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Day 212 – Americaville (San Miguel de Allende)

May 10, 2011

Location: San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Date: Tuesday, May 10, 2011

San Miguel de Allende is technically in Mexico. Inland and about four hours from Mexico City, it still resides on the plateau at 6,300 feet (1900 meters) or about 1,000 feet (300 meters) higher than Denver. It’s an old colonial town officially founded in 1555 by the Spanish. By the mid-1700s it was a hugely successful colonial town with a population of 30,000, larger than Boston (16,000) and New York (25,000). It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008 for all its history and pretty, old buildings.

The guidebook says, however, that many consider San Miguel “a bit like a Mexican Disneyland for foreign (mainly American) retirees.” That’s because out of a population of around 62,000, a bit more than 10,000 are foreigners who have permanent or part-time residences.

The town plays like it, too. There are Western-style restaurants (for both food and service), cafés, and prices. Houses are expensive. For example, I saw a Western-equipped place going for over 600,000 USD (though it was very nice, mind you). Rent for Western-style, fully-furnished, fully-decorated apartments runs at $1,500 / month. Walking down the street you’re bound to hear people speaking French, German, and all forms of English.

All that makes it feel like Europe, but it doesn’t quite amount to Disneyland. So what gives San Miguel de Allende a theme park vibe? It’s achingly, gut wretchingly cute.

And it starts off with the Sleeping Beauty’s castle.  Or, to be accurate: “the church that looks like Sleeping Beauty’s castle.” Parish of San Miguel the Archangel (Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel) is the town’s landmark. Situated on El Jardin, the town’s main square, it was originally built in the 1600s.

It assumed its current fairy tale look, however, when it was renovated in the late 1800s by an indigenous stonemason and self-taught architect. He took his inspiration from postcards of European gothic churches. Why pink? You’d have to ask him. (Note: He is dead.)

The artistic flair of the church exemplifies the town. An art institute here dates back to the 1700s. Foreign and Mexican artists flocked here in the early 20th Century and, perhaps because of all those artists, the colonial town is well preserved. Beatniks, poets, and painters do not real estate developers make.

The culture of the town also has an Orlando, Florida feel because of all the old white people. The streets are filled with slow-moving, gray-haired Germans, French, and Americans. Some are former military who came here on the GI Bill to study art (like the old guy who exclaimed that the coffee at a our café wasn’t so bad because he’d tasted army sludge, but then proceeded to talk the young Mexican waiter’s ear off about how the café should get it’s coffee from a company in Cordoba , going so far as to write the name down for the guy’s manager.)

The old people have impacted the town’s culture, as well. This week’s edition of the bilingual paper reads like a Boca Rotan retirement community rec sheet with activities like tequila tastings, “slow” yoga classes, motorcycle enthusiast meetings, and Rotary Club meetings. I heard one old guy tell another one about a Saturday morning brunch where “all the boys” got together. Handicraft stores abound—the kind of places you can see your grammy visiting to pick up those little trinkets strewn on the bookshelves, mantles, and bathroom counters. There’s even the flagship enterprise of any old folks community: an Arthur Miller dance studio.

And if that weren’t enough to convince you that you’re in a sanitized version of Mexico, there’s this: the ATM I visited had the highest withdrawal limit I’ve seen in Latin America, Asia, or even back in the U.S.A. (roughly $500). This is not just some poor Mexican pueblo; there’s a thriving ex-pat community. And one that’s got a lot of disposable cash.

There are so many Americans, in fact, that there’s a U.S. Consulate to process passports, visas, and advice to wayward citizens. I was stunned. Fewer than 9,000 Americans justifies a consulate? Then I remembered. Retirees have the time to write (and rewrite) their congressman. And they vote. (There’s a lesson about affecting change in there somewhere.)

Which brings me to this. You’re not supposed to like San Miguel de Allende. It’s not Mexico. It’s as much “Tex” as it is “Mex.” It’s Del Boca Vista in the high desert. It’s Taco Bell to the real deal señora cooking soft shell tripe tacos out of her ambulante. The colors are too bright. The town square is too cute. The streets are too clean. It’s too safe. It’s not “authentic.”

But I love it. Because it’s clean, safe, and charming. A lovely place to relax. To wander. To sit in the plaza to people watch, chat, or read.

Just don’t ask me to live here. I’m not ready for a café society morning, dance lessons in the afternoon, and a book club and poetry reading in the evening.

At least not yet.

GALLERY: Click through to see a few bonus pictures of the streets and undeniable proof that Mervyn is fascinated by Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 27, 2014 4:16 pm

    San Miguel and every part of Mexico is American. Mexico is more American than the USA.

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