The scenery whizzed past me as I watched from the backseat of a taxi that seemed to be flying across Mexico’s northern highlands. Small trees stubbornly clung to the hills of an otherwise barren undulating landscape, unexpectedly reminding me of scenery from both Italy and Ethiopia. When I wasn’t clutching the door handle, the frenetic 90-minute ride on dusty rural roads from Leon Del Bajío International Airport to San Miguel de Allende–which lies about 160 miles northwest of Mexico City–gave me time to wonder about the artsy and historic town that lay just over one of those peaks.
I’ve always been a bit susceptible to suggestion, especially when traveling solo. This is how I had ended up coming to San Miguel in the first place. But I had no way of knowing that by leaving the pages of the travel guides and just winging it in the days ahead, surprising strands of serendipity would take place, giving this adventure a very personalized and appealing “meant-to-be” quality.
The taxi eventually deposited me safely at the front door of Casa Alegria, a charmingly renovated old house on the northern hillside of town, and my Airbnb home-away-from-home for the next eight days. It had been a long travel day, but there were still a few hours of daylight left and a new destination to explore. I set out on foot to find somewhere to eat.
Wandering through cobblestone streets on sidewalks so narrow they can only accommodate one person at a time keeps you pretty focused on what is immediately ahead of you. Looking up for a moment, I noticed a small rooftop terrace with tables and umbrellas. That made the decision of where to eat an easy one.
The restaurant’s name appealed to me: Baja Fish Taquito. I ducked in through a small room off the street, made my way up a slender set of steps, and found a small table from which I could admire the surrounding rooftops with their strands of laundry drying in the setting sun, surrounded by explosions of colorful flowerpots and flowers.
I had been staring at a menu for a some long moments, wondering what and how to order, when another customer in the restaurant — a thin 60-something gringo in blue jeans with a silver haired ponytail — approached my table.
“I don’t mean to bother you,” he said politely in English, “but you look like maybe you can use some help with the menu?”
He looked harmless enough. Grateful, I gestured for him to sit down. One of the many thousands of American expats who call San Miguel home, the polite stranger, formerly from Texas, told me that he ate at Baja Fish quite often. As he was having a bit of a row with his wife that evening, he was eating alone. Glancing over the menu, he suggested a combination platter of the restaurant’s authentic Ensenada style fish tacos — fish crisped in a beer batter with a little cabbage slaw, pico de gallo and a delicious white sauce. Just the thing for a weary traveler to sink her teeth into. That, and a frosty cold Mexican beer.
It is said that when Sister Josefa passed away at the age of 34, her body smelled like jasmine flowers, and caterpillars streamed from her nose, turning at once into butterflies. Perhaps the only soul in the world to do that, but stories like this are what make San Miguel de Allende so alluring.
After I’d finished eating and paid what seemed an incredibly reasonable price for my small feast, my polite new acquaintance from Texas offered to show me a few places of interest in the surrounding blocks if I cared to walk with him for a few minutes on his way home. “Okay,” I said, not yet having any ideas of my own.
“Be sure to have some freshly baked churros and a cup of hot chocolate,” he said, pointing out Churrería San Agustín as we walked down Calle San Francisco, correctly guessing my passion for chocolate and pastries.
I took a quick look inside. The walls of the churrería were covered with framed photos and articles about owner Margarita Gralía, an Argentine actress hugely popular in Mexico for her roles in Mexican soap operas and her appearance in the Spanish-language edition of Playboy. There was also an enormous gold-framed painting of San Agustin — the theologian/philosopher credited with expressing the sentiment “the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page” — being served a cup of hot chocolate by a cherub.
The churrería also offers full meals, but I never tasted them. It was just for the freshly baked and irresistible sweet churros that I would return several times.
As we continued walking south, we passed through el Jardín, the typical kind of central square found in most Mexican towns. San Miguel’s Jardín is the heart of the community, the Texan explained — a gathering place for parents, grandparents, teenagers, and children, Mexicans and expats alike, who come each evening to hang out, listen to Mariachi music, buy handcrafted dolls from Otomi women, eat street food and ice cream, chase balloons, flirt and gossip.
It is also a wonderful place to gaze up at the wonder that is La Parróquia de San Miguel Archangel — a beautiful salmon-colored Gothic Revival marvel of architecture, built over an older church in the late 1800s by master stonemason Zeferino Gutiérrez. The story goes that it was based on a postcard Gutiérrez had seen of a European church.
We strolled around, observing and absorbing the loveliness of a community mingling together at the end of the day. And then, as the basket-sellers began to gather up their unsold crafts for the evening, the polite stranger’s final suggestion was to visit La Azotea, just south of el Jardin, on Calle Umaran — a street that has one of the highest concentrations of bars and restaurants in the city.
“The restaurant below is a bit expensive if you’re on a budget,” he said, as I peered into the beautiful, rustic interior of Peublo Viejo. “But go through their door and up to the rooftop bar, and at least have a drink. You won’t regret it, the view is incredible.”
With those words, he vanished into the darkened streets of San Miguel, presumably to make amends with his wife. I never saw him again, but his suggestions influenced my adventures throughout the week, leading to surprising coincidences and serendipitous encounters.
A few evenings later, just as the sun was beginning to set, I returned to La Azotea with Carmen, a delightful Mexican woman who was also staying at Casa Alegria. After a day of exploring the town together, I suggested we reward ourselves with drinks on the roof. It didn’t take much convincing.
“It’s two-for-one Mojito night,” Carmen announced happily, reading the sign outside. “Let’s go!”
Upstairs, we were surprised to discover a rather upscale, trendy bar filled with flowering plants and comfortable seating. My anonymous tour guide had not misled me: the view was indeed stunning. As I reached for my camera, I saw that the table with the best view was already taken.
Puedo tomar una foto? I asked the woman sitting there, using the only Spanish words I knew.
“Of course,” she replied in English, graciously making room for me.
Another americana. A native of Baltimore, her face lit up as she told me she was in town to help plan the upcoming wedding of her son, who was sitting across the table from her. Several photographs and wedding details later, I thanked them and rejoined Carmen for a few thirst quenching Mojitos.
As the sun went down, the dome of the Church of the Immaculate Conception lit up. Part of a convent complex, Las Monjas (also crafted by Guitierrez) was founded in 1751 by a 15-year-old heiress, Lina Maria Josefa de la Canal. It is said that when Sister Josefa passed away at the age of 34, her body smelled like jasmine flowers, and caterpillars streamed from her nose, turning at once into butterflies. Perhaps the only soul in the world to do that, but stories like this are what make San Miguel de Allende so alluring.
Talk of the upcoming destination wedding reminded me of a mountaintop wedding in Appalachia I had recently photographed. Hearing that I was headed to San Miguel, the bride’s father-in-law suggested I check out the Casa de las Ranas, the home and working art village of Anado McLauchlin. Continuing on the trail of suggestions, Carmen and I made an appointment to visit on the Cinco de Mayo — my birthday.
Casa de las Ranas is a half-hour taxi-ride out of town. There are no signs, you have to navigate by landmarks — if and when you can find them. McLauchlin and his husband, Richard, both of whom look like colorful escapees from ZZ TOP, like it that way.
Originally from Oklahoma, McLauchlin has been in San Miguel for many years and is an integral part of the art scene here, as well as abroad. Anado, who calls himself an “insider” artist, gave us a walking tour of his “House of Frogs,” which he has been busy creating since 2001. It’s a joyful oasis, an explosion of mosaics and murals crafted from ceramics and glass in the midst of the surrounding peaceful, dry mountain desert. An hour or two passed easily as we wandered around the compound and through their home, listening to Anado’s stories.
When it came time to part ways, Anado gave Carmen, who is an amazing cook, an armload of fresh vegetables from his garden to take back home. But the day’s visual feast was not over.
On our way back to town, our taxi driver took us through Colonia Guadalupe, a neighborhood on the west side that is filled with amazing street art created by Muros en Blanco. This is a movement by street artists from various countries, including Mexico, who descend upon San Miguel once a year to paint its walls. Started in 2011 by Colleen Sorenson, a mosaic artist from Texas who has lived in San Miguel for many years, the mission of the “White Walls” festival is to change the image of public art in San Miguel and instead encourage its professional development.
With Carmen translating, I asked the driver if we could stop so I could take a few photographs. Pleased at my enthusiasm for the local arte urbano, he pulled over immediately. For a street photographer, the walls in Colonia Guadalupe came alive as people passed by them — and life began to imitate street art as the expressions and body language of pedestrians mirrored what was in the paintings around them.
The trail of unexpected paintings eventually led me to Josephine’s Buenas Bibidas, a fresh juice and smoothie shop in Colonia Guadalupe, and just what a pair of hot and dusty adventurers needed. I ordered a round for me, Carmen, and our now very happy driver. As were enjoying our drinks and chatting with another patron, I heard someone say, “Aren’t you the photographer from Asheville?”
Someone mentioned Asheville? I looked up. Amazingly, it was one of the very few people I knew in San Miguel — the woman from Baltimore I’d met a few nights earlier at La Azotea, the rooftop bar. And now here she was with her future daughter-in-law. Cue smiles of recognition and small conversations.
In San Miguel, I was quickly learning, one thing can easily lead to another, and another. And then, another. And so it was that evening, when Carmen and I, tracking down a suggestion from our Airbnb hostess, came upon the Cinco de Mayo festivities at the Don Lupe Grill, a tiny, gravel-floored, family-run restaurant offering casual but tasty Mexican food over on the southeast side of town.
In San Miguel, I was quickly learning, one thing can easily lead to another, and another. And then, another.
A small live band was playing when we arrived. Weary from the heat and sensory bombardment of the day, I ordered a medicinal margarita and sat back to enjoy the music. Moments later, I thought I saw a familiar face. Sure enough, it was my new friend from Baltimore — this time accompanied by both her son and future daughter-in-law. What were the chances that of all the margarita joints in all of San Miguel (and there are at least 321 restaurants in town), she had decided to walk into this one?
That is how it went throughout my week there, as San Miguel and its happy inhabitants continued to lay out a welcome mat of coincidence and serendipity.
As I was enjoying lunch at La Canica one day, another americana wandered in. Seeing she was by herself, I offered to share my table, and we connected immediately over tales of travel. Ann had lived in San Miguel with her husband and kids for a number of years before returning to the US. Now she was back in San Miguel for a visit and, luckily for me, full of ideas for local adventures. Top of her list was to book an appointment to visit Galeria Atotonilco, a half hour taxi ride away from San Miguel in the tiny town of Atotonilco.
I did just that a few days later, bringing along two new travel companions — a couple from Salt Lake City whom I had just met when visiting (at the suggestion of another houseguest at Casa Alegria) one of San Miguel’s fascinating hidden treasure troves, the extraordinary Mask Museum on Cuesta de San Jose.
The three of us were wandering through the Galeria’s incredible art collections from all over Mexico (much of which is for sale), when a small group of women, chattering away excitedly, came into the building. There, in the midst of them, 30 minutes away from San Miguel, was my new friend, Ann from La Canica. We laughed at the coincidence of seeing one another again and then I asked her for a lunch recommendation.
“Nirvana,” she said without hesitation. “It’s lovely and only five minutes away.” Perfect!
But first, my Salt Lake City companions and I decided to visit the tiny town of Atotonilco itself and the Santuario de Atotonilco — the “Sistine Chapel of Mexico,” whose rather gruesomely realistic murals have made the small church a World Heritage Site. Much to my delight, we found that a wedding was just about to start when we arrived. Despite the raging heat of the day, a beautiful young bride sat patiently in a horse-drawn cart, waiting for her groom to arrive, a bouquet of roses in her lap, surrounded by a bevy of brightly dressed bridesmaids.
After the bride entered the church, we made our way over to Nirvana. With its lush plantings, blue pool, thatch-roofed stone buildings, and shaded areas, Nirvana was indeed a welcome oasis in the desert. And there, in the middle of it all, of course, was Ann from San Diego/San Miguel sitting friends and chatting animatedly around a long table covered with plates of mouth-watering food at the end of the veranda.
This town made me feel invited, as if I was somehow supposed to be there — and not just passing through as an outsider.
Things to know before you go:
- May is the hottest month of the year in San Miguel — mid-90s every day — which took me by surprise. There are fewer tourists there, but that means it’s also a good time for local business owners to close up and take time off.
- San Miguel is noisy. Mexicans love fireworks and with more than 300 festival days each year, there is almost always something going on. Day of the Worker and Cinco de Mayo both occurred during my week there. Which meant pre-dawn fireworks shot off from somewhere slightly higher up the mountainside from the house where I was staying. Pre-dawn? Yes, that way everyone can see them as early as possible against the still dark sky.
Top image: Flickr/Aaron Rodriguez.