Life is a vacation in San Miguel de Allende
Colonial city in Mexico lures American transplants
Sunday, May 4, 2003
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico -- Every traveler has dreamed of going on vacation and never coming back. And that's almost how it happened for former Bay Area residents living in San Miguel de Allende, the remarkably preserved colonial city and artists' colony in Mexico's heartland. Some visited the fabled 500-year-old town, fell in love with the ancient architecture and decided to stay. Others were searching for a new beginning and found it in the creative society that thrives here.
San Miguel's influx of expatriates began in the 1940s with artists, writers and other creative types who came to the Escuela de Bellas Artes and Instituto Allende to study art and Spanish. Now several thousand foreigners have retired here, and many more "snowbirds" come for the winter months.
For Dianne Kushner, who was living in San Anselmo, 1995 was a bad year. Three close friends died within months of each other, and Kushner, a former psychotherapist and international printing broker, took off on a trip to Mexico. Life is short, she reasoned, and she was ready for an adventure.
Kushner, 55, had spent a college semester in Mexico and later vacationed there often. But she had never planned on picking up and moving to Mexico until, as she puts it, "I was seduced by the aura of possibilities that exists in this town." She did not hesitate to sink her life's savings into an old Spanish colonial structure in the center of San Miguel.
Today, Casa Luna is a nine-room bed and breakfast inn, recently featured in Travel & Leisure magazine as "one of the world's most fabulous unknown hotels. " Kushner retains her U.S. citizenship and holds an FM-3 visa, which allows her to live in Mexico long term and rent out rooms. Her one-bedroom apartment sits atop the inn, complete with a bougainvillea-draped roof terrace and a 360- degree vista of the town's many church spires. Aside from innkeeping, she finds time for other endeavors, like the recent publication of "Visions of San Miguel," a 132-page collection of images that capture the spirit of her adopted home through the eyes of celebrated photographers.
Students of Mexican history and culture flock to San Miguel, which was founded by Spanish conquistadores 50 years after Columbus first stepped onto the beaches of the New World. A four-hour drive north of Mexico City, perched at 6,400 feet in the central mountains, the village of cobblestone streets and stone facades is famous as an international art center, often dubbed "the Santa Fe of Mexico," and has become a favored settlement for U.S. and Canadian "ex-pats."
Phil McPherson, 74, and David Gaskin, 61, who used to own a furniture store on Castro Street, moved to San Miguel in 1999. "We never decided officially to leave the Bay Area," says Gaskin. "But we are gypsies, and we were seeking a challenge."
Their Mexican challenge took shape as Las Terrazas San Miguel, a small cluster of hillside casitas and patios that have been renovated as short-term vacation rentals.
The couple had been visiting Guanajuato state, where San Miguel is located, for more than 25 years. They were drawn to the people, both Mexicans and foreign expatriates. They loved the climate, which averages 72 degrees year- round with no humidity, and the architecture. Designated a historic monument in 1920, San Miguel has preserved the integrity of its inner city's stone streets, 17th century mansions, carved cantera mable doorways and hidden patio gardens.
Not every ex-pat in San Miguel ends up in the lodging business. Former San Franciscan Kathy McAley, 64, first visited in 1990. After her mother's death in 1993, she returned -- and decided to stay when she found a modest casita to rent for $200 a month. Later, she met a family from Mexico City who had a second home in San Miguel, and one thing led to another. Today she is caretaker for a grand hacienda on one of the best streets in town.
McAley earns her living by selling hand-painted cards, decorated matchboxes,
Mexican-style icons and bottle-cap earrings. She began by supplying these creations to local boutiques and now has buyers from Paris, London and Amsterdam.
"Life here unfolds in an easy manner," she says. "What I love most about San Miguel is that it gives me serenity and an incredible sense of community."
Most ex-pats agree that the uniquely Mexican experience of living in the moment is what attracts them to San Miguel. You take time to visit with people as you walk through El Jardin, the main square, which is indeed a garden complete with laurel trees, a bandstand and wrought-iron benches. You buy fruits and vegetables fresh every day at the central market. You make it a habit to walk just about everywhere.
What's more, San Miguel is a place where gringos don't need to be on guard; it's not a border town, and it's definitely not Mexico City. Few beggars and no hustlers crowd the narrow, quaint streets and alleyways, where homes, restaurants, art-and-craft boutiques, and corner stores co-exist as comfortably as the town's residents do.
Nonetheless, day-to-day life requires some adjustments.
For one, this is a cash society. "There are no mortgages," notes Gaskin. "And, when you get your monthly phone bill, you go to the Telmex office, stand in line and pay cash."
There's also the issue of "Mexican time." Locals place a different value on matters of punctuality. "You learn that patience is the name of the game," says Kushner.
It's still not a good idea to drink water directly from the tap, but most ex-pats have water purification systems in their homes. Local medical clinics provide good care for the occasional bout of turista. Many ex-pats maintain U. S. medical insurance, paying for basic health care out of pocket and returning stateside for major procedures.
Some worry that San Miguel will become too slick, too Americanized. As recently as 10 years ago, there were more donkeys on the streets than cars. Now there are traffic jams. In a land where it takes six months or more to have a phone installed, cell phones are rampant. Cyber cafes and a local DSL provider offer easy access to the Internet, and satellite dishes on every rooftop bring CNN into the tiled courtyards behind carved wooden doors. There's even a Costco store 45 minutes away in the city of Queretaro, where bread from Grace Baking is flown in from the Bay Area.
The California comforts available in San Miguel don't satisfy all of an ex- San Franciscan's cravings. "Some foods you just can't get," says McPherson, who spirits away frozen lamb chops in his luggage when returning from the States, then saves them for special occasions. When she returns from her California visits, McAley totes her own footlocker of missing-in-Mexico items: soy protein, Chinese sauces and favorite body lotions.
But for San Francisco ex-pats -- and some 3,000 others from Texas, New York and Canada who now call San Miguel home -- the camaraderie, the serenity and the easy pace of life more than compensate. Nearly everyone in San Miguel, it seems, has a book inside, or a screenplay, or is working on an art or photo exhibition. And many of them do deliver themselves of their creations. Along the way, they slow down and simplify their lives. They adapt to a different culture. And, perhaps most important, they join a community of locals and like- minded compadres who have chosen to set down roots in Mexico.