Our Thoughts on San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
We visited San Miguel de Allende for the first time almost five years ago. We found it to be a beautiful city in the heart of Mexico with a temperate climate that was already a haven for foreign artists. By the time we got there in 2013 it was garnering more and more attention after Martha Stewart writing about it a few years earlier and Conde Naste naming it best city in the world. Since then it has been a regular feature at the top of these kinds of lists. With all the attention and popularity it is easy to become sniffy about the city (plenty of people are) but we decided to make up our own mind and spend seven weeks here over the holidays to get to know the city a little better. So what did we think?
The first thing to say is that this is a very beautiful city. The centro is picture postcard perfect with bright sunshine, meticulously manicured gardens and the towering Parroquia that dominates the landscape. There is beauty around every corner. Yes, there are a lot of tourists but actually I think that adds to the atmosphere. There were a few times near the Christmas holiday when the jardin seemed crazily crowded. Apart from those few days, I like the excitement of filled streets and the atmosphere of people enjoying themselves. Is it full of gringos? Well there is definitely a high presence of foreign tourists but at the weekends and during the holidays there are definitely more Mexican tourists here for sure. This is a popular destination for well-heeled visitors from Mexico City which is just a few hours away.
We saw the mix of visitors change after Christmas with more retirees from the US and Canada filling the streets once the holidays were done. It was only during the weekends that the Mexican tourists started to outnumber us again. As with any retirement place the average age of the long term visitors is on the higher side. We felt a little like spring chickens in most restaurants and bars we frequented. But to be honest we have found that almost everywhere we go. One of the first world problems of being early-retirees is that there are rarely other people your age around in the more popular retiree havens. We were lucky during our time here as we were traveling with our friends Shannon and Dave so we had instant like-minded friends to have fun with.
So yes, there are gringos, but personally I think the town still feels very authentically Mexican. In fact in some ways it's appeal to visitors is that it is almost a cariacature / Disney version of Mexico, like Cortona is to Italy and Stratford-upon-Avon is to England. If you close your eyes and imagine a colonial Mexican town you might think of ornate churches, Mariachi bands in the street and festivals on every corner. Yep, it's just like that!
It's easy to think all of the gentrification is due to Americans and Canadians but I think that is a self-centered view. This area of the country always had prosperity. Vast silver reserves made Guanajuato state a hub of commercial activity hundreds of years ago. In fact in the early part of the 20th century Mexican movie stars sought out second homes here. After World War II some US veterans moved here to make their GI bill benefits stretch further and so its place in the world as an artist colony was secured.
Despite the tourism there are plenty of side streets, markets and authentic restaurants to get away from tourists and English menus. But as we have stated before the mix of the local and the global is also quite appealing. It provides a variety that we always enjoy in the cities that we visit.
So would San Miguel de Allende make it to our list of potential homes for the future? Well there are a few more considerations. Unfortunately the popularity has made accommodation relatively expensive and hard to come by. I say relatively because most things in Mexico are inexpensive, but San Miguel is at the higher end for sure. To get a place for the winter you need to book well in advance as places get snapped up quickly. Apart from accommodation, other costs are super reasonable. Groceries are inexpensive with meat and produce being a fraction of what we pay in the US. Going out is cheap too at 35 pesos (~US$1.75) for a bottle of Mexican beer in a bar. You might pay a little more if you are lucky enough to find artesenal beer. Cocktails at 90 pesos ($4.50), sometimes on 2 for 1 deals at happy hour. Dining out, as always, covers a range but even at the swankiest gringo-style restaurants you would be lucky to reach 400 pesos ($20) a head with drinks, and at a family restaurant you will be more likely to be below 200 pesos ($10). And of course there is street food (at 13 pesos a taco) you can have a plate full of delicious awesomeness for a couple of bucks.
Another consideration is the climate. San Miguel is at over 6,000 feet and in the winter the evenings can be cold. Some of the days can be too before the midday sun floods the streets. Many of the houses are built in a way that doesn't let much light in, like the place we rented. This meant we needed space heaters on constantly to keep ourselves warm. The beautiful sunny days are great if you are out in the sunshine, but don't forget a coat if you venture out early in the day. Personally, if we had rented a place with a sunny window or some outdoor space that captured the rays we would have been happier with the climate.
We found our seven weeks in San Miguel very relaxing but could we see it as a future home? The climate, culture, beauty and range of restaurants, cafes and coffee shops are appealing. But for us I think it is a great place to spend a month or two to kick back and recharge our batteries after months of traveling. I'm not sure we would stay here longer, at least not at this point in our life when we are looking for somewhere a little more dynamic and busy. There is lots going on here, but it is still a small city and the diversity of experiences on offer is probably not for us. I think we would choose Mexico City or Guadalajara for more variety. That is maybe an indication of how we feel about travel at the moment and the desire to keep moving.
I would say if you get a chance to visit San Miguel de Allende you should take it. It's a special place and there's a reason it makes all those lists every year. Don't listen to sniffy people who tell you it's too touristy, so are gazillions of beautiful places in the world. That doesn't mean you shouldn't visit. I am confident we'll come back some day. It's just too magical a place to resist.