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Under the spell of San Miguel de Allende

A typical street in San Miguel de Allende; colour choices have to be approved.
A typical street in San Miguel de Allende; colour choices have to be approved. / A. Forbes
  • This romantic city boasts colonial architecture, contemporary art and fabulous food

At this time of year, the light in the central highlands of Mexico is clear and intense. It's reminiscent of the seductive spectrum of Tarifa or Tangier, yet instead of bouncing off Atlantic blues, here it illuminates a warm palate of earthy tones and striking colours that could only be Mexican.

The elegant façades of San Miguel's Spanish colonial era architecture have the weatherworn patina of age: terracotta, saffron, rusty orange and ochre. There are shades of violet and rose too; and accents of bright crimson from swathes of bougainvillea and the bubble gum pink of flowerbox geraniums.

Romantic wanderers

The city has captured the imagination of visitors for more than a century. Writers, artists and romantic wanderers have come seeking inspiration or escapism among the narrow streets of colourful buildings. Over the decades many have stayed, also seduced by the warm, dry climate, superb food and hospitable locals.

The dreamy spires and domes of San Miguel are dominated by the pastel pink neo-gothic Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel church. It has a fairy-tale look, with elaborate pinnacles added to the tower in the 19th century. The adjacent garden square is filled with the aromas of street food vendors by day; and the tunes of the local mariachi bands by night.

While strolling through town, expect to be captivated by richly ornate palaces; or enticed to explore garden patios and tranquil courtyards glimpsed through archways.

As a Unesco World Heritage site, the city authorities take preservation and conservation very seriously. I passed a historic house under renovation; the bare exterior walls featured four half-metre squares painted in different shades of brown. My curiosity led me to discover that these are the colour choices approved for the owner. A carefully curated palate means that San Miguel's joyous juxtaposition of colour and texture looks set to be maintained for the future.

Cosmopolitan city

The magic isn't broken by ugly corporate signage or shop promotions either. Look out for multicoloured ribbons hanging from the wrought iron window bars; they are your sign that there's a coffee shop, gallery or boutique open for business. There is an impressive array of sophisticated stores, galleries, bars and restaurants that cater for locals, visitors, and the growing number of residential tourists from Canada and America. Almost a fifth of the population are foreign residents; artists, artisans, and retired people enjoy the high quality of life offered in this safe, clean and elegant town. I'm told some 60 nationalities call San Miguel home.

It's early lunchtime and I've headed up to a shaded 'azotea' roof terrace to try a few tacos. It's a welcome respite from the strong sunshine (San Miguel sits at almost 2000 metres above sea level), and a moment to rest tired feet after treading the unforgiving stone-cobbled streets.

The roof terrace bar is busy with locals; the sound of chatter and laughter fills the space. San Miguel may be a tourist favourite, but it's also very much a living place where the residents enjoy the city as much as the visitors.

The server brings our drinks - margaritas of course! Yet not made with classic tequila. Instead, it is 'Mezcal de Tamarindo', made with mezcal, a strong alcohol (like tequila) fermented from the 'piña' heart of the agave. It has a delicious smoky flavour. The tamarind adds a tantalising sweet-sour taste.

It perfectly complemented the creative 'taco de jicama', filled with tasty fried prawns and a light dressing of tamarind sauce. There's a wealth of creative cuisine in the city from local taco joints to upscale north American steak houses and modern Mexican fine-dining.

For a flavour of local produce, head to one of San Miguel's markets. The main fruit and vegetable market in the old town is fascinating - look up and you will see dozens of papier mâché piñatas hanging over the neatly laid stalls of regional produce.

Rural Mexico

I had arrived at Mexico City airport and took a car transfer for the three and half drive up to San Miguel. The route is mainly motorway, passing a few of the fast-growing cities of central Mexico like Querétaro, reminding me that this is indeed North America. Yet once away from the cities, one sees the more humble, slower pace of Mexican country life: roadside vendors selling baskets of fresh strawberries; and mobile taco stands, surrounded by hungry lunchtime customers.

The scenery becomes increasingly arid, with tall cacti and distinctive acacia trees lining the road. As one approaches San Miguel, the landscape becomes dotted with large farmsteads. Some of these cowboy ranchos have become B&Bs, weekend retreats for city slickers or luxury homes for retired North Americans.

Yet it's in town that one will find most hotels and guest houses. The luxury hotel groups have begun to arrive, like Belmond (with their alluring 17th century heritage property, Casa de Sierra Nevada); and Rosewood (with a purpose-built estate on the edge of old town).

Yet to truly feel immersed in the sensory experience of this colourful city I recommend staying in a boutique property.

Romantic Oasis

San Miguel is all about art and architecture - and you'll find plenty at 'Casa No Name'. It was once the home of fashion photographer Deborah Turbeville, and this 18th century house exudes a creative, artistic ambiance. Elegantly restored, the property is renowned for its frescos that adorn the courtyard walls. Even if you don't stay, it is worth a visit to enjoy a drink and take in the mix of ancient and modern art.

Modern Mexico

Hotel Matilda, found on one of the city's most picturesque streets, 'Aldama', is where one discovers a fresh perspective of artistic San Miguel. Created by Tennessee businessman and local resident Harold Steam, the hotel is all about modern Mexico. The clean lines and muted tones of this contemporary property are the perfect showcase for Mexican art, including sculptures by internationally renowned artists Javier Marín and Rodrigo Lara Zendejas.

I stayed one Sunday night in early February. Relaxing in my room, before dinner, it was a joy to feel the warm evening air, sweet with the floral scent of jasmine outside. Below I heard classic vocal jazz tunes mix with the chatter and laughter of dinner guests in the hotel's Moxi Restaurant. It was one of those simple yet captivating moments.

A visit to San Miguel de Allende will create many such memories; it's spellbinding.