The previous post brings me up through the end of 2016. I have been in Mexico for well over a month now, escaping the brown of winter. Though I aspire to get caught up on the blog one day, Mexico offers timeless days and rich distractions. I vow not to “fast forward,” as I want to remember them all. And so begins 2017…
I’ve been coming to San Miguel de Allende almost every holiday season since 2007. As one might expect, each year brings changes. In the case of SMdA, those changes are being rapidly accelerated by media coverage The climate, culture, and cost of living warrant reviews like International Living magazines designation as “Top City to Retire Abroad.” In 2013, Conde Nast even named it “Top City in the World.” While all that brings around a lot of stimulation for the local economy, it also contributes to what locals refer to as the “Disneylandification.”
San Miguel’s only saving grace at slowing growth is the lack of a local airport. The nearest access by plane is in Leon, a two hour ride away, or Mexico City at four to five hours. Shuttles are easy and inexpensive, but hopefully just intimidating enough to keep the weekender crowds at bay. Though most of the gringos are expats living here full time, the tourist masses during the holiday season appear to be well-heeled Mexicans, spending their holidays in the “jewel” in the crown of Mexico’s Pueblo Magicos, or “Magic Towns.”
I skipped my annual visit last year in order to help my brother Don, who was in the process of remodeling his home for sale. In that two year span, change was more evident than ever….some good, some not so good. The rapid changes in the name of “progress” prompt me to ponder, what is the tipping point where some place quaint and unique becomes overdone? When should “well enough” be left alone?
Each year, the stage for the New Years Eve celebration gets a little bigger and a little more high tech. This year, it featured a football stadium-sized diamond vision screen with multiple entertainers. As I watch the stage being erected with dizzying efficiency as is often the case in Mexico, I think back to my first New Years Eve celebration where there was only a canned soundtrack to the fireworks show. At the stroke of midnight, the chosen song was Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing.” Now, every time I hear that song, such an odd choice for a NYE celebration, I’m taken right back to my first New Years Eve in the Jardin at midnight, sparklers waiving, children dancing, lovers kissing, and the smell of gun power smoke wafting through the air. I not only “don’t wanna miss a thing,” I don’t want to change a thing!
Another mark of progress, good for the expats and the local economy…not so good for us “traditionalists” is the evolution of San Miguel’s organic market. This used to be a Saturday morning, “home grown” affair. It was as much social as it was functional. Gringos showed up wearing their sun bonnets on a Saturday morning to fill their Via Organica shopping bags with mesclun greens, squash blossoms, agave nectar, and the always in demand Orange Donuts from the Panderia La Buena Vida booth. Saturday was a red letter day for foodies in San Miguel. But that market has now been moved indoors. They occupy a large 3-story building in what was once the Ferreteria, or hardware store. You can now shop for organic specialties seven days a week. But with that convenience, gone is that intimate and unique feeling of the Saturday morning social gathering.
Unwelcome change in the name of “progress” also comes on a smaller scale. One of my favorite stops in San Miguel has always been the little “yogurteria,” Santa Clara. Their yogurt tastes like “real” yogurt, tart with chunks of real fruit. Not like the cake-batter swirled with marmalade, sickening sweet of some yogurt brands. But Santa Clara was bought out by Coca-Cola. The owner of the little local shop chose not to fall in line with Corporate Coke, and closed his shop. It’s now yet another farmacia along the main drag.
Sadly, for better or worse, San Miguel is becoming more “Americanized” than ever, as US customs slowly trickle down. Some translate culturally, while others do not. San Miguel is working at becoming a more “pet friendly” town. But pets are treated differently here in Mexico. They are viewed more as “animals,” which seems to bring about the extremism in gringo pet owners. For example, we went to a very fancy “farm to table” brunch in an Italian-style villa on New Years Day. Two pet owners brought their dogs to the table…literally. This was a five-course, fine dining meal complete with wine pairings, yet the dogs were allowed to sit in their owner’s laps, eat from the table and lick the stemware. In another instance, the poor dog beneath the table barked with every single breath, while the three margarita-infused women above the table were impervious to his cries for attention. As rules loosen with pet-friendly establishments, so do those of pet etiquette.
But change has come for the better also. San Miguel’s restaurant scene is hopping. Lots of new options have opened since I last visited, some with a great deal of success. Restaurants are receiving notoriety with the country’s foremost chefs, while other attempts like their upscale food court, now an empty warehouse did not fare so well. One of the newer, more innovative concoctions, Don Taco Tequila, offers “specialty tacos,” strips of rib-eye nestled in soft corn tortillas, while he inner “shell” is made from a layer of cheese, sizzled to a crisp on the grill. Oh yeah!
Just when we were figuring out that the relative of tequila, Mezcal is more than clear rot-gut with the worm in the bottle, Sotol comes along. Grown from the Desert Spoon plant in the agave family, Sotol goes through the same process as tequila, whereby the core is cooked, shredded, and fermented. But the taste is not the same. Despite the fact that the overpowering bitterly alcohol taste had undertones of buttered popcorn, I did not like it. My first comment was “No one light a match.” I think I’ll stick with tequila.
Every place has its tipping point where growth and progress wipes out the uniqueness and charm. And every person has their threshold where a place no longer holds enchantment. San Miguel is not there yet…close, but not yet.