San Miguel de Allende started with a bang. A big one. Around 12,000 years ago the Palo Huerfano volcano erupted creating a range of mountains to the south called the Picachos, and that cool crack you can see running along the top of the city. If you satellite image the area you can actually view the crater.
About a thousand years ago, the inhabitants here were a group known as the Chichimeca. They lived along the Picachos; an offshoot of these people, the Otomi, lived on the other side of the crack.
These were mostly semi-nomadic tribes in the area. It was a pretty peaceful existence until Spain colonized the country and found silver about 300 miles from here. Soldiers started coming and tried to force the Indians to mine and work the infrastructure. This proved to be a violent challenge. To secure the route for transporting all that stolen silver, the Spanish took high-ground routes from Zacatecas, Real de Catorce, through here, all the way to Vera Cruz where they could load it on homebound ships. San Miguel el Grande, as it would come to be known provided a safe haven for these silver trains. The street Mesones today recalls the time that it was the street of guest houses and inns – ‘mesones’ for the travellers.
These caravans were constantly attacked, and the conquistadors constantly ruined local settlements. The bloodshed was unceasing, and soon the invaders chose to change tactics. They strove to win the hearts and minds of the locals instead. So enter the priests.
Fray Juan San Miguel established a chapel on a river near here in 1542. He named it for his patron saint St. Michael the Archangel. The river, however, had this annoying habit of not having any water in it. The legend is that the residents found dogs drinking at a natural water geyser called El Chorro today. The priest moved his settlement to the place the Otomi called Escuinapan – ‘thirsty dogs.’
After a bloody fight in which the new village was burned down by the Chichimecas, the Spanished placed a garrison here, and established San Miguel el Grande in 1555. The silver came through for centuries. Wealthy silver barons built enormous mansions and haciendas all throughout the state.
At the beginning of the 1800s Spain began to lose its grip domestically, and especially as a world empire. The time was right for revolt, and right here in San Miguel de Allende, it all went down. Read about that here.
Ignacio Allende, from here, was one of the leaders of the War for Independence, and he paid the ultimate price. After the fight, Mexican government leaders were concerned about all the power and wealth the Catholic Church still had. In an attempt to encourage patriotic feelings some religious-named towns got heroes added to their names. For example Dolores, which is a reference to the Blessed Virgin, got the hero Hidalgo added to it – today it is Dolores Hidalgo, and San Miguel el Grande got changed to San Miguel de Allende.
Despite the conflict between Church and state, it was in the 1880s when one of the greatest churches in Mexico was created. Architect Zeferino Gutierrez designed an entire new facade for the main parish cathedral, which had been standing in various states of repair for 200 years. The word for ‘parish’ is parroquia and the grand church was created. The style is not just Baroque and Gothic mixed – it was Gutierrez’s idea of those styles. Some quibble today how the church doesn’t really go with the Colonial architecture around it, but there is no doubt that it is the very stunning symbol of San Miguel de Allende.
Throughout the 19th Century San Miguel subsisted on the great local farmlands and textiles. The most beautiful zarapes, a kind of woven cape, were created here. At one point there were over 350 looms operating. These gorgeous creations were proffered as luxurious gifts for such luminaries as Maximilian and Pope Pius IX. The weaving industry remained here through the 1940s.
As the silver mines got depleted many towns in Central Mexico started to die out. For example an awesome side-trip from here is to visit the former silver-mining giant Real de Catorce. Ttoday it is surrounded by ghost towns. In 1918, the Spanish Flu pandemic nearly wiped out the population of the town.
San Miguel de Allende started to decline. In an ironic twist, American ex-pats, normally seen as corrupters of local cultures, helped save the city. After World War II the American government created the GI Bill which paid for any veteran’s college expenses. Stirling Dickinson, wealthy adventurer, author, intelligence officer, came to San Miguel and helped to establish The School of Fine Arts – Bellas Artes here.
The school brought in famous muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. Ex-soldiers found they could collect their GI Bill money while learning to paint in inexpensive San Miguel. Many, many came down, and San Miguel de Allende gained a reputation for being an artist colony. Siqueiros went on to become an outspoken political activist. His disturbing and powerful murals can still be viewed at the Bellas Artes.
By the 1960s San Miguel de Allende attained an almost mythical reputation across the border. Hidden in the Mexican mountains, provocative stories of peyote and pulque emanating out, stress-free lifestyle – painters, photographers, writers, all forms of left-brainers seemingly wandered in.
Included in this convergence of artistas was Neal Cassady, intriguing member of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters – the legendary acid-dropping, bus driving wandering hippies. Cassady loved San Miguel, lived near the Centro, and would party at the legendary Cucaracha Bar. The bar has since moved, but it used to be on the Jardin.
A figure who was characterized by many writers including Hunter Thompson, Jack Kerouac, a few Grateful Dead songs, Cassady would drink at the Cucaracha with other lights, among them Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Sadly, Cassady was found passed out at the train station near town early one morning, and later died of drug and alcohol overdose.
In the past 50 years, more and more people have discovered San Miguel de Allende. Like many other special places – New Orleans, Austin, San Francisco leap to mind – San Miguel is walking a tightrope between cultural vibrancy and gentrification. The outskirts are filling with fraccionamentos – subdivisions – traffic on the perimeter is growing, food and coffee chains are starting to appear, and the innocence of even twenty years ago seems to be going.
At the same time, there is an amazing diversity of activities, food, healthy options and special experiences like few other places offer. Beyond that, the Mexican government is extremely jealous and strict about preservation. The Centro is judiciously manicured and maintains its stunning and joyful character. It is still possible to savor the passion and aesthetic joy here.
San Miguel de Allende, a jewel in the center of a great nation.