San Miguel de Allende: A Colonial, Artsy Town Rich In Culture, Pageantry and Expats

Parroquia of San Miguel de Allende at night – Best Places In The World To Retire – International LivingWhen starting from where we stayed in our planned community in the agricultural countryside (“campo”), we would drive into the center (centro) of San Miguel de Allende in one of two ways, depending on whether we wanted to enter from the north or from the southwest.
If we wanted to visit from the north, we would turn directly onto Highway 51, which from the gates of where we were staying at Los Labradores is a modern two-lane highway with cars, trucks and busses passing each in very dangerous fashion on a very modern, asphalt-paved highway at more than 80 miles per hour.  At another planned community called Ventanas de San Miguel (this one, complete with its own golf course), we would continue straight, then make a gentle turn to the right, go over a bridge, and join these very same vehicles suddenly rambling along at the more traditional 5 miles per hour on cobblestone roads.
If we wanted to enter from the southwest, we would do so via a roundabout next to a modern, very large grocery store called La Comer, which is completely at visual odds with what we would see as we exited the roundabout and ascended up the hill, on cobblestone roads and heavy pedestrian traffic, towards San Miguel de Allende’s iconic and otherworldly parish cathedral: the Parroquia.
Jet Metier on the street in San Miguel de Allende – Best Places In The World To Retire – International LivingRelatively small and compact, if you live in centro or near the city center of San Miguel de Allende, you really don’t need a car, and you may not want one.  If it’s not a holiday (but there are lots of holidays) you can usually find a public parking lot, and the price to park is a reasonable 20 pesos (US $1) per hour. Other than these few lots, however, there are precious few places to park on the narrow, often one-way cobblestone streets, taxis are everywhere, and for many purposes, it would be more trouble to use a car than just to walk or hail a taxi. There are no traffic signals in San Miguel de Allende.  For one reason, traffic moves too slowly to require any.
Visiting San Miguel de Allende is like experiencing a European colonial town without ever leaving the Central Mexican Highlands. As you increasingly move towards the city center, San Miguel de Allende’s street visible neoclassical colonial architecture is increasingly controlled / protected by the government.  There are no buildings tall enough to obscure the Parroquia, and you are not allowed to build or remodel in just any type of architectural style you would like.  You see balconies and beautifully hand carved casings for windows and doors, mostly in stone.
The mostly stone construction has a heavy, sturdy, block-like feel, which gives you the impression that it has been there for many generations before us and will continue to be there long after we’re all gone.  Architectural and artistic details are everywhere, and there are enough trees, vines and flowers visible mostly from inner Jet Metier at Rosewood Hotel in San Miguel de Allende – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Livingcourtyards to create an overall park-like feel.  The color palate rarely deviated from desert / earth tones seen in fall leaves: ochre, adobe, rust, and burnt orange. While we were told that McDonald’s was run out of town, San Miguel de Allende does have a Starbucks, right on the corner of the Parroquia and the central Jardin (“garden”; central square), but it blends in beautifully and is tastefully done.
As you walk through the town of San Miguel de Allende, you will see homes that have walls right up against the sidewalk with a single, non-descript door and some with a gate for a vehicle.  If you are lucky enough to be walking by as the door or gate is open, you may catch a glimpse of a ruin, you may see an elegant courtyard with perfectly manicured bushes, a koi pond and a home worthy of architectural digest, or you may glimpse a perfectly reconstructed colonial gem.  If it’s a hotel, you may find yourself admiring a $40,000 chandelier, flanked by statuary, high-end, indirect lighting and marble.  Or, you may not; you may see the home of an average local family.  You never know what’s behind the doors in San Miguel de Allende.  (In this video, Jet Metier takes us on a tour of a San Miguel de Allende residential street.)
You could say that art is in the genes of the expat community of San Miguel de Allende, and that these genes have largely fashioned San Miguel de Allende into what it is today, for Mexicans and foreigners alike.  San Miguel de Allende has a modern Chuck Bolotin walking on a street in San Miguel de Allende – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Livinghistory rooted in the arts and intertwined with the arrival of larger groups of Americans.
Just prior to World War II, when some prominent Americans established a few art schools in the area, San Miguel de Allende was an obscure, sparsely populated and rarely visited, mostly uncelebrated town.  After World War II, the US instituted the GI Bill, which, among other things, would pay for school for qualified servicemen and servicewomen.  Somehow, the schools in San Miguel de Allende qualified to accept GI Bill tuition reimbursement.  As servicemen and servicewomen moved to San Miguel de Allende to study art, many never left.  Thus was born the larger foundation of the foreigner art community in this Central Mexican Highland town, which led to a wholesale revival of what was just prior, a small, insignificant and somewhat remote outpost.  Much more recently, San Miguel de Allende has been re-discovered by wealthy Mexicans as an architectural and cultural gem and to a large extent, as a prized and much coveted location for destination weddings, several of which we caught glimpses of just while walking around.
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San Miguel de Allende is a town of processions and celebrations, and if you would like, you can usually join in.  We witnessed several at the Jardin in front of the Parroquia, and others either spontaneous or planned.  When walking back to our parking spot one day, we happened across Parque Juarez, which is less than a 10-minute walk from centro.  Amongst the sounds of kids playing on the playground Woman putting on makeup for Day of the Dead San Miguel de Allende – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Livingequipment, we could hear live music.  Curious, as we moved towards it, we saw an entire strolling band, complete with at least four guitars, a tambourine, drums, what I assume was an accordion, singing, masked paraders and dancing women made up as “catrinas” (traditional outfit for Dia de Muertos – Day of the Dead).  It was all great fun, made even more so by the fact that we had just run into it.  This spontaneity and the wonder of these types of happenstance celebrations occur all the time in San Miguel de Allende.  Not only do you never know what’s behind any particular door, but you also don’t know what celebration you’ll see or even be part of next.  (You can see the video of this Dia de Muertos / Day of the Dead celebration in San Miguel de Allende here.)    
The Parque Juarez is just a few minutes walk from the Rosewood hotel, which is in one of the higher end sections of San Miguel de Allende.  The inside of the hotel is stately and elegant, and maintains the colonial feel of the area.  The staff is very attentive, and they have a rooftop restaurant with a great view of the city, especially at sunset, which we experienced firsthand.  If you want a drink there to celebrate, it will set you back about US $10.
As opposed to most other places in Mexico, you can get your organic, vegan, non-GMO, free range, imported food in San Miguel de Allende.  When we were there, there was even a decent variety of Jewish Items in a store in San Miguel de Allende – Best Places In The World To Retire – International LivingHigh Holiday foods available for purchase.  You can get all this stuff; it’ll just cost you.  As one indication of how pervasive is the American influence in San Miguel de Allende, you can very easily use TripAdvisor to decide which restaurant to visit, complete with the usual quantity of reviews, in English.  You can eat Vietnamese food on a rooftop garden, like we did. (TripAdvisor said it was good, and it was.)
By Mexican standards, San Miguel de Allende is an expensive place, and it would be fair to say that living there would be more expensive than many average US cities.  However, not all areas of San Miguel are, by Mexican standards, extremely expensive.  There are enclaves a 10 – 15 minute walk to centro that are more middle-class neighborhoods, with moderately priced restaurants.
Buffet in San Miguel de Allende – Best Places In The World To Retire – International LivingAlso, if you look around, not everything is expensive.  My wife, Jet ate at an all you can eat buffet (certainly one of her favorite styles) about two blocks from the Parroquia for 75 pesos (about US $3.50) for lunch, and liked it a lot.  Not to be outdone, I found a gorditas restaurant also about two blocks from the Jardin.  Utilizing masterful marketing, they had their food facing the street, pretty much butt up against the sidewalk and impossible to miss, so I was intrigued and walked in.  Two gorditas (more than enough), for 20 pesos ($1) each, and a huge drink for 15 pesos (75 cents).  Feeling full and especially satisfied with my $2.75 lunch experience, I purchased the meal an elderly, poorer Mexican woman with a cane who sat at a table across the way and who kept smiling at me who had already ordered but not yet paid.  Cost to be a hero for an afternoon—30 pesos ($1.50).  You can have this experience or Jet’s all you can eat extravaganza, or walk a few blocks and go to the top of the Rosewood Hotel for a solitary cocktail and rooftop view of the town—for $10.  (Guacamole was probably around $4 or $5; I don’t remember.)
Jet Metier at Aurora Fabrica in San Miguel de Allende – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living
If you really love San Miguel de Allende, you can manage to live there on a modest budget.  We met many single women living in San Miguel de Allende, and even with the relatively higher costs, it is quite possible to live inexpensively.  For example, you could rent a one bedroom apartment right near centro, not have a car, have very limited utility expenses and very limited healthcare expenses.  The rest is left over to enjoy the restaurants, art galleries and general feel of life in a famous colonial city with lots of restaurants and art galleries, alive with colorful Mexican pageantry.
Even though there are LOTS of English-speaking foreigners, San Miguel de Allende is still a Mexican town.  In addition to the foreign visitors, there are busloads of Mexican tourists, and you can still hear and see Mexican schoolchildren in their uniforms playing right next to the Parroquia after school lets out.
We were in San Miguel de Allende during Dia de Muertos.  Occurring at roughly the same time as Halloween, there are a few similarities.  However, in many other ways, Dia de Muertos is completely different.  In high-level summary, it is a day to remember those who have passed.  In public spaces and in private homes, we saw many altars dedicated to remembrance of loved who were no longer with us.  On or around these highly decorated altars were many times a picture of the deceased, along with some of their favorite items; perhaps even food.
Jet Metier by entryway in San Miguel de Allende – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living
Situated next to what looks like a standard, north of the border park is a series of buildings called the Fabrica Aurora, a factory that was converted into several high-end retail stores.  It is so beautifully and tastefully done that I thought it was a museum.  Confused and a little bit annoyed at the price tags on all these wonderful pieces of artwork at this great new museum I thought I was attending, I asked what I thought was a docent but who turned out to be a retail clerk why so many items were for sale. Even for someone like me, who hates to shop, the Fabrica Aurora is a great place to visit and even spend an entire day.  (Video of Jet Metier describing a Dia de Muertos / Day of the Dead memorial inside the Fabrica Aurora here.)
On this particular day, coming up upon Dia de Muertos, at the entrance to the Fabrica Aurora, they had created a memorial, complete with pictures, favorite drinks, flowers, food, and other items, of artists and patrons who had recently passed.  I spoke with several people who had stopped to give proper reverence and to remember, and who knew the people being memorialized.  It was a beautiful way to connect the past of this artsy city with its present and future.
In the next story, we compare San Miguel de Allende with Ajijic.

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