In years past, San Miguel de Allende has been a regular destination for National Geographic’s week-long photography workshops. While buildings in the main section of historic “Centro” in San Miguel are restricted by the Regulation of Construction to shades of ocre and earth tones, vivid accent colors abound in the form of bougainvillea, hibiscus, and greenery planted in brightly colored pottery. But no accent is more intriguing than the doors of San Miguel. There’s even a book of photography featuring only photos of the ornately carved doors.
Behind these closed doors can be found some of the most elaborate mansions in Mexico, or little more than the family living room of mix-matched furniture and the only TV tube in the house. A favorite pastime is strolling the streets sneaking a peek, particularly in the evenings when families assemble in the doorway like Brooklynites on their neighborhood stoop. This intimate look into their living rooms reveals the reverence Mexicans have for family, as the aged to the infants sit together, looking out as I look in.
My favorite spot in San Miguel de Allende is a bit of a challenge to visit. Very few people know of its existence, and even fewer can pinpoint when its doors will be open. The tiny Chapel de la Casa de Loreto is well hidden inside the 18th century baroque church, Oratorio de San Felipe Neri, whose doors are rarely found open. Only during mass times in the evening, around 5:45pm have I ever been able to gain entry into the church and navigate to the little side chapel without disrupting Mass.
I was first captivated by the chapel from the outside by its ornate, six-sided cupola, so petite next to the surrounding structures. Its size makes it hard to photograph, though, as it’s dwarfed by buildings and walls in the tightly-packed centro, or historic section.
But then, a door opens as I stroll down the street on one of my many meanders. I look to my right to see the most magnificent view…the angle I’ve tried to get from many different streets. Through a large metal door, I can finally get the wedding-tiered chapel in my line of sight.
I wander in through the doorway just as a large SUV is pulling out. As I turn on my camera and frame the cupola, I hear the loud CLANG of the door as it slams shut behind me. A quick look around reveals that I am standing in the middle of a very large secured parking lot with barbed wire along the top of the metal walls. The door I came through is now locked. Trying not to panic, I start to trace the wall, looking for another exit, when I hear the door open again. There in the doorway is the driver of the big SUV, his hands on his hips, looking at me like “Are you coming, or what??” He stands in the doorway, patiently waiting as I run through the door, apologizing profusely, “Lo siento! Lo siento!”
To reach the little camarín, or chapel with its six elaborately gilded baroque altars, walk through the front door of the Templo del Oratorio, go down the mail aisle, then turn left down the west transept to find a small chapel. You may think you are there, but not yet. While standing at the front doors of this side chapel, look to the right and you will see a small dark hallway leading further forward. If you go to the end of that hallway, you will find the little six-sided, smaller chapel, only about 20 feet in diameter. The gilded walls and six baroque altars look like something one would expect to find in old-world Italy, more-so than in Mexico.
I closed a door in San Miguel of another sort…hopefully not permanently. I received a very generous offer to house-sit for a week in my favorite casa in all of San Miguel. But the timing was not right. I would have needed to backtrack from the beach, the opposite direction of my intended route westward. So I passed on the opportunity in the hopes that there will be another down the road. It’s a door I hope I didn’t close permanently…