Sunday, January 3, 2010

36 Hours in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

New York Times - December 27, 2009
36 Hours in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Published: December 27, 2009

With its breezy blue skies and baroque architecture, San Miguel de Allende has been a tropical haven for expatriates and retirees since the 1930s. The recent housing boom drew an even larger flock of snowbirds (mostly American) to this city in central Mexico, and with it came a new perch for post-hippie boutiques, vegan organic cafes and uneven art galleries. Old-timers started grousing about its Disneyfication. Luckily, the colonial town — which dates back to the 16th century and still bears traces of Spanish, Creole and Native American cultures — was designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 2008. While San Miguel doesn’t need any more attention, the designation helps ensure that the town’s candy-colored haciendas, romantic cobblestone lanes and rose-tinted turrets are around to survive another housing bubble.

Get a sense of San Miguel’s understated colonial grandeur with a stroll along the palm-lined paths of Parque Juárez, a sun-dappled garden with pocked stone pillars and archways and fountains tarnished with mildew or overrun with moss. Hushed streets and lush trees occupy this part of town — as well as artists and writers, like Michael Cristofer, the playwright and filmmaker, who owns a Spanish colonial home insulated by beautiful gardens. If you return to the park after dark, there’s a good chance you’ll catch an impromptu concert of one-man banjo bands and mariachi singers.

The city’s food scene is less riveting than one would expect from a melting pot of Mexican and expat cultures, but one exception is Tio Lucas Restaurant & Bar (Calle Mesones 103; 52-415-152-4996). The steakhouse extends to a crowded patio for outside dining under strings of warmly lighted star-shaped lanterns. Toothsome steaks, strong margaritas and warmed beet root and goat cheese salads mixed tableside by the chef are what attract return customers. Dinner for two with drinks is about 600 pesos, or about $48 at 12.45 pesos to the dollar. The restaurant is decorated with Mexican crafts and stenciled cutouts of dancing skeletons. Tio Lucas doubles as a jazz joint, with nightly performances at 9 p.m.

Night life in San Miguel tends to fall along two lines: you either scream over piercing club tracks or you don’t. On Calle Umaran, girls in flouncy skirts stand outside seedy sports bars teasing tousled-haired boys. Steps away, Mexican women sit in the bosky El Jardín with grandchildren on their laps listening to mariachi bands or watching fireworks bloom overhead. The mellow alternative nearby is Berlin Bar and Cafe (Calle Umaran 19; 52-415-154-9432). Run by expatriates from Germany, this chill and trendy bar draws a silver fox set who stop by for its strong drinks and artsy crowd. Couples chat and listen to jazz in candlelit nooks near a bar decorated with huge paintings of artists and intellectuals from Weimar Berlin and other periods in Germany’s history.

People stand in line for coffee at La Ventana Café Orgánico de Chiapas (Diez de Sollano y Dávalos 11; 52-415 154-7728) for a good reason. It’s not just because the organic coffee is dark and rich and the pastries fresh and flaky, but because you can’t actually go inside: La Ventana is a takeout window on the side of a faded yellow hacienda. Order an espresso and a warm croissant for 59 pesos. Take your breakfast two blocks down the road to El Jardín and sit on a bench beneath the lollypop-shaped laurel trees, where you’ll have a moment without the crowds to appreciate streaks of early-morning sunlight on La Parroquia church.

11:30 a.m.5) FEW GOOD FINDS
Souvenir shops selling Day of the Dead skeleton dolls are everywhere, which means shopping here can quickly become dull. For quirkier finds, walk east away from the center of town to Mixta (Calle Pila Seca 16A, Centro; 52-415-152-7343), a new shop that sells fine silver bangles and earrings, homemade cards and aprons stitched by local women. Farther north is Fábrica La Aurora (Calzada de la Aurora, Colonia Aurora; 52-415-152-1012;, a former turn-of-the-century textile mill turned into a design and art center. One highlight is Galería Manuel Chacon, which carries contemporary art.

1:30 p.m.6) BURRITOVILLE
When Rodrigo Pak Sautto wasn’t in upstate New York selling burritos out of an aluminum camper outside Bard College, he was building his business in San Miguel making yogurt smoothies and granola at his now popular Café Media Naranja (Calle Hidalgo 83). Housed in a tiny shoebox of a cafe, it attracts crunchy Anglos and earthy vegans who stop in for organic coffees and a quick lunch of vegetarian burritos and curried lentil soup (37 to 90 pesos) and to surf its free Wi-Fi.

Down a narrow alley behind the city’s main fruit and vegetable market is the Mercado de Artesanias (between Calle Colegio and Calle Loreto), a vibrant mash of artists’ stalls where you’ll find everything from flossy fringed piñatas and punched-tin lanterns dangling overhead to baskets of cobalt blue glass beads and silver necklaces. Its offerings are more authentic than the trinkets and curios sold in the historic district, and possibly half the price.

Follow the well-heeled expats to the flagstone courtyard at The Restaurant (Sollano 16, Centro; 52-415-154-7862;, an elegant and candlelit restaurant that serves international comfort dishes using organic ingredients from local ranchers, growers and dairy farmers. Donnie Masterton, the chef, changes the menu frequently. Recent dishes included a miso-marinated and broiled Pacific salmon with soy, ginger green beans, and grilled pork chops with white bean and cherry tomato ragout (each 200 pesos).

10:30 p.m.9) LUCKY GAUCHOS
For a festive nightcap, make your way to Limrick (Calle Umaran 2), a busy bar in a soaring hacienda that takes its design cue from an Irish pub. Mexicans and Americans of every ilk, from the landed elite to the louche locals, chat in cozy booths, throw darts and watch soccer on the television. If the night still feels young, head to La Cucaracha (Calle Zacateros 22; 52-415-152-0196), an after-hours bar decorated with faded pinup posters and yellowing maps of the area. The crowd might include D-list actors in hiding and old gauchos parked permanently at the bar.

10 a.m.10) HOT BATH
Near the outskirts of San Miguel, underground hot springs percolate to the surface and form pools. A five-minute cab ride out of town takes you to La Gruta (six miles outside San Miguel), a slightly shabby water park and picnic spot favored by locals. Two small mineral hot springs and a grotto are bordered by stone retaining walls, palm trees, wildflowers and sprays of bougainvillea.

Bird-watchers, outdoorsmen and city slickers will all appreciate the brambly valleys of El Charco del Ingenio Botanical Garden (El Charco del Ingenio; 52-415-154-8838;, a 167-acre ecological reserve spanning cactus-lined canyons and spring-fed pools. A 40-peso fee gives you access to easy hiking trails festooned with giant agaves and nopal cactus where egrets and swallows roost and peck at spiny fruits. The greenhouse, which resembles a small airplane hangar, shelters hundreds of rare and endangered plants. It’s the kind of place locals come to take in the natural surrounding beauty, perhaps when things feel a little too Disney.

The nearest commercial airports are Querétaro (about 45 miles away) and León-Guanajuato (about 70 miles). A recent Web search found a Continental Airlines flight from Newark to Querétaro, with a stopover in Houston, starting at about $550 for travel next month. The sometimes cheaper alternative is to fly into Mexico City, which offers more flights, and make the four-hour drive.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 10, 2010 The 36 Hours column on Dec. 27, about San Miguel de Allende, misspelled the surname of a playwright and filmmaker and referred incorrectly to his house near Parque Juárez. He is Michael Cristofer, not Cristopher, and he owns the house in that neighborhood, he does not rent it.