San Miguel de Allende and the Heartland: Places to Explore

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San Miguel de Allende

You've heard that San Miguel de Allende is an artists' retreat, where the beauty of the surroundings, coupled with the inspired bent of those who seem to be drawn here, results in a proliferation of all things creative. There are literary readings, art shows, annual chamber music and jazz festivals, as well as yoga classes.

For travel novices, San Miguel can be a painless entry-level experience, practically free from concerns about health, safety, culture clash, and language. But even newcomers to Mexico shouldn't make the mistake of spending their whole trip here.

The city began luring foreigners in the late 1930s, when American Stirling Dickinson and prominent local residents founded an art school in this mountainous settlement. The school, now called the Instituto Allende, has grown in stature over the years—as has the city's reputation as a writers' and artists' colony. On any cobblestone street you'll run into expats of all nationalities, but particularly Americans and Canadians. Some come to study at the Instituto Allende or the Academia Hispano-Americana, some to escape harsh northern winters, and still others to retire.

San Miguel, declared a national monument in 1926 and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, retains its Mexican characteristics. Eighteenth-century mansions, fountains, monuments, and churches are all reminders of the city's illustrious and sometimes notorious past. At the corner of Calles Hernández Macías and Pila Seca, for example, is the onetime headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition in New Spain. The former Inquisition jail stands across the way.

A great way to get your bearings is to take a spin on San Miguel's trolleybus that departs every two hours from the Municipal Tourism Office in the Jardín between 10 am and 8 pm. The trolley's route will let you see most of the town, including a stop at the Mirador overlook, where you'll have a spectacular view of San Miguel, especially at sunset. The trolley runs daily and the fare is $5. For more information, call 415/154–5408.

Bear in mind that the city is more than a mile above sea level, so you might tire quickly during your first few days if you aren't accustomed to high altitudes. Also, the streets are paved with rugged cobblestones, and narrow sidewalks are paved with stones that can get really slippery when wet. Most of San Miguel's sights are in a cluster downtown, which you can visit in a couple of hours.

Independence Day, celebrated on September 15 and 16, is San Miguel's biggest fiesta, with fireworks, dances, and parades; cultural events fill out the remainder of the month.

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