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A view of the skyline of the 17th century Colegio de Sales in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

15 Instagram-Worthy Things in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

San Miguel de Allende is nothing if not Instragrammable. With its rich colors, its colonial architecture and cobblestoned streets, its traditional crafts and its beautiful people, San Miguel will have your camera screaming to be clicked. Here’s why–15 of the most commonly photographed places and things in San Miguel de Allende.

A view of the skyline of the 17th century Colegio de Sales in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

With Camera in Hand in San Miguel de Allende

One of the rules of living in or visiting San Miguel de Allende in the central Mexican highlands: Never leave home without your camera! There are so many beautiful, odd, or off-beat things in San Miguel de Allende, pictures screaming to be taken everywhere you look. Whether you like the long-shot panorama of the streets and the view with purple jacaranda trees or you prefer to focus on the more intimate details of a dancer or your dinner, San Miguel is a feast for your lens.

Don’t believe it? Just put #SanMigueldeAllende into the search box on Instagram and see what you get. This town is an instagrammers banquet.

Take a look at this list of 15 of the Most Instragram-worthy photo spots and things in San Miguel de Allende.

* To see more wonderful photos of San Miguel de Allende, click on the Instagram images embedded below and check out the feeds of the photographers–including mine. Likes and comments ar always welcome there.

#15 – The Old Gas Pump: Was This the First Gas Station in San Miguel?

This old pump is found at the corner of Juarez and Mesones. I have no idea how long it has been there, but I’ve seen it in some very old photos, from the ’30s or ’40s. Until a couple of years ago, it tilted at a bit of an angle. Then one day it disappeared. There was a public outcry–“Where have you taken our beloved old gas pump? Bring it back!” But no worries, it had merely been removed to repair the base. It now sits proudly upright once again, just waiting for your camera. One of the best vintage things in San Miguel de Allende.

#14 – Vochos: The VW Beetles are One of the Best Things in San Miguel de Allende

You thought the original VW Beetle was a relic of the past? Not in Mexico, it’s not. In fact, Mexico was one of the very last countries in the world to still manufacture the iconic little car, and they can still be seen frequently on the streets of San Miguel. They are as beloved by Mexicans as they are in many other parts of the world. They even earned that ultimate sign of affection from Mexicans, a nickname. They are called vochos, though I have never been able to find out why. Perhaps for the “V” in VW. On July 30, 2003, the last vocho rolled off the assembly line in Puebla, Mexico, accompanied by a Mariachi singing the song “Las Golondrinas” (a Mexican folk song that speaks of farewell). It was immediately shipped off to become a permanent fixture at the Volkswagen Museum in Wolfsburg, Germany. So keep your eye open for photographable examples of this most Mexican of things in San Miguel de Allende.

I'm pretty certain that Mexico was the last country where the classic Volkswagen Beetle was still manufactured (up until just a few years ago). You still see a lot of them on the streets. Locally, they are called "Vochos" and are much beloved. When I first came to Mexico more than 20 years ago, most of the taxis in Mexico City were Vochos, with the front passenger seat removed for storing luggage and large parcels. Another hallmark of the streets of Mexico. They always make me smile, because I drove one myself in my university years. #vocho #mysweetblue #asundaycarpic #instamexgram #mexico_photolovers #mexigers #numberof1 #smartertravel #vwbug #vwbeetle #beetle #ss_blue_04 #wonderful_worldshots #trustalocal #tvc_pantone_snokelblue

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#13 – The Otomi Dollsellers

These Otomi Women craft lovely hand-made dolls with embroidered features and sell them in the streets and doorways of San Miguel. The Otomi people are an indigenous group that goes back centuries in this part of central Mexico. In fact, the nearby pyramid at Cañada de la Virgen, which dates back at least 900 years, was built by the Otomi. Thousands of their direct descendants live in the pueblos and ranchos around San Miguel de Allende.

#12 – The Fountain on Cuadrante: One of the Prettiest Things in San Miguel de Allende

There are many public fountains remaining around San Miguel, and several are quite lovely. But this one behind the Parroquia church, on Cuadrante Street, just uphill from Cuna de Allende, is surely the most photographed. It’s easy to see why. The carving, the colors and the bougainvillea are all lovely and tell a story of San Miguel’s colonial past. It is one of the prettiest things in San Miguel de Allende.

Probably the most photographed fountain in San Miguel de Allende, at the corner of Aldama and Cuadrante. A true symbol of San Miguel. Today it will be decorated, along with every other fountain in town. For "Night of the Altars," and people will stroll around town all evening seeing these and the beautiful altars for the Virgin of Sorrows that people build on their homes. #mexicolors #mextagram #mexico #mexico_lindo #mexico_magico #mexicoandando #Mexico_maravillosa #ig_mexico #igersgto #igersmexico #loves_mexico #ilovemexico #instatbn #chasingshadows #shutterbug_collective #catching_beauty_shots #transfer_visions #transfer_visions_nm #unesco #gounesco #fandelacultura #Aficionados_mex #tv_colors #colors_hub #great_captures_mexico #ig_guanajuato #tbscommunity #turismo_sma #pocket_world_destinations #tvc_pantone_peachecho

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#11 – El Charco del Ingenio: San Miguel’s Beautiful Botanical Garden

Not simply your typical enclosed botanical garden, El Charco del Ingenio, covers more than 170 acres on the southeast edge of San Miguel de Allende. It is one of my favorite spots in town to get away from noise, traffic, buildings and people.

The name comes from a legendary spring-fed pool deep in the canyon. It includes a reservoir with a dam you can walk across, wetlands, scrubland, hundreds of species of cacti and succulents, many of them endangered, plus birds, flowers and indigenous trees. It was created to preserve and protect the biodiversity of this beautiful area. In 2004, El Charco was declared a Peace Zone by the Dalai Lama.

#elcharcodelingenio #naturaleza #viajemos #juntos #mexico?? #? #sanmigueldeallende

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#10 – Muros en Blanco: the Street Art of Colonia Guadalupe

The neighborhood of Guadalupe, not far from the Fabrica Aurora Art & Design Center, has been officially designated an Arts District. This is thanks to the Muros en Blanco project begun a few years ago by Colleen Sorenson. Over the years, she has brought dozens of street and graffiti artists from all over Mexico and the world to adorn the blank walls of Colonia Guadalupe with fantastic murals. The street art of Guadalupe is definitely one of those things in San Miguel de Allende that make it worth a trip, camera in hand.

#murosenblanco #sanmigueldeallende #streetart #art #mx

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#9 – The Mojigangas: The Giants that Walk–and Dance–Among Us

The Mojigangas (pronounced Mo-hee-gahn-guhs) are one of my favorite San Miguel traditions. These giant figures with wooden A-frame bodies and over-sized papier maché heads, are part of just about every wedding, festival, and procession in San Miguel. At 15 feet tall, they tower over everyone else. The puppeteer climbs inside the A-frame, hidden by the figure’s fanciful clothes, and carries it on his shouders as he dances through the streets. A small slit or window about waist high allows him to see where he’s going. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, as part of their celebration of Mexican culture, had a pair of mojigangas in their home in Mexico City.

#mojiganga #playaenmano #guanaguatobonito #sanmiguelallende #guanajuato

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#8 – The Colors of San Miguel de Allende

You will almost never read a travel article about San Miguel that doesn’t mention the colors. They are everywhere. From the rich earth tones of the houses in El Centro, to the cobalt blue or lime green, mauve or pink or lemon yellow of the facades once out of the center. These colors glow in the handicrafts on sale everywhere, in the bright rebozos (shawls) and flowered garments of the indigenous women, in the fluttering “papel picado” flags that flutter on the streets for every festival, in the paintings of the artists who flock to San Miguel for the special quality of the light. Visitors’ cameras itch to capture those colors.

Casita light fixture excellence #sanmigueldeallende

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#7 – La Comida Mexicana: The Food, Glorious Food

If you grew up on what you thought was Mexican food, in Calilfornia or Texas or most anywhere outside of actual Mexico, you have a delectable surprise in store when you order your first truly authentic Mexican meal. The food is varied, hearty, and amazingly delicious. San Miguel now has a food scene that can rival any other town of its size in the world, and many much larger ones. From street tacos to haute cuisine, enchiladas to fusion, the San Miguel food scene’s got it.

Tamal ?

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#6 – The View: The Beautiful Panorama of San Miguel de Allende

I fell in love with San Miguel de Allende more than 25 years ago… at first sight. As my bus into town drove slowly past the Mirador, a viewpoint from the periferico road that curves above the town, San Miguel landed in my heart. When I returned a few years ago to live in San Miguel after a multi-year absence, I stopped again at that very viewpoint to drink in the panorama and let myself know I was back home at last. There’s another great viewpoint on the Salida a Querétaro. That view is one of the things in San Miguel de Allende that people have been photographing for years. Isn’t it gorgeous?

#5 – The Doors of San Miguel de Allende

What is it about doors that appeal to so many of us photographers? I can’t say, exactly, but I know I often find myself framing a beautiful door in San Miguel. So do many others. They are among the many things in San Miguel de Allende that just beg to be photographed.

Puertas de San Miguel de Allende #puerta #door #doors #mexico #mexico #sanmigueldeallende

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#4 -The Conchero Dancers

Of all the dozens of festivals, street parties, fireworks and religious processions that happen throughout the year in San Miguel, my very favorite is Día de la Conquista, Day of Our Lord of the Conquest, which happens the first Friday in March. Because that’s the day the conchero dancers fill the town. The spectacle of drumming and dancing in front of the Parroquia is unforgettable. Even more wonderful, for me, is that this is not a show put on for the tourists, although they will certainly be crowding around watching and taking pictures of the gorgeously clad and beplumed dancers. This is a religious rite that is very important to and for themselves. It combines their pride in their indigenous heritage with their love of their mestizo race, celebrating the meeting of the Old and New Worlds. It is not to be missed if you are in town. See this post about why the conchero dancers have a special meaning for me.

#3 –Las Calles: The Streets of San Miguel

A very popular Instagram shot is any of the wonderful streetscapes of San Miguel. With their cobblestoned surfaces, the colorful facades, and the hills climbing up and down through town, the calles offer photographers a whole cornucopia of material for their lenses. It’s one of the things in San Miguel de Allende you are sure to find yourself trying to capture during a visit here.

Pintorescas calles #sanmigueldeallende #guanajuato #mexico

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#callesdesanmiguel #sanmigueldeallende #gto #mx

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#2 – This Streetview in San Miguel

And speaking of street views, this one is one of the most photographed things in San Miguel de Allende. This is Calle Aldama, heading toward the Jardín, with that wonderful view of the Parroquia church at the end. I think most visitors to San Miguel end up taking one of more shots of this street.

#1 – La Parroquia de San Miguel Archangel

There is no question about what is the #1 most Instagrammed thing in San Miguel de Allende. The Parroquia church, which anchors and adorns the Jardín Principál, the town’s main plaza, is an unmistakable icon. You can be pretty sure that every visitor to town will take at least one photo of it, with or without themselves standing in front it. The church interior is very old, but the facade dates back only to the 1880s. A local stonemason named Zeferino Gutierrez designed it based on postcards he’d seen of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe. When I was in Barcelona a couple of years ago, I was truck by the similarity in lines to the Cathedral of Barcelona. And by the way, please don’t call our beautiful church a cathedral. It’s not, since it has no bishop. It is “simply” a parish church, albeit a magnificent one.

#catedral of #sanmigueldeallende in #guanajuato #mexico

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Take Camera in Hand….

Now, doesn’t that make you want to get yourself down to Mexico with camera in hand and photograph all the wonderful places and things in San Miguel de Allende? To put on Instagram or not, up to you. But it’s so much fun to share this glorious town with others, especially those who think Mexico is all beach resorts or cantinas. Come see San Miguel de Allende… and bring your camera!

If you are planning a trip to San Miguel or elsewhere in Mexico, check out this post all about the budget airlines of Mexico. Why pay more?


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Nichos for urns, graves, a cross, plastic flowers, and the windows of people's homes overlooking the whole thing -- a glimpse of a typical Mexican cemetery, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato.

POTW: Restos: The Cemetery in San Miguel de Allende

At the rear of the Panteón Municipál, the city cemetery in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, is a columbarium, the wall of nichos where the urns of ashes of those cremated are interred. It holds memories and tells stories. It also tells us about cultural differences and ideas about life and death.

Nichos for urns, graves, a cross, plastic flowers, and the windows of people's homes overlooking the whole thing -- a glimpse of a typical Mexican cemetery in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato.

Nichos for urns, graves, a cross, plastic flowers, and the windows of people’s homes overlooking the whole thing
— a glimpse of a typical Mexican cemetery in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato.


I like Mexican cemeteries. To me, they seem very real and very human. They are not sterile, tidy places. They are not manicured. They are certainly not uniform. They are a reflection of the life that came before them, the untidy lives lived by the people that now inhabit—and perhaps haunt—them.

They are not like the cemetery in southern California where my mother lies buried. It is one of those “Green Hills” type places, the kind they don’t even call a cemetery anymore. It’s a “Memorial Park” or something like that and looks more like a golf course. Like no one is buried there. You are not allowed to have an actual gravestone in such a place. Nope. No monuments or statues or mausoleums. None of these overdone, over-wrought tombs with weeping Victorian angels like the ones that adorn and beckon from the cemeteries we love to visit on our travels, cemeteries like the lovely Pére Lachaise in Paris or Highgate Cemetery in London.

No, these “memorial park” pseudo-golf courses allow only a simple plaque marking the plot where love now resides. A stone or metal rectangle, flush with the manicured lawn. No headstone or tomb or even a cross is allowed to break the clean, un-dead line of the rolling hills of grass.

No Grass… but Ahhh… Life Among the Dead

But Mexican cemeteries! Ahhh, now here we have signs aplenty of the actual people behind the graves, both living and dead. The Mexican graveyards I know and love are much like life in this rich and colorful country—varied and many, often untidy, frequently haphazard, exuberant and overdone. Ranging from the professionally correct to the lovingly hand-crafted. Seldom perfect but invariably heartfelt. There are large and fine mausoleums housing whole families with carved marble columns and weeping angels aplenty. They sit next to roughly hewn crosses with hand-painted remembrances. There are live flowers, in full flush or wilted, but they are usually outnumbered by an overabundance of plastic posies, frequently red, often faded to old-lady dusty rose.

At the back of the Panteón Municipál, the cemetery in San Miguel de Allende, in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, is the columbarium, a wall of small nichos where the urns or boxes of ashes of those who have been cremated are placed. Each nicho has its plaque, its shelf for vases of flowers or perhaps a candle. But except for their square size, the nichos’ only uniformity is their lack of sameness. Some are bricked up. Others have rather plain cement slab fronts. Some have marble, others stone. Some are white, others pink; some have the names and dates carved, others are written by an unsteady hand. The creators of my mother’s cemetery would, ahem, be turning in their graves at the untidiness of it all.

But to me, the cemetery in San Miguel de Allende is a far more inviting place, despite the fact that at my age I have way too many friends now silently residing there. It is vivid… in the true sense of that word. It reflects life rather than death. It is vibrant with the whole mess of human feelings and actions and levels of being.

At my mother’s “memorial park,” every one of those dead souls, who was so much a vibrant being full of individual tastes and feelings and favorites and hates and loves, is reduced to the exact same-sized plaque in a rectangle of pesticide-fed lawn, all marching in lockstep down the rolling hillsides of the “park” at the precise same distance apart.

A flat carved grave plaque in a flat lawn in a cemetery in California, with roses.

My mother’s grave plaque in a “Green Hills” type cemetery in Calfornia–just like every other stone


The Music in the Air of the Cemetery in San Miguel

When I visit an American “memorial park,” I never hear music in my head. The only notes I might hear would be the somber hymn of a funeral in progress under a tent canopy on the next rolling hillside over. But in a Mexican graveyard, I always fancy I hear music, even when the place is empty. It might be the Cucurrrrucucu of “La Paloma Triste” or the weeping notes of “La Llorona.” Or maybe I just hear the small voice of a child singing “Las Mañanitas,” the birthday song. But it is always there, just below the surface.

During the night of Dia de los Muertos in San Miguel de Allende, the music rises up and becomes real. For days beforehand, the cemetery in San Miguel, like those across the country, is cleaned and weeded, the graves scrubbed and painted. Flowers, especially cempazúchitl, the Mexican marigold, are carried in by the armload. Candles, sugar skulls, gold paper decorations, and other items are brought in to decorate the graves.

On the night itself, the whole place becomes party central. Whole families basically camp out at the graves of their loves ones, eating and drinking and having a fine fiesta. The music might be a radio or iPod. Or it could be mariachis. By morning, it could turn into a fairly drunken version of “Caminos de Guanajuato” with its refrain loudly declaring “No vale nada la vida…” “Life is worth nothing…”

Yes, Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, is one of the best times to visit San Miguel de Allende.

Make Mine Mexican

For me, the choice is pretty clear. Unless you can sprinkle me over a mountain top or throw me wildly to the wind and the waves, I’ll take the messy but vivid life and fullness of a Mexican cemetery over the tidy uniformity and dullness of a Stateside “Memorial Park.” Just bury my heart in the cemetery in San Miguel de Allende.

Blue doors, a rose-colored step and fuchsia bougainvillea petals in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

POTW: San Miguel de Allende, Mexico-It’s the Little Things

On how a photo presented itself to me in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and reminded me to pay attention. To look up.  To look down. To listen and smell and feel the air. To notice the “little things” that can turn any trip into a rich and fulfilling adventure.

On Noticing the Little Things Along the Way

Blue doors. A rose-colored step.  A sprinkling of fuchsia-colored bougainvillea petals.

Blue doors, a rose-colored step and fuchsia bougainvillea petals in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

A perfect still life in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, one of the “small moments” we must slow down to notice as we travel.

This lovey composition was just there, being itself in all its beauty, not waiting for me to come along, not posed for the camera or “set-up” as a perfect shot. I just happened to be walking by. I was on my way home from a meeting, my mind spinning with ideas and “must-dos”—what to fix for dinner, a business call I had to make, a bank balance I had to check. I was half-writing my next blog post in my head while keeping one eye on the ground to avoid tripping over the cobblestones or an all-too-common hole in the sidewalk here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. My only real point of focus was getting home.

But something made me turn my head to the side. A flash of color. A piece of composition. It barely registered and I kept walking. But then I stopped, turned around, walked back the few steps to look at it again. I realized it was beautiful, a perfect composition of color and form, shape and placement. It was a little piece of Mexican art handed to me on a plate.

I whipped my phone out of my pocket and snapped a few photos of it before going back on my busy way.

Later that evening, I looked at the photo again, and I liked it. I decided to put it up on my Instagram page. I post quite a few pphotos of my home town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico there and they usually get a nice response. I also shared that photo on my NomadWomen Facebook page. I didn’t think too much about it for the rest of the evening.

But when I looked at my page the next day, I realized that this one photo was getting a much greater response than usual. Something about this pretty color composition had struck a chord. People were liking, it, commenting on it, and sharing it like crazy, this little photo that was basically an afterthought.

And that got me thinking. How many of these small moments, these little gifts of noticing, do we let go right past us in our normal lives and even in our travels? If you’d been walking up Calle Hernandez Macias on that sunny afternoon, would you have seen that blue door with its rose-colored step and its sprinkling of fuchsia petals? How many times have I passed something very similar in this town and NOT seen it myself?

The Lesson for Travelers from my San Miguel de Allende, Mexico Moment

The moral here, I think, is a simple one. First: Slow down and pay attention. Let your senses run free. Look around you. Smell the wind. Taste the air. Feel the stucco or the water or the wooden door.

Ask yourself: What “small things” and precious moments do we miss on our travels as we rush from place to place? When we go from one “must-see” attraction to the next, when we focus our attention on the street ahead and the day ahead instead of being fully present in the moment, what wonders go right past us unseen, unheard, unnoticed and lost forever to our conscious enjoyment of our trip?

Some Examples from my Own Recent Travels (with Bonus Photos)

If I had rushed through the Rijksmusem, seen the paintings I love, and then run off to the next thing on my Amsterdam “must-do” list, I would not have stopped to rest on a chair in the gardens behind the museum. I would not have noticed how the sun shining through the dancing fountain there created a rainbow that gave me great delight as I watched its changing stripes of color weave through the droplets while the fountain danced its rhythms.

A rainbow in the fountain behind the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

A rainbow plays with the dancing fountain in the garden behind the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

 

If I had been solidly focused on getting to the Charles Bridge in Prague, a highlight of any trip to that magical city, I might not have been hit so hard by the divine smell of chocolate when someone opened the door of the Choco Cafe just as I passed by. I might not have realized I could take a break to rest my sore feet, step inside and order what turned out to be the most decadent, most sensory-fulfilling, most delicious cup of thick hot chocolate I’ve ever had.

The facade of Choco Cafe, near Old Town Square, Prague

The facade of the Choco Cafe, at Liliová 250/4, near Old Town Square, Prague, Czech Republic.
Photo courtesy of Choco Cafe.

 

If I had not been paying close attention as I strolled the aisles of La Boqueria market in Barcelona, my nose might never have taken in the full variety of the different fish smells and my eyes may not have taught me that barracudas have wicked sharp teeth and are apparently a popular food fish in Catalunya. Or that the movements of the man slicing Jamon Iberico from a large hanging shank of that specially cured and especially delicious ham are a beautifully choreographed ballet.

Head of a barracuda with sharp teeth on a bed of ice at La Boqueria market in Barcelona.

A barracuda with its wicked sharp teeth, resting on a of ice at La Boqueria Market in Barcelona….
not someone you’d want to meet out in a wine-dark sea, or even a sunny one.

 

And I never would have caught, from the corner of my eye as I hurried home, the perfect abstract composition of a pair of blue doors, a rose-colored step and a handful of fallen bougainvillea petals in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.


Pinnable Image of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico with Text Overlay--How Noticing the Little Things Can Turn Your Trip into an Adventure

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Pedestrian walkway in the center of Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Strolling Avenida Amsterdam in Condesa, Mexico City

Let’s go for a walk. In La Condesa, the hip and trendy neighborhood in Mexico City, let’s take a slow afternoon stroll along a paved path beneath trees in full leaf, surrounded by beautiful architecture, chic cafes and unexpected corners. Let’s discover another side to this crowded, cacophonous, sometimes overwhelming megalopolis. Let’s wander along the green and leafy peacefulness of the oval called Avenida Amsterdam.

 

La Condesa—A Place to Breathe Peace in a Crowded City

If you’ve never been to Mexico City, one of the largest and most congested urban megalopolises in the world, you probably have an image of what to expect—smog, noise, crowds, crazy traffic, noise, street vendors on every corner, noise, food stalls, beggars—roiling untidy noisy life in all its messy humanness. And in much of this great city, that image would not be far off the mark. With an estimated 25 million people in the greater metropolitan area—no one really knows for sure—the cacophony and assault on the senses is undeniable.

But Mexico City is far more than just that. It is also a city of world-class museums, amazing churches and other historical monuments, great centers of music and art, universities, parks, architecture to turn your head, friendly people, stellar food. And many pockets of green and peace and simple urban joy.

Pedestrian walkway in the center of Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

The pedestrian walkway, called a camellón, on the leafy green Avenida Amsterdam
in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City.

One of my favorites of these peaceful, leafy spaces is in the heart of the chic, young artsy neighborhood of Condesa, sometimes called the SoHo of Mexico City. Let’s take a walk together and discover why I fell in love with Avenida Amsterdam on my recent trip to this not-to-be-missed city.

Colonia Hipódromo, the Original Heart of La Condesa

In the core of Barrio La Condesa in the very early 20th century, there used to be a popular horse racing track, called the Hipódromo. Its shape, the classic oval, still defines the area where horses once pounded the turf. When the racetrack moved out, green and people moved in. The center of the oval became the popular Parque Mexico, surrounded by Avenida Mexico. And around that, presumably where ladies in hats and men with cigars and fists full of pesos for betting used to sit and watch the racing thoroughbreds, runs Avenida Amsterdam.

It’s here we will travel today, at a much more leisurely pace than the horses did. We will stroll, stop for photos and gazing and breathing in the peace and perhaps a coffee or a chocolate treat. Since the street still runs in an oval, just as it did in its racetrack days, it’s pretty much impossible to get lost. So we can just start walking it anywhere and keep going. We’ll eventually end up back where we started.

Condesa has been a trendy part of the city since the early 20th century, when wealthy people began moving out of the Centro looking for more space and more green. Many of the buildings that line Avenida Amsterdam were built after the 1920s. The area is rich in Art Deco and Streamline Moderne style with some newer higher-rise apartment buildings. That makes it a great street for one of my favorite city activities—façade gazing.

House painted in black-and-white geometric pattern on Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

This house with its geometric paint job really stands out.

A colorful house on Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa-Mexico City

A more traditionally Mexican-looking home but with some early 20th-century influences visible.

An Art Deco style building in Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Art Deco Style runs rampant throughout Barrio La Condesa in Mexico City

A "streamline moderne" style building in La Condesa, Mexico City

“Streamline Moderne” is another style you see frequently in this part of La Condesa in Mexico City

To say the Avenida Amsterdam is quiet is perhaps an overstatement. Mexicans, at least in the city, don’t really do quiet. I sometimes think they are actually uncomfortable when things get a little too quiet. But by Mexican standards, it’s peaceful and inviting. It’s a broad two-way street with a wide central pedestrian meridian called a camellón. This paved path is lined with plant beds and trees, benches, the odd sculpture here and there. It’s popular with doe-eyed young couples, new mothers with strollers, dogs walking their owners. The benches attract sitters, people watchers, readers and cell phone gazers. Work-out stations invite fitness mavens to come under the trees. And there are always runners.

Two young mothers with baby strollers on the Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

The “camellón” in the center of Avenida Amsterdam serves many purposes, including strolling with the baby.

Youn men working out on the Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

The young man on the left had just run past me a moment before, then returned on his hands, with a friend spotting him from behind. The young man on the right was taking advantage of a convenient work-out station.

Even on a hot day, it’s cool and pleasant in the shade of the elms and alders, oaks, palms and rubber trees. And jacarandas. I was there in early autumn, but I must go back in spring when all those jacaranda trees will create purple clouds of blossoms drifting above the camellón. Yes, I must do that; I must see that.

Original concrete benches, street signs and lampposts from the 1920s

The original concrete street signs, benches and lampposts on Avenida Amsterdam in Mexico City’s La Condesa neighborhood date to the 1920s.

The neighborhood is mostly still residential, but we do pass several chic shops, small businesses like the tailor and the dry cleaner, the electrical repair shop and the flower stall. And the cafes, bars, and restaurants. Because Avenida Amsterdam—indeed, much of Condesa—is café society central. We definitely won’t go hungry or thirsty on the oval Avenida.

We might stop for a coffee at Milo’s, a chic, deco-style spot suggested by the host of my AirBnb home. A friend and I went there for a snack one afternoon and it was exactly what we needed, perfect in every way. We shared a plate of Vietnamese rolls and each had a glass of delicious white wine seated at one of the sidewalk tables.

Milo's restaurant/bar on Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Milo’s is a chic cafe/bar on Avenida Amsterdam in Mexico City

Vietnamese Rolls at Milo's, Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Delicious Vietnamese Rolls at Milo’s on Avenida Amsterdam

Let’s stroll along a bit more, looking at the odd and delightful combination of Mexican architecture, a smattering of overdone French-accented pseudo-Gothic, and a lot of Art Deco through ‘50s Moderne buildings with some fading-glory-Mexican thrown into the mix for seasoning. This façade gazing is both art and diversion on Avenida Amsterdam and, indeed, throughout La Condesa. With unexpected nooks and crannies, with surprises tucked into unlikely places and with the Mexican love of saturated color, you’ll want to have your camera along. For those of us old enough to remember the phrase, Avenida Amsterdam definitely present a whole bunch of “Kodak moments.”

Pair of doors in an archway, Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Is it just me, or do these doors on Avenida Amsterdam look just a bit “hobbit-y”??

A colorful blue house, Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Mexicans love highly saturated color… seen everywhere in La Condesa, Mexico City

Steel constructed building with geodesic dome on the roof, Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

This one took me by surprise… a modern steel construction building with a geodesic dome on the roof!

Restaurant Matisse, Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

The Restaurant Matisse is a well-known gourmet experience on Avenida Amsterdam.

By now it’s quite likely we are hungry again! Good thing there are eateries of every type everywhere we look. With no previous research, and having had my fill of Mexican food, I’m voting for that Italian place I see on the corner of Michoacán and Amsterdam—Nonna Cucina Bar. Let’s take this nice outside table.

I’ve decided on the Pollo in Crosta di Limone, a smoked chicken breast with parsley sauce, topped with thinly sliced lemons and then grilled. It is served with a salad of spiral cut carrots, beets and zucchini with grilled peaches and is as pretty as it is tasty. It comes with a plate of lovely warm puffed-up pita bread and olive oil with balsamic for dipping.

While we are eating, an accordion player comes buy and stops to play a few songs before passing the hat among the customers. I don’t mind giving him a few pesos. I love living in a country that still has a robust job market for accordion players!

Polla in Crosta di Limone with salad at Nonna Cucina Bar, Avenida Amsterdam, Condesa, Mexico City

Pollo in Crosta di Limone with a salad of beets, carrots, zucchini and grilled peaches at Nonna Cucina Bar,
Avenida Amsterdam 240-1, La Condesa, Mexico City

Time to stroll some more and work off that meal. But soon we will want dessert. And the only possible place for that on Avenida Amsterdam, I am told, is Tout Chocolat at Amsterdam 154. It is chocolate heaven, I am told. Just go, I am told. Nothing else comes close, I am told. I always do as I am told… at least when it comes to chocolate.

So off we go to the pretty and classy shop on the corner owned by Luis Robledos Richards. He trained at the prestigious French Culinary Institute’s “Classic Pastry Arts” program and the Ecóle Lenotre in Paris, and then worked as head pastry chef at both Paris’ Le Cirque and the Four Seasons Hotel in New York. He’s been named one of the Top Ten Chocolatiers in North America and has won the World Chocolate Masters competition TWICE. Yeah, the guy has the creds. And now Mexico City gets the benefit. And so do we!

Tout Chocolat patisserie and chocolate shop, Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Tout Chocolat, in La Condesa, where you can get some of the best and most innovative chocolate in Mexico City

Open the door. Close your eyes. Inhale. Ahhh… that smell. Pure chocolate decadence. What could be better? And remember, Mexico is where chocolate was first invented!

The beauty of the offerings is staggering and so are the choices. Chocolate bars, cakes, brownies. Truffles and hot chocolate and bonbons. Just a few of our flavor choices include: marshmallow or maracuya, spicy chia, white peach and apricot, hazelnut balls, lime caramel, mezcal truffles with sea salt (quite amazing and impossible to describe but YES!). Then there are pear chocolates, ginger chocolates, white chocolate, salted caramel chocolates…. Sorry, I am running out of room and drooling onto the keyboard here. But be sure I am buying some to take back with me!

Our stroll is nearly done as we return to the spot on the oval of Avenida Amsterdam where we began. The din of traffic notches back up a few decibels. Perhaps tomorrow we’ll explore more of this hip Condesa neighborhood. Or maybe pop over to Roma or Polanco. Or head into the Centro and check out the enormous central square called the Zócalo. Or marvel at the pre-Columbian treasures in the Anthropological Museum.

A flower stall on Avenida Amsterdam, La Condesa, Mexico City

Flowers to take back to a hotel room or an AirBnB temporary home.

Perhaps for now, we’ll just stop at that stand on the corner and pick up a bunch of bright flowers to take back to our room, a little something to bring a bit of the peace and color of Avenida Amsterdam with us. How nice to remember the pleasure of a slow stroll beneath the trees—the peace and the people, the food and the color, to take in this part of Mexico City that so many tourists never see.

And besides… chocolate!

 

Read the Blog Post on NomadWomen--Strolling La Condesa in Mexico City

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On my visit to Mexico City, I stayed in an accommodation I booked through AirBnB. Have you tried it yet? I love AirBnB and have used it in France, Spain, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Mexico and the US… so far! In expensive cities, like Amsterdam and Paris, I find I often save money over the cost of a hotel, and I love the convenience of having kitchen facilities. I even host guests in my own home in Mexico through AirBnB.

If you haven’t yet tried the service, consider signing up today. If you use this AirBnB link to register, you’ll get a $20 credit you can use towards your first booking. In some inexpensive locations, that’s like getting your first night free! And I will also get a credit towards my next booking, so I’ll be a happy Nomad Woman too! Don’t you love win-win?

Mexican handicraft Otomi dolls for sale in a doorway in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

POTW: Mexican Folk Art – Otomi Dolls

Mexican handicrafts come in all types and styles. In our Photo of the Week, Otomi dolls for sale in a doorway in San Miguel de Allende show the wonderful sense of color, the embroidery tradition and the hand-sewing skills of their Otomi Indian creators. This is Mexican folk art at its most authentic.

Mexican handicraft Otomi dolls for sale in a doorway in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Handmade dolls stitched by the descendants of the ancient Otomi Indians for sale in Mexico.
The old-meets-new irony? This is the entrance to the courtyard of the local Starbucks.

Otomi women can regularly be seen selling these beautiful and creative handmade dolls, as well as other Mexican handicrafts, all over San Miguel, especially in the streets around the Jardín, or central plaza. These sales represent a significant addition to their families’ cash flow.

The Otomi Indians were here on the land where San Miguel now sits long before the Spanish came, saw and conquered. They are one of the oldest and largest indigenous groups in central Mexico and have inhabited the area for many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. The ancient Cañada de la Virgen pyramid and burial site near San Miguel was constructed by Otomis. This recently excavated archaeological treasure is the northernmost pre-Columbian site ever found. It dates from approximately 530 AD and was abandoned around 900 AD.

Many of the rancho villages around San Miguel in the central state of Guanajuato are populated by Otomi Indians. I have met many of them personally, much to my joy. My friend Doña Maria Tovar, who lives in the rancho village of Agustín González, just outside San Miguel, is a full-blooded Otomi. Her parents spoke only Otomi, so she learned the language as a child, along with Spanish. But when she married, her husband forbade her to speak Otomi at home. He wanted his children to speak only Spanish, like good Mexicans. So her adult children now do not speak the language of her birth. But here’s a nice irony: her grandchildren are now studying Otomi in school. The government is trying to insure that the country’s many indigenous languages don’t disappear. Many times I have heard Doña Maria’s young neighbor Stephanie sing the Mexican National Anthem in Otomi.

The Otomi Lifestyle – Ancient in Many Ways

The people on these ranchos are predominantly subsistence farmers, growing their crops using the ancient and highly sustainable milpa system. Three crops are planted in the same field: corn (maize), beans and squash. As the corn sprouts and begins to shoot up, it provides support for the beans to climb. As the beans and corn grow, their leaves provide shade for the young squash. Finally, as the squash grows full, its large leaves shade the soil to keep down the summer heat and hold in the moisture. Each of the three crops adds different nutrients to the soil, benefiting them all.

I have met many farmers who use this system successfully, assuming the weather cooperates. They are almost wholly dependent on a good summer rainy season, since they don’t irrigate their crops. The staple diet in these villages populated primarily by the descendants of the Otomi includes the corn, beans and squash from the field, rice, nopal cactus (with its beautiful tuna fruit in summer), homemade cheese (from both cow’s and goat’s milk), fruit (often from their own trees), eggs from their own chickens and vegetables from the garden. Meat is generally only eaten for holidays, parties and other special occasions. But then they will go all out and cook an entire pig all day long for delicious carnitas, besides roasting huge numbers of chickens to serve with mole.

Cash can be a rare commodity in these Otomi villages and is always needed to buy the things they can’t grow or make themselves. If you visit San Miguel de Allende, keep an eye out for the Otomi women selling this authentic Mexican folk art in the streets around the centro. These delightful stuffed fabric dolls make a wonderful and colorful souvenir. They’re lightweight, don’t take up much room in a suitcase, and will be a great reminder of your trip to Mexico. Plus you will have the joy of knowing your money has made a difference in the life of a true indigenous descendant of the ancient Otomi people of central Mexico.

For a closer look at life in the rancho village of Agustín González, whose people are mostly of Otomi stock (including a glimpse of my friend Doña Maria), check out this video of the Rancho Tour. Sixteen women in the village have also formed Las Rancheritas craft cooperative to sell their handmade hooked rugs.

Remembering Joy in San Miguel de Allende:
The Conchero Dancers

How the Conchero Dancers—or Aztec Dancers—of San Miguel de Allende, and all the joyous sounds they bring with them, rekindled remembered joy in a depressed heart.

When you live where every day is a holiday of some kind—an excuse for a fiesta always at hand—it’s easy to forget one. That day I had forgotten. But Mexico has a way of reminding us.

Conchero Dancers stomp, leap and spin their devotion in San Miguel de Allende

Conchero Dancers stomp, leap and spin their devotion in San Miguel de Allende

I’d had a bad night, full of dark images and lonely threats and deceptive might-have-beens. Still living the aftershocks of a destroyed 25-year marriage, financial worries, aging, and the accumulated weight of depression, I had no smiles left.

Walking blindly across the cobblestones, I trudged up one of the many hills that make up San Miguel de Allende, moving toward the Jardín, that central plaza that is the very heart of the town and functions as everyone’s public living room. My mind wandered too, dreading some errand to be run, some friend to be called, some smiles to be summoned up on demand from a well that seemed drained dry. Sore of feet and blue of spirits, all I really wanted to do was go back home and crawl into bed. But there was little food in the house, the library book was overdue, and finances urgently required a stop at the bank.

Lost in my thoughts, I saw but did not register the young woman dressed in the standard conchero costume of neon lamé and huge red and green feathers on her head as she passed me going down the hill in the sun.

The wooden sticks pound the hide skins of the concheros drums

The pounding of the concheros drumming vibrated up through my sandals.

The first thing to get past my funk was the vibrations. The thrumming rhythm of drums had penetrated the paving stones, crept down the hill and wriggled straight up through the soles of my sandals. Had I been paying more attention, I would have heard them before I felt them; their pounding was strong, deep, relentless. A reminder.

After years of living in San Miguel de Allende, I’d forgotten to check the calendar. It was the first Friday in March, one of my favorite feast days in a city that has more than its share and one of the best times to visit San Miguel de Allende. The day honors Our Lord of the Conquest and celebrates the arrival of Catholicism in Mexico. It is a day when many Mexicans honor the twin traditions of their indigenous roots and their deeply held faith in their Christ and their God.

Here in San Miguel, a magical colonial pueblo perched on the high plain of central Mexico, it is also called the day of the Concheros, dancers named for the “conchas”—shell-like seed pods—wrapped around their ankles to rattle as they dance, spin and stomp, jump and leap, mimicking the Aztec dancers of Mexico’s glorious past. A robust mix of pagan and Catholic, this show of their devotion is a highlight of the year. Every year on this day, they fill the Jardín with their fervor, color, movement. And sound. Lots of sound.

The conchero dancers of San Miguel de Allende are a blur of movement engulfed in color and sound.

The conchero dancers of San Miguel de Allende are a blur of movement engulfed in color and sound.

I emerged from the narrow street into the wide space in front of La Parroquia church. Its pink cantera stone spires glowed and shimmered in the spring sunshine, that elusive light that draws so many artists to San Miguel. A wave of sound—no, make that noise—almost knocked me over as the pounding of the concheros’ drums rolled over me. I felt assaulted by sound, color, movement. Settling onto a wrought-iron bench beneath the trimmed laurel trees, I let the exuberance take me.

The Concheros Engulf My Senses

The concheros’ flashy pseudo-Aztec costumes, heavy with Pre-Hispanic symbols, neon-colored lamé and fringe, and their two-meter long pheasant plume headdresses, undulated across the plaza, riding the wave of the drumming beat.

Copal incense smoke rises from a burner beside a conch shell and candle--symbols of the conchero dancers' devotion

Copal incense smoke rises from a burner beside a conch shell and candle–symbols of the conchero dancers’ devotion

From the center of their circle, the pungent bite of copal incense pricked my nose, wafting up from a pottery burner set beside a mandolin made from an armadillo shell, a conch shell, fragrant herbs and a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe. A low mournful note sounded as a senior conchero lifted the giant conch shell to his lips.

All around the Jardín, the celebration pulsed. Three separate groups of concheros twirled, jumped and lunged on the three sides of the square. No group danced or drummed in time with the others. The un-synched roar attacked from all sides.

Three photos of conchero dancers in full regalia in San Miguel de Allende

Conchero dancers in full regalia in San Miguel de Allende

The dancers and drummers were not alone in their push to summon the gods of music and joy. In the pretty kiosk centering the square, the town band played. A brassy Souza march rolled across the cobblestones, the notes slightly off-key but the oompah strong and enthusiastic. The tuba player looked to be at least 70 years old. The young drummer might have been his great-grandson.

In Mexico, no reason for a fiesta goes to waste, so preparations were being made to continue the concheros’ party well into the night, but to a different beat. In front of the church, a wooden stage waited for more festivities. A rock band sound-checked equipment to make sure it was sufficiently deafening. Then a guitarist launched into a ragged rehearsal, a weird counterpoint to the traditionally beloved oompah blaring a few meters away in the kiosk.

From the southwest, clouds of black, boat-tailed grackles rolled into the square to settle into the branches of the laurel trees where they roosted for the night. It always took them a while to settle in as they discussed their day, squabbling over favorite perches perhaps or crowing over fattest-worm bragging rights. Their raucous cawing rained down like sharp pebbles onto the paving stones.

A pair of conchero dancers feeling it in San Miguel de Allende

A pair of conchero dancers feeling it in San Miguel de Allende

I closed my eyes, feeling pleasantly assaulted by the noise surrounding me. It rolled up from all sides, like a big cushion determined to block out all thought, all pain, all sensation of anything but itself.

And then the bells began. The huge bronze bells of La Parroquia poured down their peals like waves from the high faux-Gothic spires. They were almost—but not quite—in sync with the throbbing drums, the concheros’ rattling seedpod anklets, the conch shell’s moan, the off-key Souza march, the wailing rock guitar and the grackles’ cackles.

The black mood that had engulfed me an hour earlier was fighting for dominance. And losing. The feeling of that heavy cloud of despair lifting from my shoulders was almost palpable, carried off on the enormous wave of sound and dissipated into the brilliant San Miguel light.

An image sprang to my mind, myself as a young girl with long red braids and freckles sitting in a Sunday School class, reciting and memorizing Bible verses. We were learning the opening of the 100th Psalm:

“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.”

My eyes, my ears, my whole being swept around the square and took in the scene—the color, the movement, the vibrations… the SOUND.

A conchero girl danced herself into a trance of joy in San Miguel de Allende

A conchero girl danced herself into a trance of joy in San Miguel de Allende

And with a smile of pure joy, a heart light and clear, I thought… finally, I know what a joyful noise really sounds like.

It sounds like San Miguel de Allende on the first Friday in March.


If you go:

In San Miguel de Allende, the Conchero Dancers perform for Dia de La Conquista every year on the first Friday in March in the plaza in front of La Parroquia church. The dancing begins around mid-morning and continues throughout the day and often into the evening. Photographing the dancers is allowed.

San Miguel de Allende lies in the central highlands of Mexico. By car, it is nine hours south of Laredo, Texas, on highway 57. The nearest airport is Bajio International Airport (BJX) located in Silao, about an hour from San Miguel. International flights also fly into Mexico City, about 4 hours from San Miguel by bus or private shuttle.  For more information about visiting San Miguel de Allende, visit Experience San Miguel de Allende.

View of Las Barrancas del Cobre, the Copper Canyon of Mexico

Company at the Copper Canyon

Finding Unexpected Friends on the Edge in Mexico

 

As I learned at the Copper Canyon of Mexico, not all the best travel experiences involve breath-taking adventures, cultural lessons and deep understanding. Sometimes the best ones are small, intimate, and almost silent. Sometimes they don’t involve people at all… but you can have a party just the same.

 
I flopped onto the bed and kicked off my shoes. It was quiet here, blessedly quiet. No sound but the breeze whispering through pine needles, then scurrying down into the depths of the great canyon below. Las Barrancas del Cobre, Mexico’s fabled Copper Canyon—it plunged below me in more shades of green and gray and rust and yellow than I had words in Spanish. The sun was low, tinting the shadows in the hollows the deep coppery bronze that gives this giant snaking hole in the ground its name.

View of Copper Canyon from Hotel Mirador

View of Urique Canyon, part of Las Barrancas del Cobre, Mexico’s Copper Canyon, in the state of Chihuahua.
Photo copyright Ted McGrath
(CC license)

But I was tired after a long day—though hopefully my passengers were not. As a professional Tour Director, my job was to make their days effortless, exciting, relaxing, adventurous, full of new sights and sounds and information but not over-full, not overwhelming. Name your vacational dream; my job was to provide it. And I was good at it.

But creating all that effortless-looking magic could sometimes be a slog. As a Tour Director you are Social Director, Logistics Manager, Entertainer, Teacher, Emergency Tech, Problem-Solver and Explainer-in-Chief. Also hand-holder and sometime baby-sitter. At the end of the day, your passengers head off to enjoy the bar and the mariachi music and watch the hummingbirds lured by the red-siren sparkle of the feeders hanging on the balcony over the canyon’s edge.

And all you want to do is leave them to it. Hide in your hotel room. Have a hot shower. Read a book. Enjoy the silence. Be alone. Or at least that’s what I thought I wanted that night. I really did.

The Hotel Mirador Posada Barrancas is perched directly on the edge of the massive hole that is the Copper Canyon. You can step onto the balcony of your room and look down on the birds flying below. This night it was chock full. I had a good-sized group on my tour and we were not the only bus-load in the hotel. The dramatic beauty of the Copper Canyon and its iconic train ride made for a popular tour, and every room in the main building was full.

The owners, the Balderrama hotel chain, were building a new wing, way at the top of the property. They called it El Nido del Aguila, the Eagle’s Nest. To get to it, you took a long stone path and stairs that snaked through madron trees, sotol cactus and the long-needled Arizona pines the Tarahumara people use to make their lovely baskets.

Hotel Mirador Posada Barrancas\ on the edge of the Copper Canyon.

Hotel Mirador Posada Barrancas perches right on the cliff edge of the Copper Canyon in Mexico. The “Eagle’s Nest” eyrie at the top was just being built at the time of our story. I was in the first room on the right, likely the first guest in it.
Photo copyright: Bad Alley
(CC license)

 

I finally reached my lovely, quiet, blessedly isolated room. There was no phone. No TV. No radio, no cell signal, no internet connection. The light smell of fresh paint jousted with the sharp tang of the pines edging the balcony beyond a pair of sliding glass doors. There were no other guests in the new, partially built eyrie. I could taste the aloneness and it was delicious on my tongue.

The main building may have been full to the brim with merry-making and margarita-slugging tourists, but up here it was completely and utterly quiet, or at least quiet of human sounds. The best kind of quiet when you spend your day shepherding a few dozen people from point A to Point B, smiling all the while.

It wasn’t really cold enough for a fire, but I was pining for the scent and the crackle and yellow flames to stare into mindlessly. An armload of pine logs and splinters for kindling from outside my door soon had the carved stone chimenea singing its fiery song. I slid open the balcony doors to let in the soft evening air. A long hot shower, a silent sit before the leaping flames restored my soul. I lay on the new bed, listening to the crackle of the fire and the overlaying silence. I ate a cracker, enjoying the bite of salt on my tongue. I reveled in the mundanity of it all. Such rare peace, to be savored in the mouth, mind and muscles.

The First Member of the Party Arrives

I grabbed the book I seldom had the peace to read. After maybe a half hour with it, something made me glance right, at the lamp on the bedside table. That’s when I discovered I was not actually alone. There on the lampshade was a pale brown praying mantis, poised in perfect elegance, head up and face turned toward me. The creature was at least three inches long (about 7.5 cm). His big, calabata-olive eyes were perhaps two feet away, yet he paid me no attention at all. He seemed neither impressed nor bothered by my presence and proximity. He just perched there preening, cleaning his long feelers exactly as if he were a cat.

Praying mantis

A Praying Mantis – “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.”
Photo copyright Stavros Markopoulos
(CC license)

One long beige leg came up, the end hooked itself around a feeler and pulled it down in an arc. Then beginning at the head end and moving methodically toward the outer tip, he passed it slowly through his mouth, cleaning each tiny section as it went. That done, he picked up the other delicate front leg, reached up for the other feeler and repeated the process. Then back to the first.

My book lay forgotten as I sat fascinated by the mantis’ performance. I forgot the scent and beauty and depth of the Copper Canyon just outside the sliding doors. I moved as close as I thought I could. He never flinched. I edged a little closer. Any closer and I would not have been able to focus. He was less than a foot beyond my nose.

“Hello beautiful,” I said. He cleaned a feeler. “You are doing a wonderfully thorough job.” He cleaned the other feeler. At one point, he stopped and looked at me for a long moment, then slowly dipped his head as if saying “Yeah, I guess you’re okay. You can stay.”

It might have been ten minutes I watched him, or maybe thirty. I was lost to time, absorbed by the elegance of his movements and the perfection of every part of him. But finally, I did roll away and refocus on my book, leaving the mantis to his prayers and ablutions.

Guest Number Two?

Another chapter read and I glanced back to the lampshade to check on my guest. He was not there. I panicked for a moment, though I don’t know why. He was better suited to this place than I was. But I was worried, so I knelt on the mattress and peered over the headboard and down along and behind the nightstand looking for my pretty new friend.

He was nowhere to be seen. But… there on the floor, just sticking out from under the nightstand, was a minuscule pink nose. It twitched. Then it froze. I moved a fraction and it disappeared. But I had seen enough to recognize a tiny gray mouse.

A small mouse in a corner

A tiny wee mouse came out to say a timid hello. I fed him cracker crumbs.
Photo copyright Sean Dreilinger
(CC license)

On a whim and a hope, I broke off a piece of cracker, crumbled it and dropped it on the floor where the nose peek had been. Then I lay down, hanging crosswise off the edge of the bed, and waited. It took a few minutes. But I think the little guy was hungry. Pretty soon, the nose appeared again, all quivering pink and twitching whiskers. The little lad then darted out from safety, all one-inch-plus of him, grabbed the cracker pieces and darted back to safety again.

“Would you like some more?” I asked politely. “I have plenty.” I crumbled another cracker, dropped it in place and waited. Out he popped, grabbed, scurried back.

We continued the game awhile. I wondered what he was doing with all the crumbs, which must be piling up faster than he could eat them. Perhaps he was a she with a nest of babies clamoring for cracker feedings. I was afraid if I got down to look I would scare her off, and I was enjoying the company.

Praying mantis in silhouette

The praying mantis perched on the headboard behind me, like he was tying to read over my shoulder.
Photo copyright Ken Slade
(CC license)

Eventually I unfolded myself and turned back to my book… only to discover the preacher was back. Praying earnestly just above me, or perhaps studying my book, was the mantis, his delicate body perfectly arched atop the headboard behind me. I wished my book was a field guide to the trees and wildflowers of the Copper Canyon so he could enjoy reading over my shoulder. It was most likely a trashy historical romance novel, but he didn’t seem to mind.

I settled down to read, enjoying the feeling of having companions around me.

…and One More to Come

As the evening wore on and the air got chillier, my feet grew cold. I got up to retrieve some socks from my suitcase, lying on the terra cotta floor. There I startled guest number three to the party in room 101. As I reached into the bag, a wee frog, greeny-brown and no bigger than a gumdrop, hopped out and across the room, stopping only when leap met wall.

“Hoppy” seemed less inclined to be friends than my prayerful insect companion or even Ms. Mouse. He trembled a bit, cornered as he was. I retreated a safe distance to give him a little confidence and watched him. I had no froggy equivalent of crackers to offer and lull him from his fright.

Full night had fallen. The fire had burned down to embers. The subtle sounds of the Copper Canyon had quietened to almost nothing. And tomorrow morning, my passengers would expect me to be “on” and ready—to answer every question, solve every crisis and make sure they got what they had paid for. It was time for everyone to sleep.

I reluctantly turned off the light, tucked my sock-clad feet under me and snuggled down into my brand-new mattress.

I’d left the drapes open to the wide swath of canyon. The sun awakened me with a wink, then a laser, first peeping then pouring over the edge of the canyon’s horizon and straight into my room. I felt more refreshed than I ever feel on tour mornings. Stretching, I looked around the room. There were no visible remains of the party we had held the night before, no bottles or empty cups, no party hats or stretched out streamers. And no guests.

I looked all around. The mantis was nowhere to be found. Perhaps he had a lady friend further down the slopes of the mighty Copper Canyon. Perhaps he had been preening the night before just for her, wanting to impress. The frog in the corner had used the cover of darkness to hop off to safety. And Ms. Mouse was who knows where?

The mini-menagerie had all gone home, wherever home was, and I was alone again.

But there was evidence if you looked hard enough. There was proof of our revels. On hands and knees, forehead to the floor, I peered under the night stand, wondering if Ms. Mouse was still there. No mouse and no babies either. But there, in at least a dozen neat little mounds, like miniature haystacks, were heaps of cracker crumbs, precisely spaced, awaiting her return.

I checked my suitcase once more for stray amphibians then closed it and set it outside the door for pick-up. I headed back down the long stone path and stairway, lured by the faint smell of coffee wisping up from the hotel dining room. It was time to show my passengers more of the wonders and glory of Mexico’s Copper Canyon, four times bigger than the Grand Canyon, to introduce them to some of the Tarahumara Indians who lived there, tell them the names of the plants and the trees and the rocks.

But I decided I would not tell them about the party I’d held in my room the night before. I didn’t want to make them feel left out.

View of the Copper Canyon of Mexico

Late afternoon at the beautiful Copper Canyon of Mexico.
Photo copyright Adam Singer
(CC license)


 


Get more information about the Hotel Mirador Posada Barrancas at the Copper Canyon in Mexico.

Photo of the Week:
The Colegio de Sales in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

For this week’s Photo of the Week, I decided to post the picture that got the most likes on my new Instagram feed.

Taken in San Miguel de Allende, it is a picture I shot a couple of years ago, but the view hasn’t changed a bit. It could have been taken yesterday. Or a hundred years ago if they’d had really good color film back then. It shows the roof line of the Colegio de San Francisco de Sales, located on the Plaza Cívica, next to the church of Nuestra Señora de la Salud. The building and the pleasant plaza in front of it are about three minutes’ walk from the Jardín, San Miguel’s main square.

Roofline of the Colegio de Sales, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Since we Nomad Women tend to have a few years on us and therefore understand the importance of history, we often like to know a bit about the past of what we’re seeing. We like to know the stories behind the buildings. So….

The Colegio de Sales was built in the early 18th century by the priests of the order of San Felipe Neri, who also built the church next door. This area of San Miguel de Allende was the heart of the town almost 200 years ago. The main market was here, the main churches were all here, and the college topped it off. This was the principal crossroads for business, religion, leisure and commerce in this important and wealthy colonial city.

The Colegio de San Francisco de Sales catered to the criollos, sons of the rich Spaniards, as well as to deserving poor students. The price of enrollment was on a sliding scale and cost between 12 and 300 pesos a year–at a time when a common laborer earned about one peso a day. The courses of study included Theology, Rhetoric, Grammar and Philosophy.

San Miguel’s namesake, Ignacio Allende, studied here, as did another Hero of Independence, Juan Aldama. I like to imagine them running across the central patio on the way to a Latin class, maybe cutting up a bit and earning a frown from one of the priest-tutors. Or perhaps racing out to the nearby market for a pan dulce between classes. Did they have any idea that not so many years later they would change the entire course of Mexican history? And that they would pay for that change with their very lives?

Today, the building is little changed from their time. In fact, it once again serves as a center of education. Today it houses a branch campus of the University of León.

Dreamy girl conchero dancer in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

The 5 Best Times to Visit San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Fireworks, San Miguel de Allende, MexicoLet’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.

Dreamy girl conchero dancer in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

 

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.

Semana Santa Procession in San Miguel de Allende, MexicoEvery 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 Voladores de Papantla performing in San Miguel de Allende, MexicoThe 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

Publid Day of the Dead altar in San Miguel de Allende, MexicoDay 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 tree in the Jardin, San Miguel de Allende, MexicoChristmas 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.