Eleven months out of the year, San Miguel de Allende is a quiet and calm–yet uniquely sophisticatedâ€”small town located in the high desert three hours north of Mexico City. The other monthâ€”Septemberâ€”is so frenetic and crazy that you will swear youâ€™ve stepped into a mad, Mexican version of Mardi Gras. You see, San Miguel isnâ€™t your typical small-town Mexico, even though it looks the part from the outside.
The town is named after two important figures: San Miguel, the monk who founded the town in 1542, and General Ignacio Allende, one of the key leaders of Mexican independence from Spain. For years, San Miguel was nothing more than a stop over for travelers headed to and from the silver mines of Zacatecas, but it always lie in the hotbed of Mexican intellectualismâ€”the state of Guanajuato. Though it was home to independent thinkers, artists, writers, and wealthy citizens from Mexico City, San Miguel found itself fading away in the early 1900s. As is the case with many dying neighborhoods and towns, the artists were responsible for bringing the town back to life.
In the 1930s two important events took place. The Bellas Artes art school was founded, and an American artist and teacher, Sterling Dickinson, moved there. Dickinson spent his time teaching children and serving the community by assisting with many public works. Today, his name is found all over town, while the Bellas Artes school draws students from all over the world.
The American invasion began in earnest following World War II, when G.I.s discovered (partly through the efforts of Dickinson) not only the town and its many art schools, but also that their education grants would go much further. Soon the word was out, and the 60s brought such characters as Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Jack Kerouac, Neil Cassidy, Alan Ginsburg, among others. And the visitors keep on coming. In addition to the numerous retirees that call the town home, students still come for summer courses, and even Hollywood has recently gotten into the act. Numerous music videos have been shot in San Miguel, along with the recent hits, The Mexican, starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, with Johnny Depp and Antonio Banderas.
The town center of San Miguel is a Mexican national historic monument, and features the Parroquia, the famous pink, Gaudi-inspired church that dominates the plaza and the downtown area. Laws are in place to keep out too much commercialism, and you wonâ€™t find too many American chain restaurants. If youâ€™re looking for quality Mexican home cooking, though, San Miguel offers a wide variety of cuisineâ€”from tacos on the street, to five-star restaurants to satisfy even the most demanding palate.
Much has changed recently. Today, land and property prices are booming, and San Miguel boasts some of the more pricey real estate in Mexico. Visitors wishing to spend time in this charming town, can find hotels to fit any budget. If you are planning on a long-term stay, furnished houses and apartments are available for affordable rates. For as little as $400/month, one can find fully furnished and remodeled old houses with gardens, cable, internet, and all the amenities of home. The internet is full of offerings, but they are usually much higher than what one can find asking around on the streets and tiendas. Local expats will tell youâ€”the best way to find bargain housing is by asking in the neighborhood shops.
But back to Septemberâ€¦
If a month-long, wild party is what you are looking for, then September is the month to be in San Miguel. This month is the month for Mexican Independence, and since General Allende is from here, the celebration goes on and on. The town begins filling up at the beginning of the month and by the time the 16th (Independence Day) rolls around, the party is in full swing with up to 200,000 in the small town. On the 23rd, is the Pamplonada, or Sanmigueladaâ€”the annual running of the bulls, in which, like its famous cousin in Spain, thousands take to the streets to celebrate and chase the bulls in a dangerous, yet popular, festival. If you are thinking about going in September, you must book reservations far in advance. The towns population triples or even quadruples in this month, and people can be seen sleeping in their cars, tents, alleyways, and anywhere else due to the overflow of visitors.