San Miguel de Allende

Located in the mountainous central state of Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende and the nearby Sanctuary of Jesús Nazareno de Atotonilco embody the essence of old-world Mexico with their revered collection of colonial architecture, laid-back character and hospitality—all while welcoming the influx of retirees making the remarkably preserved area their year-round home.

San Miguel de Allende

On the surface San Miguel is immediately different from Mexico’s other similarly sized cities, not for what it offers travelers in the way of spectacular hotels, restaurants and activities, but because of what it doesn’t offer.

Roughly a four-hour ride northwest of Mexico City, San Miguel provides a welcomed relief from the capital’s congestion and smog. Missing here are the bright neon signs, traffic lights and newer styles of architecture that dominate most modern cities. Since being deemed a national landmark in 1926, restrictions on signage and architectural styles have been made permanent with the city’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 for its architectural preservation and diversity. In the 18th century, San Miguel flourished with the construction of its significant religious and civil architecture.

Today, the town exhibits the evolution of various styles, from Baroque to late-19th century Neo-Gothic. Mansions here are exceptionally large for a medium-size Latin American town and constitute an example of the transition from Baroque to Neo-Classic.

Situated approximately 9 miles (14 km) from San Miguel, the Sanctuary of Jesús Nazareno de Atotonilco is a remarkable architectural complex inspired by the doctrine of Saint Ignacio de Loyola. Its interior decoration, especially its mural painting, makes the Sanctuary a masterpiece, and one of the finest examples of Mexican Baroque to be found anywhere in the country. The Sanctuary consists of a large church and several smaller chapels, decorated with oil paintings by Rodriguez Juárez and mural paintings by Miguel Antonio Martínez de Pocasangre. Constructed by Father Felipe Neri Alfaro, the Sanctuary is famous for its murals that reflect a syncretism of Catholic religious iconography mixed with native religious beliefs. The church has served as a spiritual center for over 200 years and is still the destination of religious pilgrimages. Since 1996 the World Monuments Fund—an independent organization dedicated to saving the world’s most treasured places—has overseen several conservation projects at the Sanctuary, ensuring this important site continues to inspire visitors from around the globe.

Both San Miguel and the Sanctuary are intimately linked and have played a significant role in the process of Mexican independence, with impacts ranging throughout all ofLatin America. A walk down any of San Miguel’s cobblestone streets reveals a setting untouched by the hands of time. Crowded with old seigneurial mansions and curious churches, the city quietly reveals a romantic, idealized side of old-worldMexicothat is not only beautiful, but pulsating with a passion for art and life. Art floods every aspect of life here from the public squares and private homes, to architectural gems such as the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel church and Casa de Allende, which remain the crown jewels of San Miguel’s 18th-century collection.

Keeping History Alive

San Miguel’s dramatic presence overlooking theLajaRiverhas been luring travelers since its founding in 1542 by Franciscan monk Juan de San Miguel. During that time, San Miguel El Grande (as the city was then known) was a major stopover on the silver route. Later during the MexicanWar of Independence, San Miguel became the backdrop from which General Ignacio Allende helped to lead the war againstSpain. General Allende was eventually captured by the Spanish adversaries and beheaded. Soon after in 1826, the town changed its name to San Miguel de Allende in honor of the general’s heroic attempt. 

The city’s popularity as a travel destination began its ascent at the end of World War II when returning American GIs realized their education grants provided them much more south of the border than at home. Many of these servicemen enlisted in the Instituto Allende, a renowned art school established in 1938 that paved the way to making San Miguel de Allende one of the world’s most prestigious artist and teaching collectives. Today, a large number of retirees and students from all over the world migrate to San Miguel each year for its perfect climate and thermal springs. It is estimated that nearly ten percent of the city’s resident population are foreigners, with a majority being from the U.S.and Canada.

The influx of retirees has created a diverse mix of people with a lively culture not found elsewhere. Here you find a friendlier environment for non-Spanish speakers (you are just as likely to hear English spoken as Spanish) and a greater variety of restaurants that go beyond your typical Mexican fare (a blessing for foreign retirees). If anything, these nuances have heightened the city’s beauty and enchantment, making it a more relaxed destination accessible to all—especially for first-time visitors to Mexico.

The Meaning of Art

Art is as inseparable from everyday life in San Miguel as fiestas are to communities throughout all o fMexico. The city continues to be the home of an internationally recognized arts community where locals and visitors can immerse themselves in studying everything from classic painting techniques and film, to Spanish and jewelry-making. Every year during the last week of July, San Miguel (along with its neighboring city Guanajuato) co-hosts the Expresion en Corto International Film Festival. The festival, billed as Mexico’s largest international film competition, screens more than 400 films from 10 a.m. to 4 a.m. each day. Venues include San Miguel’s Jardín Principal (main square) and the panteónes (municipal graveyards), where horror films are screened. Best of all, admission to all screenings is free and open to the public.

Today, the city cherishes and openly shares its colorful history by preserving the places, traditions and very essence of what makes it a unique destination for travelers.While folk traditions and fiestas are as important here today as they were over a hundred years ago, San Miguel is not a city cowering in the shadow of progress. In fact, the city has forged ahead of its contemporaries by offering amenities found in larger cities. Art galleries, luxury hotels and restaurants, cafes, Internet access and movie theaters screening first-run movies in both Spanish and English are easily found here. This special mix of old-world charm and modern comforts makes San Miguel one of Mexico’s top-rated destinations year after year.

With a beauty and allure all its own, the town of San Miguel and the Sanctuary of Jesús Nazareno de Atotonilco reminds all who visit— whether for a week or indefinitely — that the best life is one which is lived everyday.

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