Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in… San Miguel de Allende

A Mexican bohemia and Unesco World Heritage site, this historic gem now has boutique hotels and a vibrant nightlife to add to its colonial-era charms. David Kaufman reports.

February 09 2012
David Kaufman

Far from the beaches of Todos Santos and the pyramids at Palenque is Mexico’s colonial core – a series of mid-sized states high in the Altiplano. Made rich by conquistador-era mining, steeped in pre-Columbian customs, Zacatecas, Morelos, Querétaro and particularly Guanajuato abound with foods, festivals and folklore that seem to defy the passage of time.

The crown jewel of this region is San Miguel de Allende, an artists’ colony, Unesco World Heritage site and the seat of Mexico’s 19th-century independence movement. The city’s historic centre is characterised by baroque churches, neoclassical casas and cobblestone streets – and it’s virtually free from traffic lights, mega-retailers and fast-food chains.

Indeed, much like Oaxaca and Chiapas to the south, San Miguel has maintained the distinctly local flavour that first lured foreigners to its elegant plazas and parks over 50 years ago. Settlers ranged from artist and writer Stirling Dickinson to American GIs returning from the second world war; they quickly became, as the saying goes, more Mexican than the Mexicans themselves. Wealthy retirees soon followed, forming a gringo first-wave, which quietly established major cultural landmarks such as the Instituto Allende (which offers many programmes, from Spanish lessons to art classes), and ignited the property restoration movement. Lured by the town’s luminous light and captured by both its tolerance and traditions, those initial arrivistes solidified San Miguel’s status as a mountainous Mexican bohemia.

Today, newcomers – and the foreigners remain mostly English-speaking – are just as enthusiastically embracing art and commerce. Younger and often far wealthier than their predecessors, this new generation is no less eager to integrate into the community – which increasingly includes middle- and upper-class Mexicans abandoning the insecurity of urban life. Armed by turns with El Norte know-how and Mexico’s “can-do” (or at least “can-try”) ethos, they are opening artisan studios, cosy cantinas and stylish boutique hotels. Many are tucked within San Miguel’s thousands of inner courtyards, hidden behind ochre-and-orange-stained façades. With its taquerias, torta shops and bustling Nigromante market, San Miguel balances the touristic with the authentic while rarely resorting to guide-book cliché.

“It has a robust artists’ community, and that ideal mountain weather; San Miguel has a special kind of magic,” says part-time resident Bob Pittman, founder of MTV, former president of AOL and newly appointed CEO of Clear Channel Media. “Our story is rather common; we visited for the first time in 2003 and by the end of the week we had put a bid on a house.” Nearly a decade on, Pittman’s property has become Casa Dragones, the four-year-old ultra-premium tequila company headquartered in the restored 17th-century stables that once sheltered Dragones de la Reina, the elite Spanish cavalry that protected San Miguel’s colonial-era wealth. While the tequila is produced in the Jalisco agave country three hours north, San Miguel is the spiritual home of Casa Dragones, which sells for more than $250 a bottle.

Tours and tastings can be arranged through leading San Miguel hotels, including the Rosewood San Miguel de Allende, Casa de Sierra Nevada and Hotel Matilda. While a handful of bijoux boutiques (such as the five-room Casa de los Olivos and zen-like Dos Casas) are luring independent, upscale travellers, these three form San Miguel’s luxury triumvirate. Each is unique in style, size and spirit.

The year-old Rosewood is the largest: a four-acre urban resort with 67 rooms and suites, and an 11,000sq-ft spa set in a hacienda-style complex anchored by a serene arcaded courtyard. Spread throughout is a regional namecheck of Mexican handicrafts: hand-warped carpets from Oaxaca, hand-carved furniture from Guadalajara, locally sourced cantera-stone-clad pillars and arches. The Rosewood’s buzziest spot is Luna, a rooftop cocktail lounge and tapas bar with panoramic views of San Miguel’s dramatic La Parroquia church.

At the opposite aesthetic extreme is the 32-room Hotel Matilda, which opened in September 2010 as San Miguel’s first modern-design “art” hotel. While its minimalist monochromatic interiors, sleek infinity pool and austerely luxe spa are de rigueur for the genre, the Matilda’s collection of large- and small-scale artworks is less expected, and could confidently fill a small museum. Many are by young Mexican talents, including light artist Nacho Rodríguez Bach and sculptor Javier Marin, though American Spencer Tunick’s grandiose images of 18,000 nudists in Mexico City’s Plaza Mayor are the most mesmerising in their brazen human beauty. The Matilda’s clientele of East Coast Americans and Mexico City weekenders is youngish, hip and fashionable – tended to by general manager Bruce James, who arrived at the Matilda last year from Hacienda de San Antonio, the boho-chic central Mexican resort built by Sir James Goldsmith.

A short stroll from both is the Casa de Sierra Nevada, San Miguel’s oldest five-star and one of only two Orient-Express hotels in Mexico. Its 37 rooms and suites are charmingly spread among six colonial mansions, all clustered along colourful Calle Hospicio. Even if staying elsewhere, it’s worth spending a half-day stint at Sazon, the hotel’s cooking school, which is anchored around intimate market tours with chef Emanuel Cervantes.

Like the resort communities of Acapulco and Costa Careyes, San Miguel also supports a vibrant villa rental scene, with homes unexpectedly rich in service, style and value. During the boom years, the mostly original and faux-hacienda-styled properties rented by the week. Today, many require just a three-night minimum; these include architectural and heritage landmarks such as Casa Hyder, an 11-bedroom palacio overflowing with 17th-century European antiques and Mexican folk art, and Casa Chorro, the Pittmans’ rambling, seven-bedroom city-centre estate, surrounded by gardens. Both properties are available through Premier House Rentals of San Miguel, as are more modest villas. According to Premier’s owner, Katharine Hibberts, “Much of the real magic [of the city] takes place behind closed doors, in hidden courtyards or bougainvillea-filled gardens.” Indeed, villa rental offers a most authentic sense of place.

Despite the influx of wealth, San Miguel’s shopping scene is far more about craft than flash. Occasionally the two successfully meet, such as at newcomer Recreo San Miguel, whose updated versions of Mexico’s traditional ponchos for men and women come in luxe cashmere, silk and linen. Nearby furniture gallery Casamidy pairs the European design sense of Paris-born Anne-Marie Midy and husband Jorge Almada with the time-honed skills of San Miguel’s most established artisans to create an expansive range of chairs, couches, bedding and lighting rendered from leather and iron and accented by colourful local textiles. Its unique interpretation of modernist shapes with traditional Mexican motifs is wholly original, collectible and desirable.

Just outside town, meanwhile, is Fabrica La Aurora, a complex of art galleries and artisan boutiques set in a restored textile factory. Arrive by cab for a pre-siesta stroll, then admire the intricate embroidery at La Bottega di Casa or brightly patterned copper and clay decorative pieces at Hilo Negro. Stay around for hands-on instruction from some of the artists, or at least a café con leche and pan dulce at La Aurora’s café.

Back in town, Cumpanio is another excellent café (and restaurant and bakery) with interiors by the young designers at Muro Rojo, whose supremely stylish Hotel Brick is Mexico City’s current must-stay. Set in a restored 18th-century marquis’s casona, Cumpanio serves Franco-Mexican pastries and light meals throughout the day to a cosmopolitan crowd, but is moments from the mariachi-filled Jardín Allende and pink-hued neo-Gothic La Parroquia. Equally worldly diners can be found later on at both Casa Allende and Mivida. The former serves mod-Mexican dishes such as venison tacos and cilantro-spiked queso frito; the latter has a Mexican-influenced Italian menu, paired with jazz nights every Wednesday. Evenings end with a signature cactus martini or glass of local white at the city’s popular rooftop bar, La Azotea.

With the sunrise, San Miguel’s more quotidian pleasures present themselves: browsing for crafts at the Nigromante, watching lovers sneak kisses at the Jardín Principal, or strolling from iglesia to iglesia to observe the architecture evolve from Spanish colonial to French neoclassical to the churrigueresque style. Indeed, you’ll find some of the finest examples of this home-grown take on Spanish baroque right here, in the city where Mexico first came into its own.