Written and Photographed by Beau Gustafson
I traveled with my son, my nephew, and my sister down to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to visit my mother, who lives there much of the year. Two 16-year-olds, me, and my older sister converged on my mom for a week of visiting and exploring. This should be interesting.
My mom, Alice, has been traveling to San Miguel for the last 10 years and has recently built a home that, when she is not there, can be used as a rental home. It is always an adventure leaving the country; however, the flight to Leon, in the state of Guanajuato, is pretty easy, and my nephew was even able to meet up with us in Dallas for the last leg of the flight. Even customs was a breeze, though it felt a bit like a game show, waiting for the customs baggage folks to press the button meant for randomizing searches. We got the green light, though the dodgy-looking guy in front of us was searched, with guys with machine guns close at hand. Somehow, I never get used to the sight of soldiers carrying machine guns with fingers on the triggers. Yep, these folks mean business.
My mom and Victor were waiting for us when we arrived. Many years ago, when my mom first started going down to Mexico, she found Victor Rico. I cannot tell you how nice it is to have a friend and tour guide when you travel to a foreign country and Victor is one of the kindest, most knowledgeable people I have met. A native of San Miguel, he travels the country taking care of Gringos (American tourists), driving them, interpreting for them, and handling any problems that may occur. His son was the architect for the home my mom built, so Victor has become a close family friend. Unless your Spanish is fluent, I would hire someone to guide you through the country. Plus, you get to hear all of the good stories that only the locals know.
So, armed with a great guide, we headed out on the short car ride from Leon to Guanajuato, the capital of the state of Guanajuato. What a beautiful city! An old silver mining town, Guanajuato is an incredibly colorful town. There are museums, like the Don Quixote museum and the Mummies of Guanajuato Museum, and great architecture, as well as El Pipila, the statue of a poor miner who strapped a stone to his back, which protected him so he could smear a door with tar and set it ablaze, effectively enabling the Independence fighters to take the city during the War for Independence in September of 1810. (Mexico has a revolution about every 100 years. They are due for another one.) We were only making a short stop here, but a few days could be spent wandering the streets and exploring the city and its history.
After an hour and half ride to San Miguel and checking out my mom’s new home, complete with incredible craftsmanship, beautiful tile work, and a rooftop with a pergola and bougainvillea, we walked into the city center. Make sure you bring your walking shoes for San Miguel; with the cobblestone streets and the winding hillsides, this is the definition of a walking city. There is so much to see and explore around every corner. We had many people to please—teenagers and grown ups—but there is something for everybody.
The best place to start is San Miguel’s central square or zocalo, called El Jardin. I must tell you that El Jardin restored my faith in people again. People laughing, eating, and drinking, mariachis, mojigangas (big colorful puppets), dance groups, and tourists from all over the world. Despite the never-ending cellphone selfies, it felt like a different time, when the entertainment didn’t come from a little screen. People were laughing and kids were playing; there was real human interaction, unhurried and unworried, the kind that is so rare in this day and age. To watch the square change from day to night is something special as well. The colors, the smells of food, the music on the streets, the beauty of the Parroguia de San Miguel Arcangel as it changes from its pink neo-gothic wonder to its nighttime magnificence as the city’s central focus: All was spectacular. Kids running and playing, lovers holding hands, grandparents, kids, and grandkids eating tacos, churros, and drinking wine or tequila at the many cafes around El Jardin.
Depending on the time of year you arrive, San Miguel is also known for its many festivals, celebrations, parades, and colorful traditional costumes. It is easy to understand why artists and expats have been coming to San Miguel for years, because at every turn you find an old world beauty and history. There is something interesting to do for just about everyone. My son and nephew wandered the streets looking at the cool shops, drank hot chocolate and ate churros from San Augustin Chocolates and Churros, listened to music at the Biblioteca Publica, and had lunch, with music, at Juan’s Cafe, affectionately called Juan the Pirates.
I, being a food photographer, took a cooking class from Juan Manuel Reyes Patlán, aka Chef Denver an Otomi Indian, whose mother was Maria Ines, a celebrated chef in the ’60s and ’70s. Usually, everyone hops in a van to go to the markets to shop for food for the dishes they will make; however, on this trip, we got a treat and traveled by four-wheeler to the outskirts of town, the campo. Chef Denver’s grandfather, a shaman (a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits), taught him about the herbs and edibles in the wild. So we found tunas (prickly pear buds) and nopal for the stuffed roasted nopal leaf we would make. Other recipes we made included otomi squash blossom soup and guacamole. (Recipes below)
I also went with my sister, Lynn (a glass artist herself), to see Ana Thiel, a world-renowned glass artist who has shows around the world and a beautiful studio in the city center. Thiel, originally from Mexico City, has made her home in San Miguel for the last 20 or so years. Her work combines glass with other materials (such as glass embedded in books or nestled in wood). It is hard to forget that glass is molten at high temperatures, when the medium that holds the glass is charred and joined by intense heat. To me, it is the joining of disparate materials, a tumultuous process, that leaves behind art.
We also spent a few relaxing hours at La Gruta, a hot spring 20 miles outside of San Miguel, which is home to a long man-made cave where you wade and stand under the fresh hot springs, get a massage at the spa, and eat lunch in the lush courtyard. Don’t forget to stop and see the Sanctuary at Atotonilco, not far from La Gruta; the murals and sculptures here make this a sacred place of pilgrimage for many in central Mexico. I have seen nothing like it since the paintings at the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel—beautiful, ornate carvings from the 1700s and devotional paintings on every wall, intricate, gruesome, and somber, with Christ, angels, saints, and demons. This is a world UNESCO site and should not be missed.
My mom has had several careers—microbiologist, graphic artist, and archeologist. It is no wonder she loves Mexico as she does, especially San Miguel. From the pyramids at Teotihuacan and ruins all across Mexico, to the incredible art classes and paintings by world famous painters and muralists, it’s an amazing, thriving cultural center. San Miguel offers discovery at every turn: new art, old art, and ancient art. This is a culture steeped in a cauldron of forces imposed through the generations on these people of Mexico. The Aztecs, the Mayans, the Spanish, the French, the African—all with their own beliefs, art, and culture. Their fingerprints are everywhere you go.
If shopping is what you like, there are shops for every income level that sell all kinds of things, including inexpensive knickknacks, fine silver jewelry, hand-crafted leather boots, hand-carved statues from wood and clay, art from local artisans, and antiques. If it is food that you like, some of the best chefs have come to San Miguel, and with the many rooftop restaurants, gringos can find safe food in many places. Just don’t drink the water or eat sketchy food from roadside vendors. This is because people don’t have easy access to clean running water, and amoebas love dirty water systems with old infrastructure. Even if you are careful, you are liable to pick up something. Most of the time, however, the misery only lasts a couple of days. The doctors are well equipped for gringos doing the Tijuana two-step.
So pack your bags, find a good guide, or just wander the streets in San Miguel de Allende and treat yourself to a city built in a different time and age that is still alive with tradition and old world beauty. Enjoy the many beautiful restaurants and hotels, the shopping, the food, the classes, walking the cobblestone streets through multicolored buildings, and seeing art and life thoroughly blended in this, the cauldron of history and culture that is found in the mountains of Central Mexico, in the state of Guanajuato.
Get yourself to San Miguel de Allende.
2 bunches of squash blossoms (about 20 blossoms)
2 cloves of garlic
1/4 tsp dried oregano (if fresh, then double)
1 medium onion, diced
2 tbsp olive oil
1 cup tomato sauce
2 liters chicken broth (or bullion)
Salt and pepper to taste
Goat cheese (to sprinkle on top)
Sauté all the ingredients except for the tomato sauce and broth until the onions are soft. Then add tomato sauce and simmer on low for 5 minutes. Add chicken broth and simmer on low for 10 minutes.
Note: Squash blossoms are very delicate and are sold daily in bunches of 10 in the local farmers markets. They are in season from mid-July to late September.
This is Maria Ines’ version. She was Denver’s mother and a celebrated cook in San Miguel in the 1970s, cooking for the well-to-do expats that had begun to immigrate to the area. We’ve topped off our dish with a type of goat cheese that has been made for centuries and is still made by the local Otomi Indians on the still-functioning outlying ranchos. It is organic, fresh, and crumbly and is the one traditionally used with this soup.
1 chile jalapeño
1 clove garlic
Roast the tomato, tomatillo, and the chile jalapeño. This is done directly over an open flame on a fire pit or a comal, a flat Mexican cooking surface. Note: A modern comal is metal, but the pre-hispanic one is pottery.
Grind to chunky in a molcajete*. Lacking that, put it in the blender and pulse to a chunky consistency. Serve spread on a folded or rolled tortilla.
*A molcajete is an aztec blender, made of rock. It has a bowl and a pestle. If you do the grinding in a molcajete, you need to use rock or coarse salt.
Go into the campo (outback/country side) and pick out the best leaves that you can find; “best” means thick, fresh, and with as few spines as possible. Take a machete to the leaves, but do not cut into the wind (unless you are into pain and enjoy spines.)
Onion, sliced or diced
Cut everything in 1/4 cubes and set aside.
Remove the spines from your leaf using a knife or torch.
Slice it like a sandwich, but not all the way through. You want to leave a strong hinge. Do this slowly while using you hand to help to open the leaf.
Build a fire on a grill or on the ground. Cook on one side for 15 minutes, until almost burnt. Flip it and burn the other side.
Remove from the fire and then carefully remove your wire or twigs.
Scoop out, fill a taco, and add some guacamole, then enjoy!