San Miguel de Allende
State of Guanajuato, Mexico
I guess this is where backpacking caught up with us. In San Miguel de Allende. Steep cobbled streets, heavy packs, accommodation and transport issues, and every heavy wooden door closed against us. But read on. Those doors are not closed to keep people out. They're to keep the fun in.
This is the town where I started learning how to be patient. There was no other way around. It is a crucial quality to have if you live in Mexico as nobody arrives on time and things get postponed. As we had not booked our accommodation beforehand, we had to be patient and browse the town in search of a room. All the hotels were full (although a lot of them are not cheap). In any case, I always think that walking randomly along city streets and exploring the façades and what is behind the doors is an excellent way to get to know a place. But not with a backpack.
At first, I found the buildings in the centre a little bit run down and monotonous. The colonial buildings are mostly painted dark red, with a bit of dark yellow. But they all looked the same. We lost track at first – have we already been in that street? We had to walk strictly by the map as it was hard to get any reference points. Perhaps we found the colours a bit boring because we came here from the really colourful Guanajuato city (just an hour's drive by bus), as part of our 10-day backpacking trip around the Mexico City area. So by comparison with Guanajuato, San Miguel seemed to us less dramatic and less colourful. I wondered why Hollywood liked this city, filming movies like 'Once Upon a Time in Mexico' and 'And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself' almost entirely here.
Then we started opening those pretty (and heavy) doors on the buildings, to enter the small hotels and have a peep in. And we found real hidden gems inside. The courtyards are what makes this city, we started to realise. Each courtyard was either a little gallery, an art shop, a lovely restaurant or a hotel yard, a lot of them with little fountains or just pretty exotic plants and colourful walls.
The best place to get great quality Mexican and international art is at Fabrica La Aurora, only about 10 minutes from the main square down Hidalgo Street on Calzada de la Aurora. This old textile factory has been converted into a unique art and design centre. But we liked every little art shop because they were very individual (expensive but no kitsch). And we peeped into many as how otherwise would we find a room?
Soon we picked up the vibe of the city (you don't need museums for that, although there are some quirky ones in San Miguel, like the Museum of Masks). We were happy with peeping behind those beautiful old doors. Actually, there are two different vibes in the city. One is from the foreign residents and tourists, who come here to learn art or buy art and enjoy good quality restaurants that cater to their needs. That vibe is behind the walls of the city buildings, in the small old yards. The other one you will find in the zócalo (the main square) and outside the city centre: it is a Mexican vibe – equally vibrant, although much less wealthy.
It became clear to us that artisans from every part of Mexico send their work to San Miguel. The art shops do not sell the standard souvenirs, only upscale art products. The typical Mexican artisan souvenirs can be found at the zócalo. Here we found ourselves amid a mariachi concert and a lovely ambience of the locals just relaxing at El Jardín, as they usually call the zócalos in Mexico. We had our fill of people-watching: clowns with balloons (those should not be missing from any zócalo), children playing and eating ice-creams, parents on the benches drinking coca-cola and eating tacos from the many street stalls; the standard Mexican image of having a good time (I don't think Mexicans ever cook at home, they always eat out in the streets, for that matter).
We continued exploring the hotel options. By now we would have paid anything they asked. We passed a few jolly restaurants packed with Americans such as Mama Mia, La Grotta and Berlin Bar and Bistro and they were clearly enjoying themselves. You could tell they were 'at home' here. Loud and jolly, in some places dancing to live music. We found out that a series of artist colonies were founded in San Miguel in the 1950s, including the famous Instituto Allende, and many G.I.s moved their families here following World War II. Today it is like a Mexican Disneyland for American retirees and visiting chilangos from Mexico City (Playa del Carmen, where we live, is no different, it has also partially turned into Disneyland). No wonder we could not find a room!
In the end we did find a room, although without a window (for 120 USD). You can't really stay in a room without windows, so we immediately stepped out again to browse the city further, this time without the rucksacks. Founded as San Miguel el Grande in 1542 by a San Franciscan monk named Father Juan de San Miguel, the city became a focal point in the war for Mexican independence from Spain; it was renamed San Miguel de Allende after Ignacio Allende, a hero of the independence movement. The city sits in the Bajio mountains and I always believed that mountains add an extra layer to any city; hilly towns have their own charm. You are looking at baroque or neoclassical buildings but a hill in the background just adds energy and romance to the scenery.
By the time we reached Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, the 18th-century church on the Plaza Principal, it was dark. We saw its pink stone illuminated by the night lights. There were crowds of people as it was just before Christmas and the atmosphere was festive. We witnessed the wedding of a young couple at the Church of San Francisco who left in a wonderful horse-drawn coach to the music of a mariachi band. The church itself is a little bit unusual as it started being built as the church of Saint Anthony in 18th century Baroque style. But architectural tastes changed during its construction and in the end the church was finished in 1799 in Spanish rococo style.
We finished our day of exploration with a dinner at The Restaurant, in its eighteenth century Moroccan-style courtyard. It felt different and we really just wanted to sit in one of those beautiful courtyards. The service was professional and the dinner delicious (international cuisine). We were thus fully restored for the next day.
As we were determined to 'go native', we wanted to try a local bus next morning for La Gruta hot springs. We had experienced the intercity buses when travelling from Mexico City around the northern and southern towns, and they are truly luxurious, equipped even with coffee makers. But local buses are a different matter. You can find local 'folklore' on them; you can't learn about the real life of the locals from a taxi. Although it was December, we were looking forward to a swim and a relaxing morning in the natural hot spring waters (after the day of town walks). They are only 10km outside the city and we were advised in our hotel that we could, indeed, take a local bus.
Well, we did try. We found the street where the bus should have come. Or so we think. No bus signs, but that is common in Mexico. Looking back, it was not the sort of street that buses use. We could see it running up into the hills, where it turned into a track and then just died of exhaustion. We did not know it then but we had blind faith in the transport system that all the locals use. While there was no bus schedule, there was a Mexican guy waiting for the bus. So we waited together. In almost complete silence, for an hour. That does test your patience.
Here I learnt that they call the bus 'el camión'. But more importantly, we encountered for the first time the expression 'despuesito'. If I asked the man about the 'camión', he would just reply 'despuesito'. It is a diminutive of después ('later' or 'after'), meaning 'a little bit later'. It is the only word that he used in our conversation. It is our favourite word now; we use it daily, in any encounter with the locals. Or rather they use it with us.
If you call a plumber to your house, this is definitely the word he is going to use. You will have no idea when he will turn up, of course, so you will wait all day. Sometimes two days. Eventually, he will come. As our Mexican friend Suzanne says, 'It's a lot better than mañana.' One needs to say it with a gesture, to indicate the little amount of time that is needed, with two fingers close to each other.
If you focus in a restaurant, waiters do it all the time. Unless they say 'ahorita' (right now), a diminutive of 'ahora' (now). Of course, that could mean an hour's wait but that is to be expected. They would never say anything like 'in five minutes' or 'in half an hour'. They don't know those expressions. Well, of course they do, but restaurants train their staff not to say 'It'll be ready in 30 minutes.' Customers can shout about that, 'You said my table would be ready in 30 minutes and that was 45 minutes ago!' I challenge you to argue about 'despuesito'. 'You said it would be despuesito and now it's despues grande?' You'd all fall about laughing. Mexicans just love their diminutives and we love them now too. And life without hurry or rush is actually much more pleasant. Thank you, Mexico!
Needless to say, we left the man sitting there and took a taxi in the end. Make sure that you also ask the taxi driver to collect you in a few hours. La Gruta did not disappoint. It is not a luxury spa (the entry fee was 150 pesos) but it is tranquil, made up of several pools and beautifully landscaped grounds. There are areas for lounging and sunbathing (we did not use those in December as the mountain air was rather cool). One pool has warm thermal water and the highlight is the tunnel of hot mineral water leading into the steamy inner cave pool.
You can't stay in the cave too long because it is too hot and steamy (and because of the crowds). But you will certainly enjoy a pulsating stream of hot water for a good 15-minute soak. The garden restaurant, like the rest of the services, were decent. 'Despuesito' we had chicken mole served for lunch, a rich dark chocolate sauce with chili, accompanied by a couple of Margaritas. Bliss!
How to get there:
Plenty of intercity buses come here from Mexico City (3.5 hour drive) or any other city nearby. They are very comfortable, even if they arrive 'despuesito'.