The Spell of San Miguel
With its cobblestoned streets, colonial architecture, and ever-growing creative class, this Mexican mountain city—an expat enclave since the 1940s—continues to bewitch Southern travelers
"Do you have an old sweater?" my host, Andrew Fisher, asks.
An old sweater? I’ve just dropped my bags and changed into a crisp blue button-down for dinner.
“I’d hate for you to burn your shirt,” he says, leaving me even more confused.
We’re sipping tequila in the loggia of Fisher’s historic walled house in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Three years ago, Fisher and his husband, Jeffry Weisman, visited San Miguel and, like many fellow Americans—a large percentage of whom hail from the South—fell under the city’s spell. The pair, owners of Fisher Weisman Design and Decoration, came as tourists, but within hours of arriving decided to buy this house, dubbed Casa Acanto, after the acanthus leaf. They’re among the approximately 8,000 Americans living in this city of 140,000. Though Weisman’s away, we’re accompanied by their good friend and fellow expat Lisa Coleman. She and her husband weren’t nearly as impulsive as Fisher and Weisman. During a family vacation to San Miguel twelve years ago, they waited a whole eight days before falling for a house.
Halfway through my second tequila, I learn how it is I might get burned. I’ve arrived in San Miguel, a picturesque mountain town 170 miles northwest of Mexico City, on the country’s Fourth of July: September 16. San Miguel is the cradle of Mexican independence, the place where, in 1810, insurgents first plotted the end of Spanish colonial rule. Tonight, there will be fireworks in the main plaza, known locally as El Jardín. Every year, Fisher says, at least one rocket spins out of control and scatters spectators like the bulls in Pamplona.
At dinner, in the courtyard of a restaurant called Chamonix, a few blocks from El Jardín, I’m halfway through a filet mignon when an explosion rattles our water glasses. The night sky flashes gold. Fisher calls for the check. Famished from my travels, I shove steak into my mouth. Another boom. “Come on,” he says. “Chew! Chew! Chew!”
In the plaza, the throng presses in on three towering bamboo-and-wire frames—castillos, Fisher calls them—with hand-tied fireworks mounted on their rickety crosspieces and struts. “Closer!” Fisher urges. We squeeze past children and grandmothers, looking up just as three massive pinwheels sputter to life. Spinning faster and faster, brighter and brighter, the wheels whistle like demons while raining fiery embers down on the cheering crowd.
I’m finding it easy to get swept up in the excitement of San Miguel de Allende. Before my trip, I didn’t know a soul here. But Katharine Hibberts, an Alabama native who runs a house rental and concierge service called Premier San Miguel, opened doors. That’s what she does. And San Miguel has some fabulous doors.
Among Americans, the city is most famous for two things—its thriving expat community and its storybook homes, many of which are rentable. Most houses, especially in the historic city center, don’t look like much from the narrow, cobbled streets—just a high wall and a rustic wooden door. That’s what I found when my driver dropped me in front of Casa Acanto. Then the door creaked open, and I stepped into Shangri-la.
Enclosed within four towering, vine-covered walls and shaded by a feathery canopy of jacaranda trees, the colonial-era property is one of dozens of houses Hibberts offers her clients. Inside that secluded space, house and garden are locked in a loving embrace. High-ceilinged, art-filled rooms spill onto loggias, bedrooms onto leafy terraces. San Miguel’s perennial springlike weather makes this indoor-outdoor living possible.
Hibberts up and moved here from Nashville in 2003, inspired by her mother, Nancy Howze, who left Birmingham and resettled here permanently in 1998 after Hibberts and her brother had flown the nest. Single and fifty-one years old at the time, Howze says, “When I first arrived, I saw all these people twenty and twenty-five years older than me skipping around town having drinks and going to parties. I didn’t see seventy-five-year-olds skipping around Birmingham.”
That night, after the fireworks and a nightcap at a candlelit rooftop bar called La Azotea, I climb stairs to the rooftop terrace of my casita at Casa Acanto and gaze at the Gothic spire of the Parroquia, San Miguel’s main church, glowing above the glittering colonial city. The air is desert clear. A warm breeze rustles the jacaranda leaves. I feel a tremor of desire, and my mind starts playing out house-buying scenarios. That’s when I know it’s time for bed.