Why San Miguel de Allende is Overrated and Where You Should Go Instead
If you’re like me and follow 1000+ travel sites on social media, then you’ve probably seen over the past two years that San Miguel de Allende is THE hottest travel destination right now! With its Spanish colonial architecture, hilly cobblestone streets, and artsy vibe, it truly is an unforgettable destination centrally located in the heart of Mexico. But, I’m here to tell you why San Miguel de Allende is a little overrated and where you should go instead! I wish that San Miguel had been on my radar about ten years ago, back when it was just an artsy, picturesque city for retirees and aspiring artists that some tourists happened to visit as an extension of their Mexico City trip.
Nowadays, it’s still picturesque, but you’ll have to photoshop alllll of the tourists out of your pictures. There’s also soooooo many expats and retirees that it has lost a lot of its original flavor and appeal (or so I’ve been told). With all of its well-deserved publicity, San Miguel seems to have morphed into a Disney World version of Mexico, complete with grossly inflated prices on everything, from food to hotels to souvenirs. On top of that, you hear English everywhere you go, and you’re hard-pressed to find many locals unless you venture into the outskirts. Maybe that experience is ok for some, but not for this culture aficionado! When I travel to a foreign country, a big part of the appeal for me is immersing myself as much as possible into the culture of the host country that I’m visiting. This can obviously be difficult to do when you’re surrounded by tourists.
My “Heart of Mexico Tour”
My one and only visit to San Miguel was part of my nine day solo trip in March of 2018 to Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, and Querétaro, all centrally located in the heart of Mexico. In fact, you’ll see hearts for purchase all over San Miguel in the artisan markets, much like the one pictured here, which is why I dubbed this my “Heart of Mexico Tour.” Initially, San Miguel was the city that piqued my interest and inspired this nine-day Mexican adventure, mostly because I kept seeing it pop up in my news feed on Facebook (social media marketing really works!). However, I’m so glad I added the other two cities to my itinerary, because I ended up falling in love with those cities that stole the show from their more popular sister city!
For my trip, I flew direct from DFW into Querétaro. If you can’t find a direct flight into Querétaro, fly into Mexico City, and it’s just a short 3 hour bus ride away. From there, I took a bus to Guanajuato for my first stop, which was just over a 2 hour trip. The buses are very clean, comfortable, and safe! You are typically provided a beverage and sometimes a snack before boarding. The seats are assigned, so if you’re lucky like me to snag one in the very front of the bus, you’ll get all this extra leg room pictured here. Some even provide a video screen with headphones to watch TV and movies in Spanish. Depending on your route, I would recommend checking out these bus companies: Primera Plus, Flecha Amarilla, Futura, and ETN.
Upon my arrival in Guanajuato, I was immediately taken with its Spanish colonial architecture, its colorful and hilly cityscape, and its warm and friendly people. When you first get to the city, you will soon discover a maze of tunnels that magically transport you to the city’s historic center (Tunnels Video). Upon setting foot on its brick-paved streets, you can’t help but notice the towering yellow and rust-colored Basilica of Our Lady of Guanajuato. It’s almost as if she’s inviting you to come and explore her winding streets and alleys that lay a mystery behind her. I came to Guanajuato with a well-laid plan of sites to see, and in a particular order at that, but I couldn’t bring myself to limit my experience in such a way. Instead, I threw out my itinerary and let my curiosity lead the way. What I discovered instead were meandering alleyways and enigmatic tunnels that beckoned me to explore their potential.
Later on that first day of exploration, the sun coquettishly enticed me into chasing her from atop the highest point of the funicular, only to disappear behind the city, casting her radiant glow upon an already colorful cityscape.
Left wanting more, I carefully made my way down the steep maze of cobblestone streets, in search of sustenance to fuel the rest of my explorations. With my hunger soon satisfied, I set out to explore Guanajuato by night and found myself face to face with a band of merry men who appeared as if they had just fallen through time, a time when romance ruled the day and men serenaded their lady love. They were dressed in poofy shirts and tight tights, and each carried their own instrument. Ah, they must be a part of the callejoneada! Their youthful exuberance was enough to coax me into joining this nightly serenade, even though I didn’t need much convincing. I had been looking forward to joining in on this 100+ year tradition, despite not knowing many of the songs. So, I paid the nominal fee to be serenaded around the city and transported back to a simpler, more romantic time (Callejoneada Video).
At the end of this long day, my eyelids were heavy but my heart was light and yet full of the day’s experiences. My first full day in central Mexico had far exceeded my wildest expectations, and my head sank into my pillow that night, dreaming of new experiences I had not yet had.
Three days, however, was not enough to explore this intoxicating city in its entirety. So, I said goodbye for now and promised to return one day to this enchantress!
San Miguel de Allende
Next on my Central Mexico tour was San Miguel de Allende, the original temptress that brought me to this region in the first place. At only an hour long, the bus ride from Guanajuato to San Miguel was super quick and convenient. I had an idea of what to expect from the plethora of articles I had read, but her beauty in person was unlike no other! The exotic combination of colorful houses and flowers mixed with the Spanish colonial architecture and hilly cobblestone streets was the perfect backdrop for the sound of church bells and rival mariachi bands that floated up and down her corridors like lifeblood running through one’s veins (Mariachi Video).
Traversing her streets, careful to not trip over the cobblestones, I easily imagined myself in a time gone by, when cars were replaced with carts being pulled by strong animals, or even more recently, in a time when word of her splendor had not yet spread like wildfire. But alas, my meanderings and musings were soon interrupted by the sound of something oh so familiar….English! Everywhere I turned…English! And what was this?! A simple enchilada platter cost $15 (US)? That’s absurd! I had just come from Guanajuato, where I paid no more than $5 (US) for the same thing. Had the bus taken a wrong turn and transported me back to the States?
Apart from its breathtaking beauty and overall colonial meets bohemian feel, I could’ve sworn I was at Epcot Center in Disney World, what with the overabundance of tourists and expats willing to pay American prices. But, if you’re a tourist that is less concerned with cultural immersion and authenticity, then you may not be as bothered as I was by the tourist invasion. Some even maintain that one of San Miguel’s most alluring qualities is its ability to combine old world charm with a cosmopolitan lifestyle that boasts modern-day amenities (specifically catering towards the tourists, expats, and retirees).
With three days to spend here, I felt a little lost and disoriented, almost like Alice in a Mexican Wonderland, but I quickly shook it off with a plate-full of the world’s best churros con chocolate at Cafe San Agustín. Seriously, I consider myself a churros con chocolate connoisseur, and these will change your life!
The rest of my time in San Miguel was a dizzying self-guided tour of artisan markets, colonial churches, rooftop restaurants, and cactus-lined canyons. So, did San Miguel live up to the hype? Absolutely! Would I go back again? Most likely. Would it be my only stop in Central Mexico? Definitely not! There’s so much more to see in this part of Mexico, and it would be a shame to not experience the other gems that Central Mexico has to offer!
And speaking of hidden gems, Querétaro dazzled her way into my heart as the showstopper finale in my “Heart of Mexico Tour!” I was initially drawn to this city because of the aqueducts and opals that it boasts, but I fell in love with it for reasons that require paying more attention to the little details.
As you wander around the historical center of the city, you will probably find yourself on one of the several pedestrian-only areas that are particularly inviting for a casual stroll. Meandering your way past couples and families out for the night, you will find yourself on tree-lined lanes, dotted with baroque churches and romantic plazas. The intimacy of these plazas is enhanced by fountains, colorful gardens, and benches so you can stop and smell the roses (Querétaro Plaza Video).
It was in one of these very plazas where I found myself on my last night in Querétaro, after a long day of exploring the city’s museums, aqueducts, and jewelry stores. I heard the familiar sound of salsa music wafting through the light breeze and followed my ears to its origin. What I discovered delighted me beyond my wildest dreams! There was a rather large group of people dancing salsa, cumbia, and cha cha in the outdoor plaza. Being the lifelong salsera that I am, I immediately joined in. Once the group discovered that I knew how to dance, I didn’t sit down for the rest of the night!
After about an hour of dancing, an older lady in the group came up to me and put a jingly skirt around my waist, much like a belly dancer would wear. All she said to me in Spanish was, “Follow my lead!” I didn’t know what the heck I was getting myself into, but I’m always up for an adventure, so I followed suit. She quieted the crowd with her announcement that a performance was about to start, and it appeared that she and I were the performers! The song, “Lupita,” started, and she looked at me and winked and started shaking her hips….it had begun! I did my best to keep up with her choreography on the fly, and I think I held my own for the most part. When the 3 minute song came to a close, my heart was pounding from nerves, excitement, and the workout I had just endured, and the crowd erupted in roars of “Encore! Encore!” So, a second song came on and we did our thing again, ending our two-part performance with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, much like old friends do in Mexico. The entire evening was surreal, and I still wonder if it was all a dream! I went back to my hostel, sweaty and exhausted but immensely grateful for the immersive experience I had just had (Dancing in Querétaro Video).
This was definitely a trip to remember, and I’m so glad that I broke away from the norm and explored more of what Central Mexico has to offer. Was San Miguel everything that it was promised to be? Undoubtedly! Was it overrated?? Only in the sense that you shouldn’t limit yourself to just this city when you visit this part of Mexico. What other magical places have you discovered in Mexico? Don’t forget to share your experiences in the comments below!
About the author:
My name is Kristin Kee, a.k.a. Kiki, and I’m a 36 year old Texan and former Spanish teacher turned full-time travel & self discovery blogger! I was first bitten by the travel bug when I was 7 years old on a family trip to San Francisco, and from that moment forward, I fell in love with the unknown world around me! So, it could be argued that for me, it’s not a case of wanderlust but rather wanderlove. Join me on my journey of self and world exploration, and perhaps you too will take your wanderlust to the next level and fall in wanderlove!
Check out some of my self-discovery posts here: