At thirty (…something) we are rarely the youngest travelers 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 tourists turned locals) here.
So what is going on in San Miguel de Allende, what should you expect, and what sort of budget is required in this upscale holiday cum retirement destination. We set out to discover some unusual things to do in San Miguel de Allende, and it didn’t disappoint!
But before we dive in, a little about what makes San Miguel de Allende tick and the Chavorucos that live and holiday here.
The Chavorucos And San Miguel de allende
Arriving in San Miguel de Allende it doesn’t take long to realize there is something different about this remarkably picturesque mountain village.
The town center is gorgeous with its colorful villas and colonial-era buildings overflowing with vines and wildflowers. Narrow cobblestone 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 cum retirement village for wealthy Americans leaving the rat race behind. To let their hair down after successful careers have ended and kids have flown the nest.
So What Happened Here?
“Discovered” by international artists and bohemians who came to be inspired by the town’s 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 pretty 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 ex-pats set up holiday houses, 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 travelers not quite as long in the tooth or deep in the pocket? Is San Miguel de Allende still affordable and fun for under the 40s, perhaps on a tighter budget? Without a doubt! Here are some of the Unusual Things to Do in San Miguel de Allende, a town that refuses to feel or act its age.
20 Unusual Things to Do in San Miguel de Allende
Getting Active in San Miguel de Allende
It’s not hard to stay active wandering around the beautiful cobblestone streets of the San Miguels old town. However, if you looking to walk off a couple of extra tacos head for the park or walk to the Mirador El Caracol.
1. Visit Juárez Park
An unusual park in an unusual town. 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, the dog walkers being dragged along by gangs of manicured and clothed, poodles, dachshunds, and shih tzus. What an odd sight in small-town Mexico.
Come to people-watch, to walk through the beautifully manicured gardens, or to use the extensive array of outdoor workout equipment and basketball courts.
2. Walk to the Mirador El Caracol
Fallen victim to too many tacos in the Mercado? Don’t worry it happens. Time to sweat it out and walk to the Mirador El Carocal for panoramic views of the pretty city.
Grab a couple of beers from the Oxxo convenience store and head up at sunset for an alternative to the happy hour in town.
Uncover the Galleries, Arts, Events and Produce of San Miguel de Allende
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 and try to find a souvenir.
3. Drop in to 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.
4. Check Out the Folk Art at Galeria Atotonilco
One of the most well-connected and reputable Mexican folk art dealers can be found a short half-hour drive from town.
5. Discover 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.
6. 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.
7. Shop Till You Drop (or Your Credit Card Declines)
If you do have a little spending money squirreled away for your trip, San Miguel is one of the best places in Mexico to find luxury end items.
Even if you’re not buying, exploring the stores can be a great way to get out of the heat and learn about some local products.
From alcohol like tequila and wine, produce such as olive oil, cheese, and charcuterie to clothing boutiques and hardwood furniture stores, the shopping (or in our case the window shopping) here is excellent.
Dine and Drink Your Way Through San Miguel de Allende
While it may not be unusual to dine out when visiting a new city, the juxtaposition between the traditional and the new offerings for the ex-pat crowd here is quite unique. And sampling some of the food and drink on offer in San Miguel is without a doubt one of the best things to do here.
Long known as an artistic and creative hub, San Miguel is more recently being recognized as a gastronomic destination with some of Mexico’s most exciting and highly lauded restaurants setting up shop in the picturesque town. Alongside traditional markets and street vendors, you can find modern dining, traditional saloons, wine, and cocktail bars that have managed to attract global attention.
8. Grab lunch at Mercado Ignacio Ramírez
Whenever we reach a new town in Mexico, we like to make a beeline for the central Mercado. You won’t 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.
9. Get Your Seafood Fix at Baja Fish Taquito
This small seafood restaurant serves up Baja-style seafood tacos, burritos, and enchiladas.
While it may not be 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 de Allende 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.
10. Grab Some Beers and Bar Snacks at El Mananlial
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 cozy bar to enjoy some first-rate ceviche tostadas. Best washed down with some ice-cold local cervezas. This is a great place for a few quick tapas before heading further into the historic zone.
11. Say Hi at Andy’s Pastor Taco Cart
The white tablecloths haven’t totally been able to replace good old-fashioned Mexican street food in San Miguel de Allende. You can still grab some delicious tacos al pastor from one of the food trucks set up near 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 than a couple of dollars.
12. Dine in Style at Nómada Cocina de Interpretación
OCertainly 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 Wednesday night.
Wednesday night a weekly tasting menu is offered for 550 pesos per person or just $27 USD! 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.
13. Have an Evening Toast at Tostévere
Tostévere is a relative newcomer to the San Miguel scene, but it has quickly risen through the ranks to become one of the more popular kitchen and bars in town.
The trendy pub 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 hang out for a couple of hours. But that wouldn’t be good for the budget…
14. Escape to Europe at the Berlin Bar
If you’ve been walking around in the hot Mexican sun wondering where in the heck you can buy 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 a comprehensive spirits list, a laid-back and friendly atmosphere, and a stylish interior is the backdrop 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) ‘Silver Fox Set’ that count themselves regulars here.
Beware if the evening rain comes (and it often does) the roof is not exactly watertight, BYO umbrella.
15. Experience San Miguel de Allende’s Night Life
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 ex-pats.
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.
16. Mop Up Some of San Miguel de Allende’s Coffee Culture
As one of only a handful of Mexican cities with a thriving cafe culture, we’ve decided to add visiting San Miguel’s cafes to our list.
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 specializing 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 that new painting, french press, or bag of local beans!
17. Have a Schmear at the Bagel Café
One cafe bucking the trend and not leaning into deluxe cafe culture 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.
Unusual Things to Do Near San Miguel de Allende
San Miguel has plenty to do nearby. If you starting to feel the pinch of the dining and shopping scene, a day trip away from the expensive city center may be just what the accountant ordered.
18. Step Back in Time at the Cañada de la Virgin
San Miguel is the jumping-off 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 theses ruins in San Miguel, Tuesday through Sunday, from 9 am to 3 pm.
19. Eat and Drink Your Way Through Querétero Along 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.
20. Climb The Monolith and More in Bernal
This tiny town’s claim to fame is the giant monolith that shadows it but there’s so much more to this pueblo magico.
How to Get to San Miguel de Allende
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 cobblestone, and often steep and narrow which can be difficult for large campers and RVs. Parking is also hard to come by.
Where to Stay in san miguel de allende
If you are traveling Mexico by van as we did, then you should know San Miguel de Allende is not the most van-friendly city.
There aren’t any 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.
Enjoy unparalleled comfort, great on-site facilities, and reasonable rates at Casa Goyri San Miguel de Allende.
Perfect location, rooms and delicious food. Dos Casas Hotel & Spa is the perfect place to treat yourself in San Miguel.
Hopefully you found something that tickles your fancy on our list of Unusual Things to Do in San Miguel de Allende. And hopefully you enjoy the town as much as we did! But if you have a question or a suggestion please leave us a note in the comments below!
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