Mexico 2019-20 Part 4 (revised Feb 6)


Continuing in San Miguel de Allende:

A visit to the Botanical Garden, situated right at the edge of town is highly recommended.  It covers 88 hectares and is also a wildlife and bird sanctuary.  We took the English language guided tour, given by their ornithologist.  It was obvious where his real passion lay as the appearance of any bird made him much more excited than the vast selection of cacti and native plants.  The garden was truly drought tolerant but, in summer, after the rains, the ferns and mosses all green up and there are wildflowers everywhere.  We did see colour and flowers on the cacti and succulents in the Conservatory of Mexican Plants.

Each Sunday there is a House and Garden Tour, organized as a fundraiser for the Library.  We have found these fascinating as they provide such an insight into the range of accommodation available here.  Our first house two weekends  ago was in a huge, gated subdivision right at the edge of town.  The Americans who owned it seemed to have indulged their fantasies.  There were umpteen bathrooms and a man cave, featuring a bar, a huge flat screen TV and a magnificent sound system.  The wife, a dancer, had greatly admired the hippo in Fantasia.  Consequently there were hippos everywhere in all shapes and sizes.  Chacun a son gout!  The second house was such a contrast, owned by a collector of artefacts from around the world.  This eclectic selection had been curated and beautifully displayed with such attention to detail.  He had even floated Gerbera flowers on the surface of his pool.

The tour we went on last weekend was of two town houses side  by side on one of the most historic streets called Canal.  They certainly did not have kerb appeal as there were huge stone walls with access by massive wooden doors.  Inside was like another world with Casa Abejas, definitely the nicer of the two, divided in two parts round a magnificent swimming pool.  Although it certainly had all mod cons and was very luxurious,  the interior could not have been described as cosy.  What both properties had was magnificent upper terraces with spectacular views of the city with the churches on the skyline.
We also had the opportunity to visit Beatriz and Dan, whose casita Liz and Ken rented.   They retired here from LA six years ago and built a home right downtown on a derelict pecan orchard.  We were impressed by how right it seemed for the setting.

Another fundraiser for the Library is the two hour historic walking tour, given by a retired American, possibly drama, teacher.  She was an excellent guide, obviously passionate about her subject but very entertaining too.  We took the tour on a national holiday with a parade featuring school groups, marching brass bands and gauchos on horseback.  That meant street closures and lots of noise.  Our guide was able to adapt the tour and provided a wealth of historical information.  She informed us that the courtyard settings of the fancy restaurants that I thought resembled the ones in Marrakesh were, in fact, the stables and the planters were horse troughs!

The library also organizes tours to areas of interest outside town so we decided to visit Guanajuato, the state capital, an hour’s drive away.  It took us much longer as our driver routed  us through the mountains so that we could visit a ceramics workshop and a women’s cooperative, providing funds for families whose breadwinner had gone to find work in the States and never returned.  Guanajuato is also a very wealthy place due to the silver mines close by.  Although this was a huge source of revenue  in Spanish colonial times, the deposits are so rich that now the silver is being mined for the electronics industry.  It is a fascinating city with a totally pedestrianized core – the traffic being diverted through underground tunnels which originally were built to divert the river.  It is also a university town with the best law school in Mexico.  Our first stop was the Mummy Museum, a macabre place featuring corpses that had died during a cholera epidemic.  There were too many to bury individually, but the minerals in the soil naturally desiccated  the bodies and clothing and body hair were still evident almost 200 years later.  A visit to the Opera House was an example of town’s wealth as was the tour of the many churches .  Our last stop was Diego Rivera’s house, now an art gallery, featuring the evolution of his painting style throughout his lifetime starting at the age of 11.  Our guide recommended lunch in a very swanky restaurant on the main square.  Their specialty was tweaking traditional Mexican fare and we had tacos, the filling contained  within shaved jicama – delicious!


The tour we took yesterday, again through the Library, to Cañada de la Virgen, was really quite disappointing.  We are very interested in this area’s early history and have made a point of visiting ruins in Mexico and Guatemala.  We were a group of three and had our own guide, only to find that there was an “English” speaking guide provided by the site. His explanations were incomprehensible and he did not understand our attempts to achieve some clarity.  Too bad!  The site had been discovered in 1982 and parts of it are still being excavated.

Now we have only three days left under the blue skies and sunshine, having escaped what seems to have been such a sodden, stormy time in Victoria.  Mostly the weather has been sunny and warm although in San Miguel it felt pretty chilly after 4pm and before 10 am and we were glad of the gas fires in our accommodation.  There were a couple of days in the last week when Victoria was 3° warmer than here in the morning!  We have certainly enjoyed the contrasts between our three destination and were quite unprepared for the charm, beauty and affluence of San Miguel.  We can quite understand why so many people, particularly artists, have made it their winter home.  The Library, with its fundraising activities for the education of girls and women, provided a meeting place for the gringo community, who, for the most part, made us seem quite young and sprightly!  All in all, having visited the majority of the coastal resorts, we found this holiday offered so much more in terms of interest and culture and thoroughly appreciated the opportunity to sample so many new experiences.


In our last couple of days we visited one art gallery in town and a couple of places about a 20 minute drive out of SMA (120 peso by taxi each way or $8).  The art gallery was in the old nunnery and is called Bellas Artes with many exhibits and including some striking murals.  Out of town we visited the town of Atotonilco where there was a hot pool/spa complex rated highly by the Lonely Planet.  Maybe it was off season and too cold, but it looked rather run down and unappealing to us.  we had lunch but didn’t venture into the pools.  Nearby was the Sanctuario Atotonilco the ceiling of which has been described as the Sistine chapel of Mexico.  Not much competition with  the real thing!


Mexico 2019-20 Part 3

When we arrived back at the Casa Gonzales in Mexico City we were given the same room and, again met a most interesting group of guests at breakfast, a true League of Nations.  What we had not reckoned on is that all the museums in Mexico City close on Mondays.  On Tuesday we made up for that by taking the Metro to the historic district, first visiting the enormous Metropolitan  Cathedral and then the  ruins of the Templo Mayor, which are right in the heart of the city.  They could be easily seen from the sidewalk and some excavation was still being done.  Then came the high spot of the day, a visit to the Ministry of Education building, which has huge murals on almost every available surface painted by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. They were magnificent and depicted both the way of life and the history of the area.  Next morning we boarded the deluxe double-decker bus, reclining seats, foot rests and video screens for the four hour trip to San Miguel.  It certainly was not a scenic journey as there was so much urban sprawl, lots of factories and very little green space.


In San Miguel de Allende we have an Air B&B, which is self contained on the second floor of a house, whose owners are out of town.  Again Robin has come up trumps as it has an outdoor seating area with a barbecue, a heater and lots of plants.  We were met by the housekeeper, who comes in once a week to clean and do our laundry.  It has a very well equipped kitchen and everything we need.  We are very intrigued by the brickwork on the ceilings and Robin has spent lots of time trying to figure out how it’s done.


We had heard so much about San Miguel de Allende (SMA) over the years and have to say it’s the most charming of the colonial towns we have visited.  It is about 4 hours by bus NW of Mexico City and is quite high at  about 6,000 feet so the mornings and evenings tend to be cool and we are very glad of the gas heating in the house!  It’s easy to see why SMA has become an artists’ Mecca.  Originally it was the staging post between the silver mines and Mexico City and had very wealthy inhabitants.  Historically it is important as it was the first municipality declared independent of Spanish rule during the Mexican War of Independence.  The streets are cobblestones and are kept immaculate by women out scrubbing them each morning.  The skyline is dominated by beautiful churches, the most ornate one being the Parroquia, which looks rather like a Disney fairy tale castle at night.

There is a very large expat community of mostly Americans whose centre is the Bibliotecha.  This large compound houses an extensive library, a school for women and girls, a language centre and the venue for all sorts of activities like bridge, mahjong, lectures and poetry readings. Last Sunday we joined their weekly House and Garden tour, which was very interesting.  The first house was owned by a realtor from Phoenix, very blonde and flamboyant.  Her house definitely reflected her personality being quite over the top and so staged you couldn’t imagine actually living there.  The second, Tres Cervezas, was absolutely gorgeous, having been extensively renovated over five years by owners with exquisite taste and deep pockets.  The best feature was the rooftop terrace with a pool and panoramic views of the town.

The Bibliotecha publishes its own newspaper, Que Pasa, outlining the slew of activities each day.  If that weren’t enough, SMA is a great place to walk as the streets are so pretty and the variety of doorways is a feature.  There are lots of very interesting shops with leatherwork, handicrafts and housewares.  We have been doing much of our own catering, shopping at the Mercado at prices that will make me weep when I return to Thriftys  but the meals we have had out have been so interesting and inventive.  At many of the restaurants you can dine in the courtyards which are quite magical, with flowering shrubs and fountains, very reminiscent of our experience in Marrakesh.

Needless to say, we are revelling in the blue skies, sunshine and warmth and feel very fortunate we have two more weeks to sample the wealth of experiences SMA has to offer.



Mexico 2019-20 part 2

The following gallery should have been in the last blog as we talked about the carpet factory in it.

The radish festival on December 23rd is a huge deal here, attracting hundreds of people to the Zocalo.  We decided to go early but, even then, it was mobbed with a long (2-hour) line up.  Someone took pity on us and directed us to a special entrance for the aged and infirm!  Swallowing our pride, off we went and got instant access and prime viewing.  Originally it began with farmers decorating their vegetable stalls to attract customers but now it has morphed into a competition with money prizes.  The radishes are different from our diminutive ones and all competitors had to source them from the government.  It was a one day event and the radishes had to be misted all the time to keep them looking white and fresh.

December 24th marks the Christmas celebration here and we were fortunate to be invited to Nora’s parents’ B&B for the festivities.  At six, a group of about thirty, guests, family and neighbours, gathered in the courtyard and, as darkness fell, were given lanterns and candles.  Half the group went out into the street to represent Mary and Joseph, while the inside group were the inn keepers.  We all had song sheets and sang alternate verses (in Spanish).  The seventh verse was sung in unison, celebrating Mary and Joseph having found room at the inn and the two groups were reunited inside.  We then all sang carols together.  After that, it was piñata time and first the kids and then some adults destroyed two piñatas and everyone gathered up the candy and money that spilled out.  Nora’s mom provided mulled wine , a buffet supper and a good time was had by all.  I really wished I had more fluent Spanish to express our appreciation for the generous hospitality.

On the 28th was my cooking class with Nora and I was totally impressed with its professionalism.  There were nine of us, a family of four and a gay male couple from Colorado, two young women, one from Dublin, the other from Belgium and me.    We started off with an explanation of the cuisine and how it had been a major factor in Oaxaca being made a UNESCO World heritage site.  Then we went to the Mercado, where R and I had been doing our shopping, without any real understanding of the range of produce available.  We found out about the wide range of peppers, the special cheeses, the organic vegetables and the herbs.  Then it was back to Nora’s kitchen where we all donned aprons as it was very hands on.  We produced guacamole on cactus leaves, chicken soup, tamales and chocolate dessert.  Everyone was happy to pitch in, chopping, grilling, stirring.  We individually assembled the tamales from the chicken mole we made as a group.  Then we all sat around the beautifully appointed dining room table to sample the results of our labours.  Robin got to eat with us.

Another highlight was our visit to the Oaxacan Museum of Culture, which houses just about all the treasures found in the major tomb at Monte Alban.   It was discovered in the 1930s by an American archeologist and the find was on a par with Tutankhamen, with gold, silver, jade and thousands of intricate beads, which the team had painstakingly restrung.

Another high spot was a visit to a very special garden, recommended by a volunteer at the library.  It was a thirty minute cab ride away and even the cab driver didn’t know where he was headed.  It was owned by the designer of the botanical garden and was a real secret garden hidden away behind high bamboo screens.  It was a true Mexican garden full of cacti and succulents, looking stunning under the hot sun.  The garden art ranged from tiny dragon flies perched on plants to huge sculptures – quirky but just right.  There was a water feature full of fish that was large enough to accommodate a dugout canoe full of succulents.

Now we are back in Mexico City for a couple of nights before departing by bus to San Miguel.