San Miguel de Allende
San Miguel de Allende is a city and municipality located in the far eastern part of the state of Guanajuato in central Mexico. It is part of the macroregion of Bajío. It is 274 km (170 mi) from Mexico City and 97 km (60 mi) from the state capital of Guanajuato.
This is a small colonial town in the Bajio mountains of central Mexico.
In danger of becoming a ghost town in the early 20th century, the town was declared a national monument in 1926 and building became heavily restricted in the town’s historic centro district, allowing the city to keep the colorful native facades that have become the backdrop of many famous works of art and even modern motion pictures.
A series of artist colonies were founded in San Miguel in the 1950s, including the famous Instituto Allende, and many American ex-soldiers moved their families here following World War II either to attend one of these colonies or to escape the polio scares raging through many U.S. cities. The result was a healthy American expatriate population that exists today mostly as elderly retirees and second-generation business owners. This population, combined with wealthy Mexicans (especially actors and politicians) that have rediscovered San Miguel as a Malibu-like retreat from Mexico City, has created an eclectic mix of Old World Mexican charm, American hospitality, and a party atmosphere that makes San Miguel a world-class destination for adventurous travelers.
San Miguel is, first and foremost, a city built for relaxing. It is a Spanish colonial town of perhaps 140,000 people, a heritage site protected by the Mexican government in order to maintain its character. In 2002 it was designated a “magic village” (“pueblo magico”), but in 2008 this status was removed due to its inclusion as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It’s a tourist destination, an art colony, and a retirement community for 12,000 foreigners – mostly Americans, Canadians, and Europeans. In spite of the increased number of foreigners over the past perhaps 20 years, it still is charming enough that many Mexicans visit for special holidays, and there are more than a few visitors who buy a house within a few days of their first arrival.
San Miguel de Allende was founded by Franciscan Monk Fray Juan de San Miguel Miguel, who baptized the city with the name San Miguel el Grande.
The municipality is located in the far eastern side of the state of Guanajuato. It has an average altitude of 1,870 meters above sea level.
It has a territory of 1,537.19 km2. The altitude varies from between 850 to 2,700 meters above sea level, with the town of San Miguel at 1910 masl.
The municipality extends over two of the state’s natural regions: the Sierras Volcanicas and the Cuencas Lacustres del Sur, with most of the territory over the latter. The entire municipality belongs to the national Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt. Prominent elevations include Cerro La Silleta, Cerro Prieto, Cerro La Piena, Cerro La Campana, El Cerro de El Picacho, Tambula, El Maguey, Palo Colorado, Mesa el Peñón, Loma Cuacuato, Mesa la Junta, Loma La Trinidad, Cerro El Común, La Loma, El Cuache and El Carmen. These have an average altitude of 2,200 masl.
The main river in the area is the Laja, which crosses from north to south before finally emptying in the Lerma River in the municipality of Salamanca. The river currently has serious pollution issues because it is used for discharge of wastewater without prior treatment. Most of this discharge is from the residential areas of San Miguel and Dolores Hidalgo. In addition to the river, there are four principal arroyos that pass by the municipal seal, the La Cañadita, El Atascadero, Las Cachinches and El Obraje. The last receives most of the area’s runoff during the rainy season which feeds the Las Colonias and El Obraje dams. The most important dam in the area is the Ignacio Allende dam, located in the west of the municipality. While this dam controls flooding along the Laja River, local residents say that the water collected in its reservoir goes to the area around Guadalajara, far to the west of San Miguel, due to the provisions of the federal act creating the dam and reservoir. Other dams in the area include La Cantera and Bordo Grande located in the south and north of the municipality respectively along with the aforementioned Las Colonias and El Obraje, which are mostly used for irrigation. The municipality also has fresh water, thermal and alkaline springs, many of which are used as ecotourist attractions such as the El Chorro, Montecillo, El Cortijo, Cieneguita, Atotonilco and Taboada spas. One other spa is the El Xoté, which has sulfur-laden waters. The climate in the area is mostly temperate and semi-arid, with average temperatures varying between 16 and 22 °C. Summers are moderately hot with a rainy season that generally producing sporadic thunderstorms. Winters are moderate. The temperature varies between 16 and 22 °C with cool winters. One exception to this is the extreme west of the municipality where the climate is wetter. Ecosystems include shrublands, forests of oak, and areas where nopal cactus and/or grass dominate.
San Miguel’s weather is typical of central mountainous Mexico. It varies little, and even in the hottest months (May and June) when daytime temperatures can reach 35°C, the dry air makes it tolerable and cool mountain breezes tend to make evenings delightful. Winter evenings (from December to February) can get cold, even down to freezing overnight, but it warms up quickly in the morning. The rainy season extends from June to September when days are pleasant for sightseeing until heavy downpours (usually late in the afternoon and evening) cool and freshen the air. The climate has the same lazy, quiet air and temperance as Palm Springs, encouraging long hours of swimming and pool-side tanning, reading or napping, or just lying in a hammock and forgetting the world exists.
The official name is Protective town of San Miguel de Allende and Sanctuary of Jesús Nazareno de Atotonilco.
The city has been known by various names since the Spanish founded the settlement. It was called Izcuinapan by the indigenous peoples. The Spanish originally called it San Miguel el Grande and sometimes San Miguel de los Chichimecas. San Miguel refers to the founder of the city, Father Juan de San Miguel. The name of the town was changed in 1826 to San Miguel de Allende in order to honor Ignacio Allende, who was born here. The surrounding municipality is officially called Allende, both seat and municipality are called San Miguel (de Allende). The municipality has a coat of arms that was designed by a group called Amigos de San Miguel, but it has not been officially recognized.
Before the arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century, there had been an indigenous settlement at Izcuinapan (place of dogs). A small chapel was built and a village started near the indigenous village by Juan de San Miguel. He decided to dedicate the Spanish town to the Archangel Michael. However, the arrival and colonization provoked the locals. The Chichimecas began attacking Spanish travelers in the area and in 1551, the Guamare people attacked the village proper. This and continuous water supply problems caused the original location to be abandoned and moved.
The village was officially re-established in 1555 by Juan de San Miguel’s successor, Bernardo Cossin and indigenous leader Fernando de Tapia. It was refounded both as a mission and as a military outpost. The new site was just northwest of the old one at a place with two fresh water springs (called Batan and Izcuinapan) and with terrain better suited for defense. The two springs supplied all of the town’s water until the 1970s. Today, this second site is occupied by the Santa Escuela Church, which colloquially became known as the “old parish” by the 18th century.
The most noted one is the Biblioteca Publica, which has the second largest English language book collection in Mexico, located in the former convent of Santa Ana. It acts as the community center for foreigners. There is also a chapter of the Lion’s Club (est. 1987). A post of The American Legion and The Veterans of Foreign Wars is located there, and Mexico’s only Audubon Society chapter.
Outside of the main town and in these smaller communities are the municipality’s indigenous groups, mostly Otomi and Nahuas. The Otomi are the largest group, accounting for just under 38% of the municipal population. The Nahuas follow at about 20%. Other groups include the Mazahua, Huasteca and Purépecha. However, according to the 2005 Census, only 355 people speak an indigenous language.
By the mid 16th century, silver had been discovered in Zacatecas and a major road between this area and Mexico City passed through San Miguel. Indigenous attacks on caravans continued and San Miguel became an important military and commercial site. To quell these attacks as well as rebellions against Spanish rule, the viceroy in Mexico City granted lands and cattle to a number of Spanish to have them settle the area. He also gave indigenous groups limited self rule and excused them from taxation. The location of the town would make the town a melting pot as Spanish, indigenous peoples and later Criollos would exchange cultural influences.
Eventually, major roads would connect the town with the mining communities in San Luis Potosí as well as Zacatecas and the rest of the state of Guanajuato. Serving travelers’ needs and providing supplies to mining camps made the town rich. One particular industry was textiles. Locals claim that the serape was invented here. By the mid 18th century the city reached its height, when most of its large mansions, palaces and religious buildings were constructed. Most still remain. The town was also home to the area’s wealthy hacienda owners. At that time, it was one of the most important and prosperous settlements in New Spain with a population reaching 30,000. In comparison, in the mid 18th century Boston had a population of only 16,000 and New York 25,000. The town’s apogee came during the transition period between Baroque and Neoclassical architecture and many of the mansions and churches have both influences. Mansions are larger than normal for a settlement of this size.
The prominence of the city declined at the beginning of the 19th century, mostly due to the Mexican War of Independence. However, it played an important early role in this conflict. It is the birthplace of two significant protagonists, Ignacio Allende and Juan Aldama. Both were involved in a conspiracy against the colonial government in Mexico City, along with Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez. When this conspiracy was discovered, the warning to Hidalgo and Allende passed through this town and onto Dolores (Hidalgo) just to the north. This prompted Hidalgo’s “Grito de Dolores” assembling the insurgent army on 15 and 16 September 1810. The new insurgent army first came to San Miguel, stopping at a religious sanctuary in Atotonilco just outside. Hidalgo took a standard bearing an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe from here to use as a symbol. This standard is now in the Museo del Ejercito in Spain. Then the army entered San Miguel proper, to name officers and to free prisoners in the local jail. San Miguel is considered to be the first municipality to be freed from Spanish rule.
While there was no other military action in the area, economically the town waned as agriculture suffered and the population declined. This continued for most of the rest of the 19th century as the country was torn between Liberal and Conservative factions vying for power . After the war, the town was declared a city by the state congress in 1826 and its name was modified to San Miguel de Allende in honor of Ignacio Allende.
There was some economic recovery near the end of the 19th century during the rule of Porfirio Díaz. During this time, dams, aqueducts and railroads were built. Agriculture made a comeback with the introduction of fruit orchards. However, decline returned with the end of mining in almost all of the state of Guanajuato. Between this and the beginning of the Mexican Revolution, San Miguel almost became a ghost town. What remained would stay frozen in time, as the new Mexican government, under the INAH, declared San Miguel a “Historic and Protected Town” in 1926, establishing guidelines and restrictions aimed at keeping its colonial appearance.
20th century to the present
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the town began to attract artists and writers. One prominent artist and writer was Stirling Dickinson, an American, who came in 1938. Dickinson met Peruvian intellectual, author and painter, Felipe Cossio del Pomar who had the idea of establishing an art colony in the heart of Mexico. The first art school was established in 1938 in an old convent which Cossio del Pomar secured from then Mexican president Lazaro Cardenas, it was called Bellas Artes, today in existence and locally known as Bellas Artes or Centro Cultural El Nigromante. In the 1940s, Dickinson would also assist Cossio del Pomar and Enrique Fernández Martinez the former governor of the state of Guanajuato to establish what became the Instituto Allende. Despite their rural location, both schools would find success after the Second World War. U.S. veterans studying under the G.I. Bill were permitted to study abroad, and these schools took advantage, attracting former soldiers as students. Enrollment at the schools rose and this began the town’s cultural reputation. This attracted more artists and writers, including José Chávez Morado and David Alfaro Siqueiros, who taught painting at the Escuela de Bellas Artes. This, in turn, spurred the opening of hotels, shops and restaurants to cater to the new visitors and residents. Many of the American veterans who came to study in San Miguel would later come back to retire, and have been credited with saving the town.
The town’s cultural, foreign and cosmopolitan nature has continued since that time. In the 1960s, Cantinflas promoted the area among his friends in the film industry. The city took on a Bohemian quality in the 1960s and 1970s as counterculture hippies moved in. The growing attraction of the town and its colonial buildings created a vibrant real estate market, which until recently has not been affected by Mexico’s economic ups and downs. Many of the old “ruins” of colonial houses have sold for more than a house in Mexico City. This is because many of San Miguel’s buyers are foreign. Between 2006 and 2009, 34 projects constructed 405 housing units. The last peak of real estate sales came in 2007, with 180 units sold with a median price of 250,000 USD totaling 45 million.
The city and nearby sanctuary were declared a World Heritage Site when UNESCO met in Quebec, Canada in July 2008. It was chosen both for its well-preserved Baroque colonial architecture and layout as well as its role in the Mexican War of Independence. The area which has been inscribed includes 64 blocks of the historic center and the sanctuary of Atotonilco with the title of “Villa Protectora de San Miguel el Grande y el Santuario de Jesus Nazareno de Atotonilco”.
Due to the world economic crisis the housing market dropped in 2010, with prices falling between 20 and 40 percent compared to two years earlier. The Asociacion de Profesionales Inmobilarios, a real estate group, blames news articles of Mexico’s problems with drug related violence as the principal cause of keeping foreign buyers away. However, many Mexican buyers, mostly from large urban areas like Mexico City, Guadalajara, Queretaro, etc., have picked up the slack and are currently creating a new construction boom in the city.
Historically, the town is important as being the birthplace of Ignacio Allende. After the War of Independence from Spain in the year 1826, San Miguel was elevated to a city status and given the name San Miguel de Allende in honor of Ignacio Allende y Unzaga, the first Mexican soldier and a native of the city.
However, the town waned during and after the war, and at the beginning of the 20th century was in danger of becoming a ghost town. Its Baroque/Neoclassical colonial structures were “discovered” by foreign artists who moved in and began art and cultural institutes such as the Instituto Allende and the Escuela de Bellas Artes. This gave the town a reputation, attracting artists such as David Alfaro Siqueiros, who taught painting.
The main attraction of the town is its well-preserved historic center, filled with buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries. This and the nearby Sanctuary of Atotonilco have been declared World Heritage Sites in 2008.
At the entrance of the city are statues of Ignacio Allende, Juan Aldama, Miguel Hidalgo and Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez, with one of the Archangel Michael in the center. While the outlying areas of the town and municipality have changed over time, the historic center remains much as it was 250 years ago. The layout of the center of the city is mostly a straight grid, which was favored by the Spanish during colonial times. However, due to the terrain, many roads are not straight. There are no parking meters, no traffic signals and no fast food restaurants. These roads are lined with colonial era homes and churches. With a few exceptions, the architecture is domestic rather than monumental, with well-tended courtyards and rich architectural details. The houses have solid walls against the sidewalks, painted in various colors, many with bougainvillea vines falling down the outside and the occasional iron-grated window. Many of the larger structures have large front doors which used to be used by horses and carriages.
In the historic center, there are an estimated two thousand doors, behind which there are at least two thousand courtyards of various sizes. Many of these have been restored to their former colonial state, with façades of ochre, orange and yellow, windows and doors framed by handcrafted ironwork and made of hewn wood. The interior roofs are flat, of heavy mortar supported by large beams. Very few structures have atriums or front yards; instead, open private space is behind the main façade in courtyards. These courtyards are where the private gardens were, protected from dust, excess water and crime.
The town is noted for its streetscapes with narrow cobblestone lanes, that rise and fall over the hilly terrain, and occasionally defy colonial attempts to make a straight grid. It is still a small city, and at night, many wander the narrow streets with relative safety. The people on the streets are a mix of Mexicans, foreigners and indigenous. Its cultural and artistic reputation has brought many people from Mexico and abroad here to live. Several publications have named it one of the top 10 places to retire. The town has attracted famous people such as Jose Guadalupe Mojica, Pedro Vargas and Cantinflas to have homes here. Additionally, indigenous peoples, mostly Otomis and Nahuas (Chichimecas) can be seen on the streets, as they come to sell and buy from rural communities as well as to attend church.
Since the 1920s, steps have been taken to preserve the historic center’s charm. The first set of protections was put into place by the INAH when it was declared a national monument. This required that all restorations and new construction conform to the area’s colonial architecture. To preserve the city’s trademark colonial look, a civil society regulates the renovation and maintenance of the city, especially its historic center. This includes aspects such as traffic, garden spaces and even the kinds of social events that may be held. The town has also put much effort into preserving the cobblestone streets. The most recent designation is that of a World Heritage site, along with the religious sanctuary in nearby Atotonilco, which also puts restrictions and protections into place.
About half of the colonial buildings have been partially or fully converted into businesses such as stores, restaurants, galleries, workshops and hotels. Since there is no zoning, residential and commercial establishments are well-mixed. Although it is small and rural, it has a wide variety of upscale and ethnic restaurants, specialty shops and art galleries. All around the historic center there are over 80 bars and cantinas as well as various nightclubs. To compete, many offer two-for-one drink specials. Others rely on gimmicks such as the frontier themed bar on Mesones Street called “El Gato” with swinging cantina doors like those seen on “Old West” movies.
In September 2010, the first contemporary architectural structure arrived in the historic colonial center with the opening of Hotel Matilda. The hotel’s four buildings have a modern design, with public areas decorated with the art works of contemporary Latin artists, many of them very large pieces. Only the exterior street wall, along Calle Aldama, reflects the colonial style.
The oldest part of the town is the El Chorro neighborhood. This is where the village of San Miguel was moved to in 1555. The Nahuatl name for the area was Izcuinapan or “place of dogs,” and according to legend, dogs led Juan de San Miguel to this area to find this spring. This area is the home of the Parish of San Miguel, the Jardin Principal or Main Garden and an earlier church called the San Rafael or Santa Escuela Church.
La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, the current parish church of San Miguel, is unique in Mexico and the emblem of the town. It has a Neo-gothic façade with two tall towers that can be seen from most parts of town. It is one of the most photographed churches in Mexico. The church was built in the 17th century with a traditional Mexican façade. The current Gothic façade was constructed in 1880 by Zeferino Gutierrez, who was an indigenous bricklayer and self-taught architect. It is said Gutierrez’s inspiration came from postcards and lithographs of Gothic churches in Europe; however, the interpretation is his own and if more a work of imagination than a faithful reconstruction. In front of this façade is a small atrium, which is guarded by a wrought iron fence. There is a monument in the atrium dedicated to Bishop José María de Jesús Diez de Sollano y Davalos. The San Rafael or Santa Escuela Church is located to the side of the parish. It was founded by Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro in 1742. The main façade has two levels with arches, pilasters, floral motifs and a frieze on the first level. The second level has a choir window framed by pink sandstone. The bell tower is Moorish. According to legend, this older chapel was the site of the first Christian ceremony in San Miguel.
At the entrance of the main church, there is an inscription that states that Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and his brother Jose Joaquin served as priests here. There is another one acknowledging Gutierrez’s work on the façade. The interior of the church still has the original 17th-century layout and interior design, but the church was looted several times during Mexico’s history so much of its decoration is lost. However, one significant image here is the “Señor de la Conquista”, which was made of cornstalk paste by indigenous people in Michoacán. The sacristy contains a painting depicting the founding of the town in 1542 and its subsequent move to Izcuinapan in the El Chorro neighborhood.(finsenana) There is a small crypt under the altar with access through a small door to the right. This crypt contains the remains of former bishops of the church and other dignitaries, including a former president of Mexico. It is opened to the public one day each year, on November 2, Day of the Dead.
In front of the church complex is the Plaza Allende, popularly known as Jardin Principal or Main Garden, but most often referred to simply as el jardin. It was designed in French style, with wrought iron benches and filled with laurel trees. It is a popular place to sit and relax and bands often play in the kiosk on weekends. In addition to the parish, other important structures, such as the Ignacio Allende House, the Canal House and the municipal palace overlook the garden.
The Centro Cultural Ignacio Ramirez, also called the Escuela de Bellas Artes or El Nigromante, is housed in the former Hermanas de la Concepción (Sisters of the Conception) convent. The Concepcion convent and adjoining church were founded by a member of the De la Canal family, María Josefina Lina de la Canal y Hervás in 1775. In the latter 19th century, the convent was closed by the Reform Laws and it remained empty from then until the mid 20th century. The Escuela de Bellas Artes, was established in 1938 by Peruvian Felipe Cossío del Pomar and American Stirling Dickinson. This and other art institutions began to attract American exchange students who came to study and live. The cultural center today is part of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA) and is often referred to by locals as “Bellas Artes.” It is a two story cloister surrounded an extremely large courtyard with large streets with a large fountain in the middle. It houses art exhibits, classrooms for drawing, painting, sculpture, lithography, textiles, ceramics dramatic arts, ballet, regional dance, piano and guitar.
One hall of the old convent is dedicated to a mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros along with students from the art school, but it was never finished. The complex has a museum, an auditorium, two art galleries and the Las Musas restaurant, which serves both inside and outside in the courtyard area. Next to the cultural center is the Inmaculada Concepcion Church, locally known as Las Monjas (The Nuns). It was originally constructed as part of the convent. The church was constructed between 1755 and 1842 with an elegant cupola added by Zeferino Gutierrez in 1891, inspired by the Les Invalides in Paris. The cupola is octagonal decorated with Corinthian columns in the lower area and the upper area has a window with a balustrade and statues of saints. Topping the cupola is a lantern window with a statue depicting the Immaculate Conception. Inside, there are paintings by Juan Rodriguez Juarez.
The Casa de Allende (Allende House) Museum was the home of Ignacio Allende, who was a principal protagonist in the early part of the Mexican War of Independence. The structure was built in 1759 with Baroque and Neoclassical elements, located next to the San Miguel parish church. The museum it houses is officially called the Museo Histórico de San Miguel de Allende, and it is one of many “regional museums” of Mexico. This kind of museum focuses on the history of the local area from the prehistoric period to the present, especially the area’s role in Mexico’s national history. The lower floor contains exhibits about the founding of the town, its role in protecting the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro Road and more. The upper floor contains exhibits related to Ignacio Allende and some of the rooms are preserved as they looked when he lived there. There are 24 rooms that chronicle the history of the area from the foundation of the town to the Ruta de la Plata (Silver Route), the genealogy of Ignacio Allende and the Mexican War of Independence. It remodeled as part of the preparations for Mexico’s Bicentennial. The restored museum was re-inaugurated by President Felipe Calderon in 2009.
The Casa del Mayorazgo de la Canal dates from the 18th century, constructed by Mariano Loreto de la Canal y Landeta. During the late colonial period, this house was the most important secular building, being home to the De la Canal family, one of the richest in New Spain. The original construction was inspired by French and Italian palaces of between the 16th and 18th centuries. The house is considered to be a transitional work between Baroque and Neoclassical, as its façade was redesigned by Manuel Tolsá in the early 19th century. The façade is Neoclassical with the coat of arms of the family. The main portal has two levels with an arch with a relief of an eagle on the keystone. The main door is profusely decorated with high reliefs. Today, it houses the Casa de Cultura de Banamex (Banamex Cultural Center) which houses a collection of historic paintings and offers diverse expositions during the year.
On the north side of the Jardin Principal is the municipal palace. It was first constructed in 1736 and called the Casa Consistorial. However, this building was heavily damaged several times since then and little of the original structure remains. The current building has two floors. It is home to what is considered to be the first “independent” or modern municipal government formed after the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence. This reestablishment of the city government under Liberal principles was done by Miguel Hidalgo, Ignacio Allende and Ignacio Aldama on 17 September 1810.
The Oratorio de San Felipe Neri Church was built by Juan Antonio Perez Espinosa in 1712. This church was partially built by incorporating a former chapel used by the mulatto population of the town. That church became the chapel on the east side. The façade is of pink sandstone in Baroque style with profuse vegetative ornamentation. The decorative work of the portal also contains indigenous influences. The interior of the church has a number of paintings by Miguel Cabrera, including one of the Virgin of Guadalupe which is signed by him. The sacristy contains this last painting along with others depicting the life of Philip Neri. This room is cordoned off by a grate covered with leather from Córdoba, Spain. At the back there is a Baroque chamber/chapel dedicated to the Virgin of Loreto. This chapel was sponsored by Manuel Tomás de la Canal in 1735. It is richly decorated with three altars covered in gold leaf and is a replica of the Holy House found in Loreto, Italy.
The Nuestra Señora de la Salud Church was built by Luis Felipe Neri in the 18th century. The main portal is in Churrigueresque style with two levels and a crest in the shape of a large seashell. The first level has an arch flanked by pilasters and niches with sculptures of the Sacred Heart and John the Evangelist. The interior has a layout of a Latin cross covered with vaults with side walls covered in oil paintings done by Agapito Ping between 1721 and 1785. One altar contains an image of Christ, the Good Shepherd, defending his sheep from various dangers including a group of unicorns. The church served as the chapel of the Colegio de San Francisco de Sales next door. The Colegio de San Francisco de Sales was as important as the college of San Ildefonso in Mexico City in the 18th century. Both Ignacio Aldama and Ignacio Allende attended school here.
Very close to the Nuestra Señora de la Salud and Oratorios de San Felipe Neri churches is the Plaza Civica or Civic Plaza. This plaza was originally constructed in 1555 and was supposed to be the original center of the town. It is next to the Plaza de la Soledad and served as the main marketplace. Today, it has a equestrian statue of Ignacio Allende which dominates it.
The San Francisco Church was begun in 1778 and was finished more than twenty years later, when architectural styles were changing. The façade is pure Churrigueresque with stone figures and fine columns. The later bell tower was constructed in 1799 in Neoclassical style by architect Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras.
The Biblioteca Pública or Public Library serves as the community center for San Miguel’s large foreigner population. This library was established by Helen Wale, a Canadian, who wanted to reach out to local children. It is the largest privately funded, publicly accessible library in Mexico with the second largest English language book collection. The library has a café, sponsors tours and prints a bilingual newspaper. While self supporting, it also sponsors educational programs for local youth including scholarships, donations of school supplies and free English and computer classes for children. The library offers free English classes for children and the “Club de Amigos” so that Mexicans and foreigners can know one another.
To the far south of the historic center is Parque Juárez or Juarez Park. This park was established at the beginning of the 20th century on the banks of a river in French style with fountains, decorative pools, wrought iron benches, old bridges and footpaths. There is an area for children with playground and basketball. The garden area is filled with plants and trees of the region, chirimoyos, various berries and walnuts. The water areas host a large number of herons. After dark on many days, it is possible to catch a impromptu concert by local amateur musicians. Nearby there is a small commercial center on Zacateros Street where typical of the area such as objects made of brass and glass can be found. Near here there is a fountain dedicated to Ignacio Allende.
Another important market is the Mercado de Artesanias, which sells a wide variety of items such as those made from wool, brass, paper mache and blown glass. There are also piñatas, tin lanterns, silver jewelry and more. One figure that features prominently on merchandise is that of a frog, as the state’s name of Guanajuato means “place of frogs”. The market is located in a narrow alley filling three blocks behind the city’s main fruit and vegetable market. The merchandise here is more authentic and cheaper than that found around the main square.
The Institute Allende is located in an enormous complex, which the De la Canal family built as a retreat and hacienda. The old house is filled with various courtyards, a private chapel with colonial era frescos, modern art gallery and restaurant. In 1951, it was converted into an art institute which offers courses in silverwork, ceramic and Spanish, attracting hundreds of students each year.
Other important churches in the town include the Santo Domingo church, the Santa Cruz del Chorro Chapel, Tercera Orden Church and the San Juan de Dios Church. The Santo Domingo church was part of a monastery complex. The church has a sober façade and dates from 1737. The Santa Cruz del Chorro Chapel is one of the oldest religious buildings. The Tercera Orden Church dates from the beginning of the 17th century. The San Juan de Dios Church and San Rafael Hospital are attributed to Juan Manuel de Villegas in 1770. The complex has a main portal in sandstone with two portals. The first has an access arch and a door made of mesquite wood, with reliefs of geometric shapes, fish and more, along with a hand with pomegranate in sandstone. These symbolize the Archangel Raphael and John of God.
The Casa de Inquisidor (Inquisitor’s House) is located between Hernandez Macias and Hospicio streets. It was built in 1780 with an elaborate French façade and was the seat of the inquisition in the late 18th century.
The Angela Peralta Theater was originally designed to host opera. It was inaugurated in 1873 with a performance by the most famous soprano of Mexico at that time, Angela Peralta. Today, it still hosts a variety of musical events such as the Jazz Festival and the Chamber Music Festival.
Other cultural venues include the Otra Cara de Mexico, the bullring, the old train station, the casa de Marqués de Jaral de Berrio, the Casa de los Condes de Loja and the Museo de la Esquina and Museo Interactiveo Fragua de la Independencia. La Otra Cara de Mexico (The Other Face of Mexico) is a small private museum sponsored by Bill Levasseuro, which has a large number of masks from Mexico’s traditional cultures. On Calle de Recreo is the bullring that was constructed at the end of the 19th century. The old train station was part of the Mexico City – Laredo (Tamaulipas) line of the Ferrocarril Nacional Mexicano. This line was constructed in the 1880s with service beginning in 1888. The Casa del Marqués de Jaral de Berrio was constructed at the end of the 17th century as well as the Casa de los Condes de Loja. The Museo de la Esquina (Corner Museum) is dedicated to traditional Mexican toys. Its collection comes from all parts of the Mexican Republic, which was gathered over 50 years’ time. The Museo Interactivo Fragua de la Independencia (Fire of Independence Interactive Museum) is dedicated to the Mexican War of Independence and San Miguel’s role in it.
“Stirling Dickinson is without doubt the person most responsible for San Miguel de Allende becoming an international art center,” says John Virtue, author of Model American Abroad, a biography of Dickinson. Although only an amateur painter himself, Dickinson became co-founder and director of the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes, an art institute that he opened in a former convent only a few months after his arrival.
Due to its growth as a tourist destination, some of the most obvious culture seen on the streets of the town relates to visitors, both foreign and Mexican. To cater to these visitors, the town contains organic cafes, boutiques, art galleries, upscale restaurants and hotels, and a wide variety of bars and nightclubs. Bars and nightclubs range from DJs or loud bands catering to young people, to jazz clubs, sports bars and even those that specialize in traditional Mexican music such as mariachi. Some were founded by foreigners and reflect that ownership, for example the Berlin Bar & Bistro. Shops around the Jardin Principal sell art, handcrafts, furniture and decorative items. The Fabrica La Aurora is an old textile mill that has been converted into galleries and shops selling art, furnishings and antiques; it has a lot of open space along with a café and restaurant. San Miguel has several schools for learning Spanish, most catering to foreign visitors. These include the Instituto Allende (with credits transferable to U.S. or Canadian colleges), Language Point and Warren Hardy Spanish. Some universities such as the University of Texas-Pan American offer study abroad programs in the city, not only in Spanish but also in arts and literature, and creative writing.
Many of the festivals here are purely Mexican, combining social activity with religious expression. Throughout the year there are pilgrimages, all-night vigils, ringing church bells, processions and fireworks. The largest celebration of the year is that of the town’s patron saint, the Archangel Michael. The angel’s feast day is 29 September, but festivities take place for an entire week. Activities include private parties, sporting events, cultural events, indigenous dance and more. The week is popularly called the Fiestas de San Miguel de Allende. An event, now discontinued for safety concerns, was the “Sanmiguelada”, a running of the bulls event similar to that in Pamplona. Youths fill the streets showing off their “matador” talents in front of the bulls. The finale is a parade through the street in honor of Michael and a fireworks “castle” competition to see who can build the most elaborate frame from which fireworks are lit.
Holy Week begins with a exhibition of altars dedicated to the Virgin of Sorrows and end with the Procession of Silence. Prior to the Procession of Silence, there is a reenactment of the judgment of Jesus by Pontius Pilate, on one side of the San Miguel Parish. Then the procession begins, which represents the fourteen scenes of the Passion before his crucifixion. Many of the townspeople participate in the event, with children dressed as angels and adults in period clothing carrying statues of Jesus. The procession winds its way along the main streets of the historic center completely in silence. Another large religious celebration is the feast of Nuestro Señor de la Columna
There are also secular, cultural festivals during the year. The annual Festival de Música de Cámara or Chamber Music Festival occurs each year in August in the city’s historic center. One of the purposes of the event is to bring this type of music to streets and other public venues as well as traditional concert halls such as the event’s home of the Angela Peralta Theater. The 2009 edition had over 100 singers invited to various events, three major conferences, and instrument exhibition and ten classes taught by prominent persons in the field. Some of the groups invited that year included Yale Glee Club, the Cuerdas Amernet Cuartet, the Alientos de Bellas Artes Trio, soprano Guadalupe Jimenez and pianist Natasha Tarasova . Other events include the Jornada de Cultura Cubana in March, the Festival de Tìteres in April, the Festival de Convivencia y Hermandad Universal in May, the Desfile de Locos in June, the Festival Expresiones Cortos in July, the Feria Nacional de Lana y Latón and the festival de Jazz y Blues in November and the Festival de San Miguel de Allende in December. The most important political celebration is the reenactment of the “Grito de Dolores”, as the original occurred in the nearby town of Dolores Hidalgo, marking the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence. As the birthplace of Ignacio Allende, the town was a focal point of 2010’s Bicentennial celebrations, with reenactments of events such as the arrival of the message from Queretaro from Josefa Ortiz. Bicentennial celebrations also included events such as the Ballet Mazatl. Festivities were concentrated in and around the Jardin Principal, the Ignacio Allende House and the Centro Cultural.
SMART is a multi-media cultural festival, held annually in May, that combines exhibits by Mexican artists with a variety of culinary and social events at local hotels, including the festival founder Hotel Matilda, Dos Casas Hotel and L’Otel.
Arts, literature & films
San Miguel de Allende has long had a reputation as a haven for visual artists. Since the 1950s, when Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros worked there, it has attracted professional and amateur painters, sculptors and printmakers to the classes and workshops frequently held. In addition to two major art institutions (Instituto Allende and Bellas Artes), artists and art venues can be seen in various parts of the town.
One notable art gallery is the Galería Manuel Chacon, which carries contemporary art.
On the streets, it is not unusual to see someone sketching people on the street or selling their own work.
Some notable ex-pat painters associated with San Miguel are Canadians Leonard Brooks, Toller Cranston, Marion Perlet, Gary Slipper, and Andrew Osta. More recently, the town has been attracting writers, film makers, and musicians as well.
The town annually hosts an important free of charge film festival, the GIFF.
One annual event that caters to the writing community is The Writers’ Conference which brings together authors, editors and literary agents.
The 2009 event attracted names such as Erica Jong, Todd Gitlen and Josephine Humphreys.
Writers have lived here since the mid 20th century. Beat poet Neal Cassady died on the railroad tracks just outside town. Other writers who have lived or spent time here include W.D. Snodgrass, Beverly Donofrio, Sandra Gulland, Tony Cohan, Joe Persico, Gary Jennings, Vance Packard, Lynette Seator, Richard Gabrio and Dianna Hutts. Some have written books about the town, such as Elisa Bernick who wrote The Family Sabbatical Handbook: The Budget Guide To Living Abroad With Your Family and Rue who wrote “My Favorite Second Chance” (Book 2 of The Lake Effect Series).
Another writing event is Poetry Week, which began in 1997. Barbara Faith, a well-known author of romance books lived in San Miguel with her husband Alfonso Covarrubias.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico and And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself were filmed almost entirely in San Miguel.
As the municipal seat, the town of San Miguel de Allende is the local government for about 950 other communities, many of which have fewer than 50 people. As of 2005, the municipality had a total population of 139,297 with 62,034 living or about 44.5% living in the town proper. The largest communities outside of the municipal seat include Los Rodriguez (2,795 people), Corral de Piedras de Arriba (1,841 people) and Los Galvanes (1,402 people). Officially, the municipality is called Allende to distinguish it from the town of San Miguel de Allende, but as they are governmentally the same unit, both are generally called by the town’s name.
Landmarks in the municipality:
With only 597 people as of 2005, Atotonilco (formally Sanctuary of Atotonilco) is not the largest community in the municipality, but it is the best known due to its religious sanctuary, which has World Heritage Site status along with the historic center of San Miguel. The sanctuary is located fourteen km outside of the main town and dates from the 18th century. The church building itself has plain, very high walls on the outside, and consists of one large church, with several smaller chapels. It is officially called the “Santuario de Dios y de la Patria” (Sanctuary of God and Country), but it is better known as the Sanctuary of Jesús Nazareno de Atotonilco. It is the church from which Miguel Hidalgo took the Virgin of Guadalupe standard for his army.
The Atotonilco sanctuary has plain high fortress-like walls. However, the inside is completely covered in murals with a large number of personages and scenes from the Bible without much overall structure in how these images were placed. All of the wall and ceiling space is completely covered with little empty space. This mural work was done by Miguel Antonio Martínez de Pocasangre over thirty years. The style of the painting imitates Flemish painting which was known through Belgian prints that the Spanish brought over from Europe. The World Heritage Organization calls it an “exceptional example of the exchange between European and Latin American cultures” and “one of the finest examples of Baroque art and architecture in the New Spain.” The structure and the mural work reflect the doctrine of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and the church has been called the “Sistine Chapel of America.” Atotonilco has been a pilgrimage site since the colonial period. The complex still functions as a religious retreat for people who come from all over Mexico for prayer, penance and mortification, but all are done in private.
El Charco del Ingenio
El Charco del Ingenio is located outside of the town is an ecological reserve and botanical garden which is privately funded. It is dedicated to the restoration and preservation of Mexican flora and propagates species in danger of extinction. The reserve is centered on a canyon, at the bottom of which is a fresh spring which forms a natural pool. The canyon was the center of a number of myths and legends during the pre-Hispanic period. There are the remains of a colonial era aqueduct and other waterworks on the property. An old dam still holds back stream waters in a part of the park. Areas of the reserve are crisscrossed with walking paths. There are opportunities for mountain biking, rock climbing, bird watching, camping and horseback riding. There is a gift shop, a juice bar and a cafeteria.
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