Sam Does San Miguel de Allende: No Ice, But Treacherous Sidewalks and 76 Light Switches

Enjoying San Miguel’s warm weather, evening light, and rooftop restaurants in February 2023

{Update from Sam} For years Debbie has been badgering me about looking into a place in a warmer climate where we might spend some of our dotage. This is a reasonable response to, and outgrowth of, spending the first five winters in Maine following our gap year.

As the winters grew longer, the ice slicker, the snow shovel heavier, the back weaker, the knees wobblier, and the bones colder, the siren song of temperate climes called loudly to Debbie. And I admit that sometimes I found myself humming that same tune.

But I did not want to think of myself as a snowbird. I did not want to think of myself as travelling just to follow the sun or to flee from the periodic snow storm.

Palm Beach, Sedona, Palm Springs? Been there and could not get excited. Key West? Crazy enough to be very likable, but it is a small place and my sister got there first.

Before and during Covid, we have spent some time in Baja. It was nice enough. Pleasantly exotic. Plenty dusty. But awfully far for a regular commute.

Southern France? Certainly, my first choice, but again, a bit too far afield.

Condé Nast Recommends San Miguel de Allende

Rooftop view of the Parroquia, the iconic cathedral in SMA’s main square

So why not try San Miguel de Allende, about which one reads so much? Of course, it is not much different a commute than Baja, but it is well known as an affordable refuge for American retirees and my sister-in-law returned with glowing reports of an excellent experience having spent three months there during COVID. Besides, it has been judged the “best small city in the world” three years running by Condé Nast.

With that in mind and thinking that booking several weeks in such a town would either win me over or break Debbie of her obsession, we signed up with AirBnB for most of February 2023.

The first feeling that overwhelms me on arriving in a Central American or South American country is how little English is spoken, compared to Europe, and how completely adrift I feel even where a romance language is in use. I might as well be in Greece or Burma. Yes, I can puzzle my way through most signage and with a clownish use of hand gestures and a few words of Survival Spanish I can stumble through most transactions. But the regularity of misunderstanding someone based on a “false friend” mistranslation is constantly anxiety provoking.

Our rooftop terrace at sunset

I know this doesn’t reflect well on me, and I understand that when living in a continent and a half united by a single common language there is little pressure on the average worker to learn an additional one, but wouldn’t it be a good career move for people in the hospitality industry to speak English – the fallback language for so much of the rest of the world?


Are Your Ankles Strong Enough for SMA?

The second thing that struck me – like the hot kiss on the end of a wet fist – when arriving in the center of town is that the best possible career move in SMA is to practice orthopedic surgery (alternatively personal injury law – although I suspect the city is indemnified against the same). It is as if the city planners set out to create a pedestrian environment intended to cause as many broken bones as possible.

Quick photo as the local bus barrels down: note the sidewalk and the projecting lintel at head height

There is not a flat walking surface, a standard tread or rise to any step, a right angle on any curb, a true horizontal plane anywhere in the city center.  The sidewalks are too narrow to navigate in pairs. They are cracked by ‘frost heaves’ without the benefit of freezing weather. They are interrupted by stone stairs up into shop doors or down into house stoops. The streets are cobble stone. Curb cuts are engineered to slant unexpectedly and there is no attempt to blend them in with the line of the sidewalk or the line of the street.

Of course, navigating these infinite surface irregularities requires constant concentration with eyes cast down and forward, but this pose guarantees hitting one’s head on the window lintels that protrude out and over the sidewalk at the height of the average gringo’s temple or cutting one’s forehead on the awnings of the ubiquitous food trucks. In sum, the overall effect is to make the Ninja Warrior obstacle course look like child’s play.

76 Light Switches: Why AirBnB Makes You Pay For Utilities

My first impression of arriving at our AirBnB on the exquisitely picturesque Callejon Blanco (side street) was that security would be an issue. We were handed two sets of keys, each set included seven keys, for six lock worthy doors and a safe.

Afternoon light on Blanco, our little side street.

After passing through the two entrance doors (the first was a steel gate and the second a three-inch-thick mesquite door with steel reinforcement), we entered a beautiful entrance passageway that took us sixty feet off the street into what must have formerly been the courtyard, or backyard, of other homes where our rental was built as an afterthought. We stepped down into a small courtyard with two garden level bedrooms and then up to a living room, dining room, kitchen space.

One flight above that was a sunroom and sun deck with dining space and hot tub. A perfect venue for watching the sunsets for which SMA is well known. There were two and one-half bathrooms, four fountains, two light shafts, two oculi, and a dumbwaiter. Architecturally, it was a wonder with welcoming pastel pink walls, fourteen altars, a similar number of representations of Christ on a cross, dozens of unadorned crosses, and innumerable rosaries.

As two agnostics whose forebears were fallen respectively from Judaism and various forms of low-voltage Christianity, Debbie and I felt completely out of our depth. It was like living in a cathedral except we had better lighting. Indeed, there were 76 electrical switches in this living space designed for four. Mood lighting to fit every mood except the frustration of finding that flipping one switch on the garden level seemed to turn on something on the rooftop and vice versa.

The Pleasures of Daily Shopping

Working in the open air public library (very popular with the ex-pats)

Finding the larder bare (except for the requisite welcoming pitcher of Margaritas and associated plate of guacamole and chips), we plunged out to the local bodegas along Calle Insurgentes. At first a challenge, shopping for staples and sundries became my go-to happy place. The clerks and shopkeepers were unfailingly patient and polite despite the fact that their small shops with narrow aisles were crowded with elderly North Americans trying to decipher the contents of any given package of food or fluid while puzzling over where and when to submit produce to be weighed and bagged. There was none of the sighing or sucking of air that might greet a similar situation in a Parisian market. Ever.

Mercado de Artesanías

Every door along the local, commercial streets – as distinguished from the high-end tourist shops and restaurants – opened into a small (frequently tiny) shop that sold meat or produce, bread, trinkets, clothes, cell phone accoutrements, hats, metal works, hair cutting or rotisserie chickens. Every one hundred yards there was a doctor’s consultation next door to an associated pharmacy and the cycle of storefronts would repeat itself.

The woman from whom I bought rotisserie chickens sold a whole chicken with salad and tacos for 130 pesos. The size of her roaster limited her to 12 chickens per day. 1560 pesos translates to $86 US. For her sake, I hope her overhead was very low.

I never paid more than 50 pesos for some combination of broccoli, grapefruit, and limes that were the staples of my home cooked meals (dinner, breakfast, and cocktail hour respectively). And I know they were organic because I saw the broccoli being trimmed on the floor.

Finally, I cannot remember the exact price of eggs, but it wasn’t much. News about inflation for eggs has not reached SMA.

OAPs, Locals, Well-To-Do Mexicans Abound

We made a friend: Bonnie Lee Black, an American ex-pat who has retired to SMA

Clearly, one can get by on comparatively low wages in SMA, but the appeal to old age pensioners from North America has to be more than cheap produce. I suspect it is some combination of low rent and minimal heating and cooling costs that makes SMA attractive to those on a fixed income. The average daily temperature in February ranges from a low of 45 Fahrenheit to a high of 75 F. In July the numbers are 57 F to 78 F. Elimination of one’s heating oil bills and lowering one’s electrical bills looks good on a fixed budget.

Unfortunately, we did not enjoy such manageable temperature swings. The first week we were there we endured lows of 28 degrees in the morning. Central heating is unknown in SMA and the natural gas fireplaces didn’t really cut it comfort-wise, especially when admonished by the house manager to use them sparingly as they tend to “use up all the oxygen” and there were no carbon monoxide detectors. We spent most mornings in the limited winter clothes we had with us for travel.

Two special friends from Stonington, ME came to visit

Evidence that SMA has served as a haven for old age pensioners is everywhere. One cannot swing a cat on a local commercial street without hitting several northerners who look like escapees from American nursing homes, replete with compression stockings, orthopedic shoes, walking sticks, and knee braces.

But not everyone to be seen is aging in place. The streets catering to tourists are thick with well-dressed locals, Mexicans from the big cities, well- to-do Guatemalans, prosperous Yankees, and youthful backpackers. The shops are packed with high end linens, scarfs, household goods, jewels, ceramics, and home furnishings. Although not a shopper by nature, and inclined to try to dampen Debbie’s ardor in this regard, when two of our friends from Stonington arrived, I was able to enjoy their pleasure as they went from store to store picking up ideas and objects.

SMA Comes Out At 4PM

But the real persona of San Miguel does not reveal itself until about 4 PM when the atmosphere begins to change. The bustle of locals slows down, bars and restaurants reopen their doors, the mariachi bands start assembling in the central plaza, and people watching becomes the preferred activity. Well dressed locals, aspiring models with their fashionistas, and families of all backgrounds pose in the Parroquia, trying to catch the light off the church towers in the background. And these are not typical gothic towers. These start with a gothic premise but multiply in number to appear as pink candles on a pink cake.

Afternoon mariachi serenade in front of the Parroquia

The atmosphere between 4 and 7 PM in SMA is extraordinary. The temperature is sublime, the air is dry and, unless you are standing downwind of a city bus, relatively pollution free. Sunsets themselves do not compare with parts of the world with moisture or particulate matter in circulation. But the several hours before sunset have a special quality that does not seem to vary from day to day. It is a quality that says, ‘slow down’ and get ready for your first margarita while you make your way to your sunset viewing spot of choice. A charming bridge on Quebrada spans Canal Street and serves as a free, open to the public, viewing site for those who are not ready for a bar stool or who want a margarita-free atmosphere.

Sampling pulque and tequila at La Mezcaleria, one of our favorite restaurants

Margaritas are not the only way to consume tequila. As a spirit, tequila can stand on its own. One new pleasure this trip was the discovery of pulque, a low in alcohol, fermented beverage that also comes from the agave plant. Pulque has the taste and texture of coconut milk that has had the coconut flavor removed. That might not sound like much of a recommendation, but it pairs brilliantly, yet softly, with tequila or mezcal.

Sticking with the theme of responsible alcohol consumption, SMA does not have a craft brew pub within walking distance of the town center. This is definitely a strike against it as a habitable city. Or it might be a business opportunity for someone looking for a second career.

Spanish With Alma

One of the most pleasant discoveries was Spanish with Alma, a small language school on Canal Street. Originally, we planned on taking Spanish lessons with one of the bigger schools as a way of making the acquaintance of other transients.  But we found the classes at the more established institution to be full and the scheduling of private classes to be too complicated.

Debbie with Diana, at left, our wonderful teacher at “Spanish With Alma” (name of the language school)

Spanish with Alma paired us with a charming young woman, Diana, who had a good grasp of how to teach “Survival Spanish,” an excellent sense of humor, and the mien of a kindergarten teacher – which was useful given our constant bickering. I learned only one word, ‘disculpe,’ which means ‘excuse me’ or ‘forgive me,’ but that is very useful, of course. It works well to get someone’s attention while typing a real question into Google Translate or to apologize to a local when taking up space on the sidewalk during the morning rush.

One question I came away with that Diana could not answer is why the verb form for the formal you (“vous” in French) is the same as for they (“ils” ou “elles” in French) This is quite different from French and English (if I’m getting this right).

Almost fitting into the local scene

Do other romance languages do this? If younger (and I don’t mean this as an “ageist” generality – Debbie is always on my case about ageism) I would embrace any language that simplifies verb conjugations, but I simply have too much French invested in the language center of my shrinking cortex to start over. Besides, the Spanish verb ‘to be’ is so complicated that it erases any benefits from the simplification of regular verb conjugations.

Another question I have is this, does Mexico export all its garlic? Except for shrimp dishes served at Mediterranean themed high-end restaurants, I could find no suitable amounts of garlic in any restaurant meal. What gives? Apparently the first Asians forgot to bring it with them across the Bering Straits/Land Bridge 15-30,000 years ago, so I can forgive the Mayans and the Aztecs for not having it, but how about the post-colonial centuries when Europeans were plundering Mexico? Wouldn’t the incorporation of garlic into the cuisine have improved the quality of life for everyone? Just a bit? Just wondering.

We celebrated our 50th anniversary in SMA

I don’t see myself going back to SMA soon. I definitely don’t consider it my winter haven. But I would recommend it anyone as a pleasant foray into the interior of Mexico and I predict that Debbie is not done with it, with me or without me. I am going elsewhere in search of truffles and garlic.


More about San Miguel de Allende

– A recent [B]OLDER podcast episode with Bonnie Lee Black on the topic of retiring to affordable and beautiful SMA: Bonnie Lee Black on the Pros (& Very Few Cons) of Retiring to San Miguel de Allende.

– Bonnie interviewed Debbie for her WOW (wise older women) blog: Debbie Weil on Purpose.

“Watch Your Step” with more details about SMA’s uneven sidewalks.

– Bonnie gave Sam’s book, AT PEACE, a very favorable review alongside Atul Gawande’s BEING MORTAL.

6 Responses to Sam Does San Miguel de Allende: No Ice, But Treacherous Sidewalks and 76 Light Switches

  1. David Price April 1, 2023 at 9:09 pm #

    This is the first balanced review of San Miguel I’ve seen. I live here, after 40 years in France, and don’t see it as exotic as my fellow Americans sometimes do.

    • Debbie Weil April 5, 2023 at 5:16 pm #

      Thank you David! Sam will reply separately.

  2. Sam Harrington April 6, 2023 at 11:14 am #

    David, thank you for a balanced response to a balanced review. If you want something a little more exotic in SMA, I can recommend a Tibetan Bowl/Meditation experience that we found worth repeating.

  3. Andy Franklin April 8, 2023 at 10:45 pm #

    Audrey and I have enjoyed 3 or 4 trips to SMA over the years and I’ve always enjoyed out time there. I have never found the sidewalks to be annoying. Visiting the botanical gardens there is a wonderful experience. We have a few friends from Colorado who’ve bought second homes in SMA and they love being there.

    This winter we went to Naples, FL for two weeks, also to try going to a warm place in the winter. Even though the weather was beautiful with temps in the 80s. I did not love being in Florida. As my gravestone will likely say.. I’d rather be skiing. Next year we will be going to the Arizona dessert instead. I think I’ll like that better than Florida.

  4. Sam April 9, 2023 at 8:07 am #

    Andy, your knees must be much less tender than mine!

  5. Nancy Harrison April 9, 2023 at 8:19 am #

    In Italian, the second person singular is familiar, the third person singular is formal: lui/lei (him/her), Lei (formal you). I learned that it was the same in plural (voi, second person as familiar; loro, third person as formal) but usage has changed such that voi is more common as plural formal. I feel like Spanish would be useful, but I just don’t have space in my brain.

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