, , , , , , ,

22-29 June 2013. Don discovered Mexico has luxury buses. By luxury I mean they provide you with basic food (a drink, a sandwich) and the seats, which have wonderful padded leg and foot rests, are bigger than airplane business-class seats. They’re possibly also more comfortable but I can’t vouch for that since I’ve never sat in a business-class seat on a plane. A supremely easy way to travel, reclining almost flat when desired, watching the countryside pass by, reading, writing, photo editing. We even had Wi-Fi at times. We could also have watched movies except they were in Spanish. A taxi from our apartment in La Manzanilla to the small town of Barra de Navidad, a four-hour bus journey in luxury to Guadalajara, a bit of a wait and then a five hour journey in an even better bus to San Miguel de Allende.

I finally got to San Miguel. It is another place I’d been hearing about for over thirty years, first I think in the 1980’s when I was living in northern Canada and a woman who lived there moved to San Miguel. It seemed incredibly remote and exotic at the time. And puzzling. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to live in Mexico, especially in an inland town: if you’re going to Mexico at least go to the beach.

Then I heard about it again when Canadian figure skater and artist extraordinaire Toller Cranston moved there. By this time I think I’d also come to understand that San Miguel is a cosmopolitan, artists’ community, which greatly increased my understanding of why someone would choose to live there. More recently it has been written that it is not uncommon for tourists to visit and purchase property within three days of being there. Having finally been there myself I now understand why. About ten percent of the population is expats, mainly from Canada, USA and Europe.

It is a remarkable town, not least because it feels more like Europe than Mexico, which is not a good or bad thing, just an observation. It is a Spanish colonial town founded in the 1500’s. The historic Centro district was declared a National Monument in 1926. In 2008 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, with good reason.

There is a large, and much used central square (El Jardin) with the beautiful confection of Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel along one side. Parroquia is the main church in a town of many large churches. Beyond that are streets and streets and cobblestone streets of gorgeous rust and rich ochre-coloured buildings.

With occasional splashes of blue

and street art.

Parroquia in the distance

and a renegade aqua and purple building.

From El Jardin in the evening light

I just loved the colours. So rich and vibrant, and then, turning a corner, an unexpected splash of blue or aqua. The Mexican Government protects the Centro district so there are restrictions on development and the colour of buildings. It felt very much like Gamla Stan, the medieval central district of Stockholm. It felt as if we’d suddenly been teleported to Europe: even the language is European.

Many of the people, by the way they dress, could also be European, but not these guys hanging in El Jardin,

or these guys

or this woman

We wanted to know what was behind all those doors so we went on a tour of some houses. A group of expats who live there organize the tours to raise money for various charities. There are about three hundred houses on their list and you never know which ones you’ll get to see. First we were taken to a large beautiful architect-designed house in a gated expat retirement community about ten miles from San Miguel. We seemed to be getting further and further from Mexico. The house was very beautiful and perfect in its Mexican/Spanish design, decorative features, exact placement of beautiful objects, and oodles of gorgeous, exotically coloured Mexican tile work and ceramics, but it had no feel of home. The garden was lovely though.

“House” number two was a high-end boutique hotel in town that was absolutely lovely, but me, being nosy, and wanting to see behind all those doors along the streets, felt a bit cheated since I could have wandered in to look at this place anytime that I wanted to pretend I was interested in staying there. Though truth be told I probably wouldn’t do that, and it was all extremely beautiful, rooms and gardens alike. 

The third house was behind one of those doors directly on the street in the Centro part of the town and was very beautiful. All you can see from the street are walls and doors, but behind the walls are hidden houses with beautiful hidden gardens.

There’s an extraordinary private collection of authentic Mexican dance and festival masks in San Miguel. Each mask was made for, and used in, an actual dance performance in a festival. The collection is painstakingly curated. It was absolutely spectacular. Unfortunately photos were not allowed.

Days were filled it seems with being lazy, the mask museum, the house tour, a visit to the small church at Atotonilco, a day in Guanajuato. And wandering the beautiful streets feeling as if we were somewhere in Europe.

Young artist

And one from Don

And then we went to El Jardin on Friday night! It was a party – two pre-wedding parties, a performance tour of the historic centre, a man with a donkey selling bottles of wine, and the whole town out to play. Suddenly we were in Mexico again. That, and the even more European town of Guanajuato in the next post.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.