Two Mexicos: San Miguel de Allende & San Jose del Cabo

We have just returned from 12 days in Mexico, visiting two very different parts of the country; not only different by geography, but by pretty much everything.

We left Hawaii on Friday night to make the trip to San Miguel de Allende (SMA from this point forward). After two flights and a very long car ride, we finally arrived in SMA at 5:00 PM on Saturday. We flew from Kahului, Maui, to LA and then on to Mexico City. Mexico City is not the closest airport to SMA, but that was our best option from LA. Once in Mexico City, we took a long four-hour car ride to SMA. I really hate being in the car that long and was NOT looking forward to the drive, but our driver made good time and we arrived in SMA in time for dinner.

We rented a very nice apartment on Barranca, which as it turns out, is a pretty busy one-way street. That coupled with the construction on the house next door meant noisy days starting at 7:30 AM…the traffic noises went until around 11:00 PM before things quieted down. Despite the noise (which was not unbearable), the apartment was great: very roomy with two patios (one providing a pretty spectacular view of SMA), a modern kitchen with filtered water, and a washer/dryer. The apartment was covered in traditional Mexican tile and was a mini showplace for some beautiful Mexican artwork.

Once settled in we struck out to find some good Mexican food, and with the support of Yelp! we found a great spot right around the corner from our apartment called El Correo. There we met a couple of Canadian expats who gave us a ton of suggestions during our visit, including where to get groceries, some good restaurant advice, and where to hang out with other expats should we so desire. Speaking of, we met a lot of expats in SMA – it’s a very popular destination for retirees due to the temperate climate and affordability. Dave and I were constantly surprised at how affordable everything was…a typical dinner out was $20 US for the two of us, which included local beers, apps and entrees.

The next day we were up early and went to a little coffee shop called Ki’bok for our morning coffee and breakfast. One of the many treats of SMA is its abundance of roof top patios or terraces. Ki’bok was no exception, and it gave us the opportunity to get another glimpse of SMA from above. SMA has many churches dotting the skyline, and the church bells can be heard all over the city throughout the day.

After breakfast we meandered through the narrow cobblestone streets, ogling at the brightly colored homes and a quaintness few cities will ever acquire. Eventually we found ourselves in the hub of SMA, Jardin Allende, which is across from the striking Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel church. As with most busy Centros, the square is surrounded by tourist trap restaurants and vendors. Definitely explore all the churches in the Jardin, but pass on the restaurants and shops…there are much more authentic places in SMA.

 

We made our way to the shops on Mesones to get our groceries for the week: Bonanza for cheese, juice, coffee, cream, shampoo, eggs, beer and tortillas. A few blocks down is the butcher where we picked up chicken breasts for a home cooked Mexican dinner, and next to Bonanza is the produce shop where we got onions and tomatoes. There was also a liquor store next to the butcher (on Pepe Llanos) for those who are interested. Please note that in developing countries like Mexico, all foods should be thoroughly cleaned and cooked through before being consumed. If you must eat uncooked fruits or vegetables, they should be washed and disinfected with a product like Microdyn, and if possible, peeled, to prevent TD.

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Soaking tomatoes in Microdyn

After a full day of eating and drinking our way through SMA, we both awoke the next morning with a full on case of Montezuma’s Revenge (the dreaded TD I just mentioned). We were pretty careful with what we ate and drank, but it doesn’t take much – possibly a tainted ice cube or a piece of uncooked fruit that slipped in to our system. We were housebound for the entire day, which is not a fun way to spend time in a foreign city. The next day we were able to rally for dinner, and after a day and a half, we were feeling like ourselves. We explored another section of the city, and took a nice stroll through Juárez Park and made our way to the Rosewood Hotel, which is probably the most glamorous hotel in SMA. Even the neighborhood looks considerably more upscale than anything we’d seen in SMA thus far. At the Rosewood we snacked on fish tacos and cocktails while taking in the spectacular view. A few doors down is the Hotel Nena, a tiny little boutique hotel with a Moorish courtyard and luxe rooftop with a small plunge pool. If you’re only in SMA for a few days, I recommend both of these accommodations.

Since we were feeling well again, we decided on an authentic Mexican dinner at Los Milagros, which is famous for its molcajete (volcano bowl). We ordered one to share and it was still too much food for two… I’m certain this could have fed six people! We enjoyed the local flavor and the live music as well as the interesting art work that covered the walls of the dining room: hundreds (maybe thousands) of small shadowboxes with little tableaus depicting a wide variety of subjects. Frida Kahlo is a much-covered subject and there are copious works of art dedicated to her likeness.

Art is a big part of SMA’s personality and culture. Artists have flocked to SMA for years and everywhere you look there is art. There are galleries that serve champagne as well as stalls squeezed between vendors selling hot elote and tamales. For those looking for the small art stalls, we found two places to check out: Mercado de Artesanías and Artisans Alley on Lucas Balderas. These are great places for art, souvenirs and handcrafted clothing. Feel free to barter!

On our last night in SMA we went to a lovely restaurant a block from our apartment called Antonia Bistro. We sat at yet another rooftop where we took in a stunning sunset over craft cocktails and light, fresh cuisine. I was still trying to take it easy so I had French onion soup and a beet salad, while Dave ordered salmon that was prepared perfectly. Additionally, the service was great and really friendly and we had no problem communicating in English (knowing Spanish will come in handy in SMA as English is much less prevalent).

Alas, it was time to bid farewell to SMA and make the final leg of our July trip to San Jose del Cabo to connect with two of our closest friends, Melissa and Lisa. We woke at 3:00 AM to catch the shuttle to Mexico City, and drove in the dark for close to four hours. Along the way we saw walkers and bicyclists making a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. 60,000 people arrived at the Guadalupe Basilica for a pilgrimage that covered more than 185 miles from Querétaro state.

We arrived at the Coral Baja in Los Cabos around noon and were ready for some guilt-free down time by the pool. For the next four days, we languished in the sun by the pool, consumed dozens (or more) of “Miami Vice” frozen cocktails, and ate our body weight in fried chicken tenders and nachos. Although not exactly Mexican fare, they were perfect pool-side snacks that held us over until dinner every afternoon. For most of our dinner meals we had carryout from the Sardina Cantina, which was surprisingly fantastic. We dined on giant steaks, seared scallops served in a hollowed out pineapple, shrimp, fried chicken and au-gratin potatoes. One of the guests leaving the resort gifted us with some rice and bell peppers which I used to make chicken and rice with a roasted pepper sauce for dinner one night. Most mornings we cooked a hot breakfast of omelet and toast before claiming our pool chairs by the swim up bar. The location of our resort in Cabo was not conducive to ocean swimming due to rough waves and a strong undertow, but the resort does provide gorgeous beach and ocean views, and the pool had plenty of seating and two good bar options.

As our trip wound to a close we couldn’t help notice the impact of tourism on the two cities. Despite tourism, SMA retains its colonial vibe and authentic Mexican culture. Only pesos are accepted and English is not spoken widely. In Cabo, most everyone spoke English and US$ was widely accepted – in other words, quite Americanized in comparison to SMA. In SMA, we felt like we were in another country; in Cabo we felt like we were in the US (but still lovely).

If you’re looking for an affordable, cultured, art-filled vacation, San Miguel de Allende will fit the bill. Cabo is ideal for those who want to get a stamp in their passport but not feel like they are completely in a foreign land. Either way, Mexico has a lot to offer fellow travelers!

Next stop: Amsterdam!

Steph

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