It’s no secret that Mexico tops my list of vacation destinations. While the beaches attract most Americans who head south, my favorite part of Mexico is the heartland. My go-to city? San Miguel de Allende about an hour from Leon. Last fall friends Robin and John from Richmond came to visit my husband, Peter, and me for a week in SMA, where we rented a place for a month. It was their first time in Mexico, and when it was over, Robin said it was the best vacation they ever had.
Peter and I had stayed in San Miguel twice before, including once in a cute cottage in a small village called Alcocer outside the city. We loved the rural vibe there and decided to book it again last fall.
Owned by a couple from Kentucky, the cozy home has a lovely yard with cacti and mesquite trees, perfect for dining al fresco and/or sipping an evening cocktail. There’s a rooftop terrace, too, offering amazing views of the surrounding countryside as well as inspiring stargazing at night. Renting the home by the month is very affordable, so even though it means I have to do some work there, I don’t mind. Leaving the same-old, same-old behind gives me a new perspective on life and reawakens my senses.
And Mexico is all about sensory stimulation. From the pink cathedral on San Miguel’s main square to the brightly painted houses that line the streets, you’ll want to take photos at every corner. Then there’s the crazy-good food: from spicy tacos in restaurants and street stalls around town to the juicy, exotic fruits from the market—think mangoes and papaya and tiny bananas that explode with flavor—it’s a party in your mouth three times a day.
Here’s a snapshot of just some of the fun we had exploring San Miguel with our friends.
TWO GIRLS WALK INTO A BAR
After visiting Casa de la Cuesta, SMA’s unique mask museum, on Day of the Dead (Nov. 1), the four of us headed to the Jardin, San Miguel’s main square. Like almost every day in this corner of the world, the weather was fine: about 80° with puffy clouds drifting across an azure blue sky. Robin and I strolled ahead of the guys and got the idea of stopping in a saloon we’d passed by earlier. More like a dive bar, this hole-in-the-wall joint has a Wild West vibe with swinging doors and a dark interior–perfect for a late afternoon libation.
Just as we were about to enter, we realized Peter and John must have gone straight while we turned a couple blocks back. We tried to call but couldn’t reach them, so we decided to have a drink and worry about catching up with them later. A nice-looking, bearded young man approached us soon after we walked in and asked, in an Aussie accent, what two nice women like us were doing in a place like this. At one end of the bar a cowboy in a white hat with weathered skin and a black mustache sat silently drinking and smoking. At the other end of the bar two men played cards and talked on their cell phones. A mute jukebox and a bullfight poster provided the décor.
Robin and I were the only women there, but it didn’t bother us a bit. We hopped onto barstools, ordered drinks, and chatted up the Aussie guy. Before long a gentleman from the U.K. came in dressed as Diego (skeleton face, tails, and a top hat) followed by his wife who was dressed as Katrina (skeleton face, wide hat, and long dress). They were stopping for a drink before the Katrina parade. Soon evening fell, and the bar filled with more Katrinas and Diegos. Eventually our husbands showed up, and we headed toward the square, where Day of the Dead altars flickered in candlelight. As a full moon shone brightly down, the celebrations began.
A MEZCAL MOMENT
Nearby the town of Atotonilco is famous as a pilgrimage site and attracts Catholics from across Mexico and beyond. The Sanctuary was built in the 18th-century and is known for its unique architecture and Baroque murals. Some even call it the Sistine Chapel of Mexico. We went to have a look and found ourselves among swarms of pilgrims—picture tiny nuns with habits and canes walking through town to the Sanctuary. On both sides of the road, stalls sold food and religious items—rosaries, crosses, and icons.
At the church Mass was underway, and there was no way to get in, so we stood on our tiptoes at the front door and peered inside, but could only see the tops of heads. Robin hung around a few minutes longer than we did at the church door and suddenly found herself facing outstretched hands and smiling faces saying something in Spanish. It dawned on her that this was the Catholic custom of offering a sign of peace to fellow churchgoers. “Peace be with you,” she said and gratefully shook a few hands.
As we walked back to the car, a few vendors displayed pottery for sale. I’m a sucker for pottery and approached a stall where I heard guitar music. Behind the pottery display on the back of a pickup truck under a tarp, a Mexican gentleman sang folk songs in a high-pitched voice while another strummed an out-of-tune guitar. John wandered over, and the lady selling pottery handed us a couple small stools and invited us to sit in the shade and listen to the music. It was pretty awful sounding, but John and I loved it nevertheless and clapped after each song.
Peter and Robin joined us, and next thing we knew one of the men produced a bottle of Jaral, the local non-smoked mezcal, and small ceramic mugs about two inches tall. Mind you, none of us speaks Spanish (well, Peter knows a tiny bit), and these friendly folks spoke no English. But the warm smiles and the warming effect of the mezcal made us feel right at home. The Mexicans are without a doubt some of the kindest, friendliest people in the world—and Jaral is my new favorite mezcal.
As we left, a woman at the next stall who spoke a little English said sharing mezcal with tourists was not common, but the pottery lady and her musical kin were thrilled that we took an interest in them and their music. Sometimes all you have to do is be yourself, and the most amazing things will happen.
GIDDY-UP AND GO
John had misgivings about the afternoon horseback ride I’d planned, which followed a fabulous tour of pre-Hispanic pyramids—led by archaeologist Albert Coffee—located about an hour outside of San Miguel. Peter and I had done both the pyramid tour and the ride two years before and told Robin and John it was an absolute must. Even though he hadn’t ridden a horse since he was a kid, John finally agreed to join us.
Before the ride we enjoyed a delicious lunch under a mesquite tree with Tomas, the owner of Rancho Xotolar, who would also be our trail guide. It was another picture perfect day: warm sun, light breeze, and dazzling blue sky. Soon we mounted our criollo horses and began ambling across some of most amazing scenery I’ve ever seen.
Nearby shrubs, cacti, and scraggly trees peppered the landscape, and in the distance canyons and colorful rock formations loomed. The ride took us down rocky trails beside deep precipices and tall canyons. Eventually we arrived at the bottom, where we splashed though a creek at a canter, getting soaked but having the time of our lives. It was a ride to remember—trotting, cantering, and lots of up-and-downhill walking. The best part? No one—not even John—fell off.
Nestled in a grove of trees, a sparkling sapphire pool beckoned. Just north of San Miguel, La Gruta is one of a handful of thermal springs, where tourists and locals alike go hang out for the day and float languidly in warm, tranquil pools. We planned this hot springs outing to follow our horseback ride, so the soothing water warmed our sore muscles.
Three of the pools were open. Our favorite—and the hottest one—was surrounded by palm trees. At one end an opening led to an underground tunnel, which you swim through and then emerge into a small, dark dome filled with steam. The heat was pretty intense in there, but I loved the cave-like ambiance and the sound of dripping water that seemed to echo all around. When I swam back out through the tunnel into the crystal clear, blue-sky day, I felt reborn and ready to make every moment count. For isn’t that what travel teaches us? It’s truly about stopping and relishing each and every moment.
ALL THAT JAZZ
The Sunday before Robin and John arrived, Peter and I found ourselves on a ranch owned by a bi-national couple—he’s Mexican and she’s American. Most Sundays during the year they open their home to paying guests for an afternoon of Cuban-infused jazz and home-cooked food. The setting? A rustic-chic open-air structure that seats 100 or so guests at comfortable tables surrounded by cacti and the herbaceous scents of the desert.
Beside the small amphitheater, which also has a dance floor, is an open-air kitchen, where local Mexican women prepare a bountiful feast. For about $35, you get all-you-can-eat tacos with a variety of fillings plus salad, fruit, and dessert. The food was tasty, but it’s the music that makes the afternoon special. Besides the owner, who plays a set of beautiful heartfelt Cuban love songs on his guitar, there’s always a guest band. The day we went a fabulous group from Mexico City delighted the audience. The talented violinist added a touch of class to the Cuban jazz numbers.
As people filled the dance floor, Peter and I started talking to a friendly couple: Tom, a Canadian, and Anita, a Californian. Tom owns a house in SMA, and like us, they were enjoying this jazzy, taco-filled afternoon for the first time. We also met Tom’s son and his wife, who’d just arrived from Indonesia, and before long we were making plans to meet for cocktails at Tom’s home and then go out to a favorite restaurant for dinner. It’s so easy to meet people in San Miguel, we have discovered, and now count Tom and Anita among the special friends we know there.
Restaurants abound in San Miguel. Peter and I were inspired to sample one of SMA’s newest and trendiest restaurants, Bovine, helmed by Chef Paul Bentley, one balmy evening. The dining area of the cozy brasserie features chic décor, but Peter and I love dining al fresco so decided to sit on the outdoor patio under the darkening sky. We also had front row seats to the open kitchen and loved watching the busy chefs creating tantalizing dishes.
The restaurant specializes in comfort food, and many dishes are meat-centric: dry-aged beef, steak tartare, lamb ribs, and suckling pig. Peter and I recently stopped eating meat, so were happy to see salads and seafood on the menu. Our first course was San Blas oysters on the half shell served with a tasty mignonette. Perfectly chilled, the oysters tasted like the sea, salty and sweet. We slurped them right from the shells, savoring the brine’s umami flavors. Next up? A beautiful salad, featuring luscious green, brown, orange, and red heirloom tomatoes and creamy buratta cheese and basil oil. The flavors were extraordinary.
I’m a big fan of grilled octopus—or pulpo, as they call it in Spanish, and Bovine’s small plate was exceptional. Presented in a spiral, the charred octopus was perfectly tender and had a nice, smoky flavor. For our main, we shared a lovely whole fish fillet—thick and flavorful—with a tangy lemony-mustard sauce, accompanied by roasted Brussels sprouts with—oops—a few bits of bacon mixed in. We loved our meal and weren’t bothered by the bacon. In a restaurant named Bovine, a bit of pork is bound to show up in unexpected places.
I was sad to say goodbye to Robin and John at the airport when their week with us ended. We had a fabulous time with them and got along great. Being with friends adds another dimension to traveling and makes even simple pleasures that much more memorable. Then again in Mexico almost every moment is a magical one.
For more stories about Mexico and other exciting travel destinations, visit www.tidewaterwomen.com/travel-articles.