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San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

San Miguel de Allende  - Pure enchantment.  Moreover, it’s contagious! But that could be the only danger awaiting you in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico!   Believe me, its effect can still be felt many weeks after our return and it probably explains why so many residents of the Canadian and American west coast have moved there in the past twenty years.  Most of them are makers of art and of experiences of joy and serenity: painters, sculptors, writers, epicureans, altruistic hotel owners, nature lovers inspired by the colors of birds and flowers, pure air and …smiles.

A new life in San Miguel

In San Miguel and in its surrounding countryside, the pleasure of life takes nothing out of creative energy. Everyone is immediately taken in and participates in a new life: labor-intensive, nevertheless enriching.  Daily life has nothing to do with and has no use for the “beach chair and Margarita” duo.  Though the Margaritas are quite delicious and quite efficient… especially when offered by Dianne Kushner, admirable Queen of the Casa Luna Quebrada and of the Rancho Casa Luna, in her shady garden, as a reward at the end of a day of work and concentration or of a day of discovery under the sun.

And the iced tequila is accompanied by baskets decorated with flowers and filled with irresistible homemade beet or organic sweet potato chips.  Just imagine the ambiance, the color and the taste!

As Susan Page, the organizer of the San Miguel Writers Conference, an annual event that assembles Canadians, American and Mexican writers, rightly said to me:  “Some people move to Florida to die.  Some move to San Miguel to live.” 

A rich soul, heart and appearance

San Miguel’s Mexican population has always expressed its love for arts in silverware, pottery, blown glass, restaurants, hotels, as well as through the preservation of the colonial architecture of its most cherished vice royal city, to the utmost happiness of travelers and tourists.  A visit to San Miguel is clearly a cultural trip where the present is as important as the past.

As such, this city, cradle of the fathers of Mexican independence, with its startling harmony of the yellow and ochre of its walls, with the gray and black cobblestones covering its streets and narrow sidewalks, rightly earns its title as a UNESCO World Heritage City. Here, beauty and wealth are in the soul and the heart as well as in the appearance of the city!

Stays of more than one week are necessary to see what the city has to show and to meet the people who make it what it is, day after day, respectful of traditions while challenging them with new visions.

This is all without taking into account the fact that San Miguel de Allende is under the protection of Notre Dame de Guadelupe.  And may also be under that of one of its omnipresent painters, Frida Kahlo, legitimately loved to the point where she was given the nickname “Saint Frida”. 

The Casa Luna: a true jewel in its casket

San Miguel displays its coquetry under all of its facades and under all of its seams.  It is even more charming behind its walls.  Wandering through the streets, we mostly see its closed doors, always lovingly sculpted, sometimes soberly, sometimes with exuberance and when they open, we are truly blown away by the large spaces, the extent of the detail and the comfortable luxury that is displayed.

The Casa Luna Quebrada, where we stayed, is a true stunning and memorable example of this.  Small gardens explode with greenery and flowers. Each of the casitas, which welcome guests, is stacked asymmetrically and, be they small or large, they are all differently decorated with exquisite taste and an infinite love of Mexican art. Each one has its own little terrace with a view and bedding is in such abundance that we almost feel the need to help the cleaning lady.  Each has such an imaginative bathroom that we can’t resist photographing it with a smile.  We would like to visit them all, imagining that every single one is a little trip on its own.

Ingenuity and generosity meet at the Casa Luna.  Even the fresh cut flowers are so perfect that at first glance you might think they are artificial… same with the superb, varied and copious daily continental or Mexican breakfast prepared by Yolanda, with its house jams and “drunken eggs”: poached eggs served in an herbed tomato sauce. No doubt that this is part of the traditional Mexican cuisine recently celebrated by UNESCO!

The site is so idyllic that we have to resist just sitting inside with Bonbon, the very nice pet dog who waits for you to signal him before coming over for a pat, at the risk of missing what San Miguel and its surroundings have to offer. 

A profound commitment to sharing

The Rancho Casa Luna is the other form in which Dianne Kushner has chosen to express her passion for people, beauty and Mexican nature.  It is also there that she pursues her mission to share:  even if she wouldn’t phrase it that way.  The ranch’s architecture and décor, imagined and completed by Dianne herself, are no less than sublime.  Of course, to fill this 20 acre oasis with a hacienda, greenhouses, fountains, a smokehouse, a theatre, one Jacuzzi, one large outdoor room and two huge kitchens, she had to count on faithful allies skillful with stone, concrete, earth and animals.

The ranch is not only her home, it is also a vast farm for organic produce where the Chef Hugh Carpenter, author of 15 cookbooks, gives cooking courses.  It is also a place to hold events of all kinds, such as weddings or team building meetings in an out-of-the-ordinary, luxurious setting, inside as well as outside. Quite different from the resorts we are used to in the South.

Now, what do we see and what do we do in San Miguel and its surrounding areas?

With an artist's perspective

Art studios and art galleries hosting art schools, as well as bistros, are open to the public: The Instituto Allende, the Centro cultural El Nigromante Bellas Artes and the fabulous modern art complex, la Fabrica La Aurora, is where the remarkable sculptor Victor Nunez and the Canadian painter Brian Care, our guest of the month, work among dozens of other artists.

Museums, such as the Guanajuato museum dedicated to Don Quixote, where Mexican and Spanish painters and sculptors from all eras and styles have immortalized the glorious characters of Cervantes as a sign of a renewed friendship, since the city of Guanajuato has adopted Cervantes and Don Quixote as its ambassadors.

In the house where Diego Rivera was born, the Mexican art’s giant - in a literal sense as well as in a figurative one - husband of the legendary Frida Kahlo, you can take an emotional look at his cradle.

At night, a play at the Juarez de Guanajuato theatre could be an excellent way to end the day in a truly romantic setting.

With a folkloric perspective

A visit to the gigantic Atotonilco gallery, founded by Mayer Shacter, is where the best in Mexican folk art, antiques, historic photos and vintage textiles are displayed. Masks are impressive. The delicate blown glass leaves you … breathless!  In stark contrast, yet still harmonious, Shacter’s annex house, the object of many photo reports in the most renowned art and architecture magazines, is ultramodern and spectacular.  The house is open for visitors as well as the gallery where it is almost impossible to guess what is for sale and what is not.  Shacter is an art lover inside and out and he certainly knows how to play homage to art!

With a kaleidoscopic vision

If your mind and eyes are open to new perspectives, you have a sense of humor, some political cynicism, some symbolic play and hearty hysteria, if you like the significant to be brilliant, then you will be completely blown away by the frenzied and overworked art of Jimmy Ray, alias Anado McLauchlin!

Every corner of his living space in the Casa de Las Ranas - his house, studio and chapel - is a work of art in itself, filled with irreverent altars showing the raw essence and the shortcomings of people and his poems/manifestos are impregnated with puzzlement.  It’s very “heavy” work that breaks the mold. Would I dare put a label on his artistic approach that combines mosaics and collages: kaleidoscopic installations?  It’s only 5 km from San Miguel.

Important: reservations are required to visit the studio of Mayer Shacter or Anado McLauchlin.

With a mystical perspective

Churches, such as the Parroquia in San Miguel Arcangel, the Atotonilco Sanctuary, the Oratorio de San Felipe Neri and the church of the Concepcion, are only a few of the pilgrimage sites Mexicans and tourists visit year after year.  Year-round, the ceremonies, processions and re-enactments of religious scenes are numerous during the day as well as at night.

With a learning perspective

Many tourists come here to take classes of all kinds: pottery, writing, Spanish, jewelry, personal growth, etc…

With a sense of authenticity 

The Chorro at the Plaza de Toros, an ancient public washhouse, still used by many families, is worth the detour.  Its water distribution system, although primitive, is simple and inventive and exposes real life to the sun in a beautiful square.

In the last few years, Mexican food has gained a level of prestige. Visitors come in increasing numbers to participate in real culinary pilgrimages such as the ones organized by Bonnie Berg MacLaird, from Planet2Plate.  An entire week-long learning session on preparing and tasting organic Mexican  agriculture produce, visiting historical haciendas and farms, meeting restaurant chefs, peeking behind the scenes, sleeping at the Casa Luna…  yum!

The next Planet2Plate experiences are planned for July 17 to 24 and from November 13 to 20, 2011.

Others come to San Miguel to exchange vows:  we met a couple and their two entire families that came all the way from Australia… they happily celebrated on the Main Plaza with donkeys carrying tequila and mariachis, all dressed in white, participating in a little traditional procession in the streets of San Miguel on the night preceding the big day.

San Miguel offers Mexican-designed furniture, for inside as well as outside, mostly made of leather with painted-on traditional scenes, to those who would like to bring back useful souvenirs.

With an earie perspective 

Mineral de Pozos is a city founded following the economic boom produced by the discovery of silver, gold, copper and quartz mines in the 18th and 19th centuries. Now a ghost city, since the boom ended at the beginning of the 20th century, it revives every afternoon with the opening of art galleries.  Just for curiosity sake, we would have liked to see the city in all of its grandeur and effervescence in more prosperous times, but its second life is also quite stimulating.  Among things to bring back include the lovely reproductions of ancient musical instruments discovered in Mexico.

With a mythical perspective: Spencer Tunick's nudes

Spencer Tunick, the photographer famous for his scenes grouping hundreds and even thousands of nude people to create dramatic scenes of flesh, visited San Miguel and intends to come back this summer to create a triptych: a work in the streets of the city, the other in the wilderness and a third in the thermal waters. If you wish to participate,  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

With a practical and gastronomic perspective 

Everywhere we went in San Miguel and in the surrounding cities, cleanliness seemed to be the motto.  We never got sick during our stay.

Tasted for the first time:  delicious napal cactus leaves with vinaigrette, avocado and tomato/cucumber ice cream and shrimp/scallop sherbet.

The food is excellent everywhere, especially at the Casa Valadez, in Guanajuato, at the Posada de las Minas, in Mineral de Pozos, and at Pescau, in San Miguel.

It was also so much fun to sit for a moment at the Café Olé Olé in San Miguel, where bulls and toreadors from all time periods are displayed on every centimeter of the wall and tables.. 

How?

It’s easy to stroll around the historic city centre with a small map in hand.  Walking or tramway guided tours are offered for half a day or one day excursions, outside of San Miguel, to Guanajuato, known for its underground streets and its medieval houses, to Mineral de Pozos, Atotonilco, Santa Rosa, famous for its hand made pottery studios and boutiques, or to the thermal baths of La Gruta near Dolores Hidalgo. Tour busses are another option. However, taking a solo tour with a guide/driver is much more comfortable and can be affordable.

When?

The weather is always perfect in San Miguel. The hottest season, April, when the thermometer climbs to 32 degrees Celsius around noon, is behind us.  Contrary to what one might think, summer months are cooler and more comfortable.

If I can't move there, I want to go back …as soon as possible!

Sylvie Berthiaume

Translation: Christiane Théberge

Our thanks to the warm welcome from Casa Luna and to Leandro Tours that covered part of our trip.

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www.folkartsanmiguel.com

www.visitmexico.com

Typical street of San Miguel

Small shopping mall

Casa Luna Quebrada

Room at the Casa Luna

Casa Luna Quebrada

Rancho Casa Luna

Living room at Rancho Casa Luna

Fabrica La Aurora

 Shacter Gallery

Masks at Shacter Gallery

Blown glass at Shacter Gallery

Anado's Casa de Las Ranas 

Anado's artwork

Plaza Allende and The Parroquia

Atotonilco Sanctuary

Mariachis at a wedding

Mineral de Pozos

Mineral de Pozos

Café Olé Olé

 

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