San Miguel de Allende: The Jewel of Mexico

San Miguel De Allende cathedral

You may have noticed the small town of San Miguel de Allende popping up on your travel radar often in the past few years. In 2008, the city was granted a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. It’s been voted “Best City in the World” by Travel and Leisure Magazine in 2013, 2017, 2018, 2020, and 2021. Conde Nast named it “Top Small City in the World” in 2021. All this is to say if you are looking for a beautiful, picturesque town, filled with history of the Mexican Revolution, and ornate, Gothic-style cathedrals, then you will certainly find it here. But if you are looking for a simple, Mexican village, with cheap prices and family-owned cafes, then you will have to look long and hard to find it in San Miguel de Allende.

The Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel at Sunset

With over 10,000 expats moving to San Miguel de Allende over the last ten years, it is easy to see why locals call the main pedestrian area of the town “Gringo Gulch”. Join a walking tour and you will be surrounded by forty white North American faces, many of them clutching matching tote bags to commemorate the destination wedding they have all flown in for. At night in the main Jardín Allende, competing mariachi bands play for tips in each of the corners of the square. From our hotel El Portal’s rooftop patio, right in the heart of the main plaza, I counted four different mariachi bands waiting to play their tunes. Each evening we walked far beyond the central walking area, trying to find a simple taco stand, rather than polished chrome and glass rooftop bars where “Mexican Margaritas” go for $20 each.

Gentrification is nothing new to San Miguel de Allende. From the Spanish conversion of the Chichimecas starting in 1552, to the De La Canal family financing of the parks and plazas of the town, to the recent influx of expatriates, San Miguel de Allende has benefited from its location along Mexico’s silver mine route, its proximity to the capital, and its reputation as an artists colony. In 1937, a young man from Chicago wandered into town and was captivated. Along with a friend and a Model T Convertible, Sterling Dickinson was making a six-month tour of Mexico, and when he landed in San Miguel, he found a home for himself. By 1938, Dickinson had founded an art school in town, and after serving in World War II, he persuaded many soldiers to study art in San Miguel with their GI Bill, where the cost of living was low and the weather was beautiful all year long. For better or for worse, Dickinson helped put San Miguel de Allende on the map, and it has only grown busier, more crowded, and more touristic in the passing years. The average house in San Miguel now costs approximately $520,000.

the cobblestone streets of San Miguel de Allende
The Cobblestone Streets of San Miguel de Allende

All of this is not to say that San Miguel is not a lovely place to visit. It is! But I couldn’t help but feel it was hard to find a unique and authentic experience there. We did go on a walking tour, which benefits Patronato Pro Niños (tour departs at 10 am Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and costs 300 pesos). On this tour, led by the knowledgeable guide Dalí Amaro, we learned a lot about the history and culture of the city. It was definitely worth going on the tour to get a look behind the stone walls and gates of the city.

We also found the map for a recently-created art tour of some of the barrios of San Miguel. Although the Fat Bastard Art Walk only goes on Saturdays, he helpfully created a map of 5 different walks visitors can self-navigate and see the street art that adorns other quarters of the city. We enjoyed the walks through these neighborhoods, away from the central walking zone, and eating in the cafes we found along the way.

As always, I suggest taking a local bus to really see the area. San Miguel has a huge traffic problem- so much so that it is in danger of losing its UNESCO heritage designation- so I would urge all visitors to try to refrain from cabs and Ubers, and use the excellent local bus system (8 pesos per ride and as each route makes a circuit, you really can’t get lost). Take the #8 or #9 up to the mirador for a great sunset view, or the #6 to get to the central bus station to go to another city. We had an excellent experience using BajioGo to get a shared ride to the new Queretaro airport- they charged the same as an Uber and less than our hotel’s offer of a shuttle, and we got to meet two other travelers on our way and chat with them.

For a glimpse of the real village life, look in the outer barrios of San Miguel

If you are leaving San Miguel and returning directly to the United States and need a Covid test for re-entry, you can get one at a kiosk in the parking lot of the Hotel Rosewood for 550 pesos. They take about one hour and results will be emailed to you.

Housesitting in Monterrey, Mexico

Deah and Chris in Monterrey Mexico

For Thanksgiving week, Chris and I got to experience travel with a twist: we went as certified housesitters and cared for a cat while her owner was away. We’ve been members of the website Trusted Housesitters for a year now, and we finally found a gig that would match up with our schedule, plus a place we wanted to visit.

Although we could have flown from our home airport of Austin, there were cheaper and more direct flights from Continue reading “Housesitting in Monterrey, Mexico”

El Salvador and Honduras

Deah in Copan Honduras sign

We’ve been through the El Salvador airport several times, but never actually visited the country itself, so we decided on El Salvador and Honduras for our winter break (number 92 for me, and 130 and 131 for Chris). Not really interested in Continue reading “El Salvador and Honduras”

Backpacking Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize

standing in front of Tikal

School finally ended and it’s time for summer vacation! I hopped on a bus with Sierra to Tegucigalpa, then met up with Hunter in San Pedro Sula later that night- I had talked him into coming down and going backpacking with me for a week. We stayed at the Tamarindo hostel in San Pedro Sula, and then took a bus to the the ancient Mayan ruins in Copan. It is in the highlands so the weather was beautiful. It was a challenge getting around and understanding everyone with our limited Spanish, but not too bad. We spent a lovely couple of days at Copan and learned a lot, and got to climb all over the Mayan temples. It was really cool to be in the midst of these ruins, reading the hieroglyphic writing, thinking about people who lived there hundreds of years earlier. We stayed in the lovely Iguana Azul, a bargain at just $15 a night for the two of us.

We took the bus back to the north of Honduras, and went to Pico Bonito National Park, where we went white-water rafting. A great time! Scary at times, but so lovely. Our guide was fantastic and the water was awesome. We stayed at a little “jungle river” lodge. Wonderful food, good weather, and an amazing vista to look at each day- green trees, blue skies, mountains in the background, and a river running right next to our lodge, complete with a “swimming pool” and a “hot tub” area. The second day we went back on the river, and went “canyoning”- where you put on a life vest and helmet, and do the same route as in a raft or kayak but you just float yourself down! A few bumps and scrapes- not sure I would recommend that one again, but we both survived.

After a couple of days in the jungle, we were ready for some beach action. We took a ferry to the little island of Utila, home of 15 dive shops and a million (somewhat ragged) backpackers. We got the world’s crappiest room (hey, it was $8 a night for the two of us!) and prepared to drink ourselves silly and snorkel for three days. Mmm, mmm. We rented a scooter and explored the island, we snorkeled, we went diving, we went to bars, went to an all you can eat barbecue, and watched fire dancers. At last it was time to leave Utila and head to another island, Roatan. We didn’t want to have to take two ferries again, so we hired a sailboat and had the captain sail us over to Roatan! It was a rough crossing, as there was very little wind, and we both had terrible hangovers, but we did make it across. We both got a bit sunburned on the way, though.

Finally we were in Roatan, one of Honduras’ famed Bay Islands. The scenery was astounding and the white sand beaches were great- marred only by the sand flies. Clear blue water, blue skies, but hot hot hot. We spent our time snorkeling some more, walking the beaches, and exploring various beach bars. Had some great Argentinian food (yum, they had chimichurri sauce for our steaks!) and had a lovely little cabin to stay in at the Posada Arco Iris.

Alas, Hunter had to go back to work, and managed to change his flight as to stay in Roatan an extra day and then fly straight from there to Houston and Dallas. I left the same morning, and after a long bus ride, arrived in Copan again. I stayed the night, enjoying some time with some backpackers there (relishing the cool weather, as it had been terribly hot on the coast) and then crossed over into Guatemala. After a looooong bus ride (definitely the worst day of my trip) I arrived at the little island of Flores and stayed the night. Arriving on this beautiful island in the middle of a lake definitely helped soothe some of my irritations and frustrations from the 8 hour bus ride- during most of which I had stood up- I had had to endure that day.

Flores, Guatemala

Early the next morning, I hopped on a shuttle bus to Tikal, another ancient Mayan city, and a place I have dreamed about going to for years. The inspiration of my trip, really. I spent a whole day walking around the city of Tikal, amazed at the heights of the ancient temples, learning the history from our guide, and climbing all around everything. They have these giant, absolutely giant, temples that you climb to the top and see for miles around. It is so strange to see these temples literally just sticking up out of the jungle there. Definitely a sight worth seeing. I was sad to leave, but I had to catch a bus to Belize that evening!

standing in front of Tikal
Tikal, Guatemala

A short two hours later, I arrived in the town of San Ignacio, and found a place to stay. Everyone was super helpful and friendly here, and I got all signed up for the ATM cave, a place Chris had gone to the year before and recommended to me. The next day my small group of 8 hopped in a van and went on an all day excursion to this cave that houses the pottery and skeletons of Mayans, dating back to 800 AD. You feel such a sense of history as you are walking through there, with a head lamp, knowing that this is a place that not many people have been able to see. You even have to swim into the entrance of the cave!

After my day of spelunking, I took a bus to the capital of Belize. It was time for my flight home, and by this time I was ready to get out of my backpacking clothes, take a good bath, and go home to see my friends and family in Arlington. But what a great trip I had- a once in a lifetime experience for sure! Thank you to Hunter, to Sierra, to Alecia, Kathleen, and Kristen, to Chris, and everyone else who made my trip possible.

Leaving Nicaragua

flamenco dancer on stage in Managua Nicaragua

I haven’s been able to leave Managua much in the last month, but have had some good adventures the past few weeks. We went ziplining at Volcano Mombacho; totally scary but definitely worth it. Exhilarating and adventurous. The last weekend of April, we went to the city of Leon for a short trip, to hear our friend John’s band play. We spent the rest of the long weekend at our friend’s beach house in a tiny little fishing village called Transito. Just hammocks and beer, the beach and the waves; exactly what we needed for a long weekend.

One night in May we all went to a Spanish restaurant in Managua and watched a flamenco dance show. Wow! The two ladies dancing were excellent and the food was awesome. Later we went out drinking and singing karaoke.

A new restaurant opened up in town; Scampi’s. They have other branches of the restaurant in Dallas, Hollywood, and Tokyo. And now Managua! Somehow we finagled invites to the grand opening, and were treated to a very swanky evening of wine, champagne, sushi, and other delights. We’ve been back twice since then. The food is fabulous.

Last week was a big week; we had the last days of class, final exams, the LOST season finale, a Rocky Horror Picture Show viewing at my house for 20, and a murder mystery dinner party at our friend Thurlow’s house. I turned out to be the murderess! Or, rather, my character, Terra Sunder (married to Castor Sunder). We also hosted a graduation party for our student teacher, Brian. The school gave us $500 to plan a big end of year party, and we all had a blast. I can’t believe my year of teaching in Nicaragua has come to an end- and I can’t wait to see what happens next year. Stay tuned!