We had a hunch what San Miguel de Allende might be like before arrival. We knew it was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 2008 and Conde Nast Traveler Magazine ranked it as the Number One City in the World in 2013. More people from around the world have been drawn to live the dream lifestyle here, some for a week, some permanently. The consequences of such accolades have mixed reviews depending on one’s point of view. Like any desirable place in the world, the volume of tourists and expats will impact the level of services. We’ve been blown away by the quality and quantity of lodging, restaurants, art galleries and specialty boutiques. It is certainly true that this is a stunning and neat city, with cobblestone streets, colonial architecture and enchanting views.
On the other hand, we’ve cringed at loud mouth drunken gringos exiting restaurants they could find back home. After visiting several mainland Mexico destinations with few or no English speakers present, we needed to struggle with Spanish using the cell phone translator/ dictionary. So witnessing an American at the market who apparently really needed some garlic, repeat the word in English over and over more loudly each time to a vendor made us squirm a little. Being intrigued by the dream of living in a Spanish colonial ruin, SMA is certainly out of the question. This place has been discovered and then some. We look at real estate in most places because it’s in our DNA. From what we’ve seen, anything authentic is priced in the stratosphere and in our opinion, so much of the new construction is kind of grotesque in size and imitation. One gated community boasts the elegance of ‘old world’ design within the serenity of a ‘secure’ environment. Hmmm…is that kind of like Mexico but without the Mexicans?
It has been said that artistic expression has made San Miguel. Though the town dates back to the 16th century it is the art that began in the late 30s and 40s that made San Miguel largely what it is today The quantity of art that has been created here is enormous and represents an historic journey of the town. The need for an art-filled museum in which the art history could be documented and used strictly for educational purposes, not sales is the viewpoint held by some. A walking and shopping guide claims that you haven’t ‘shopped’ San Miguel until you’ve been to Fabrica la Aurora. Housed in a century old revitalized cotton mill are creative and stylish art studios, galleries, restaurants, home furnishings, jewelry and antiques. It would be easy to spend hours and hours there and lucky for us we unknowingly booked an Airbnb room in the home of artist Professor Gerardo Ruiz right next door! Gerardo teaches art in the studio connected to his home and it has been a pleasure to experience life surrounded by original art.
El Charco del Ingenio, literally “the Pool of the Mind” is a 220 acre botanical garden which sits above a canyon that drops precipitously into town. Over one hundred years ago the Fabrica, mentioned above, that produced cotton fabric in San Miguel built a damn to create a large reservoir which piped water into the factory to produce electricity and run turbines that were used in production. Both the Fabrica and the reservoir have been repurposed- La Fabrica into an art center and the reservoir, after some silting problems were abated, was turned into the botanical garden dedicated to the conservation of Mexican flora and fauna within the San Miguel urban zone. There is a plethora of birds and waterfowl around the reservoir, a wetland zone and the gardens hold a huge collection of cacti and succulents in a dry chaparral zone. Though we’ve seen most of this plant-life throughout our trip, nowhere else has it been assembled in such an exquisite way and maintained so impeccably.
Beneath the smart B&Bs and international cuisine another Mexico exists. The vibe around the main plaza is mixed and visiting the food market feels more local as are the outer communities. We’ve been told that wealthy Mexicans are also buying and residing in the posh and pricey Centro. There IS A LOT to like and the quality of life is enhanced by the vast selection of everything driven by tourism and expats. It would appear that conserving the city’s cultural heritage while properly managing the economic driver of tourism is key to the long term health and prosperity of San Miguel de Allende-beloved by so many.