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There’s something about San Miguel de Allende

Joy McDonell

Ottawa, Canada, 2006

As November approached in Ontario, with the days growing short and the light frequently steeped in tones of middle gray, my husband Bill and I joyfully anticipated our month in Mexico, Puerto Vallerta, our friends enquired? Cancun, perhaps, or Cozumel? No, we replied, it’s San Miguel de Allende, the colonial town situated in the mountains in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato that has been beckoning us for some years now. We had narrowly missed visiting it, when we were in the area in the early 90s, but instead opted for a side trip to nearby Angangueo to photograph the masses of over-wintering monarch butterflies.

”But where’s the beach?” our sun-starved friends asked when we told them about the three-bedroom adobe-style house we and another couple had rented at the south end of town. We had made the arrangement almost a year before through (Vacation Rentals by Owner, a wonderful site for house rentals all over the world). Well, of course San Miguel is hundreds of kilometers from the coast, and therein lies the rub for some, but not for the growing numbers of Canadians and Americans that have been answering the siren call of San Miguel de Allende for several decades. In fact the “gringos” make up 10 percent of population, and numbers swell with tourists during the later winter months. So if it’s beaches, swim-up bars and sophisticated night life you’re after, this town of 70,000, founded in 1542 on the silver-mine route between Guanajuato, Zacatecas ans San Luis Potosi, will not be your cup of tequila. But oh, the fine Spanish architecture, the cobblestone streets, the colorful presence everywhere of the Chichimeca and Otomi cultures – all of which have nurtured one of the most thriving artist colonies in North America. It is hard, it seems, to go just once to San Miguel. So many people we talked to have been drawn back under some sort of spell, either to live or to spend part of the year.

My purpose here is talk about San Miguel as a destination for photographers, but of course that is to speak of the charms of the town and the area in general, for one does not photograph well unless one is fully engaged and responding on an emotional level to one’s surroundings. Once you arrive, photographic opportunities positively abound. All you have to do is take a walk.

San Miguel is a walking kind of town. The narrow streets with their uneven cobbles and many parked cars, particularly in the Centro (central area), are most easily negotiated on foot. While we did have to watch our step, we never regretted our decision not to rent a car (we relied on buses and tours for side trips). You can wander for ours, and if you are too tired to walk home, or need to conserve energy for an outgoing later to one of the many excellent restaurants, you can get a taxi ride back to most places in town for a mere 20 Pesos ($US2.00). San Miguel is shaped like a shallow bowl with the Centro in the middle and residential areas rising into the surrounding hills. Many artists and celebrities, including Canada’s Toller Cranston, have homes in San Miguel.

As is often the case in towns of European influence, you find yourself fairly brushing against the buildings and walls as you step – usually single file – along the narrow stone sidewalks. All is interconnected in a colorful array of geometric shapes, with rarely a space between the various constructions. Brilliant purple, orange and red flooring vines spill over the high walls that form courtyards for the buildings within; the tops of other walls are bedecked with plants in earthenware pots. Elaborate ironwork defines windows and balconies. Doors of solid old wood are adorned with ornate brass and knockers that invite close-up works.

Opportunities for people photography are everywhere, enhanced by the fact that many of the San Miguelenses, particularly the older women in their woven shawls and skirts, favor the traditional touches of their native culture. The people of san Miguel are for the most part open and friendly. Their children are their pride and joy, and on weekdays one sees them in their neat uniforms going to and from school. Poverty exists alongside the charm, however, and children are sometimes forced to earn a wage selling candy and gum in the street. Understandably, when trying to do people photography, having a little rudimentary Spanish is helpful.

As is typical of most larger Mexican towns, the hub of San Miguel is the central square – in this case the Jardin, shaded by its flat-topped laurel trees. Populated on Sundays by lively families, balloon sellers, and shy teenagers on benches, it is a popular venue for mariachi bands and the focal point of the many celebrations observed by the townspeople.

San Miguel is known for its many festivals, which are marked by parades and all-night vigils punctuated by folk music, the ringing of church bells, and the explosion of many loud firecrackers. We arrived on the day of the Dead (really a two-day celebration), when Mexican act out traditional belief that their deceased loved ones leave their graves and roam among them for a short time, until the families lure them back to the graveyard t share food and drink before the dead return to their shadowy underworld. Skeleton face-painting and masks, macabre toys, breads and candy in the form of skulls, and elaborate marigold-strewn altars dedicated to loved ones are all part of the scene as the Mexicans laugh in the face of death.

The Jardin is flanked on one side by a magnificent church, the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel, the baroque landmark that dominates the San Miguel cityscape. Its semi-gothic towers and intricate carvings present limitless opportunities for photographers. If you are luck you may catch a wedding party assembled on the cobbled plaza in front of the church. Bring a tripod to capture the dramatic lighting on Parroquia on weekend nights. Of course, with San Miguel’s Spanish heritage, there is no shortage of churches; the oldest, the Capilla de San Miguel Viejo, dates to 1548 and features beautiful old stonework. There does not seem to be a problem in most churches with the respectful use of cameras, as long as there is no service going on.

The markets, the largest of which is Mercado Ramirez, offer a riot of color, a cacophony of sounds, and a beehive of activity. Not surprisingly, your photographic subjects will be more willing if you are making a purchase, but with the reasonably priced wares and tempting produce, this is easily resolved. The weaving, tin ware, silver jewelry, beadwork and ceramics are just a few of the products that lured us. I was trilled to buy a dozen huge calla lilies for $4, which graced our dining table and offered an afternoon of photographic doodling in the rear courtyard of lovely home away from home.

San Miguel has been named a National Patrimony Site by the Mexian government, being the birthplace of the famous General Ignazio Allende, one of the precursors of the struggle for Mexican independence from Spain. A residence of one of its founding families, the Canal family, has become the site of the Instituto Allende, a prestigious non-profit art school since 1938. Here one can take courses and workshops in Spanish language and literature, fine arts and photography.

It is also telling that the Santa Fe Workshops, based in Santa Fe NM, have for the past several years chosen San Miguel as a site for Photographic workshops. These take place from the mid-October to mid-November, and in 2006 will feature the likes of Jay Maisel, Linde Waidhofer, Nevada Weir and others. See During our stay, we were delighted to discover that the Santa Fe workshops were hosting the photographic presentations for one and all in the lovely old Angela Peralta Theatre. We were treated to the work of National Geographic Photographers Nick Nichols and Ralf Lee Hopkins, and of notable Mexican photographers such as Flor Acosta.

Because of San Miguel’s rich appeal, other photographers conduct workshops there as well. Willie McGelliott, frequent contributor to Canadian Camera, will be conducting a workshop in the area in late October and early November. And one morning I came across a happy group at the Parroquia working under leader Nancy Rotenberg, originally from Canada, but now residing in Pennsylvania. We struck up a connection; to my delight, Nancy is now a CAPA. Check out her Website for future workshops and for more awesome images of San Miguel.