San Miguel de Allende: ‘The Loser Now Will be Later to Win’

Travel Stories: Peter Ferry celebrates a beloved Mexican city where you might not get all the avocados you want

02.19.10 | 10:34 AM ET

San Miguel de AllendeSan Miguel de Allende (iStockPhoto

Question: What do Brouwershaven in The Netherlands, Galena, Illinois, and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, have in common?

Answer: They are all losers.

In 1600, it was a toss-up as to whether Brouwershaven or Rotterdam would become the largest sea port in northern Europe.

In 1850, it was uncertain if Galena or Chicago would become the largest city in the Midwestern United States.

In 1800, San Miguel was a center of gold and silver mining with great churches, convents and theaters, handsome public buildings and dozens of palatial houses. Its rival was not another city but time; the mines played out and by 1900 San Miguel was a virtual ghost town.

But in that odd way of things, these big losers became small winners later on. Each stopped growing and is thus a frozen moment in time, preserved as surely as a bee in wax or a fish in a fossil. Each in its entirety is a historical relic.

San Miguel was founded in 1542 as a mission, but most of the buildings in its center went up in the 17th and 18th centuries in Spanish colonial style. That is to say, they were built around a central plaza called el Jardin that has a bandstand, sculpted trees and cast iron benches, and that is faced by a monumental church called the Parroquia, which is surrounded by the pastel spires, lighted bell towers, and tiled domes and cupolas of half a dozen other churches. Off this plaza in all directions uphill and down run narrow cobblestone streets packed with stone and stucco buildings painted in bright earthy shades like burnt umber, ochre, terra cotta, and deep yellow as well as cream and stark white. The real charm and beauty of these ancient structures is found in spacious interior courtyards full of lush gardens, draping bougainvillea, ancient trees, sunshine and caged birds, as well as in the high blue skies above.

MORE: Five Photos: The Painted Walls of San Miguel de Allende

Some of these beautiful old buildings are still private homes, but many have been turned into hotels (these range from five star to funky), restaurants (the same), stores, schools and one is even the public library, the only one I know where you can have a glass of beer or wine with a book, salad or sandwich. This is a very civilized place in addition to being beautiful.

And half the beauty is the climate. Located two days’ drive south of Texas and three hours north of Mexico City, San Miguel is high on Mexico’s central plateau at over 6,000 feet. That means it is warm in the sun, cool in the shade with average winter daily highs in the 70s. Fortunately, winter is the dry season, so the sky is almost always blue. Almost. It’s been raining perros and gatos since we got here three days ago, and rain is in the forecast, too, so that sun-drenched veranda of ours with the breathtaking views we thought we’d be sitting on in shorts and T-shirts? Well, our only view is of the rain-drenched veranda itself from our living room, where we sit in sweaters and wool socks, and it’s not breathtaking at all. No fear. It’s supposed to clear up on soon. It’s a good thing we have a month here. If we’d only had a week, I’d be melancholy going on morose.

But the real beauty of San Miguel de Allende is that it is in Mexico and it’s full of Mexicans. What does this mean? An American woman who moved here to start a new life after the suicide of her husband explained it by saying that she has never been anywhere that’s so full of life. And growing things, chirping things, barking things, colors, smells and a different way of living.

A friend went to the local mercado to buy nine avocados for guacamole she was making for a party. She found a little Indian woman wrapped in a little shawl sitting on a little blanket on the floor with exactly nine avocados arranged in a pyramid. “Perfect,” my friend said in Spanish, “I’ll take them all.”

“Well, you can’t have them all,” said the woman.

“Why not?”

“Well, if I sold you all of my avocados, what would I do?”

My friend bought five.

Now, if that story does not make sense to you, San Miguel may not be your cup of tea, but if it does, you might want to pay a visit.

Peter Ferry is the author of the novel Old Heart, which Dave Eggers says "has the power to change lives" and Book Week says is a "superbly written, life affirming novel about love and second chances." Ferry is also the author of the novel Travel Writing.

15 Comments for San Miguel de Allende: ‘The Loser Now Will be Later to Win’

Susana Fox Bailey 02.19.10 | 1:22 PM ET

In Mexico there are many towns like this.  You should check Real de Catorce, it’s a ghost town due to ore decline, which now is becoming a second San Miguel. It’s not really a loser. I would think San Miguel is a winner, real estate is becoming more and more expensive and it virtually was not affected by the U.S, mortgage crisis. Some other cities like this are many beach towns in Jalisco and Nayarit, plus Merida, Yucatan.

Christine Myers 02.19.10 | 9:19 PM ET

Thanks for the piece. Do you think SMdA will remain “full of Mexicans” or continue toward “full of artists and American expatriates,” where the avocado seller’s role is cultural backdrop?

Elizabeth Chandler 02.20.10 | 6:09 PM ET

Nice piece, author. Sorry that Susanna Fox Bailey didn’t get your play on words. I, like you, also treasure towns that history, fortunately for us antiquarians, ‘left behind’, so that we can enjoy that moment when they didn’t take the path of modernity.  It reminds me of my grandfather, who had a wholesale food manufacturing company in the early 20th century. It was a thriving business, until frozen foods came along, but he chose not to give up the cans, thinking the frozen food movement was a passing fancy. Well, dear old grandpa lost alot of $ on that judgment. However, we are left with wonderful memorabilia of the good old days, like his line of canned fruits and vegetables with James Whitcomb Riley’s monicled face on the front. This line was called the ‘Hoosier Poet Series.’  Do we have anything like that in frozen food lines? Nah. So SMD sounds like a great place that I will someday have to visit.

Adrian Camára 02.20.10 | 8:04 PM ET

San Miguel de Allende is characterised by the local population as full of Americans, Canadians and Europeans. It is a town full of retirees and its main industry is tourism. It bothers me when North Americans assume that real Mexicans sell avocados on the street and cater to North American and European tourists. San Miguel is a fabulous city and well worth going to, but painting it as somehow fundamentally different from Cancun or another bastion of mass tourism is simply false and insulting.

This article is full of “civilized” racism and pedantic, protean superiority.

Jennifer Margulis 02.21.10 | 2:36 PM ET

Gorgeous photos, wonderful description. I would love to visit this town one day.

lawrence Flynn 02.21.10 | 4:26 PM ET

Wonderfully enchanting story, from a master encantor.

I hope the rain clouds lift and you can enjoy the breathtaking views of each other.

Love is the name,

Bruce Cohen 02.22.10 | 3:15 AM ET

In partial response to Ms. Camára’s comment: I am in SMA for a few short weeks. Back home (SF), I defend poor people for a living, so am never too far removed from racism and superiority. It’s good to be reminded that there’s a “civilized” version, and that most of us are guilty of it. I am also in a class in SMA with the author of the essay. I barely know him, but that is sufficient to know that if the world were full of folks like him it would be a pretty fine place – one where respect, warmth, and appreciation of beauty would flourish. I read his fine poetic essay in that context and understood that the anecdote re the woman selling avocados was, above all, a reflection of the author’s empathy for and connection with los ser humanos, wherever and however his path happens to cross theirs.  Which is not to dismiss Ms. Camára’s comment. She does not know the author and is expressing real concerns. Tourism and the money divide are deeply problematic (everywhere, but especially in a place as small as SMA). Yet SMA is not Cancún. Perhaps I am just defending myself, but, unlike visitors to Cancún, visitors to SMA (most of whom are Mexicanos, not north-of-the-borderanos) come not for La Fiesta but because this is a place of great beauty—art, architecture, antiquity, revolutionary history, and espańol, in a jewel of a setting. (If this is “protean superiority,” consider me guilty as charged.) In my experience, furthermore, such visitors are not, by and large, coming for the purpose of being served by others: that is an extremely uncomfortable dynamic at best. Such a visitor, it seems to me, if blessed with the essayist’s and Ms. Camára’s sensibilities, will savor SMA, exude appreciation, interact with warmth, respect, interest, and empathy, speak Spanish to the extent possible, and spend dollars in a way that will go into the pockets of the SMAistas who need it the most. Such a visitor will have moments of real communication with both avocado sellers and the “real Mexicans” Ms. Camára refers to, can describe those moments expressionistically without being false or racist, and leave a soft, if not a positive, footprint. That may do nada to resolve the profound inequities in SMA, but in my book of good and evil, it falls well on the side of good.

Robrt Anderson 02.23.10 | 2:09 PM ET

The discussion about SMA and tourism is interesting. The beautiful “loser” places in this world are always threatened by being ruined through the dicovery of their beauty. In suburban U.S. of A., when you see developments named things like “Deer Run” or “Bluberry Hill”, you know darned well that the deer and bluberries are pre-development historical references. The only way to play it is to try to be a sensitive tourist, home owner, and human being.

Peter Ferry 02.26.10 | 7:31 PM ET

Reply to Adrian Camara

After years of travel and travel writing, I’ve come to believe that the line between understanding another culture and condescending to it can be a fine one.  I am sure I have crossed it from time to time, but I don’t think I did in my San Miguel story.  I was trying to look through someone else’s eyes for a moment, not insist that she look through mine.  Watch for my next letter from San Miguel in a few weeks; it addresses the whole question of tourism and the expat community in San Miguel.  I’ll be very interested to get your reaction to it.  By the way, the friend from whom I borrowed the story about the woman selling avocados as well as its moral has lived in Mexico her whole life and is a native born citizen.  Are you?

Adrian Camára 02.26.10 | 10:52 PM ET

I was born and raised in Mexico. I left to study at Université de Paris (Sorbonne), then returned. Something that someone who is not from Latin America can never understand is our suspicion of North Americans. It is a feeling that has been distilled through centuries of US intervention and invasion into our countries. That explains our predisposition to suspect your observations of ethnocentricity.

What bothers my << sensibilities >> are superficial observations of the Mexican landscape that are restricted to an immediate perimeter around resorts ubiquitously dotting the coastlines. You know the kind, mass spring break tourism. Inevitably the North American traveller craved something more “genuine” and “original”. The result are towns like San Miguel de Allende.

You can of course appreciate my reaction to another North American making another description of Mexico with commentary constructing an image of the Mexican selling avocados on the street in another city constructed to serve North Americans.

I apologise for my initial militancy.

John Wallace 02.27.10 | 9:55 PM ET

Thanks for the apology Adrian Camara. My observation having travelled a bit to Mexico is that snobbery comes in all shape of faces and from all types of places. It is not bound by continental divides and knows no political boundaries. It comes from a compilation of all of our experiences and can manifest itself against the unlikliest of recipients. SMA is what it is because of its location and its people. The fact that “outsiders” have discovered it is a result of the ever shrinking nature of our world.

Of course, outsiders never truly understand and appreciate the local ways of behaving and acting until becoming acclimated. Then, they become suspicious of all the newcomers as well. But, rest assured, the local population in most cases are more than ready to accept the flow of cash brought from the outside,  and will do whatever necessary to get it, whether building luxurious houses, or arranging a few avocados on a napkin to get a buck from a tourist. Everyone wants to enhance their lifestyle. Appreciating the event along the way is what enhances one’s life experience. Why not look at it that way?

Adrian Camára 02.27.10 | 10:12 PM ET

I appreciate the perspective, but it does not capture the essence of what I tried to communicate. Our problem is when North Americans visit one location in Mexico (mostly mass tourist locations like Cancun or Cozumel) and make sweeping comments of Mexico, or that they have visited Mexico as if where they went was a fair representation of what most of the country looks like.

I have been around the world more times than I can count and I have lived more places than I can count; including in NYC, Cambridge (Mass), LA and Toronto (Canada). North Americans seem to have this idea that they have seen a country when they go to one location within that country, usually big beach resorts.

The perfect example is when people venture off the beach resort into the resort towns and discover fairly poor areas. Many make sweeping comments such as “Mexico is so poor”. More recently when Canadians get pissed drunk and go partying at night clubs and were killed, the Canadian media lambasted Mexico for being an unsafe location for travellers. Neither of these comments capture Mexico at these two levels of observation at even a modest level. Of course the residential areas of tourist cities will be poor, most people who live there are bar hops and maids, this is the same of all tourist cities. People drinking their brains out and going to night clubs get killed frequently all around the world.

Most travellers never actually see Mexico: they see Cancun or Playa del Carmen. I really appreciate travellers who go to Queretaro (state and city) and other interior spaces of Mexico to see what Mexico really does look like. That is valuable, but the reductionism of North American travelling culture and the North American capture of Mexico is not removed by this.

I hope you can understand the idea I am communicating here.

John Wallace 02.28.10 | 12:27 AM ET

I understand the idea you communicate. Peoples reaction you describe is because people react according to their experience, so why be even surprised or especially ticked off when the predictable happens? I think it is ok to point it out, but not worth letting it get under one’s skin. Anyone who has been to the interior of Mexico knows that Cancun, ect. is not really Mexico.  I suspect that is the same anywhere. We in the US have the same problem when the NE elites have no clue how a midwestern family lives. We from the miswest have the same reaction. I do unserstnd it.

StarBoogie 03.03.10 | 11:31 AM ET

Hey Peter!  Just reading your words transports me to the steep walk down a hill to Spanish school.  You know how I love Mexico - for all your reasons, and some of my own - and SMA is definitely one of a kind.  When you spend enough time there (a month is good), and then leave for home or another destination, SMA calls to you.  You find yourself talking about the place in a wistful manner, kind of drifting off in your mind to those mountain vistas, cobbled streets, the migrating egrets in their nesting trees, the fresh orange juice sold by a senora on her front doorstep - and always the “buenos dias” as you pass a friendly native on the street.

Thanks for taking me back there this morning!

Kelly Garcia 03.07.10 | 4:40 AM ET

I have traveled by car throughout Mexico for the past 12 years. I have never had a bad or scary experience. The people are always friendly and welcoming.
We were living outside Colima and had never visited San Miguel de Allende. We spent a week there and fell in love. We found a place to rent that same week, went home and packed our house and moved to San Miguel de Allende. We love it!! It so so beautiful, the people, the art, the restaurants, it is balanced. The people are friendly, the town has a vibrancy that is unmatched, in my opinion, from any place I have been in Mexico. It was a hard decision, to move inland. Though whenever, I come into the plaza and see the Parroquia, lit up at night, even after 5 years, it still take my breath away.

Kelly Garcia

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