A Small Town in Mexico

The hourlong drive to San Miguel de Allende from the nearest airport, in León, winds through the arid altiplane known as El Bajio, a rolling relief of rocky hills and ravines dotted with green bursts of mesquite and cactus, all unfolding beneath an endless sky. Along the way, isolated figures crop up in the middle of nowhere--a boy riding a burro, a farmer tending a patch of corn. They seem like mirages, and so does San Miguel when it first appears in the distance: a garden of stone blooming with spires and domes, like a hill town transplanted from the Old World to the New.

Mexico's colonial cities are among its great treasures, and San Miguel de Allende, 180 miles northwest of Mexico City, is the crown jewel. Founded by a Franciscan friar in 1542, it began as a dusty frontier outpost, then flourished in the 1700s on the flood of silver from the region's rich mines. In 1926, the town was declared a national historic monument, adding the force of law to the effect of decades of benign neglect. In the United States, whose history spans just over 200 years, such places are restored to quaint perfection, but not in Mexico, where civilization stretches back more than 2,000.

In a time of global tension and confusion, when so much of the world seems problematic if not off-limits, San Miguel stands apart. For many it is the long-sought balm in Gilead: a vortex of great, even ravishing, physical beauty and grand architecture and folk art. It is exotic, accessible, deeply spiritual, and amazingly entertaining.

From dawn until midnight, peals of bells from church and clock towers float over San Miguel, some calling the nuns at La Concepción to morning prayers, others jubilantly celebrating fiestas and holidays. The biggest bell of all, La Luz, cast in bronze and gold, rings out a magnificently pure, commanding tone from La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, plunked down in the square at the heart of town like a rocket ship out of Jules Verne, poised to blast the faithful into heaven. A parish church in the 17th century, the Parroquia was transformed into a pseudo-Gothic confection of spun-sugar spires and turrets in the late 1800s by a stonemason working from postcards of European cathedrals. (It's said that because the pictures showed only cathedrals' facades, he left the back of the church rather plain, as if the frosting ran out before the cake was done.) Below it, a tree-shaded park, el jardín, serves as the community's outdoor living room.

Fanning out from the central plaza are narrow cobblestone streets punctuated with inviting squares and impressive churches. The town's architecture spans centuries, sometimes all in one building, resulting in wildly imaginative stylistic hybrids like the Parroquia. Another example is the Church of San Francisco. Its mid-18th-century facade is a superb example of the churrigueresque style, considered the purest expression of Mexican mysticism since the pre-Columbian friezes it unintentionally echoed. Saints, cherubs, vines, and virgins vie for space on its tapering columns--in abrupt contrast with the church's neoclassical bell tower and chaste interior, which were completed later, following Europe's rejection of Baroque excesses.

The charm of San Miguel's architecture is echoed in the vivid colors painted on the high walls lining its sloping streets. These aren't the bright candy hues of coastal Mexico but deeper, earthier shades: terra-cotta, maroon, ocher, chocolate brown, dark green, and the intense blue known as azul añil, said to ward off evil spirits. This eye-pleasing palette is yet another aspect of the town's tremendous tradition of craftsmanship and artistry. You see it everywhere--in imposing facades with hand-tooled doors or carved-stone surrounds, in bands of tiles or wrought-iron grilles and balconies.

These design details make San Miguel marvelous to explore, as does the town's simpatico scale. In Parque Benito Juárez, stately old trees shade winding paths and beds bright with lilies. Nearby is an open-air lavandería--surely the loveliest in Mexico--where locals wash their laundry in stone tubs. Across the way, stairs zigzag up to a waterworks atop El Chorro spring.

The relaxed pace has long lured foreigners, including a good number of Americans (people say it reminds them of what the United States was like half a century ago). Sunshine is plentiful, and the climate--at an elevation of 6,300 feet--nearly perfect. San Miguel's expat community is strong; still, most visitors are Mexicans who cherish the town's historic role in the struggle for independence from Spain. One of the leading patriots was Captain Ignacio Allende, for whom the city was named. Another was Father Miguel Hidalgo, a rebel priest who launched a revolt in neighboring Dolores (now Dolores Hidalgo) on September 16, 1810, with a fiery proclamation known as El Grito de Dolores, which today is reenacted on that date in towns all across Mexico. Allende and Hidalgo were captured and executed; San Miguel was sacked and, for the next decade, overrun by royalists, insurgents, and, in the words of one historian, "just plain bandits masquerading as one or the other." By the 1820s, when independence was finally achieved, the city's onetime prosperity had faded into memory.

In the decades that followed, much of San Miguel's 18th-century architecture fell into decay, but that only enhanced the romance of the place. Behind the weathered street facades is a beguiling "other" world, revolving around the Spanish concept (inspired by Moorish design) of inner courtyards. Adorned with plants and fountains, bordered by vaulted arcades and columned galleries that often serve as open-air living rooms, these spaces are the private version of the public plaza. Inside even dilapidated colonial houses one often finds corbeled beams, carved-stone fireplaces and balustrades, colorful tilework, sculpted plaster, and other grace notes of the past. Most have harmonious proportions, high ceilings, and thick walls, imparting a sense of solidity. The old casas need work--often a great deal of it--but their reasonable prices and high potential have always been hugely appealing to anyone with an eye for architectural character.

Fort Worth lawyer Elton Hyder Jr. and his wife, Martha, were restoration pioneers in San Miguel. In 1959 they bought a rundown early-18th-century house in the shadow of La Concepción's lofty dome, later acquiring two adjacent properties. Working with architects Patsy Bubela and Christopher Hill, Martha Hyder turned the property into a compound for her large family. Within its high walls are courtyards, gardens, a swimming pool, and loggias that blur the line between the interior and exterior. At once intimate and theatrical, the ten bedrooms mix colonial Mexican furniture and art with pieces from Europe, Morocco, and India. In the kitchen, copper cookware gleams against walls clad in blue-and-white glazed tiles.

In San Miguel, where even the largest houses are still built by hand, craftsmanship didn't need to be revived: It never died out. Mexico's ancient tradition of masonry construction produces buildings as durable as pre-Hispanic pyramids. Many houses have vaulted or domed brick ceilings, known as bóvedas, some skylit by cupolas. Amazingly, these domes are built without wooden forms. Master masons make them by cantilevering one arching course after another with an unerring hand and mortar mixed to a perfect consistency. Skilled local artisans can create custom designs for anything from hand-forged hardware and lighting to massive wooden doors and cabinets. Carvers sculpt pink cantera stone into columns, lintels, and moldings. Plasterers mold conchas, the scalloped shell form (an emblem of religious devotion) that crests countless colonial-style niches and window bays. Tilemakers reproduce colonial patterns or create one-of-a-kind designs in short order.

"The level of craftsmanship is superb," says San Francisco architect Cathi House. She and her husband and partner, Steven, built an award-winning house in San Miguel that's a contemporary interpretation of colonial style, complete with blue-walled, rock-mosaic courtyard, floor-to-ceiling metal-frame windows, and a staircase that could double as sculpture. "It's much easier in Mexico to achieve a personal vision and celebrate the hand of the craftsman. For us, San Miguel is spiritually renewing."

Many people incorporate antique elements salvaged from abandoned houses and haciendas into their homes. At her shop on calle Sollano, Marcia Brown, a Texas designer who moved here a dozen years ago, sells both antiques and reproductions, including distinctive chip-carved furniture that emulates 17th-century Spanish pieces. The furniture and an array of jewelry designed by her daughter Kelli are created at the 17th-century hacienda Brown restored north of town, where four generations of her family now live. "We have made it a working hacienda again," she says. For her interior design clients, Brown creates a colonial Mexican look, "using authentic colors and designs but updated with more and bigger windows and comfortable seating."

"San Miguel is a decorator's dream," says Elizabeth Noël, who sells artisanal textiles and jewelry--Peruvian weavings, embroidered Guatemalan blouses, Chinese baby carriers, Afghan necklaces--that she finds on her travels. While shops such as El Nuevo Mundo and La Calaca focus on high-quality crafts and decorative arts from all over Mexico, Clandestino, Colección Cuatro Vientos, and others augment Mexican pieces like polychrome santos and ex-votos (religious offerings that are often painted on tin) with complementary things from India, China, and elsewhere--a tradition dating back to when Spanish galleons carried Asian goods from Manila to Mexico.

For decades San Miguel has been a haven for artists and writers, including Anita Desai, Beverly Donofrio (author of Riding in Cars with Boys), and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.D. Snodgrass. That bohemian strain dates from the post-World War II period when American veterans studied art on the GI Bill at the Instituto Allende. In 1968, Neal Cassady, immortalized by Jack Kerouac in On the Road, was killed by a train on the tracks south of town (while counting the ties in an amphetamine haze, according to local lore).

"It was always a very social town--lots of dinner parties, fascinating people," says New York photographer Deborah Turbeville, who bought a house here in 1984. The old guard has departed from the scene, but San Miguel remains fertile ground for the arts, with jazz and classical music festivals and a wide range of galleries.

In 1985, writer Tony Cohan and his wife, artist and photographer Masako Takahashi, came to San Miguel from Los Angeles, planning to spend only three weeks. In his book On Mexican Time, Cohan describes how they went back to Los Angeles, sold their house, returned to San Miguel, bought a place, and never looked back.

"When we moved here, San Miguel was sleepier and cheaper--our hotel cost five dollars a night," he says. "Back then, getting a phone line was a major ordeal. Today you can be as wired as you would be in the States."

Since 1993, when Mexican law was changed to allow foreigners to own property outright, real estate prices have risen dramatically. Upmarket boutiques, restaurants, and all that accompanies such global gentrification have replaced some of the old-fashioned charm of the town. But Cohan says he still hears the whistle of the itinerant knife sharpener, and vendors still knock on his door, peddling their flowers, garden soil, woven mats, and blue-corn tortillas. "Some of the town's quirkiness has been lost," he says. "But San Miguel is remote enough, and Mexican enough, to withstand change. The beauty endures."

Jeff Book, Departures' contributing editor for design, wrote about the Mii Amo spa in Sedona, Arizona, for the November/December 2001 issue.

San Miguel de Allende: The Guide

The dry, temperate climate makes the city appealing year-round. From outside Mexico, dial 52-415 before San Miguel phone numbers.

Where to Stay

Hotels within a few blocks of the main plaza:
Casa de Sierra Nevada has handsomely furnished rooms in a cluster of grand colonial houses. There's a large pool as well as a spa. Hospicio 35; 152-0415; fax 152-1436.
Casa de Liza is a restored colonial estate opposite the waterworks of El Chorro. Its elegant suites and villas are full of antiques; the courtyard is lushly landscaped. Bajada del Chorro 7; 152-0352; fax 152-6144; www.casaliza.com.
Casa Quetzal In a departure from colonial style, this renovated townhouse evokes Japan, India, Africa, and other cultures in tastefully designed themed suites, most with fireplaces. Hospicio 34; 152-0501; fax 152-5732; www.quetzalfilms.com/suites.
Villa Scorpio An American-owned B&B, this restored colonial villa has a salon, library, and rooftop terrace. Quebrada 93; 152-7575; www.villascorpio.com.

Where to Eat

Bugambilia serves Mexican fare with flair, from cream of avocado soup to chiles en nogada. Hidalgo 42; 152-0127; fax 152-4382.
El Market Bistro An expat favorite, this French-accented restaurant and bar features classic bistro dishes in a garden courtyard. Hernández Macías 95; 152-3229; fax 152-3140.
La Capilla is the finest restaurant in the city. Set in a former chapel, it offers refined Euro-Mexican cuisine in a stone-walled dining room and on a patio with a view of Parroquia. Cuna de Allende 10; 154-4944; fax 154-4945.
Tio Lucas Caesar salad and grilled beef are specialties at this very popular restaurant. There's live jazz and every possible tequila you could want. Mesones 103; tel/fax 152-4996.

Where to Shop

Artesana Evos has wood and wrought-iron furniture, ceramic tiles, and architectural pieces. Hernández Macías 55; 152-0813.
Clandestino carries Mexican furniture and folk art (including ex-votos), plus handcrafted pieces from places such as India and China. Zacateros 19; 152-1623.
Colección Cuatro Vientos carries owner Milou de Montferrier's high-quality selection of Mexican, European, Middle Eastern, and Asian antiques, objets d'art, jewelry, rustic furniture, and Turkish kilims. The rest of her collection can be seen at her country home by appointment. Hidalgo 4; 152-5185.
Elizabeth Noël sells textiles and jewelry from far-flung cultures at her home. There are Peruvian and Bolivian weavings, embroidered clothing and jewelry from Guatemala and Bolivia. By appointment only. Callejón de Los Muertos 6; 152-6052.
El Nuevo Mundo, near the plaza, has colorful Mexican crafts: woven tablecloths, napkins, and bedspreads, embroidered clothing, baskets, pottery, and painted carved-wood figures. San Francisco 17; 152-6180.
Gallery Plus Harris Cohen presents work by geographically diverse artists, whimsical painted furniture (some of it sold at Neiman Marcus), and his own sterling-silver creations, including jewelry, picture frames, and bar items. Hidalgo 4; 152-2991.
La Calaca The shop's well-chosen selection of antique and contemporary Latin-American folk art includes old lacquerware boxes, furniture, retablos (altarpieces), pottery, ethnic jewelry, paintings, and Day of the Dead skeleton figures as well as textiles from Guatemala, Bolivia, and Peru. Mesones 93; 152-3954.
Marcia Brown offers colonial-era antiques and art in addition to pieces she makes at her hacienda, including chip-carved cabinets and Moroccan-style lanterns. Sollano 16; 154-7069.

Local Guide

Paul Guerin An American expat with an encyclopedic knowledge of local history and lore, Guerin takes charge from the minute he picks you up at the León airport. Phone: 154-7339; e-mail paulguerin@tours-in-mexico.com.

Exploring the Bajio

Near San Miguel are the splendid colonial cities of Guanajuato and Querétaro and the ghostly mining town of Pozos. Perhaps most remarkable of all is Atotonilco, just north of San Miguel, home to natural hot springs and one of Mexico's most amazing churches. Built in 1740, this famous shrine's interior is covered in murals combining religious imagery with poems and homilies. It's a Blakean tour de force, a vast storyboard for a Biblical epic.