In 2003, I never really had an interest in visiting the Mexican interior. Mexico City, especially, was always last on my list of third-world metropoli to visit – right down there with Sao Paulo, Kingston and Calcutta. The stories of crime, corruption, abject poverty, suffocating smog and extreme overpopulation (between 22 and 26 million inhabitants depending on who you talk to) were enough to keep me from ever wanting to set foot in this megalopolis. And by default, since Mexico City is the major hub for visits to other parts of the country, I simply wrote them off my list as well…
Man, was that a mistake.
Earlier this year, good friends of ours announced that they were going to be married in Mexico City, where the majority of their families live. After some pleading and many safety assurances from my wife and the bride-and-groom-to-be, I acquiesced and agreed to an extended two-week trip to Mexico — starting in Mexico City for the wedding.
In a successful effort to appease my inner travel agent, my wife let me do most of the planning. All of our travel arrangements were made via the Web. We would spend the first weekend in the San Angel neighborhood of Mexico City for the wedding. Then, we (along with our friend Ericka, who was also attending the wedding) would take a private car to San Miguel de Allende for a week where we would stay in a private residence. For the second week, Ericka was heading home and Ursula and I were bound for Zihuatanejo on the Pacific coast – where I had arranged to rent an “eco-tourist.” bamboo hut in the jungle only 200 steps away from a crocodile infested stream and the beach.
But our adventures (and misadventures) in Zihuatanejo are best left to another story. For the purpose of abbreviation and descriptive nuance, I will focus here on our trip to San Miguel de Allende, where I learned several valuable lessons:
1) The amount of Spanish I’m capable of speaking is in equal proportion to the amount of Don Julio and Sangrita I drink.
2) Never take two American women into a men’s only cantina in San Miguel de Allende at two o’clock in the morning.
3) We move way too FAST here in the states. One Mexican minute is worth an eternity.
These truths will make themselves evident as this story unfolds.
On the Road to San Miguel
The morning after the wedding and reception (which was a total blast – more on that in another story too), we had arranged for a driver to pick us up in Mexico City and transport us to the doorstep of our San Miguel de Allende house rental.
The drive to San Miguel de Allende from Mexico City was relatively short – about 3.5 hours, with nearly one of those hours fighting traffic in an effort to escape the city. After saying “adios” to the last of many billboards on the road from the city, the view opened up to rolling green hills and spectacular views of distant, jagged mountains. As this was Sunday, the typically working farm fields were empty — completely devoid of the burros and caballeros we would spot during the week. The countryside was beautiful and reminded us of California, the Midwest and Tuscany all rolled into a single eternal vista.
Occasionally, we would drive through a remote, half-decaying roadside “village”, which usually consisted of crumbling raw-brick structures occupying seemingly vacant dirt lots. Invariably, these decaying, Mexican “strip malls” contained several “taquerias” (taco stands), one small market, hand-painted Sol Cerveza signs, dusty children kicking around a “futbol,” women cooking something that smelled really good, men sitting and drinking beers and dozens of squawking chickens perched precariously by the roadside.
As I scanned the brown, leathery faces of the Indian men and women watching us drive through, I sensed that time was somewhat different to these people. It was their Catholic god’s day of rest…and theirs as well. In this idealistic setting in the middle of the green Mexican countryside, no one seemed to be in much of a hurry or have really much of anything to do.
We arrived in San Miguel de Allende on October 5 – the last day of the three-week Mexican Independence Day celebration known as the “Festa de San Miguel.” As we entered the hillside town through steep, narrow, cobble stoned streets, the celebration was evident. Distant drums sounded from the center of town. Hundreds of people were winding through the alley-like streets on high, thin sidewalks. Small boys were dressed in little caballero (cowboy) costumes, complete with hats and play pistolas. The girls wore colorful traditional Mexican dance dresses. Men were dressed as Satan and other demonic costumes. After all, St. John prophesizes in the Book of Revelations that it will be “San Miguel” the Archangel who is to fight against the dragon, or Satan, at the end of days – the apocalypse.
Expats vs. the Mexican Minute
We stopped and parked on one of these bustling streets in front of our rental house, Casa Shelly. Here, we met our rental agent, Annie from San Miguel de Allende House Rentals. Annie and her husband had just retired from Southern California to San Miguel five months ago, buying a house here, which they were currently renovating. Their main reason for moving, she says, is so that they can enjoy a slower pace, as time is definitely different here.
Annie was the first of many on our trip to tell us about the notorious “Mexican Minute.” A Mexican Minute may indeed be a minute, but could also be an hour…or even a day. Annie also tells us that a new Costco has been built on the edge of town, partially to cater to Annie, her husband and the 5 – 10,000 other ex-pats who now call San Miguel home, or part-time home.
Calling San Miguel “home,” however, takes money. There are no mortgages for Americans, Canadians or Europeans who choose to retire here. Real estate transactions are “cash-only” and a good home needing renovation near the center of town currently runs anywhere from $250,000 – $450,000. During our stay, we saw a number of retired ex-pats dressed in Sedona-style sarongs and the stylings of the cultural elite, in an attempt to look bohemian in expensive fitted clothing. Picture Kerouac with pressed pleats in his khakis and a $50 Perry Ellis tee.
Annie hooked us up! Our rental house, Casa Shelly, was amazing! The American that owned the house had it entirely renovated and then decorated in a Moroccan style. The structure was built entirely of molded concrete, which provided cool respite during the warm days. The walls were painted coral, green and a myriad of other bright colors. The house was strewn with artwork; antique knick-knacks, art books, CDs and a note from Suzy Shelly, the house’s owner, instructing us to help ourselves to all of it.
The Festa San Miguel
We grabbed a quick bite of marinated steak with guacamole in a restaurant terrace overlooking the Plaza Principal and then made our way to the marketplace to stock up on groceries and staples for the week. We are far from the land of Ralph’s, Vons and Albertsons. Fruit and vegetable vendors spilled out of the decaying concrete market building and into the street. Inside, rickety old wooden stands displayed tomatoes, onions, passion fruit, squash and hundreds of other types of produce. The old women at the stands offered us bits and samples of their tasty wares. In the back of the building fish, sausage and meat vendors removed their unsold inventory from the display ice chest and prepared to call it a day.
We unloaded our market bounty back at Casa Shelly and retired for an afternoon siesta – weary from travel as well as the previous night’s wedding reception tequila back in Mexico City. After several hours of peaceful sleep and dreams, I awoke to the sound of … FIREWORKS! The “Festa de San Miguel” continues into the night! We headed up the street to the center of town (which is only about 5 minutes away).
The Plaza Principal or “Jardin” is the center of most activity in San Miguel, and tonight is one of the biggest celebrations of the year. The beautiful tree-lined square filled with hundreds of Mexican families eating jamon e queso tortas and sipping flavorful fruit drinks and horchata. Groups of rowdy mariachis played in the gazebo. Fireworks strapped to bizarre 20-foot tall wire towers spun and danced throwing sparks out into the crowd. Every few minutes, we were startled by the BANG of new fireworks being shot into the cool night sky only 100 feet above our heads. The pink, gothic Parroquia, the city’s most-recognized landmark, was alit with flashing lights revealing shadows of drumming, dancing parades.
For the most part, it was more of a family celebration and not your typical US July 4th drunken brouhaha. After the fireworks ended and the last drum was banged, men, women and their children filed calmly out of the town square, into the connecting streets and toward their respective homes.
We headed to the rooftop terrace of the “Char-Rock” bar, which had been filled with a number of revelers only an hour ago. Now, it was empty, and we sat nursing Indio beer, Don Julio tequila and Sangrita, enjoying our birds-eye view of the equally empty Plaza Principal. Later, we were treated to a couple of sets of classic rock music played inside the bar by a three-piece local band. After playing covers of the Eagles, the Stones, Van Morrison and others, the lead singer/guitarist greeted applause from the audience with a comical “Muchos graciaaaaaaaas,’ through a grit-toothed smile. It was the first of many live music performances we would enjoy during our week in San Miguel.
The Hot Springs at La Gruta
The next morning, we decided to take a taxi about 10 kilometers out of town to the “banaleario” the region’s natural hot springs, said to contain minerals that enrich the body and skin while soothing the soul. Our taxi driver had a passenger already in the cab – a small boy in the front seat leafing through a History textbook. “A Escuela?” I asked the driver. “Yes,” he replied in Spanish, “this is my son.” The son is dropped at a corner in town and we drove to the countryside another 15 minutes to “La Gruta.”
“La Gruta” is purported to be one of the better banalearios in the area. I have read about the popular gruta, or grotto: a manmade cave in the hot springs from which water flows out of the walls to replenish the warmth of the spent hot spring waters. The place is innocuous at first. Just a gravel parking lot with a huge, poorly hand-painted and decaying “billboard” letting you know that you have arrived.
Upon entrance, however, the place seemed more like a wonderful, chaotic garden. There are lush tropical plants and cacti among hand-hewn stone walls that appear almost ruinistic. As we wound down the main walkway we eventually found the two main spring-fed pools that looked very much like swimming pools with their light blue paint and smooth sides. We changed into our suits and step down to the pools.
Wandering away from Urse and Ericka, I found that one pool was nestled against a stone wall that contained a narrow water-filled doorway. Upon closer inspection, the doorway was the portal to a 100-foot passageway about chest-deep in spring water. I wound through the passage, which led me to…La Gruta! La Gruta is a large, kiva-like domed room made entirely of precariously placed natural stone. With the warm spring water, it has a very primal womb-like appearance and feel. Light streamed in from ventilation holes in the ceiling.
I paused for a few minutes to empty my mind and mediate on the sound of water dripping from the ceiling. At 3PM on the dot, hot, fresh spring water gushed in from a gash high in the stone wall, providing a hydro neck and back massage if you stand directly beneath it. Another idyllic setting.
After my soak, I dressed and retired to La Gruta’s simple outdoor patio to enjoy a cheap lunch of flautas con pollo, avocado salad and Dos Equis beer, enjoying the natural surroundings of the place as the rain started to drizzle down.
We had arranged for our taxi driver to return to pick us up when La Gruta closed at 5PM. As the last of the customers and staff drove out of the parking lot, he still had not shown. Several of the workers leaving the springs offered us rides back into town, but we declined, just in case he did arrive. By now, it was nearly 6 and we decided that we’d been abandoned in the middle of the countryside, which was actually not a bad situation. Eventually a bus came by and stopped to pick us up. For fifty cents each, we were dropped at the San Miguel bus terminal. From there, a 20 Peso cab fare got us back to the Plaza Principal – our starting point. Cheap transport.
Polly Want Some Pollo?
The next day we toured the southern part of town near Benito Juarez Park. During this excursion, we saw another side of the town. The area is very green and dense with foliage. The park itself is extremely overgrown (not in an unsightly way), shady and reminiscent of the best parts of Manhattan’s Central Park. After school, dozens of teenagers congregate in the park. Young lovers seek solitude at the bottom of centuries-old stone steps near a trickling stream.
Most of the more expensive hotels are in this languid part of the city, built largely from former Spanish Colonial homesteads. We enjoyed a cerveza in the courtyard of one of these hacienda hotels and took in the colorful stone walls, courtyard and central fountain. A beautiful place, but relatively pricey for Mexico at 2000 Pesos per night.
Eventually, we found the steep stone staircase up to “El Chorro,” the highest point in San Miguel with a view of the entire town below. “200 steps” the Maestra of the art school at the bottom informed us. We trotted up, Ericka led the way into a nameless restaurant and cantina once we arrived at the top. The restaurant had a huge patio with the best view possible of the town. La Parroquia is in clear view, as is the entire centro and Jardin. If it wasn’t for trees, we would have been able to see Casa Shelly from here.
We ordered…again…cervezas and Don Julios with Sangrita. After learning that we were from the US, our friendly waiter confided, “I lived in San Antonio for awhile. I was embarrassed to speak my poor English.” I told him that his English was a hell of a lot better than our Spanish and we instantly made another new friend. Along with our drinks, he brought around the house Parrot to keep us company.
At first, Percales the Parrot was somewhat aloof and tried to peck at us when we slowly moved our fingers under his feet so that he could perch. He snacked on our tortilla chips and found a good hiding place nestled in the green ironwork legs beneath the table. When we ordered fajitas of beef, chicken, chorizo and nopale cactus, Percales emerged to help himself to our buffet. At first, he tried the chicken, but then decided that it may be cannibalistic and proceeded to munch down no less than 10 pieces of the carne asada.
An excellent guitarist sauntered in to jam out some slide blues in the corner of the patio. He also had a harmonica strap and whaled into it to accompany the guitar. After the first song, he asked if we had any requests. “Any classic rock is bueno!” I told him. He then whipped out an awesome bluesy rendition of Cream’s “Sunshine of your Love” followed by some Robert Cray. Afterward, he came over to our table to talk. I asked if he would like a beer and he says he’d rather have tequila. My kind of guy.
Several hours later when we rose to leave, the staff were genuinely disappointed to see us go. Our new friend the waiter let me know, “From now on, this is your casa.” He was very sincere and my appreciation of the openness of the locals moved me. Percales sang his goodbyes as we exited into the nighttime streets.
On our way home, there were mounted police outside of the neighborhood pharmacy. Locals were milling about, taking in the action. I asked an older woman in broken Spanish what had happened. Apparently, the pharmacy had been robbed. She motioned over to the shantytown perched atop the high, sloped concrete wall that leads down to the open sewer, or the “river of shit” as I’d referred to it earlier. I surmised that the bandito was a shantytown resident.
I thought nothing more of the incident. We settled into Casa Shelly for contented sleep…at least until 3AM.
Won’t You Take Me To…A Shantytown!
At 3AM, Ursula and I awoke to very loud banging sounds coming from outside near Casa Shelly. The BANGs were intermittent, about one every 30 seconds or so. After rubbing some of the sleep from our eyes, we started cracking up with every BANG, speculating what the noise could possibly be at this hour. To me, it sounded like large sheets of corrugated tin being kicked down the street.
After about 15 minutes of speculation, we could take no more. We got up and looked out our window and saw…large sheets of corrugated tin being kicked down the street! About 10 local men were at work completely dismantling the shantytown, one sheet of tin at a time. Several mounted policemen were overseeing the process, but were doing nothing to assist the men, who were performing the demolition without tools. It was dangerous work. And any of them could very easily have fallen back when pulling off a tin roof and suffered serious injury.
The sheets of tin were being dragged up the street and thrown into a waiting truck bed. We surmised that the residents of Shantytown had overstayed their welcome. The squatters seemed to be tolerated throughout the week we were there, but the robbery earlier acted as the signature on their eviction notice.
A Day Trip to Diego’s Hometown
On our last day, we hired a taxi to take us to Guanajuato, about an hour and a half drive from San Miguel. Our driver stopped on the way down a mountainside to give us a view of this sprawling, haunted and beautiful old Spanish Colonial city. The drive continued into town via an old mining tunnel…remnants of the town’s silver boom in the 1700′s, which had now been put to use as underpasses.
Guanajuato is known for several things, among them, it’s Mummy Museum, it’s annual Cervantes Festival of all things art and performance, and as being the hometown of Diego Rivera, Mexico’s most infamous muralist and itinerant husband of Frida Kahlo. We wound through the hilly stair stepped sidewalks to visit Diego’s house, which is now a museum. The museum featured quite a few of his original works, as well as notes and other documents of his life. A great day trip.
All Good Things…
Our final day in San Miguel was relaxing but mostly incidental. We walked the streets one final time and Ericka and Ursula checked out the city’s artisan and interior design shops. I really dug one shop in particular that was full of antique wood furniture and accessories. The owner took us to the front of the shop to show us his tarantulas.
As we meandered through the town, I took pictures of the cool old beat doorways on the street in front of brightly-colored concrete facades and planned to use them as art in our house later. When we first arrived here, I asked Annie the rental agent where we could see a bullfight. She indicated that it was on Sunday located on a normal street behind a seemingly innocuous door. “That’s the great thing about San Miguel,” she intoned, “you never know what’s behind these thick old wooden doors.” Indeed, that is just part of the town’s charm.
After a week in San Miguel de Allende, the town had gotten very much “under my skin.” I understood the appeal to Norte Americanos that have chosen to move or retire down here.
The place itself is colorful and full of history. The lifestyle is slower. However, it’s the people (locals) that made the biggest impression on me. Everyone smiled and greeted us warmly. Our hosts at restaurants, bars and artisan shops were genial and treated us like family. The entire town seemed to take a great deal of civic pride in keeping the streets clean, gardens well-kept and welcoming, and the visitor happy and comfortable. For one of the few times in my life, I felt that I could easily integrate with this community, with the locals and expats alike.
One Mexican minute is indeed worth an eternity. We will be back.
Your Gringo in Mexico,
Interested in visiting San Miguel de Allende? Check out our Travel Resources page for hotels, restaurants, attractions and activities.