VISITING COLONIAL MEXICO
by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
This article first appeared in Zee Lifestyle Magazine, November 2010
Grab a copy, if you can; they sell quickly.
When some friends rented a huge house in San Miguel de Allende and invited my husband and me to stay with them, we quickly said yes. We’d visited San Miguel once before and loved this picturesque Mexican colonial city. San Miguel de Allende’s pleasant weather, its splendid houses and gardens, its arts and language schools, its high residency of American and Canadians have made San Miguel de Allende a popular tourist spot.
San Miguel is located in a mountainous area of central Mexico 6,000 feet above sea level, north of Mexico City. The Centro or historic center sits in a basin and is surrounded by mountains. To get there my husband and I took a three-hour flight from Los Angeles, California to the city of Leon. From there we had another 90 minute ride on a shuttle, mostly over rolling hills populated by cows and mesquite trees. By 8:30 a.m. our driver dropped us in front of our place on #4 Murrillo Street, three blocks from the Centro. Doug, Myrna, and Hilary greeted us and showed us around the house. I love Spanish colonial houses and this one had a sunny inner-courtyard with flame-colored bougainvillea and blue-flowered plumbago climbing along the walls all the way to the rooftop deck. Each of the en suite bedrooms was on different levels with private patios brimming with colorful plants. The place was wonderful; company was good; we were ready for a memorable visit of San Miguel de Allende.
Because San Miguel de Allende is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, all buildings in the Centro are built in the colonial style, meaning houses are built to the property line and gardens are found within the walls. Many doors are left open so passersby can catch a glimpse of tiled inner courtyards with tinkling fountains and glorious potted plants. The streets are narrow, winding, and made of irregular cobblestones and flagstones – quaint, but murder to the feet, so I was glad I had my Birkenstock sandals.
Doug, who knew the place quite well, took us on several walking tours, including one to the charming Juarez Park on the eastside of San Miguel, with children playing in the yard and lovers holding hands on the benches. Doug showed us the fabulous gardens of the Hotel Santa Monica as well as the Allende Institute, an arts and language school.
We meandered to the westside of San Miguel to the Biblioteca Publica (Mexico’s second largest English language library and where many Americans and Canadians hang out). The Biblioteca is run by the North American expats who sponsor exhibits, book sales, house tours, and other activities, most of which cater to other expats and tourists.
We lunched in Doug’s favorite Café San Agustin, which had a variety of American and Mexican dishes to offer, but I zeroed in on their chocolate drinks and churros. The café offered three kinds of chocolate drinks: Mexican, Spanish, and French, and during our five day stay in San Miguel I tried them all, concluding that the Spanish chocolate is closest to our Filipino chocolate – rich, thick, with a hint of bitterness. The Mexican and French chocolate drinks are too sweet and lack character, especially the French drink.
We spent a lot of time in San Miguel’s main square, El Jardin, referred to as the heart of the place, since this is where events happen – fireworks, dancing, music, eating, paseos, catching up with friends. Practically every night, some event went on at the Jardin, and every day fireworks could be heard. San Miguel celebrates many festivals: Semana Santa, Semana Celtica, Fiesta de San Antonio de Padua, Fiesta de SanMiguel Arcangel, Festival de Musica de Camara, Festival de Cortometraje, Festival Internacional de Jass, Fiesta de Navidad, and so on. During our visit there were festivities related to Emiliano Zapata, which included a march by laborers through the streets toward El Jardin.
Fronting the Jardin is the Parroquia or the Parish Church, which has become the symbol of San Miguel. The pink neo-Gothic church originally built in 1683 was rebuilt in 1880 by a man who based his design on French postcards of churches. It has been reviled and praised but one cannot deny its imposing presence in the center of town.
San Miguel has other churches (San Agustin, San Francisco, Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Good Health, Loreto Chapel, etc) most of them built in the 17th century. The churches are made of stone, well-preserved, and filled with antique Santoses. The façade of the San Francisco Church is of the unique Churrigueresque (Mexican Gothic) style, with elaborate carvings, a style we saw in the City of Guanajuato.
We visited Museo Casa de Don Ignacio Allende Y Unzaga, a two-story baroque style colonial house built in the 18th century; this was the birthplace of the Mexican hero Ignacio Allende who was one of the leaders of the Mexican revolutions against Spain. The museum has archeological artifacts and documents about the Mexican War of Independence. I liked it mostly for its solid stone architecture with inner courtyard.
One day, my husband and I went on a house tour (sponsored by the Biblioteca) and saw three fabulous houses owned by North American expats. One of the reasons expats choose to live in Mexico is that it’s cheaper to live there than in the US. However the presence of thousands of North Americans has driven property prices and all other prices up in San Miguel. Some boutiques and stores are expensive, but the Mercado de San Juan de Dios has bargains. San Miguel also has Tianguis where they sell fresh produce, food items, clothes, furniture and just about anything. You have to haggle.
San Miguel is known for their great restaurants. We had a wonderful dinner at the Bogambilia Restaurant where I had Chile en Nogadas, a classic Mexican dish made of stuffed poblano peppers, smothered with a creamy walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds. We ate in other restaurants and they were all fine, but perhaps the best meal we had was on our rooftop where we had pizza and margaritas and watched the sunset over the rooftops and church towers of San Miguel.
From San Miguel, we drove to Guanajuato, the capital city of the state with the same name. Guanajuato is rich in silver deposits, accounting for its early colonization by the Spaniards in 1548. One silver mine has been operating for over 400 years. Guanajuato is one of the Mexico’s top three silver mining districts, having produced an estimated 1.2 billion ounces of silver and 5-6 million ounces of gold. At their peak in the 1700s, the silver mines of Guanajuato were among the largest and richest in the world, accounting for impressive 17th century buildings and impressive churches in Guanajuato.
Also a World Heritage site, the city of Guanajuato is considered the most-beautifully preserved colonial city in Mexico. Called the center of culture and education, Guanajuato is dominated by the University of Guanajuato. While San Miguel has a strong North American presence; Guanajuato has students.
Guanajuato is built on a gorge, and houses cascade along the sides of this gorge down to the Centro which extends lengthwise and can be walked easily. Walking is recommended since cars have a difficult time negotiating the winding narrow colonial streets. The colonial houses in Guanajuato are painted bold primary colors of red, blue, yellow. The Parish Church that fronts the main square is golden-yellow with red-brown trim.
We stayed in the historic Hotel Posada Santa Fe, built in 1862, in front of the popular Jardin Union. Guanajuato has many Jardins; every other street has a plaza to give people a place to relax and get fresh air. When we checked into our hotel, we could hear Renaissance music floating from the Jardin. In the afternoon, mariachi groups walked around the Jardin offering their music for a tip. The band-stand in the center of the triangular Jardin also offered musical entertainment in the evening. The place teemed with people of all ages, walking, sitting, eating ice cream, or dining in the nearby cafes. One afternoon as we made our own paseo, we ran into a man selling lemon-filled donuts; people were buying from him. Throwing caution to the wind, we bought donuts and sat on a bench in a small park across the Cervantes Theater, and like the other folks munched on the delicious donuts. It was probably because of the ambiance of the place – the donuts were the best I ever had.
We visited the eclectic Quixote Iconographic Museum, which has all sorts of artifacts related to Don Quixote, from books to tapestries. For some reason, the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes is big in Guanajuato. In October, the city hosts the Cervantino International Arts Festival, and operas, ballets, orchestras, acrobats and so on perform in Guanajuato’s numerous venues: the Teatro Juarez, the Teatro Principal, the Teatro Cervantes, the State Auditorium, the Plaza San Roque, the Esplanade of the Alhondia, the Teatro de Minas, and many other venues. For a small city, the place does have a lot of museums and exhibition places. Tourists are warned to reserve hotel rooms months in advance because the city fills up with international visitors.
Even without the Cervantino festival, we had much to see and do in Guanajuato. We took a funicular up the steep hill to see the huge statue of El Pipila, which immortalizes Juan Jose Martinez, a hero of the Mexican revolution against Spain. From there we had a grand view of the city, multicolored houses spreading to our left and to our right and up the hills. We visited the childhood house of the Mexican artist, Diego Rivera, a three story structure with a small inner courtyard. We drove to the Church of Valenciana (built by the owner of the Valenciana mine) famous for its lavishly gold leafed altars. We visited the Granary (Alhondiga de Grandanitas), a historic fortress-like building which had been the setting the fire lit by El Pipila to allow revolutionaries to enter the granary and overrun the Royalists holed up inside. In retaliation, the Spanish officials hung the heads of the leaders of the revolution on the four corners outside the building – one of them was General Ignacio Allende from San Miguel.
While the sites were interesting, what my husband and I enjoyed most was walking and taking in the pleasant ambiance of the city. The youthful energy gave Guanajuato a sense of hope and vibrancy. In the daytime, the college students had a sense of purpose as they hurried down the streets to the university. In the late afternoon, they sat on the steps of the Juarez Theater to relax. The younger students sat on the monument of the main square, goofing off and flirting with one another. It was all very amusing. I was tempted to return one October to catch the Cervantino Festival.
Top, l-r: Doug Noble, Lauren Brainard, in the Cafe San Agustin;
Group photo in the Jardin, l-r: Doug Noble, Myrna Horton, Lauren Brainard, Ceiclia Brainard, and Hilary Walling;
Bottom, Lauren Brainard in front of Guanajuato's Basilica
The Many Faces of Mexico
Gigantes at Wedding in San Miguel de Allende
Pictures of San Miguel de Allende & Guanajuato
House San Miguel de Allende
Visiting Colonial Mexico