Set on a steep hillside overlooking the Río Laja and dominated by red rooftops and domed churches, SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE is the most hauntingly beautiful town in the Bajío. The colonial centre remains wonderfully preserved architecturally, and still serves as the spiritual centre of the Mexican community – seen at dawn its cobbled, hilly streets are quite unlike anything else in the region. There are few major sights, but the whole town (which has been a national monument since 1926, hence no new buildings, no flashing signs and no traffic lights) is crowded with old seigniorial mansions and graceful churches.
Unsurprisingly, San Miguel’s appeal has not gone unnoticed. Today it serves as a picture-perfect version of Mexico for hundreds of artists and writers, as well as flocks of foreign students drawn to the town’s several language and arts schools. More visibly, it has attracted a large population of US and Canadian expats (mostly retirees) and property prices here are on a par with San Francisco (a Starbucks even graces the plaza). Though the connection goes back to the 1940s, the latest influx can be, in part, attributed to Tony Cohan’s popular book On Mexican Time (published in 2000), which tells the story of a writer and his artist wife who abandon smog-ridden Los Angeles for a quieter life in San Miguel, where they restore an old house, learn the local lifestyle and are slowly seduced by the colonial city’s unique charm. Now something like ten percent of the population are foreigners, some ten thousand of whom live in the vicinity more or less permanently, generally in peaceful co-existence with the locals.
For all its popularity, the town is a pleasant place to rest up for a while in comfort – assuming you have plenty of cash. The country hereabouts is still ranching territory, though even this is increasingly being taken over by tourist activities: attractions include hot springs, a nearby golf course, horseriding at a couple of dude ranches and mountain-biking.