Mexico …in small bytes

Explores San Miguel de Allende…a favorite ex-pat town

 

Home

 

The doors of San Miguel have fascinated photographers, artists and tourists alike for years. A rather interesting way to see the city is simply walk its streets, camera ready, and check out the various portals.

Photos by Hilario García at La Fotografía on Aldama No. 13, San Miguel

 

 

San Miguel for me is an enigma; fascinating at first but at some point it becomes, like all enigmas, frustrating. One is never sure of the reality of what you see. It's like watching a very convincing transvestite show and later, back stage, noticing close-up the five-o-clock shadow of the performers.

Each time I make my way up La Ancha de San Antonio , I feel like Alice venturing into the world of the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat.

 

 
This is a sensation that began way back in time. In 1974, tenting our way slowly from Minnesota to the Río Grande and points south, we eventually ended up at the ever-popular trailer park of the Siesta Hotel outside San Miguel. We came equipped with a Dodge Dart, a dog, camping gear and a desire to learn Spanish. Even back then, the area was thick with RV's lined up shoulder to shoulder - big rigs, big people from a big state and big money. We needed to move.

A few days talking to the guys shining shoes in the plaza netted husband Pablo some gleaming footwear and a lead to an apartment.

It was a dump and overpriced at $105 (US) a month. We gritted our teeth but took it. It was and is nestled in the cradle of the V that veers off from the end of La Ancha de San Antonio. In subsequent visits to SMA I've noticed it sports an almost perpetual Se Renta sign, something almost unheard of in this town. One day I figure I'll get the guts to call the number, feign interest and check out our old haunts.

 
The view from the outskirts of town in 1974 was just a bit different from the one that meets the visitor today.
 

The town itself, while still recognizable, has also changed considerably. We sent this postcard to show more or less where we lived.

The message on the back is even more telling. We promised to find my sister-in-law really snazzy accomodations for $4-$6 a day (US) if she chose to visit us.

One other apartment in the building was rented to a young female doctor which only goes to show that then as now, the medical profession here is not always the lucrative field one would assume it to be. Another apartment went to the live-in lady caretaker. The upstairs was home to a young woman from Texas and her six-year-old daughter. Each night the woman's Mexican pimp arrived to escort her out on her nightly rounds. Every so often, a highly enamored client would pound furiously on the door of the building in the wee hours of the morning only to be dealt with firmly by a tremendously annoyed caretaker.

 

Not exactly the upscale image San Miguel wanted to project even back then, but a reality in its own right. There have always been, however, plenty of pretty spiffy places that abound.

Photo from La Fotografía

 

Even for two people used to pretty Spartan living, the lumpy cot that begrudgingly gave the two of us room enough to sleep, the one armchair, the scratched, poorly-made kitchen table and four straight-backed uncomfortable chairs seemed austere. But a degree of perspective was gained somewhere during the month when the woman who came in once a week to wash clothes shared a meal with us around that very table. Her five-year old son ran his hand repeatedly over the chipped and much lacquered surface, looked up at me finally and said appreciatively, ‘Esta es una mesa muy, muy fina. ('This is a really, really fine table!')

At that time, San Miguel's ex-pat population seemed to consist of wealthy dowagers, on-the-move entrepreneurs, students and druggies. The contrast between true glitz and utter degradation was palpable.

But even in 1974, San Miguel was trying to live up to an image that was leagues beyond the reality of most of Mexico . For someone like myself desperately trying to learn Spanish, it was a letdown to realize English could be heard everywhere. Looking at the opulent lifestyle around us as we budgeted our pesos, we felt a kinship with the awe-struck boy admiring our table.

By today's standards, that life was small potatoes, but nevertheless, impressive.

Three of the elegant doors of San Miguel that give an idea of the kind of life lived behind them.

A different part of town, a different door and a different lifestyle.

Photos from La Fotografía

In 2005, however, the minimum wage is still only marginally above 40 pesos a day (about four bucks), although dried porcini mushrooms are available and selling at 526 pesos a small bag.

Long-term residents believe really serious money has been filtering into San Miguel in the last few years and this has changed the complexion of the place both in general and from the point of view of an ex-pat living on more limited means. Rentals under $500 ( U.S. ) are hard to come by and the cost of buying, building and renovating is astronomical.

Patios are always a good indication of the type of life found inside. This one is decorated for a spring fiesta.

Photo from La Fotografía

Real estate is the buzzword of the day. Happen on any conversation and the chances are great someone will be talking about who's buying, who's selling, who's doing the restoration bit and who's doing the spec turn-arounds. There's a big business in vacation rentals of fancy property whose owners spend a few months to half a year abroad. A little furnished casita on one of these properties can easily rent for $1000 ( U.S. ) a month and the main house will go from $2,000-$6,000 (U.S. ) and even higher.

 

One of many private homes rented out for a chunk of each year.

A lot in the center priced from $100,000 - $150,000 ( U.S. ) will not raise eyebrows. Even one advertised for $350,000 ( U.S. ) in a toney area outside of town was no cause for surprise to locals.

This overview of the town gives an idea why lots can be priced astronomically. There just isn't much building room left. And as Will Rogers commented about land, 'They're just not making it anymore.'

Photo from La Fotografía

In all this hifalutin talk of wheeling and dealing, little if nothing is said about the water situation. People lament about the raw sewage spewing forth into the river but few take up the problem of the area running out of water. Some say that the situation could be critical in five to eight years. Guanajuato has always been a dry state, brown and brittle for much of the year, yet alfalfa is still the number one crop, using a good chunk of the area's irrigation water. It's generally agreed that 85% of the water in any state goes for agriculture.

Luxurious lifestyles become more and more a drain on the water allotted for city use. One fancy house can easily use as much water as a small colonia . This is to say nothing of the snazzy new golf course that is planned. It will be the second in the town and the final lots around the course are being sold as I write which perhaps explains why many folk are pretty mum on the issue.

Probably one area where no one will complain of water use is in the fountains that give a special touch to any area they grace. After all, the same amount is usually pushed up and down continuously until the day the fountain is drained for cleaning.

Photo from La Fotografía

But if one has the money, it is easy to see why the place is so popular as an ex-pat hangout.

Classes in Tai Chi, poetry readings and other such esoteric endeavors are an incentive to hang around, as well as the language, cooking and art classes that proliferate. Foreigners started to converge on San Miguel in the 40's and 50's first lured by classes at La Escuela de Bellas Artes and later the Instituto Allende . These two venerable institutions still flourish but now must vie for clients with a mind-boggling array of other schools and independent endeavors. One figure tossed around for the foreign population is 5000 full-time residents plus part-timers and tourists. With such a proliferation of classes, it is no surprise that an inordinate number of those foreigners are artists or wannabe artists. It is a locale popular as well with people who have traveled extensively, a fact that gives the town a bit of a continental image.

Classes aside, there is definitely an appeal to a town where one can walk about everywhere one needs to be any time day or night and feel pretty safe while doing it. And SMA is definitely a walking town. It's true that most towns get to be that way because driving and parking are impossible, but confirmed walkers can't get picky.

Not only are the streets narrow, they are often steep. Not as steep as Taxco but they can give you a work-out...or the taxi or bus an extra fare. For many retirees the rule is, 'Walk down. Ride up.'

Photo from La Fotografía

You can take the morning kinks out actually choosing between any number of swimming holes, some with hot spring thermal water and others with Olympic size pools. None of these swimming spots is located more than a half-hour away by car from the center. Then you can continue to stay loose several nights of the week with classes in Salsa, Tango, ballroom or belly dancing.

The descendents of the same birds we enjoyed so thoroughly in the Jardín at dusk every night in the ‘70's still congregate and blare out a cacophony of sound to greet the approaching night, although the newly placed netting on some of the trees frustrates a number of the flock.

As of July 2005 the Jardín has been under renovation and is surrounded by wire mesh that gives the center of town an eerie look. As opposed to Ajijic, another favorite gringo hangout, whose plaza is mostly deserted, the plaza in San Miguel is a real hot spot of activity. It's hard to imagine what the denizens of the plaza benches and those that promenade around its walkways will do until completion of the project. Work is scheduled to end around the first of September so they shouldn't be too desperate.

The Jardín in its pre-remodeling days when it was bustling with activity from both the foreign and national components of the town's population.

For those whose idea of late night carousing is something beyond an ice cream, there is a plethora of entertainment possibilities stretching into the wee wee hours. There are films, theatre, music and dance as well as seminars and talks to intrigue even a jaded New Yorker. If you can afford to eat out, many menus feature some of the most imaginative creations found in restaurants within the country.

Even though residents complain bitterly of the garbage, the city seems to me really rather clean.

Photo from La Fotografía

Part of the town's cleanliness is certainly due to the morning sweeping that is done in front of homes and businesses. Part is perhaps due to the fact that SMA is a favorite destination for many tourists and moneyed foreigners and the powers that be recognize the advantage of a scrubbed look. And part is also due to people who take independent action in their own neighborhoods as Los Vecinos who take credit for the sign above admonishing those walking their dogs to pick up after their canine friends...in terms a little stronger than my translation.

 

Two of San Miguel's street dogs. SMA is the only town in Mexico where I have seen ownerless strays achieve a status akin to the neighborhood mutt like I've seen in southern Italy...one who seems to stake out a few blocks of territory and is maintained by those along that prescribed route. It is also a town with a very active Sociedad Protectora de Animales (SPA).

The above photos were taken by Gary Oakley ( www.oakleyphotography.com) with a portion of the proceeds from their sale going to support the animal shelter and advocacy group.

They and other interesting photos by talented photographers that are made into cards can be purchased at Casa de Papel on Mesones.

It should be heaven on earth. For many, it is. San Miguel has been rated as among the top 20 places in the world in which to retire. But it's no longer a nostalgic view of small-town Mexican life. And yet again, it is.

Outside of the bus station, four lanes of heavy traffic come to a halt to let maybe 30 sheep guided by an arthritic septuagenarian cross the road. Two rowdy cantinas across from our hotel shut down the Friday before Palm Sunday to allow their neighbors to set up their altar to La Virgen de los Dolores, a time-honored tradition in Guanajuato. A man weaves a bicycle through backed-up traffic in an intersection near the center of town. Five enormous sacks of cheese curls are strapped to the back of the bike (larger than 100 lb. sacks of corn though mercifully lighter). Two more such sacks are attached to the front of the bike. Hovering above the driver and somehow miraculously connected to the bike is a selection of fairly large piñatas. An out of tune mariachi group in the Jardín performs in front of a rather self-conscious looking tourist foursome.

 

Photo from La Fotografía

Here and there are vestiges of that old way of life but more and more they are becoming a memory recounted by photos.

As more of the emphasis shifts to real estate and high-buck living, it becomes harder and harder to see these little vignettes of a by-gone era.

The emphasis tends toward the other side of the spectrum. Super priced restaurants are found in profusion rubbing shoulders with the spas for the wealthy. Houses and Bread & Breakfasts whose interiors have found their way into glitzy coffee table books abound. Boutiques are everywhere, selling anything and everything. For a price, of course. Artwork is displayed at myriad galleries. It would be a rare weekend indeed without someone hosting a wine and cheese opening somewhere in town. Prices are high but one supposes the art sells at those prices. After all, the artists have to eat too and living in this town ain't cheap.

It truly is a Shoppers' Paradise . If one is of the ‘shop until you drop' persuasion, this passion could be indulged every single day here no matter how long your stay.

For the person fond of a fiesta, San Miguel is definitely a town that loves to party. Without much effort, one could find a celebration (if not more than one) going on every day of the year.

They could be religious in origin...

 

or highly secular like the very popular (at least with tourists) pamplonadas or running of the bulls celebrated every September during the Fiestas Patrias.

Photo from La Fotografía

 

 

Or they might be made up by the everyday profusion of color and smiles that give a festive atmosphere to even the most mundane of days.

 

 

The Italian in me is tempted by the tiny fresh veggies, the organic produce, the fantastic variety of fresh lettuce and the proliferation of fresh herbs found in town. The Montefalcone genes from my grandparents jump with joy at the fresh ricotta, arrugula, Parmesan cheese and crusty bread. Few places in Mexico can supply you with hoisen sauce, Thai coconut milk, fish and oyster sauce and other goodies for fixing up international cuisine.

Yet the dichotomy of the town is incredible. Next to the fancy dining establishments, one can still find reasonably priced and imaginative comidas.

 

Indian families can be seen outside ornate establishments, waiting for transportation back to their villages or sitting in doorways selling from a limited stock of goods or simply crouched down with a hand outstreched.

Photo from La Fotografía

The Tuesday Market outside of town by Gigante is a great avenue for bargain hunters, especially for clothing. The gringo influence means it's easy to buy used stuff since there's a profusion of garage sales.

Despite all of this, the image of the town that remains for me is the tiny Indian girl maybe five years old. Her eyes are stereotypes of a Keene painting. The rendition always seems so trite on canvas, yet the reality is haunting. She is selling homemade embroidered dolls...an ambulatory endeavor one doesn't see much of in San Miguel. Vendors sell out of boutiques, not out of sacks.

One exception is the established group situated in the Portales to the side of the Jardin, selling a number of colorful items.

Photo from La Fotografía

This particular evening we are eating in an Italian restaurant that professes to have the best pizza in all of Mexico . Although the downstairs is crowded, we are the only clients in the upstairs section, reached by an open metal, spiral staircase, rather difficult to maneuver.

Yet we see the little girl trudging up the stairs, her baby brother strapped to her back, lugging a sack of merchandise, holding one doll outside for viewing and all the while, balancing a slice of ‘the best pizza in Mexico' in the palm of her hand. Someone eating downstairs or one of the staff had obviously given her a slice as she made her rounds from table to table.

After hosting three give-away parties before we left Minnesota to part us from our worldly goods, we have developed a deep reticence to the idea of accumulating more ‘stuff'. A smile, a polite comment on how nice the merchandise is but a firm ‘no' are all second nature to us. Sometimes a smile and the comment, ‘ Otro día ,' work. We also use the more abrupt but also more effective wagging index finger to indicate that we aren't interested in buying. They have all become our armor against the onslaught of ‘things' that are offered for sale everywhere you turn in this country.

It takes a strong resolve to adhere to this policy this night. The doll itself is actually rather shoddy in a land of carefully made articles. Yet the picture of this tiny child so encumbered with items and all the while juggling a slice of ‘Mexico's best pizza' is somewhat overwhelming, especially as we watch her make her precarious way down the winding stairwell after finally believing our last ‘no.'

Later we see her outside the restaurant looking down at the slice of pizza that had somehow slipped from her palm and had landed upside-down on the sidewalk spreading its ingredients in a small arc on the cement.

Looking at this group of kids, you can get an idea of the evening.

Photo from La Fotografía

San Miguel. For me, it will always be a mystery wrapped in an enigma. It is a town that gives the impression of having been constructed, albeit in stone, for a movie set.

Photos from La Fotografía

Whether it's for a movie in black and white or a full color production, I have the feeling that I'm there as an un-paid extra for an extravagance that I can really only view second-hand.

It's true the place seems to send out a siren call every now and then urging me to return. Like any good movie, it demands repeated viewings. But after a week or less, it's time for me to walk backwards out of the Looking Glass.

If I stayed, I might even come to believe it's all real.

At the end of this month, we're off to a wedding of a former student who will tie the knot under the Brooklyn Bridge (actually in the nearby park). It seems a once in a lifetime opportunity that should therefore not be missed. From there we hope to head off again to Latvia. Mexico...in small bytes will be resumed upon our return.

Article Archives

Letter Box