americans like to argue about whether the gringos have ruined San Miguel (or more likely, older expats complaining that the newcomers are ruining their Mexican nirvana). I don’t live there. I don’t know. But San Miguel doesn’t feel like an Americanized parody of Mexico to me – it’s still a very Mexican town — and I always leave San Miguel feeling pretty good about the whole Mexican-gringo relationship.

For all the hand-wringing about the American (and Canadian and European) presence in San Miguel de Allende, it strikes me as a place where foreigners can be as insulated or as integrated as they want to be.

I have a different perspective on the place now that I have family-by-marriage in San Miguel. My cousin Doug married a local about five years ago, and this month his wife Bety came back to San Miguel from Austin with their daughter for a long visit with her family, so I hopped a bus to see them.

church pews
Bety’s father’s handiwork

Bety played the tour guide, taking me to a couple of local restaurants and bars, visiting the Catholic temple that still had the heavy wooden pews her carpenter father had built three decades ago, strolling through the parks and the outdoor art fairs and the main plaza where a folkloric dance troupe had drawn a big crowd of locals, tourists and expats.

I first met her family when Doug and I – and my brother and sister-in-law – flew down for Doug’s first meeting with his future in-laws years ago. I was the official translator (No pressure). Bety’s family made me feel like a member of the family the moment I stepped through the door. It was the kind of hospitality I’ve encountered all across Mexico over the years.

Bety and her dad
Bety and her dad

A little snapshot of the cross-cultural stew in San Miguel: A couple of years ago her dad (now a widower) began renting out the extra space in his mostly empty nest — two self-contained apartments on the second floor — to a retiree from Dallas and a couple from Canada.

Bety and I sat on the new rooftop terrace with the woman from Dallas and drank wine and talked. She loves Mexico. Wants to live out her days there. Likes the people, the low cost of living, has both American and Mexican friends. Her Spanish is pretty rudimentary, but she makes an effort (and she gets a kick out of the irony of Americans complaining about Mexicans not learning English when so many Americans move to Mexico and don’t try to learn Spanish.). She has meals with Bety’s family sometimes. She and Bety’s dad (who speaks about as much English as she speaks Spanish) sit together and somehow cobble together conversations.

He gets extra income from his tenants. They get a nice, cheap place to live — with rooftop views of the city to boot. And there’s a lot of mutual respect. It works.

I hear Bety and her family talk about how much the town has changed over the years with all the foreigners moving in – the tourist/expat money pouring into the city is a big plus, the rising prices for property and other things is a minus. I know some longtime expats worry about San Miguel losing the small-town colonial charm they fell in love with.

But they’re all sharing the city in apparent harmony, and the place hasn’t lost its soul as far as I can tell.

It works.

The local grocery store, Comercial Mexicana

A gringo learns to shop in Mexico

One big advantage of renting an apartment in Guanajuato is that I get to live like a resident more than a tourist — because I have an actual kitchen. That requires grocery shopping — and a lot of walking.

I went to the grocery store on my second day here. It’s about a mile from the apartment and looks nothing like an American grocery store from the outside, mainly because of the steep flight of stone steps you have to climb to get in. Inside, it looks like a small version of a Wal-Mart: rows and rows of groceries, plus housewares, appliances, car tires and house paint. They even sell motorized scooters.

I wanted to stock up on all the necessities, but after a few aisles I realized how heavy my little plastic basket was getting. I thought about the walk back – a mile of weaving through crowds and traffic on skinny, uneven sidewalks. If you ever want to break yourself from impulse purchases, park a mile from the store and hump your groceries on foot. It’s revelatory.

I started re-tracing my route and putting things back, doing grocery triage based on weight and necessity. The grapefruit were too heavy. The family pack of paper towels was too bulky. No bottled water, no six-pack of Victoria. I ended up with three bags, which gained approximately 1 pound of weight every 5 blocks I walked. By the time I got to the apartment the plastic bag handles had nearly severed my fingers.

After that I decided to shop like most locals do, grabbing what I need, when I need it, from the little neighborhood shops that fill every major street in the city.

The walk from my apartment off Callejon Tecolote to the Embajadoras market is roughly a half mile, and I can get pretty much anything I need along the way. Embajadoras is an old-school Mexican market, with an ancient, dark building housing butchers, florists, produce stands and the obligatory countertop street food joint. Outside, a dozen or more vendors are selling fresh fruit, ice cream, cheap clothing, bread and all varieties of organ meats under plastic tarp roofs. It’s a riot of people and smells and colors.

On the walk there, Blood of Christ Street is lined with bakeries, tiny variety stores, clothing and electronics shops, pocket restaurants, you name it. Some of these places can’t be more than 6 feet wide and 12 feet deep, packed floor to ceiling with stuff. I’ve been in shops so small that there’s only room for me and the clerk. It’s a very intimate way to buy gum.

imageI like shopping this way. It’s less stressful, for one. I’m on foot, so traffic and parking are instantly eliminated. And buying from small shops is an entirely different experience for Americans used to big boxes and drive thrus. The butcher hand-cuts everything to order (including the bacon). The woman across the aisle weighs my eggs on an old metal scale with sliding weights and tucks them into a plastic bag for me. The woman at the bakery is brushing a tray of pastries with butter and singing along with the radio as I browse.

This morning I walked to Embajadoras and back and made six stops for six items. Total bill: about ten bucks. I figure it took roughly the same time it would have taken me to drive to H-E-B, park, navigate 30 aisles and drive home back in Austin. For about half the cost.


If you’re curious about the local prices, here’s today’s purchases, plus some other stuff I’ve bought:

Butcher 3 bone-in pork chops (1″ thick) $3.25
Produce stand Mushrooms (approx. 15) .55
General store Eggs (1 dozen) 1.15
Convenience store Mineral water (1.75 liter) 1.15
Coffee shop Coffee (1/2 lb, ground fresh) 3.20
Bakery 1 empanada w/ham, pineapple and cheese, 1 cookie 1.15
Taco stand 4 al pastor tacos and a coke 4.00
Water guy 5 gallons water, delivered 1.60
Gym 1 month membership (’70s prices, ’70s equipment) 20.00
Local bar

Movie ticket

1 craft beer, 1 shot house-infused mezcal 4.50




plaza rain painting

Guanajuato, day one: the alley of the owl

GTO balcony view
The view from the rooftop

I was bleary all the way here — finding out that your 7 a.m. flight was cancelled and you now have a seat on the 5:15 will do that — but getting off the plane Tuesday gave me the adrenaline buzz I always get when I come to Guanajuato. It’s been like that since I came here as a 25-year-old looking to improve his Spanish and have an adventure. Back then, I had just quit my job at a newspaper to finish a book I was working on…

Yeah. Here we are again, 20 years later.

Life is circular, I think. Guanajuato definitely is. More on that shortly…

Mario was waiting at the tiny airport. Mario works for the woman whose apartment I’m renting for the next six weeks. She lives in New Hampshire and bought the place in ’99. She’s planning to retire here someday. I get it. Guanajuato has a certain gravity to it once it gets into your skin.

Mario tends the house for her. He’s very polite and upright and friendly, like most guanajuatenses I’ve ever met. Good people. On the drive, I tell Mario this is my seventh or eighth trip to Guanajuato and that I studied Spanish here two decades ago. Turns out Mario is old friends with Jorge, the guy who ran the language school I attended. Great guy, I say. He sure was, Mario says. Jorge died a few years back, he adds. The car gets quiet.

callejon del tecolote
callejon del tecolote

He parks and we hump my luggage up a very steep pedestrian street called Callejon del Tecolote — the alley of the owl. It’s a marginally famous landmark around here: Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla marched down this alley in 1810 to start the revolution against the Spanish. A year later, his head was adorning a spike on the walls of the Alhondiga about a half mile from here. He’s on historical markers, murals and statues all over town; Mexico loves its martyrs.

The apartment is off a side alley so narrow I can nearly touch both sides at the same time and so picturesque that I take a picture. As Mario works the locks, a German Shepherd on the roof of the house across the alley starts barking and snarling — it’s amplified in the tight alley, as if we’re at the bottom of a stone well. Guanajuato is the most paved place I’ve ever seen, an endless maze of stone, brick and concrete. And because it’s in a valley, it becomes an immense bowl of echoing noise. I’m glad the apartment’s isolated from the cars and crowds of the main streets.

click photo to see Snarlario up close

Mario opens the door and gives me a quick tour. It’s a spacious place, all tile floors and wood-beam ceilings and plaster walls. It even has a little side courtyard full of fruit trees and plants. The best part: a rooftop terrace with stunning views of the city. I take a few snapshots. The roof dog – who I’ve dubbed Snarlario – seems close enough to snag my camera.

I unpack, wander the rooms, think about a nap — I’m operating on about 4 hours’ sleep. But I’m too amped up, and too hungry. I stroll downtown and have lunch in one of the touristy places along the Plaza de la Paz, grabbing an outside table with a view of the basilica.

Lunch, in true Mexican fashion, runs two hours. The waiter is young and polite but in no hurry and assumes I’m not either. And he’s right. I’m just watching the city go by. And before long I’m watching re-runs. I noticed this about Guanajuato years ago: sit still long enough downtown and anyone you might be looking for (or avoiding) will pass by at some point. It’s like the works of some enormous antique clock, everyone orbiting on their own little gear, which is interlocked with all the other gears that all rotate toward the common center at regular intervals.

I spot the black-sweatered, philosophy-major-looking student for the second time. Then the young couple with the baby passes my table for the third time. The father has stud earrings and a modified Mohawk, mom has wild black hair with blonde highlights, and baby girl has her hair tugged into a dozen plastic barrettes so it’s poking off her head like fuzzy spikes. Then it’s the guy in the Red Sox cap and cargo shorts (thick-legged and scruff-jawed; he could pass for a Southie any day). He scowls at the prices on the menu; half an hour later he’s on a bench across the plaza eating street food out of a paper wrapper; half an hour after that he’s clomping across the plaza from an entirely different direction. It’s circular, this place.

I’m happy to see that the important stuff hasn’t changed: The Jardin (the city’s central plaza) is still bustling under the deep shade of the laurel trees, which are still clipped impossibly square. The mariachis still smoke in the shade, waiting for the tourists to come. The university still looms over everything like a Moorish castle. Truco 7, my favorite coffee shop/hangout, is still there, and so is La Dama de las Camelias, the quirky bar decorated with women’s shoes where I used to drink with my fellow Spanish students. The mountains still circle the city, the air still tastes like minerals and the people still speak that crisp Bajio Spanish that sounds like a song.

I see plenty of changes by the time I finish my walk back to the apartment (with a quick stop for tequila and beer. You know, writing supplies). Sure, I saw the expected American cultural incursions: a Starbucks off the Jardin, a KFC near another historic plaza. But they’re subdued, with modest signage, trying to fit in. TrucoEverywhere I look, the city seems … renewed. The downtown buildings have fresh paint. The corners all have snazzy new street signs and all the local points of interest have sprouted fancy metal information towers. There’s fewer street kids begging, fewer mongrel dogs sniffing around, less trash and dog shit to dodge – even the streets seem freshly scrubbed. Is the Pope coming or something?

But there’s something different about the people, too. Grown Mexican men walk around in short pants with no apparent embarrassment. I see two or three gay couples – also Mexican – being conspicuously together in public, also something you’d never see here in years past. Then the big shocker: a guy with a leashed dog leans over and picks up his dog’s fresh deposit with a plastic bag. Amazing.

Day One ends at a balcony table at El Gallo Pitagorico, a cliffside Italian restaurant with some of the best views of the city. Night falls, the city lights rise, the Estudiantinas – the city’s strolling minstrels who dress in medieval costumes – start leading the night’s throng of revelers up the narrow callejones, and their song echoes off the old stones as they climb into a perfect night.


(Here’s a short clip of the Estudiantinas)