San Miguel, Sans Hype

By: Marcelo Báez

San Miguel de Allende is, according to some of the leading tastemakers, the “best city in the world.” I was just there for a wedding and, almost immediately after leaving, a friend from NYC—a worldly man or sorts—text messaged me: “So, is the grand proclamation true?” “It’s Okay,” I replied. Then again, I was born and raised in the neighboring state of Jalisco, so it’s hard for me to be completely objective. (Sans the crime, Guadalajara could be San Miguel on steroids.)

In case you’re not familiar with San Miguel de Allende (aka SMA), it’s a town where the likes of Kerouac and Ginsberg would hang out, and where up to 10% of its current residents are either Canadian or American. It is currently very trendy for many more reasons, but Gunnar Erickson, an ex-Angelino who moved there, nailed it with his description said to the Daily Beast: “[It’s] Mexico on training wheels.”

Since English speakers can get around without speaking a single word of Spanish—all locals in the service industry seem to know some English—SMA can be very accommodating to its English-speaking tourists. But, for better or worse, it almost feels like an American stereotype of a Mexican town. Something like a marriage between a Robert Rodriguez film and Frida, the movie.

I was there for three days so, of course, I barely scratched the surface. I did, however, have a very good guide: a native friend who, for three years, lived in New York before moving back to SMA. My buddy called “San Mike” a “very weird, divided place.” “Most of the people who live in this area,” he lectured me as we walked around downtown, “are the wealthier—usually American or Canadian—people who bought out longtime locals.”

At a distance I could hear a well-known Mexican regional song being covered by a live band. “What’s going on over there?” I asked. “It’s probably a quinceañera or a block party,” he replied, “but, speaking of, over there, in the outskirts, is where many of the ousted people live now.”

I don’t want to sell you some bleak story about gentrification because one can also make the argument that foreign residents—and, by extension, their green money—also helped make SMA a safe place compared to, say, almost every Mexican town on a coast. And, to be fair, there is an interesting mix of culture (sort of a reverse to the Latinization of a city like Los Angeles) that makes for a very interesting anthropological study.

But to the question: is San Miguel de Allende the “best city in the world”?

For the uninitiated, it’s probably not a terrible choice. But I’ll take the equally colonial Atlixco, dirty-but-awesome Mexico City or the ever underrated Tijuana over “San Mike” any day.

Marcelo Baéz is a writer, DJ, and musician based in NYC. When he's not producing "Rico Suave" parties, he releases music under P3CULIAR.