Seven Ways to Lose Your Heart to San Miguel de Allende

Last updated on November 15th, 2021

Featured image: Views of the beautiful San Miguel de Allende / Photo by Goga on Twenty20

‘El Corazón de México’ offers arts and cultural experiences galore 

By Carolyn Ray, Publisher, JourneyWoman

As I bump along the historic cobblestone streets of San Miguel de Allende in a bus, I catch a glimpse of the pink neo-Gothic church Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, which towers above this colonial city in a way that’s reminiscent of Cinderella’s Castle at Disney World.  

Located in Guanajuato, about four hours northwest of Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende is known for its baroque Spanish architecture, vibrant arts scene and cultural festivals like Day of the Dead, attracting expats from Canada and the US. In October 2021, it won the #1 spot in Condé Nast Traveler’s Reader’s Choice Awards for the fifth time, besting even Oaxaca, and has also been awarded “Best Small City in the World” in 2020 and “Best Small City outside the US”.

As I begin my life of full-time travel in Mexico, this small city, which is known as the ‘heart of Mexico’ for its efforts to preserve Mexican culture and traditions, feels like the perfect place to start. There is something for everyone in San Miguel (or SMA) and the cost of living is comparatively low compared to Canada and the US. There are lunch clubs, social activities, art gallery openings, language classes, yoga – and with an estimated 10,000 expats, women can find many ways to connect and meet other women who have chosen to make this their full or part-time home.  

A group of JourneyWomen at Hotel Sautto in SMA

Meeting JourneyWomen Ginger, Val, Carolyn, Christine and Dixie at Hotel Sautto for insider tips and advice

Seven experiences you won’t want to miss in San Miguel

1. Meet friends at the Jardin, in front of the Parroquia

The Jardin (pronounced “Har-deen) is the centre of city life. You are always guaranteed to find something interesting happening. With lots of seating space, it’s the perfect place to while away an afternoon or meet friends. 

One day, I watch a bride alight from a Rolls Royce into the Parroquia; and there are always strolling Mexican bands vying for attention. There are several coffee shops nearby to get a beverage to go and enjoy the sunshine.

Many tours leave from the Parrquoia, including Tours Padrones del Ninos walking tour which leaves on Mon days, Wednesdays and Friday at 10 am (and accepts donations for children’s groups.)

San Miguel de Allende Botanical Jardin

2. Join the community to honour their ancestors in the Day of the Dead

I arrive a few days before the first Day of the Dead in November, the Mexican tradition of honouring the dead and remembering their influence on our lives. While there is a celebratory air in the city, it feels more sombre and more crowded than in previous years. Day of the Dead was originally a two-month long indigenous celebration in July and August that was then moved to November to coincide with All Saints/Souls Day on November 1-2.  

Families build altars to remember their ancestors in their homes, in cemeteries and on the main square (the Jardin). The pungent smell of the marigolds invites the deceased spirits back. The altars include photographs and mementos that the beloved relatives and friends enjoyed – alcohol, food, toys. Sugary skulls, candies and figurines adorn the altars. 

On Novmeber 1, there is a parade that starts at the Rosewood Hotel at 8:00 pm and winds through the Jardin through to the San Juan de Dios Cemetery. If you’re so inclined, you can participate and have your face painted on the street or pay for a special package at the Rosewood Hotel that includes dinner. I didn’t attend the parade – it was too crowded for my comfort level.

On the second evening, there are fireworks above the Parroquia, which I was fortunate to see from a table at Quince. What a highlight to be sitting on a rooftop with the perfect view! 

Fireworks from Quince

Carolyn standing with two skeleton statues with butterfly wings in San Miguel de Allende

Carolyn standing at Atrio with two friends

Elderly female tourist with a cellphone in one hand hailing a cab in the street

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3. Learn about Indigenous culture at The Mask Museum of San Miguel de Allende

Visit the website

I ring the doorbell on an unassuming house on a hill in San Miguel de Allende, am ushered upstairs into an expansive space and meet Bill Levasseur, owner and curator of the Mask Museum and the 7-bedroom Casa de la Cuesta Bed and Breakfast in which I am standing. Originally from Maine, Bill and his wife Heidi have lived in Mexico for 32 years and built this stunning building in 1997.  The Mask Museum followed when he acquired a small building behind it. 

Bill became interested in indigenous rituals and ceremonies and now has 650 masks from his travels around rural Mexico, which he calls ‘a humbling experience’. Of Bill’s masks, 90% are made of wood, but there are also some made of leather, wax, and paper. These masks are made in small, remote villages and are part of the family’s narrative, which is passed down through the elders. We had a long talk about Indigenous culture – he said there are 62 native languages spoken in Mexico. Masks were originally used by the Spanish as a way to teach Catholicism to the indigenous population and now have become part of Mexican culture to preserve the traditions of the past. 

A colourful mask featured in the Mask Museum of San Miguel de Allende

A mask featured in the museum

Bill Levasseur of the Mask Museum of San Miguel de Allende

Bill LeVasseur, founder of the Mask Museum

A mask of a woman with a mane of hair surrounding her face

Some masks are surprisingly evocative 

4. Explore rugged canyons at El Charco del Ingenio Botanical Garden

Visit the website

Much of San Miguel de Allende sits in a valley, framed by low mountains in a semi-arid climate with cool nights and warm sunny days.  My trip itineraries always entail planned and spontaneous exploration of my surroundings to fully appreciate all that makes a destination special.  Being unfamiliar with the local topography, a recommendation to spend an afternoon meandering in a hill-top botanical garden on the edge of town proves irresistible and inevitable. 

Spontaneity always has its risks and rewards, and the delight of the El Charco del Ingenio presented both. Having just completed the Camino de Santiago, the notion of a mid-morning hike to a remote garden sanctuary was inviting. As I set out, I quickly realize that Google Maps fails to scale elevations and soon both the incline and altitude made progress a bit more challenging (maybe a taxi would have been a better idea?). However, perseverance and determination prevailed as I eventually reached the gates of El Charco del Ingenio, a rustic and authentic preservation of indigenous fauna and flora of the central regions of Mexico.

The Botanical Garden sits on 67 hectares with hundreds of distinct species of trees, cactus and wildflowers still in bloom as a bonus post the recent end of the rainy season.  Interspersed among the cactii, are art installations made by local artisans, the creative fusion of nature and mankind. No trip to the desert fails to find friendly neighbors such as a curious rabbit, hawks hovering above or a preponderance of spiders (watch your head as you walk through the cacti!) The time passes quickly wandering the many ribbons of pathways, engulfed in the natural beauty of the high desert, lost in my thoughts and grateful for the splendor of the Mexican landscape.  

Cactus are everywhere in San Miguel de Allende

Cactus are everywhere

Silver sculptures found in an Miguel de Allende

The sculpture garden 

San Miguel de Allende Botanical Jardin

Walking up to the top of San Miguel

5. Discover local street art on a free art walk  

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There are many options for walking tours in San Miguel, some expensive, some free. Waylon Hedegaard and his wife Wendy have been doing free art walks in San Miguel de Allende – called Fat Bastard Art Walks – for about seven months on Saturdays and Sundays. The walks started as a mental health respite for Waylon, who’s from North Dakota, and have evolved into a passionate stroll through some San Miguel’s most interesting neighbourhoods (many of which are overlooked by tourists). Street art is one of my favourite ways to see a city, and walking is my choice of transportation, so I never miss a chance to hit the pavement and dive deep. 

I’ve always found street art gives deep insight into the soul of a city. While much of the street art I’ve seen in Columbia, Argentina and Brazil and even Toronto tends to the political, San Miguel’s art is different. On this tour we visit Saint Antonio, just outside of Centro, strolling through cobblestone streets to enjoy vibrant art focused on metaphorical storytelling and indigenous traditions, with a touch of humour and playfulness. Animals play a prominent role: jaguars as the guardians to the underworld and hummingbirds as messengers between the living and dead. Human hearts are shown in many murals, as are goddesses, snakes, donkeys, roosters, horses and rabbits.  

An accredited tour guide, Isabel, joins to provide local perspective on Mexican culture, and gives us perspective on “La Catrina,” a symbol of Day of the Dead. According to Isabel, the skeleton traditionally had nothing to do with this holiday, rather, it was created to mock high-class society. I’m thrilled to see that so many women artists from around Mexico are represented, including @mj_muralart and @merle.one. I’m particularly fond of the young woman with the sunflowers, painted around the corner of a building and up a telephone pole, and of the dancing children by @fosilmuralista, not to mention the prolific @boomzerone whose art can be seen everywhere. 

Weylon takes donations for his tours and gives them back to the artists to help fund ongoing projects. If you are looking for a wonderful way to get to know a city, spend two hours with Waylon (and keep your mask on please as you walk around these communities). 

A street mural of a woman's face in San Miguel de Allende

Street art by @merle.one

San Miguel de Allende street art

Street art by @Hebsarte

Overlooking the beautiful city of San Miguel de Allende

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6. Expand your archaeological knowledge at Cañada de la Virgen with Albert Coffee

Visit the website or send them an email

3-4 hour tour $55 USD /peso equivalent includes transportation to and from San Miguel, usually in the mornings). No backpacks or bags are permitted but water is provided. 

Like so many travel experiences, we start with a local recommendation, in this case from Susanne, a fellow Canadian JourneyWoman who now calls San Miguel de Allende home. No trip to the geological center of Mexico is complete without an excursion to Canãda de la Virgen, a recently discovered archeological site that is rewriting the historical understanding of Mesoamerica.

About 20 minutes from San Miguel de Allende, on the Krupp property, a most remarkable discovery was made in 1996. For years, horseback riders had climbed stairs to the top of a mound of dirt; little did they realize that underneath lay an ancient pyramid alongside others. Excavation started in 2002 and opened to restricted public access in 2011. Only 12% of the site has been excavated so the surface of knowledge is just being scratched.

The full appreciation of the Canãda de la Virgen is unattainable without an archeologist. Fortunately, Susanne introduces me to Albert of  Albert Coffee Tours. The main Pyramid is a mathematical, astrological and agricultural calendar that dictated how the community planned, understood and behaved at a time when writing, reading and arithmetic were unknown. Through carbon dating, scientists have confirmed that a thriving community existed as long ago as 770 BC. The mysteries of nature and the meaning of the spirits are all found in this architectural marvel of antiquity that teaches us how advanced and expansive the Mesoamercian empire extends much farther north than previously thought.

Meeting JourneyWoman Susanne was a highlight, after many months of Community Calls

A hot air balloon being filled at dawn in an Miguel de Allende

A hot air balloon getting ready for takeoff

7. See the city from above with a hot air balloon ride with Globo San Miguel

Visit the website or send them an email

3-4 hour tour $55 USD /peso equivalent includes transportation to and from San Miguel, usually in the mornings). No backpacks or bags are permitted but water is provided. 

One morning,  while watching the sunrise, I hear a loud whoosh above my head. I look up in surprise to see five hot air balloons floating in the breeze above San Miguel. This quickly becomes a must-do experience!  

When I make the reservation, the confirmation advises us to be at the Rosewood Hotel at 6:30 am, returning at 10:30 am. However, with the daylight savings time change, that becomes the startlingly early hour of 5:30 am. I rouse my daughter, who is visiting from school, at the unearthly hour of 4:45 am and we trudge off through the dark streets, arriving at the Rosewood at 5:20 pm.  (Please note, I felt very safe doing this, but you may want to arrange a taxi). 

The shuttle doesn’t leave for the launching area until 6:15 am, but we have time to read the safety requirements over coffee and ask questions of the staff. There are 12 in our balloon, which rises above San Miguel just as the sun comes up at 7:00 am, and we had our own ‘pod’ within the basket. Even though we are bundled warmly, the heat from the gas keeps us warm and we soon forget the morning chill and enjoy seeing the city from above.  I can’t recommend this enough, despite the $150 USD price tag. We land at 7:45 am and are shuttled back to the hotel by 8:00 am, where we enjoy a delicious breakfast as part of the experience. 

For Restaurant Recommendations, check out this article.

Other places of interest 

La Gruta Hot Springs: There are two thermal springs near town; everyone I spoke to recommended La Gruta (over nearby Escondido Hot Springs), which has been recently renovated and upgraded. Taxis typically cost 70 pesos in town, but this might cost closer to 200 pesos.  

San Miguel Mercado de Artesanias: this sprawling market of artisan’s stalls is open daily from about 10 to 5 pm and stretches across several blocks, starting on Hildago. While some of it is kitchy, you can find some beautiful jewelry, leather goods and pottery alongside the typical clothes and chachkis. Most prefer cash, but some will take credit cards. On the touristy side but an interesting way to spend an hour. 

Biblioteca Publica de San Miguel:Right in the heart of San Miguel is its public library, founded by Canadian Helen MacGregor Wale, which houses the second largest collection of English-language books in Mexico. Stop and enjoy a coffee in the Santa Ana Café or the Teatro Sanata Ana, a small 91-seat theater inside the Biblioteca Publica that is a venue for theatrical productions, musical concerts, films and conferences. There are also free house and garden tours offered every Sunday. (Don’t miss the stunning ceiling in the gift shop!)

The beautiful ceiling in  Biblioteca Publica de San Miguel

The beautiful ceiling in Biblioteca Publica de San Miguel

Fabrica la Aurora: For the art lover, this former textile mill has galleries galore. It’s a short taxi ride or walk through Guadeloupe, with a café and outdoor seating spots to enjoy the views.

San Miguel de Allende Tourism Office: Open Mondays to Fridays from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm, it’s worth stopping in to see what’s happening in the city, located in the main square.  

Wine and Food: While you can occasionally find good wines in an Oxxo or corner store, there is a well-stocked wine store on Calle Umarán near the Jardin. I did most of my food shopping at the Mercado de San Juan or small neighbourhood stores, but the Super Bonanza supermarket on Mesones 43 is recommended for more ‘western’ style foods. 

Here’s Even More From Mexico

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A Taste of Mexico From Chef Jose Hadad

Jose Hadad, Chef and founder of Mad Mexican restaurant, shares a taste of Mexico with this traditional recipe, along with a wine pairing from expert Erin Henderson, Founder of The Wine Sisters.

Carolyn is the Publisher + Editor-in-Chief of JourneyWoman and a member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) and Travel Media Association of Canada (TMAC). A Canadian raised in South Florida, Carolyn loves all things Spanish, historic destinations and always has her backpack ready to go.

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2 Comments

  1. ELIZABETH MCGROARTY

    What has happened to the estate of Toller Cranston, artist and Canadian figure skating champ?? And does the Bibliotheca still become the meeting place for Sunday bus tours of grand residences, like Toller’s? I have many photos of these adventures, if you’d like any. Also does St.Pauls church still do mattresses stuffed with puffed up plastic bags??

    Reply
  2. Pat Borecky

    None of the photos showed but I enjoyed the read. I have been to San Miguel & loved it, but I love being by the ocean. In saying this I would like to see an article on towns like SM that are by the ocean

    Reply

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