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, 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, in part, be 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 in comfort for a while – 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.
Don’t leave San Miguel without visiting the mesmerizing Sala Quetzal inside La Biblioteca, all four walls smothered with exuberant murals by artist David Leonardo (born in Mexico City in 1963). Inspired by Mesoamerican art, the swirling images are a barrage of colours, peoples and symbols, depicting aspects of Mexican history. The room is open during library hours, but no photos are allowed.
Like most of Mexico, Easter (Semana Santa) is the biggest celebration in San Miguel, but September is a more interesting month for visitors: on Independence Day (Sept 16) crowds gather to celebrate with fireworks, dances, bullfights and a rodeo. The most important town fiesta is of San Miguel Arcángel, two days of processions, concerts, traditional dancing, bullfights and ceremonies around September 29, St Michael’s traditional feast day. The other major saint's day is the Fiesta de San Antonio de Padua (June 13), with a colourful parade for one of the town’s patron saints, St Antony of Padua, involving a procession of garishly dressed revellers known as “Los Locos” (the Crazies).
Film and music festivals also pepper the year in San Miguel, kicking off with the Guanajuato International Film Festival (third week of July), a week-long short-film festival hosted jointly by San Miguel and Guanajuato. The quarter-century-old Festival Internacional de Música de Cámara (first two weeks in Aug) features a range of performances by internationally acclaimed musicians. The Festival Internacional de Jazz & Blues (last week of Nov/first week Dec) includes two shows nightly by international performers at various locations in town from M$250 up. At other times, check out the programme at the Teatro Ángela Peralta at Mesones 82 (415 152 2200), which typically hosts ballet, theatre and occasional performances of classical music throughout the year.
One of the easiest and most enjoyable outings from San Miguel is to spend a good part of the day at one of the local hot springs, where the warm thermal waters are ideal for soaking your bones. There are numerous hotels and mini-resorts with geothermal pools all around the area, but the best and easiest to reach are clustered around ten minutes’ drive northwest of town on the road to Dolores Hidalgo. The Santuario de Jesús Nazareno de Atotonilco and enigmatic Cañada de la Virgen are equally enticing cultural attractions, while the intriguing half-deserted settlement of Mineral de Pozos and historic towns of Dolores Hidalgo and San José Iturbide make easy and absorbing excursions.
On the night of September 15, 1810, Padre Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and some of his fellow leaders of the Independence movement, warned by messengers from Querétaro that their intention to raise a rebellion against Spanish rule had been discovered, decided to bring their plans forward. At dawn on September 16, Hidalgo, tolling the church bell, called his parishioners together and addressed them from the balcony of the church with an impassioned speech ending in the Grito de la Independencia, “¡Mexicanos, Viva México!” This cry is now repeated every year by the president in Mexico City and by politicians all over the country at midnight on September 15, as the starting point for Independence Day celebrations. September 16 remains the one day of the year when the bell in Dolores Hidalgo’s parish church is rung; however, the bell in place today is a copy of the original, which was either melted down for munitions or hangs in the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City, depending on which story you believe.
Dolores Hidalgo is home to the country’s most unusual ice-cream flavours: Mexicans come in droves to the Plaza Principal to lick scoops of creamy alfalfa, mole, cerveza, shrimp and avocado (fortunately most vendors let you sample before you commit to a full cone). Try popular stalls Helados Aguilar or Helados Josué.
Only one first-class bus goes to Querétaro (M$42) and Mexico City (M$292) per day.
Fifty kilometres or so from both Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende, DOLORES HIDALGO is as ancient and as historically rich as either of its southern neighbours. This was Father Hidalgo’s parish, and it was from the church in the main plaza here that the historic Grito de la Independencia (“Cry of Independence”) was first issued in 1810. The town celebrates the event annually with the Fiestas de Septiembre, ten days of cultural and sporting events, music and fireworks, culminating with the Grito around dawn on the sixteenth.
Perhaps because of its less spectacular location or maybe because there is no university or major language school, Dolores hasn’t seen a fraction of the tourist development that has overtaken other places in the Bajío (despite being named yet another Pueblo Mágico in 2002). It’s a good bet, though, for a one-night stopover, and if you can’t find accommodation in Guanajuato or San Miguel, this is certainly the place to head; you’ll get a better room here for appreciably less. True, there is less to see, but it’s an elegant little town and thoroughly Mexican.