by Lynn Atkinson-Boutette
"Hector will push you around for $15 day", said our B&B hostess Maricela. "He doesn't speak English, but if he manages to keep you on the narrow sidewalk and cobblestone streets and you learn Spanish for 'watch the ka ka', I'm sure you'll do fine." And our vacation was just that -- in fact more than fine.
Our two weeks at the beginning of April were memorable. Far from the troubled drug wars of northern Mexico, this Spanish colonial town is a mountain oasis inhabited by artists and a large ex-pat community. San Miguel, 4½ hours from Mexico City or 1½ hours from Leon on the east coast, is very affordable, and clean and with a wheelchair pusher it's definitely doable. Best of all, unlike other Mexican towns, the food and water is safe which is very important for me and my compromised constitution. I have multiple sclerosis.
Although I was wary of eating salads, fruits or iced drinks, our friend convinced us that while eating from street vendors may not be safe for western stomachs, restaurants in San Miguel are noted for their cleanliness. Within a few days I was eating everything with no problems. At El Pegaso, just off the main square, I was introduced to Chiles en Nogado plus excellent casual fare -- soups salads etc. Restaurant walls, filled with folk art box niches, are by turns both poignant and hilarious. At Casa Maricela B&B we were also introduced to many Mexican dishes including enchiladas served with Mole, from the Aztec word molli, a rich sauce served with chicken or turkey, containing over 25 different ingredients the most famous of which are chocolate and chiles. Chocolate contributes to the richness of the sauce without adding sweetness. Sometimes grated avocado seed is used to add a balancing bitterness.
San Miguel is a garden surrounded by walls, not unlike a European hill town, remarkable primarily for what's inside. Behind the wooden doors lining the streets, are lush gardens, and fountains. The purple and blue jacaranda trees and vibrant pink bougainvillea were a balm to my soul as were the colorful handicrafts in the shops. My husband and Hector, at the mercy of my winter blahs, stopped at every shop filled with handicrafts, ceramica made in the nearby town of Dolores Hildalgo, silver jewelry, tapestries, woven baskets and Mexican clothes. Although locals complain Americans are driving up housing prices, this colonial town, declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2008, still retains its 16th century flavor.
We arrived in the middle of Semana Santa or holy week, celebrated throughout Mexico but particularly in San Miguel. After unexpectedly bumping into an artist friend from Toronto, we attended the Good Friday procession where hundreds and hundreds of silent mourners dressed in black march to the sound of hollow drum beats. The next day I was shocked to see children playing with what I thought were real body parts -- an arm, a leg -- but were in fact were pieces of larger- than-life papier-mâché figures blown up during the firing of the Judases, a tradition with Biblical roots, but now a popular way of 'crucifying' politicians and other unpopular figures.
The highlight of my time in San Miguel where the unexpected moments such as coming upon a wedding party exiting the Parrochia church off the Jardin (pronounced Hardeen). The wedding procession made its way across the square to the tunes of mariachi bands dressed in white or black uniforms studded with gold buttons, followed by giant papier-mâché replicas of the bride and groom. Another evening, a ballet folklorico flashed its color to odd Mexican rhythms. And another, a large band outside of our restaurant passed around the wine of Sangre de Cristo to the largely Mexican crowd. As it turned out April was the best time to go as by the end of March most gringos have ended their winter sojourns and left San Miguel.
Things to do in San Miguel
--Buy Atencion, the English newspaper for events and happenings including music
-- Sit in beautiful Parque Juarez and read On Mexican Time by Tony Cohan, the quintessential book on San Miguel. Slow down and enjoy the perfect blue skies, friendly people, and the colors of the brilliant purple and blue jacaranda trees (full bloom in April)
-- Visit the orphanage Hogar de St. Julia (our friend was painting a mural on the building walls there.)
-- Sit in the Jardin and watch the 16th century Parroquia church change from pink, ocher, to red in the sunset. Watch families and listen to mariachi bands, one each corner of the square !
-- Spend all day at the totally wheelchair accessible Fabrico la Aurora, a former turn-of-the-century textile mill converted to one of Mexico's finest art centers housing a myriad of artisan shops
-- Check out the San Miguel Bibliotecha for information on Spanish lessons, although with so many foreigners and shop staff speaking English you could be forgiven for thinking you can get by without learning Spanish.
-- Take a taxi ride to the raucous Tuesday market where raw chickens and produce sit next to baby clothes, electronics and anything you care to think of.
-- Hike the El Charo del Ingenio Botanical Gardens, a bit dicey for a wheelchair but doable if you have a strong pusher
-- Have lunch or early dinner at Casa de Diezmo The sound of church bells (every 15 minutes it seems), and firecrackers (Mexicans are fond of loud noises) blend with a guitarist serenading diners in the garden
-- Taxi to Atotonilco, 10 minutes away from San Miguel, a religious world heritage site, and if you're lucky talk to the old woman in the square who will point out the six families in town, not including hers because she lives near the river.
-- Drink margaritas at one of the classic watering holes, La Frugas, Harry's or Ten-Ten Pie
-- Take a walking tour of historic Centro Mon-Wed-Fri 10 a.m. leaving from the Jardin in front of the Parroquia
-- Have coffee in the little café at Bellas Artes and enjoy the serenity of the quiet courtyard
-- Hike around town (remember there are lots of hills and cobblestones but with a young Mexican pushing the wheelchair it's doable)
B&Bs close to the main square including breakfast and lunch, the main meal of the day)
Casa Maricela (not accessible but you can stay next-door at her sister's and eat meals at Maricela's). Www.casa-maricela.com
Posada Corazon (more or less accessible) approx. $176 www.posadacorezon.com.mx
Casa Carmen (your best bet - wheelchair accessible and close to the center) $126 a night double occupancy www.casacarmenhotel.com
Francisco Marin will pick you up at either Mexico City or Leon for very reasonable rate firstname.lastname@example.org cell 415-113-4796