It was 6am and I was tired. It had taken me pretty much all of the previous day to travel from Toronto to Mexico and I hadn’t arrived at my accommodations until close to 1am. Now, in the early morning, I found myself floating 1000 feet above the small town of San Miguel de Allende in a giant hot air balloon. The sun was starting to rise in the distance and streaks of light illuminated the world below me, casting a warm glow. ‘How did I get here?’ I asked myself in a bit of a daze from the beauty I was witnessing.
Truth be told the answer to my question is not as amazing as that first sleepy morning in San Miguel. It was my editor who had reached out to me and asked if I wanted to go, and if I am being completely honest, San Miguel was a destination that had yet to come up on my radar. Curious to know more about it, I of course did what most millennials do, I Googled it and was soon scrolling through beautiful pictures of bright colourful buildings and cobblestone streets. ‘This place is so beautiful!’ I thought to myself. With my sights set on San Miguel I instantly started to day dream of all the pretty shots I was going to take and I knew there was no way I was going to pass up this opportunity.
San Miguel de Allende is a small, charming, hilly town in Mexico (population of about 90,000 in the town proper) that is located 270km north west of Mexico City. Unlike other more popular Mexican beach destinations, San Miguel de Allende is completely land locked and is actually situated at a higher elevation than Denver, Colorado. In the early 20th century the small town of San Miguel was in danger of becoming a ghost town, but thanks to the opening of the renowned Instituto Allende (a visual arts school) in 1950, the city developed a booming art scene that drew in people from all over the world. Today the city continues to thrive and its flourishing art scene has become a haven for bohemian expats and artist who want to settle in Mexico (the town as about 17,000 expats which is quite larger considering its total population). In recent years gastronomy has also started to take centre stage in San Miguel aided by the town’s lush surrounding farmlands and vineyards. Today San Miguel is a popular weekend retreat for Mexicans, a hot spot for weddings, and an attractive destination for international visitors like myself.
- Accommodations -
Travelling to San Miguel is not cheap. Unlike other destinations in Mexico, the closest airport to San Miguel is actually in Leon, an hours drive away which makes it a little more difficult to get to. Shuttles and car rentals are available but since accommodations are in such demand, it’s better to visit during the week to avoid peak hotel room rates. While in San Miguel I stayed at Hotel La Morada, a quaint 4-star boutique hotel with only 26 rooms. The hotel was perfectly located steps away from the main square of town and I could see the iconic pink church, Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel from my room’s balcony. The hotel itself was once a colonial house that recently underwent renovations and although the remodeling gave the hotel quite an upgrade, it still maintains much of its historical charm.
If you are looking for more upscale accommodations to stay at while in San Miguel there is no shortage of choices. Two that I visited for drinks and/or dinner while in town and found VERY APPEALING were L’Otel and Live Aqua. L’Otel, a luxurious, super boutique property – only 10 rooms, all of which are suites – is actually located a stones-throw away from my hotel and was part of Doce 18 Concept House, a collective of design, art, and gastronomy offerings. Travel and Leisure listed L’Otel as one of the best boutique hotel in the world in 2017 and it did not disappoint. You don’t have to stay there to enjoy it either. Check out the stores and wander around the food hall downstairs before making your way to the top floor where the hotel is located. You can buy a drink or order bites from the bar upstairs and enjoy it outside by the pool. You well love it and I can only describe it as an interior designer’s wet dream.
The second hotel that I loved after just a quick visit was Live Aqua Urban Resort. This 153 room hotel is luxury to THE MAX. The hotel itself has a very modern feel and although I didn’t stay there, I did get to walk around the property and enjoy a tasty dinner at Spice Market, an Asian restaurant located on the second floor of the hotel. If you can’t afford to stay there, like me, I definitely would still recommend going to check it out to grab a drink or a bite. My experience was fantastic and I loved the meal and the delectable cocktails.
- Activities -
In terms of activities I would definitely recommend doing the hot air balloon ride while in town. It was my first time in a balloon and since I am usually scared of heights, I wasn’t completely sure how it was going to go at first. To my surprise though I felt very safe and since the basket walls are quite tall, you end up feeling very secure. The company we used for our excursion was Globo San Miguel Hot Air Balloon Adventures. Rates start at about $200 CAD per person and after our excursion they took us to the Rosewood Hotel where they had arranged a beautiful breakfast in the hotel’s courtyard (an extra $25 CAD with your ticket). In hindsight I think this was probably the most delightful way to be first introduced to San Miguel and I absolutely loved the whole experience.
While in town I would also recommend checking out Fabrica La Aurora, an old textile factory that has been transformed into a multi-use art space that is now home to galleries, antique shops, and artist workshops. You can easily spend an afternoon there perusing through all the different spaces or even sign up for a workshops with a local artist. It’s a great way to experience the local art scene in San Miguel and get a taste for what it would be like to live there as an artist.
Since San Miguel has so much lush farmland surrounding it, I would also recommend doing a tasting at one of the local wineries. I mean where else can you try Mexican wine? I got a chance to do a tasting at Toyan Vineyard, an organic winery located just 10 minutes from the heart of town. Toyan offers tours of La Cava, ‘the caves’, a wine cellar 14 meters below ground. Stone monk sculptures light up the pathway down to the cellar and it is here where you will also find their tasting room which doubles as an event space. The tour and tasting was about an hour to an hour and a half long and the whole experience here was way more amusing then other wine tasting experiences I have had in the past. It definitely felt like more of a unique considering they actually bring you down into the cellars and you get to walk through dark lit corridors lined with barrels and bottles of wine. It also gave me a great excuse to bring a bottle of wine home as a souvenir!
- Gastronomy -
As I mentioned, in recent years an elevated gastronomy scene has become part of San Miguel’s overall draw. One place that has made quiet a name for its self is Chef Jorge Cocega’s restaurant Ruta De La Milpa. Chef Jorge forages for fresh local ingredients that he uses to create elevated indigenous dishes. It’s not just about experiencing traditional Mexican food at Ruta De La Milpa, it’s more about getting a REAL taste of Mexico in a fine dining setting. While there my group and I got to try Chef Jorge’s tasting menu which ran the gamut of menu offerings and the excessive amounts of ‘mmm, so good’ coming from everyone at our table was a sure indication that I was not the only one who was blown away by the meal.
El Petite Four, a French patisserie and cafe in the heart of town also needs to be on your list of places to try when visiting San Miguel. We spent an hour here one morning, hanging in the courtyard of the patisserie enjoying a selection of wonderful pastries, sandwiches and coffees. The cousin duo who started this patisserie 20 years ago has built a business that has today become a staple and go-to place for wedding cakes in San Miguel. Chef Paco came out and welcomed our group and it was so nice to be able to interact and learn more about how their little French patisserie came to be in San Miguel – a very interesting story you should ask him to recount for you when you go.
Last but definitely not least, if you have the opportunity to get out to the countryside I would recommend going to El Vergel Bistro and Market, a small French country restaurant by Chef Ari Vasquez. Alongside the restaurant you will also find a small market where you can purchase a selection of deli products, cheeses, and even wines to take home with you. My group stopped here on the way back from visiting the hot springs and enjoyed a beautiful meal accompanied by a delicious glass of rosé on their shaded patio. The whole experience felt quite tranquil and I loved not just the food but this ‘new setting’ of enjoying lunch in the Mexican countryside.
Although my trip to San Miguel de Allende was a short one, I was taken aback by how beautiful and charming the hilly, colourful cobblestone town was. It was unlike any other travel experience I have had in Mexico. San Miguel felt truly unique which is why it was not surprising to find out that it continues to see an increase in visitors each year. If you are looking to experience a less commercial, more authentic Mexican experience, I would definitely recommend starting with San Miguel. I have full faith in its ability to capture the hearts of all who visit, as I know firsthand, it captured mine.