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Destination: Mexico

New Gleam on an Old 'Silver' City

San Miguel de Allende is luring tourists and expatriates alike

September 01, 1996|BARBARA SHEA | NEWSDAY

SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, Mexico — It was 48 hours to Revolution Day, and the local kindergarteners were practice-parading through their Mexican village like pint-size Zapatistas--boys sporting Pancho Villa mustaches, girls rouged and ruffled. In the spirit of the occasion, they carried balloons, banners and, of course, guns, albeit toy ones.

Among the cheering onlookers were many Americans, whom I first assumed were on a tour. After all, I'd just gotten off a bus myself. But then I heard one say: "Well, I've got to get home and call the caterer. See you at the house Saturday night."

Wait a minute. Catered American parties in a provincial Mexican town?

You'd better believe it. Also espresso bars, video rentals and takeout sushi. Because this was no dusty little pueblo, but cosmopolitan Mexico's most celebrated artists' colony and oasis for expatriate Yankees. Over several decades San Miguel has evolved into a sort of Santa Fe South-of-the-Border.

With an inconvenient location and language barrier, San Miguel would seem an unlikely magnet for foreign emigres. And indeed, these drawbacks have kept the celebrity quotient low. But it also doesn't take long to see why the town has charmed so many thousands.

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During Mexico's colonial days, San Miguel--then known as San Miguel El Grande--was the wealthiest town in silver-rich New Spain, and stately mansions adorned with carved-wood doors and stone coats of arms still line the cobbled streets. Some continue to serve as luxurious homes; others have been turned into sophisticated shops and restaurants that spill into flower-filled courtyards. The entire one-square-mile downtown has been declared a national historic landmark, protected forever from golden arches and neon marquees.

Free of heavy industry and 6,000 feet above sea level, San Miguel also is bathed in the kind of clear light artists worship (the town's artistic tradition goes back to the 16th century, when it was settled by a group of Indians who'd been taught European techniques of weaving by a Franciscan friar). The pure air is further sweetened by the music of scores of church bells, which continually call to the faithful. The most resonant bonging comes from the pink-stone gothic spires of the Parroquia, or parish church.

Students of all ages flock to San Miguel from around the world to study Spanish at several internationally famous language schools, or art and music at the Ignacio Ramirez Cultural Center, a branch of Mexico City's renowned Instituto de Belles Artes.

In addition to the artsy crowd, San Miguel also attracts history-minded travelers tracing the Route of Independence through the Mexican Bahio, the arid central highlands between Texas and Mexico City. The seeds of insurrection were first scattered in San Miguel and other nearby colonial cities, and in 1821 the town was renamed San Miguel de Allende to honor a revolutionary hero who was born there.

What makes San Miguel all the more attractive is the fact that it is a mega-bargain for Americans. After the latest currency devaluation a year ago, the Mexican peso lost close to 40% of its value. The exchange rate now is hovering around 6 pesos to the dollar, which translates into four-course meals for less than $8.

San Miguel is also essentially a peaceful haven. The locals know that gentrification has been a huge boon to the economy, providing steady employment in a hardscrabble land. What little crime there is mainly seems to involve petty thefts, mostly by pickpockets from Mexico City who hit town to work the major tourist festivals.

Since the American colony took root in the 1950s, increasing numbers of visitors have been known to cancel their flights home and settle in for the winter--or forever. A favorite joke in the expatriate community greets every newcomer: "What--you've been here three days and haven't bought a house yet?"

To find out what's going on each week, pick up a copy of San Miguel's English-language newspaper, Atencion, whose name bespeaks the fact that most new settlers immediately don straw hats and serapes and set about learning Spanish.

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San Miguel obliges them in many other ways, as well, often with a mix of Indian and Spanish traditions. Native women still patronize an outdoor public laundry, which now consists of washtubs that stand near the stream where women used to beat their clothes clean on rocks. And every Sunday night the local teenagers continue the age-old Spanish custom of promenading around the main plaza.

This central square--the Jardin or garden--is a favorite gathering place for locals and tourists at any hour. At dusk, however, the rows of manicured laurel trees attract flocks of boat-tailed grackles, whose squawking makes it almost impossible to hold a conversation. (Inmates from the town jail reportedly are marched across the street at dawn to scrub off the park benches after the nightly assault.)

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