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Published: July 16th 2014
Every now and then, it just so happens that I travel to a place without really knowing all that much about it. I might go following a recommendation from a fellow traveller or a guidebook, having read a newspaper or magazine article about the place. Or maybe I've seen a photo of it somewhere. To me, a very reliable source when it comes to places worth visiting is the UNESCO World Heritage List, which I'm slightly ashamed to admit I follow religiously. The simple reason for that is I've never been disappointed with a place I've been to from that list, and I feel that seeing those places enriches my travel life. After all, there has to be a reason why a site is inscribed, right?
Amongst the 1,000+ sites on the list is the town of San Miguel de Allende, located in the eastern part of Guanajuato State. It took but a look at a few pictures of colourful buildings and tranquil alleys and plazas for me to make up my mind and go. What I wasn't aware of is that San Miguel is particularly popular with retirees from a certain neighbouring country, and no, it's neither Guatemala nor
Belize. One of these charming people is my host Jayne, a 50-something single lady who looks like Jamie Lee Curtis' long-lost twin sister. "I know my face looks like hers, but my boobs are nowhere near as big", she tells me. Wait, is she hitting on to me? In any case, she lives in a mansion, probably the most gorgeous home I've ever set foot in, a short stroll from the centre of town. The outside is painted an inviting, bright yellow. It sits on a relatively narrow plot of land, surrounded by rather poor and ramshackle houses (most likely owned by Mexicans), but proves to be very spacious on the inside, with three stories and a beautiful roof terrace, from where one has a great vista on the town and its surroundings. Jayne lives there together with her adorable French bulldog Louie and a couple of friendly cats.
Half a life of working in a very well-paid corporate job has enabled her to retire early, move to Mexico and pay in cash for her luxurious new home. She could also afford not to haggle for the price, which was most likely twice as high as it should have
been (actually, I'm pretty sure of it after learning the amount). Savvy locals, can't blame them for taking advantage of rich gringos throwing their money around. Next up is the story of the break-up with her husband, subsequent quest for meaning, new-found love for Mexican culture and an abusive ex-boyfriend in town whom she's trying to avoid. "He has a serious alcohol problem." Well, that comes as a surprise. When she asks me where I've come from, I tell her 'Guanajuato'. "Oh, I absolutely adore Vanuatu", yes, that's precisely how she pronounces it, which makes my face twitch for a split second. She's learning Spanish (and has been doing so for years already), which is admirable and probably puts her in a minority compared to her retiree compatriots, but when she speaks it, I feel reminded of myself having a go at speaking Mandarin after having too many Taiwanese beers.
Naturally, beer is also on the agenda on this trip. Jayne takes me to a historical cantina in the centre, which has been in ownership of a local family for four generations. Portraits on the wall exhibit the current owner's great-grandfather, grandfather and father, while he himself leans on
the bar, proudly reminiscing about the humble beginnings of this watering den. A trough in front of the bar serves as a stark reminder that not too long ago, cantinas were a place exclusively reserved for men. Yes, you would sit on the bar stool, drink your beer, and if the need struck you, get it out and relieve yourself into the piss trough. The owner reassures us that it hasn't been in use for years and remains there only for decorative purposes. Jayne downs two Pacífico beers in the time that I leisurely drink one. "You're too slow", she lets me know.
We take a stroll around the centre, stopping here and there for Jayne to explain or point out something. "Oh, you have to come here and try the tacos/gorditas/paletas. They're the best in town." or "You should really come to this bar between 5 and 8pm, they have some great drink specials then." Speaking of which, she takes me to a pub filled with grey-haired foreigners, none of which have less than one alcoholic drink in front of them. That pub, I'm told, has an extended happy hour every afternoon/evening, and is particularly popular with Jayne's
fellow countrypeople (who else?). She says hello to some friends of hers and introduces me. I can't help but feel like a boy toy. The men are mostly red-faced, with grey beards and longer hair. They wouldn't feel out of place in a drinking hole in Bangkok or Hanoi, well, maybe they're a little more well-groomed than the fellas over there. The ladies, on the other hand, look, behave and sound like college girls grown old. Their voices in particular are just baffling. If I was blind, I would think they were in their early twenties. German women in their 50s and 60s are so different, more like grandmas. I could imagine a scene where one of the ladies from the pub stands next to a German lady of the same age, saying something along the lines of: "Oh. My. God. Mooooom! What are you doing here? That is seriously so embarrassing! Why do you always have to embarrass me in front of my friends? I hate you!" In any case, Mr. Wifebeater ex-bf is not the only gringo in town with a drinking problem, that much is obvious.
After another couple of stops for beer, Jayne heads back
home while I keep wandering through the alleys in the centre, taking pictures, marvelling at the sounds and sights of San Miguel at night. At the central plaza - locally known as El Jardín - families hire bands of weathered mariachis for their favourite songs, fervently singing along to the solemn tunes. Even though San Miguel is comparatively quiet and low-key, there is still quite a bit of hustle and bustle at night, with food stall owners dishing out local specialties to locals sitting on plastic chairs, groups of young men breakdancing at a gazebo in the centre of the plaza, and people laughing and chatting away anywhere you look.
The whole rugged beauty of the town unfolds during daytime, however. In fact, this is precisely what I imagined a typical Mexican town to be - houses painted in bright colours anywhere you look, tiny balconies overflowing with potted plants and cacti, artsy adornments and animal friezes on the facades, miniature plazas with pretty little churches. Everything is spic and span, almost a little too much so. Surprisingly, in between the souvenir and traditonal art shops, the eateries, ice cream stores and cafés, I come
across quite a few hipster shops that would be more fitting of Berlin, London or San Francisco. Think felt hats, sloppy fake vintage clothes, emo-gothic-metrosexual regurgitations, et al. I'm more interested in strolling around the local market, where local grannies are busy removing the spines of nopales (Prickly Pear cactus), whipping up jugos and licuados from fragrant fruits, and offering atole (a hot drink made of corn flour) in huge buckets.
I was told San Miguel de Allende was recently voted best town in the world by some influential gringo travel magazine. That might be a bit of an exaggeration that could lead to the next wave of monolingual Merkins (wait, that's a redundancy) flooding in, but it's hard to argue that the town is quintessential México in a nutshell.
To wrap things up, Jayne takes me on a trip to nearby Santuario de Atotonilco, an important 18th century church complex about 15km from the centre. The inside of the main nave and chapels is painted over and over with breathtaking Mexican Baroque murals, for which the Santuario has been dubbed the "Sistine Chapel of Mexico". It is also a highly important pilgrimage and procession site. During Holy
Atole de guayaba
Hot drink made of corn dough, flavoured with guava
Week, a few thousand worshippers embark on the pilgrimage with crowns of thorns on their head, self-flagellating as they trudge forward. I've always been a fan of the Catholic Church just for things like that.
After a last lunch together, I bid farewell to Jayne and make my way towards the state of Michoacán. Time is running out, I will soon have to be back in Guadalajara to perform some self-flagellation of a different kind.
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