Queretaro was pretty stunning – full of pink-stoned baroque churches; a centre full of colonila buildings in shades of yellow, orange, red and pink; and graceful tree-lined squares that were full of families strolling and listening to music by night – so I wasn’t sure how San Miguel de Allende, the second of four cities I planned to visit in the colonial northern heartland would measure up.
I needn’t have worried – San Miguel takes everything Queretaro has to offer, and then ups the ante by throwing in cobbled streets, a hillier location (giving beautiful views), one of Mexico’s most thriving arts scenes, and a selection of natural hot springs just outside the city.
The art scene has attracted lots of older, american expats, who I must admit I was a bit less keen on (lots of them seemed to have lived there for years and were still insisting on speaking English to all the locals). But it was easy enough to escape them and soak up the atmosphere wandering around the pretty streets. Most of the city is pretty well-kept, but I was particularly attracted to the ones that were starting to crumble.
Just outside the city is the Santuario de Atotonilco, a historic church that played an important part in the drive for Mexico’s independence – the fighters fought under a banner of the Virgin Mary taken from the church. Being in this part of Mexico I’ve seen a lot of historic churches, particularly baroque ones, and to be honest they all start to blend into one after a while. Not this one though – every surface of the entire interior is painted with various religious motifs, and it’s stunning. Until recently it was in a terrible state, but in recent years they’ve started to restore it. The work isn’t finished yet, but I have to say it’s the most beautiful church interior I’ve ever seen.
The most enjoyale part of my visit was getting to spend time getting to know some Mexicans. Queretaro was beuatiful, but I was the only tourist in my hostel, so I didn’t get to socialise much. In San Miguel, my hostel was full of Mexican tourists visiting for holy week, and a lovely young couple from Toluca, Luis & Diana, took me under their wing and showed me the sights. Diana in particular really helped me with my spanish, always talking slowly and clearly and really encouraging me; over the course of the three days I was there I spoke far more spanish than English, and crucially my confidence improved enormously and now I’m happy to try and talk and not worry too much about mistakes, and I think people seem to appreciate my efforts.
It was while talking to Luis & Diana in the street that I ended up having my strangest experience so far in my travels – mid-sentence I was suddenly interrupted by a woman asking me if I was English (she could tell from my accent). It turned out she was from Yorkshire, and without waiting for a response, insisted on dragging me down the road to see her house.
It was quite an experience. On my way in, I explained I only had twenty minutes as I had to catch the bus on to Guanajuato. In that time, she managed to give me a full tour of the house (including the shrine her boyfriend had built to her on Valentine’s Day), give me her a glass of her homemade Agua de Jamaica (a sort of cold hibiscus-flower tea that is very popular here), tell me her full life story (twice divorced, lived all over the world, various scarcely believable adventures), read me the first chapter of her semi-autobiographical novel (which focused on meeting her Turkish mother-in-law for the first time) – which was interrupted by her rushing out in the street to feed carrots to the passing donkeys – and take my blood pressure. I barely got a word in edgeways (most memorably when she interrupted reading to ask me what type of women I liked. I replied that I preferred men, she laughed, shouted “up the arse!” and then carried on with her reading).
Cynthia is 73 (although she certainly doesn’t look it), and I’ll be amazed if I meet quite such a character for the rest of my trip. Absolutely lovely, and truly barking.
You can see all of my photos of San Miguel de Allende here