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In the Heart of Mexico

Buildings Near The San Miguel De Allende In Mexico, San Miguel De Allende

Jeremy Woodhouse/Getty Images

Discover why San Miguel de Allende is a magnet for Americans

En español | On the terrace of a rose-colored house with a panorama of the central-Mexico city of San Miguel de Allende, I am toasting the sunset alongside five old friends and a dozen new ones.

Sundowners on rooftops are an evening tradition in this mecca for U.S. and Canadian artists, vacationers and retirees. Drawn by the culture, hospitality and safety of the small city (population approximately 175,000) about 165 miles north of Mexico's capital, many visitors wind up renting a place long-term — or even buying one of their own and settling down.

The sunset party's hosts — Laura and John, a globe-trotting pair who can't seem to stay away from San Miguel de Allende — have lured four of us here: my pals Ronny and Jayne, plus my mate, Barry. Our own digs nearby, a villa I found on VRBO.com, boast three magnificent suites with fireplaces, as well as courtyards and patios abloom with exotic plants.

Ronny spends the first hour roaming from room to room, admiring the villa's collection of Latin art. The plumbing and hot water are balky at first, but both begin to cooperate after a quick consultation with the housekeeper, Margarita. (She works six half-days a week, including preparing breakfast — an arrangement typical of vacation rentals here.) The price tag for such luxury? Just $1,750 per week, or $437.50
per person.

From our perch on a hilly cobblestone street, it's a 10-minute walk past multicolored houses to the city's heart, a pretty public square called El Jardín (the Garden). Stretching in front of the imposing Gothic-style La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel church, El Jardín is a meeting place for locals and visitors: You sip coffee on wrought-iron benches under neatly trimmed laurel trees in the morning sun, watch schoolchildren chase one another in the afternoon and listen to mariachis serenade entwined lovers in the evening. I strike up a conversation with a sweet Mexican couple; they are celebrating their 50th anniversary with a favorite song and a park-bench smooch.

Linger long enough in El Jardín, goes the saying in San Miguel, and sooner or later you'll see someone you know. After a few days, we newbies do, too, for Laura and John have been energetically introducing us around. One of our first stops was an expatriate gathering spot: the public library/community center, which stages benefit events that grant college scholarships to Mexican students. Many expats get the school bug, too, signing up for classes from Spanish to art to anger management. (Surveying the syllabus, Barry exclaimed, "It's summer camp for adults!")

On several mornings, Laura and I take a 9 a.m. yoga class in a studio that opens onto a garden (contented cats are stretching out there, too). It sets us back 100 pesos — about $6. Jayne and I visit La Mano, a day spa, for its Thursday-special massage; at 800 pesos (about $50) for an hour, it's just what we "kneaded!"

Everyone in our quartet raves about the well-preserved 17th- and 18th-century architecture of this UNESCO World Heritage site, its constant festivals, its freeing sense of being able to walk about in safety late at night. The city center is devoid of stoplights or chain stores — well, there is a Starbucks — so we cruise the boutiques and open-air markets, the art galleries and craft workshops. And of course, we sample the restaurants, from vegan to sushi to mouthwatering Mexican.

One night we try a restaurant in the contemporary (and costly) Hotel Matilda, dining amid flickering candles overlooking the pool. The scene could be in South Beach or L.A. — just one reason why I prefer San Miguel's more authentic options such as Los Milagros (the Miracles), a cantina-style eatery with a grizzled guitarist and walls covered in folk art. We devour sizzling chicken with green onions, refried beans, salsa and guacamole served in large mortars called molcajetes.

By week's end, Ronny is scoping out rental apartments and I'm dragging Barry to the windows of real-estate offices around town. At John and Laura's cocktail party, a woman from Atlanta confides that San Miguel is "a magical vortex that draws people in."

I can feel the pull. And I know the magic will draw us back again.

Kitty Bean Yancey is a former USA Today leisure travel writer.

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