March came and went, and with it a scary thing happened: I
turned 30. Well, maybe not so scary, but still – thirty! I’m not used to saying
that number yet. As Chicago tends to have still cold and glooomy weather in
March, it became my annual habit to take a mini vacation and celebrate my
birthday elsewhere – and this year we descended down to Mexico, specifically –
San Miguel del Allende.
For the last several years, during Chicago’s Bucktown Art
Festival, I had the pleasure of exhibiting across Berit and Pat, the owners of
J.P. Wilds Jewelry. They spend half a year, during the art festival season,
based in Madison, WI, and the other half – in their home in San Miguel. They
have been inviting us to visit them in Mexico for a few years, and we finally
took them up on their gracious offer!
A few years ago, we visited Guanajuato – a neighbor/sister
city of San Miguel, and this time I knew to expect another town full of charm,
sun filled streets, fresh tortillas, and bright colored houses. San Miguel is
situated in a dessert, so the landscape and vegetaion here is somewhat similar
to Phoneix, AZ area – but because of its higher elevation, San Miguel has more
temerate climate with fewer blazing hot days.
The house of Berit and Pat is so cozy, and so beautifully Mexican.
On our first evening here, they put me to work (well, I offered to help!) – with preparing some raw
vegetable-based crackers that they sell to a neighborhood organic foods store. These crackers get dehydrated
overnight, and in the morning they are ready for delivery and so delicious,
that I had a hard time not eating more than just a few of them.
What I always loved about Mexico is that it is so close, but
yet so far. The flight is easy, but it trasports you into a different world –
much more slow paced, with less rules and regulations, bright, sunny, and
always friendly. The crackers don’t have to be approved by any FDA to be sold
in a corner store, either.
The day after arrival was my birthday, and we set out to
explore the town. In the center of San Miguel is a zocalo (or, el jardin – as
locals refer to it) and the absolute gem of the city is the pink granite Cathedral (official name – Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel), which
was built in 1800s, apparently from a european postcard photo. The church’s pink color changes its shade with sunlight.
Across from el jardin is a Starbucks – yep, even authentic
San Miguel couldn’t escape it, but this one wins the prize of being the most
gorgeous Starbucks I have ever visited. Very colonial décor, with a big
coutrtyard – wow.
San Miguel is not large and is very easy to navigate. It is
in a valley, with some very steep streets going outward. The town is also full
of American expats (who significantly drove up the real estate prices in the
area) – and it is amusing to watch the retired ones lazily move about the town
from el jardin, to a coffee shop, to a restaurant, only to repeat the same pattern
on the following day. Below are some street shots from our explorations.
San Miguel is also full of artists – many immigrated from the States, but there is also a lot of authentic Mexican
talent. A short walk from Pat and Berit’s home, there is Fabrica La Aurora – a
big warehouse building that is an old textile factory that has been converted
into art galleries and artists’ studios. We spent a few hours here, exploring.
I enjoyed looking at so many paintings, and should have taken more photos. Here
is some art by Juan Ezcurdia, one of the
resident artists of Aurora who made quite a name for himself in San Miguel.
To watch the sunset, Kurt and I lounged in one of several
bars near Jardin that have a rooftop deck, with some mandatory birdthay drinks!
For birthday dinner, the four of us drove outside of the
city to Da Andrea – an italian restaurant operated out of a huge La Landeta hacienda which is
known for its excellend food. Da Andrea doesn’t have a menu – the chef verbally
tells you what he is preparing that day. This lady was actually making our
ravioli and gnochi from scratch!!!
Needless to say, the restaurant did not disappoint – it was
a perfect birthday! (with some appetizing sunburn)
The following day, we drove to swim in La Gruta – a series of outdoor pools and waterfalls fed by thermal hot springs just outside of San Miguel. I did not bring my camera there since
the plan was to be soaking in mineral-rich water all day. The greatest thing about La Gruta
springs is the grotto – a huge cave where you can relax in the warmest water. Trust me, this place is worth a visit!
Another day, another adventure. We wanted to spend a day
riding bikes through the surroundings, and Pat, who goes biking regularly,
gathered a fun group to show us the area. So, we rented some wheels. We started biking on the paved highway leading out of San Miguel, but
followed them off road and stayed on dirt roads for the rest of the day. My
butt, but being used to dirt road bike seat abuse, protested, but the pain was
worth it. We saw some Mexican country life that no tourists usually get to see.
For example, how often do you bike in the middle of nowhere and find an 18th century abandoned church??
And here is the abandoned church’s ceiling, you can still make out the original designs.
Here is a bridge that we crossed over a river, that is actually old railroad tracks:
Here is an encounter with a farmer and his “family.” The
cows and sheep didn’t know rules of the road, but we eventually got around them.
We biked through a town called Atotonilco, a small village with only one mail street, which is famous for its
beautiful white-washed pilgrimage church. I was interested in the fame of this tiny town and a Google search brought me to www.sacredsites.com, which says this about Atotonilco church:
“Thousands of Christians come each year to participate in religious exercises such as sleeping in stone cells on cold rock floors, crawling around the perimeter of the shrine on bare and bloody knees, wearing crowns of thorns, and flagellating themselves with whips. This is done for a variety of reasons. Many of the pilgrims feel they must experience some of the pain they imagine Christ felt during his carrying of the cross to hill of Golgatha, and his subsequent hanging on the cross. Local history recounts that from 1880 to the present times as many as 100,000 people a year have made pilgrimages to the shrine.”
Wow. There you have it. The interior of the church is quite beautiful:
…and so is the exterior:
And THIS local tradition even has Mexicans
scratching their heads: all the new male members of the church have to parade
around town in white veils. I respect their customs and all, but it was quite hilarious.
And here’s a mandatory snack cooked right on the streets of Atotonilco – washed down with some fresh carrot juice.
In the end of the day, Pat’s group – 3 guys in their 60s and
70s – left us in the dust. We rode about 40 miles on dirt roads, and towards
the end I slowed down to an embarrassing speed and told everyone not to wait on
me. My butt was numb by then. But once we finished the trail, had a cold beer
in our hands, and my butt came back to its senses, we were delightfully happy
with our day.
The following day we went to El Carco del Ingenio, the botanical
gardens. Even through they are outside of the city, we decided to follow the
map and walk. It ended up being a longer walk than we expected, but that’s
ok. The botanical gardens themselves weren’t too impressive – well, unless you
like cacti… Lots of cacti. Pretty much, the same cacti that grows OUTSIDE of
the gardens (just my humble opinion – I don’t want to offend any botanists).
But, hiding in the back part of the gardens’ trail, there is a
small, but beautiful canyon. Upon further exploration, we hiked down some rocks
and eventually noticed some metal… which ended up being a ladder all the way to
the bottom of the canyon! Yess! We climbed the ladder, of course, and were
granted with a nice little water oasis (and a small group of Mexican teenagers
jumping into that water from various rocks). It was such a fun detour from
otherwise plain botanical garden.
By the way, that (very sturdy) ladder is hidden behind the sign that says
“danger.” This is NOT my legal advise, but going around the signs that say “danger” pays off sometimes!!!
Our last couple of days of San Miguel were spent walking up
more steep streets, exploring city’s park, eating chocolate churros, tortas,
and breakfast crepes, taking in more of San Miguel’s views, sleeping in late,
and listening to mariachi and flamenco guitar performers outside in the jardin.
And of course, I sketched the beautiful Cathedral:
Well, sorry I couldn’t post about 300 additional photos that I took. It was a GREAT birthday vacation. I returned inspired by all the bright colors and ready to paint, and can’t wait to return there someday!