Destination: San Miguel de Allende

Year-round near-perfect weather, picturesque colonial setting, perpetual flowers, and relaxed ambiance draw visitors from all over the world to San Miguel de Allende. But be warned, many who come for a brief vacation never manage to tear themselves away; you’ll find them here among the permanent residents.

Founded in 1542 by Friar Juan de San Miguel (who named the town after the favorite arcangel), centuries later San Miguel became a center of Mexico’s long struggle for Independence (1810–1821). “De Allende” was added to the name in honor of the native-son war hero, Ignacio Allende. In 1926 the Mexican government named San Miguel de Allende a National Monument, which meant that the colonial buildings and cobblestone streets would be carefully preserved. An influx of artists followed the opening of the Instituto Allende Art School in the late 1930s. The lively expatriate community is now a mix of early retirees, artists, musicians, writers, and small business owners. The town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008.

easter in san miguelKeep in mind: San Miguel is situated at 6,400 feet, so if you’re not used to high altitudes you might feel tired at first. As in any town where strangers mingle, keep your wallet tucked safely away, don’t flaunt valuables, and don’t wander side streets or parks alone late at night. To avoid illness, it’s best to forego the tempting foods sold on the street. Carry smaller bills and coins, because some shops and taxis never have any change.

This is a town of many festivals. If you can plan your trip for Semana Santa (Easter holy week), the Dia de las Locos (mid-June), Independence Day (September 16), Christmas, or New Year, you’ll be treated to parades, performances, and delightful local traditions. Also check ahead for chamber music or jazz and blues festivals and for literary events. But magical things happen around town at all times, and fiestas break out with little warning. Current activities and searchable maps are available.

[Photo credit: Flickr, Easter in San Miguel, TR Ryan]English is spoken in many shops, galleries, restaurants, and hotels, and if your Spanish is tentative, the locals are pretty adept at understanding foreign accents. In-town taxi rides run $25-30 pesos, more at night. You can easily hail a taxi on the street or have your hotel call one for you (which costs more). You should discuss out-of-town fares with your driver in advance. If your Spanish isn’t up to that, ask your hotel clerk what to expect for specific trips.

Begin your first day in El Jardin, the main town square with trimmed trees, abundant benches, and a gazebo. The area is dominated by the towering Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel-a painted pink granite parish church that’s a masterpiece of mixed architectural styles. Buy the Atención newspaper if it’s available.

Sit on a park bench or at a cafe table, browse the newspaper for possibilities … and watch. You’ll likely view locals, tourists, expatriates, performers, animals, and people selling all kinds of things. In the Jardin, you can get your shoes shined while you listen to a medley of languages and often to live music. Inquire at the tourist booth for information about walking tours and sightseeing rides on a couple of trolley-type vehicles ($60 pesos).

Lots of attractions are within easy walking distance of the main square if you’re wearing sensible shoes-the only practical choice on stone streets and uneven sidewalks. The Jardin is surrounded by great shops, restaurants, and cafe. San Miguel offers many good choices for meals; these are nearby and recommended:

Breakfast, lunch, or dinner: Mama Mia, half a block away on Umaran, Mexican breakfast buffet ($90 pesos) and delicious specialties (up to $250 pesos), frequently accompanied by live music. The Café de la Parroquia (at night becomes Le Brasserie) at Jesus 11 ($120 pesos) adjoins El Tecolote, an English language bookstore. Lunch or dinner: For unhurried authentic Mexican cuisine in a colonial courtyard, the Bugambilia is 2 ¼ blocks north at Hidalgo 42 ($200 pesos up).

Evenings: the Berlin Bar, Umaran 19, Mexican and German menu (up to $200 pesos), and terrific botanas (snacks). Harry’s New Orleans Café, Hidalgo 12, has a popular bar and Creole, Cajun, and Mexican meals (an evening for two, $250–400 pesos). Tio Lucas, Mesones 103, is the place for jazz and steaks (Chateaubriand entree for 2, $370 pesos).

Don’t miss:

The Biblioteca Pública, Insurgentes 25, a colonial building with a large bilingual book collection, offers classes, community services, lectures, music, movies, performances (English and Spanish), and publishes Atención. Their Cafe Santa Ana is good for breakfast or lunch. Sign up in advance for the often-spectacular Sunday House and Garden Tour, $200 pesos.

Bellas Artes, Hernández Macias 75, a gorgeous 18th-century former convent with a large courtyard garden and murals inside, now a major art center with exhibits, classes, and theatrical events. Try their Las Musas–Café Italian for snacks or lunch.

If there’s something on stage at the Teatro Ángela Peralta on Mesones, the grand 1873 neoclassic theater is well worth experiencing.

The Mercado Ignacio Ramirez up on Colegio is a huge, colorful local market. Wander back down through the multitude of crafts stalls in the Mercado de Artesanias.

Parque Juárez has a playground for kids, shady walking paths, sculptures, flowers, fountains, basketball courts, and sometimes music, art exhibits, and sales of plants or organic produce.

Fabrica La Aurora on the north side of town in a handsome renovated factory building offers fabulous art, craft, and furniture galleries, plus the excellent Food Factory restaurant. Take a taxi there, perhaps walk back.

Other options:

For relaxing, visit one of the hot springs near town. La Gruta features caves, pools, changing rooms, and a restaurant. Admission is $80 pesos; taxi one-way $80-100 pesos; have the taxi return for you or take the bus back.

For leisurely walking or hiking, Jardin Botanico El Charco del Ingenio (Botanical Garden) has an enormous collection of cacti, lovely canyons, hiking trails, and guides. Uphill from town, you can take a taxi there and walk back down.

Pat Perrin is co-author of The Jamais Vu Papers She has written, edited, or contributed to some 65 books, mostly in collaboration with her husband, Wim Coleman. Pat and Wim live in San Miguel de Allende. Read her blog on Red Room.

[Photo credit: Flickr, Jesus Guzman-Moya]

Dí­a de los Muertos celebrations around the US

Skulls made of sugar, dancing skeletons in fancy dress, colorful masks decorated with flowers … these are all part of the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations that spring from deep in Mexican history. The Day of the Dead is not a scary holiday even though it takes place so close to Halloween. It’s a warm family celebration in honor of relatives and friends who have passed away. Each year, Mexican graveyards and home altars are decorated with gifts, food, and drinks left for the dead-toys, sweets, atole (a hot, tasty Mexican drink), tequila, and whatever other favorites might entice spirits to hear the prayers and remembrances held for them.

The right kind of flower is especially important. Marigolds — their petals sometimes scattered in paths from graveyards to homes — are thought to guide dead spirits back to the world of the living for a happy family reunion.

Although the dates for the Day of the Dead vary from place to place, November 1st is often the day honoring dead children, and while November 2nd is for adults. The tradition is thought to date back thousands of years to pre-Columbian times, and these days it continues not only throughout Mexico but in many United States communities as well. Wherever you might be traveling late in October or early in November, it’s well worth checking for a Día de los Muertos celebration. You’ll find wonderful food, music, performances, and parades. There’s usually a hands-on workshop or two where you can learn to make sugar skulls, puppets, papier mâché masks, traditional treats, and the lovely altars that families build in remembrance of the departed.

U.S. cities that celebrate the Day of the Dead include Seattle, Austin, El Paso, Phoenix, Houston, Santa Fe, Tucson, Missoula, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Portland, Cleveland, Longmont (Colorado), and many others around the country. The dates of these local fiestas vary, so check ahead. Here’s how the Día de los Muertos is honored in a few big cities…

New York City
New York City comes alive on the Day of the Dead with activities all over town. The world-famous Brooklyn Children’s Museum celebrates with puppet-making, Mayan hot chocolate, and other traditional treats on November 2. Free with museum admission.

Altar exhibits, mariachi performances, special treats, free workshops, and a Mexican Market are sponsored by Mano a Mano in the churchyard of St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery. Free and open to the public on October 29-31.

A Día de los Muertos art exhibit at the National Museum of Mexican Art runs from September 10 – December 13.

Family activities at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian include live entertainment, and hands-on crafts activities on October 30.

Washington D.C.
Everyone is invited to The Mexican Cultural Institute Día De Los Muertos Open House on October 31. The altars-dedicated this year to the Mexican Revolution-will be on display through the month of November.

A two-day celebration at the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall offers demonstrations and hands-on crafts, live dance and music performances, films, and a display of Guatemalan kites on October 30-31.

On October 30 at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia, you can view Day of the Dead themed artwork, listen to mariachis, and paint sugar skulls. In the evening, a parade of people-and-dogs-in-costume is led by Day of the Dead puppets. The evening culminates with a masquerade and dancing.

Los Angeles
Every Mexican community in LA has their own festivities, from family events at local cemeteries to neighborhood block parties. The one on Olvera Street, also known as El Pueblo Historic Monument, features altars, exhibits, entertainments, and a Pre-Columbian procession each night from October 25 through November 2.

The Hollywood Forever Cemetary, Los Angeles’s oldest memorial park, invites guests to their celebrations on October 30. The hosts suggest you come dressed as a calaca (traditional Day of the Dead skeleton).

All over L.A., theaters and clubs will offer special events, and popular celebrations are also held in San Pedro, Pasadena, and other local communities.

San Francisco
This year San Francisco got started early with installations at the SOMArts Cultural Center on Friday October 15. The exhibit ends with a closing reception on November 6.

On November 2, the Mission District, the center of San Francisco’s predominantly Hispanic community, is the place to be for traditional Día de los Muertoscelebrations. You’ll find workshops on creating altars, sugar skulls, and papel picado (decorative Mexican paper cutting) at the Mission Cultural Center, Casa Bonampak, and Encantada Art Gallery. A festival of altars is held at Garfield Park, and you can join an annual procession led by the Rescue Culture Collective.

Pat Perrin spent years training horses on a Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, farm. Her diverse books include the historical novel Anna’s World, set in late 1840s America. Read her blog on Red Room.

[Photos: Flickr | uteart_away.picking.seashells; sfmission.com; -Chupacabras-]