Holiday rental apartment, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Our Home Away from Home in San Miguel de Allende

A colourful casita (little house) that looks like it has leapt out of the pages of a Mexico interior design book is our home away from home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Yes, San Miguel de Allende! When HomeAway Holiday-Rentals asked us to come here, we must admit that we had some reservations. We’d avoided the place on previous Mexico backpacking trips, staying in nearby Guanajuato instead. Our impression was that San Miguel de Allende was an arty haven for North American expats escaping their icy winters (the Canadians) and scorching summers (Americans). It is. Expats comprise a whopping 10% of the town’s relatively small population!

When we asked our Mexican friends in Mexico City their thoughts, they told us that San Miguel was beautiful and that it was bursting with stunning churches and splendid architecture. They did not say that the place was over-run by North Americans, nor that it had lost its culture as a result. A positive sign.

An American friend, the travel writer Tim Leffel, however, was less kind, calling the town a caricature. “San Miguel feels like a Mexicanized U.S. retirement home,” he emailed, inviting us to come and stay with him in Guanajuato.

Even so, we were curious to find out for ourselves… to see if San Miguel still had any remnants left of whatever had made the town so appealing in the first place. We wanted to see if it was possible to live in a place with so many foreigners and still find the ‘real’ Mexico there somewhere. We wanted to know whether it was possible to have an authentic experience, as loaded as that concept is.

Our casita is hidden behind the high terracotta walls of a colonial home called Casa Mandu, that has been lovingly renovated by its Canadian owner, a woman who has travelled and lived all over the world, as demonstrated by the exotic arts and crafts dotted about the place.

While the décor screams Mexico Style – its exuberant colour schemes and knick-knacks could have been plucked from the pages of any beautiful Mexican home decoration book (or any handicrafts market in Mexico City) – exotic objects from other places (a framed textile from Asia, a vibrant painting from Africa) ensure the house has its own idiosyncratic style and personality. Colour explodes from everywhere: vibrant tiles and ceramics in the kitchen, walls painted in primary colours, and bright cushions on the bed and sofas.

Our little house has a charming kitchen and living room, a compact bedroom with television, DVD/CD player and a smattering of books on the shelves, and beyond that a pretty bathroom. There is a gas fireplace for winter (even this time of year the nights can get cool) and skylights throughout, French doors in the living area, and a window in the bedroom, ensuring the place is filled with sunlight.

There was a big bowl of delicious fruit when we arrived, along with some tea, coffee and sugar, yet surprisingly there was no kettle, nor even a pot to boil water (just a filter coffee maker), no serious pans, and not much kitchen gear in general. When we mentioned this to the owner, she loaned us one of her own pots and pans, and when she travelled the following week, she kindly left a few more things for us to use. But the house isn’t really set up for foodies who want a fully kitted-out kitchen in which to experiment after being inspired by one of the town’s excellent cooking courses.

Otherwise, there is fresh drinking water replenished regularly, nice sheets, good towels, and soap and toilet paper provided. There’s a daily cleaning service, which we really don’t need. Unlike in Europe where cleaning is generally only done once a week, in Mexico, a daily clean seems to be the norm. For families with kids or groups of friends, it’s probably wonderful, but for two writers who like their peace and quiet, it’s a minor annoyance.

We have a small patio with table and chairs looking onto the communal courtyard where there is a trickling fountain, shaded by a colossal pomegranate tree, which gets regular visits by butterflies and hummingbirds. The owner sleeps in a room opposite our casita and adjoining her room on one side is another to rent and on the other the rest of her gorgeous living quarters, including a wonderful glassed-in living and dining area.

Beyond is a garden and above that another wonderful house to rent. During our stay there were two women from Barcelona there whom we never saw, although we chatted to the owner at least once a day (she’s very generous with local advice), and saw her visitors coming and going. Although the property is peaceful, our casita never really felt that private, and while sociable travellers won’t mind one bit, honeymooners might.

The house is just a block from one of the main thoroughfares of San Miguel, and a few blocks from the town’s picturesque main square.
 A ten-minute stroll away are plenty of shops, an artisan market, galleries, cafés, and restaurants, and a ten-minute taxi-ride away, an excellent supermarket. But we’ll tell you more about those in another post…

There are 4 comments

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  1. Kristina

    wow, this casita looks really like the perfect Mexican dream – so pretty and the colours are breathtaking. as always, I am in love with your pictures.
    Just read that you are in Costa Rica now, so much looking forward to your posts and pictures, I am headed towards Costa Rica and Nicaragua in a couple of weeks!!
    Viele Gruesse, Kristina

  2. David

    Your comment about finding the “real” in the midst of so many North American expats interested me. I lived in Chicago where there is a HUGE Mexican community. I wonder if visitors to Chicago worry about finding the “real” USA when there are so many Latinos living there. I think most people would say that foreign communities in North America bring color and vibrancy. Why can it not work the other way around?

  3. Terence Carter

    David, thanks for your comment. Here’s the difference. The ‘real’ USA has a significant permanent Hispanic population, Mexico doesn’t have a significant permanent North American population. So we didn’t really go to Mexico to meet Americans or Canadians (not that there’s anything wrong with them), however we were asked to visit San Miguel. I personally would have preferred some other place such as Guanajuato. Why? Because San Miguel is an anomaly.
    The comparatively rich North American expats in San Miguel have most definitely changed the character of San Miguel, but I wouldn’t call it ‘colour and vibrancy’ they’ve brought because that’s reductionist and makes it sound like they’re extras on a movie set. What they’ve brought (and what some of the locals are grateful for) is money and restoration of buildings that were under threat in what is a very beautiful town.
    They’ve also brought along the things that make them comfortable, making it in some ways like an American town with Mexican architecture and some Latinos around for ‘colour and vibrancy’. Horrible ‘fusion’ and Tex-Mex food, bars with bands playing Steely Dan and an expectation that if you speak English loud enough anyone will understand you.
    Your comment about ‘foreign communities’ interested me. The USA is a country built on colossal waves of immigration since the formation of the nation. My expectations of visiting Chicago is that it would hopefully reflect that – and that ‘that’ is the ‘real’ USA. My personal opinion is that if you took away the ‘foreign communities’ in Chicago, you’d be left with the Potawatomi tribe, at least that’s what Wikipedia tells me.
    That’s very different to the situation than in San Miguel, which one respected travel writer called “a Mexicanized U.S. retirement home”.

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