San Miguel de Allende (SMA) is legendary for its attraction for us Norteamericos. It was named a World Heritage Site in 2008 and is this year’s Conde Nast Traveler Top City in the World. We had heard favorable reports for years, comparisons to Tuscany, descriptions of a lively artistic life and more recently, friends from San Diego succumbed to its lures and bought a house there. So, we were favorably disposed and therefore thrilled to learn a trip we were already planning (to Mexico City with MOPA) would include several days there, timed to coincide with Dia de los Muertos. Day of the dead-something new for us. The term summoned a lot of loose associations, from Halloween to zombies. What we found was actually quite evocative and moving, especially in a year in which we lost both Steve’s mother and 5 months later, his father.
Even before arriving in SMA, our anticipation was building. Throughout Mexico City, from our hotel lobby to restaurants in which we ate to stores into which we wandered , virtually every building, park and plaza was actively preparing colorful altar-like displays incorporating flowers, fruit, nuts, pictures, and “calabazas,” sugar skulls. Many of these displays were personalized and dedicated to someone valued and presumably beloved, whether family members or former employees, we could only wonder.
Dia de los Muertos, in its essence, is a collective celebration and veneration of the dead. On November 1 and 2, families gather en mass in the cemetery, cleaning and decorating their loved one’s grave.
Bearing armloads of flowers, people streamed continuously into the cemetery. Vendors just outside were available with flowers, snacks, and drinks. Eye-joltingly colorful arrangements of flowers, sugar skulls, nuts, candies, favorite foods (and drinks, namely bottles of tequila), portraits and even a chicken or two, are arrayed around the gravesite.
Families picnic and visit there, occasionally calling over roaming mariachi musicians to sing a favorite song or a round of tunes. The atmosphere was really interesting, both festive, but also sober and reflective. I found it quite moving and was, at times, in tears myself, remembering my father, now dead 5 years.
This same combination of festivity and restraint was evident throughout the weekend. We arrived on Wednesday, dodging storms en route, with the closest sounding lightning strikes I’ve ever heard punctuating our pitstop. Walking to dinner that night in a downpour, the street between us and the restaurant was a virtual raging river, which had to be forded in the interests of a Peruvian meal. We had been divided into 2 groups, each staying in a multi-bedroom rental house, and were heading to dinner with our tribe, namely Steve and me, Gail and Ralph, Christina and Jon. Steve and I were originally scheduled to stay in the other house, called Casa San Francisco, on a street on the same name, just 2 blocks from the Jardín Principal in the center of town. We volunteered to switch at the last minute for John and Cliff, who preferred being closer to the center. Since we preferred a longer walk to try to work off those big Mexico City meals, everyone was satisfied. The other house, called Colibri, on Callejon del Cardo, was gorgeous and beautifully appointed, and ably attended to by Adriana as cook, Lupe as housekeeper and Hernan as groundskeeper.
La Parada, the destination for which we braved a torrent of water (or at least wet feet) for sabores peruanos, offered a selection of ceviches, including a namesake version with mango and toasted coconut, and excellent pisco sours. The dining room was partially open air, opening to a courtyard, where we could monitor the rain’s progress.
The next morning, we headed into town to explore. The street which had been running water the night before was swept clean and it was bright and sunny. Almost immediately, we found ourselves drawn inside by interesting interiors on opposite sides of the street. On one side, colorfully tooled cowboy boots drew me in. I actually thought they were window dressing for the Dia de los Muertos celebrations, but proved to be on offer, the brain child of artist Carrie Cameron, a transplanted Texas artist behind the imaginatively colored and patterned boots and mules. I can recognize a useful, beautiful and comfortable souvenir when I see one, and quickly realized that my muscular calves meant the the mule version was a better choice for me. My order placed, our next stop was just across the street, at the inviting boutique Hotel Matilda. We were drawn in by a familiar name posted outside, Enrique Olvera, whose celebrated Mexico City restaurant, Pujol, was a culinary grande finale of the first half of this 2 part trip. He is also behind the Moxi restaurant at the hotel, which we reserved for dinner the next night. Another draw of this small hotel is the contemporary art collection which is displayed throughout the lobby, restaurant and in the spa. Even just a few steps off the street, at the reception, was a large dynamic video installation, a grid of changing kaledoscopic patterns, which was mesmerizing. It is the work of a musician and artist, Nacho Rodríguez Bach, called Phsychedelic Patio. Steve and I were taken on a mini-tour of the public spaces, and greatly admired a large photographic work downstairs in the spa by an Italian artist named Angelo Musco. What appeared to be abstract whorls, like ribbons or a network of neurons or the Internet itself, proved on closer investigation to be formed of tiny nude people, end to end, a human chain.
With that as an auspicious start , our 3 days in SMA were a whirlwind of colors, concerts, sights, art, delicious meals, parades, even a very special tequila tasting on our first day.
I intended to have a little bite before going to the tequila tasting, but there were many colorful distractions in the Dia de los Muertos market, including sugar skulls, flowers and other decorative items on offer specifically for this occasion.
Out of time for lunch, we did duck into a nice bakery, Cumpanio, for a few rolls and pastries to line our stomachs.
SMA is home to Casa Dragones, a super-premium, rather expensive joven sipping tequila ($275 US/bottle in an engraved crystal carafe). When first offered the option of a tequila tasting, I hadn’t been particularly interested. What I didn’t realize is this isn’t the tequila of shots, limes, chasers, frat parties and other not so pleasant associations. Our tasting ($70 US, not horribly expensive when one considers a tiny thimbleful of Casa Dragones as an aperitif in a restaurant would be similarly priced) was as orchestrated as any wine tasting I’ve ever done. We were instructed to sniff, swirl, and finally taste. We were encouraged to sense different notes in the nose, which reportedly varied with the angle of inclination of the custom-designed Reidel flute (resembling in shape a champagne flute). Maybe it was the power of suggestion, but during the guided tasting, this degree of complexicity did seem plausible. It was a gorgeous warm late afternoon in a beautiful old cavalry building, and…well, it really is smooth, subtly floral, with a hint of spice, very agreeable and completely different from any tequila I’ve ever tasted. Of course, I haven’t tasted much tequila by itself (see unpleasant associations, above), but we enjoyed it so much we bought ourselves another souvenir, a bottle to bring back. (The price is the same in the US, but US law results in the alcohol content being twice as strong when purchased in the US).
Appropo to Casa Dragones being founded by MTV owner Bob Pittman, their contribution to the Dia de los Muertos festivities was Calavera Geodésica, a giant, geometrical skull by Joshua Harker, onto which a series of video projections by collaborating artists was projected.
The evening of our first full day in SMA was kicked off by a cocktail party at the lovely home of Annie and Jay, friends of Teri in our MOPA group. Annie is behind San Miguel Vacation Rentals and had arranged our homestays,. She and Teri grew up together in Point Loma. We met an interesting cross-section of the American ex-pat community, including many artists. Everyone was very welcoming. I have to admit, my interactions with the residents of SMA, both at the party and throughout the weekend, really had my internal wheels turning. I definitely see the appeal of this region.
Before we knew it, it was time to head into town, to El Jardin, as the town center is called in SMA, for the kick-off concert of the La Calaca Festival, a series of parades, art exhibits and concerts coinciding with the traditional Dia de los Muertos celebrations. Before leaving, I had picked the brain of a San Diego friend, Candace, who has a house in SMA, on what not to miss for our first visit. One of her recommendations was not to miss hearing their friend Gil Gutierrez play: “Make sure to catch Gil Gutierrez when you are there-I believe he is going to be playing a concert in the zocalo but you and Steve have to go see him live in a small venue like Mi Casa in the Instituto Allende. He often plays with Doc Severensen [Tonight Show] who retired there. He played Carnegie Hall a year ago. It will make your trip.”
Alas, the small venue was not to be on this particular weekend, but we did hear him play…twice, in the zocalo, with a band that included our house’s housekeeper’s musically self-taught son on the bass.
The nightly concerts were tremendous fun for the people watching as well as the music, a steady stream of strolling families and visitors, many thematically dressed, many with faces painted as skeletons or zombies, strolling the zocalo and listening to the band accompany a Mexican opera singer with a lush voice.
I was amazed at how decorous the large crowd was: no pushing, no shoving, no public puking, just well behaved, smiling people enjoying themselves in mass. There were even some benches and seat walls in the Jardin for sitting. We ran into a friend from San Diego, a pathologist from our hospital visiting her parents who have a home in SMA, who ran up to me, exclaiming “I thought I saw Steve in the crowd a few minutes ago!” We wandered a block off the Jardin for a little bite after the concert to the roof terrace of La Azotea, a recommendation both of Candace and of a couple of women with whom we struck up a conversation in the crowd. We found music, a nice vibe while still being able to converse and a great view of the town from up there.
The next afternoon, Steve and I had work to do, namely a little seminar for the group on techniques for street, night and festival photography. For the occasion, the staff at Casa San Francisco had put together a nice selection of botanas, including another irresistable version of guacamole. Steve had prepared a whole powerpoint, which we drastically scaled back to a more basic version after informally polling the group en route to SMA. After realizing most of the group never veers from using the completely automatic mode and thought RAW had something to do with crudites, we decided to go with a more informal and basic presentation. Most of the group was awake for most of it, and a few even tried some of their cameras’ other options later that evening!
As for Steve and me, we had a blast shooting, from the queues waiting to be face-painted, to the crowd, some in very elaborate dress and most more than willing to be photographed. We pushed our cameras’ low light capabilities as hard as they could go, and made do switching off using a monopod. I set a new personal record for number of battery switches in a single day’s shooting!
Of course, the mojigangas (giant puppets) had something to do with this run on batteries. We suddenly found ourselves in the midst of a wedding procession parading through the streets of El Centro. The beautifully coiffed and attired wedding party was further adorned with tiny cups strung around their necks, presumably for tequila. The lovely young women carried their high heels in their hands. It was a blast racing down the street, trying to keep ahead of the procession. A pair of mojigangas danced at the head of the party. I took them to represent the bride and the groom. Later, I saw a picture of this very pair on my friend Rapheal’s blog, with this explanation:
“Mojigangas…add festive energy to celebrations. Tradition dates these figures of cardboard, paper and cloth to the 1600s when they were brought by Spaniards to San Miguel de Allende. During religious pilgrimages, they were designed to evoke joy and were crafted as effigies of saints and kings. Over time, Mexican artisans fashioned them satirically to poke fun at public figures.”
Mojigangas didn’t just enliven the wedding we stumbled on, but also the La Calaca parades.
We did have to recharge and refuel periodically. Our dinner at Moxi with Ralph and Gail did not disappoint. The setting was lovely as well, a sheltered terrace. The hotel had been further embellished with Dia de los Muertos additions. After dinner, we snuck downstairs in the dark to show Ralph and Gail the amazing Angelo Musco work in the spa. Presumably, we set off a silent alarm, as we were met rather quickly by a security guard as we were feeling our way up the spiral stairs in the dark. Probably, he just mused “Gringos!”, as no international incident ensued.
One morning, Steve and I met briefly with a new friend, Kathy, a friend of another friend, Claire (my sister’s mother-in-law). Both are from the milieu of Syracuse University, and appropriately enough, met in a Spanish class in Syracuse. Kathy has been a part-time resident of SMA for years, and is transitioning to moving to SMA full-time. It was fun to see her home, right next door to a great coffee shop, Buen Día. Per Kathy, it is the best in SMA. We didn’t have a chance to try all the others, but our sampling supported her assertion. A Spanish class was being taught in the patio. The instructor was an animated attractive blond, much younger than her senior-appearing, advanced students.
We didn’t get to every recommendation on Candace’s and Annie’s lists, but we made a valiant effort. We did enjoy lunch one day at Rincon de Don Tomas, a little place in the corner of the zocalo, where the entertainment (besides the ringside seat on El Jardin) included a little boy who did his best zombie imitation for us:
We even attended a benefit while we were there. While we were in Cock of the Walk, the cowboy boot store, Carrie invited us to their Dia de los Muertos party and silent auction of artist decorated cowboy hats, benefiting a Mexican children’s charity. We were outbid on one offering by a more determined patron. We did end up with one which fit me perfectly, decorated by local artist James Harvey, all black with a white skull on it with a phrase which seemed to sum up the whole weekend: Sólo estoy muerto si me olvidas ( I am only dead if you forget me ). This artist, as well as many others, has a studio at an interesting complex north of town called Fabrica La Aurora, Centro de Arte y Diseño, or as the cab drivers know it, Aurora. This converted turn of the century textile factory played a large role in daily life of SMA for much of the 20th century, being the largest employer (300+ workers) at the time of its closing in 1991. Today, among the turbines and other marks of its past identity, it houses a mix of galleries, clothing and jewelry shops, artist studios and architectural offices, as well as several options for food.
We had a terrific final send-off dinner at The Restaurant with the MOPA group (also one of Candace’s suggestions). From what I’ve read, this restaurant seems to have been instrumental in launching a wave of locavore interest in SMA in recent years. The “global comfort food” was indeed delicious. This is in an attractive eighteenth century Moroccan courtyard with stone floors and high ceilings, with an elegantly rustic vibe, with a shop with beautifully curated books and homewares next door.
In addition to memorable meals in restaurants, we also enjoyed great home cooking, courtesy of Adriana. I had so enjoyed the enchiladas suizas for breakfast at Las Alcobas that I asked her if a reprise might be possible during our stay at Casa Colibri. I’m not sure which version of enchiladas verdes I enjoyed more, but it was the perfect sendoff for our final morning.
Of course, we didn’t get to everything on our list of the many recommendations we accumulated. Regretfully, some of Candace’s suggestions (drinks and dinner at the [very small and bohemian] Berlin Bar , mask museum at Casa de la Cuesta (masks that have been danced from all over Mexico), drinks at Serena Gorda) will have to wait for another time.
We did have a little adventure on our way home. The entire group initially planned to fly home from Leon (an hour away from SMA) to Tijuana, non-stop on Volaris. A generous member of our group decided during the Mexico City segment to charter a plane and fly us all home to San Diego, bypassing the border ordeal. Almost…we were very nearly held up by a bureaucratic snafu on our return. Somehow, we (and another pair of travelers) managed to board our plane in Tijuana to Mexico City without the requisite visa. In other countries, we could never have made this mistake, as one can’t pass through security without the requisite paperwork in hand. However, it turns out it is entirely possible to do so in Tijuana, which being less than 20 miles from the US border falls within a visa exception zone-that is, a visa is not required to be in Mexico within this border strip.
So, when a lovely little Gulfstream IV pulled up and the official asked for our visas, that was the first we had heard of this. Confusion broke out-“What?” The official looked stern, shaking his head.
“Well, today is Sunday, so the office is closed. You’ll just have to stay overnight and take care of this tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?!” “We have to back at work tomorrow!”
“Isn’t there something that can be done?” (This question could be subject to a variety of interpretations.)
Eventually, he grudgingly agreed to contact his supervisor at home and plead our case. He disappeared off stage. In the meantime, calls were made to the charter company, who presumably called the pilot, who suddenly materialized from the plane and headed off “to chat” with the man in charge.
Suddenly, all was fine.
“Sign here.” No, no need to pay a fine. All was well and on to the plane we went. As we disembarked, Steve asked the pilot how much was required to smooth over our oversight. Not too much, $40.
Back to the plane…it was truly another world, or at least another viewpoint. It turns out Gulfstreams literally fly on another plane, at 50,000 feet (vs. 30-35,000 commercial). The view through the much cleaner than commercial windows was heavenly. What a sendoff!