Words by Dalene Heck / Photography by Dalene and Pete Heck
It was almost five o’clock on a Sunday, two weeks after arriving in Mexico, that I began to fully realize my presence there. I sat on our patio and watched the sun rays split the clouds surrounding. I could hear dogs and shouting; I surmised that the latter was from a football match close by. Small trees in potted plants swayed against the wind. My bare arms were pimpled; as usual, I had underestimated the chill outside of my door. We had just spent almost an entire year in winter and I craved the sun.
I rubbed my arms to create warmth and refused to go back inside. At moments I shivered, but I held fast to wait out those last few moments of daylight.
I don’t want to become those bloggers that routinely say: “Hey, we showed up in a wonderfully exotic place but just sat inside and worked most of the time.”Except, um, in the case of San Miguel de Allende, that is exactly what we did.
Not that I would characterize San Miguel as wonderfully exotic to begin with as the city is notoriously packed with expats from far reaches of North America. The appeal to gringos is apparent as it has many fantastic offerings: a thriving art scene, great choices for food, and one can’t deny the charming beauty of its colourful streets. For us, and those who attribute higher value to places that are perceived as more challenging, San Miguel can appear a bit tedious. But in our state of work overload, it was also pretty much exactly what we needed. We were comfortable and the living was easy, which allowed us to focus on our business for the month.
We were completely content. I can’t even begin to explain the immense relief felt upon arrival back in Mexico, despite what happened to Pete on the coast during our last visit. Even though that horrifying event was almost two years ago now, I had expected to encounter a bit of residual anxiety. But to my surprise, neither of us harboured any in the slightest. Mexico instead reminded us of its best qualities: that it is friendly, unpretentious, and downright soul-nourishing. We were once again quickly and completely hooked.
But we unfortunately have little to report on from a tourist’s point of view. Even though we were there over the holiday season and public events were frequent, we shied away from most. Instead we mostly huddled inside and chipped away at our task list. And thus our first month in Mexico whizzed by, and our reflection on San Miguel is made up of just a few defining moments…
During a rare break from work, when all either of us wanted to do was curl up on a couch, we turned on the movie Sicario.Not exactly relaxing, but entirely thrilling, Sicario is about an FBI agent tasked with bringing down a powerful Mexican drug cartel. At one point during the movie, several agents stood at a lookout point over Juárez, where nothing but gun shots and explosions could be heard ringing out in the city below.
The view from our patio was not a dissimilar one, I realized after the movie, as I moved from the couch to outside, again longing to take in some fresh air and the last of the sun’s warmth. And yes, I heard loud bangs constantly too. But those were from fire crackers, not guns. There was also a marching band several streets over. I heard kids laughing and squealing.
How poorly Mexico is portrayed, I thought, knowing that the movie scene is how most people see this country, as opposed to the peaceful view spread out before me. How broad the brush is that paints all of Mexico as dangerous and unworthy.
How sad for all of those who are missing out because of fear.
How broad the brush is that paints this whole country as dangerous and unworthy. How sad for all of those who are missing out.
A return to Guanajuato was in order. We had spent a month there almost two years ago, and wanted very badly to return to those colourful streets we loved. It is only an hour away from San Miguel but much less of a haven for expats. It is a bit smaller, and in our opinion, much more beautiful.And my taste buds wooed me back to the place that offers the best chilaquiles I’ve ever had. Although this time the chips seemed a bit too soggy and they weren’t as generous with the fresh cheese (had I put them on a “chilaquiles pedestal”?). Thankfully the sauce was still as perfectly spiced. We spent the rest of the day wandering and also climbed up to the famed viewpoint. The scenery was indeed as good as we remembered.
We don’t often find ourselves visiting places we’ve been to before, being far too addicted to “new”. But I will admit it felt good to be somewhere familiar and know our way around without stumbling. This should be something we consider more often.
I will admit it felt good to be somewhere familiar and know our way around without stumbling.
three, four, five, six…
I’ll be honest: it was ultimately the food that brought us back to Mexico this winter. And it’s always memorable to eat a delicious plate of Al Pastor tacos, which is why we did it so often.
Our New Year’s Eve was a fairly quiet one. Accompanied by friends at our house, we ate tacos and played cards. Consider that quiet in Mexico is a relative term; our conversations were frequently interrupted by the sound of fire crackers. By that time we had been in San Miguel for several weeks and it was no longer a jarring noise, rather something to be ignored and talked around. As the clock ticked closer to the calendar turning over, we darted up to the roof to watch the fireworks set off in the main square.Considering all the noisy build-up to the moment, the fireworks show was disappointingly short. But what was more interesting, from our elevated vantage point, was what our neighbours were doing.
A group of partiers emerged from a house just across the street and proceeded to walk around the block and back inside, hooting and cheering as they went. A couple of people were curiously pulling suitcases behind them, which we learned later is a Mexican New Year tradition. Such a ritual, to walk a suitcase around the block just after midnight, is said to bring good travels in the new year. An alternative is to place a suitcase in the middle of the room and walk around it.
We were glad they had brought their party outside. Feliz año nuevo, we yelled and waved at them, and our greeting was enthusiastically returned.
And with that, our new year had begun.
Such a ritual, to walk a suitcase around the block just after midnight, is said to bring good travels in the new year.
where we stayed
It can be difficult to find accommodations in San Miguel de Allende during the busy holiday season, but we lucked out when a friend who was already living there found some options for us in an expat Facebook group. Our casita (here on Airbnb) was on the edge of town, almost a half hour walk to the centre, but also a quick taxi or bus ride. It was very comfortable, owned by a lovely and accommodating couple, and included visits from the resident pets, which we ADORED.