The ancient town of San Miguel de Allende—founded in 1542, making it Mexico’s oldest colonial town—is buried like a chest of rubies and pearls deep in the central mountains: Bathed in eternal sunshine, a world-class art school, candy-colored haciendas & savory scents of cinnamon-and-sugar-doused churros wafting down its cobblestone streets, has become an oasis for the world’s most inspired travelers, adventurers & artists. TREATS! channels the mix of storybook lanes of art galleries, sun-dappled courtyards, firecracker nights, candlelit rooftop cocktails & Audrey Hepburn’s former fit model at Givenchy that all make San Miguel de Allende la Ciudad más Interesante en el Mundo. by Kelly Lee
In a bleary-eyed haze, we drive into the storied sun-swept artist’s oasis that is San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. We arrive from the Los Angeles on a direct three-hour flight at the lonely hour of 3am, keen on seeing what all the fuss is about, but vastly underprepared. After accepting a last-minute invitation to join on a trip to the Central Mexican mountain town, perched a mile above sea level, we can only respond when asked by friends and family, “Is it safe?” with an honest answer: “Guess we’ll find out.”
At the small, modern airport of León-Guanajuato, we are met by a tall, thin teenage boy who timidly holds a sign bearing our names. After some hand-gesturing and soft-spoken broken English and Spanish between us, he escorts us to our car, where we’re greeted by the boy’s father. He’s along for the ride and to help his son, our driver-in-training, navigate the 70-mile journey from León into San Miguel. Along the way, he confesses in perfect English that he hopes his son will choose to join the family business, a business that is in large part buoyed by expats, largely Americans and Canadians, yearning to explore Mexico’s oldest colonial town, San Miguel de Allende, founded in 1542.
We cruise as if on a slow-moving roller coaster, as our timorous driver cautiously traverses Central Mexico’s mountainous, rocky, arid, and mostly empty terrain. Next to him, his proud, dozing father wakes only to direct “a la izquierda” (to the left) or “a la derecha” (to the right) after being jarred out of slumber by the abundant speed bumps, some formed by nature, others by man.
We observe in the early-morning silence the light morph from an ombré gradation of inky indigo, turquoise, and periwinkle to amethyst, amber, and blush. The sun begins to wake, cresting over the hill just as a herd of cattle descends the mountain, brazenly claiming right of way. We sit in the stillness of dawn, waiting patiently, awestruck by the bovine crossing that is both remarkably swift and deliberate.
One and a half hours after our roller coaster ride begins, we enter the narrow cobblestone streets of San Miguel de Allende. Flanked by sinuous rows of ruddy, dulce-colored haciendas, we arrive at our destination. It’s 5am.
We bid our drivers adios and find ourselves, suitcases in hand, standing before a turquoise arched doorway engulfed in spritely fuchsia bougainvillea.
WE HAVE ARRIVED
In the three-story, intensely hued hacienda that we’ve rented through HomeAway along with our companions for just under $90 per night in the San Antonio neighborhood, we climb our way up the lime-painted staircase of Casa de los Amigos to the second story for a languorous siesta in one of two festively appointed bedrooms. Hours later, we awake to find our companions enjoying coffee and local pastries in the courtyard, and soon stumble into town for lunch on a rooftop garden, which we’ll soon learn are plentiful in San Miguel and prime for drinking in the town’s pink-and-gold-flecked sunsets and never-ending fireworks.
Bathed in eternal sunshine, we take in the 360-degree views over elegant, local Mexican fare, the uncomplicated but satisfying flavors, along with a glass or two of wine, to assuage our mild jet lag. We tour the town, beginning with El Jardín, the town’s main plaza, heartbeat, and hub for locals, who can be found quietly observing and chatting atop benches poised beneath tautly manicured laurel trees. On weekends, the Jardín transforms into a boisterous meeting place vibrating with the pulse of young families. Children nibble cinnamon-and-sugar-doused churros while mariachis make merry. Bunting and streamers dance in the wind. Pedestrian walkways surround El Jardín on three sides. On the fourth, we note that the unofficial town car is the classic Volkswagen Bug, as one after another lurches by in candy colors befitting the buildings of San Miguel. We deeply inhale the intoxicating scent of our surroundings—a unique mix of jacaranda and helotes (roasted corn), as we bask in the glow of the pink-granite parish church, La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel. Often compared to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, La Parroquia and its rosy neo-gothic spires feel much less jarring—less fun house—yet equally as awing against the cerulean sky. A street vendor offers us hats for one dollar, but we pass, opting to explore the dusty cobblestone streets in full view of el sol. Vendors are friendly, but refreshingly unobtrusive, only offering their wares once for every “no gracias.” We imbibe the well-preserved Spanish colonial architecture that the 500-year-old town is renowned for, and for which helped earn its designation as an Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008. The baroque buildings and stone streets rival the most enchanting parts of Spain and Italy, including Rome’s charming cobblestoned Trastevere neighborhood and Andalucían Spain’s blissfully unpopulated town of Montejaque. We resolve to see more, but for now we must prepare for the evening’s activities: dinner, drinks, and live music with local expats. We drive to the outskirts of San Miguel de Allende, past a Mega grocery store and a multiplex movie theatre—San Miguel is growing—to meet our guides and companions for the night. A Swiss-German couple welcomes us into their home, an elegantly rambling estate they purchased over 30 years ago solely because it had a phone line, and which they renovated extensively 10 years ago when they made San Miguel their full-time residence. Over martinis and champagne on the patio, we learn their stories: he a retired CEO, she Audrey Hepburn’s former fit model at Givenchy; they first visited San Miguel for a week, each subsequent visit growing longer, eventually leading to the acquisition of a vacation home, which ultimately became their permanent residence. After living all around the world, there was nowhere else the pair would rather be than San Miguel de Allende.
THEY ARE NOT ALONE
The baroque buildings and stone streets rival the most enchanting parts of Spain and Italy, including Rome’s charming cobblestoned Trastevere neighborhood and Andalucían Spain’s blissfully unpopulated town of Montejaque. With the public relations and marketing assistance of American artist and writer, William Stirling Dickinson, a transplant from Chicago, they began advertising the school in the United States as a place where veterans on the GI Bill could study and live the good life. The pair, along with former Guanajuato governor, Enrique Fernández Martínez, and Nell Harris, Fernandez’ wife, went on to found another art school, the Instituto Allende, which has become one of the city’s main draws, furthering San Miguel’s reputation as an international art destination. Over the next week, we visit the Instituto, exploring its sculpture studio and Diego Rivera murals. We inquire about classes; the spell has been cast. We’re already planning our next trip, perhaps a permanent one. Afternoons are enjoyed languidly ambling through town, discovering all of San Miguel’s many charms. Despite the high stuccoed walls that line the cobbled streets, which at first seem foreboding and exclusive, we dare to peek behind them. Doors open to enchanting finds: sweet-smelling bakeries, bed and breakfasts, sun-dappled courtyards serving lunch, even world-class hotels like Rosewood San Miguel de Allende, which attracts Mexico City’s chic-seekers and where rooms easily go for upwards of $300 per night. The mix of cosmopolitan and historical is a powerful concoction. We stroll the storybook lanes and discover galleries of art where the stories often outshine the brushstrokes. A gallerist opens her doors—and more. A transplant from Connecticut who tired of the harsh winters, she’s wistful as she gives us a tour of her gallery and home, which is soon to be minimized—not by choice—due to a wobbly legal system. Though her fight against an admittedly corrupt government was for naught, she had plenty of support from fellow expats. “It’s easy to find community here as an outsider, as a gringo,” she explains. “Other expats see you and say ‘Oh, you’re one of us. How can I help?’” Sometimes, she admits, the help that is offered is more than one needs. A group of friends, a mature “ladies who lunch” crowd, advised she could fix the problem another way: by finding someone in a neighboring town infamous for hitmen. “I politely passed,” she relays. While she decided to turn the other cheek, it must be asked: “Is it worth it?” The answer is a resounding yes. “San Miguel de Allende is home,” she states matter of fact.
AND SO IT IS
More than a destination, San Miguel de Allende is an experience, often a transformative one. The rest of our visit consists of a routine as breezy as the big blue sky. We wake late, brunch in our courtyard, then head out to explore by foot or $3 cab ride the sights and sounds San Miguel has to offer. Fábrica La Aurora, a former turn-of-the-century textile mill that now houses art galleries and design shops is a highlight. Some days, our al fresco adventures lead us to neighboring towns like the tiny 600-person village of Atotonilco to explore places like El Santuario de Atotonilco, known as the “Sistine Chapel of Mexico.” Along the way, we pass vaqueros on horseback and creased faces moving their flocks of sheep. We then enjoy a leisurely lunch in a hidden courtyard, head home for a siesta, waking in time to take in the magical sunsets from our rooftop garden. A delicious meal—anything from Italian pasta to Argentine steak—often accompanied by live music, rounds out the days, the ideal mix of exploration and inspiration. We see all of the town’s main sights, but as with love, if asked why you adore your object of affection—the truthful answer comes down to an inexplicable feeling. The feelings San Miguel evokes are: inspired, enchanted, ready to pick up and move. Which, begs the question: “Do you feel safe?” Overwhelmingly. Well insulated from the violence plaguing the border towns of Mexico, what at first sound like gunshots reverberating through San Miguel de Allende are quickly determined to be firecrackers, which are set off for celebrations of all kind, many religious and ceremonial. At all hours, day and night. Expats joke that firecrackers are set off for the brushing of one’s teeth. Indeed, there’s much to celebrate in San Miguel de Allende. Though some fear that too many visitors could lead to the Fisherman’s Wharfication of San Miguel, the real locals—the Mexicans who have been living in San Miguel for ages—don’t begrudge the expat and tourist influx. In fact, most welcome it, acknowledging just how much the dollars help San Miguel’s economy. It’s one reason that, unlike its other Mexican town counterparts, San Miguel de Allende is flourishing. San Miguel feels like a secret you want to keep to yourself, but you’re just too excited to share. The secret’s out. But, go, go now. Just in case.