It was 48 hours to Revolution Day in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and the local kindergartners were practice-parading through their Mexican village like pint-sized "Zapatistas" -- boys sporting Pancho Villa mustaches, girls rouged and ruffled into elegant senoritas. In the spirit of the occasion, they carried balloons, banners and, of course, guns, albeit toy ones.
Among the cheering onlookers were many Americans, who I first assumed were on a tour. After all, I'd just gotten off a bus myself. But then I heard one say: "Well, I've got to get home and call the caterer. See you at the house Saturday night."
Wait a minute. Catered "gringo" parties in a provincial Mexican town 2,000 miles south of New York City?
You'd better believe it. Also espresso bars, video rentals and take-out sushi. Because this was no dusty little pueblo, but cosmopolitan Mexico's most celebrated artists' colony and oasis for expatriate Yankees. Over several decades San Miguel has evolved into a sort of Santa Fe South -- or as my doctor calls it: "Santa Fe with a Lomotil chaser."
With the undrinkable water, inconvenient location and language barrier, San Miguel would seem an unlikely magnet for foreign emigres. And indeed, these drawbacks have kept the celebrity quotient low (writer Clifford Irving is among the few who've been sometime-residents, and actress Michelle Pfeiffer took some sculpting classes there). But it also doesn't take long to see why the town has charmed so many thousands.
During Mexico's colonial days, San Miguel -- then known as San Miguel El Grande -- was the wealthiest town in silver-rich New Spain, and stately mansions adorned with carved-wood doors and stone coats of arms still line the cobbled streets. Some continue to serve as luxurious homes; others have been turned into sophisticated shops and restaurants that spill into flower-filled courtyards. The entire one-square-mile downtown has been declared a national historic landmark, protected forever from golden arches and neon marquees.
Industry-free and 6,000 feet above sea level, San Miguel also is bathed in the kind of clear light artists worship (the town's artistic tradition goes back to the 16th century, when it was settled by a group of Indians who had been taught European techniques of weaving by a Franciscan friar). The pure air is further sweetened by the music of scores of church bells, which continually clang indecipherable codes to call the faithful. The most resonant bonging comes from the pink-stone Gothic spires of the "parroquia," or parish church.
Students of all ages flock to San Miguel from around the world to study Spanish at several internationally famous language schools, or art and music at the Ignacio Ramirez Cultural Center, a branch of Mexico City's renowned Instituto de Belles Artes.
Others come just to hang out in the collegial atmosphere, in which they count on running into long-lost kindred spirits -- or finding new ones.
In addition to the artsy crowd, San Miguel attracts history-minded travelers tracing the Route of Independence through the Mexican Bahio, the arid central highlands between Texas and Mexico City. The seeds of insurrection were first scattered in San Miguel and other nearby colonial cities, and in 1821 the town was renamed San Miguel de Allende to honor a revolutionary hero who was born there.
What makes San Miguel all the more attractive is the fact that it is a mega-bargain for Americans. The exchange rate now is hovering around 8 pesos to the dollar, which translates into four-course meals for less than $5.
San Miguel is also essentially a peaceful haven. The locals know that gentrification has been a huge boon to the economy. What little crime there is mainly seems to involve petty thefts.
Since the American colony took root in the 1950s, increasing numbers of visitors have been known to cancel their flight home and settle in. A favorite joke in the expatriate community greets every newcomer: "What -- you've been here three days and haven't bought a house yet?"
To find out what's going on each week, pick up a copy of San Miguel's English-language newspaper, Atencion. There's a mammoth new modern supermarket on the outskirts of town, which everyone admittedly has grown to love. But most Americans also shop daily at the street markets, which also are popular with tourists hungry for a glimpse of the real Mexico so often invisible along the overdeveloped coasts.
San Miguel obliges them in other ways, often with a mix of Indian and Spanish traditions. Native women still patronize an outdoor public laundry, which now consists of washtubs that stand near the stream where women used to beat their clothes clean on rocks. And every Sunday night the local teen-agers continue the age-old Spanish custom of promenading around the main plaza -- boys in one direction, girls in the other until they start pairing up and then continue their stroll together.
This central square -- in San Miguel called the Jardin, or garden -- is a favorite gathering place for locals and tourists alike at any hour. At dusk, however, the rows of manicured laurel trees attract flocks of boat-tailed grackles, whose squawking makes it almost impossible to hold a conversation until they settle down for the night. (Inmates from the town jail reportedly are marched across the street at dawn to scrub off the park benches after the nightly assault.)
Without straying too far from the central plaza, tourists can visit the landmark Parroquia and several other historic churches plus a couple of museums. The birthplace of insurgent Ignacio Allende, on the southwest corner of the Jardin, now houses a natural-history collection. The colonnaded buildings around the square overflow with shops, galleries and cafes.
You don't even need a car to visit some of the farther-flung attractions in the region. You can go with a tour group, hire a private guide or take a taxi (just be sure to establish the fare before you get in). For longer distances the first-class, intercity 00 buses are an outstanding bargain. It was only about $6 to get from San Miguel to the Guanajuato state capital, about two hours away.
In the late afternoon, at least once during your visit, you should head somewhere to watch the sunset. Climb to El Mirador, San Miguel's most famous lookout point. Or find a restaurant terrace that strikes your fancy. But if you're lucky, you'll have met one of the Americans who live along the downtown "gringo streets" -- calles Sollano and Aldama -- who'll invite you home for a sunset drink. Prosaic exteriors often conceal exquisitely designed town homes positioned to maximize outstanding vistas across the valley to the foothills of the Sierra Madre.
A few expatriates run bed and breakfast inns that target their comfort-loving fellow Americans. On my last visit, in November, I stayed a week at one such lodging, called Mi Casa. It's the home of a transplanted Californian named Carmen McDaniel, who rents two lovely rooms at each end of her roof garden. McDaniel served a hearty (and attractive) home-cooked breakfast each day and provided all sorts of shopping, dining and sightseeing tips -- sometimes writing a dialogue for me to repeat to a shopkeeper in Spanish.
San Miguel is a fluid place, with constant comings and goings. But anyone who's on the way out of town -- even a tourist who wasn't there more than a week -- is invariably asked: "When will you be back?"
If you go
Getting there: American and Continental fly into Guanajuato Airport in Leon, Mexico, where a luxury bus, with movies, meets most flights (schedules tend to be an anomaly in Mexico). The two-hour bus ride to San Miguel is about $15.
Things to do: The region bubbles with thermal springs, and the roads around San Miguel are dotted with signs for "balnearios" -- modest spas with pools of hot mineral water and sometimes a restaurant. One of the most luxurious is Hacienda Taboada, where you can spend an afternoon swimming or check in for a day or two of pampering. The springs are heated by volcanic rock deep below the Earth's surface -- though early missionaries professed they were fueled by infernal fires. To protect the faithful from eternal damnation,the shrine of Atotonilco was built near one popular balneario about nine miles north of San Miguel. The chapel walls and ceilings abound with Mexican mural art depicting biblical scenes (some including 18th-century Spanish soldiers among the villains at Jesus' crucifixion).
Lodgings: You'll find everything from a bare-bones youth hostel to deluxe hotels such as Casa de Sierra Nevada, $160 to $250 per couple daily plus 15 percent tax and service, (800) 223-6510. An attractive, less expensive choice is Villa Jacaranda, $85 to $120, (800) 310-9688. Low-cost hotels can be Spartan, so ask questions if you book in advance (recommended if traveling December through March). Mi Casa Bed & Breakfast is $65 or $85 daily (packages including personalized shopping and sightseeing tours also are available); call 011-52-415-2-24-92.
Shopping: San Miguel is a shopper's paradise for metal crafts, glass, ceramics, pottery, papier-mache items, wood carvings, woven goods and embroidered clothing.
Dining: French, Italian and American fare as well as Mexican is plentiful. Many restaurants have live music at dinner time. (after 7 or 8 p.m.). One favorite was Bugambilia, celebrating its 50th year as a family landmark and a wonderful place for Mexican specialties such as Aztec soup or chiles en nogales -- meat-stuffed chilies in a creamy walnut sauce and topped by pomegranate seeds. Other popular spots with tourists and expatriates include: Mama Mia, for a jovial bistro atmosphere and Peruvian music; Casa Mexas, a sometime-sports bar serving great hamburgers and American pies, and El Correo (opposite the post office, as its name implies). For a casual lunch, try Pegaso; or go to Casa Carmina for a lunch in the pleasant courtyard for $3 or $4. Also appealing are El Campanario, one of my favorite choices for an elegant dinner, El Rincon Espanol (restaurant and tapas bar with flamenco nights) and La Puertecita.
Information: Mexican Tourist Office, (212) 838-2949; San Miguel de Allende Tourist Office, 011 52 415 2-17-47
Pub Date: 12/01/96