San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Before I retired and Covid happened, I thought it might be nice to finish up our 9 month trip to Europe with a couple of months in San Miguel de Allende during the months of January and February. I’d heard that the climate is perfect, the cost of living cheap, the crime rate low, and lots of expats (people that live here who hold citizenship in other countries like the United States, Ireland, Germany and Israel) make this their home. Cal, in his usual style, was noncommittal, and definitely not sure about being in Mexico that long. Of course, as life goes, those plans didn’t happen exactly that way. When I saw that this tour included a stop here, then, it was the frosting on the cake.

We rode for hours and hours from the butterfly sanctuary of El Rosario. The Mexican countryside flew by out my window. There were farms and ranches, people riding horses or bicycles and people driving trucks or out in the middle of nowhere, walking. Then there were strawberry fields, miles and miles of them. Perhaps you’ve eaten strawberries that come from this area. Usually if there was one house, there were several nearby in a little compound. We saw some very nice homes. But homes like this one in the town near El Rosario were most typical:

Clothes drying on the roof, the water tank, and a satellite dish

We stopped only once at a convenience store for a rest and snacks. Our arrival in San Miguel de Allende was very late in the evening and the hotel looked good. It was, in fact, the best one of the whole trip. Omelets made to order greeted us the next morning, and then we were off on a city bus to see the sights of San Miguel de Allende.

There is a maze of many beautiful streets to get lost in.

Our guide Juan sat us down in a quiet church courtyard when we arrived off the bus to deliver an impressive history of the founding of the town, before Allende’s time. He used peso coins on the cobble stones to demonstrate to us where the cities of Mexico were located in the 1500’s and gave us a good sense of time and place. If he wasn’t an archaeologist, he would have made a great actor!

The town was founded by the Franciscan monk Juan de San Miguel in 1542, who with his dogs found a natural springs in the area. He was a great friend to the natives here, and the town became a market center and waystation for the Spaniards from Mexico City to the silver mines in the west. Tin is also mined here. The entire city became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008.

Besides the beautiful colonial architecture, the town is home to no less than 16 Catholic churches. Juan explained that if there were something special to be grateful to God for, the Spaniards built a church. Sometimes one church is right next to another. The churches dot the town and are their spires are a pretty part of its skyline.

The most beautiful of them all, however, is the pink confection below. It is the magnificent Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel, or simply the Parroquia. It was built in the late 17th century in colonial design. In the late 1800’s a local self-taught architect, who was inspired by pictures he’d seen of the Gothic cathedrals of Europe, decided it needed some sprucing up. He reworked the towers and the facade, and the result is now an icon of this town.

In colonial-era times, it was compulsory to attend mass four times a day. I don’t know how anyone got any work done. Old traditions die hard. Looking at the mass times during the week, there are still four daily opportunities to attend.

One of the heros of the fight for independence from Spain was Ignacio Allende, a Spaniard himself who grew to sympathize with the cause. A statue here honors him.

Ignacio Allende’s birthplace is in one of the main squares in the town, near the Parroquia:

As our group walked through town, we came upon a little fair by a local school of the things the children were learning. I’m sure we all embarrassed these two little boys with their display of body parts in English but I think they were excited too. There was a good discussion of the English and Spanish words for these terms. We drew the attention of the headmaster and their teacher, and it was a big moment for them.

Like I’d seen elsewhere, many of the churches had parks in front of them, big and small.

These women were headed to the Parroquia.

After a delicious multi-course lunch, Cal and I were on our own. We explored the artisan market and it went on for several blocks.

Hats everywhere

I caught a glimpse of an artist at work with her partner “minding” the shop.

Brightly colored paintings ended the market

I truly would have loved to have given this town more of my time but we were done in after a schedule-packed week. We had been given three options for getting back to the hotel: cab, bus, or walking the two miles. The distance was not a big deal to us so we walked, enjoying more of the scenic streets and the beautiful day. In the historic center there are no stoplights, parking meters, or fast food restaurants. There are plenty of restaurants and small shops. The cobblestone streets are narrow.

The white building is San Miguel de Allende’s city hall

Fun fact: there are about two thousand doors with about two thousand courtyards of various sizes in this town. A detour into one little courtyard revealed this painting, titled “The Washerwomen”.

And then, there was this startling doorknob:

After a week of Mexican food and not being real hungry for dinner, we set out for an evening pizza just down the street from our hotel. The manager of the small restaurant, in a fedora, was probably an expat himself. He asked us how long we were staying in San Miguel de Allende, and was incredulous that it was only one day: “What!! That is not enough to see the whole city!” he exclaimed. Come to think of it, so am I incredulous!

Next time – back to our winter in Texas


Destination Mexico City

My husband, Cal, appeared in our RV with a brochure for a tour to Mexico that he had picked up on what he had thought was just a free coffee and donuts get-together. The tour was to visit Mexico City, the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary of El Rosario, and the town of San Miguel de Allende. All three are places I’ve always thought would be wonderful to visit but I never really had an idea how I would get there. It was like holding a dream in my hands. The whole itinerary for the week’s tour looked interesting. A quick consult with our finances, a couple of reassuring calls to the travel agency, and within a week the trip was booked. That definitely increased the cost of the donut!

“You’re gonna get shot!” “Oh my…please be careful!” were some of the comments I received when telling family of our plans.

I wouldn’t undertake a visit to Mexico without vetting the company and plans carefully. Viva Tours has been in business for 35 years, taking the snowbirds of the Rio Grande Valley down to Mexico on many different excursions. Our guide, Juan, has led this tour for 16 of those years. He is an archaeologist from southern Mexico who comes up on a reverse snowbird migration to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas every year for three months to be a tour guide for Viva and its owner, Tomas. Juan is experienced, knowledgeable, and personable and we felt that we were in excellent hands throughout the week-long trip.

We met Tomas and some of our fellow tourists at the eye-rubbing hour of 3:30 AM for a van ride to find Juan and the rest of the group in McAllen. There was a transfer to a bus, a quick stop at the border to put our luggage through Mexican security, and a drop-off at the Reynosa Airport. A two hour flight and then…we were in Mexico City.

Our stop that afternoon included one of the things I had come to see and a highlight of the trip for me. The ancient city of of Teotihuacan includes two pyramids: the Pyramid to the Sun and the Pyramid to the Moon. We saw the latter mostly off in the distance from our bus window. We visited the Pyramid of the Sun and its museum.

This pyramid is the third largest in the world. At the top is a huge pedestal where human sacrifices were made. It is located on a central road of Teotihuacan called “Avenue of the Dead” because it is believed to have been paved with tombs. In the museum I was able to get a clearer picture of the ancient city:

The Pyramid of the Sun is in the foreground. The buildings that you see were ceremonial and the people lived in the outlying areas.

The city predates the Aztecs. In its heyday, around year 1 to 500 CE, it was the largest city in the Americas and the sixth largest in the world. It had an estimated population of around 125,000. Teotihuacan was built to be a religious center but became a living city. The pyramid itself dates to around 250 BCE. When the Aztecs saw these ruins, they claimed ancestry with the residents and adopted it as their own.

Although the pyramid was originally thought to be dedicated to the Sun god, hence its name, current thinking is that the god actually worshipped in this pyramid was a water deity named Tlaloc. There was a ten foot moat around the pyramid, and child burials were found in the corners. These are characteristic of water god offerings.

A close up of the pyramid and its surrounding ruins revealed some of the construction techniques. At one time it was possible for visitors to climb it, but now that has been deemed too dangerous.

The museum had some interesting artifacts uncovered during archaeological digs, including many skeletons.

A couple of days later we visited the heart of Mexico City. Moving forward a few centuries, the Aztecs had a great temple here. It was their capital city, as Mexico City is now, and was called Tenochtitlan. They started construction in 1325, rebuilt it six times, and the Spaniards destroyed it in 1521. To add insult to injury, the Spaniards built Mexico City right on top of the rubble of Tenochtitlan. The ancient temple is now being excavated.

You may remember the conqueror of Mexico City from your history books – it was Hernan Cortes and the Aztec leader was Montezuma II. The Aztec’s city was built on an island in a lake, with a system of canals. Originally there were five lakes in Mexico City. Cortes drained all but one, to the present-day detriment of the city. Built on the old lake bed, it is sinking at a rate of about three feet per year.

After an extensive history lesson from Juan, and viewing the Aztec ruins, we took a short walk through the city that Cortes built. The President of Mexico currently lives in the Royal Palace.

Across from it sits the Metropolitan Cathedral, which one of the oldest and largest cathedrals in the Americas. Unfortunately here the sinking I mentioned earlier is happening unevenly, but efforts to keep the foundation level are ongoing.

The organ inside is impressive with its flyaway pipes. There is also a black crucifix here. Poison was put on Jesus’s feet and the whole crucifix turned black. You can find the complete story on Google if you are interested.

Plaza Mayor, where both the palace and the cathedral sit, is grand and impressive.

There is a pretty cactus garden to the side of the cathedral, along with old-style phone booths:

You could receive a cleansing on the street if you needed it. And then you could call someone from the phone booth and tell them how good it was.

A song from a mariachi band, anyone?

On our last morning in Mexico City before departing for other sites, we visited the Basilica of Santa Maria de Guadalupe. It is the second most visited basilica in the world after St. Peter’s Vatican, with twenty million visitors annually.

The image of the virgin Mary superimposed on Juan Diego’s robe, the person who witnessed her appearance in 1531

What I’ve covered here is just the tip of the iceberg for everything we saw and absorbed while in Mexico City. Some of the places we visited may not even make it into the blogs. I’m trying to condense it but I am finding that not to be an easy task! Hopefully I can at least give you a flavor for this great city and its environs.

Next time – a boat ride in Xochimilco and Sunday in the park in a Mexico City suburb. Still to come–butterflies, and San Miguel de Allende