We are off to spend a week in the colonial-era town of San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico. For the past few years, we’ve heard more and more about this town in Mexico’s central highlands.
We have friends who’ve gone there to do a Spanish language immersion study. Everyone touts the area as one of the best places for US Ex-pats in Mexico. We are intrigued.
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Let me start by saying that my DH likes to handle the transportation and hotel side of our trips. Getting buy-in from me, of course, but DH typically places the bookings. In over 20 years, this has not been an issue…But everyone misses a beat now and again, and this time DH was not on his game.
How the Trip to San Miguel de Allende Began
From the SF Bay Area where we live, there are many options for flying to Mexico. We, like so many people, are stuck in a rut tied by loyalty points to one particular airline. When we book this trip, I try to encourage my DH to look at other airlines. Also, maybe airports other than SFO, but he sticks with our usual.
Here’s how that went
- Bright and early on a Friday morning, we start our trip. We head out from the east bay in rush hour traffic to San Francisco International (SFO). This takes about 1 hour 45 minutes.
- We get through security and board the first leg of our flight (SF0 to LAX a one hour flight).
- Next, we have a two-hour layover at Los Angeles International (LAX) before the final leg to Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico.
- The flight to Leon is on a “Regional Jet,” a Canada Embraer. For those of you who don’t recognize this aircraft, just let me say it’s tiny for a jet aircraft. (A colleague of mine used to call this the “Barbie” plane. You can check them out here: Embraer. The flight on this tiny plane was about 3 and 1/2 hours.
- From Leon, we had a 1 and 1/2 hour taxi ride to San Miguel de Allende.
Learn from those who went before
My DH has a team member at work, whose family is actually from Leon Mexico. She flew down to Leon just a week or so earlier, on a non-stop flight from OAK to BJX. Choosing that trip probably would have saved us half the time in getting to our final destination.
So you don’t have to do the math, I will lay it out here. We left our house at 7 am PDT and arrived at our Hotel in San Miguel de Allende at 7:30 pm (6:30 pm PDT). 11 and 1/2 hours of travel. The flights and route we chose was not the most efficient way to get to San Miguel. And probably not the least expensive either, as we were on a “Legacy” airline. But we are finally at our hotel… except we aren’t
Hotels: Trust, But Verify
The Hotel & Spa Dona Urraca is the hotel my Husband shows me and “plans” to book. This hotel is on the main street in San Miguel de Allende, about 10 minutes walking from the center of town. However, Dona Urraca has two hotels, the one where we wanted to stay, and the one my DH had booked. In another city, Queretaro, an hour’s drive away.
The few people at the hotel that night spoke very little English. My DH speaks very little Spanish. It takes us a while to figure out what they are trying to tell us. The hotel has a room for us for the night, but not for our planned eight-night stay. Good thing the hotel offered free wi-fi, and we are able to search for a new hotel.
Hotel options at the last minute are limited. But we find a place about a mile away, the Rancho Hotel El Atascadero.
With that dilemma solved, we headed out down the main street to find some food. There are many great restaurants in San Miguel, but we just want someplace quiet and cozy for a quick meal. We found Gombos a few short blocks away from the hotel and enjoyed a lovely dinner. After dinner, it was all we could manage to walk home and crawl into bed for the night. It was a very long day 💤
Relocating to Our New Hotel
In the morning, we wander through the Dona Urraca to see what we will be missing. We then head up to the breakfast room for the included “brunch.” The hotel is well appointed and remarkably quiet for its location. Breakfast is served buffet-style, as you find in most European hotels.
After breakfast, we check out of our room at the Dona Urraca and get a cab to our new digs, the Rancho Hotel el Atascadero.
San Miguel is not a big city. So when we chose the new hotel, and it was only a mile from the center of town, we didn’t think this was that big a deal. What we didn’t know, since we had come into town under the veil of darkness, was that the town sits on one big hillside. The main street is closer to the bottom of the hill, our new hotel at the top.
San Miguel de Allende is over 6,000 ft altitude, and we live at sea level. This means we will no longer be able to walk from our hotel to shops and restaurants. Thank goodness for Uber.
The Rancho Hotel El Atascadero – in San Miguel de Allende
If you are visiting San Miguel, but want a quiet location, away from the action, the Rancho Hotel el Atascadero is the place to stay. This refurbished hacienda was once a silk farm, a convent, and a ranch. For the past 60 years, the property has been a hotel run by the Maycotte family.
The hotel has several amenities for guests. An on-site restaurant and a swimming pool area (where you can get treats and drinks delivered) are the main hang-outs. But there are also, quiet courtyards and, lovely gardens throughout the property.
Our room is quite nice. However, it is just about as far away as you can be from the main facilities of the hotel. You enter into a sitting area with a couch and chair. Then follow a short hall to the bedroom and bath. Because we booked so late, we are in a room with two double beds. Oh well, we won’t be sleeping together this week!
A Late Afternoon Stroll Through Town
Once settled into our new room, we decide to head out and see the town. To do so, we summon up an Uber to take us to the town Center. Using Uber has some very nice advantages to a taxi. Most important is you do not have a language barrier that is so often frustrating in cabs. You tell the App where you are and where you want to go, and the App gets you a car and driver to take you there. Most of the Uber drivers we had in San Miguel spoke some English, and we had pleasant trips to and from the hotel.
We are surprised to find this quiet village so full of people. All the streets in San Miguel de Allende around El Jardin (the town’s central plaza) are bustling with people. There is a wedding parade just one block from the beautiful San Miguel Arcangel Parish, and many street vendors selling all sorts of goodies from ice cream to toys for children.
Roof-top Bars and Sunsets
A must-do while in San Miguel is to visit one or more of the “roof-top” bars for which the city is famous. We find one such place above the restaurant Casa Nostra. It would be wonderful to have dinner here after drinks on the rooftop, but we have no reservations, and the restaurant is booked.
The Bar is upstairs (hence “rooftop bar”) and we head up for drinks and to watch the sunset. Drinks here are an event, as we find a seat (a delightful corner banquet) a waiter brings us glasses of cold water and leaves us with the drink menu.
The cocktails at Casa Nostra are very creative. I choose a lemon, lavender, and mint martini. My husband is not so daring and has his usual whiskey sour. We sit back, sip our cocktails, and watch the sun drop below the horizon.
When we ask for the check, the staff bring this to us accompanied by refreshing Agua de Jamaica (hibiscus water) in ice “glasses,” and sweets. The staff and presentation at Casa Nostra are so gracious, it’s a pity that we can’t finish the evening here. But we are hungry and need to head out and find a good place for dinner
Dinner at La Posadita
There are so many great smells wafting from all the dining establishments that is is hard to choose one place over another. However, the pivotal point for us now is to find a restaurant that still has space available without an hour or more wait. We find that at La Posadita.
The restaurant is quite crowded, but they tell us it won’t be more than a 30-minute wait. We are actually seated sooner than that on the rooftop deck, although we are towards the back of the dining area and don’t have a view.
Dinner is wonderful. I have stuffed chicken breast smothered in green sauce and DH goes for the Enchiladas Rojo.
La Posadita has Chiles en Nogada on the menu. DH saw this dish at Gombos and really wanted to try this traditional, festive dish. But Gombos was sold out he finds the same fate here. (Note to self: I must try to make these at home!)
Casual Vacation With Lot’s of Slow Time
We’ve planned for this vacation to be a slow time with lots of R&R. We spend the next day hanging out by the pool reading and napping. There will be a few days like this on this vacation, for which we are grateful.
We spend several days just wandering through the shops, galleries, and museums located throughout the town. After all, San Miguel de Allende is known for showcasing artists and craftsmen and this is what most people come to see.
However, there are two special tours we enjoy while in the area. The “Downtown San Miguel Food Tour with Taste of San Miguel, and a tour of the Archeological Zone of Cañada de la Virgen with Albert Coffee.
Walking and Eating in San Miguel de Allende
Early Tuesday morning, we head into town to meet up with our guide and group for the Downtown San Miguel Food Tour. The location we are given for the rendezvous is Los Lavadores Park.
When our guide, Les Carmona, an “US Ex-Pat,” arrives, and most of the group (just about 10 of us total) are there, Les begins to tell us the significance of our gathering location.
A Brief History Lesson
At the top of the hills above the town is a natural spring. The early settlers chose this location, realizing the importance of the water source. After living at the top of the Hills for many years, the village population grew and eventually moved lower into the valley. With the growth came the need to put together a system to control the water and bringing it into town for agriculture, cooking, and washing.
This square was the washing area for the village. The water is controlled at the high end of the square, and there are several basins around the square that get progressively lower, so the water naturally flows down.
Les is well versed in all the history of San Miguel de Allende, not only food. As we walk to our first tasting experience, Les tells us about the buildings in the central district and the codes everyone must follow when renovating a property for a home or business.
There is a pre-selected palette of colors for all properties. If you are opening a business, you cannot have signage. This is why you see so many “flags” hung outside of buildings, the flags tell you what the business is. When doors are open, you are welcome to go in (even if it is a private house)!
The Movable Feast – On To The Food!
After this quick lesson in “urban development,” we head out for the primary purpose of the tour “FOOD!” Today we have tastings at four restaurants, each representing a different style and flavor of the region. La Parada for Peruvian ceviche, Casa del Diezmo for Cochinita Pibil, Lo Cocina for enchiladas in black mole, and Don Taco Tequila for what else, tacos!
Right off at the first tasting, it is evident to our small group that I am getting something they are not. This is for two reasons: 1) When signing up for the tour, they ask if you have any allergies. I do have food allergies and listed mine 2) They also ask if you would like to have alcoholic drinks added for an extra cost. I signed up for that as well.
So while everyone else got a ceviche with lime, onion, and cucumbers, I got a lovely corn and mushroom salad with a margarita. The first question on many of the other tounges was, can we buy drinks? Somehow they hadn’t seen the add-on in the listing that I had claimed.
We walk through town, working our way through our “meal” one restaurant at a time. From appetizers to salsas to enchiladas and then tacos. Each restaurant specializes in the dish we are served.
The group ends the tour in the main square near the Church. It seems we always end up back in this location. The very last bite is at for “helado,” or ice cream as we call it in English, from Nieves Las Monjas, one of the oldest and busiest Nieves stands on the square.
We had a great time on the tasty Downtown San Miguel Food Tour. Taste of San Miguel is definitely a must-do if you like food and want to know more about the local cuisine. Prices currently are $55.00 or $67.00 with booze 🙂
The Ancients Call to Us
I stumbled across Albert Coffee Archaeotours by accident when googling things to do around San Miguel de Allende. I had no idea there were pyramids in this area or that anyone was excavating or touring the sites.
And this is how a couple of days after eating our way through San Miguel, we find ourselves back in the center of town at 9 am, outside the Belle Artes building in front of the big Iron Bull waiting for our tour to Cañada de la Virgen. These are the instructions we receive in the very basic e-mails between Albert Coffee and me for this tour.
More people show up, and eventually, Albert Coffee arrives. After a brief introduction, we head around the corner and board the waiting bus that will take us on the 30-minute drive out of town to the site of Cañada de la Virgen.
As we drive, Albert tells us a bit about himself and a brief overview of the day ahead. Albert Coffee is an archaeologist and anthropologist educated at Lousiana State University – Baton Rouge. He was headed south to the Mayan Peninsula in the early 2000s when a colleague told him about the recently begun excavation outside of San Miguel and invited him to join in. Albert has been here ever since.
A Very Different Perspective and Tour
I have been to Chichen Itza and Tulum and, most recently to the archeological site in Huatulco, but Cañada de la Virgen stands out to me because of its lack of tourists. The site is on privately held lands and they limit the number of people on tours to the site. If I remember correctly, they only allow two visits each day and limit the group size to around 24 people per tour. This keeps the site in pristine condition and provides Albert (or whoever may be your guide) the time to truly explain the story of the people who built and lived here all those years ago.
Cars are not allowed up close to the site, so we walk about a mile up-hill in the blazing sun to get to the pyramids. You are told ahead of time that you will be walking around two miles (3 km). You are also reminded that the site sits at an elevation of 7,000 feet. When you combine these two items with the mid-day sun, it becomes another type of walking altogether.
Albert is conscious of the idea that most of his group are not avid high elevation hikers and allows time for the stragglers. However, there is a limit on the time the group can be at the site, and Albert keeps us moving.
As we walk in a counter-clockwise direction around the main pyramid, Albert gives us the story of the people who lived here in the heyday of their civilization (between 540 and 1050 ad). He talks about the plants that grew in the area and about the probable reason this great civilization is now gone.
Climbing the Great Pyramid
The last part of the tour is an opportunity to climb the steps of the (partially reconstructed) Great Pyramid and see the relics inside the temple. I initially hesitate to do this part of the tour and then quickly realize this was exactly what I had come all this way to do.
If you are into archeology or anthropology at all this is a great way to spend a day in the area of San Miguel. Albert Coffee is a gifted speaker who makes this old place and the people who once lived here come alive again.
San Miguel de Allende Wrap Up
We enjoyed our week in San Miguel de Allende. We rested, we feasted, we met new people, and we learned new things. The City of San Miguel has a great history and welcoming people.