For a quarter of the seasonal cost and the company of my daughter and her two cats joining me from Mexico City, one of Mexico’s most magical towns, San Miguel de Allende, was our winter home for three months in early 2021. Like other major world destinations, crowds were COVID-lite, and we missed such events as the city’s famous Semana Santa processions. To support the flailing tourist economy, we dined around constantly and deliciously, and invested in us-alone excursions to go vineyard-hopping in Guanajuato state, and horseback riding up into monarch butterfly territory in neighboring Michoacan. And we had plenty of time to wander about the craft stalls in San Miguel’s Mercado de Artesanias as well as the studios and galleries of the hilltop Fabrica La Aurora Art & Design Center, a classy art mall of some 40 galleries and shops, artists’ studios and workshops occupying a restored textile factory.
Before sharing with Mexico-bound travelers my new trio of top attractions, this New York City resident must salute San Miguel for providing the safest environment I have found during these long pandemic months: masks were mandatory; and stores, markets, pastry shops, outdoor restaurants and indoor boutiques were all strong on social distancing, ditto churches with alternate seating. To enter the central square from any direction, pedestrians had to pass through arched tunnels spraying a light, disinfecting mist, and on exiting into the square, there was no shortage of guards reminding us to mask up. Thank you SMA.
Coloring San Miguel
It’s not news that Mexico has a rich history of murals: extensive wall paintings by world-renowned artists such as Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros. You can trace this legacy to the present-day bonanza of street art that now adorns the walls of many SMA districts, transforming the city into an amazing open-air gallery. Major credit goes to ex-pat Texan and mosaic-tile artist Colleen Sorenson, who initiated an urban and graffiti district in the Colonia Guadalupe neighborhood and founded Muros en Blanco (Blank Walls) in 2013. Since then—and later in cooperation with Graffiti World—national and international artists come to town to sketch and spray the walls of businesses and houses, with permission of the property owners, who increasingly are commissioning works.
While no street art is permitted in San Miguel’s Historic Center, a UNESCO World Heritage site, trendy Colonia Guadalupe is now an internationally recognized arts district, featuring a colorful world of enchanting and sophisticated street art. The deck-the-walls bandwagon has rolled into other barrios such as San Rafael and San Antonio, while city-sponsored projects include a gallery of multi-themed wall paintings lining San Miguel’s highway underpasses. For private street art touring in her own jeep, there’s no one better than Sorenson herself (firstname.lastname@example.org).
During my visit, one of the leading street muralists, Jesus Valenzuela (a.k.a., Juice), was on hand for the opening of his latest creation: a gigantic black-and-white fish swimming across the muraled walls of the Ramen Bar, located in the chic, 32-room Hotel Matilda. Stepping off a cobbled street in the colonial quarter, guests are greeted by interiors of art-filled contemporary ambiance, flowering courtyards, an infinity-edge pool framed by gardens and its own colorful mural, as well as the Moxi restaurant for fine dining. Best of all for us, our house rental shared the same picture-perfect street as Hotel Matilda (hotelmatilda.com).
Cañada de La Virgen
Who knew there were pyramids this far north in Mexico? Someone who knows well is Albert Coffee, who worked on the excavation of Cañada de la Virgen, the most northern of Mesoamerican pyramid sites, occupied (540 to 1050 A.D.) by the indigenous Otomi culture. He personally leads his company tours to well-preserved Cañada, sharing his vast knowledge of the ancient indigenous cultures of this Bajia region; among those, the Otomi: avid sky-watchers whose step-pyramids served as celestial observatories, temples and burial chambers. Approached by a long causeway, Cañada de La Virgen’s archaeological complex stars are the House of the 13 Heavens, a 52-ft. pyramid; House of the Longest Night, whose platforms were used for funerary rites and public ceremonies; and House of Wind, which retains outlines of wall paintings and shrines dedicated to Epecatl, the wind deity. These tower above sunken patios, public squares and a ballgame court, all overlooking the Laja River Valley, 15 miles from San Miguel.
A visit to the onsite museum, as well as pick-up and drop-off in San Miguel, are included in the half-day tours, offered Tuesday through Sunday by Albert Coffee Archaeotours (albertcoffeetours.com).
To quote from Alberto Ruy Sanchez, editor of Artes de Mexico: “Without doubt, the finest exhibition and sale of Mexican popular arts in the country.” He is referring to Mayer Shacter’s Galeria Atotonilco, set in a mesquite-forested estate five miles north of San Miguel. Galeria viewings are by appointment 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday, hours when Shacter greets his “guests,” and guides them through his 5,000-sq.-ft., treasure-filled house and home, sharing his knowledge as a collector, dealer and ceramic artist, as well as stories from his treasure-hunting travels all over Mexico. The collection—many of the pieces are signed by their creators—ranges from painted lacquerware from Guerrero and copperware from Santa Clara del Cobre, carved and painted wood animals and birds, retablos and santos, textiles, ceramics and ceremonial dance masks. From his travels farther south, you’ll find wonderful baskets woven by the Wounaan tribe in Colombia, and spectacular traditional huipil blouses, requiring months of embroidery by Guatemala’s Maya women.
Of special interest to me were the Galeria’s yarn and bead art, made by the indigenous Huichol people who live mostly in the mountain areas of Jalisco and Nayarit states. Some 25 years ago, I discovered Huichol yarn art and bought a big one, intricately worked in brightly colored yarn representations of Huichol mythology and human figures engaged in everyday activities, pressed onto a board coated with a layer of beeswax from Campeche and tree resin. And my place of purchase: San Miguel de Allende.
Just the website alone—galeriaatotonilco.com—provides an essential introduction to the world of Mexican arts and crafts. It also guides travelers to other attractions in this neighborhood: the Sanctuary of Atotonilco (a.k.a., Mexico’s Sistine Chapel), a UNESCO World Heritage site, whose interior walls and ceilings are covered entirely by Mexican baroque frescoes, as well as two luxury hot springs: La Gruta and Escondido.
For more information, visit visitsanmiguel.com.