¿Dónde San Miguel?

We’ve been in San Miguel de Allende since September 5 to close on our new house that we purchased last June. Except for one week back to the United States to visit Paul’s mother who fractured her hip and was in rehab and fairly confused by all the trauma. This is the start of my new life in Mexico, and so far it’s going well despite my very long “to do” list. I am extremely satisfied with our decision and eager for the excitement to come. I love it here!

San Miguel has changed since I started coming in 2004 in many ways. There are stylish boutique hotels with chic rooftop terraces, restaurants with fancier cuisine, hip bars serving expensive mescals and organic ginebra cocktails, bakeries with lovely fig-and-lavender pastries, savory breads and even decent bagels.

New eateries and shops are popping up everywhere, not just in centro but peppered throughout the neighborhood colonias. There’s a notable expansion of shops and dining along the Ancha de San Antonio near us. A few short years ago the Saturday open-air organic market (known as tianguis here in Mexico) became a permanent food emporium with fresh produce (blooming artichoke flowers!), natural health products, prepared foods and a café and juice bar.

And perhaps the most shocking is the new City Market grocery store just near the Salida a Celaya intersection, which carries high-end Mexican and imported products to service a growing Mexican middle class and the still strong expat community. It features an entire aisle (both sides!) dedicated to Mexican craft beers and fine mescals (currently the trendiest liqueur here). And the fish section is a marvelous display of fresh catch. I asked for a half kilo of thick, silvery prawns from the Pacific Coast and the attendant shelled and deveined them at no extra cost – saving me time and effort! Of course, I gave a nice tip, which is always appreciated, and I’m learning that a well-placed propina can pay dividends on subsequent visits.

And closer to my nutritional preferences, there are a number of vegetarian and vegan options in town. Our faves so far: Don Taco Tequila on Hernández Macías, which is so boldly vegan that it doesn’t even mention it anywhere on the menu yet manages to pack the tables most nights, and Soltribe Cuisine in up-and-coming Colonia Guadalupe neighborhood, a two-table eatery run enthusiastically by a young Hare Krishna expat.

There are other vegetarian/vegan-only restaurants we have yet to experience, and most restaurants offer up plenty of inventive and tasty non-meat options. So never lack choices. And while all the grocery stores offer meat alternatives, the todo vegano Mr. Tofu SMA shop just opened a mere blocks from our house and it offers not just local vegan cheese, fish and chorizo but also imported Beyond Meat, Quorn and Impossible Foods plant-based products.

I attribute much of San Miguel’s dietary diversity to globalization: as Mexico continues its steady economic development due to NAFTA, the world has become more integrated. I see many widely-available products that just a decade ago were unheard of in San Miguel. And shopping for familiar merchandise is so much easier with the proliferation of international retail stores: Walmart, Home Depot, Costco, Sam’s, Crate & Barrel, IKEA, H&M and even Texas’ own H.E.B. specialty supermarket. I’m not saying this is necessarily a good thing, since many of the small retailers are no doubt being squeezed out of this new dynamic (as has happened in the US and Europe). But it does reflect the increasingly integrated world we inhabit.

The greater San Miguel region is changing too. Numerous wineries in all directions outside of town (although the finished products, in my opinion, have a ways to go to compete with the more established Mexican wine regions: Valle de Guadalupe in northern Baja California (our beloved weekend getaway just a couple hours from San Diego) and Valle de Parras in Coahuila. Our Mexican favorite is Casa Madero’s 3V mix of tempranillo, sauvignon and merlot varietals, but at nearly $20 a bottle the wines in Mexico generally aren’t a bargain. We find decent wines here much more expensive than in the US – thankfully cheap tequila and mescal abound!

Housing developments are exploding around San Miguel. There are golf courses aplenty: Malanquín on the way to Celaya, and Ventanas towards Dolores Hidalgo, Zirándaro on the royal road to Querétaro. Years ago I’d ride past these developments and gaze at the showy façades with waterfalls and intricate stone walls, only to spy tumbleweeds rolling on the empty campo beyond.  No longer – these developments have finally taken off. Up the hill in the neighborhoods of La Luciérnaga, Los Balcones and Los Arcos, densely packed condos rise each year, catering to the burgeoning Mexican middle class seeking weekend homes with plunge pools and grills within stone’s throw of downtown San Miguel.

National tourism swelled in recent years in San Miguel. It’s a top weekend landing place of the Mexico City chilangos and a leading wedding destination. And the expat scene is markedly younger and hipper, with fashionable millennials and flash-packing digital nomads scattered about town.

While en route from Querétaro airport last month, I chatted with six eager thirty somethings from Denver. They picked my brain seeking an insider’s view to all the top restaurants and “must do” experiences. They had clearly done their homework; they rattled off the best microbreweries, wineries, breakfast joints and cocktail bars and there were few recommendations I could offer. It was a pleasant encounter. I personally like having a more age diverse population – young people bring energy and edge while softening San Miguel’s snowbird image.

The millennial demographic is a niche that local tourism officials are actively pursuing in the wake of the pandemic, which divides the expat community. Many old timers yearn for the days of cheap restaurants, the outsider art atmosphere and quieter weekends. Others welcome the new galleries, fashionable bars and throngs of partygoers. The influx of families and enthusiastic entrepreneurs definitely has brought a new vibe and vigor to town. Yes, prices have increased — but so has the quality and diversity of nearly everything. Yes, Centro is crowded on weekends — but the spotlight on San Miguel attracts an exciting mix of new faces.

When my parents lived here a few years ago, some lamented that “San Miguel used to be an art colony, now it’s a retirement home” – well now the times they are a-changin’.

Footnote: It’s impossible to definitively describe the city’s transformation in a single post – like any rich musical composition, the theme and variations of San Miguel is elaborately layered and enigmatic. There is much to discover and uncover, so more to come!

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