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Moving to San Miguel de Allende: Chapter 1: Journey & Arrival

Chapter 1: Journey & Arrival

As we pulled out of the driveway of our house in Denver, Colorado on May 9 and headed down the street, I took a final look at the home I had lived in since I was just over a year old. The sun was still pale in the early morning sky, and everything was quiet. I didn’t take a lingering glance back at the receding house – I was too excited about what lay ahead. I pictured myself, a 14-year old gringa with my rather eccentric sisters and mother, gaining my education by travel and by the experience of living in a different country, a different culture, a different style.

The First Villa

Kathleen, Leigh, Annie and Laurie enjoying breakfast on the patio of the cinnamon villa.

Our journey through the maze of concourses, baggage checks and trains of the airport was bewildering and fast, as it always is. We stumbled to our gate and squeezed our dad before boarding the plane to Los Angeles. I felt much sympathy for him as he waved, and I felt a sudden urge to pull him on the plane with us and just take off. But I quickly jerked my head out of the clouds and sighed. He would stay, and it would be difficult for awhile but then, oh then! I knew it was all worth it. Every single hardship would edge us closer to that joyous goal – like paradise beckoning a few steep peaks away…

The flight was accompanied by the usual activities and feelings: mediocre meals of which only half looks edible, that cramped, I-really-need-some-air feeling and innumerable looks at my watch. Time seems to stand still when you least want it to, so I gave in and pulled out a book I had found on the history and culture of the place where we would eventually touch down.

Once known as the village of Chichimeca, San Miguel was originally inhabited by the Chichimeca Indians, “Barbarians and less reasonable than the people of other provinces,” according to Cortez. In 1542, a Franciscan friar, Fray Juan de San Miguel, established a thatched-roof adobe church on the trickle of a river, Rio Laja, and taught Catholicism to the indigenous Chichimecas.

Because of this lack of water, the mission might not have survived had it not been for a pair of dogs. Legend has it that one day, missing his beloved dogs, Fray San Miguel went to search for them and found them happily drinking water at an abundant natural spring, later called El Chorro, which can still be seen today. Miguel moved the town to where it is today and was able to continue his work. The village grew into an important, bustling town. The area eventually was fully evangelized by the Spaniards and became a safe place for silver miners to stop and buy supplies on the way to Mexico City.

As silver flowed, San Miguel flourished. It became a local market center – whatever one wanted, San Miguel had it. Luxurious haciendas, elegant churches and varied markets propagated in the expanding town, all supported by the masses of downtrodden people.

San Miguel El Grande (to differentiate it from the myriad other San Miguels) became a center of revolutionary thinkers as the wealthy Mexican-born Spaniards (Creoles) chafed under Spanish rule. Ignacio Allende, a San Miguelense whose house is now a museum in San Miguel, and Father Hidalgo of Dolores joined forces and instigated the national uprising which would eventually lead to Mexico’s independence. Balls were held at Allende’s home to mask what were actually surreptitious meetings that brought together revolutionary minds from all over central Mexico: Ignacio Aldama, Josefa Ortiz, Juan Umaran, among many others.

After the 11-year struggle for independence finally succeeded, in 1826 San Miguel El Grande became San Miguel de Allende, in honor of its heroic native son. After the war, Mexico slumped under the burden of its newly gained independence. Mines were forsaken or destroyed; the abundance of Spanish elegance and opulence decayed and gradually died. San Miguel de Allende, no longer essential to the dying mining operations, became a sleepy, impoverished town. Although this depression was tragic at the time, it kept San Miguel cocooned in the past, in its colorful history, until the next great era.


The four of us in front of La Parroquia, that whimsical hallmark of San Miguel.

In 1926, 100 years after being declared a city, the federal government made San Miguel and its surrounding communities a Mexican National Monument. This keeps out modern architectural monstrosities and Highlands Ranch-type developments. So, if you sit in the Jardin and gaze up at La Parroquia, the city’s enormous, well-known and delightfully gaudy wedding cake of a cathedral, you can listen to “Miguel” – Parroquia’s largest, most vociferous bell – and transform the honking taxis to clip-clopping horseshoes and imagine yourself in a town emanating Spanish colonial splendor as well as revolutionary ideals 300 tumultuous years ago.

Foreigners and artists from all over the globe began to discover the wonderful atmosphere, laid-back lifestyle and fabulous “light” of San Miguel in the 1930s. But it wasn’t until after World War II that a large influx of Americans began to move in.

Students who came down and never left founded San Miguel’s now-famous schools of art and language. There are now about 3,000 expatriates living there, who are probably changed more by life in San Miguel than the town itself has changed in the last three centuries. There are still no stoplights, fast food franchises or neon signs, and the cobblestone streets, many probably older than the United States, are usually only wide enough to fit three burros and their master, much less three cars. The mixture of foreign and indigenous cultures has led to a remarkable ambience that is probably not duplicated anywhere else in the world.

I was jolted out of colonial Mexico by a bumpy landing in Los Angeles. A delay, a crowded flight to Mexico City and one four-hour bus trip finally brought us to Queretaro at 11 p.m. The hotel was lovely – we were welcomed by the mariachis playing in the bar, and the kitchen stayed open long enough for limonadas and quesadillas. I don’t think falling into bed ever felt so good.

Leigh (12), Annie (6), Laurie (4) and I swam in the hotel pool the next morning. It was warm and surrounded by bougainvillea, azalea bushes and jacaranda trees bursting with bird songs we had never heard before. My mom sat in a chaise and just soaked up the joy of being back home. We collected our stuff, and after a delicious breakfast of fresh fruit, te de manzanilla, sopes (little tortillas with beans and cheese), pan dulce and a lovely white rose for Mom to celebrate Mother’s Day – a very big holiday in Mexico – we crammed into a cab and headed for San Miguel.


Annie and Laurie walk down our little Callejon Atascadero.

The ride was not very long, but it was hot and bumpy. Mom talked to the personable driver, who unfortunately didn’t have any idea where Colonia Atascadero, much less our villa was. We drove around on the winding cobblestone streets, sometimes stopping for directions, until we finally found a steep alley called Callejon Atascadero.

Our relief at having found it soon turned to dread as we looked at the nearly 90-degree angle of the hill, then our immensely heavy luggage, and felt the steady beating of the May sun on our backs. After several trips, we finally managed to get all our bags up to the house and nearly passed out at the door.

The “cinnamon villa,” as we call it, has a comfortable, clean charm that looked particularly welcoming after panting and sweating up the hill. The front door is no longer operational; apparently they needed the counter space for the small kitchen, so the entrance we use is actually a side door. Some very peculiar architectural styles develop in these hill towns. The side door opens onto a small patio with a large, gnarled pepper tree on one side. There are chairs and a table, and it is a very pleasant place to eat breakfast.

From this door you enter the living room, small but comfortable, which leads into the kitchen, very small and not so comfortable. There is a gas stove, a table and four chairs (we use the stool in the living room for the fifth person), a minimal amount of counter space and a sink so shallow, water splurts into your face while you wash the dishes or your clothes.

The kitchen is adjacent to a bathroom with a spacious shower, blue and yellow tiles and a lovely, colorful painting on one wall, which I enjoy searching for interesting details. From the kitchen, a flight of concrete winding stairs leads to the two bedrooms and second bathroom. One bedroom has a large twin bed, a couch (which is attached to the wall, but is crooked), a small dresser and a tiny guest room with a good amount of shelf space, where we store most of our clothes, books, etc.

The window opens onto our little street, Callejon Atascadero, and when I awoke on our first morning I thought there was a group of raucous Mexican children right beside my bed. Apparently the walls are not very thick and do very little to stop the high-pitched chatter and squeals of young children skipping down the street. The master bedroom has a king-size bed, a closet and dresser (which we use as a medicine cabinet) and a small balcony overlooking the patio. It also has a window that opens onto the callejon and is, we have discovered, an excellent place to watch the torrent of water rush down the street after an “aguacero.”

The second bathroom is minute, almost miniature in proportions. The sink and counter are squeezed underneath the little window, barely allowing room for five toothbrushes and toothpaste; the toilet is right next to the shower, which is cylindrical in shape and makes you feel as though you’re bathing in a test tube. When you emerge from this cocoon, the hall feels deceivingly large and open, but this is only a temporary illusion as the hall is actually narrow and is adjoined by two flights of stairs, one leading downstairs and the other up to the rooftop margarita patio.

These stairs seemed quite treacherous at first, but now we can walk up them with gracious ease. They are white wrought iron and are not solid, so you can see all the way to the bottom of the next flight.

When you finally reach the door, it opens onto a large patio with a table and chairs and a wonderful view of the whole city, dominated by La Parroquia. This patio has become the center of many of Annie, Laurie and Leigh’s games. They drop their dress-up clothes off the patio and watch them drift down to the driveway. This seems to keep them entertained for a long time!

Overall, the house is tastefully furnished, clean and comfortable, though a bit of a squeeze for our clan…

Our first priority after getting unpacked was to sally forth in search of food. Mercado Ignacio Ramirez was our first stop, and it was memorable – a hyper-stimulation of the senses. The constant cacophony of human voices – both raised in selling and lowered in conversation – the strumming of guitars sometimes accompanied by a crooning song, the dogs barking, the roosters crowing and the fireworks blasting in the distance all lead to a new definition of noise.

The ripe fruit – papaya, mango, limon, piña, melon, mamey – all scent the air like a thousand perfumes. The fragrances of tamales, enchiladas, empanadas and other miscellaneous delicacies sold by street vendors mingle tantalizingly in the air and are challenged, but not defeated, by odors produced by the town’s decaying sewage system. The glowing orange of papaya flesh, the rainbow of colors woven into a sarape, the papier mache painted in vivid greens, bright blues, gleaming yellows, radiant reds, the cobalt blue, as deep as the Marianas Trench, splashed all over ceramic pots, vases and bowls all bombard your eyes and can only find expression in gasps and stiff, inadequate exclamations: “What a color!” “Have you ever seen anything like that?”

We were drawn to a stand with tropical fruit cascading down its sides. We began examining this array when a heavyset man with black tussled hair and a face covered in dark stubble came over, a look of mischief in his eyes. After a warm smile and a customary “Buenas tardes,” he picked up a plump mango, peeled its thin skin and handed it to Mom. She bit into the pulp and a river of golden mango juice rushed down her chin. “¡Que rico, Señor!” The man grinned, nodded and peeled four more.

After buying mangos, papayas, piñas and the indestructible “bolsas” used by Mexicans and smart foreigners to carry everything from food to huaraches, we set off, lugging our two-ton bolsas, with streams of mango juice dribbling down our arms and faces, leaving a trail of sweet, sticky droplets behind us. The streets were crowded with families celebrating that most important holiday – Dia de las Madres! One trip to the market and I was already struck with admiration and joy at the generosity, irrepressible humor and warm charm of the Mexican people. And it was only the beginning.

Still reeling from our first trip to the market we struggled up the steep hill for the second time that day, scrubbed the mango juice off our skin, tossed our sticky clothes in a heap and fell into a sound sleep on our first night in our new hometown. It was almost impossible to believe our last day in Denver had been mere hours ago.