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.

Three Days in Leon, Mexico

Leon Mexico Templo San Juan de Dios

Spending three days in Leon, Mexico is the perfect amount of time to get to know this city in Central Mexico. With the Silao international airport just 20 minutes away, Leon is an excellent side trip if you’re already spending time in Guanajuato or San Miguel de Allende, or as a destination in and of itself.

The Triumphal Arch of the Causeway of the Heroes

For our recent trip to Leon, we stayed in the Othelo Boutique Hotel, located at the southern edge of the Central Walking Zone. It was a very modern, very cute hotel, with about sixteen rooms, featuring a library (named Yago) and a roof-top breakfast bar (named Desdemona). At under $50 a night, it is a bargain. The staff there are super nice and attentive; we enjoyed our stay there.

Othelo Boutique Hotel

Leon has a hop on/hop off bus tour, but it only runs on the weekends. Instead, we decided to create our own walking tour over the three days we were there. On day one we focused on the Centro Historico, the next day we explored the Conjunto Poliforma and the Zona Piel, and on our last day, we stayed near the Barrio San Juan de Dios.

Day One: Centro Historico

The Centro Historico is about eight blocks long, and four north-to-south. The interior streets are pedestrian-only zones, so you can wander through the two main plazas, enjoy an ice cream, listen to the musicians play, and gaze at the Cathedral of Leon to your heart’s content. Leon’s main neoclassical cathedral, called Basílica Metropolitana de La Madre Santísima de la Luz, was consecrated in 1866. Outside the gates of the Cathedral is a wonderful art exhibit of artistic photographs of some of Guanajuato state’s most interesting sites. Within the Centro Historico, shops run from basic everyday items to luxury jewelry, clothing, and formal-wear. There is also the Museum of the City of Leon, and the Theatro Manuel Doblado. At the far end of the Centro Historico, the Triumphal Arch of the Causeway of the Heroes starts the next walking zone of the city.

Day Two: Conjunto Poliforma and the Zona Piel

On day two we started at the edge of the Centro Historico, at the Triumphal Arch. Passing through the arch and enjoying the jumping water spouts, we headed down the promenade towards the Conjunto Poliforma. This multi-purpose area includes a university, an ecological park, the Museum of Art and History, and a sports stadium. After spending the day meandering through these, we returned by way of the Zona Piel- the leather zone. Leon is considered the leather capital of the world and people come from all over to purchase hand-crafted boots, shoes, jackets, saddles, and more. The leather zone stretches for several blocks, and dotted in between the hundreds (literally hundreds) of small stores are cafes, smoothie stands, cervezerias in case you get thirsty during your leather goods shopping.

Day Three: Barrio San Juan de Dios

For our third and final day in Leon, we stayed closer to our hotel and explored the immediate neighborhood around the Templo San Juan de Dios. This modest church, still showing damage from bullets from the Mexican Revolution, anchors a large park where you can sit on a bench, eat an ice cream, and watch the people of the neighborhood gather for walking, chatting, dancing, and eating. For dinner we ate at Tamales LuLu, a small mom-and-pop place across the street from the church. Afterwards, we sat in the park and watched musicians play as residents of the barrio antigua danced with each other under the rising moon. An ice cream and churro combination from Churrería Las Duyas is a delightful way to cap off dinner, before heading over to Harry’s for a chelada or a michelada.

Have you been to Leon? If so, what did you enjoy there? Answer below in the comments:

Beautiful Belarus

Chris and Deah in Belarus

I have to admit, we arrived in Minsk a little travel fatigued. It was our 26th country on this trip, and we’ve been traveling for over a year. But as Chris and I spent more time in Minsk, the city really began to grow on us and we kept discovering more fun areas to explore. Since hosting the 2019 European Games, the country has rushed to modernize, including a free visa for most nationalities (if you arrive by air to Minsk). If you take your time and get to know it, Belarus might surprise you.

Minsk

Continue reading “Beautiful Belarus”

Uniquely Ukraine

Blue and yellow Ukraine highway sign

Ukraine is fairly new to the tourism scene, and is less-traveled by western tourists. But there’s still a lot to do in this sprawling country, and in fact, some of the things to do here are so uniquely Ukrainian that they can’t really be done anywhere else! Read on to discover some of the adventures Chris and I had during our two weeks in Ukraine.

Hit the beach:

For centuries people from northern climes have flocked to the Black Sea near Odessa to “take the waters” of the sunny south. There are busy party beaches within walking and tram distance of Odessa’s downtown, such as Arkadia and Ibiza. If you prefer a quieter beach scene for your holiday, take the commuter train heading south and visit any of the beach towns the train passes through. We spent three lovely days at Zatoka, about 50 km from Odessa, and loved the relaxed atmosphere there.

There’s nothing like a cold beer on a hot beach

Explore the catacombs under Odessa:

The city of Odessa was built with blocks of limestone mined from tunnels near the city in the 19th century. In later years, these same tunnels were used as an extensive network of bomb shelters and command centers in case of a Cold War attack. Now, visitors can visit the Museum of Catacombs to learn about the 2000 km of tunnels, or take a tour through the “wild” catacombs themselves. We went with Leonid and had a great time exploring the creepy but cool underground. Don’t sign up if you are claustrophobic or afraid of the dark!

Welcome to Odessa Underground!

Free Walking Tour

Of course, nearly every major city in Europe offers free walking tours now, but there’s only one in Odessa! We walked the city with Svetlana for two hours, taking in sights such as the Potemkin Steps, the Odessa Opera House, the “Flat” House, and more. It’s a great way to orient yourself to a new city, plus you learn a bit about the history of the place and get tips on local bars and restaurants. These guides live on the tips they earn, so please tip them according to how much you enjoyed the tour and the time they put into it.

The Odessa Opera House

Odessa City History Museum

This was our favorite museum in Odessa. It’s situated in a beautiful 19th century historical mansion, and details the history of Odessa from early Greek fishing village, up through the Cossacks, the Russians, and World War II. We visited on a Friday, so the dates/times in Google maps are wrong (it said they are closed). The museum costs just 30 Hrievnas (just over $1). It’s located just off the lovely City Garden off Derybasivska Street (the main pedestrian street in town).

The decree from Catherine the Great to build the city of Odessa

Chernobyl Exclusionary Zone Tour:

Most people over the age of 35 remember the events of April 1986, when news emerged that the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in Ukraine was severely damaged and had spewed radioactive gases that reached all the way to Scandinavia in just a few days. The area was promptly evacuated and until 2011, only workers involved in the on-going clean up effort could visit inside the Exclusionary Zone. Tours began running a few years ago, and now, with a new 1.5 billion Euro cover over nuclear reactor number 4, visitors can do a one- or two-day tour to the the Zone. Since the new HBO miniseries debuted in May 2019, Chernobyl has seen a 40% increase in tourism. For visitors who want to learn more about the disaster but don’t have the time or funds to visit the site, there is also a Chernobyl Disaster Museum in Kiev.

Chernobyl Reactor no.4, now covered by a super-dome

The abandoned amusement park at Pripyat, the town that housed the workers of Chernobyl

Street Art and Craft Beer

Not only do we love drinking local beers at small breweries, but we also love looking at amazing street art that pops up in cities. On our walking tour of Kiev, we passed by several large-scale murals and wanted to find more information on them. We were super happy to find this blog post from “What Kate and Kris Did” that not only detailed the art murals, but planned a route around Kiev that encompassed several beer stops along the way! A win-win situation for us. Be sure to check out their other posts on Ukraine as well.

“Rebirth”. Tiny Chris, big mural.

Enjoy Ukrainian Food

We love to eat, and trying out some local delicacies is always high on our list when we visit a new place. You definitely cannot leave Ukraine without tasting some beef stroganoff (created in Odessa), salo (sliced pork fat served with garlic, herbs, and black bread), and of course borscht (beet soup with beef chunks). Some other favorites of ours that we tried were okroshko (cold yogurt soup with egg, ham, cucumber, and onion), caviar, and kvas, a non-alcoholic malt beverage served ice-cold on hot days. A really fun place to try some Ukrainian specialties in Kiev is Ostannya Barykada (The Last Barricade)- a secret, underground restaurant that will give you a short tour and explanation of the 2014 revolution which took place in the square just above the restaurant. You need a password to enter- hit me up on Twitter or Instagram and I’ll tell you what the password is!

Salo, horseradish, Black bread Ukraine food Kiev tour
Salo, a delicious pork snack

You can give the password in Ukrainian or English at this (literally) underground restaurant

Study a Modern Revolution

Maybe when you think of revolutions, you think of one’s in the past like the French Revolution or the American Revolution. Well, in this part of the world, revolution is a daily occurrence, with some Ukrainians still fighting their big brother neighboring country Russia for portions of their land, such as Crimea. In late 2013, a revolution erupted on the Maidan, or main square, in Kiev. Over the next several months, partisans fought for Ukraine’s freedoms and to drive repressive forces out of the city. To learn more about the “Revolution of Dignity”, you can join a short walking tour, daily at 10:30 am, or visit the Complex of Heroes at Independence Square.

Of course, there’s so much more to Ukraine than just Kiev and Odessa, but our time was limited and we found these two cities to be fascinating. We hope to get back to Ukraine one day and explore the east and the west parts of the country as well.

Have you visited? What was your favorite part? Let us know in the comments below.

From Moldova to Transnistria (a country that doesn’t exist)

Chris and I took a bus that wound through the vast sunflower fields and bumpy roads of eastern Romania. We crossed the border with relative ease (15 minutes on each side), and arrived in Chişinău, the capital city of Moldova. We rented a spacious “apartment-hotel” there, unpacked our bags, and spent a few days getting to know the area.

Moldova is not a very large country, and it has no access to the Black Sea. Once part of the Principality of Moldavia, later part of the Russian Empire under the name of Bessarabia, the town was a staging ground for a war between the Ottoman and Russian empires. Later they joined the Kingdom of Romania, but were annexed to the Soviet Union in 1945. With the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Moldova achieved independence.

Chişinău

We spent a few days in the capital city, Chişinău (pronounced “Key-she-no”). It’s a very flat, walkable city, with a small lake and recreation area on one side, and a long main boulevard of monuments and public buildings. We stopped by the Ionika Hostel for a great map of the city (check out their very cool rooms). A number of the buildings in Chişinău were built by Russian architect Alexander Bernardazzi, over a period of 25 years from 1850-1875 (he later moved to Odessa and constructed many of the buildings there). It’s not hard to spot the design similarities in Bernardazzi’s work in Chişinău , or the white limestone marble he used from nearby quarries.

Museum of Natural History

Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity

Water Tower, designed by Bernardazzi

Abandoned Soviet Circus

Milestii Mici

As it turns out, those limestone quarries near Chişinău make excellent wine cellars, and now two of the largest cellars in the world run tours of their vast caves. You can visit Cricova– where Putin celebrated his 50th birthday- or Milestii Mici– the largest wine cellar in the world, certified by Guinness in 2007. There’s over 60 smaller wineries in Moldova to visit as well if you get out of the capital city area.

Deah at the fountain in front of Milesti Mici

We hired a taxi with our Yandex taxi app to take us the 15 km to Milesti Mici (100 MDL), and did a one hour tour and tasting. You need your own vehicle to drive through the tunnels, or you can use the taxi you arrived in (310 MDL/ $20 for the tour; 150 MDL for the taxi). A tour guide rides with you and explains the various streets underground (all named for different wines), and you get out of the car a few times to look at specific points of interest.

Chris, inside Milestii Mici

The cellars remain a constant 12 degrees Celsius all year round, and MM’s holds 65 million liters of wine, in bottles, oak barrels, and stainless steel tanks. They have 200 km of tunnels, with 55 km currently in use. Altogether, their wine cellar is the size of Monaco, and includes a secret room that sheltered 50,000 bottles in the years that Gorbachev prohibited alcohol. After the tour, you can do a tasting, which includes 3 jugs of wine, some meat-and-cheese snacks, and live music. We were glad we had the taxi for the ride home after tasting the white wine and the dessert wine, and finishing off the jug of red wine!

The map of Milestii Mici tunnels

Music, food, and wine

Transnistria

In 1992, there was a brief military conflict in the breakaway region of Transnistria. Since then, it’s been ruled by a joint control commission of Russia, Moldova, and Transnistria. No United Nations countries recognize it as a country, although the breakaway entities of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh do. Transnistria doesn’t actually call their “nation” by that name- it’s the name of the region- they call it “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic”. They have their own passports, visa, and currency.

The Transnistrian flag

Anyway, whether you consider it the “country that doesn’t exist”, a nation, an autonomous region, or just part of Moldova, we went for a visit to its capitol, Tiraspol. It’s a one hour ride on a mashrutka bus, with a very brief stop at their border for a free visa. We had a hotel reserved for two nights, but they stamped us in for two weeks.

It’s Putin Time

We explored the city with Anton, a local tour guide who offers both a one-hour (tip-based) free walking tour, or a six-hour extended tour to a few places nearby. Tiraspol is full of Brutalism-style architecture, a curving river, and leafy parks. Once a thriving factory region for the Soviet nations, many of the factories are now closed, leave behind an empty, abandoned atmosphere. However, people do still live here! Our guide said that renting an apartment in one of the blocks of Soviet flats costs just $100 a month. Some people call Transnistria “the land that time forgot”, but to be honest, I thought it looks like so many other small towns across the former Soviet nations (or anywhere, really, that once thrived and now does not). With tourism, the Internet, and a growing economy, I predict this area will be joining the “modern age” sooner rather than later.

Back in the Land of Lenin

Abandoned Soviet playgrounds always feel creepy!

Train station mural

From Transnistria, we head to Ukraine. Off to see what adventure we can find near the Black Sea!