Let’s say this right off—there is no bad time to visit San Miguel de Allende, the UNESCO World Heritage Site in the celebrated colonial heart of Mexico. Its gracious and hospitable people, colonial architecture and cobblestoned streets and its sense of warm embrace operate at all hours and in all seasons.
But there are times when the oft-mentioned “magic” of San Miguel grows exponentially, turning itself into a cauldron of love potion that has captured uncounted visitors. “Stay,” it whispers. “You don’t really want to go home, do you? Stay and live in this magical circle of color and sunlight and celebration forever.”
So what are the very best times to visit and perhaps succumb to San Miguel’s magic? When are the days of passion and pomp, of fiestas and fireworks, of days over-spilling with bright people and warm welcomes and fascinating things to see and do? Grab your calendar and let’s look at what I think are the five best times to visit San Miguel de Allende.
Dia de la Conquista
The first Friday in March is when the conchero dancers arrive. Named for the anklets that rattle as they stomp, jump, turn, step, lunge, and stomp some more, they dance hour after hour, in a religious ritual that is a mix of indigenous and Catholic beliefs.
The groups of dancers begin arriving early in the morning and dance into the evening, their movements a homage to “Christ of the Conquest,” symbol of the acceptance of Christ by Mexico’s indigenous people. Beyond this Catholic veneer, pre-Christian traditions take over. The dancer’s costumes offer an over-the-top modern version of Aztec fashion. Huge headdresses are topped with 6-foot pheasant feathers, some dyed to a neon glow; loin cloths and dresses are covered with Aztec symbols appliqued in blazing metallic lamé. And the sound! Try to hear this in your head—deep drumming pounded out on huge oil drums; notes strummed on armadillo-shell mandolins; the mournful note of a blown conch shell. Mix in the pungency of copal incense wafting around, add in the movements of the crowd trying to capture the spectacle on memory cards, and you get some idea of why you need to be in San Miguel de Allende on Dia de la Conquista.
Semana Santa – The Pageantry, Passion and Solemnity of Holy Week
If the Conquista dancers have Aztec roots, Semana Santa in San Miguel de Allende is all Catholic, all religious, all the time. It is the best possible mirror held up to the deep spirituality and passion of the Mexican people.
It starts the Friday before Holy Week, with Day of the Altars to honor the Virgin of Sorrows.
Every fountain in town is decorated, enormous and elaborate altars appear in public places. But the most telling and charming altars are built in private homes, their doors and windows open to the street so passers-by can enjoy their beauty and piety.
Religious processions go on all week, peaking on Good Friday when a statue of Christ is put on trial in the courtyard of the Parroquia, then paraded around the Jardin only to come face to face with a statue of his mother. Amid a silence so deep you can feel it on your skin, the statue of Christ actually bows three times to Mary. The collective gasp of the crowd can suck the breath right out of you. The Good Friday sunset procession is the biggest, the longest and the most solemn. Silent but for the dirge of drums, it winds through the streets in black and purple and lamplight. Even the huge crowds are now silent. It is profoundly moving.
See more on Semana Santa in San Miguel de Allende at experiencesanmiguel.com
Las Fiestas Patrias
September is pure secular fiesta time, beginning with Mexico’s Independence Day. At 11 pm on September 15th, El Grito is called out by the mayor from the balcony of the Allende House at the same moment it’s happening in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta and every town and city in the country. “Viva Mexico” rings across the square as the crowd repeats the joyous cry of independence, waving flags and sporting red-white-and-green flags painted on their faces.
Following the ceremony, one of the best fireworks shows of the year takes over the skies above the church, including giant castillo towers that send showers of sparks raining down onto the paving stones, where crazy young men dance among them.
The festive spirit continues for the next couple of weeks, capped by a giant party in honor of San Miguel himself, on or about September 29th. The alborada celebration starts at 3 am (don’t ask me why) with music, dancing in the streets and, this being Mexico, a lot more fireworks. A tall pole is also erected in the Jardin, where the famous “Voladores de Papantla” also perform their death-defying ritual. While one man stands on a tiny platform atop the pole and plays a flute, four others do the “flying.” With ropes tied to their ankles, they fall backward from the top of the pole. As the ropes unwind, they spin slowly around the pole, getting lower and lower, closer to the ground, with each cycle. It is a wondrous sight to see.
Dia de los Muertos
Day of the Dead is a big deal in San Miguel de Allende. Beginning on Halloween night, you’ll see throngs of people with faces made up to look like skulls—pretty skulls, horrible skulls, lacy skulls, skulls adorned with flowers and whorls and flourishes and sunken eye sockets. Altars appear all over town, honoring those who have passed, decorated with sugar skulls and pan de muerto, dried fruit and marigolds and photos of the deceased. Favorite brands of beer, cigarettes or food will be added to tempt the dead to return for one night.
On November 1, the crowds move to the cemetery. The graves have been white-washed and decorated with flowers, and the people spend the whole night there by the graves of their loved ones, eating, chatting, drinking, laughing and making music through the night. You are welcome to come along.
In front of the Parroquia, giant altars and elaborate displays are set up, great for strolling past and snapping photos.
Navidad – Christmas in San Miguel de Allende
Christmas activities in San Miguel begin with a colorful Christmas market set up in the Plaza Cívica. On or about December 16th, the town Christmas tree is lighted in the Jardín. That night also begins Las Posadas, the traditional processions that take place every night for nine nights in different neighborhoods. They represent the futile search by Mary and Joseph for a place to spend the night. The final posada on Christmas Eve begins at the Monjas church and ends at the Parroquia.
Christmas Eve Mass is a very big deal in San Miguel, as it is throughout Mexico. Christmas day itself is quiet, a day for family. But because San Miguel is a tourist town, you won’t have trouble finding a great Christmas dinner at one of the varied restaurants in town.
Magical San Miguel
To repeat, there is no bad time to visit San Miguel de Allende. But my suggestion is to visit sooner rather than later. While San Miguel is holding its own well against most developers, especially in the UNESCO-protected centro, there are clear signs of gentrification going on. Shops that used to line the Jardin can no longer afford the rent. The same is now happening farther out. On the Ancha de San Antonio, once lined with hardward stores, car mechanics, and tiny family eateries, you’ll now find organic markets, artisan cheese shops, and trendy restaurants in what has effectivally become a “restaurant row.” I have mixed feelings about this. Read this about Penang, Malaysia, to get an idea why.
The bottom line is still the same. Come to San Miguel de Allende. It is still magical. And if you can schedule a trip around one of these events, you’ll get the most and the best of San Miguel all wrapped up in a festive bow.
But be warned, San Miguel de Allende is contagious. Once exposed to its magic, you may never recover.
While you are in San Miguel de Allende, you may want to explore a bit farther afield. Guanajuato City, the state capital, is just an hour away. It is another UNESCO World Heritage Site and well worth making the short trip. Colorful, hilly, culturally rich, with the young vibe of a university town, Guanajuato might just steal your heart. Learn more about the best things to do in Guanajuato City in this post by our friends at the LiveDreamDiscover blog.