We last left you in San Miguel de Allende at sunset – see Part 1: “Why travel to San Miguel de Allende? It’s a fairytale colonial city!“
Almost 20% of its 80,000 residents are expatriates, most from the U.S., the balance from Canada and Europe. They came to visit San Miguel de Allende. Then they stayed.
They’re an engaged lot of talented people who paint, sculpt, make jewelry, offer art and culinary classes, run bakeries and beguiling boutique hotels, raise funds for restoration projects, teach Spanish, operate restaurants, volunteer and generally have helped turn this Mexican colonial city into a thriving, friendly, cultural community.
Take Bill Le Vasseur.
One moment, the former advertising executive and his wife start building a retirement home in San Miguel. The next, he’s the curator of a remarkable non-profit mask museum showcasing over 500 indigenous Mexican masks (his passion has led to frequent speaking engagements at American universities).
Museum madness and a psychedelic church
Visits to his small “Other Face of Mexico” museum are by appointment.
Bill invites us to meet first over a glass of wine at his B&B, Casa de la Cuesta (which the retirement home morphed into). He tells us how he’s traveled all across rural Mexico, collecting ceremonial masks actually used in dances and rituals, then tours us around the museum across the lane.
The variety of masks is bewildering.
We see masks adorned with bull horns and boar bristles. And death masks with devil figures.
One strange mask is in fact a thick wooden belt with a horse’s head the size of a football sticking out the front – it symbolizes the Spanish general on his horse, leading the Christian charge against the Moors during the Arab occupation of Spain.
The whole exhibition is a fascinating introduction to the important role that masks play in Mexico’s many native cultures.
About a 15-minute drive away from San Miguel de Allende, you find the Sanctuary of Atotonilco.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the church is decorated with the most amazing frescoes. They’re so beautiful that the church has been dubbed the “Sistine Chapel of Mexico.”
A breath of fresh air outside
If all that art and architecture begin to overwhelm, you can find serenity outdoors at El Charco del Ingenio. Created by private citizens’ initiative, this 67-hectare botanical garden and nature preserve on the town’s outskirts is home to a sprawling array of cacti from around the world.
The man-size, Y-shaped cucharilla, over 300 years old, gets our vote as the most unusual cactus.
Miles of hiking trails also wind through peaceful countryside overlooking a river carved into a valley floor, home to egrets and ducks. And refreshed after sipping a cactus juice, it’s only a scenic 15-minute walk back to town.
And don’t get us started on the restaurants.
We eat excellent organic scrambled eggs at Café Contento – the American owner teaches cooking classes in San Miguel, and his partner was the chef of former Mexican president Vicente Fox.
In a lovely courtyard setting, The Restaurant is popular with expats (try the tuna tartare with wasabi, corn and avocado). And the candle-lit, cave-like La Grotta is our cozy refuge one rainy evening, with soul-satisfying, wood-oven pizza.
George once even tries fried grasshoppers – a popular local snack – good as a salty, crunchy topping on guacamole.
At sunset, rooftop bars are popular for drinking in the views (as well as the margaritas).
More colonial charm in San Miguel de Allende
There’s more to do when you visit San Miguel de Allende. Discovering your inner child at a world-class toy museum. People-watching as you sit among the rose bushes of Jardin Allende square (fun to see residents puttering by on ATVs). Strutting your stuff at salsa dance classes.
But our favorite experience?
Simply soaking up the colonial charm while getting lost on San Miguel’s tangle of narrow atmospheric streets.
Where is San Miguel de Allende?
Where to stay in San Miguel de Allende?
Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada:
We stayed at the colonial-style Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada. Exquisite!
Casa de la Cuesta:
Owned and run by Another Face of Mexico’s mask museum curator and his wife, Casa de la Cuesta is one of the best B&Bs in San Miguel de Allende.
We first wrote about San Miguel de Allende for Cruise & Travel Lifestyles and Compass magazines. And we’re super excited that our feature article won a couple of travel writing awards! You can see some of our awards here.