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San Miguel
San Miguel de Allende Mexico

by Amanda Jones

Twenty years ago, I moved from New Zealand to San Francisco. This meant that rather than hopping over to Australia or Fiji for quick tropical vacations, my new alternative was Mexico. And in Mexico they don’t speak much English. Nor do they speak schoolgirl French. I would have to learn Spanish.

After a long San Francisco chapter involving a husband and children, I set out to find a Mexican town where the family could vacation in comfort and study Spanish with ease. I would be starting from ground zero, but Greg, having lived in Spain, had a handle on the language. We assembled a list that went something like this:

Our perfect place should have…

  1. Intriguing history and overtones of grand Spanish colonial architecture
  2. Benevolent teachers presiding over Spanish schools for gringos, preferably located in shabby-chic haciendas with a courtyard, a fountain, and scarlet bougainvillea climbing its gently crumbling walls
  3. Summer temperatures no higher than 90 degrees
  4. Friendly inhabitants who did not, as the French are wont to do, curl their lips and feign incomprehension when a gringo attempts to speak
  5. World-class cuisine offering alternatives to mounds of refried beans and melted cheese. Said food must also be safe to ingest
  6. Be small enough to render an automobile unnecessary, as no sane person wants to drive in Mexico.

Imagine our shock when we found all of the above, and more, in San Miguel de Allende.

Located smack in the heart of Mexico, San Miguel sits among the cool hills of the altiplano in the state of Guanajuato, 274 kilometers north of Mexico City. At 1,920 meters high, it is impervious to summer heat waves.

A gracious town to behold, San Miguel was founded in 1542 by a Franciscan monk. Today, it is one of Mexico’s most perfectly preserved Spanish colonial cities. It is, and has been since the 1920s, a refuge for artists, writers and filmmakers, both Mexican and foreign, and their influence is felt in the sheer purity of the place. There are no traffic lights, no modern buildings, no billboards, no fast food chains, and no neon signs. Although they (unfortunately) permit cars to drive through the Centro, San Miguel is a walking town.

Greg and I have now made frequent visits to San Miguel de Allende with our two daughters, Indigo and Sofia. I was determined to raise the girls bilingual, so using the excuse that we all need to work on our language skills, we head down during July and the girls go to summer school while I trot off each morning dressed in flowing skirts and a hippy book bag over my shoulder to attend private lessons. It’s a wonderful life, filled with the verve and lenience of all things Mexican and the exhilaration of having to get by in foreign language. The Mexicans are exuberant, tolerant people. They delight in gringo attempts at their language, but when words fail and pantomime is called for, they play along with gusto.

Despite 8,000 of the towns’ 80,000 residents being ex-pats—impecunious New York writers, outdoorsy Californian retirees, and rich, turquoise-wearing Texans—San Miguel remains a very Mexican place. Indian women walk the narrow streets in embroidered shirts, covering their heads with woven rebozo shawls and carrying baskets of cactus leaves to eat for dinner. Men wear the proverbial straw cowboy hat, flamboyant silver belt buckles and pointy-toed boots. Tortillas, stuffed squash blossoms and pupusas sell on street corners, and shopping is done in the markets, where tuberoses and mangoes sell for roughly the same price.

The houses of San Miguel are not the vivid colors typically associated with Mexico. Instead, they are lime washed in transparent terracotta, pale yellow, spearmint green and indigo blue, with bougainvillea bursting forth from every rooftop patio. Dozens of these crumbling, four-hundred-year-old façades have been brought back to life by a gringo-gone-native or a local merchant. And within these remodeled walls are epicurean restaurants, hip bars, chic shops, notable art galleries and funky espresso cafés.

San Miguel’s streets are rough cobblestone, climbing past houses hidden behind high stucco walls, carved wooden doors, iron knockers and scrolled lanterns. In the very center of town is the Jardin—the plaza where locals congregate for an almost nightly fiesta with mariachis, drummers, firecrackers, toy peddlers, and very often a religious procession or two.

Being predominantly Catholic, the town heaves with churches, ornately kitted with the requisite silver and velvet and statues of beatific Virgin Mary’s and stricken Jesuses. The pageantry of these churches belies their cool calmness in a town that seems to celebrate 24 hours a day.

The Jardin fronts La Parroquia, the town’s mini-cathedral. The late-17th century, pseudo-Gothic Parroquia narrowly escaped a fate of unbearable kitschness. A "grotesque gothesque" fairytale castle of carved pink stone spires, pillars and archways, it is the town centerpiece and you grow to love it.

Language, art and cuisine schools abound. It’s hard to imagine a more romantic setting to study Spanish, painting, ceramics, photography, music or cooking. The Instituto Allende, where I studied, was built in 1734 and was formerly the home of one of San Miguel’s wealthiest Spanish families. The whitewashed building sweeps around a tiled courtyard and a marble fountain. Pillared corridors and internal patios lead to cathedral-ceiling classrooms where world-renown artists and writers congregate to teach.

Although I can now communicate quite effectively, my handle on Spanish lacks… subtlety. During a lesson this past summer, my tutor, a slight, mannered young man, shyly advised me that to say “Tengo caliente” did not, in fact, mean “I’m hot.” Rather it translates to something more along the lines of “I’m horny.” Or when Indigo, my six year old (who speaks fluently), announced, “Mama, you just asked the nanny to comb my hair with a penis.” In Spanish, much lies in single letter.

Typically, we rent a house for a month and settle in for the life of leisure. The marvelous thing about a house in Mexico is that most have every convenience, they are decorated well, and best of all, they come with a housekeeper who cleans, cooks and launders. The really upscale houses come with a cook, a maid and a groundskeeper. They are an excellent and affordable option to hotels.

Our days in San Miguel go like this: I rise each morning, don a flowing skirt, several heavy necklaces and a large hat and waft off to sit in the flower-filled patio with my tutor, lulled by a recaptured sense of student reverie. This reverie vanishes shortly thereafter when I collect the girls and several of their friends from school and proceed to a rowdy lunch at a taqueria. Greg spends the morning mountain bike riding the 800 miles of surrounding single (donkey) track, jogging through the lovely Botanical Gardens above town, or playing tennis at a nearby hotel. In the afternoons we take the mandatory siesta, after which girls take riding lesson at an estancia, the graceful, hacienda-style ranches with impeccable stables and highly bred horses. The Spaniards left their love of the equestrian along with their bloodline.

In the evening, we stay in and eat the cook’s dinner, or eat out at one of the dozens of restaurants serving genuine Mexican food (tortilla soup, pork mole, tequila chicken) or international cuisine (everything from sushi to beef Wellington). Many an evening winds up on someone’s rooftop garden, one of my favourite being at the house of our friends Tony Cohan and Masako Takahashi. Tony wrote a bestselling book, On Mexican Time, where he describes falling in love with San Miguel and surrendering his life in LA to remodel a collapsed colonial villa. These days it is one of the most elegant and folk art filled houses in all of San Miguel.

On one recent evening, as I was sauntering the Jardin with a girlfriend, we spotted a dashing young man wearing chaps and a cowboy hat, with a palomino at his side. “I am Mauricio,” he said with a devastating smile. “I take people riding outside of town. Would you like to go?” Who could refuse such an offer, even when one must pay $50 for the privilege?

The next day we spent three hours cantering through the countryside with Mauricio the Delicio. We rode past Viejo San Miguel (Old San Miguel) and the quaintly ancient, but still functioning Casqueros Chapel, built in 1630 by hopeful Spanish missionaries. We rode through the fertile grass of the Lakes District, past small children herding goats, braided women picking corn, and old men astride drowsy donkeys. We skirted the lake with its resident snowy egrets and trotted down dusty trails bristling with cacti. It was the perfect way to see pastoral Mexico.

Life in San Miguel is so easy and pleasant that the sole tribulation is illness. One wrong bite and you are intimately familiar with the town’s loos. The sole upside of contracting Montezuma’s Revenge is the town’s handsome young doctor, known simply as Doctor Gorgeous, who has amassed a small fortune making house calls. No one knows his real name. Under his inspiration, many a poorly gringa has managed to whack a bit of lipstick on her quaking lips before the good doctor arrives to diagnose yet another case of tourista belly.

Other than the occasional bout with tourista, San Miguel has offered us more than our original list of desires could possibly have encompassed. It’s la dulce vida, even if I still occasionally say something nasty quite by accident.

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