Best in Mexico, best in the world

articles Travel & Destinations

Marvin West

Writer Michael Dickson © Marvin West, 2008
Writer Michael Dickson
© Marvin West, 2008

Intriguing writer Michael Dickson, aka Felipe Zapata atop his famous blog, once said of San Miguel de Allende: “It’s a great place to live if you want to ‘live in Mexico’ without actually living in Mexico.”

It is sometimes difficult to tell when Felipe is serious and when he is just stirring the pot but I thought he was on target when he said those limited to English could get along just fine without learning any Spanish or bothering themselves with little nuisances like cultural differences.

When he said what makes SMA so strange is “it has more gringos than flies on a dead coyote,” I sat up straight and gave undivided attention.

Never would I, carefully coached in sensitivity, use San Miguel de Allende and dead coyote in the same sentence. At least Felipe didn’t say green flies.

The little-middle city supposedly has about 10 percent gringos, there because it is the place to be.

Felipe says their immense influence is far greater than their numbers. You can count the pesos and decide if that is a blessing or a curse.

In comparing the colonial gem in the mountains with also artsy Ajijic and lovely Lake Chapala, I might resort to some snide remark about aging hippies and women with blue hair, diamond necklaces and Washington gowns. Never would I mention flies on….

La Parroquia in San Miguel de Allende © Nancy Harless, 2003
La Parroquia in San Miguel de Allende
© Nancy Harless, 2003

SMA or Ajijic? Such comparisons are brief. Both are beautiful in their own way. Both have most things gringos find absolutely necessary but now take for granted. Ajijic has better winter weather. San Miguel de Allende has better (and more expensive) restaurants, offers more enriching experiences and maybe two or three more charities.

Felipe smiles and says it has art galleries, theaters and self-improvement classes to gloss over most every shortcoming.

San Miguel de Allende wins. It is the best city in Mexico. It is the best city in the world!

Do not argue. Do not say hurtful things like “impossible” or “ridiculous.”

Yes, I understand, SMA does not have skyscrapers or an ocean view or even a subway system. And it isn’t easy to get there from here. The nearest airport is 50 miles. Mexico City and the bright lights are 170.

Sorry you didn’t get to vote. There is nothing left to debate. It is official. It is the best city in the world as determined by a poll of those who read Condé Nast Traveler. Conde Nast is big time. It has its own building at No. 4 Times Square in New York. It produces many magazines.

I and many Mexicans miss most of them.

I do not read Bon Appetit but I am aware it is possible to blend pasta with chorizo and chickpeas.

I do not read Glamour unless it is the only survivor in the dental office — but I am aware that Selena Marie Gomez was woman of the year not long ago.

The Jardin, is a gathering point in San Miguel © Nancy Harless, 2003
The Jardin, is a gathering point in San Miguel © Nancy Harless, 2003

I do not regularly read Traveler but many apparently do. And for good reason. It says it provides a coveted seal of approval for hotels, cruise ships and airlines from the world’s most discriminating travelers.

Seventy-four thousand supposedly helped vote down such great cities as Florence, Charleston and Vancouver plus Paris, Sydney and Rome.

Patience please, I’ll tell you what I think: San Miguel de Allende is a nice little city. I have been there. I may go so again. It has several virtues, if you discount the hint of pomposity.

I enjoy the contradiction of no traffic lights and downtown traffic snarls. I appreciate the investment in burying utility cables under cobblestone streets. My only comment on the narrow sidewalks is you really get to know your neighbors just in passing.

San Miguel is interesting, as in great historical sites. It has remarkable architecture. Somewhere I read it is, in real life, a thousand picture postcards. I saw seven or eight. I really liked the benches in front of La Parroquia, the parish church. The tall spires are spectacular at night when lighted. I don’t know why the light switch is in the police station.

In some ways, the city center is too perfect but don’t go to the barrio or out to the brick ovens. You might see some poor people. The regional prison is safely outside the ring road. It is not featured in travel brochures.

Best in the world? Not exactly. SMA is little league compared with really great cities. I think being voted No. 1 says more about readers of Condé Nast Traveler than it does San Miguel.

Eh, is that you, Felipe, over in Patzcuaro? Someone just said, “Right on, brother, tell it like it is.”

San Miguel is recognized, yea, verily, even renowned as a community of artists, writers, musicians, actors and maybe a few statesmen and orators. Authenticity, I think, comes in degrees. Not everybody is the former director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art but there are several.

A typical San Miguel street © Nancy Harless, 2003
A typical San Miguel street © Nancy Harless, 2003

If there is crime, you don’t hear much about it.

Boredom is rarely a problem. There are festivals and celebrations end to end and sometimes overlapping. Independence Day is terrific. Running the bulls was overstated but the medics got a high. Ah yes, those were the days.

Something else to do? There are lectures, plays, muffin sales and ballet. Beware of the belly dancers.

Shopping? Oh boy. Exciting variety. Never have I seen so many gift shops on the main drag of a supposed Mexican town. Bring money.

Fine dining is expensive but there are restaurants with moderate prices. I found two. Bars and organic coffee shops appear to be doing well.

I did not conduct a census but a woman who came hoping to find a rich husband says SMA has a disproportionate gay population. So does San Francisco, I am told. So?

Keep in mind that my expertise is limited. I am poorly qualified to discuss real estate values but there are houses double or triple comparables in Ajijic. There are restored Spanish mansions with entirely too many zeros after the first number.

Weather? SMA is above 6000 feet, in a valley surrounded on three sides by ascending hills. There are really cold nights in winter. You might see ice on the bird bath. Mid-morning sunshine warms the heart.

History? SMA is almost 500 years old. Once upon a time, this place was just San Miguel, named after a Franciscan monk who taught agriculture and weaving to the natives. Allende was added to honor General Ignacio Allende, one of the heroes of the 1810 fight for freedom from Spanish rule. Somewhere I have a photo of his statue, the general riding high on his horse. A plaque at the original Allende home says “Here was born the one who was famous.”

I didn’t see a Stirling Dickinson statue but he gets credit for saving SMA from itself. He arrived in 1937. Mining had run its course and the economy was in serious decline. The population had dwindled to 7000.

Mexicans don’t seem particularly interested in scenic views but Stirling saw the beauty. He led the renaissance that would transform San Miguel into one of Mexico’s most magnetic destinations. He founded the school that turned the town into an international art center.

Strange, indeed, that a magazine article made a big difference. The January 1948 issue of Life called San Miguel a “G.I. paradise where veterans go to study art, live cheaply and have a good time.”

Americans with World War II chips to cash came, mostly for the good times. Art became a by-product.

We are told that Dickinson was very proud of his accomplishments until uncouth tourists in short pants and crazy hats took their toll.

San Miguel de Allende survived and flourished. Town fathers take themselves very seriously. Preservation guidelines or law say store signs must be in Spanish and painted discreetly upon the wall near the entrance to the business. No neon.

Pomposity? Some of the old-timers complain about part-time residents who stoop to renting out their homes when they are elsewhere.

San Miguel really is a cultural wonderland: Chamber music, sculptures, jazz festivals, Easter. I like most of what I have seen. It made me think of Sante Fe and Aspen without snow.

As Felipe Zapata might say, it’s a matter of taste, one supposes. That is why they make shirts and skirts in different colors.

Published or Updated on: November 20, 2013 by Marvin West © 2013
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