Central Mexico is a rich and vibrant area that has attracted many people for hundreds of years. Thriving farmlands fed and nourished Tenochtitlan, the mega-huge Aztec site of Mexico City, and a land glittered with silver, gold and other precious metals emblazoned its society. This wealth attracted the Spanish back in the 16th Century who went on to exhaust a vast amount of its resources.
San Miguel de Allende was known for its silver and so many Spanish conquerors went to extract it and build magnificent Baroque churches to signify its wealth and preciousness. This flagrant display of wealth also attracted many thieves, who waited along the road caravans used to move the silver to Mexico City, and raided them. In an effort to create peace, the Spanish viceroy exempted the indigenous people from taxation. Under the agreement the town flourished for centuries with a diverse indigenous and Spanish colonial culture.
I came to San Miguel de Allende under the notion that the streets were paved with silver and the buildings themselves shined brighter than the stars. While the buildings were impressive and extravagant and the streets were a pleasant cobblestone I saw more silver atop pink, sunglassed faces than anywhere else.
Since colonial days, the importance of San Miguel has fallen and risen again as a destination for middle-aged Canadian and American artists and their patrons. In fact, through couchsurfing I came to stay in a lavish home on the hills just outside of the historic district with two middle-aged and recently divorced American women restarting their lives. And San Miguel de Allende is a wonderful place to do so. The many churches in the city provide fantastic structures to gaze upon while your thoughts pour out over all of their details and intricacies. Both calm and busy gardens bloom people-watching and dance exhibitions nightly. And aromas from many delicious cuisines simmer in the clean, smog-light air. Like Guanajuato, the city is to be explored on foot, but with a slightly higher awareness on destination.
But before that was to be done I took a glorious shower and went out with the ladies for gorditas and beer and a secret, members-only viewpoint. Gorditas are made of a kind of flatbread and stuffed with various delights like rajas and queso, mole, garbanzo beans, or typical meats. It was Dia del Amor y la Amistad (Valentine’s Day) so many vendors were in the streets selling flowers, various pink heart-shaped gifts and balloons. We declined the pushings of one balloon vendor whose massive glob of balloons floated in the air like a group of giant grapes. As a consolation I said to the guy, “Pero, me gusta tu paquete.” You can give a guy the wrong impression with that kind of statement.
Afterwards I was treated to a members-only tour. Not because you had to have a badge and bar-code password to get in but because my host is pals with the people that live there…and had a secret key to the building. After unlocking the iron-gate door we stepped into an open courtyard where green vines with attached flowers in various flowed over the upper-floor balcony. The intricate designs of the tiled floor were illuminated by the moonlight shining through the roofless opening above. We climbed up the stairs to find stained wooden tables set with silverware in front of large plants ready for a dinner or open-air breakfast. Cats meowed at us and purred for attention as we progressed up another flight of stairs to the roof. Above, all colors of flowers breathed in the fresh air, branches spread over tables from trellised trees, cactuses covered otherwise unnoticeable gas tanks, and the lights of the town illuminated a backdrop for inspired conversation. A couple of the residents came out and greeted us and gave us a small tour. Half of the year they live in San Miguel and the other half they live in Eureka Springs, Arkansas: apparently another artsy town in an unexpected place. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera on me, but the view left me gaping.
In the morning I left to check out a vista of the city. But as I walked up the steep hill I came across alleyway after alleyway that had a fantastic view. And once I was so high, to get a view that wasn’t contained within brilliant plants and venerable homes didn’t have the same flair. Didn’t have that Mexican touch. I continued my journey into the depths of the city, taking pictures of the magnificent homes and spectacular churches. Along the walk I got in the mood for a coffee and pan dulce, but all I could find were Italian restaurants and cafes with bagels. The restaurants rarely seemed to have the rustic Mexican vibe with orange, pink, and green woven tablecloths and traditional music. A counter with a register awaits your order beside a glass case of cookies instead of a fat women in an apron with a smile resting her weight on your chair. Artisan gifts wait in shops instead of in markets, signs for Mexican restaurants declare in copper cutouts not in paint.
I couldn’t find the pan and coffee. I couldn’t even find a bar that felt Mexican. Outside of the cathedrals there was a large absence of Mexican culture. Back at my host’s house in the hills on the outskirts of the town, I enjoyed a beer on her top balcony and looked out over the city. The roosters crowed and laundry hanged from the homes on the very far hills. Just like the silver from the old mines, San Miguel has taken its Mexican culture and shipped it away, preserving just enough to call it Mexico. It has been replaced by a culture that comes in and enjoys exotic familiarity. A beautiful silver ring with a plastic gem.