San Miguel de Allende, Mexico — Viewing the colorful homes of this colonial town from atop the La Posadita Restaurant, with the Sierra Madre Mountains as a backdrop, you don’t know whether to feel grateful or sorry for the folks back home who wince at the thought of travel to Mexico.
Grateful because such folks stay home and prevent this wonderful city from being overrun. They are convinced that crossing the Rio Grande would be like parachuting with the Special Forces into Afghanistan.
Sorry because they are missing so much: a 16th Century city that has preserved its colonial heritage and become a cultural mecca with two art schools, art galleries, an annual writers conference, architecture and décor that offers both colonial Spanish taste and the joyful colors of the Mexican personality—and sometimes both in one setting. And at this time of the year the bougainvillea are in bloom, assaulting your senses with colors that leave your breathless. The city is beautiful, safe, and friendly.
San Miguel is not for everyone. It’s not an all-inclusive resort. In fact it’s not a resort at all. If your idea of a great vacation is Cancun or Cozumel, or if a pleasant outing for you is a stroll through the shopping districts of Grosse Pointe or Birmingham, you probably would not enjoy the cobblestone streets, narrow sidewalks, knee-high curbs, and the dusty streets of San Miguel.
If you are inclined toward hasty and superficial judgments, it’s definitely not a city for you. Most of the beautiful homes are behind high walls, some of those walls constructed 500 years go. You either need to take a home tour or get yourself invited to one of the many social gatherings that seem to occur almost every night in the norte americano community.
Oh, and you mingle with real Mexicans: share the sidewalks with them; do your best to speak Spanish with them; watch them as they go about their daily tasks; marvel at what a friendly, happy people they are, so focused on family, so distant from the gotta-get-there mentality of the Americans back home.
And you walk, a lot of the time on the cobblestone streets and all of the time (so it seems) uphill. You can take a taxi, but most Americans here (Canadians are a significant presence too) prefer the challenge of hiking. With the narrow sidewalks, no stop signs, and occasional sidewalk potholes, hoofing it shapes you up fast.
The last time I spent two weeks here I lost five pounds. This time I’m hoping to equal or better that. San Miguel is almost 7,000 feet above sea level in the Central Highlands (far from the volatile border areas) and it can take a few days to get used to walking that high up. The first time this year hiking a mile-and-a-half up Canal Street to the Centro District, I had to take a break in a cool church to catch my breath. The evenings are cool and the afternoons are usually sunny and in the mid-80s at this time of the year.
Most of the North Americans who winter here or live here year round are, of course, retirees. About 10 percent of the residents of San Miguel de Allende are Canadians or Americans. Their presence here has been a blessing to the locals in that they pour money into the economy by spending and by creating jobs.
Typical of American input into this city are Judy and Jim Jagdfeld of Howell, who raise several thousand dollars a year from friends in Livingston County and its environs for a school for handicapped children. Each year Judy travels down here for the winter and buys necessities for the school. Other American volunteers teach English or computer skills to schoolchildren, and more than one full-timer here pays the tuition for their help’s children to attend private schools.
In trying to figure out what kind of people end up falling in love with San Miguel, I find that a sense of adventure is probably is an essential ingredient, and, yes, a certain toughness, mental and physical. It can be difficult climbing those hills to the lovely jardin, the town square, the center of the city where mariachi bands serenade young (and old) lovers in the evening. Sometimes it’s frustrating to find your Spanish so wanting, but you tough it out and you make out. One benefit of being a foreigner here is the vibrant ex pat community, into which you are quickly absorbed and invited to all kinds of events and parties, including the Jagdfelds’ All American Hot Dog Jamboree.
Sometimes you leave one comfort zone and find another one.