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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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10 comments

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    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!

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