San Miguel de Allende and around

This charming old town on a steep hillside facing the broad sweep of the Río Laja and the distant blue of the Guanajuato mountains is 50 km north of Querétaro by paved road. It holds the triple crown of being a
monumento nacional
(national landmark),
pueblo mágico
(enchanted town) and
patrimonio mundial
(UNESCO World Heritage Site). Outside of Zacatecas, El Alamo and Taxco, probably no other place in Mexico is so redolent of its colonial past. Unfortunately, this distinction is marred by the fact that in recent years San Miguel de Allende has pretty much been taken over by North Americans seeking the combination of language schools and relaxed living with an arty edge that this pleasant colonial town still offers. The vast majority of the ex-haciendas and colonial mansions are in foreign hands, as well as most of the town's economy, although expatriates make up only about 10% of the town's permanent population. Some of this imbalance is mitigated by the fact that (as in Puerto Vallarta) the expatriate community does include the local populace in its activities, and to some extent there is an uneasy alliance between local and non-Mexican artists and cultural institutions. However, the presence of McDonald's, Starbucks, and innumerable T-shirt and trinket shops has done little to enhance San Miguel de Allende's image, although its wonderfully preserved colonial past and the natural beauty of its setting perennially keeps it high of the list of must-see locations in Mexico.

The nearby area is pleasant if rather plain. There are no immediate environs of note. Yet in direct contrast to most Mexican cities (Zacatecas is the only other exception), the landscape becomes increasingly attractive as one nears San Miguel de Allende. Fortunately, the city is ideally located almost equidistant between Dolores Hidalgo, Querétaro and Celaya and Guanajuato, so you can't go wrong from here.

Tourist information

There is a wealth of online resources for San Miguel de Allende, the best being the
Guide to San Miguel
(www.san miguelguide.com), the
Vamos a Guanajuato
(www.vamosaguanajuato.com, with useful information on other locations in the state), and the arts and culture-oriented
San Miguel de Allende
(www.de-paseo.com/depaseosanmiguel), which also has information on Querétaro and Bernal .

Background

San Miguel de Allende was founded as a mining town by the conquistador Nicolás de San Luis Montañez as San Miguel el Grande in 1542, with 'Allende' added almost 300 years later in honour of the Independence patriot Ignacio Allende who was born there. It grew rich not so much on the strength of its mining output (which was never considerable), but on its location as a way stop for the silver trade that went from Zacatecas and Guanajuato on one side, to Mexico City and Veracruz on the other. Its twisting cobbled streets rise in terraces to the mineral spring of El Chorro, from where the blue and yellow tiled cupolas of some 20 churches can be seen.

Sights

Social life in San Miguel de Allende revolves around the market and the beautiful, tree-lined
Jardín
, or
Plaza Allende
, a sort of open-air living room with a picture- perfect gazebo, antique lampposts and wrought iron benches, all dating from the Porfiriato. Around it are the colonial
Palacio Municipal
, several hotels and, on its south side, the 17th-century
Parroquia de San Miguel church
,
adorned in the late 19th century by Zeferino Gutiérrez. Remarkably, the present building was constructed without any professional expertise or models, and was based solely upon postcards of Gothic French cathedrals that Gutiérrez had sent to him. The crypt vault is said to house War of Independence heroes Felipe González and General Anastasio Bustamante.

The
Museo Histórico del Ayuntamiento de San Miguel de Allende
. Inaugurated in 2005 and situated in a 17th-century building in the centre, the museum offers an excellent look at the city's history during the viceregal and early Independence eras, and the importance of its town council (the first in the country, dating from 1810), with nearly 100 period pieces and information on English and French as well as Spanish. The
Museo Histórico de San Miguel de Allende
, www.inah.gob.mx,
is housed in a restored colonial building.
This small museum has exhibits on the town and surrounding region from prehistoric times to the present, including a large display on Ignacio Allende, for whom the town was named.

Very close to the Plaza Allende, the
oratory of San Felipe Neri
, was built by local indigenous peoples in 1712 and is made of pink stone. The interior houses 33 oil paintings, attributed to Miguel Cabrera. Off of the plaza's north side is the
Templo de Nuestra Señora de la Salud
, a pleasant 18th-century baroque church with a splayed arch portal while Its
campanario
(bell tower) has the oldest bell in the city.

Religious and cultural tourism are popular sectors in San Miguel de Allende, and other notable churches include the
San Francisco
church, which was designed by Tresguerras. Built in 1779 and financed by donations from wealthy patrons and bullfighting profits, it is one of the finest examples of churrigueresque design in Mexico. The ex-convent (now church) of
La Concepción
, built in 1734 in the neoclassical style, was inspired by the famous church of the
Disabled in Paris
. Its dome is one of the largest in Mexico. It now houses an art school, the
Centro Cultural Ignacio Ramírez Nigromonte
(locally known as Escuela de Bellas Artes). Inside there are several large murals by the celebrated Mexican painter David Alfaro Siquieros, a former teacher. The
Capilla de la Casa de Loreto
(Chapel of the Holy House of Loreto), was constructed in 1735 to resemble the pilgrimage shrine in Loreto, Italy.

One of the many beautiful
casonas
(old mansions) in San Miguel de Allende for many years belonged to the descendants of Manuel Tomás de la Canal, one of the city's leading citizens (although never made a member of the Spanish nobility, contrary to the house's nickname). Often referred to as the
Casa del Mayorazgo de Canal
(the Count of Canal's house)
, built in 1735 and now occupied by Banamex, some of the building is open to the public. The entryway displays magnificent Ionic columns and is a rare example of high-end colonial architecture that has survived almost completely intact.

Another first-rate mansion in the centre is the summer residence of the Condes de la Canal family, the
Instituto Allende
. This is the town's most famous art and language school, founded in 1949 by William Stirling Dickinson.

The
Casa del Inquisidor
(House of the Inquisitor)
, with its former gaol just across the street, was the locale office of the Inquisition. Though the Mexican Inquisition, which was created in 1571, was generally less severe than the Spanish Inquisition, it nonetheless was a force to be reckoned with and was untouchable by civil authorities. Set into the front wall of the building is a green stone cross set on blue tiles, the symbol of the Inquisitor's office. On a wall of the gaol across the street is a mural by Siqueiros. Today it serves a less dire purpose as a centre for handicapped children.

The
Casa de los Perros
(House of the Dogs)
, was the former residence of the Independence hero Juan de Mafuele, and is now the Galeria Mafuele. The building has interesting carvings of dogs on its balconies.

There are numerous other exemplary colonial residences in town, almost all of which are within walking distance of each other. Some of the best are
La Casa del Mariscal Francisco de Lanzagorta
,
La Casa del Conde de Jaral de Berio
and
La Casa del Conde de Casa Loja
.

Around San Miguel de Allende

A good all-day hike can be made to the
Palo Huérfano mountain
on the south side of town. Take the road to just before the radio pylon then take the trails to the summit, where there are oaks and pines.
El Charco del Ingenio
, are botanical gardens that cover an area of 64 ha, with lovely views, a deep canyon, an artificial lake
and cacti garden of many species. There are great views and hikes around the canyon and lakes, and it's a good spot for watching the sunset (but don't wander too far as the gardens close at dusk).

Run by the same organization, is the protected forestry reserve (one of very few in Mexico) of 90 ha in the highlands of
Los Picachos
, to the south of the city. In 2004, the
Charco del Ingenio
was sanctified as a Peace Zone - one of five in Mexico to be free of violence and arms, and dedicated to the conservation of nature and community development - by the Dalai Lama, during his visit to Mexico.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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