by Andrew Collins
Reminiscent in historic ambience, manageable size, mountainous elevation and dynamic arts scene to Santa Fe, New Mexico, the small city of San Miguel de Allende was established in the mid-16th century and has become increasingly popular in recent years as sophisticated, friendly and a distinctive vacation getaway. Although San Miguel has little in the way of gay nightlife, this city of about 60,000 has a strong GLBT following dating back to its popularity with counter-cultural types in the 1960s. Today, visitors will find several gay-owned inns, shops and restaurants.
The popular travel memoir “On Mexico Time,” written in 2000 by Tony Cohan and based on his time living in this magical city, helped boost San Miguel’s already considerable following with expats from the U.S. and Canada. These days, charming San Miguel represents one of the better travel bargains in the Western Hemisphere. With Mexico enduring unfortunate (and largely unfair) negative stereotypes related to the drug violence plaguing its borders, and U.S. and Canadian currency strong against the Mexican peso, the cost of visiting here is extremely reasonable.
The city is well known both for Spanish-language immersion schools and culinary classes, but it’s also a lovely place to simply relax and explore for a few days – or even weeks (many long-term vacation rentals inside historic casitas and houses are available).
San Miguel is a 3.5-hour bus ride from bustling Mexico City, and many visitors here fly in and out of the capital. There’s also a small, relatively new airport 40 miles away in Queretero (with limited direct flights from Houston and Detroit), and an airport 110 miles away between the cities of Leon and Guanajuato, which has direct flights from Chicago, Dallas and Houston. Keep in mind that flights to Mexico City are far more affordable than to these regional airports.
Additionally, inexpensive buses provide service from Mexico City and its airport. Regional buses in Mexico are operated by private lines and have climate control, TVs, comfortable seats and clean bathrooms. Reliable companies serving San Miguel de Allende include Primera Plus http://www.primeraplus.com.mx and ETN http://etn.com.mx. Within the city itself, it’s very easy to get around and explore sites on foot. Taxis are also cheap, safe and plentiful.
San Miguel is the central part of the country, which is known for its beautifully preserved colonial silver-mining cities – other prominent ones include Guanajuato, Queretaro, San Luis Potosi and Zacatecas. It’s hundreds of miles from any of the drug or political violence alluded to earlier and is situated at an elevation of 6,500 feet, which translates to cool temperatures, clear air and sunny skies. Throughout the year, high temperatures hover around 70 to 80 degrees, and with lows dipping into the 50s and – in winter – even the lower 40s. Rainfall is highest in summer, as afternoon thunderstorms are a regular occurrence from mid-June through mid-September.
Part of the fun of experiencing San Miguel is simply wandering about on foot, without a plan. The city’s narrow, hilly cobblestone streets are lined with brightly painted stucco houses with carved wood trim, flower pots, and wrought-iron balconies and sconces. UNESCO designated the city a World Heritage Site in 2008.
The most distinctive site in the city center is soaring La Parroquia, whose beautiful if florid facade recalls the ornate Gothic churches of Europe (on which its design was based). The church lies on the east side of San Miguel’s main plaza, El Jardin, which is shaded with neatly trimmed trees, lined with benches and within steps of cafes and hotels in all directions. Just off the plaza you’ll find the interesting Museo Casa de Allende, a history museum that documents the city’s rich history.
A couple of blocks away, be sure to visit the Bellas Artes, a prestigious school of fine arts set within a cloistered former convent that dates to the 1750s. Walk through the two-story galleried courtyard and admire the murals on the inner walls by Mexican master painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, and note the fanciful sculptures throughout the gardens.
Dozens of art and traditional crafts galleries line the streets in the city center, but the definitive arts destination in town is Fabrica La Aurora, an ancient textile factory that’s been converted into galleries. This beautiful building with its high ceilings and tile floors is a marvel to walk through, its galleries filled with statuary, carved wooden furniture, religious artifacts, modern art, and beautiful books. There are also a few dining spots at La Aurora, including Food Factory restaurant, elegant D’Vino wine and tapas bar, and open-air Cafe La Aurora for light sandwiches and salads.
In addition to galleries, San Miguel has a number of shops selling antiques and decorative arts. There’s also an excellent bookstore, Garrison & Garrison, set in a vintage brick building and carrying many English titles, new and used. For a quiet walk on a pretty day, stroll through Parque Benito Juarez, a 10-minute walk from El Jardin.
San Miguel’s urbane dining scene is a major draw. Fans of food – and cooking – should be sure to check out El Petit Four, a charming bakery run by openly gay chef Paco Cardenas. Here you can sample beautiful cakes, brownies, and bonbons (he can also custom design some very racy erotic cakes on request). The charismatic Cardenas also leads highly informative cooking classes – e-mail him at [email protected] for details.
With a contemporary, lounge-y vibe and something of a gay following, Planta Baja (http://www.plantabajasanmiguel.com) specializes in creative world-beat cuisine that’s heavily influenced by Asian, Mediterranean and Latin American ingredients. Pueblo Viejo (http://www.puebloviejosanmiguel.com) is one of the classics in town for first-rate Mexican fare – it’s run by the same team behind Planta Baja.
Behind a bright-red exterior, Bugambilia serves outstanding traditional regional Mexican food. The nicest tables are in the peaceful, landscaped courtyard, but if it’s a cool evening, grab a table inside near the fireplace the art-filled dining room. El Correo, steps from El Jardin’s plaza, is filled with colorful paintings and also excels when it comes to local Mexican specialties, including chiles en nogada and chicken with a rich mole sauce.
A wonderful spot for breakfast, with a pretty courtyard anchored by a gurgling fountain, El Ten Ten Pie serves fresh fruit juices and hearty egg dishes that make a great start to the day. Cheery El Tomate is one of the few vegetarian restaurants in the area and a great choice for light and healthy lunch and dinner fare. Grab an organic espresso or latte at La Ventana, one of the more inviting coffeehouses in town. And if you’re truly missing that ubiquitous chain java joint from home, yes, there is a Starbucks in San Miguel, just a block from El Jardin.
For delicious snacking, keep your eye out for vendors selling hand-churned ice cream from metal containers – you’ll always find interesting flavors, such as avocado or chocolate-chile. Another must for snacking is churros (fried doughnuts) dipped in hot chocolate, which you can best enjoy at a Chocolates y Churros San Agustin, an elegant little cafe also known for tapas, omelets, and fondue.
Chocolate Lounge is San Miguel’s most gay-popular nightspot – this intimate, sexy spot is adjacent to El Petit Four bakery. Set fairly close to the Plaza on Calle Hidalgo, the city’s El Ring disco is a fun late-night spot for dancing – it’s generally more hetero than not, but it’s very welcoming and has great music. Mama Mia http://www.mamamia.com.mx is another of the convivial if touristy nightspots in town, also drawing a mixed crowd.
San Miguel abounds with B&Bs and historic boutique hotels. The most luxurious lodging in the city is the centrally located Casa de Sierra Nevada http://www.casadesierranevada.com, which occupies several historic buildings with rooms ranging from simple and cozy standards to remarkably posh and expansive suites with fireplaces, patios with private outdoor soaking tubs, and bathrooms with deep tubs, standing showers, and ornate tile work. Rooms open onto secluded courtyards (one has a large pool), and the hotel’s amenities include a first-rate spa, cooking school, and the acclaimed Andanza restaurant (all of these are open to the public by reservation), which serves such rarefied contemporary cuisine as ravioli filled with suckling pig carnitas, and fillet of pompano with truffle-potato puree and a reduction of Jerez sherry and cuitlacoche (a Mexican delicacy derived from an edible corn fungus – it tastes far better than it sounds).
Gay-owned Las Terrazas San Miguel http://www.terrazassanmiguel.com is a lovely old-world compound comprising four large casitas with private patio, well-stocked kitchens. From Casita Colibri, the least expensive but smallest, you’ve got a wonderful view of the city. The property sits on a hilltop an easy walk from restaurants and shopping. Breakfast is included, and one unit has two bedrooms. Another beautiful gay-owned spot is Susurro http://susurro.com.mx, whose spacious rooms with beamed ceilings and landscaped terraces are stunningly furnished with antiques and folk art from around the world.
Reasonably priced and gay-friendly Casa Crayola http://www.gomexart.com/aurora48.htm is a small compound of seven lovely casitas that’s just steps from La Aurora. It’s an excellent option for longer stays, with the colorfully decorated casitas with kitchenettes and separate living areas renting for $500 per week and $1,800 per month.
Other commendable and gay-friendly accommodations in San Miguel include Dona Urraca Hotel & Spa http://www.donaurraca.com.mx, El Meson Hotel http://www.hotelelmeson.com, Posada Corazon http://www.posadacorazon.com.mx, and Hotel Casa Linda http://www.hotelcasalinda.com. The latter is also notable for its restaurant,
_Andrew Collins covers gay travel for the New York Times-owned website About.com and is the author of Fodor’s Gay Guide to the USA. He can be reached care of this publication or at [email protected]_