Sparks fly in Mexico’s city of artists and artisans

by Norberto Nunez

SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, Mexico — Having grown up in Los Angeles, where only the sanest of fireworks were legally sold, I was taught that colorful sparks shooting up higher than 30 cm would surely make someone pay for their reckless abandon. How happy I was to discover here that it’s not necessarily true.

Elaborately costumed dancers celebrate the Feast of St. Michael in San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato, Mexico.
Dancer at the Feast of St. Michael

After emerging unscathed from the falling embers of a 10-meter-high castillo (fireworks tower), I moved to a safer location for the next two castillos and watched as children danced below with cardboard umbrellas in the brilliant storm.

Located in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende offers more than just pyrotechnics. The well-preserved colonial city is home to beautiful historic buildings that center around a magnificent cathedral, a masterpiece of 18th-century Mexican Baroque architecture. The Biblioteca Publica, a library run by foreign residents of San Miguel, also hosts Sunday tours of colonial homes.

Due to the small city’s relatively high number of foreign residents, mostly from the United States, many commercial establishments have English-speaking staff members. There are also plenty of international foods available, including Chinese, French, Japanese, Italian and Thai, though I strongly recommend the local cuisine. Two great places for local fare are: Ten Ten Pie, an affordable sit-down restaurant located on the street just west of the cathedral; and the taco stand adjacent to the San Francisco church, one block north of the jardin (main plaza).

Walking off your meal should be easy for shoppers here. San Miguel has become a haven for artisans, and their crafts fill local stores and galleries. Even the most level-headed consumers will find it difficult to exit empty-handed from el callejon de artesanias (crafts alley). Local artists also offer private classes for those interested.

There’s also reason to pack your swimwear, as several natural hot springs are found in the surrounding area. Springs here are generally coed, outdoors and far less hot than those in Japan, allowing for longer dips. La Gruta was the nicest one I visited. It is located a few kilometers down the road to Dolores Hidalgo and features a cave from which the spring water gushes forth.

Sparks shower from Catherine wheels on a fireworks tower in front of the cathedral in San Miguel de Allende.

Those lucky enough to visit in September will see the city at its most vibrant. Every weekend parades with Native American dance groups are held and castillos illuminate the jardin as part of “las fiestas” honoring the city’s chief patron saint. Also during this month, a Pamplona-style bull run is held and Mexican Independence Day is celebrated. During this time, the jardin is filled with musical and dance performances going on simultaneously.

Though I was told things would be “calm” after September, the difference was hardly discernible. Music festivals, crafts fairs and other events seemed not to miss a beat. My favorite of these “off-season” events was a 10-day concert series featuring local bands that coincided with a wool and metalworks fair. The crowd was predominately local, and the whole scene had a very life-affirming feel to it.

Getting around within San Miguel poses no challenge to those who stay in the city center, as the entire downtown area can be easily navigated on foot. To visit sites on the outskirts of town, such as the bullfighting arena and hot springs, it will be necessary to take a bus or cab. Though taxis are relatively inexpensive, between 600 yen and 1,200 yen for the aforementioned destinations, a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish should let you take the much cheaper buses.

Several other places worth visiting are located near San Miguel. Fellow colonial cities Guanajuato and Queretaro make for pleasant day trips. From December to March, organized tours leave here regularly to see the millions of monarch butterflies that spend the winter in the highlands of northern Michoacan.