San Miguel de Allende

Years ago I read a delightful book, On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel, by Tony Cohan, about a couple from Los Angeles that bought and renovated a home in San Miguel de Allende. In the manner of A Year in Provence, the book recounted the challenges and triumphs of renovating an old structure while adapting to the ways of a foreign culture. The author spoke so lovingly of San Miguel that the city was instantly placed on my "list" of places I wanted to visit someday.

I got my chance in November 2003. It has been said that one should have no expectations, for they are the source of all disappointment. I try to keep that saying in mind when I travel and try to avoid developing pre-conceived notions – good or bad – about what a new place will be like. But my expectations of San Miguel were too high. Physically, it is certainly one of the most charming cities in Mexico, with narrow cobblestone streets, brightly painted homes and a tree-filled central plaza.

But San Miguel had a distinctly different feel than the other places we had visited over our preceding three weeks in Mexico. In short, the place was filled with Americans. Not just tourists, but those who, like the author of the book I'd read, had come to San Miguel to retire or build a second home. The reasons are obvious. The city is, without a doubt, charming. The climate is congenial and, for Americans, the prices are a bargain. In certain areas of town (the more upscale areas) there seemed to be more license plates from Texas than there were from Mexico. English was widely spoken, indeed expected, in the restaurants and the local Mexicans seemed to relate to us differently – not badly, in any way, but differently than in other parts of Mexico. Even the food in the restaurants seemed to have been toned down to satisfy the gringo palate. It was not until we ventured to the north side of town, well beyond the tourist shops and upscale restaurants, that we found a traditional market and felt as though we had returned to the "real" Mexico.

San Miguel was founded in 1542 by Franciscan monk Juan de San Miguel and named after the Archangel Michael. The town developed as a mission where local Indians were proselytized and taught European weaving and farming techniques. The settlement prospered and grew into a regional market center. In 1826, when San Miguel was officially designated a city, "de Allende" was added to the name to honor native son Ignacio Allende, one of the early instigators and heroes of Mexico's War of Independence from Spain. (Allende was executed in 1811 and his head was displayed hanging from a hook on the Alhóndiga de Granaditas in Guanajuato until 1821.)