“Inhale. Exhale.” It was my mantra last fall when Peter and I spent a month in Mexico, the perfect words to remind me to breathe and slow down, a challenge in this crazy world we live in.
In fact, that’s why we planned a month south of the border: to see what it would be like to stay in one place and just be, to not feel tugged this way and that by appointments, meetings, and commitments. We rented a cozy house in the countryside near San Miguel de Allende for the month of October. Our goal? Learn to slow down and be mindful.
“Inhale. Exhale.” It sounds even better in Spanish. “In-hall-ah. Ex-hall-ah.” Say it. Think it. Feel it.
I heard this phrase during a yoga class at the LifePath Center in San Miguel, a beautiful spiritual retreat center steps away from the city center. There I joined a friendly coed group gathered outside the studio, some Americans, some Mexicans. Anabel, our instructor, opened the door and invited us in. The tile floor felt cool underneath my mat, but I loved the rustic ambiance of the studio with its boveda-style brick ceiling and large windows.
Soon Anabel was leading us in pranayama, or breathing exercises: “In-hall-a. Ex-hall-a.” She gave instructions in both Spanish and English, so it was easy to follow along. We moved into some poses, including a few that challenged me, but I loved the peaceful vibe and the sense of acceptance I felt at the center.
Peter and I felt that way everywhere we went in San Miguel de Allende. This was our second visit, and our month there was designed to “test the waters,” so to speak, to see if San Miguel, a beautiful colonial city in Mexico’s heartland, would be a suitable place to retire someday. What did we find out? Come along and see.
Our house was in a small village about 20 minutes from the center of San Miguel. I loved its artsy touches and cute kitchen. Besides a spacious fenced-in yard with blooming plants and exotic cacti, there was also a rooftop terrace with incredible views of the surrounding mountains and meadows.
Our home was next to a reservoir, and throughout the day villagers would bring their livestock to the water to drink—think goats and sheep scurrying along with tinkling bells and a chorus of baaa-baaas. One foggy morning we awoke and saw a herd of wild horses at the reservoir’s edge, calmly drinking. It was peaceful and perfect.
Peter and I often took long walks into the countryside surrounding the village, which was perched beside an old dormant volcano. Once or twice we ventured up the slope but decided we needed a guide—and a lot of energy—to hike up to the rim. Instead we walked along dirt roads through dormant fields and through the town, where we greeted the townspeople: moms with little babies, men with cowboy hats, and children in uniforms walking to and from school. Everyone was friendly, and no one spoke English.
I wish we could speak Spanish—it’s on my list. Luckily, San Miguel has a huge ex-pat population and there’s plenty to do—concerts, theaters, lectures, newcomer groups, the possibilities are endless. Our first foray into the ex-pat crowd was an event held at a stunning home with gorgeous views. The owners were art collectors from Miami and had recently moved to San Miguel. Guests brought a snack and their own beverages, and before long everyone was telling their story. “How did you end up here?”
Peter and I found that nearly everyone we met had a colorful past. As someone said, “These aren’t your ordinary Walmart shoppers.” It’s true. People who decide to move to a foreign land and join a community of ex-pats are pioneers and have usually led adventurous lives. We felt right at home.
I met a woman named Bethany near the end of the evening. You know how in a matter of seconds you can click with someone, and it almost feels like you’ve met that person before? That’s what happened with her, and our paths would cross again during the month we were in San Miguel.
CULTURE & HERITAGE
Besides the friendly people and numerous activities, the city overflows with culture and heritage and—parades! Every weekend, it seemed, there was a special event taking place in the city’s streets.
One Sunday Peter and I planned to attend a tour of homes only to discover it had been canceled. So we went for a walk and found ourselves in the main square, also known as the Jardin or Garden, where San Miguel’s beautiful pink church, the Parroquia, rises above the town. Suddenly a huge parade celebrating the indigenous cultures of the region came snaking down the streets. Native groups dressed in leather and feathers—many wearing painted faces or masks—danced and chanted to the thrumming beat of drums.
We would see many more masks at “The Other Face of Mexico,” a mask museum housed in a private home a few blocks from the Jardin. The museum contains a collection of 600 masks owned by Bill and Heidi Levasseur, ex-pats who have lived in Mexico for 26 years. Bill gave us a tour of the museum, explaining that all the masks have been “performed.” In other words, they are authentic, not reproductions.
“Masking is found across all cultures,” Bill said. People use masks to teach religious lessons; to replicate historic events; to glorify occupations; and to entertain. The masks at the museum are all sizes, shapes, and colors—some grotesque, others animalistic, and a few beatific. Bill and Heidi also run a successful B & B, which gets great reviews.
Another excursion we enjoyed was a tour of Rancho Via Organica, located a half hour east of San Miguel in a peaceful valley. Via Organica welcomes local residents, tourists, and school groups to visit their farm, which emphasizes sustainable gardening practices. They also plan weeklong eco-tours for people seeking to learn more. Much of their produce is sold in their organic store and cafe in San Miguel’s Centro, as well as in the city’s Saturday organic market.
Via Organica also offers horseback riding tours for adventurous travelers. Peter and I joined a group of five other riders, along with Humberto, our guide, and explored the rolling hills around the ranch on horseback. It was another perfect blue-sky day, and views of the surrounding mountains were astonishing.
We stopped for lunch in a small town on the side of a mountain, where the local ladies can really cook! They prepared a Mexican feast—savory rice and beans, fresh-made corn tortillas, potato cakes, a pork, corn, and tomatillo stew, roasted chayote, creamy guacamole, and spicy peppers for those who dared. We washed down our meal with locally made pulque, a mild fermented drink made from the giant agave plants that dot the countryside. Peter and I agreed that this fabulous lunch, cooked with love and served on a terrace overlooking a picturesque valley, was a unique experience, one we will always treasure.
EARTHY SCENT OF HERBS
What I love about San Miguel de Allende is the variety of dining options. One of our favorite restaurants is Moxi at Hotel Matilda. Enrique Olvera, arguably Mexico’s most talented chef, heads up the kitchen at Moxi, and the menu, presentation, and creativity Enrique and his team deliver never ceases to amaze us. We dined there the previous year and had to come back for more.
Before dinner I opted to experience Hotel Matilda’s spa while Peter ran some errands. A haven of tranquility, the spa feels both trendy and traditional. The treatments are locally inspired and range from exfoliating scrubs to wraps and infusions. I chose a deep tissue massage that was detoxifying and delightful. Esther, my therapist, was both gentle and thorough.
Afterwards I created my own body scrub in the spa apothecary. Tania, the spa director, helped me grind and mix the ingredients—mineral salts, rosemary, ground juniper, and three kids of oils—which were placed in a jar for me to take home and use. I loved the earthy scent of the herbs and the fact that the products are all natural.
Peter and I met in Moxi and chose a table outside on the terrace, where we could enjoy a view of the hotel’s chic courtyard and the last rays of the setting sun. A heat lamp helped keep us warm as the evening chill descended. After we ordered a couple tasty cocktails, the parade of food began: squash blossom risotto, confit suckling pig, beef tenderloin, oyster mushrooms, roasted shallots, watercress, skillfully combined with indigenous ingredients like masa, chochoyotes, chichilo, and epazote. I was curious about epazote, a Mexican herb I had seen mentioned in a cookbook back at the house, so our server brought us a couple leaves. It has an unusual numbing effect, so enjoy with caution. Our dinner was world-class, and Moxi ranks among our favorite restaurants anywhere!
Our time in San Miguel was coming to an end. I had read about another yoga studio, Shanti, out in the country. Besides yoga, guests can enjoy a massage, a swim in the beautiful pool, and lunch. “Come spend the day,” said Brett, the owner, who moved to Mexico from Chicago, where she had been a busy chef/owner of two restaurants.
On the day before we left San Miguel, Peter and I drove to Shanti. Its remote setting promised a peaceful retreat, just what I needed before travelling back to the “real world.” First Brett took me up to her rooftop patio, where gorgeous views of the surrounding landscape spanned 360°. In the open air we did some yoga poses and chatted about life, goals, and what really matters. Next Brett led me to a dark room, where a therapist gave me a lovely massage, and then I headed back out into the bright sunlight and met Peter at the pool.
Brett told us she rents out Shanti to groups for yoga retreats, workshops, and special events. There are also rooms available if you just want to come stay a few nights. Peter and I had hoped to enjoy the pool, but it was a bit too chilly. Instead we tucked into a fabulous lunch of fish tacos and tasty Mexican beer. During our meal we chatted with Brett about our dream of living in San Miguel one day. Like her, we would prefer living in the countryside, where we could have space to garden and maybe have enough room for horses.
“I know just the person you need to meet,” she said and proceeded to tell us about her friend, Eric, who moved to San Miguel with his wife three years before and started a small ranch. They both love to ride horses, Brett said, and before we knew it, she was calling Eric and arranging a meeting that afternoon. Eric actually had some property he was trying to sell, so he was happy to meet us and tell us how he ended up owning a ranch in Mexico.
We said goodbye to Brett and met Eric at an art center we hadn’t even known about, which was preparing for an Art Walk that evening. Even after two visits, we are still discovering reasons to love San Miguel! Eric showed us around the countryside where he lived and said next time we come to town, he wants to take us for a horseback ride. Back at the Art Walk, there was Bethany with a big smile on her face.
The art center was swarming with people, exploring the art galleries and enjoying music and socializing. Again I was struck by the surprising excitement of this colorful city and its inhabitants. Bethany and I chatted briefly before the throng of people carried her away.
“Come back soon,” she said as she disappeared into the crowd.
“We will,” I said. “We definitely will.” Perhaps one day we’ll come back to stay.
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