Strolling back towards Parque Benito Juárez after a tasty brunch at funky Café Rama (nice jazz duo – flute & guitar), we heard some upbeat music coming from the east end. We joined more folks walking that direction, past many local artists displaying their work along the sidewalks on a beautiful Saturday morning.
When we reached a small open area, we discovered that a lively wedding was in progress, with family and relatives promenading around in a circle. Most of the men & boys were wearing white shirts, dark jackets, jeans, and boots, whilst the women were decked in colorful dresses and dress shoes, with a few sneakers here and there. Banda Amistad De Enrique Hernández (same group we heard at the Botanical Gardens, with different uniforms) were enthusiastically pumping out music that kept everyone on their feet.
After a few upbeat tunes, the band changed suddenly to their version of Chopin’s Funeral March. Several of the men picked up the groom, who seemed to protest a bit, and carried him off, with everyone else following and laughing! The whole entourage stopped at another spot for two more dances before moving to the central gazebo. The musicians picked up the pace again for dancing around the gazebo, where two giant mojigangas representing the bride and groom joined in. These 5-meter tall “puppets” have a real person inside, dancing and cavorting while peering out a small slit.
Now came the Wedding Donkey, laden with flowers, food & drinks. Since we were not offered any (!) we drifted towards the road as Susie checked on an Uber. Our ride pulled up just as the first afternoon showers started cooling everyone as they ran for shelter. The women wearing trainers were glad they did at that point.
We have loved every town we have visited in Mexico this year, and San Miguel de Allende (SMA) is no exception. Sitting at 1,900 meters of elevation on the Mexican Plateau, the climate is slightly cooler than Ajijic or Oaxaca, with a population around 715,000. During July cool nights of mid 50s quickly warmed up to upper 70s or low 80s, unless a storm blew in from the east.
The indigenous Chichimeca originally built a village here, later called Itzcuinapan, or “place of dogs”. The first Spanish settlement in Guanajuato state was founded here in 1542 by the Franciscan monk Juan de San Miguel, a benefactor of the Indians, and was named for him. The area became a center of resistance to the New Spain occupation and the pressing of local people into hard work in the silver mines. Two important heroes of the Mexican War of Independence were born here: Juan Aldama and Ignacio Allende, who helped San Miguel to become the first independent city. Allende’s name was then appended to the city name.
The economy of the area declined after the war ended, exacerbated by an influenza outbreak, and decreasing mining activity. However, artists and historians “re-discovered” the colonial architecture of the old city. Stirling Dickinson, an American artist and writer, established an art school in an old convent in 1938, which started a wave of foreign and local artists of many disciplines to turn San Miguel into a cultural epicenter. Much of the of the Bohemian feel remains with the many art galleries, street art and music. But the 21st century has certainly caught up with property and restaurant prices reflecting the rise in popularity.
Connie, Susie’s longtime girlfriend from Miami, joined us for our first 2 weeks in SMA while we stayed in a nice, modern three-level condo just east of the Centro district. Full kitchen, laundry and a spiral staircase to the rooftop patio for viewing the sunrise - or sunset. It was an easy 750 meter walk downhill to the busy main square, Jardin Allende, but seemed much longer when trudging back uphill… especially after a couple of margaritas!
Thick walls border the hilly and narrow cobblestone streets winding through the historic core with an estimated two thousand plain and elaborate doors, opening onto lovely properties of various sizes. Many of these former residences have been converted to shops, hotels and restaurants, often displaying a beautifully landscaped courtyard inside the entrance. There are no parking meters or traffic signals in Centro, but the “Traffic Police” are usually out at many intersections during the day. And most Mexican drivers are courteous to other vehicles, allowing others to pull in, unload, etc., usually without honking or rude hand gestures! A very refreshing change.
La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel anchors the Jardin Allende, with its imposing neo-Gothic twin towers of pink sandstone that seem to change color as the sun moves across the sky. The square is always busy with vendors and tourists, but weekends bring in many families from surrounding small towns and villages to attend church and enjoy a day of “city life”. Strolling Mariachi musicians provide a background tapestry of music as the children run about with their large pencil-shaped balloons. Families pose in front of the church, or with the large walking “puppets”, wearing the new hats or flowered garlands just purchased. Push carts line the square, filling the air with the aromas of fresh roasted corn, tacos, hot dogs, hamburgers and ice cream. It is a wonderful mix of people from all over Mexico – and the world.
Connie & Susie found out about an event occurring at El Charco del Ingenio Jardín Botánico y Área Natural Protegida, a nature preserve with many varieties of cactus, succulents and other native flora. An anniversary celebration for the preserve. A warm 40-minute walk through an upscale neighborhood brought us to the gardens on the NE side of town. The sound of drumming guided us to the Plaza de los 4 Vientos (4 Winds Plaza), a ritual space representing the four natural resources of the Tolteca-Chichimeca: Flora, Fauna, Earth & Water. Young and old dancers wearing elaborate costumes of colorful feathers, tunics, skirts and jewelry were performing various dances to the beat of drums.
As we were enjoying the dancing other people began entering the small building next to us – some carrying guitar cases. Being naturally curious (and getting hot standing out in the sun!) we marched ourselves inside, where about 40 people had lined themselves around the outer wall of the circular room, facing an altar at one side with several crosses, so probably Catholic. Presently the 6 or 7 musicians, all using round-backed 12 string “guitars” with short necks started playing a 3-chord tune, while everyone else began singing, and a few ringing hand bells. This went on for a while as several men set up a chair in front of the alter and another sat down. A different man in jeans lit incense on the altar in a portable container and began waving it around the recipient.
After 15 or 20 minutes the odor, while pleasant at first became too strong for us, so we made our way back outside where the dancing was continuing. We also saw that a 20-piece band in snappy blue and gold uniforms had arrayed itself outside the doors of the pavilion and when the congregation finally emerged they broke into some jaunty music. We followed the celebrants as they stopped at an outdoor altar near the Plaza, lighting more incense, and then proceeding down one of the trails into the preserve. They stopped at several more places to light incense as the trail wound around the valley along the dry stream bed, and we finally bypassed them to get back to the rest area, for a cool drink and some baños. Never did find out exactly what they were commemorating.
Many artists of various persuasion live in the San Antonio neighborhood, southwest of Centro. Several of the art collectives organized an Art Walk for the weekend where painters, writers and sculptors et al., would open up their homes and studios to showcase their crafts and processes. Susie, Connie and I had an enjoyable Sunday afternoon walking along the picturesque cobblestone streets, admiring the street art and popping into the studios marked outside with balloons and placards. It is so cool to meet new and talented people from all over the world, which included Paris, Australia and Bermuda this afternoon.
The ominous rumblings of thunder were becoming more insistent as we neared Canal Street on the northern edge of the barrio. Large rain drops began to fall as Susie attempted to locate a lunch spot on her phone. We pressed ourselves against the wall as the sprinkle rapidly escalated, and finally ducked into a tiny restaurant called Coffee 22, where we had some tacos and…coffee! The downpour continued as we watched through the open doorway, and the sloping street transformed into a raging river, where a passing bus washed waves of water into the shop. The gals pulled down the overhead door before we were carried away, and we finished our meal listening to the rain drumming away outside.
Thursday morning we took an Uber to Escondido Hot Springs, one of a couple properties north of SMA that utilized thermally heated water for soaking pools. Taking advisement to arrive early and beat the crowds, we saw few folks in the water at 10 am. The gently rolling grounds were extensive, covered with native trees, shrubs and flowering plants. There were several shallow, unheated swimming pools and many ponds with koi, carp, turtles and tilapia, and a small restaurant.
The “hot springs” were decidedly underwhelming. The first one we entered was basically a small tunnel about 8’ in diameter and maybe 50’ long, with 3’ of water and a couple of skylights for illumination. The water temperature was close to body temperature and the hard, narrow walls echoed every sound. There were no seats. The other hot springs area was an open, narrow channel with lots of kids in it.
Overall the park was a wonderful place for families to spend a day. There were many picnic tables and grills – most were occupied by early afternoon, and the swimming pools were full of kids and families enjoying the water. But for hot springs, the ones we visited in Bali and Costa Rica were in another class.
Two weeks went by in a flash. Connie had to return to Miami and we moved to our pet sit in a nice home in Los Frailes neighborhood – south of Centro - and a much longer walk. Our charges included two cats and two dogs: Kaiya, a senior mix and Sofi, a fluffy young Shitzu. Our host was traveling to Playa del Carmen for two weeks to get extensive dental work with state-of-the-art equipment, for about 10% of the cost back in the US.
I visited the nearby hospital for blood & urine labs, plus a CT scan with contrast, and the total cost was just over $300 US! They emailed me all the results and scans the same day. Amazing. (all tests good! He was looking for kidney stones. None evident)
Music, music, everywhere! One evening we walked down to a Spanish bar in Centro for some great Flamenco music and dancing. Several of the restaurants would have one of two musicians playing some jazz for lunch or dinner. Wandering musos would walk into a café and play 2 or three tunes, walk around the tables with a tip jar, and move on to the next place. How much is 2 songs worth? There was one restaurant close to us in Los Frailes, Flor De Jamaica and it was pretty good. They had entertainment 4 nights a week, and we caught the same jazz trio twice on Thursday nights. Drums, keyboard and a great upright bass.
And of course – pickleball! San Miguel de Allende has a thriving PB community that meets everyday at Unidad Deportivo – a large sports complex on the south side of town. They worked with the city to have permanent courts built and now there are 4 courts at the main location and one court on an enclosed space nearby. All courts were full almost every day from 8am to 11, when most players were too hot to continue.
We made quite a few new friends on our days playing there and worked up our nerve to enter the Round Robin tournament towards the end of our stay. Suffice it to say it was a learning experience! A big “Shout Out” to all you Picklers in SMA! Especially to Val for giving us a lift here and there when we just didn’t feel like walking any further! She’s a great friend!
Let’s see…did I rave about the food yet? Fabuloso! Just as good as Oaxaca, but slightly different. We went out for brunch many days after pball, and some of the outstanding places were Rustica, Café 1910, Lolita and Café Roma. My fav was Raices which had a vegetarian dish called Torta Ahogada that featured “creamy chipotle sauce, pickled onions, chili ashes, avocado, mushrooms and cheese”. With iced coffee…naturally!
There were also two very large supermarkets next to each other. La Comer was like a “super Walmart” with an extensive grocery, bakery, deli and seafood, plus clothes, sundries and hardware. Across the street was City Market, that would put a large Whole Foods to shame. All the food choices and more, with upscale deli counters, seafood and salad bars. Plus a fancy sushi bar and restaurant, with crystal, silverware, cloth napkins and wait staff in tuxedos! Yowza.
Once again it is time to move on. We have so enjoyed every town in Mexico – much more than expected! It is easy to see why so many people from North America have settled here and are enjoying a very comfortable and fulfilling life.
But the tropics are calling. Not going to be simple to get to Roatan…but we will get there!
Adios – and Happy Trails!