by Sandra Hutchinson
I was fortunate to spend a week in beautiful San Miguel de Allende, in Guanajuato, Mexico, during February, 2019. My best friend from childhood, along with members of her family (from the United States), reside for part of the winter in San Miguel. It is known as a cultural center for artists and writers, and many Americans and Canadians either live there for part of the year, or retire and relocate there (“ex-pats”).
Referred to as the “heart of Mexico,” San Miguel is literally in the center of the country. The environment is classified as high desert, at an altitude of about 6200 feet. When I visited, and folks in my hometown in northern New York were coping with snow and ice, the weather in San Miguel was in the upper 70s every day, with gorgeous blue skies, and cool at night. Kind of perfect, to be honest.
San Miguel is a feast for the senses. The historic core of San Miguel is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most of the buildings in the central district are stucco, in deep terra cotta hues. They are particularly beautiful in the late afternoon sun.
The streets in the historic district are cobblestone (don’t try to walk there in flimsy flip flops!). There are outdoor sculptures scattered around the city, many art galleries, outdoor murals (especially in the area called Guadalupe), and indoor murals. While I was in San Miguel, there was an international writers’ conference going on, and the following weekend a culinary film festival was to occur.
My friend and her family, some of whom are excellent artists in their own right, have become friends with some prominent San Miguel artists, including David Leonardo, who is perhaps the most well-known living muralist in the area. His stunning murals adorn the interiors of places like the Biblioteca de Publica (public library) and the Instituto Allende, a degree-granting visual arts school. He is especially known for depicting the history of Mexico and its indigenous peoples. Don’t miss his mural in the Biblioteca that depicts 62 indigenous groups of people in Mexico (photos not permitted unfortunately). The photos below are from murals at the Instituto.
Not to miss in San Miguel is the Fabrica la Aurora, a former textile factory that has been converted into art galleries, studios and display areas.
Because he is a close friend of my friend’s father, I was fortunate to meet one of the premier artists with a gallery in the Fabrica, Fernando Diaz. He is a sculptor as well as a painter. His sculptures are mostly of welded metal incorporating symbolic elements, and his paintings focus on the written language, often interpreting ancient Hebrew texts.
While in San Miguel, we spent several hours taking a private lesson with artist Gerardo Ruiz, learning to create monoprints. Gerardo’s home, studio and gallery is located adjacent to the Fabrica. A monoprint is a single impression print. We first created an image with oil paints on an acrylic plate, using brushes and knives, and Gerardo then printed the image on his press. The first three photos below show Gerardo in his studio demonstrating the technique.
Even the store windows in San Miguel are filled with beautiful, hand-crafted pieces, like this hand-painted dress.
Here’s an outdoor stand where headpieces made of artificial flowers are sold:
The human skeleton is a ubiquitous theme in Mexico. You might just see one on a random balcony.
There are also many beautifully carved doors and exterior decorative architectural elements throughout the historic center.
And then, the not-so-fancy, but still appealing, ones:
There are a number of rooftop bars in San Miguel, and we stopped by a couple. If your budget allows for a splurge, check out the top of the high-end Rosewood Hotel. We managed to while away a couple of hours here, watching the sun set over San Miguel. It was an unusually cool evening and the hotel provided blankets. Here’s the view:
I spotted this poster for the 2019 San Miguel Food in Film Festival.
You may happen upon a compelling exhibit, as we did, on global migration, at the Bellas Artes, a school of arts housed in a former convent. Many of the images depicted movement of Mexican people towards the United States.
We also stopped by the Mask Museum of San Miguel, a private museum operated by collector (and American) Bill LeVasseur. Suggested admission is a minimal 100 pesos, which is said to be donated to a local day care center. Visits are by appointment only. Please click on the link above for the museum website.
The museum is housed in a building to the rear of the owner’s home, which he and his wife operate as a bed and breakfast. While the owner does not allow photographs within the museum itself, there are many images on the website. and photographs were permitted in the interior of the home, as well as in the shop where masks and other pieces of folk art are sold (photo below). The museum contains hundreds of striking Mexican ceremonial masks from different regions and cultural groups, with explanations of their meaning.
Before entering the museum, visitors hear a presentation by Mr. LeVasseur, on the significance of the masks in Mexican culture, on his methods of finding and purchasing masks. and on what he terms his ethnographic research. While his presentation was informative and interesting, he said some things that were extremely off-putting, including criticizing a woman who arrived a few minutes after his talk had commenced. It was a bit of shaming that was totally unnecessary and surprising, since this was a visitor to his home. He also made numerous sarcastic and negative comments about the current US administration, which, regardless of one’s political views, had absolutely no bearing on or relevance to his talk. Nonetheless, the collection is fascinating to see, and the living spaces in the home are striking and filled with Mexican folk art.
Also took a cooking class!
My week in San Miguel took an interesting turn when my friend and I took a half-day cooking class at La Cocina Cooking School, run by expat American Kris Rudolph. Our class included a market tour to buy ingredients, and then preparing lunch with indigenous ingredients. Our group met up near Mercado San Juan de Dios, and then shopped for ingredients like cactus, roasted corn, tomatillos and tortillas. We were also able to taste a variety of unusual fruits at the market.
The dishes we prepared included tomatillo salsa (salsa verde), chile pasilla salsa with skirt steak, zucchini with corn and crème fraîche, and margaritas. We were reminded that Mexico is a corn-based society, and that oil is not used in cooking, since foods are dry roasted over fire. Kris stressed that there is little use of dairy, and that cheese is not original to Mexican cuisine. We learned about various traditional cooking tools, like the comal, or metal skillet, and the grindstones made of volcanic rock.
The class cost $130 US each and I booked it online, paying through PayPal. We met at the market around 11 am and left after our lunch around 3:30 pm. It seemed a bit pricey, and there are other cooking classes in San Miguel, but this class immersed us in the market experience and was also very hands-on. Some of the other classes we considered were simply demonstrations. Plus, we met some lovely people in the class.
Excursions outside San Miguel
We made a few excursions outside the city. The first, was to Rancho Zandunga, where famed musician and guitarist Gil Gutierrez and his wife Rebecca host Sunday afternoon concerts (including dancing), about 15 minutes from downtown San Miguel. For about $30 US, visitors enjoy an afternoon of excellent music and a buffet of traditional Mexican foods with tacos, grilled meats and salads. Drinks are extra but extremely reasonable. A mojito that I would pay $10 or so at home was only $3.
Another excursion was first, to La Gruta (“the grotto”), an outdoors hot springs and spa. There are several open air pools with naturally hot water, and the grotto itself, which you enter by wading through chest-deep water in a darkened tunnel, arriving at the “cave.” When the cave is “working,” water gushes out of a structure in the center, pounding down on people standing below it. Unfortunately, the day we were there, the spouting water had been turned off and we were told it is only “on” during select hours. The water was warm, not hot, in my judgment.
Not far from La Gruta is a private home and folk art store called Galeria Atotonilco. If your are in the market for authentic Mexican folk art, don’t miss this. Owners Mayer Shacter and Susan Page offer an eye-popping array of ceramics, wooden objects, paintings and sculpture. Both the main gallery and their home are open to visitors, although appointments are requested. Please click on the link above to find contact information.
The three photos below are just a few of the pieces of folk art available to view (and purchase) at Galeria Atotonilco.
Only a mile or so from the gallery is the stunning Sanctuary of Atotonilco, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is often referred to as the “Sistine Chapel of Mexico.” Built in the early 18th century, the interior is covered with murals and paintings of stories from the Bible. If you go, make sure you pay the few extra pesos to enter the portion of the church that includes the large, realistic painted sculptures depicting the crucifixion and agony of Christ.
Leaving Atotonilco, our driver asked if we wanted to stop at his friend’s mezcal ranch, Ranch El Tinieblo. Sure, why not, we asked?
If you keep going about 15 minutes beyond Atotonilco, to the town of Dolores Hildago, you’ll find a number of ceramic factories and stores selling “talavera-style” ceramics. The prices are affordable, and the stores ship to the United States. Below are some of the wares.
In Dolores Hidalgo, we stopped for lunch at a traditional “carnitas” restaurant called Carnitas Vincente. This is essentially Mexican barbecue, with all the fixings. Carnitas and a cold Mexican beer–hard to beat that!
If you get to the park in the center of Dolores Hidalgo, look for the ice cream sellers. who offer exotic flavors, like shrimp, corn, and avocado. I happily went with strawberry.
A restaurant to mention in San Miguel
I haven’t said much about restaurants in San Miguel, but I can recommend Via Organica, in the Guadalupe neighborhood. Via Organic is owned as a not-for-profit which operates an organic farm outside San Miguel (which can be visited). The restaurant is near my friend’s rental, and we had several meals there, all of which were well-prepared and made with fresh ingredients. Adjacent to the restaurant is a shop where fresh produce, eggs, cheese and other products are sold. It is open seven days a week.
A few other photos to share;