Any number of flattering adjectives describe one of Mexico’s most popular travel destinations: vibrant, serene, idyllic, or simply drop-dead gorgeous. San Miguel de Allende provides stunning eye appeal, pleasant year round temperatures, brilliant blue skies and dazzling clouds.
In 2008, UNESCO was so taken with San Miguel de Allende that the 64-square block of El Centro was named a World Heritage site (along with the Sanctuary of Jesús Nazareno de Atotonilco, a few miles outside of town). Among the reasons UNESCO cited were preservation of the Baroque and Neo Gothic architecture and the city’s efforts to retain its historical feel. You won’t find parking meters, traffic lights, fast food chains, or stop signs in the central city.
What you do find is a riot of color, cobblestone streets, neatly trimmed trees in inviting plazas, pavers set in concrete that serve as sidewalks and building facades preserved in the style of their original era. Ignore the vehicles and buses and San Miguel de Allende takes you back to another time and place.
The town’s fortunes ebbed and flowed, but in the mid 1940s San Miguel de Allende’s most famous American expatriate, Stirling Dickinson, put the town on the map for artists and writers.
More recently, quaint charm has become a land rush as Americans, Canadians and Mexicans flock here, driving up real estate prices and transforming a once-sleepy town into a sometimes-crowded community of well over 100,000 people. (Population figures are hard to nail down as the total figure of 140,000 people includes the entire municipality, or county.)
There are anywhere from 10,000 to 12,000 expats who live here. And with upwards of 250,000 visitors a years, summer weekends transform San Miguel de Allende into something of an awkward attempt at Mexico Disneyfication, replete with traffic congestion, visitors anxious to squeeze in every activity and vendors hawking wares. For example, the Parish Church, across from El Jardin, is the most photographed churches in Mexico and a wildly popular venue for weddings.
Walking anywhere in town demands your attention. The stone pavers are uneven and there are occasional holes in sidewalks that often narrow to a couple of feet in width. In some parts of the city dog droppings remain until the next good rain. But cabs are easy to catch and as of this writing, local, in-town rides run about 40 pesos.
San Miguel de Allende is a compact city and can be noisy – from the eruption of fireworks (so popular, first-timers wonder if a firefight has broken out), church bells (one guide suggested as many as 40 churches, chapels and temples are here), and ever-increasing vehicle noise (motorcycles and four-wheel ATVs can shatter a serene moment or afternoon nap). Increased urbanization is beginning to affect air quality from the vehicles along with lax air quality enforcement from operations such as brick kilns that feed the area’s booming home construction.
But whatever negatives the city struggles with there are many pluses that make this a enchanting destination. For example, fiestas abound and many weekends there is a party with music and festive costumes. And a strong law enforcement presence keeps locals and tourists safe.
The town’s reputation as Mexico’s number two food city (after Mexico City), is proven time and again; from trendy and creative restaurants, any one of the well-regarded street vendors, or a family eatery that serves simple, but scrumptious local fare.
Beyond the museums, art galleries, shops and markets, other nearby attractions offer a chance to appreciate the local culture and the area’s rich history; Cañada de la Virgen and its ancient temple, the Botanical Gardens, the orchid garden Los Pocitos, and the hot springs at either La Gruta or Escondido Place (just a short cab ride from El Centro). And the Biblioteca Publico in El Centro has the second-largest English language book collection in Mexico.
San Miguel de Allende is many things, but most of all it is a city well worth the visit. Like many, you may fall in love and stay for the rest of your life.