About once a year, or so, my wife, Carrie, and I try to take a trip together to get away from the demands of our busy life and to reconnect. Some of our favorite recent trips have been to Savannah, Georgia, Charleston, South Carolina, Montreal, Quebec and Charlotsville, Virginia.
This year we are celebrating our twentieth anniversary, and so we decided that we should visit a locale that’s a bit more exotic. We talked about a variety of destinations around the world, but were having a hard time deciding where we most wanted to go – Hawaii, Paris, Milan, Alaska, Sydney? The possibilities were all a bit overwhelming.
This spring we were having some remodeling done to our master bathroom, and we became good friends with our contractor, Jose, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico. Carrie mentioned our desire to visit somewhere unique, beautiful and exotic, and Jose told her we should consider Mexico. He mentioned several possible destinations that were beautiful and safe, but the one that stuck out was San Miguel de Allende, a colonial town in the central highlands of Mexico.
Carrie and I did a little research online, and quickly decided that San Miguel was exactly what we were looking for. The city was selected in 2017 as Travel and Leisure Magazine’s best city in the world, and is a UNESCO world heritage site.
We made reservations for flights and a hotel and began preparing for the the trip, which was about two months away when we made the reservations.
My top priority was to learn enough Spanish to be able to get by and have some conversations with locals. I speak Portuguese fluently, and the two languages are close enough that a Collins audio course, listened to in the car on the way to the gallery and home every day was enough to get me up to speed, if not quite fluent.
Our kids were all finished with their school year on May 31st, and Carrie and I embarked on the trip the next morning, June 1st.
There is no airport in San Miguel, so to get there, one has to fly into either Mexico City, Querétaro, or Léon, and then figure out how to get from one of those airports to San Miguel, which is between 1.5 and 3 hours away. It turned out that it was easiest for us to fly into Léon from Phoenix, through Dallas.
I wasn’t interested in renting a car and driving on the Mexican highways and byways, but fortunately our hotel was able to help. I let them know when we would be arriving in Léon, and they made arrangements to have a car service pick us up at the airport to drive us to the hotel. All of these arrangements were made by email with the hotel staff with a lot of help from Google Translate.
Our plane landed in Léon late in the evening Friday, but a few minutes ahead of schedule, which we didn’t realize. We experienced a few minutes of panic when we walked out of the terminal and found that there was no one there to meet us. Our driver, Antonio, showed up a few minutes later, however, and whisked us away in his Dodge Sedan.
Antonio, a native of San Miguel, conversed with me for a few moments in Spanish, and then, when he realized that Carrie didn’t speak any Spanish, and that mine was rudimentary, switched to English. We spent the two hour drive learning about San Miguel. Antonio loves his hometown passionately and was delighted to give us a long list of attractions we should visit. When he learned that we own an art gallery, he was sure to direct us to a couple of must-sees for art lovers.
I had found and booked our hotel, Casaluna, online, which can sometimes be a bit dicey. We felt fortunate that the hotel, a boutique, ended up being beautiful, and in an excellent location, just a few blocks from the central plaza.
The hotel is built around a small courtyard, and each room has unique architectural features. We were amazed by the vaulted, brick ceilings in our room. The staff was friendly and accommodating, and very patient with our limited linguistic abilities.
Because the US Dollar is currently fairly strong, giving us a favorable exchange rate, the cost of the hotel was roughly equivalent to a two-star hotel in the states, but it was much, much nicer, and far less generic.
Another bonus was that the internet the hotel provided was fast and consistent. I would spend an hour or so each morning keeping up with work and email, and the internet connection was terrific.
Because we had arrived late at night, Carrie and I had only caught a glimpse of the city as we arrived. Saturday morning we put on sunscreen, ate breakfast at the hotel, and then headed out into the city.
We were immediately delighted by the sights and sounds that greeted us outside the hotel. The entire central part of town (El Centro) is traversed by cobblestone streets that date back to the colonial period, and lined with buildings, many of which are likewise several hundred years old.
San Miguel boasts a stunning, neo-Gothic cathedral at its center. Built in the 1600s the soaring pink chapel is stunning, and serves as a central landmark in the City. During our five-day stay in San Miguel, Carrie and I found ourselves returning to the church and it’s plaza multiple times throughout each day.
During our first day in town, we decided not to plan any specific destinations or make any schedules. We just wanted to explore. San Miguel is a very walkable city, as long as you are wearing comfortable shoes. We kept track of our explorations using Google Maps Timeline feature, and most days we walked a total of four to six miles. It was a good thing we were walking so much, because we couldn’t resist indulging in the many culinary delights San Miguel offers!
In researching San Miguel, I read that there are approximately 350 restaurants in the city – enough that you could spend almost an entire year exploring new eateries. I don’t know if that number is right, but I can tell you that we had some amazing food while we were visiting.
When we’re on vacation, Carrie and I usually only eat two meals each day. We will have a leisurely, late breakfast (it would probably be more accurate to call it brunch), and then we will eat a large meal late in the afternoon or early in the evening. This approach allows us to feel a little less guilt as we indulge, and it helps assure that our clothing still fits at the end of the vacation 🙂
Within a couple of days we decided that the hotel breakfast, while good, was a little too boring to repeat every day.
We ended up finding a small cafe around the corner, the Café Monet (of course!) that served an excellent variety of foods, including fruits, baked goods, pancakes, and, my breakfast staple, oatmeal. We also fell in love with their hot chocolate. Though we didn’t repeat any other restaurants during our visit, we did end up eating breakfast at Café Monet three or four times.
Some of the other restaurants where we ate were serendipitous discoveries – we would be walking by and would be drawn in – or were found using Yelp or Google Maps. We were never disappointed; everything we ate was amazing.
Like our hotel, because of the strength of the US dollar, we found restaurant prices to be stunningly reasonable. Carrie and I felt no restraint in ordering appetizers, entrees and deserts, and it was often the case that the check would arrive and our bill would total between 300 – 400 pesos. At current exchange rates, that’s between 15-20 US$. We almost felt like we were getting away with something, so I always gave a generous propina (tip).
Though on vacation and trying to get away from work, Carrie and I find it impossible to stay away from art. Within a half-hour of begin our explorations of San Miguel, we found ourselves in our first gallery. We fell in love with several of the artists this particular gallery was showing, and before we left had bought a decorative sculpture for our home. The gallery staff was happy to make arrangements to ship the sculpture back to the states for us, and once again, the exchange rate made the purchase very affordable.
This was only the beginning. San Miguel has become quite an artist’s colony, and we visited a number of galleries and studios during our stay. The driver who had picked us up from the airport had recommended that we visit Fabrica la Aurora, a renovated textile mill that has been converted into galleries and design studios. We spent several hours there enjoying the very sophisticated (and more expensive) art and fine furnishings.
Walking back, we noticed a home that had signs painted on the doors indicating that it was a studio. We had no idea what kind of art might be inside, but we decided to ring the bell. A young artist opened the door and welcomed us into the house. It turned out that he was apprenticed to the painter, a woman, who owned the house. The owner and her deceased husband were both painters and they had turned the home into a gallery for their work, along with paintings by the apprentice. I managed to lose the card for the gallery so I can’t share these artists’ names, but this experience was typical of what you might expect in San Miguel. There are hundreds of artists’ studios scattered around town, and dozens of galleries.
We visited a good number, but we felt as if we had only scratched the surface of the art scene.
The area is so beautiful and authentic that it’s easy to see why artists would be attracted to settle in the region.
San Miguel, as I mentioned, sits in the highlands of central Mexico. Its elevation (between 6,200 and 7,000 feet), and it’s southerly latitude help create a very pleasant climate. May and June are the hottest months, and while we were there, the late afternoon temperature would reach into the high eighties. It was hot enough in the afternoon that we would usually return to the hotel for a siesta.
Though moderate, especially for visitors from Arizona, it was hot enough to be a bit uncomfortable, especially considering the fact that there seems to be no air conditioning anywhere in town. This is understandable when you consider that the temperature is in the 70s for ten months out of the year, but that didn’t help us much in our west-facing room.
We suffered a bit for a few days, until we thought to ask the hotel staff for a fan, which they happily provided. Our room would still get hot late in the day, but the fan was enough to make it more than bearable.
If you are planning to follow our lead and visit San Miguel, I would recommend you avoid visiting in May or June, though Antonio did tell us town was a bit less crowded in May and June than it would be the rest of the year.
Carrie and I aren’t real beach-goers, so we were happy to report that San Miguel was in the mountains, many hundreds of miles from the coast.
As far as safety, I could understand the concern. If you hear about Mexico at all in the news, it’s likely to be reports of drug-related violence or kidnappings. U.S. Citizens have become understandably wary of traveling south of the border. San Miguel, and some other regions of Mexico, should be given an exception to the safety concerns, or at least should be considered much safer than many areas around the borders.
The US State Department shows San Miguel as requiring caution, but does not list it as an area to be avoided. Carrie and I did our best not to attract undue attention, but we never felt unsafe. The local government has worked very hard to make the area safe by increasing the police presence and keeping the city clean and orderly.
I can tell you that I felt far more safe in San Miguel than I have felt in some areas of major cities I have traveled to in the U.S.
In summary, Carrie and I agree that our trip to San Miguel has been our favorite vacation in our twenty years of marriage. We were delighted by the picturesque beauty, by the friendly locals and by the rich cultural and artistic heritage of the city.
If you haven’t been to San Miguel de Allende, and if you are looking for a unique travel experience, I heartily recommend you consider making the trip!
Where Should We Visit Next?
Carrie and I have spent the first twenty years of our marriage building a business and raising our family. We’re looking forward to seeing more of the world as we move into the next twenty years, and beyond!
Do you have recommendations for other destinations we should consider? I’m particularly interested in cities or areas that you found to be outstandingly beautiful or culturally and artistically rich. We’re less interested in visiting tourist traps!
Share your recommendations and the reasons you recommend the destination in the comments below.
If you’ve visited San Miguel, I would love to hear what you thought!
In his Amazon.com best-selling book, Xanadu Gallery owner Jason Horejs shares insights gained over a life-time in the art business.