San Miguel de Allende: Timeless spot in Mexico has appeal for all ages
"This is the best dessert ever!" my 6-year-old son gushed enthusiastically as he dunked a churro into a cup brimming with Mexican hot chocolate.
He might have wanted to say more but decided to concentrate on downing the cinnamon-sugared wand of fried dough instead. I didn't blame him; I was practically hoovering up my order. He, my wife and I were sitting in Cafe San Agustin, a go-to sweet spot in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The brightly lit, always busy churreria's walls are covered with photos and media clippings of its owner, telenovela star Margarita Gralia, and wicker baskets hang from the ceiling. Consider it the city's answer to Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans.
Far from the packed resort beaches of Cancun, Cabo's nonstop party atmosphere and the hipsterdom of Tulum, San Miguel de Allende exists as its own singular slice of Mexican life. Located in the state of Guanajuato, 170 miles north of Mexico City, it boasts cobblestone streets and colonial architecture, giving visitors the impression they've stepped out of time. It's helpful to know traveler's Spanish when making deals at the market or figuring out your lunch order, but there's a large community of retired Americans, so the locals are used to English speakers. Overall, San Miguel de Allende is easy to navigate, safe and rich with activities — an ideal family vacation destination.
Just walking around is rewarding. Color is everywhere. Violet jacaranda trees and bougainvillea flowers of radiant pink and royal purple are in full bloom. Street vendors hawk a rainbow of chewing gums, flamboyant handicrafts and a wild kingdom of balloons. Vibrant hues are even present in the most pedestrian elements of everyday life — walls are painted in rich reds and pulsing blues; plants line rooftops with their blooms hanging down; kaleidoscopic bunches of ribbons are tied on window bars to flutter in the breeze. Even the dark wood doors are usually adorned with eye-catching brass knockers and handles.
One memorable jaunt was up the steep hill to the east of the town's center, just behind Parque Benito Juárez. After ascending a series of narrow blocks — welcome shade on one side, sharp sunlight slicing through on the other — we came out on a wider street running perpendicular. There the walls of the homes stop for a terraced stretch called El Mirador, where visitors can revel in the city's clay tile rooftops interspersed with church spires and purple puffs of jacarandas, all sprawled out below.
El Charco del Ingenio, a short cab ride outside of town, is a fun place for parents to stroll while kids run around. The 170-acre botanical garden's patchwork of pathways wend their way between dozens of cactus and succulent varieties, and around a reservoir. During the peak heat of the day, Museo La Esquina offers a rewarding respite for children and adults alike. The carefully curated museum features three floors and a rooftop with great views packed with more than 1,000 handmade Mexican toys — from dollhouses and Lucha Libre wrestling figures to papier-mâché Day of the Dead characters and wooden train sets.
There's shopping aplenty with options appealing to all ages. We spent hours browsing in the sprawling arts market (Mercado de Artesanias), its stalls packed with traditional crafts of many mediums including intricate Huichol beadwork, brilliantly colored hand-carved alebrijes (folk art creatures), embroidered linens and pounded tin light fixtures studded with colorful glass beads. For a curated experience, stop at either location of Artlalli, which is packed floor to ceiling with a multitude of miniatures and enamelware for your kitchen. Los Muertos Clothing offers an array of biker or rocker worthy T-shirts that meld Mexican iconography with modern rebellion. Think the Starbucks mermaid rendered as a Day of the Dead skeleton.
To relax as a family, the hot springs at La Gruta Spa, less than a half-hour outside town, were a worthy day trip. There are several pools of varying depths there, so little ones and adults can all enjoy the bliss-inducing waters. Travelers who are looking to crank up their adrenaline instead can go for a sunrise hot air balloon ride or rent four-wheelers to tackle the hills outside town.
You don't have to do everything together. One day, my wife and I were able to leave our son in the care of my mother and her boyfriend, who were wintering in San Miguel de Allende, so we could take a cooking class with chef Gabby Green. We began by shopping for ingredients in Mercado San Juan de Dios and our host thoughtfully explained the backstory of every item we sourced, including nopales (cactus pads), several chile pepper varieties and chicharrones (pork cracklings). Then we headed back to her restaurant-grade kitchen for a hands-on cooking session, where we produced half a dozen dishes. As we worked, Green discussed techniques and traditions, while refilling any wine glasses she judged were too empty. The experience culminated with a feast of our own making, including mole forged from toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and guacamole topped with pan-fried dried chilies that added crackle and a touch of heat.
When it came time to dine out as a family, it was an easy proposition, because restaurants are child-friendly by default. Perhaps the best meal of the trip was at Nicasio Comedor Mexicano, a funky, fresh-minded eatery just a couple of blocks from El Jardin. In their small open kitchen at the back, chefs and owners Pablo Nicacio and Hugo Tepichin put out marvelously flavorful dishes that pay homage to the country's traditions while taking a forward-thinking approach. A standout: half an avocado, stuffed with creamy spinach amped with parmesan. On top: generous chunks of locally sourced pancetta tossed in maple syrup and drizzled with an herbaceous Mexican olive oil.
We had another delightful experience at Don Taco Tequila, which — once we looked past the ridiculous name — was a most serious endeavor. Though completely vegan, the toothsome tacos are satiating and satisfying and practically electrified by the fiery housemade salsa. To help cool our palates afterward, we stopped at La Michoacana. Its freezers are packed with a rainbow of paletas, the fruit-studded pops that make you feel like you're being healthy(ish) even as you ride the wave of a sugar rush.
Good coffee was in steady supply. Near the arts market and up steep steps, Inside Cafe offers intense cold brew and a perfectly proportioned flat white, as well as an exceptional brunch. After shopping at La Fabrica la Aurora, a former fabric mill just outside of town that now houses art galleries and boutique shops, we discovered Geek & Coffee tucked away behind the sprawling complex. The excellent brews were complemented by a selection of sandwiches, salads and marvelous desserts, such as a mango tart cradled in buttery crust and tender chocolate layer cake.
To caffeinate in the morning, I was quickly won over by Lavanda Cafe. There's always a line by the time it opens, so go early and be prepared to wait across the street from its cobalt-blue door (or just get a to-go cup from the takeout window). Once you're seated, immediately order one of the daily pastry selections to enjoy while you browse the menu, which offers traditional Mexican breakfast options alongside more Western selections.
On the last day of our trip, we stopped there for our final meal. When the server stopped by with the pastry offerings, my son ordered one of the restaurant's signature lemon-glazed cinnamon rolls. He took one bite and smiled, a sugary glaze lingering on his lips.
"This is the best dessert ever!" he declared.
IF YOU GO
41B Calle Jesus, Centro
The centrally located bed-and-breakfast offers clean, cozy rooms, stellar service and a rooftop patio with breathtaking views of the city. Breakfast and lunch are included and often feature traditional Mexican favorites. Double rooms start at about $52 per night.
Nicasio Comedor Mexicano
Hidalgo 28, Centro
Chef-driven, forward-thinking Mexican fare presented with charming service in funky digs. Entrees about $5 to $16. Cash only.
Calle del Dr. Ignacio Hernandez Macias 78, Centro
Perhaps the best breakfast in town (and a great lunch, too) featuring primo pastries, artfully brewed coffees and traditional Mexican dishes. Be prepared for a line in the morning. Breakfast items about 50 cents to $5.50; about $2 to $6 for lunch items.
Don Taco Tequila
Calle del Dr. Ignacio Hernandez Macias 83, Centro
Even carnivores will appreciate these creative vegan tacos complemented by housemade salsas, plus on-point margaritas to temper their heat. About $1.50 to $3 per taco.
Geek & Coffee
Del Obraje 4, Santa Cecilia
Tucked away behind the Fabrica La Aurora complex, this darling cafe offers strong coffee, salads, sandwiches and exemplary desserts. About $2 to $7.
Cafe San Agustin
San Francisco 21, Centro
Always packed for good reason, the no-frills, all-thrills cafe has some of the best churros and Mexican hot chocolate in town, plus plenty of savory Mexican fare. Skip the line by ordering takeout instead of sitting down. About $3 for chocolate and churros.
Mercado de Artesanias
Lucas Balderas S/N, Centro
The epic market features almost every kind of handcrafted Mexican art imaginable — from embroidery and jewelry to metalwork and hand-carved wooden wares. Haggling is OK; paying with cash is more likely to score you a discount.
Museo La Esquina
Núñez 40, Centro
The thoughtfully curated museum highlights over a thousand handmade toys sourced from across the country. Adults about $2.50, children about $1.
Gaby Green's market tours and cooking classes
Calle Pipila 3A, Colonia San Antonio
Super knowledgeable and supremely entertaining, the chef takes guests ingredient shopping at the market before bringing them back to her restaurant-quality kitchen for an in-depth class and a meal. Market shopping and four-to-five hour class and lunch about $130 per person.
El Charco del Ingenio
Paloma S/N, Las Colonias
Home to a plethora of native cactuses, succulents and herbs, the sprawling botanical garden is crisscrossed with paths to encourage wandering. Located outside of town up a small mountainside, it's best accessed by cab — unless you're in the mood for a hike. Admission about $2.50 per person.