Ex­plor­ing Mex­ico’s ex­pat par­adise

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - Travel@wash­post.com

Our read­ers share tales of their ram­blings around the world. Who: Gil­bert Hol­land (au­thor) of the Dis­trict. Where, when, why: Fears of crime and reser­va­tions about eat­ing lo­cal food had made me wary of trav­el­ing in Mex­ico un­til my friends Lynn and Rob Ram­sey in­vited me to visit them in their new home in San Miguel de Al­lende, a for­mer sil­ver­min­ing town in the cen­tral high­lands of Mex­ico. From the day I ar­rived, those fears proved to be com­pletely un­founded, and a week in March was the per­fect time to ex­plore the city and its col­or­ful Span­ish colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture. High­lights and high points: The his­toric Cen­tro sec­tion of San Miguel de Al­lende is a UNESCO World Her­itage site and home to many Amer­i­can ex­pats. The multi-spired, pink sand­stone par­ro­quia — the largest church there — steep, cob­bled streets and bell tow­ers re­minded me of Spain. But when I sent a photo of the scene to a friend liv­ing in the coun­try’s Oviedo, she replied, “No way is this Spain — there’s far too much color!”

Rob and I spent a day in Gua­na­ju­ato, vis­it­ing its beau­ti­ful churches, the­ater, univer­sity and mu­se­ums, then Lynn guided me around the Sanc­tu­ary of Ato­tonilco, also a UNESCO World Her­itage site and home to what is of­ten dubbed the Sis­tine Chapel of Mex­ico.

Just out­side San Miguel de Al­lende is El Charco del In­ge­nio, a botan­i­cal gar­den with cac­tuses and plants from across Mex­ico and a scenic canyon with hik­ing trails. Hum­ming­birds buzzed by, and a bril­liant ver­mil­ion fly­catcher perched above me. Back in town, I en­joyed the Other Face of Mex­ico mu­seum, which fea­tures 500 masks, and the early morn­ing views of the city from atop El Mi­rador as well as chur­ros and hot choco­late for break­fast and dessert. Cul­tural con­nec­tion or dis­con­nect: Each restau­rant had a unique spe­cialty and a dif­fer­ent fla­vor of mar­garita to try ev­ery night — mango, amaretto, tamarind, lemon and my fa­vorite, gin­ger. Lynn ex­plained that ched­dar is com­mon in Tex-Mex cui­sine, but white cheese (queso blanco) is used in au­then­tic Mex­i­can cook­ing; corn tor­tillas pre­dom­i­nate in Mex­ico, but wheat-flour tor­tillas are of­ten used in the United States.; more beef is used in Tex-Mex (the Texas ranch­ing in­flu­ence); and cumin, orig­i­nally from In­dia and the Mediter­ranean, is a part of Tex-Mex cook­ing, es­pe­cially in chili con carne. Na­chos, not sur­pris­ingly, are an Amer­i­can con­coc­tion. Big­gest laugh or cry: It was Frida-ma­nia! Images of the artist Frida Kahlo were ev­ery­where — paint­ings and carv­ings in the fancy gal­leries, on tourist T-shirts, even on the 500-peso note. I couldn’t think of any artist, mu­si­cian or writer who is the icon for Amer­i­cans that Kahlo seems to be for Mex­i­cans. How un­ex­pected: My first full day in San Miguel de Al­lende hap­pened to be the an­nual El Senor de la Con­quista fes­ti­val, which com­mem­o­rates the ac­cep­tance of Je­sus by Mex­ico’s in­dige­nous peo­ple with Concheros dancers whirling around the his­toric cen­tral plaza in col­or­ful, pre-His­panic out­fits and feath­ered head­dresses. I was mes­mer­ized by the danc­ing and in­tense drum­beats un­til I saw one of the dancers tex­ting while danc­ing and another run­ning for a quick cig­a­rette break. Fa­vorite me­mento or mem­ory: While pok­ing around San Miguel de Al­lende, I came across a sign ad­ver­tis­ing day trips to see the monarch but­ter­flies’ win­ter­ing grounds in a for­est in the moun­tains of Mi­choa­can state, a three-hour drive away. This seemed like a once-in-a-life­time op­por­tu­nity, so I signed on. A few weeks later, the mon­archs would leave on their an­nual mi­gra­tion north to the United States and Canada.

To the dis­may of our guide, we chose to walk up the steep path into the for­est rather than rid­ing horses. Af­ter an hour’s climb, we started to see sev­eral soli­tary but­ter­flies, in the air and on bushes. How­ever, as we moved into the for­est to­ward the end of the trail, we were able to see tens of thou­sands of them at rest. They gath­ered so densely that the oy­amel fir tree branches be­gan to sag un­der their weight. It was a cap­ti­vat­ing and breath­tak­ing scene. To tell us about your own trip, go to wash­ing­ton­post.com/travel and fill out the What a Trip form with your fond­est mem­o­ries, finest mo­ments and fa­vorite pho­tos.

GIL­BERT HOL­LAND

From El Mi­rador, the his­toric Cen­tro sec­tion rises above San Miguel de Al­lende, Mex­ico.

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