When most people think of visiting Mexico, they think of beach resorts or archeological ruins. Places such as Acapulco or Cancun. Or Chichén Itzá or Palenque.
Interesting, pleasant places, to be—all of them nice to visit.
But if you want to experience the real Mexico, you will find what you are searching for in one of the Spanish colonial towns or cities that has retained the flair of Old Mexico. The best one, many agree, is a picturesque small historic colonial town that sits just about smack in the middle of the country in the Bajío mountains of the state of Guanajuato, some 170 miles northwest of Mexico City.
A Historic Town
San Miguel de Allende doesn’t merely look historic—it is genuinely historic. Founded in 1542, it came to be known as San Miguel after Franciscan monk Fray Juan deSan Miguel, who founded it and who was beloved for his work among Indians in the area.
Back then this part of the world was not yet called Mexico; it was part of New Spain. During the war for Mexican independence from Spain in the early 1800s, the city was a center for the opposition, which accounts for why it was renamed San Miguel de Allende to honor a great hero of Mexican independence, Ignacio Allende.
There is much that sets San Miguel de Allende apart from so many of the other places that fit into the Old Mexico category—and it’s not accidental.
The town’s distinctive and highly colorful façades look today as they did at their finest moments, unblemished with any intrusions of a more contemporary appearance, because in 1926 the government of Mexico made it a national monument, thus placing heavy restrictions on altering the town’s historic central district. No new building and no renovation have been, or will be, allowed unless it retains the city’s historic colonial characteristics.
This explains why you can almost sense the history as you walk about San Miguel de Allende. But no matter if you have no particular fondness for history; this is a great place in which simply to walk around.
Not only has the history been preserved, but the true charm of Old Mexico has been captured here. That’s unusual and very special. Lots of cities and towns have historic preservation districts, but generally, they capture just a little bit of the atmosphere.
But walk about the historic central district of this town and it’s all the little things that make such a big difference. Or, more accurately, it’s the lack of all those little things that give it the charm of Old Mexico.
You won’t see a neon sign—not one. Nor any billboards. Nor any traffic lights. Nor even so small a sign of our more modern days as a stop sign.
Charm in Abundance
What you take in instead is true charm—it’s here in abundance. The “greater” San Miguel de Allende town area may have a population of some 80,000, but its central district truly does have the look and feel of a very small town in Old Mexico.
Our visit here centered on enjoying the experiences of staying at a wonderful hotel located just a few blocks away from the town square and each day setting out on different walkabouts to get to know this small town that enjoys such a giant reputation.
Casa De Sierra Nevada, an Orient-Express Hotels property, perfectly reflects its Old Mexico location in every way except that it offers its guests all modern conveniences. It’s a small boutique hotel—only 33 rooms and suites—spread among nine 16th- through 18th-century colonial mansions, each “casa” different from the other eight, each room in any of the nine different from all the other rooms. The smallest “casa” has but two rooms, the largest only six.
Our room was in Casa Principal, an official historical landmark that was the residence of the Archbishop of San Miguel de Allende in the 1580s. Breakfast was a short walk down the stairs and into the open-air courtyard; this dining spot is also one of the best places in town for evening dinner. A couple of evenings we sat out on the private walled rooftop patio that was attached to our room and enjoyed views of the sun setting over Old Mexico.
Almost anytime is a good time to be outside here. Because it is located in the middle of sunny Mexico, and because it sits at an altitude of 6,400 feet above sea level, year-round the town enjoys a temperate climate which is often and appropriately described as idyllic. It varies little and features low humidity and cool mountain breezes.
Wealthy residents of Mexico City, mainly actors and political figures, have long come to this mountain town to escape the heat and frenzy of the big city. The great climate has also drawn people from much further away. A surprisingly high percentage of its residents—some 15 percent—are Americans and Canadians who have settled here because of the weather, pleasant pace, and affordable living.
“It’s just such a charming town,” one expat remarked to us, “and the people here are so very nice.” The expat community is very active in local charities, even running house tours from which profits are earmarked for good causes.
Some of these American and Canadian expats have roots in town that trace back to the days following World War II, when polio scares led many returning GIs to search out healthy spots where to live and raise their families, while others came here in the 1950s, drawn by the burgeoning artists’ colonies, including the renowned Instituto Allende. In recent years the little town’s giant reputation has influenced American and Canadian retirees to flock here.
So while you may be in the middle of Mexico in a town that has the authentic look and feel of Old Mexico, you will find plenty of art galleries, craft stores, and antique shops run by second-generation American and Canadian residents. In one gallery that we visited the owner hailed from our hometown, Raleigh.
This mix of Old Mexico charm and sizeable American and Canadian presence is very appealing to tourists. The language barrier is considerably less of an impediment here than in other Old Mexico spots. And running into so many English-speaking people seems to raise the comfort level. Also adding to the comfort level is the fact that San Miguel de Allende enjoys a reputation as one of the safest towns in Mexico—day and night. All those Americans and Canadians would not be moving here and staying here were it otherwise.
Everything Within Walking Distance
One of the things that made San Miguel de Allende so appealing to us was that we could pretty easily walk from our room at Casa de Sierra Nevada to everything we wanted to see. We say “pretty easily” rather than “easily” for a few reasons. Its narrow streets are cobbled. Sidewalks are narrow. Curbs are set high. And it is, after all, a mountain town, which means many streets have inclines.
Comfortable walking shoes are a must. A popular purchase here among both locals and visitors is a woman’s sandal that was inspired by the town. Called the “San Miguel,” they feature a well-cushioned inner sole, a lug outer sole, and a wide stretch band that helps stabilize the ankle. They are extremely comfortable and viewed as very fashionable.
The cobblestoned streets that we walked along each day made us feel as if we were walking through a sort of museum—an open-air museum. On each side of the narrow street stood palacios—old mansion type of buildings—mostly from the late 1500s through the 1700s. Behind the stone or adobe walls was a great mixture of structures. At one spot behind the façade might lie part of a fine hotel like the Casa De Sierra Nevada. Or there might be an elegant personal residence. Many of the boutique shops and art galleries, and even some restaurants, have a distinctive San Miguel de Allende façade that grips you.
The architecture that surrounds you here is fascinating and in a sense comforting. You feel you are in a safe, relaxing environment where there is time to stop and smell the roses or to just pause a lot and let your eyes feast on the beauty of the place.
Doors and window treatments here are often magnificent sights. So are the colorful buildings that hold them. The Mexican people love colors and have a flair for using them to great effect. Pause and look at a door or a window and the color that surrounds them; in this town, it is often like looking at a fine painting. Further enhancing the beauty of these scenes is the detail work. So many of the doors are very elaborately carved. Some doors have interesting carved figures above them or contain an eye-catching door knocker. Sometimes above a door is a gargoyle, one of those weird, occasionally even grotesque, carved figures. Sometimes part of the door area contains a niche holding a sculpture, often that of a saint.
Sometimes as you walk by some of the town’s colorful walls it looks like someone has imbedded a shell into the wall. These are inverted cockle shells. They are a symbol of Saint James, reminiscent of what you see in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where the pilgrimage honoring that saint was once the world’s third-largest pilgrimage. Spanish Catholic missionaries added this touch to the architecture in places like this in the New World.
Just as Mexican fondness and flair for colors create such a pleasant look along so many streets of San Miguel de Allende, so does the Mexican love of the sight and sound of fountains. They’re ubiquitous. Simple ones. Great tiered ones. Standing in the corners of streets, in the centers of parks, and recessed into walls. The town has more than 40 public fountains—and far, far more private ones.
The town is also known for its fine displays of three other ingredients that go into the making of an attractive Mexican town—churches, columns, and courtyards.
On the main square sits one of the most famous churches in Mexico, the late 17th-century La Parroquia, also called the Parish of San Miguel Arcángel, a landmark whose pink-toned Gothic spires can be seen from most areas in and near town. Its construction was led by a local who taught himself stonemasonry and created the church’s design from studying postcard drawings of some of the great European churches.
As you walk about town you also see plenty of attractive uses of columns of varied materials holding up balconies and patios and helping to give the town its distinct Spanish colonial, Old Mexico aura.
Also right close to you—but most often not visible to you—are all sorts of beautiful courtyards. They go hand in hand with colonial period houses and with the delightful climate. Because of their love of courtyards, many Mexican families can spend time enjoying the outdoors within the privacy of their home, nicely buffered from passersby.
But there is a good way to see a selection of them. Every Sunday local American and Canadian residents operate a highly regarded house and garden tour, which begins at noon from the main library, preceded by local musical entertainment. The proceeds benefit an educational charity for local children.
And a good way to get the feel of the place, besides walking around a lot —and also a good place to just sit and relax awhile—is the small main plaza. Locals gather here to chat or get a shoeshine or buy small gifts from roaming vendors. Some of the scenes we recall while sitting there include men walking by, leading burros whose backs were packed with firewood, and Mexican police officers decked out in colorful uniform riding by on horseback and looking like a scene out of an old movie.
Relaxation is why you come to a place like San Miguel de Allende; of course with its being in Mexico, relaxing is almost mandatory here—every day from 2 p.m.–4 p.m. is set aside for siesta.
With shops being closed during siesta, what we would usually do mid to late afternoon, following lunch, is stop by a small restaurant called San Agustín for a special treat that we have been fond of since our first visit to Spain years ago—hot chocolate served with a fried dough delight called churros. It’s offered here with your choice of Spanish, Mexican, or French chocolate.
Good restaurants are plentiful in this pleasant town, and you can choose from a wide variety of cuisines. But we are of a mind that when in Mexico it is a waste not to enjoy Mexican food at every opportunity.
And when in San Miguel de Allende it is also a waste not to do some shopping—it’s always a highlight for visitors. Mexicans are known for the fine quality workmanship of their goods—pottery, ceramics, weavings, wooden toys and carvings, metalwork and jewelry, lacquer work, basketry, textiles, etc. You won’t have any difficulty locating enough nice shops—and a bonus here is that because it is located in the very center of the country, San Miguel de Allende is an outlet for artisans from every region of Mexico.
Even More Holidays Than Fountains
If you are looking for more things to do, there are usually some cultural events going on, and throughout the year there are all sorts of festivals. It’s a long list: Semana Santa (Easter Holy Week) with its colorful parades; the festivities leading up to Independence Day (Sept. 16); the Winter Classic Music Festival; a Wool & Brass Fair; the International Hall Music Festival; the Jazz Festival; even a local version of the running of the bulls in September called Sanmiguelada. These are just some. Incredibly, this town has even more religious and civic holidays than it has fountains—some 75 of them!
And if you have the time, there are all sorts of programs where you can spend a while—a week, a month, longer—in San Miguel de Allende to take adult education lessons in such areas as Spanish, cooking, painting, and photography.
It’s hard to imagine a more pleasant town in which to settle in for a nice long visit.
Or just to visit for a few days.
If You Go
Information: See VisitMexico.com/en/Main-Destinations/Guanajuato/San-Miguel-de-Allende
Safety: Many of Mexico’s best-known places are best avoided, but San Miguel de Allende is a much better choice, and it’s a good place to experience Old Mexico.
Accommodations: A good variety of accommodations are available. Casa de Sierra Nevada is considered the premier choice.
Getting there: The nearest airport for San Miguel de Allende is an hour and a half drive away in Leon. Casa de Sierra Nevada makes arrangements to pick up guests at that airport or even other airports further away.
Travel tip for peace of mind: If you ever had to be medically evacuated while traveling, it could cost you 10s of thousands of dollars. Many plans that claim they cover this fall far short. My wife and I cover ourselves against this with membership in MedjetAssist.
Guidebooks: The section on San Miguel de Allende in “The Rough Guide to Mexico” is a good introduction with good recommendations.
Fred J. Eckert is a retired U.S. ambassador and former member of Congress. His writings have appeared in many leading publications, including Reader’s Digest and The Wall Street Journal. He is also an award-winning photographer whose collection of images spans all seven continents.