Yearning to pass through customs again, shuffle through the TSA line, or kill time browsing novels at Hudson News? Mexico is open, folks, and now is a great time to explore its Spanish colonial towns, art colonies, and wine country. One destination that had been on my list for decades is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of San Miguel de Allende. San Miguel lies in the heart of Mexico, just a three-hour drive from Mexico City or a three-hour flight direct from Tijuana to Leon (convenient for Southern California residents). A bustling artists refuge and charming historic town, the gastronomy scene ushers in another level of sophistication and elegance to this already trendy international hotspot.
After landing in Leon, our 90-minute commute to the 16th century town of San Miguel traversed through the central highlands of Guanajuato, one of 32 states in Mexico known for its agriculture sector and four major auto manufacturers employing thousands of local residents. Nestled on a hilltop, the dusty rose-colored churches, mustard yellow Baroque buildings, and burnt orange mansions paint a bright kaleidoscope against the rolling green pastures and vineyards. Narrow cobblestone lanes wind through the historic center flanked by cafes, boutiques and galleries. Quaint gardens and parks surround the main attraction, the pink La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel church, whose spires reach for the stars and radiate a soft glow at sunset.
Our home for the weekend was located at the steeper end of town sporting wide vistas from the rooftop deck and a stunning courtyard overflowing with bougainvillea, flowering vines, and a small chapel. A bed and breakfast, Antigua Capilla was empty except for us, but the hosts abided by all the COVID protocols: temperature checks, masks, sanitizer, and cleaning your soles on the front door mat (an extra step I have only seen in Mexico).
The first stop for food and wine was the restaurant Aperi housed in the Hotel Dos Casas, where we sat six feet apart from the other patrons at the second seating. The wine and food pairing consisted of five courses measured in portions designed to leave you satiated but not overstuffed. A delicate mushroom ravioli paired with a local Grenache was a favorite as was the chocolate tart with sparkling wine. San Miguel’s farm to table restaurants, like Aperi, continue to gain popularity not only from sourcing local seasonal products but also through offering wines vinified nearby.
Thanks to vines brought by the Spanish in the late 1600’s, Guanajuato serves as one of the major grape cultivation regions in Mexico and one of the fastest expanding regions; several new wineries were on the cusp of opening at the time we visited. The majority of grapes grown in this region are reds, particularly Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Malbec, and Merlot. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are also grown. One of the largest producers is La Santisima Trinidad, with four other sister properties spread throughout the outskirts of San Miguel.
Our driver, Miguel, booked us a personal tour at one of the properties, Vinedos San Lucas. The usual “pop into the tasting room” gig was prohibited at the time. A lovely hostess full of smiles cheerfully escorted us around the grounds, which included a lavender farm, olive trees, and cellar full of French oak barrels. In a long cool tunnel shelved with sorted vintages and bifurcated by a narrow table, we sampled the Cabernet Reserve, Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc along with a vast array of local cheeses, including a heavenly goat cheese made just down the road. These properties also offer homes for sale where you annually receive your “share” of wines from the vineyards in your backyard, not to mention access to the polo club, spa, and tennis courts!
The next stop was Cuna de Tierra, “Cradle of the Earth”, one of the original wineries in the region. Set among modern concrete buildings, with shallow reflective pools and a gregarious German Shepherd, we sampled several of the reds including the Syrah, Nebbiolo, Malbec, and Pago De Vega (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot). The spicy, violet, and full-bodied wines paired well with cheese empanadas, carnitas tacos, and grilled herb chicken with roasted onions. Tables on the outdoor patio were more than six feet apart with vineyards a few feet away.
After relaxing on the rooftop of our BNB, the evening rolled in earlier than usual as there was a COVID curfew, so we strolled down our hill to La Parada, a Peruvian restaurant with a COVID-appropriate patio. We gleefully leaned into their specialty, “Ceviche La Parada”, sea bass cubes marinated in Leche de Tigre, toasted coconut, corn, and onion. The next mouth-watering item was the “Arroz Aphrodisiac.” What’s not to like about any dish with the word aphrodisiac? Think octopus, shrimp and squid bathed in white wine sauce topped with parmesan cheese over ancho chile and tomato jasmine rice. You had me at “Arroz…”
To work off all of our decadent indulgences from the day before, we spent the next morning trekking up and down the historic center paying homage to exquisite churches and browsing through unique curio shops and chic art galleries. After twenty temperature checks and enough sanitizer to leech off my epidermis, we dropped in for lunch at Quince’s rooftop that boasted fantastic views and a welcomed breeze. The fresh Hamachi, grilled octopus, and yes, more ceviche, transported us to a long sandy beach along Mexico’s Pacific coast complemented by the Casa Madero Rose from the Valle de Parras.
A stop at Ki’Bok for an espresso with cinnamon and brown sugar, called the “Hemingway,” fueled us for more shopping. The old textile mill in town has been converted to what is now called the Fabrica Aurora, a must-see cultural center of art and design. This former factory houses talented painters, sculptors and local craftsmen as well as studios selling jewelry, antiques, and stylish furniture. No shortage of up-and-coming artists here!
Another local excursion worth your while is a visit to the local hot springs. La Gruta sits just 15 minutes outside of San Miguel and hosts a variety of pools at different temperatures. Our favorite was the warmest pool that held a secret tunnel you can swim through and emptied into a cave covered with a large dome, a detox like you’ve never known before. Post spelunking, we fell into a deep massage offered on the premise for a steal. I wouldn’t recommend any plans after this except a long nap. On the off chance you do have more energy, other activities around San Miguel include horseback riding, hiking, and olive oil tastings.
In sync with our new COVID schedule, we dined at The Restaurant on our last night. Moroccan architecture framed the perimeter of this stylish courtyard complete with a fountain bubbling in red rose petals. We started with the handmade Flor de Calabaza ravioli with goat cheese, Ronde de Nice squash, huitlacoche sauce, and poblano cream. I had always wanted to try huitlacoche, or Mexican truffle, the fungus that grows on organic corn after the rainy season, and like all truffles, it was divine! Casa Madero’s Gran Reserva Shiraz married blissfully with the grilled duck breast bathed in a Chinese five spice sauce. Though the waitstaff donned masks, and eavesdropping on the tables nearby is a thing of the past, the meal will be remembered for years to come, COVID or not. Now the question is, when can I go back?
So, go forth Epicureans and book that flight. Seats are still available on the 10 PM!