Santa Fe South Haven: San Miguel is beautiful and historic and has lured many from the United States. It's easy to see why some people come to visit and never leave.

December 01, 1996|By Barbara Shea | Barbara Shea,NEWSDAY

It was 48 hours to Revolution Day in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and the local kindergartners were practice-parading through their Mexican village like pint-sized "Zapatistas" -- boys sporting Pancho Villa mustaches, girls rouged and ruffled into elegant senoritas. In the spirit of the occasion, they carried balloons, banners and, of course, guns, albeit toy ones.

Among the cheering onlookers were many Americans, who I first assumed were on a tour. After all, I'd just gotten off a bus myself. But then I heard one say: "Well, I've got to get home and call the caterer. See you at the house Saturday night."

Wait a minute. Catered "gringo" parties in a provincial Mexican town 2,000 miles south of New York City?

You'd better believe it. Also espresso bars, video rentals and take-out sushi. Because this was no dusty little pueblo, but cosmopolitan Mexico's most celebrated artists' colony and oasis for expatriate Yankees. Over several decades San Miguel has evolved into a sort of Santa Fe South -- or as my doctor calls it: "Santa Fe with a Lomotil chaser."

With the undrinkable water, inconvenient location and language barrier, San Miguel would seem an unlikely magnet for foreign emigres. And indeed, these drawbacks have kept the celebrity quotient low (writer Clifford Irving is among the few who've been sometime-residents, and actress Michelle Pfeiffer took some sculpting classes there). But it also doesn't take long to see why the town has charmed so many thousands.

During Mexico's colonial days, San Miguel -- then known as San Miguel El Grande -- was the wealthiest town in silver-rich New Spain, and stately mansions adorned with carved-wood doors and stone coats of arms still line the cobbled streets. Some continue to serve as luxurious homes; others have been turned into sophisticated shops and restaurants that spill into flower-filled courtyards. The entire one-square-mile downtown has been declared a national historic landmark, protected forever from golden arches and neon marquees.

Industry-free and 6,000 feet above sea level, San Miguel also is bathed in the kind of clear light artists worship (the town's artistic tradition goes back to the 16th century, when it was settled by a group of Indians who had been taught European techniques of weaving by a Franciscan friar). The pure air is further sweetened by the music of scores of church bells, which continually clang indecipherable codes to call the faithful. The most resonant bonging comes from the pink-stone Gothic spires of the "parroquia," or parish church.

Students of all ages flock to San Miguel from around the world to study Spanish at several internationally famous language schools, or art and music at the Ignacio Ramirez Cultural Center, a branch of Mexico City's renowned Instituto de Belles Artes.

Others come just to hang out in the collegial atmosphere, in which they count on running into long-lost kindred spirits -- or finding new ones.

In addition to the artsy crowd, San Miguel attracts history-minded travelers tracing the Route of Independence through the Mexican Bahio, the arid central highlands between Texas and Mexico City. The seeds of insurrection were first scattered in San Miguel and other nearby colonial cities, and in 1821 the town was renamed San Miguel de Allende to honor a revolutionary hero who was born there.

What makes San Miguel all the more attractive is the fact that it is a mega-bargain for Americans. The exchange rate now is hovering around 8 pesos to the dollar, which translates into four-course meals for less than $5.

San Miguel is also essentially a peaceful haven. The locals know that gentrification has been a huge boon to the economy. What little crime there is mainly seems to involve petty thefts.

Since the American colony took root in the 1950s, increasing numbers of visitors have been known to cancel their flight home and settle in. A favorite joke in the expatriate community greets every newcomer: "What -- you've been here three days and haven't bought a house yet?"

To find out what's going on each week, pick up a copy of San Miguel's English-language newspaper, Atencion. There's a mammoth new modern supermarket on the outskirts of town, which everyone admittedly has grown to love. But most Americans also shop daily at the street markets, which also are popular with tourists hungry for a glimpse of the real Mexico so often invisible along the overdeveloped coasts.

San Miguel obliges them in other ways, often with a mix of Indian and Spanish traditions. Native women still patronize an outdoor public laundry, which now consists of washtubs that stand near the stream where women used to beat their clothes clean on rocks. And every Sunday night the local teen-agers continue the age-old Spanish custom of promenading around the main plaza -- boys in one direction, girls in the other until they start pairing up and then continue their stroll together.

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