At thirty (something) we are rarely the youngest travellers on the circuits we find ourselves on. But in San Miguel de Allende, we were less than half the age of the average tourist (or tourist turned local) here. Would it be possible to enjoy this town where the major tourist demographic is closer to our parents age? And what sort of budget is required? Would a couple of vanabonds find something to do in this upscale holiday destination. We set out to see if San Miguel de Allende could be enjoyed by a couple under 40 on a budget of under $40 a day.
Arriving in San Miguel de Allende it doesn’t take long to realise there is something different about this remarkably picturesque mountain village.
The town centre is gorgeous with its colourful villas and colonial era buildings overflowing with vines and wild flowers. Narrow cobble stone streets twist and turn creating a winding warren to explore and discover the many hidden bars, cafes, restaurants, galleries and boutiques. Ornate churches are lit up from below and glitter in the deep blue twilight. It is something straight off a postcard, a fairy tale town. But, the overwhelming beauty of the town isn’t the difference.
It’s the group of retirees popping champagne during a tasting menu in a lavish restaurant. The guffawing of grandparents in the middle of town as they bar hop through the chic central district. The rowdy group celebrating 30 years of friendship at the bar over burgers and large glasses of grey goose. The locals have a name for the tourists and for the tourists who have become locals here, ‘chavorucos’. Here chavo means kid and ruco means old. This is where 60 year olds come to behave like 20 year olds.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But this was a whole new culture shock to experience. To find, in the middle of Mexico, a vibrant holiday destination come retirement village for wealthy Americans leaving the rat race behind. To let their hair down after successful careers and families that have flown the nest.
“Discovered” by international artists and bohemians who came to be inspired by the towns beautiful baroque Spanish architecture, a number of foreign art institutions and schools were established in the early 20th century. Following the second world war, retired servicemen and women flocked to study art here on the G.I. Bill (an American benefits scheme for returning veterans).
In the following 60 years, its arts community continued to grow and it began to develop a reputation as a tourist destination. But something about San Miguel seemed to resonate with visitors in a way few destinations do. The ever growing community of international devotees continued to return year on year, often for extended vacations or entire summers. Regular visitors began buying in the town, building their Spanish villas high on the hill which looks over the jewel of the town. Housing prices grew. But, rather than deter people, the increasing prices seemed to accelerate the growth. Today, houses in the central zone district sell for well into the millions of US dollars.
As wealthy expats set up there holiday house, summer homes, or permanent villas, the tourism market has shifted to better take aim at the affluent tourists and immigrants flocking here in droves. Fine dining, luxurious bars, and upmarket boutiques have replaced the taquerias, cantinas and bodegas so common in other regional Mexican cities and towns.
So what does this mean for us, and for other travellers not quite as long in tooth or deep in pocket? Is San Miguel de Allende still affordable and fun for under 40s on a budget? Without a doubt! Here are some of the highlights of our time in this town which refuses to feel or act its age.
Great coffee isn’t hard to find here. Clearly it’s a requirement of the clientele that frequent the village. Plenty of trendy cafes have popped up all around the central zone. Frothy cappuccinos, smooth flat whites and and strong macchiatos are all on the menu, naturally with any sort of milk or milk substitute you can imagine.
You can find gallery cafes, french patisseries, coffee specialising in Japanese siphon coffee, and stylish modern cafes. But, beware, these places come with a price tag. Coffees are set to American prices and that’s before you add a caramel shot, whipped cream or an eclair, not to mention a new painting, french press, or bag of local beans.
One cafe bucking the trend is the Bagel Café. One of the few cafes where you can get an espresso or americano for a dollar. They also have great bagels (who would have thought) which they bake themselves daily for another buck each! Stop by to start your day gringo style with black coffee and a cream cheese bagel for a couple of dollars.
In the mornings you will find the local park filled with white people doing white people things. A group of friends power walking around the small plaza with tiny dumbbells. An exercise class practicing the latest innovation in geriatric exercises combining martial arts, fighting sticks and Beyonce hits circa 2008. The only locals in sight, dog walkers being dragged along by gangs of manicured and clothed, poodles, dauschaunds, and shih tzus.
Come to people watch, to walk through the beautifully manicured gardens, or to use the extensive array of outdoor work out equipment and basketball courts.
Pro-tip for overlanders, you can find clean public bathrooms in the park of only $5 MXN.
Galleries and Arts
Long a beacon for international artists and art students, San Miguel de Allende has a rich arts scene. You could easily spend a couple of days exploring the more than 100 galleries scattered throughout the town and surrounding area. It’s free to visit these impressive galleries but unfortunately a budget of $40 a day will leave little room to take home a souvenir.
Fábrica La Aurora
This converted textile mill is home to over 40 galleries, studio spaces, exhibition spaces, cafes, and design stores. While you will immediately notice you won’t be able to afford anything on a $40 a day budget, its a good place to start a tour of San Miguel’s galleries and set your expectations for prices in this town.
One of the most well connected and reputable Mexican folk art dealers can be found a short half-hour drive from town. Again this a look and don’t buy expedition if you’re looking to keep things on a shoestring.
Events, Festivals and Workshops
With such an active arts community, San Miguel also plays host to a huge variety of arts-based festivals, events, and workshops throughout the year. Events cover everything from fine arts, to music and performing arts to cooking. Check out what’s going on here or from one of the boards posted about the town square.
Find Your Own Favourite Gallery
Whatever your artistic style or predilection it’s likely San Miguel has a gallery for you. From toy museums to pottery galleries to a gallery dealing exclusively in Polish communist era propaganda posters you’ll find it all here. Spend a day exploring the galleries and boutiques of the historic zona centro.
Mercado Ignacio Ramírez
You might not see as many of the northern immigrants in this local’s market, but it is one of the best places to grab lunch in town. Rock bottom prices and some of the best carnitas and quesadillas we’ve had in Mexico.
You can also pick up fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, and cheese here to prepare your own meals and save those pesos for an evening cocktail. Don’t forget to compare prices with a couple of vendors as some of the locals have had plenty of practice taking gringos for a ride here.
Walk to the Mirador El Caracol
One too many tacos in the Mercado? Don’t worry it happens. Time to sweat it out and walk to the Mirador El Carocal for panoramas of the city.
Grab a couple of beers from the Oxxo convenience store and head up at sunset for an alternative to the noticeably less then happy hour in town.
Restaurants and Bars
Long known as an artistic and creative hub, San Miguel is more recently being recognised as a gastronomic destination with some of Mexico’s most exciting and highly lauded restaurants setting up shop in the picturesque town. Modern dining, traditional saloons, wine and cocktail bars have managed to attract global attention. You’ll have to be careful here because there are certainly restaurants here that will throw out the budget before the entree is served. But, with a little planning there is no reason you can’t sample some of what this foodie’s paradise has to offer on a shoestring budget.
Baja Fish Taquito
This small seafood restaurant serves up Baja style seafood tacos, burritos and enchiladas.
While maybe not the best fish tacos we have ever eaten (what were we expecting so far from the sea) these are solid and at $50 pesos ($2 USD) the prices are reasonable (relative to San Miguel prices, not Mexican prices). The restaurant is located on a rooftop in the central zone. If you are looking for a break from meat tacos, or if this is as close as you are getting to the sea, check them out.
Tucked away on a quiet cobblestoned street, the fading paint and swinging saloon doors belie the trendy bar and kitchen inside.
Well priced compared to some of the more touristic options in town, seek out this cool and cosy bar to enjoy some first rate ceviche tostadas. Best washed down with some ice cold local beers. This is a great place for a few quick tapas before heading further into the historic zone.
Andy’s Pastor Taco Cart
The white table cloths haven’t totally been able to replace good old fashioned Mexican street food here. You can still grab some delicious tacos al pastor from one of the food trucks set up near to the main plaza. One of the best in the business is Andy’s Pastor, fun and talented staff, delicious traditional tacos al pastor and some fabulous spicy salsas. Stop by for a messy and memorable meal that won’t set you back more then a couple of dollars.
Nómada Cocina de Interpretación
Ok, full disclosure, this one isn’t going to come in under budget unless you skip breakfast or use some creative accounting. Never the less, we wanted to include it on the list of budget minded options because it’s such a great value! Certainly worth saving up the pesos for. Open for lunch and dinner Monday to Saturday and brunch and lunch on Sundays. The best time to go is a Wednesday night. Wednesday night a weekly tasting menu is offered for 550 pesos per person ($27 USD). Add in a bottle of local wine and the daily budge is blown, but you won’t be mad you did. Their modern interpretation of Mexican classics is at once familiar and new.
Highlights from our menu included green apple with passion fruit, vinaigrette squash, and blue cheese cream.
A back risotto made with cuitlacoche, a fungus that grows on corn and a Mexican delicacy.
And the finale, a mole, crumble, blueberry and coconut panna cotta with guava sorbet.
Tostévere is a relative new comer to the San Miguel scene, but it has quickly risen through the ranks to become one of the more popular bar and kitchens in town. The trendy bar offers a delicious cocktail menu and unpretentious dining menu much of it based around the humble tostada (Mexican open faced sandwich served on a toasted tortilla). Smooth drinks, friendly staff, and stylish decor make this somewhere you could easily hangout for a couple of hours. But that wouldn’t be good for the budget…
If you’ve been walking around in the hot Mexican sun wondering where in the heck you can by a big bowl of steaming hot goulash, a piping hot schnitzel, or a huge plate of bratwurst, then wonder no longer. It’s not just heaping plates of German food that draw in the punters here, a well stocked bar with comprehensive spirits list, a laid back and friendly atmosphere, and stylish interior are the back drop for many locals and return visitors who have been mingling here for decades. Pull up a stool at the bar, order a burger as big as your head, and have a yarn with the, as the New York Times put it, the ‘Silver Fox Set’ that count themselves regulars here. Beware if the evening rain comes (and it often does) the roof is not exactly water tight, BYO umbrella.
What Else is There to Do?
Considering the median age here, it may come as a surprise there is a happening nightlife in San Miguel. You can party with the golden oldies or head out with the younger locals and expats. We’ve put together a list of the best rooftop bars, dive bars, Irish pubs, and DJ spots. Check out highlights of San Miguel’s nightlife.
While not part of a budget minded approach to San Miguel, if you do have a little spending money squirreled away, San Miguel is one of the best places in Mexico to find luxury end items. Even if your not buying, exploring the stores can be a great way to get out of the heat and learn about some local products. From tequila and wine to olive oil, cheese and charcuterie to clothing boutiques and hard wood furniture stores, the window shopping here is excellent.
San Miguel has plenty to do nearby and a day trip away from the expensive city centre may be just what the accountant ordered.
Cañada de la Virgin
San Miguel is the jumping point to explore this impressive archeological site which dates back to 530AD and preserves the history of the Otomi people who settled here. You can easily arrange a tour to the ruins in San Miguel, Tuesday through Sunday, from 9 am to 3 pm.
Querétero and the Ruta de Queso y Vino
The nearby town of Querétaro might not be quite as shiny as San Miguel but its reputation as a tourist destination is growing. It is also the perfect place to begin a tour of the Querétaro’s wine and cheese route.
This tiny town’s claim to fame is the giant monolith that shadows it but there’s so much more to this pueblo magico. Check out our top tips in Bernal.
The Nuts and Bolts
How to Get There
Airports in Querétero (1 hour drive), Leon (2 hour drive) and Mexico City (3 hour drive) are the best points of entry for international visitors.
Being quite remote, shared or private shuttles are your best bet for comfort, peace of mind, and fixed costs. Family run company Viajes San Miguel has been in the business 34 years and have reasonable fares.
If you are driving, the roads to San Miguel are modern and in good repair. Roads within the town are cobble stone, and often steep and narrow which can be difficult for large campers and RVs. Parking is also hard to come by.
Where to Stay
Theres no great spots in town to camp, and parking is scarce. We felt safe (if a little self conscious climbing in and out of the van) in the wealthy district of El Parque (surrounding Juárez Park).
Stay in a central location while maintaining your budget at the Alcatraz Hostel.
Casa Luminosa offers private rooms, great breakfasts and super hospitable staff for reasonable rates.
Enjoy unparalleled comfort, great on-site facilities, and reasonable rates at Hotel Casa Don Quijote.
Perfect location, rooms and delicious food. Hotel Casa Blanca 7 is the perfect place to treat yourself in San Miguel.
Where to Eat and Drink
The Bagel Cafe
Espresso coffee and bagels baked onsite daily. Great prices.
Mercado Ignacio Ramírez
Where the locals come to by fresh produce and get lunch. Absolutely delicious tacos, quesadillas, and tortas at rock bottom prices.
Baja Fish Taquito
Solid tacos (considering the mountainous locale) and a good bit cheaper than many of the sit down restaurants in town.
Cosy bar with swinging saloon doors and modern interior. Great ceviche tostadas and ice cold beers.
Andy’s Pastor Taco Cart
Great tacos al pastor served up by staff with flair for extremely reasonable prices.
Nómada Cocina de Interpretación
Modern twists on Mexican classics. On Wednesdays, Nómada presents a 5 course tasting menu for just $27 USD a head.
Great cocktails and unpretentious dining in a stylish bar and restaurant, catered by friendly and knowledgeable staff.
Big helpings of German and bar food and big pours of premium liquor certainly make this a great place for dinner or drinks. But mostly its the energetic and free-spirited ‘Silver Fox Set’ that count themselves regulars here.
What to Do
Stroll, exercise or sit and people watch the eclectic locals in this pretty town park.
Explore the Local Galleries and Boutiques
San Miguel’s international fame is largely built on its history and reputation as an arts and bohemian community. Within the town and in the surrounding region there are over one hundred galleries and arts and design boutiques. Discover your favourite. Try starting with the Fábrica La Aurora for a variety of galleries and stores.
Walk to the Mirador El Caracol
Get a work out and experience fantastic panoramas of this picture perfect town. Best experienced at sunset.
Explore the Surrounding Region
Don’t miss nearby attractions:
4g is available throughout the city. Fast wifi is available at most hotels, cafes, and restaurants.
The water supply is not treated in San Miguel. Don’t risk it, avoid tap water, ice from unknown sources and washed (fresh) vegetables from restaurants.