High atop the ranchlands of the Sierra Madre, hundreds of miles from any playa or puerto, San Miguel de Allende is both overlooked and obvious—a 16th-century Mexican retreat that Americans have been discovering for decades. I made my first trip in 1984, as a college student, and I have returned a dozen times, always with trepidation over how much trendier the town will have grown and yet invariably relieved to find that San Miguel’s folkways, its artisans and troubadours and pyrotechnicians, remain entrenched.
The cobblestone lanes and single-file sidewalks of San Miguel’s centro now lead to boutique hotels and tapas bars, cooking schools and bodywork spas, even a Starbucks with Wi-Fi. You can start an evening with sunset margaritas on the roof of Hotel Nena, a study in minimalist chic, then migrate to Moxi, superstar Mexico City chef Enrique Olvera’s restaurant at Hotel Matilda, for parchment-wrapped fish in epazote mole, or to the Moorish courtyard of The Restaurant, where onetime Hollywood Bowl chef Donnie Masterton serves squash blossom ravioli with goat cheese in huitla-coche sauce. If you swing by the VC Club, you might even catch San Miguel’s most famous expat, former Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinsen, now in his eighties and still blowing his horn.
Part art colony, part retirement village, part party town, San Miguel has swelled to about 60,000 people, some 10,000 of them foreigners. It has million-dollar homes and gated subdivisions, but its 64-square-block historic core remains a colonial jewel box, protected by UNESCO World Heritage status. Destination weddings roll into town every weekend, filling San Miguel’s antique streets with parading newlyweds, often led by tequila-toting burros.
To reassure myself of what has not changed, I need only drift to El Jardín, the center of civic life. The wrought-iron benches, under a canopy of sculpted laurels, offer the best perch for surveying San Miguel’s rhythms and textures: toddlers chasing pigeons and teens testing breakdance moves and pensioners splurging on shoeshines. Towering above is La Parroquia, the neo-Gothic cathedral whose tangle of limestone spires evokes the melting-sandcastle flourishes of Gaudí. In a town that forbids traffic lights and neon signs, the church at night glows with rose-hued mystery.
For 17 summers San Miguel has hosted the Guanajuato International Film Festival, which this year featured an outdoor screening of Around the World in 80 Days, with the Mexican comic Cantinflas. I watched for a few minutes from El Jardín, but the movie was no match for the Saturday night mariachis: Four spangled troupes were all going at it, a jamboree of horns and violins, their birthday songs and drinking anthems filling the cool, mile-high air. I ducked into Mama Mia, a supper club with a menu of Mexican-inflected Italian dishes that has served many a newcomer’s first meal, mine included. Thirty years ago I was treated there to an acoustic ensemble, Los Garambullos, playing Andean tunes; they are still at Mama Mia, down a few members but resolute.
Clinging to the town’s eastern slope—steep enough that a taxi makes sense for the ascent—La Casa de la Cuesta ($165), a seven-room B&B, makes for a quirky yet elegant base. Like so much San Miguel architecture, what you see from the street offers little clue to what lies within, and here an anonymous ocher facade, flush with its stucco neighbors, gives way to a labyrinth of cloisters and colonnades, secret gardens and spiral staircases, with hummingbird feeders swaying from the balconies. After getting shaken from my sleep by a predawn barrage of fireworks—a San Miguel tradition that periodically rankles the moneyed northerners—I was greeted by strong coffee and chilaquiles, fortified by homemade salsas, at the communal kitchen table.
It is a straight shot downhill to San Miguel’s open-air produce market, a kaleidoscope of mangoes and chiles and sunflowers, which spills into the rambling crafts bazaar, where the main attraction is hammered tin: lanterns, mirrors, hearts. A short walk leads to Fábrica La Aurora, a century-old textile mill transformed into a designer’s dream of galleries and home furnishings shops. Looping back around El Jardín, I stopped by Bazar Unicornio, where over the years I have stocked up on hand-carved wooden masks.
As it turns out, San Miguel’s finest collection of masks resides inside La Casa de la Cuesta, which encompasses a museum that Maine-born innkeeper Bill LeVasseur calls “Another Face of Mexico.” More than 500 cover the walls—from devils and dandies to healers and man-beasts—each of which, LeVasseur told me, had been “danced” in a religious or cultural ceremony. It was a testament to the old San Miguel, the difference between dabbling in decor and honoring his adopted home.
HEAT SPRINGS ETERNAL
Stepping in the thermal pools outside San Miguel
Mexico’s heartland may not have beaches, but it does have water: thermal springs that percolate through the high-desert crust. Six miles north of San Miguel, near the village of Atotonilco, you will find everything from working-class water parks to elaborately landscaped spas. At La Gruta—the Grotto—slip into a stone pool, ringed by banana trees, and let the naturally heated water, approaching 104 degrees, rise to your shoulders. At the far corner you can wade into a narrow tunnel—a wee unsettling on the first try—which soon enough opens into a steamy, man-made cavern, dark but for a few beams of skylight. The air grows heavy. But hold out for the spout in the wall that erupts at regular intervals. As visitors from a land of low-flow showers, we should not leave Mexico without a few seconds under a proper deluge.
This feature originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine.