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San Miguel de Allende’s Charming Facade Hides A Deeper Problem

By Annual Adventure Mexico

San Miguel de Allende was named the best city in the world in 2017 by Travel and Leisure, and it’s not difficult to see this quaint yet sprawling town’s appeal. San Miguel de Allende’s narrow streets invite travelers to explore every nook and cranny, and each unassuming alley leads to an undiscovered treasure. There is a seemingly endless selection of restaurants and cafes, and the city comes to life after dark. Evenings are filled with live music, rooftop cocktails and giant paper-mâché mojigangas taking every opportunity to make tourists uncomfortable and bomb their photos. The landmark Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel draws daily crowds eager to visit and photograph it’s famous pink facade.

The town square of San Miguel de Allende
San Miguel de Allende in a nutshell.

However, much like the neo-Gothic face that was added to the front of the Parroquia 200 years after the original construction of the church, the city of San Miguel de Allende presents visitors with a charming facade that hides the true nature of life in the city.

A Visitor’s Perspective of San Miguel de Allende

I was drawn to the city after reading its many glowing reviews. Eager to experience the charming city streets at sunset and then heading to one of its many famous rooftop bar/restaurants for my evenings, the city certainly didn’t disappoint in that respect. The endearing streets dazzle visitors with their walls of colorful buildings and hidden courtyards. Magical sunsets light up the streets and buildings in a sort of indescribable neon pastel glow.

Sunset on the streets of San Miguel de Allende.
With photos like this flooding social media for SMA, it’s easy to see the city’s appeal.

My Airbnb host, one of the many expats living in the city, was extremely eager to describe to me the vast activity options that San Miguel de Allende has to offer. She enthusiastically tipped me off about organic farmers markets, cafes galore, art galleries, wine tasting, spas and upscale dining. Although I appreciated her efforts, I was really more interested in getting the local experience more than the many luxurious offerings that are available in the city. As it turns out, those options really do reflect the local experience these days.

New York Magazine’s Love Note to San Miguel de Allende is a perfect example of everything that is wrong with the direction the city is going. The author simultaneously waxes poetic about the magical sunsets and simple pleasures while recommending hotels that start at $340 per night and “wellness-centered cooking courses” taught by an expat, of course. I can absolutely appreciate splurging for travel, but these things go against what is at the heart of San Miguel de Allende, the local people who have made it what it is today.

Don’t Expect The Small Village Experience

I am an unapologetic sucker for quaint villages that have an authentic, local feel to them and expected the same out of San Miguel de Allende. While it certainly has its local flair, the city also felt like a downright tourist trap. With tourism being the number one industry in San Miguel de Allende, I can hardly fault them for catering to visitors, but there is a distinct difference between experiencing what life is actually like there and seeing cultural demonstrations that are manufactured for tourists to feel like they’re seeing a different culture.

The city’s central Jardín Allende (apparently referred to as “Gringo Gulch” by the locals) explodes with activity at all hours of the day, but it’s not the romanticized notion of locals who can’t help but express their culture. It’s mariachi bands singing for tips, giant mojigangas gleefully posing with photos with tourists and hat vendors wading through the crowds of tourists and expats to make a living. Does this sound like typical daily life or more like a mini Mexican Disneyland featuring culture porn for tourists to consume?

San Miguel de Allende's town square explodes at night!
The Jardin Allende positively explodes in the evenings, with your choice of colorful wares to purchase.

Beyond that, San Miguel de Allende is a crowded city. During the day, the narrow streets are often choked with vehicles. Come nighttime the Jardin is bustling with people, which is great, unless you’re trying to get a shot of the sunset, in which case it becomes a competitive sport!

San Miguel de Allende’s History of Cultural Imperialism and Foreign Gentrification

The issues prevalent in San Miguel de Allende aren’t a new problem to the city. Literally named after a Franciscan friar whom prolifically converted natives to Christianity, San Miguel de Allende was founded on the principles of converting local cultures to fit foreign standards. This attitude has been pervasive through its entire history and continues to be a dominant theme of the city today. Even the city’s signature landmark, the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, features an updated European design plastered over the front 30 feet of the original church.

The contrast between the Parroquia de San Miguel's front and rear.
You can see the difference between the Neo-Gothic facade and the old architecture here. Please excuse the grade-school photoshopping technique.

Beyond the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs that pervaded all of Mexico, San Miguel de Allende was an early poster child for the Westernization of Mexico. Francophile governor José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori ordered the reconstruction of the central Jardín Allende  in the French style, featuring iron benches and decoratively trimmed trees that stand to this day.

The same governor responsible for the Frenchification of the Jardín was eventually ousted during the Mexican War of Independence, which is famously said to have begun in San Miguel de Allende. In fact, the second half of the city’s name comes from a local hero and leader in the efforts to gain Mexico’s independence. This war was a direct result of tensions between marginalized locals and the Spanish-born immigrants whom pushed them out of power. Do you notice a theme here?

Juan de San Miguel, whom San Miguel de Allende is named after.
The jerk who started it all.

The current influx of white expats can be traced back to 1938 when an American artist named Stirling Dickinson established an art institute in the city. This institute subsequently attracted more American artists after World War II who were able to study abroad under the GI Bill. San Miguel de Allende’s reputation as a cultural hub quickly solidified and remains to this day. This is not to say that Mr. Dickinson failed to help locals as well (he actually quite disliked the influx of Americans to the city – seriously, read that article, it’s fantastic), but he certainly set the tone for the future of San Miguel de Allende.

The Expat Impact

The city of San Miguel de Allende’s population currently stands at around 60,000 people (and roughly 175,000 in the greater municipality), with about 10,000 of that number consisting of expats. Just look at this CNN article featuring expat life in San Miguel de Allende, with the youngest interviewee being 52 years old. I found this to be largely representative of the expat demographics in the city as well. I don’t have any problem with expat living, but when almost 20% of a Mexican city’s population consists of older, well to do white people, there will inevitably be an impact on the local population.

This impact is most easily measured in the price of rent and real estate. The average house price is $540,000 USD in the city and the income to rent ratio makes San Miguel de Allende more unaffordable than San Francisco! One of my travel companions summed the culmination of these statistics best when, after paying around $3 USD for a 30 minute taxi ride, she couldn’t help but exclaim “how does anyone afford to live here?” I had difficulty figuring that out for myself and I still don’t think that I know the answer.

Local streets of San Miguel de Allende.
There are plenty of locals out there that could use your help.

Poverty Remains a Big Problem in San Miguel de Allende

Obviously the issue of income inequality in San Miguel de Allende is not as simple as rich expats versus struggling locals. Some of the statistics about the city’s demographics, however, shocked me. Here are some of the statistics from the 2015 CONEVAL report on the municipality of San Miguel de Allende:

  • 45% of the population over the age of 15 had not completed basic education
  • 19% of homes lacked drainage
  • 10.23% of homes do not have a toilet
  • 11.42% of homes do not have access to healthcare
  • 14.72% of homes do not have a refrigerator
  • 8% illiteracy rate in people over the age of 15

In addition to this, CONEVAL (The National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy) named the municipality of San Miguel de Allende as having the highest level of income inequality in all of Mexico. One nuance of these statistics to take into account is that these numbers are for the municipality and not the city alone, but I was still shocked when I saw them. San Miguel de Allende is trailing behind the rest of the state in nearly every category besides access to health services.

What Is Being Done?

As shocking as these statistics may be, they actually represent huge strides in improvements over the last several years. There are a number of great charities working with the local population to provide healthcare and education to locals, and the Mexical Social Infrastructure Fund (FAIS) has been making great strides with providing people with access to basic services.

Many of the local expat-run activities actively donate their proceeds to charity, a simultaneously encouraging and somewhat ironic turn of events that the people partially responsible for driving up housing prices are making some effort to improve the lives of impoverished locals.

What Can I Do As A Tourist?

First of all, don’t move there and buy an expensive house! On the other side of the coin, however, don’t avoid visiting the city just because of its issues. All of San Miguel de Allende’s population relies heavily on tourism and skipping your visit would exacerbate the problems that it already faces. However, there are some great ways to support locals on your visit to San Miguel de Allende.

Sunset on the colorful streets of San Miguel de Allende.
By all means, don’t let me stand in your way of seeing a sunset like this.

Support Charitable Activities

As I mentioned earlier, many of the expat-run activities in San Miguel de Allende donate all of their proceeds to charity. Some of the options include:

Buy Some Damn Souvenirs

I was critical earlier in this article about the hat vendor roaming the Jardin in an attempt to make a living. While the touristy aspect does make San Miguel de Allende a bit less appealing to me as a whole, these people need the help of travelers. Buy your souvenirs from local vendors who clearly have stake in the game. Skip the high end art gallery and buy a painting from a street vendor, and while you’re at it grab one of those hats because it’s Mexico and it’s always sunny! Don’t forget to check out the local flea markets as well for just about any of your needs.

Local vendors in San Miguel de Allende
Oh hey! Local vendors who need your money!

Skip The Fancy Stuff

Instead of the corporate-owned luxury  hotel, find a locally, non-expat owned Airbnb or botique hotel! You can view host profiles to get a rough idea of whether you’re supporting a local resident or contributing to some real estate empire.

In a similar vein, try and seek out locally owned restaurants and avoid dining in hotels. Ask around and see what typically gets recommended, it’s a better way to dine anyways! And don’t skip the street food!

Don’t Give Handouts

As much as it hurts inside to walk past suffering people on the street, giving to beggars reinforces horrific practices like organized crime, human trafficking and child mutilation that will continue for as long as they get money from tourists.

It Wasn’t For Me, But It Might Be For You

San Miguel de Allende wasn’t my kind of destination. I’d much rather spend my time in Mexico City, which I completely fell in love with. At the same time, I can’t let the modern gentrification of San Miguel de Allende stop me from telling you to visit it. Just be aware that it is not exactly a city for the young, adventure-loving traveler. The vast majority of people who I’ve spoken to have LOVED their visit to the charming city, although my group of friends all found it a bit overrated. If you’re considering a visit, take my experiences into account but by all means don’t let it stop you from strolling down the cobblestone streets and taking in the rooftop views. All I ask is that you consider skipping the luxury spa and, just maybe, don’t spend your last million dollars on a house there.

Should you visit San Miguel de Allende?


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  • Great article from a different perspective. The pictures are definitely appealing and a visit would be much more rewarding taking your observations into consideration,!

    1. Thanks! Although the pictures are appealing, there’s a lot more going on in the city than the photos in this post reveal.

      1. The author is certainly entitled o his/her own opinion but my experience has been vastly different and exceptionally enjoyable. Oh, I and I DID buy a house in SMA and have never regretted it for a moment.

    2. Lots of wrong-minded judgment here. Sounds like the kind of thinking that is driving Americans out of the U.S, and to SMA. It is particularly ageist, something I’m learning to spot now that I am 59. But the very fact that this so-called young adventure loving traveler found it lacking makes it another checked box for me! And houses can be had for under $200k easily which is not expensive in most parts of the world today. Mexico City is much more unequal and expensive. Terrible point of view here!

  • I knew San Miguel de Allende was Gringoized a long time ago,so never considered going there. But now you’ve made me curious & I wanna give it a visit.

    1. That’s funny, that wasn’t necessarily the intent of this post, but I’m glad you’re curious!

  • Tim, I really appreciate your honest and well-researched article! It’s so refreshing to read something other than “X Instagrammable Places in San Miguel de Allende.” Would love to see more posts about ethical and responsible travel from you!

    1. Thank you!!! Several things just didn’t sit right with me about SMA and I just couldn’t let it go, as tempting as it may have been to just publish a bunch of pretty pictures. We’re sad that you couldn’t join us on the trip!

  • Tim, this article is so great! It’s been hard for me to describe to people the feelings I had when visiting but I think you nailed it. Am I glad I visited? Yes. Will I visit again? Probably not. Will I encourage others to visit? “Yes, but…”

    1. Thank you SO MUCH! I was really nervous to publish this one and it means a lot to hear you agree with my sentiment! I wholeheartedly agree with your “Yes, but…” feelings.

    2. You know, that’s really too bad. Sorry you had a bad experience. We’re young American expats living in SMA, and we have a very diverse and young group of friends from all over Mexico and all over the world! It’s definitely a more expensive city, but we sit alongside all kinds of people at bull fights, polo matches, and food festivals. To really get into San Miguel, you need a good two weeks to find your flow. It’s a slower pace of life, unlike the fast-paced American way. There are many of us young entrepreneurs on Instagram. Find me at @luxepatriate. Ps. It’s very important to all of us that we help our community through voluntarism and fundraising.

    1. Thanks so much, Valerie! I don’t like to rule out any destination but I think SMA gets represented in a very unrealistic way and it drives me a little crazy!

    1. Thanks, Kathy! It was a feeling I couldn’t shake while I was there. And as I mentioned, I don’t want to necessarily dissuade people from visiting, but I do feel that it’s “Best City in the World” title is incredibly disingenuous.

  • Tim, I am in San Miguel as I type this. I visited in December for 2 weeks and am back again for a second look around. I agree completely about supporting the local economy. We shop in the market, buy meat from the butcher, enjoy fun foods from the street carts. We have a few local places we love to eat at but for the most part we rent a place, and cook at home . We flew a puppy back to Toronto from here in December. Some kids gave to us in the market and local vet Dr Alma at Pet Vet helped us get him home. He came back with us this and we took him back to the civic square yesterday so the kids could see how big he was (4 lbs to 44 lbs in 4 months). Their faces lite up and they where thrilled to see him. Worth it…yes….not the same experience you will get staying at the Rosewood….just saying. We have to make the experience 🙂

    1. I’m so glad that you’re able to provide a real world example of how the city still has charm without contributing to the issues that it already has! I’m glad you’re enjoying your time there!

  • Hi Tim, like so many others, I’ve heard the hype and saw the beautiful photos. But noticing its designation by an entity like Travel & Leisure armed my suspicions. It is for that reason I sought out a dissenting view point. All the better that your post was both thoughtful and respectful, too. Thank you.

    I do have a question, though. I’ve wanted to visit some of the areas “like” San Miguel because I’m more of a mountain person and far less a beach person. It’s very important to me to support local people wherever I travel, domestically or otherwise. Are there some places you know of that don’t share the issues that SMA does that would be better to visit?

  • Hey Tim, thanks for stopping by our (formerly) quaint and quiet Mexican Hill town. Been coming here for over two decades as my parents moved down here in ‘97. My father is buried here, as will be my mother, my brother, and I seeing as we all have niches waiting for us in the local cemetery. Next time stay a while longer and get to know the whole story as I believe that, with all due respect, you have vastly oversimplified your POV in a rush to denounce the commercialization and gentrification of SMA. First off there would be no SMA without Stirling Dickerson and the gringos that followed. That’s not a jingoistic statement born of some ridiculous national ego; just a fact. The San Miguel that Stirling found in 1938 was a ghost town of ruins or buildings fast becoming so. The influx of gringo expats and tourists – and their money – that followed spurred by endless vacation slide shows and glossy magazine articles over the subsequent decades drove the revitalization and resurrection of the town – from 7k to the 170k you quote today. Remember, this was a town founded on a spring that slaked the thirst of the silver trains on their way from the mines of the north to Mexico City and beyond. No industry, no natural resources. In a sense visitors always drove the fortunes of SMA aided and abetted by its role in the Revolution. But the real change that we have observed – and what has driven the demand for $400 hotel rooms and holistic massages, has nothing to do with the gringos. And everything to do with the increasing broadening of wealth in Mexico. San Miguel has become a playground for wealthy natives, not clueless gringos – most of whom are of modest means or living on fixed incomes. If you doubt me I welcome you to join me for a drink on the rooftop bar of the Rosewood on any given Saturday night – I think you would find very few gringos and a raft of well-heeled natives. The era of the Gringo is ending here; to your point the ones here are aging or aged – the explosion in traffic both pedestrian and automotive has very little to do with the expat population or North American Insta-tourism…

    1. Thanks for your perspective, Kevin, it’s helpful to hear it firsthand from someone who has roots in SMA. I hope I can join you for that drink sometime.

      1. Thank you Tim for sharing your tourist’s view of San Miguel and thank you Kevin for writing from the perspective of those of us who have real roots in San Miguel. My mother will be 99 years old, having spent the last 40 years living in San Miguel. My perspective, as a Gringo who resides in San Miguel and in Brooklyn, New York, is much closer to Kevin’s take. Ex-pats did not “cause the problems of inequity.” The Allendes and the Canal families, the Zavalas–the wealthy Mexican families that have lived in San Miguel for centuries– did not cause the problem. What the Gringos have done is to create (thank you Tim!) some really amazing non profits to throw a light on the inequities and to give the opportunity for retirees to give back to the world. Sterling Dickenson modeled the way, as did people like my Dad who was one of the first five people to start the Patronatos Pro Ninos walking tours, 100% of the funds collected go to medical and dental treatments for poor children in town and beyond.

        WHEN you visit San Miguel is as important as WHERE you visit.
        When I return to San Miguel in the summer ( and really into Fall), it feels much more like the town I knew in the eighties. We expats are the same 10percent of the population we have always been, as the town has grown with its economy. In fact, since the town became a UNESCO site, we have many more Mexicans visiting their patrimony. Yes, Centro during high season, seems like Disneyland. (Visit Rockefeller Center in the summer–NOT for the trimming of the Christmas tree!)

  • San Miguel is at best good for a 3 day visit. Trust me, I believed the hype and moved there- I left after 6 months and have no desire to ever return. The only thing I miss are the taco guys on Hernadez. They treated me great, encouraged my limited Spanish and had my order cooking up the second they saw me. That was the good part, were there other good parts? Maybe but I didn’t see them. I found myself literally bored to death, and being ripped off by fellow gringos and their lousy airbnb’s. One couple I stayed with were excellent, the rest? Forget about it. If you go down thinking you’re going to buy a place and run an aribnb, just be aware that you will be competing with about 4000 others, making the business proposition almost impossible to make money after paying your electric bill, your cleaning products, and the cost of a cleaning lady- that is a nice to be able to employ locals but, you’re running a business, clean the damn place yourself. If you plan for staying for any length of time rent monthly from local Mexicans, the cost is a fraction of what an airbnb would run you, and it’s your own place. You will hear the familiar refrain that San MIguel is no more dangerous that any American city. While I was there a gun fight in an Irish bar killed a couplle people and there is now gun violence right in the middle of the tourist zone, Google “gasoline turf wars in Jalisco” and you’ll hget the real picture. In addition a bunch of gringos are regularly getting robbed near the supermarket which only Gringos can afford to shop. I lived in New York City for 25 years and never saw a gun fight in an Irish bar, never was robbed at knife point in a supermarket parking lot and never got caught by a stray bullet in a bar with rival gangsters shooting the place up like something out of Goodfellas. Don’t expect to get the real story from the gringos, they are so caught up with drinking the Kool-aid and many ignorantly bought houses on a whim after a week long visit. Now, that’s another whole mine field. If you are going to buy a house you should probably know that the aquifer that supplies the towns water is rapidly drying out add to that also that the water is actually radioactive due to the old mining industry that existed in the city. You have been warned, I at least hope saved somebody their retirement fund

  • Life changes. Towns and cities change. . In Mexico, where there has been gringo gentrification, we also see increased job opportunities, food banks, improved medical care, English as a second language classes, school opportunities for children, medical screening, food and veterinary care of local animals, increased government attention to city improvement…..etc. There are amazing charities started by expats that would not exist otherwise. And when loneliness can be a problem for older single people….eye contact with a gringo means a 10 minute conversation and, perhaps, the start of a friendship. I wouldn’t feel remotely conflicted about buying a place in San Miguel. Many of the homes are purchased by wealthy Mexicans as weekend destinations. Try not to feel too bad about the disparity of haves and have nots. Just do what you can. It has been this way since the dawn of time.

  • I found your thoughts and observations in line with my own. I lived in SMA for 8 years and found it way too Gringo-ized. My partner is Mexican and like me, was frustrated that all of the SMA applauders are the same people who have lived there for years and still do not speak a word of Spanish. The locals are very in tune with ripping off the Gringos and there is a strong unchecked Cartel undercurrent of extortion threats if you are a business person. SMA is fun to visit on a week-end with all of the Mexico City Chilangos who come with the main purpose of a party week-end, otherwise, pretty disappointing. By day two, you will find you have already walked the same street ten times and have seen the same ¨points of interest¨ ad nauseam.. Come visit and make your own opinions.

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