Hundreds of years ago, Ponce de Leon tried to find the fountain of youth, and following in his down-with-wrinkles path today are cosmetic surgeons and Botox-brandishing dermatologists. But you don’t have to go that route to feel young and enticing again. All you have to do is visit a place called San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
The town—high in the mountains two and a half hours northwest of Mexico City—doesn’t have a secret stash of magical sheep urine for your face or spring water that reverses the clock. What makes San Miguel de Allende good for the mid-life soul is the concept of relativity. This 500-year-old town has long been known as a haven for retirees from the States.
Thousands of 50-plus Americans and international folks live among the snaking cobblestone streets and the colonial buildings downtown that are painted in delectable fruit-bowl-meets-spice-rack colors (think mango and avocado next to paprika and turmeric). Most of them seem to have sparkles in their eyes because they’re having so much fun. The town doesn’t feel in any way close to a retirement community. The ex-pats here are young in spirit, if not by the numbers.
I had no sense that I was aging, quite seriously.
I lived in San Miguel de Allende for four years, from age 45 through 49. During that time, I had no sense that I was aging, quite seriously. I was still looked at with admiration on the streets, even when I was out without makeup. I was usually among the youngest at any gathering. People still referred to me as a “baby.”
This is one reason I like to return to San Miguel de Allende as often as possible—for a little jolt to feel like I’ve still got it, at least in some crowd. But there are many other reasons to go. Just a warning: if you go, you’ll be tempted to stay like so many before you. Surges of youthful exuberance in a centuries-old playground can be addictive.
The most famous building in town is the multi-spired pink Parroquia that stands guard over the town’s heart—the jardin. You’ll want to spend time here people watching during the day and listening to the exquisite mariachi bands at night. But the most beautiful building is the 250-year-old Bellas Artes. First a convent, then an art college, it’s now a newly renovated community center and art gallery. You can imagine nuns scurrying off to mass under soaring boveda ceilings and through the large interior courtyard that is surrounded by two stories of arched colonnades. Don’t miss the frescoes by one of Mexico’s finest muralists, David Siqueiros. Free admission.
Also worth visiting: El Parque Juarez, where the town comes out to stroll among leafy trees, and El Charco del Ingenio, a botanical garden just above San Miguel where you can see all sorts of desert plants as well as the gorgeous canyon that runs through the middle.
If you go, you’ll be tempted to stay like so many before you. Surges of youthful exuberance in a centuries-old playground can be addictive.
Baroque Mexican churches are not unusual, but the 250-year-old Santuario de Atotonilco—nine miles from San Miguel de Allende—is over-the-top ornate, a dizzying visual cacophony. Nearly every inch of wall and ceiling space is filled with detailed Biblical scenes and passages, which is why the church is known as Mexico’s Sistine Chapel and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. The sanctuary is also a pilgrimage site for penitents, who self-flagellate to atone for sins. Note the rope flails sold by vendors outside the church.
Atotonilco is surrounded by thermal springs and the best is La Gruta. You’ll find several pools of warm water on the lush grounds. One pool leads to a tunnel, which in turn leads to a domed-roofed pool that has the hottest water of all. La Gruta is a year-round treat, and the on-site restaurant serves great guacamole and chips, quesadillas, club sandwiches and the like. Plus margaritas. And oh yeah, you can also get a massage! So it’s easy to spend your whole day here lolling and eating and drinking.
San Miguel de Allende has many memorable views, and from La Azotea you can see two of the best. Located on a rooftop off the jardin, this sleek bar offers, to one side, a crane-your-neck, close-up of the Parroquia. The ideal perch at sunset, however, is the outside patio, where you can sip your margarita while watching the light disappear over a panorama of the Guanajuato Mountains in the distance.
This is where you want to nestle in for the late evening hours, drinking the signature ginger or tamarind margaritas.
Traditionally, women, military, and police officers aren’t allowed in a cantina—a down-and-dirty version of a gentlemen’s club. But everyone’s welcome at El Manantial, which retains the hole-in-the-wall look of a cantina—swinging doors, dim light, faded paint on the walls—but with a more refined bar (and fewer chances of a fight). This is where you want to nestle in for the late evening hours, drinking the signature ginger or tamarind margaritas.
Situated right in the jardin, El Rincon de Don Tomas provides front-and-center seats as the city wakes up. Sit outside under the arched portico and dig into wonderful traditional breakfasts such as Huevos Otomi (scrambled eggs in a bean stew) and Huevos Divorciado (one fried egg with green salsa and one with red).
Leche de tigre figures prominently in the delights of a beautiful, airy restaurant called La Parada. That’s the name for the citrus concoction that “cooks” the unusual ceviches (fish, corn, and sweet potatoes, for instance) at this popular bistro, owned by Peruvian Cordon-Bleu-trained chef and her partner. Also memorable are the pork ribs and the gnocchi with shrimp and pecans, and don’t leave without a pisco mojito.
You can’t go wrong at The Restaurant, which, in my mind, has been the best place to eat in town for years. Chef Donnie Masterston trained in the U.S., and his menu is very diverse and always innovative. I love the beet salad and the risotto. But I’ve never had a bad meal here so I’d say choose anything on the menu and you’ll be thrilled.
You can find treasures on every San Miguel de Allende street, but with limited time for exploration, you need a cheat sheet. You’ll hit the mother lode at Mixta, now carrying furniture and fashions (hand-embroidered dresses and tops by Almudena) along with a mish-mash of fun trinkets and handicrafts. Fabrica La Aurora is a fabulous shopping area housed in an old textile mill. You can tour artists’ studios and shop for high-end antiques, furniture, pottery, and linens. Get discounts at the showroom of Virgin Saints and Angels, an international jewelry company whose religious iconographic designs are celebrity favorites. The Mercado de Artesanias is a long alley-like walkway with vendor booths on both sides, and sometimes in the middle. This is where local craftsmen sell jewelry, handmade books, shawls, hats, toys, and a variety of crafts: A perfect spot to pick up gifts for friends and little mementos of your “younger” days in San Miguel de Allende.