Literary City Guide | SAN MIGUEL, MEXICO
Tour Guide: LYDIA CAREY
Relationship to San Miguel: San Miguel was where I first fell in love with Mexico. The rust-tinged light, the narrow cobblestone streets and the dreamy silence of its evenings lured me in in a single weekend. I still spend a week there every few months on break from chaotic Mexico City, where I live now. The feeling of walking inside a Mexican fairytale still washes over me when I walk along its streets after sun-down.
Writer you’d like to invite to dinner: Zora Neale Hurston, I think she would appreciate the starkness of the landscape.
Chef you’d like to prepare the meal: Francis Mallman – I envision a giant bonfire in the middle of the desert.
Writing soundtrack: The 10-year-old tuba players down at the soccer field.
Pen or Pencil: Pen, a nice sturdy Bic.
Coffee or Tea? Steaming tea for those cold San Miguel mornings.
Paperback or Hardback? Paperback, they take more abuse and I am not easy on my books. A well-worn book is a well-loved book, I always say.
For such a literary place, San Miguel isn't overflowing with good bookstores. Despite the fact that none of the bookstores below are cozy, comfy corners to curl up with a good book, they will serve as a literary balm for your browsing ache.
Libreria Moebius. Marie Moébius flitted from bookstore to bookstore in San Miguel until finally she opened her own in a skinny storefront at the Instituto Allende. She has an eclectic selection in English and Spanish – everything from coffeetable books, to comic books, to notebooks, and is happy to order you anything else your heart may desire.
Garrison & Garrison. This bookseller has been under-the-radar in San Miguel for years, moving locations until settling into their space off of Hernandez Macias six years ago. They have an overflowing collection of used English-language books, meticulously organized by topic, tucked away down a narrow passageway in the city's delightful Centro Historico.
La Tienda. The English-language public library's bookstore has grown over the years, expanding into the beautiful street-side space where it is currently located. The ceilings are covered with local muralist David Leonardo's interpretations of Mexican history. The shop sells local crafts and jewelry as well as a large selection of both used and new books in English. You can order a Sunday New York Times if you put in your order by the Wednesday before. This is also the place to purchase tickets for the various events and programs hosted by the library.
Bellas Artes Bookstore. This bookstore, in one corner of the gorgeously preserved Bellas Artes building on Hernández Macías Street, shelves Spanish-language-only books, music and movies in a range of genres and styles.
Biblioteca Publica. San Miguel's public library is the closest I've come in Mexico to a taste of the libraries of my childhood. Its many nooks and crannies contain Mexico's 2nd largest bilingual collection of books. A local institution, this library, housed in a former slaughterhouse and later a shelter for women, is a central part of ex-pat life in the community, hosting events and plays in their theater, providing study space for students and students of life, and serving as a major player among San Miguel's over 100 NGOs.
Biblioteca Ignacio Ramírez el Nigromante. This tiny public library is often overshadowed by the big personality of the Biblioteca Pública. They have a small reading collection and offer various services to the community including educational programs for adults and kids.
READINGS & CONFERENCES
Literary Sala Writer's Conference. This yearly literary fest draws big names from across North America including past presenters Tom Robbins, Barbara Kingsolver, John Perkins, Naomi Kline and Elena Poniatowska. The event now spans an entire weekend each spring offering bi-lingual creative workshops, author readings and lectures, theatrical performances and a chance to rub elbows with the similarly literary-inspired 200 + attendees.
San Miguel PEN. Started in 1979when PEN vice-president Peter Elstob visited San Miguel, this organization advocates for writers throughout Latin America who are jailed, threatened, persecuted or murdered for what they write. PEN organizes a winter lecture series to draw attention to its work and host events as issues arise throughout the year. Membership is $40/year.
Library Events. The town's Biblioteca Publica is a hub of politics, activism, English and Spanish classes and literary inspiration. Events are listed in the local ex-pat newspaper La Atención that comes out once a week and is sold at the library and on the town's main square.
The Beats. In the 50s and 60s writers, many US poets and writers were drawn to San Miguel as place to write, drink and cause trouble. Neil Cassady, whom Jack Kerouac thinly disguised as Dean Moriarty in his famous On The Road, died drunk, in the early morning hours of February 1968, on the railroad tracks outside of town near the railroad station.
Book Exchanges. Many restaurants in town have tiny book exchanges where you can trade in an old book for a new (old) book. Try out Buen Dia Cafe or the Media Naranja Cafe.
The Literary Sala. The Literary Sala is the tour de force behind San Miguel's yearly writers conference, but also offers a robust list of other literary events like their biweekly author series, Summer Literary Festival and a yearly community “Big Read.” They also provide creative writing classes and workshops for impoverished youth and work in San Miguel's rural communities to introduce children and young adults to the joy of reading.
Book Sales. If you are the type that likes nothing more than sifting through piles of forgotten paperbacks in the hopes of encountering a literary gem, the Biblioteca Pública has a Thursday morning book sale where good reads start at just 10p each (about 50 cents). Too pricey for your blood? Head to the Alma sale the first Saturday of every month (proceeds go to an old peoples' home in town) where you can get a bag full of books for about a dollar fifty.
La Ventana. For sleepy San Miguel La Ventana is about as fast food as it gets: a walk up window where you can order a piping hot coffee and a Parmesan cheese bagel to go.
Café Buen Día. There is no place like Buen Dia cafe if you want an excellent cup of coffee. Breakfast and lunch are regular fare and reliably good, but the rich, velvety coffee made by owner Carlos is all the reason you need to head over to Callejon del Pueblo and pick yourself out a table in the sunshine.
Media Naranja. The ever chipper Cece runs the Media Naranja at a tight clip. While the place is often packed with blue-hairs talking at the top of their lungs, if you catch it just right, the sunny dining room makes the perfect place to park yourself on a leisurely afternoon. The breakfast burritos and smoothies are the perfect blend of spicy and sweet, hot and freezing.
La Mesa Grande. The perfect menu: Homemade thin-crust pizza right out of the oven. Fernando's artisanal beer-buzz. A decadent cinnamon role. A perfectly executed espresso.
A PROPER MEAL
The Restaurant. The affable chef Donnie whips together local ingredients for his famous “global comfort food” recipes at The Restaurant and the other locations of his expanding San Miguel culinary dynasty.
La Burger. For some of the best burgers in town make sure you head out to La Burger's highway joint on the way to Dolores Hidalgo. The Argentine-style grill smokes with the vapor of local mesquite embers, turning out chops, steaks and burgers too good to describe. The view's not too shabby either.
OKO. Good Asian food can be hard to find in Mexico, and impossible in San Miguel, but OKO's fusion of Vietnamese, Japanese and Thai dishes pack the house. Try the peanut cold roll or a mint and ginger agua fresca.
Saturday Farmers Market (TOSMA). In addition to stocking up on organic veggies and other treats for the week, this weekly farmers market puts out a great spread every Saturday. There are fresh aguas, hand-patted gorditas with organic fillings, tacos of all stripes with raw desserts and orange-cranberry scones to finish you off.
Aguamiel. American-style chili with cornbread, gooey potstickers or homemade tamales, Aguamiel's rustic kitchen churns out a long list of lunch and dinner plates that draw a happy crowd.
Posada de Corazón. The best brunch in town includes homemade tapioca pudding, local cheeses from Luna de Queso, delicately sweet breakfast breads, Spanish tortillas and incredible organic coffee, served to you in front of the hearth or on the sun-dappled patio.
Luna de Queso. If I had to choose one place, just one, to indulge my desire for delicious, this is the place I choose. A thick slice of sharp cheddar cheese, a medley of Greek olives, matzo ball mix, salt from Cyprus, baklava and homemade brownies. What to choose?
Cumpanio. This French-style bakery sells cream puffs, baguettes, and sugar cookies that are heaven-sent. From the street window you can watch the pastry chef perform his magic.
La Colmena. The town's traditional main bakery, La Colmena sells dozens of varieties of traditional Mexican cookies and sweetbreads including bollilo rolls hot out of the oven on a rotating schedule.
LYDIA's 5 Favorites
1. Favorite view: There is nothing like San Miguel at sunset from anywhere high enough to see the day's final rays burst and curl among the alleyways. Some of my favorite views are from rooftops in the Independencia neighborhood where you can see the city stretch out before you.
2. Favorite place to write: Poolside at La Aldea hotel off of the Ancha de San Antonio, a half dozen old ladies “exercising” in the deep end and the waiter passing every hour or so to bring me a fresh limonada.
3. Favorite museum: The limited museum selection makes that question difficult, but in regards to culture I am partial to the murals in the sacristy of the Parroquia San Miguel that are damning of communists and other ne'er-do-wells.
4. Favorite coffee shop: Since I can't ever visit San Miguel without stopping off for a coffee at Café Buen Día, I could say it was my favorite, although for working I prefer La Ventana which is quieter and cozier.
5. Favorite thing about San Miguel: No matter how long you stay away, enough remains the same that it feels like home again when you return.