Tuesday, June 10, 2008

San Miguel de Allende, #1 of 4 parts: Overview, History, Casa Calderoni

A jewel set in silver. Beautiful scenery, history, art, and culture intersect at San Miguel de Allende, one of Mexico’s loveliest, most cosmopolitan small cities. It is a jewel set along the old colonial silver trail from Zacatecas to Mexico City. Carole and I visited San Miguel at the end of May. Since May is usually one of the hottest months at Lake Chapala, we decided that a visit to a cooler, high-altitude location was in order.

Important note to blog viewers!
San Miguel is such a photogenic city that I simply took too many beautiful shots to incorporate in one posting. In fact, Carole has been chiding me that my postings have grown far too lengthy and that I should give folks a break. Looking over my selected photos and script, I decided to break the story into four separate postings, covering different aspects of San Miguel. I will put up the postings about once a week, so people will have time to digest each and (hopefully) have their appetites whetted for the next. As always, I am very open to feedback and constructive criticism about any aspect of my blog. Please let me know what you think by posting comments or emailing me directly at jimncarole@hotmail.com

First, an overview.

View from the bluffs overlooking the city. San Miguel lies on rolling high desert foothills in front of a steep bluff. The town itself has about 62,000 people, with another 80,000 living in many small towns and villages within its “municipality”, a term which roughly corresponds to a US county. About 11-12,000 of the residents are expats and perhaps 7,000 of these are full-timers. 70% of expats are from the US, 20% from Canada, and the other 10% from elsewhere.

While the expats, and the wealthy Mexicans who have also "discovered" it, have helped give San Miguel its sophisticated, cosmopolitan atmosphere, their presence has also driven up prices in sectors such as housing and restaurants, and has done much to attract unsightly horrors like Big Box stores and McMansion housing tracts to the city’s edge. Fortunately, the Mexican government declared the heart of the city a national monument in 1926, and the large center area retains its historic character.

High desert country around San Miguel can be rugged. A deep narrow canyon cuts the bluff creating an ancient arroyo (stream bed) which leads to a present-day city reservoir seen in the previous picture. On top of the bluff lies a plateau in an area known as the Bajio (low place), primarily because it is surrounded by mountain ranges. However, at 6140 feet (1870 meters) San Miguel is anything but low. The altitude gives the city cool mornings and evenings, with warm sunny afternoons. This was just what we were looking for after the scorching days we had been enduring during May in Ajijic.

Biblioteca Publica mural tells the story of Mexico's Indios. Originally known as San Miguel de la Chichimecas, the city has had a long relationship with the native people who were here when the Spanish arrived. The local people were nomadic hunters and gatherers in the high desert plains. Because they didn’t worship idols like settled Indios, Church leaders considered them too primitive to even have a religion. But, for a nomad, possessions must be few since they must be carried everywhere. Idols had little utility. Later ethnographers found a rich cultural life among the various tribes called Chichicmecas.

Stained glass window in the Biblioteca Publica. The local Indios did gain respect as fierce warriors during the Chichimec Wars, fought from the mid-1500s until well into the 19th Century. They were so tenacious that the Spanish sometimes found it easier and cheaper simply to buy them off. This made sense, since the route from the silver mines in Zacatecas and Guanajuato passed through the area on the way to Mexico City, and the Indios had a fondness for raiding the bullion caravans. Finally, the Spanish sent Father Miguel in 1542 to set up a mission in the area to help settle the Indios, and thus founded the city of San Miguel de la Chichimecas. The Miguel in the name is San Miguel the Archangel, not the Father.

Art work adorning the Instituto Allende art school. Chichimec is a common term used to describe the original inhabitants of the area. The term is not actually used by the local Indios to describe themselves, and is considered derogatory. The name is made up of two words from the language of the Nahautl Indio allies of the Spanish who came from the Mexico City area. The words are dog and rope (or line) meaning the people who come from a line of dogs. There were actually several related tribes, including the Otomies, Jonaz, Coras, Huicholes, Pames, Yaquis, Mayos, O'odham and the Tepehuánes.

San Miguel and the War for Independence.

Independence hero gave San Miguel its final name. San Miguel played an important role at the beginning of the eleven-year struggle known as the War for Independence from Spain. Two of the early figures who became national heroes were Father Hidalgo, the Parrish priest at the nearby town of Dolores Hidalgo, and Ignacio Allende, an aristocrat born and raised in the town by then known as San Miguel el Grande. General Allende is shown here in a dramatic 19th Century pose, complete with pigeons. He was one of the initial plotters, and a general in the early battles.

A classic mansion for a second-class citizen. Ignacio Allende was born and grew up in this classic mansion (now a museum), located on the west side of the Jardine Prinicipal (the central plaza), only a few yards from the magnificent Parrochia church. The house location gives an indication of his wealth and prominence in the local power structure. However, he was second generation Spanish, full-blooded it was true, but not actually born in Spain. Nothing he could do would make him anything other than a second-class citizen in this society, despite his wealth, education, and prominence. Of such is born a “revolutionary”.

The Indios formed the bulk of the rebel armies during the War of Independence. With some notable exceptions, Spaniards or their second-generation offspring led the Indio troops. Far from being a revolution, the War for Independence was a struggle by one part of the existing power structure against the part which supported continued dominance by Spain. Although Father Hidalgo is seen as the liberator of the Indios, few the local landowners and gentry who supported independence had any thought of ending the serfdom of the Indios and it remained in place for a hundred years until the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Similarly, slave-owning aristocrats like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson led the American side of the War of Independence against the British and the last vestiges of serfdom in the US didn’t end until the 1960s.

The independence plotters lair. On the north side of the plaza, another former mansion still stands where some of the independence plotters met just before the war started. This historic site now hosts a restaurant/bar named Dolphy and some shops. Note the beautiful work around the upstairs French doors and the wrought-iron railing.

Most of the early leaders of the independence war came to a bad end. Both Father Hidalgo and General Allende, after some early successes, were captured and beheaded. The Spanish did not take kindly to those who challenged their dominance, regardless of religious status or wealth and prominence. In the end, no matter how many heads they made roll, the Spanish lost Mexico, and ultimately all of Latin America. In 1826, the city was renamed from San Miguel el Grande (its second name) to San Miguel de Allende in honor of the general.

Casa Calderoni, our "base camp".

Kickin' back at Casa Calderoni. While we found quite a number of choices for places to stay, Casa Calderoni seemed to best fit our overall needs. Nightly rates for the off-season were $99.00US. Other possible choices range from youth hostels with posted rates of 100 pesos (about $10.00US), to small hotels at 350 pesos (about $35.00US) all the way up to B&Bs boasting movie star clients and charging several hundred dollars per night. The trick is to find a spot fairly close to the center of town where you can walk anywhere. Casa Calderoni is on the edge of El Centro, the heart of the city, and is only four blocks from the central plaza called the Jardine Principal. Taxis are plentiful and cheap (20-30 pesos or $2-$3 US) for those who don't want to walk. However, we encourage walking since you see so much more.

Luis, our friendly "concierge". An English-speaking expat couple named Calderoni owns the Casa. Carole and I had combed the Internet for a bed and breakfast with an English-speaking staff, since we would be visiting a new city where we had no existing contacts and our Spanish, though improving, is still limited. Luis, pictured above, was the Mexican equivalent of a concierge. He spoke excellent English and, like the rest of the staff, was warm, friendly, helpful and very efficient.

The Casa's patio was cool and inviting. Located on the third floor, our room overlooked this cool, beautifully decorated courtyard.

A lush view. Our window brought in light, air and color from the courtyard below.

The dining room staff served excellent breakfasts. We ate here every morning with expats from various countries as well as Mexican tourists. Food was good and plentiful with lots of fresh mangos and papayas and other fruit as well as other standards like eggs and French toast and some Mexican dishes. One of the Calderonis usually attended breakfast to answer questions about San Miguel.

A room with a view. Casa Calderoni's website boasts it has the best view of the city from any hotel or B&B, and they may be right. The “mirador” (look out point) on the roof of the B&B is a multi-level terrace equipped with tables and lounge chairs. From it you can view the rolling wooded hills of the city and the steeples and domes of the many churches. I came up here at various times of the day and was always rewarded with outstanding views in every direction, especially at dawn.

Casa bedrooms were full of artistic touches. Our room was comfortable, and beautifully decorated with the art of American Southwest artist Georgia O'Keefe. I used the cow's skull on our wall as my hat rack. We could have done without the unnecessary extra bed, which simply took up space and made things a little more cramped than we would have liked. But that was minor. Overall, Casa Calderoni was lovely.

San Miguel de Allende is a "walking" town. The Casa staff recommended a walking tour of the El Centro area of San Miguel, one of their best pieces of advice. There are several commercial tours available, but the Casa staff recommended the one operated by Patronato Pro Ninos, a Mexican non-profit organization that provides free medical help to poor children. The walking tours are a key part of the organization’s fundraising. Andrea, shown above with Carole (with the blue hat and large bag) and our three fellow tour participants, guided the two-hour tour, which cost 100 pesos (about $10.00US) per person.

Andrea was friendly, humorous, spoke excellent English, and was very professional, even though she was a volunteer. She takes great pride in her beautiful city, and feels deeply about the mission of Patronato Pro Ninos. At the end of our tour she gave us a brief overview of their work, and was momentarily overcome with emotion when describing one case with which she was personally familiar. We strongly recommend you use this tour service if you visit San Miguel. They are easy to find: just go to the Jardine Principal at a few minutes before 10:00 AM any day, and stand around in the area immediately between front of the Parrochia Church and the garden area of the Jardine Principal (the central plaza). Look for others also standing around expectantly and you will find your tour.

I hope you enjoyed this posting. Feedback is always welcome (see directions for comments below). In about a week, I will make my second of four postings on San Miguel de Allende, focusing on the Jardine Principal area and street life in San Miguel. Hasta Luego! Jim


  1. Wonderful blog and photos! If you'd like to keep a little piece of San Miguel with you, you may want to pick up a film called Lost and Found in Mexico. It's a great little film about why people move to San Miguel. I recently did just that and I watch this film over and over again to keep me focused on my journey.

    Life is what you make it and you two are certainly making lots of wonderful adventures!

  2. Well, Jim, I finished reading about Guanajuato and have moved a little to the--east, is it? I find your brief history lessons informative and very digestible. It will certainly add to our upcoming visit to Guanajuato to know about the Alhondiga's bloody part in the people's struggle for independence. We will be spending a day in San Miguel and will try to connect with the walking tour there. What would you recommend for a similar tour through Gto? Since we will be scouting for locales--colonias?--where we might begin renting an apt or casita when we move in a couple of years, do you know of any expat contacts in these two cities? No hurry. The email address for your previous note works fine. Muchas gracias, Jaime.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim