Here’s a guidebook with a very definite difference. It doesn’t just set out in the usual way to give you a rundown on the community and make suggestions on what to do and where to go. Rather, Joseph Harmes, has put together a rather incredible list of ‘bests’ – some 126 pages of them in fact – to be found in San Miguel de Allende.
These range, alphabetically, from Best Art Displays to where to find the Best Yogurt. In between you can mull over several hundred “bests”, from Best Views to Best Dance Classes; from Best Tennis Courts to Best Places to Take Out-of-Towners; from Best Parks to Best Hidden Attractions; from Best Tortillas to Best Ways to Avoid Travellers Diarrhea… and so on.
I should add that those 126 pages of Bests include, as you mighty expect, 26 pages devoted to dining out, such as best pizza, best pozole, best restaurants when someone else is paying, best street food, best breakfasts, best late night dining – some 118 categories in all. And there are a further 75 categories devoted to drinks and libations, just in case you’re keen on tracking down the perfect margarita or locating the Best Happy Hour in town.
Shoppers are also very well catered to. Here you’ll find a long list of categories such as best T-shirt shops, best gift shops, best greeting cards, best jewelry, best glassware, best lingerie, and so on. It sounds like a shopper’s paradise. There are some forty pages devoted to Shops and Services.
Author Harmes, a former journalist with Time, Newsweek and People, is now a fulltime resident of San Miguel. He makes a couple of claims in his introduction. First, he has personally visited every one of the hundreds of listings in his book. Second, all his information is up-to-date and accurate up to November 2004.
An interesting feature of this unique guide is that it is completely bilingual. Read the book in English or turn it over 180 degrees and – presto! – you’re reading the complete Spanish version. And – oh, yes – it’s nicely illustrated with color and black-and-white photos.
The author describes San Miguel as “the most prosperous town of its size anywhere in Mexico, in most part because of the tens of millions of dollars pumped into it by visitors and foreign residents and this wealth’s multiplier effect on the local economy.” When I look at the pace at which the Lake Chapala area is growing and the copious real estate ads and the hordes of snowbirds and tourists who come here every winter, plus all the construction that is going on, I wonder about the accuracy of Harmes’ claim. However, there’s no need to argue about it: both locations are obviously prospering.
Harmes gives his mission statement as follows: “Visitors stay in San Miguel a short period of time. This get-to-the-point book accelerates the learning curve by directing them to the best of the best in order to make the most of a brief, or even a long-term visit.” And he’s done a first-rate job of carrying out his mission. Indeed, I would imagine that even long term residents would find items they didn’t know about beforehand.
You’ll come across many pages of Holidays and Events with each one fully described for the entire year, including each of the Saints’ Days, National Holidays and copious other festivals and excuses to launch firecrackers. Some 75 festivals and holidays are celebrated annually. Harmes also manages to cover quite a bit of history and culture in his discussion of these events and other aspects of the town. He hasn’t just produced a book of lists. There’s a lot of interesting background material woven throughout his “Bests”.
I said earlier that this is a guidebook with a difference, and one of those differences is that Joseph Harmes isn’t just dealing in straightforward information. He also takes an entertaining and playful approach to a lot of the things he’s telling us. Thus we get “bests” like Best Bathrooms for a Quickie, Best Grafitti, Best Sex Toys, Best Haunted House, Best Places to Dump a Body, and so on. And how about Best Reason to Pet, Thank & Kiss a Dog? I liked Best Place to Escape Foreigners – Three miles in any direction from El Jardin.
And he’s not above being critical either. But he couches his criticisms in “best” terms, such as the Best Eyesores – namely, high voltage lines, and by identifying a few buildings that don’t enhance the look of the place.
By a happy coincidence, my wife and I plan on a ten-day visit to San Miguel in March. Already we’re looking forward to dropping in on several of the places mentioned in Joseph Harmes’ book. I’m sure we’ll have a better visit because of it.
In my humble O: This one’s a winner. And it comes with its own Spanish version, too. If you have any thought of visiting San Miguel sometime in the near future, you’d be crazy if you didn’t pick up a copy before you leave home.
The Best of San Miguel de Allende
By Joseph Harmes
Available from Amazon Books: Paperback