Release the artist within with a visit to the gem of Mexico’s Guanajuato state – San Miguel de Allende, a walled city in the country’s highlands that has been welcoming creative souls since its founding in 1541. Do you have an artist inside of you who is just waiting to emerge? Or are you simply an art lover looking for something a bit different? Even though the city of close to 150,000 people is an expat haven, it is also still home to many Mexican and indigenous people who live, work, play and create alongside foreigners.
There are conflicting reports as to who arrived when in San Miguel, but it cannot be disputed that José Mojica, the Mexican tenor and aspiring Hollywood star who would later become a Franciscan monk, was the among the first to recognize the artistic and creative potential under the dust and in the now famous mountains, canyons, valleys and trails. Having gained success in the US, and relocated primarily to Santa Monica, Mojica built a mansion in San Miguel and crowned it Villa Santa Monica. The house has since been converted into a lovely boutique hotel and restaurant. It didn’t take long for Mojica’s friends, including the Chilean poets Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, to join him.
In 1927, the Peruvian artist and diplomat Felipe Cossío del Pomar, at the encouragement of Mexican intellectuals Alfonso Reyes and José Vasconcelos, stopped in San Miguel and fell in love with the quality of light. Ten years later, he converted an old army barracks (formerly a convent) into the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes, giving new life and direction to the abandoned town with art and creativity. Attracting students from Mexico and abroad, the school flourished, and San Miguel was transformed into a budding artist’s colony.
Life called Cossío del Pomar away for several years, and when he returned he discovered the Instituto in near ruin due to the mismanagement and neglect of the people he left in charge. Rather than trying to fix the damage, he created the Instituto Allende along with former Guanajuato governor Enrique Fernández Martínez and his wife Nell Harris, a former Arizona beauty queen; and Stirling Dickinson, an American writer and artist (a graduate of Princeton University and the Art Institute of Chicago), who arrived in San Miguel in 1938. Dickinson promoted the city as a “GIs paradise” and the school of choice for American soldiers who were able to study abroad on the GI bill (several of whom later retired in San Miguel).
Dickinson is widely credited with leading the charge to make San Miguel the artist’s haven it is today, and is buried in the Our Lady of Guadalupe Cemetery, west of San Miguel’s center, which is a destination unto itself on November 2 – the Day of the Dead. A bronze bust of Dickinson also stands on a street bearing his name.
Creative Spirits Converge
Guanajuato is the birthplace of famed muralist Diego Rivera, and San Miguel has long been a beacon for international artists and writers who either go to visit, study, teach or create. In the early years, José Chávez Morado and David Alfaro Siqueiros – one of the founders of Mexican Muralism – taught at the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes. Siqueiros also left behind an unfinished mural at the Bellas Artes, which aficionados of his work revel in the chance to visit.
Reva Brooks, who the San Francisco Museum of Art anointed one of the top 50 female photographers in history, originally hailed from Canada, and arrived in San Miguel in 1947 with her husband, artist Frank Leonard Brooks where he intended to study painting for a year. That year extended to fifty, during which time Brooks taught and created art and Reva became influential and respected for her images documenting the realities of everyday Mexican life. Reva was also responsible, with Dickinson, for the creation of an extensive artists’ colony in San Miguel.
Beat writers and poets Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Ken Kesey all found their way through San Miguel in the 1960s, along with tribes of hippies and others looking for a haven away from the tumultuous social upheavals in the US. One of the writers’ favorite haunts was the bar La Cucaracha, which is still going strong and has become a must-stop point on any visit.
The Colony Today
The Fabrica La Aurora, an old textile mill that was converted into a multi-faceted arts space in 2001, houses artists’ studios, galleries, shops, a café and a restaurant. Internationally renowned artists occupy over 40 spaces where they explore their creativity and create new work. Current artists “in residence” at La Aurora include:
Raé Miller, a wax sculptor and founding member of International Encaustic Artists, the Encaustic Art Institute, SAZWAX (Southern Arizona Wax) and Texas Wax, and a former Board Member of Indian Valley Artists.
Mary Rapp, a sculptor, painter and printmaker whose work ranges from architectural constructs in copper and cement, to sensitive studies and portraits in clay and bronze, large monoprints, mixed media and pencil sketches.
William Martin, a painter in the tradition of the great masters, who uses techniques that have been almost lost by modern artists and hopes to tempt the viewer to select a grape, to caress a fabric, or draw close to a rose with his work.
In addition to these fine artists, there are thousands of others, along with Mexican and indigenous artisans, who display their work throughout San Miguel.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, San Miguel is well known for its impressive number of churches, the most prominent being the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, a soaring cathedral built in the Gothic and Baroque style.
There are many other cultural venues to visit, such as the La Otra Cara de Mexico museum, the bullring, the old train station, the Angela Peralta Theater, the Casa de Marqués de Jaral de Berrio, the Casa de los Condes de Loja and the Museo de la Esquina and Museo Interactiveo Fragua de la Independencia.
As San Miguel developed into an increasingly intriguing destination over the decades, the city’s gastronomic scene developed in tandem. Today, traditional and cutting-edge Mexican eateries compete with organic vegan cafes, sushi bars and Peruvian, Italian and other international establishments, including The Restaurant created by James Beard Chef Donnie Masterson.
Plan Your Trip
- The most ideal months to visit are April through May and September to mid-December, for spring-like weather and a series of traditional Mexican fiestas.
- There is no international airport in San Miguel de Allende and visitors usually fly into the Leon/Bajio airport or the Mexico City airport and then take a bus.
- Do not plan on driving a car as walking is the best way to explore San Miguel. A sightseeing trolley leaves from the tourism office on the north side of the Jardín Principal and covers the city’s main points of interest, ending at the Mirador, a lookout point where you’ll be able to have a panoramic view of the city.
- Hotels are plentiful, ranging from boutique accommodations to large corporate hotels.
- Restaurants abound and there is no shortage of quality food to please just about any budget.
- San Miguel has an incredibly vibrant nightlife scene and it won’t be hard to find a spot to party the night away.