SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, Mexico — If ever there were a town that lived on its good looks, San Miguel de Allende is it. And if ever there were a time when American travelers were obsessed with pretty pictures, this is it.
So when I showed up here in the mountains about 170 miles northwest of Mexico City, I assigned myself a mission to match the time and place. Instead of just looking at the colonial structures and cobblestone streets that have made San Miguel Instagram-ready since the 18th century, I would enlist local experts to help me take better photos.
Along the way, I would see how the city is bearing up amid a burst of new hotels and restaurants in the last few years. At what point does a drowsy, intimate city become a stage set? Is it too late to ask the question, given that readers of Travel & Leisure voted San Miguel their favorite city in the world in 2017 and 2018.
I arrived in September with a DSLR, digital single-lens reflex camera (Nikon D7500), a GoPro, a smartphone and an appointment with Javier Barras, who has been shooting commercially and teaching photography in San Miguel for several years. Before long, I was gasping.
Too much beauty? Too much change? Too much trouble juggling shutter speed, F-stop and ISO settings? Maybe all three. Then again, San Miguel is about 6,100 feet above sea level. You walk uphill, gasping happens.
Beneath the pink flamingo
You can’t miss La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel. It faces El Jardín, the city’s principal plaza, and it’s pink and pointy, like a flamingo folded up for a nap.
On my first morning in town I met Barras at Starbucks (yes, there’s one just off El Jardín). He laid down several ideas about what makes a strong photograph, including the “rule of thirds” (keeping your subject slightly off-center) and the pictorial detail you can harvest if you shoot in uncompressed RAW mode (resulting in higher-quality images) rather than the standard JPG format He was firm on matters of technique, but when I asked about selfies and social media, he loosened up — sort of.
“I think Instagram, Facebook and the sharing of photos is fabulous,” Barras told me. “There’s an amazing volume of horrible photography that people have fun with, and I think it’s great they’re having fun.”
Perhaps because it sits in the mountains, more than 300 miles from the nearest beach and more than an hour from the nearest international airport, San Miguel (population about 170,000) has always drawn a mellower, artsier crowd than the hard-partying, sportier coastal resorts. It trades on its tranquillity the way Cabo San Lucas trades on its rowdy bars and sport fishing.
Even as violent crime has reached historic levels in Mexico and increased in the surrounding state of Guanajuato, San Miguel has sprouted ever more sophisticated restaurants, galleries and hotels. Film shoots, destination weddings and gentrification abound, and expats sort conflicted feelings about living in la burbuja — the bubble.
In many ways, “it’s becoming a victim of its own success,” gallery owner Ted Davis told me.
“Like Venice, overrun with T-shirted foreigners year-round, the city’s soul has been largely drained by tourism,” wrote restaurant critic John Mariani in a 2018 piece for Forbes.
Really? It looked pretty good through my lenses.
As Barras led me through El Jardín with camera in hand, he reminded me to get as close as possible to my subjects and to use a tripod whenever possible.
Right, I said. For stability. In part, he said. But the best thing about lugging a tripod is that it forces you to slow down. That, he said, is the way to make an image strong enough to slow a casual viewer.
“If someone’s looking at your picture for more than three seconds,” Barras said, “you’ve nailed it.”
Inside La Parroquia we tried shots of the intricate neo-Gothic ceiling. Outside, we crept in the shadows of the facade and towers dreamed up in the 1880s by indigenous stonemason-turned-architect Zeferino Gutiérrez.
Tour guides like to say that Gutiérrez drew his inspiration from European postcards and sketched his design in the sand with a stick. The city’s UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, approved in 2008, stops short of embracing those details. But you can’t train a lens on that building without thinking about the old world and this new one.
For the next three days, I circled the city on foot with my Nikon, chasing new angles. Before leaving, I wanted one standout shot of the Parroquia, one of the side streets and one portrait.
In between those shots, I looked for Instagram-friendly details to grab with my iPhone: bold, simple compositions that would catch a stranger’s eye even when reduced to 2 by 3 inches.
In a small pouch, I carried my GoPro, whose wide-angle lens captures broader scenes than the other lenses do and is waterproof. (In the video accompanying this story, you can see what happened when I set the GoPro in a puddle by El Jardín and at the corner of a busy intersection.)
From 30-some years of observing as a reporter and amateur photographer, I know that the professionals wake early, study technology and lug heavy gear. They lie down in mud if a better image might come of it. They walk away from ugly light. They wait hours for a pedestrian or cloud to fill the frame just so. And when there’s danger, photojournalists run toward it.
Except for the danger part, I tried to work that way. And I discovered an enormous upside: During those midday spells of harsh, ugly light, I had time to eat like royalty.
A three-course lunch at Café Casa Blanca. A six-course dinner at Nomada Cocina. A salted corn cob in the Ignacio Ramírez Market. And the gazpacho at the Rosewood Hotel’s Restaurante 1826. Half yellow and half orange, it looked like a Mark Rothko in a bowl. Instagram gold.
When it comes to food, I have only admiration for the emerging San Miguel.
What made me gasp
Spanish colonizers started building the city in the 1550s. By the late 18th century, they had laid out more than 60 city blocks.
By the early 19th century, the city was playing a crucial role in Mexico’s break from Spain — the Boston of Mexico, some people call it now.
Nobody is certain how many Americans and Canadians call the city home, but InternationalLiving.com estimates they make up 10% of the population. You hear plenty of English on the street.
And when newcomers take their first steps in town, just about every photographer and painter among them thinks: These doorways!
There are doorway posters and doorway prints. There are hashtags. There’s a book, now 25 years old.
And there is the exasperation that overtakes the face of photographer, teacher and gallery owner Jo Brenzo when this subject comes up.
“San Miguel doorways! Give. Me. A. Break,” she said to me one day. Brenzo, who opened the Photographic Gallery in 1998, runs classes, leads trips, hosts a Saturday morning photo meet-up and beseeches lens-bearing visitors to look beyond the obvious.
“My favorite time here is St. Michael’s. Less tourists, more local,” Brenzo said.
That party is known more formally as Fiestas de San Miguel Arcángel, more casually as the Alborada, held each year the first weekend after Sept. 29. It doesn’t attract as many out-of-towners as Easter week or Día de los Muertos but includes processions, fireworks, exploding dolls, music and a bevy of mojigangas, or giant papier-mâché puppets worn by parading locals.
I had no festival to work with. But I did roam side streets, stake out Calle Aldama (which some people call the city’s prettiest street) and browse in Fábrica la Aurora, a vast, old textile mill that houses dozens of galleries and studios.
In fast-gentrifying Colonia Guadalupe, I joined a mural tour led by Colleen Sorenson, who since 2012 has been a pioneer in encouraging street art outside the city’s historic core.
Still, as a man with moderate Spanish skills who walked alone after dark (but not after 10 p.m.), I never worried. The U.S. State Department, which rates destinations on a 1-4 scale (safest to most dangerous) gives the state of Guanajuato a 2 — exercise increased caution.
I loved the absence of traffic lights and the many people who say, “Buenos días.”
The worst thing
What’s the worst thing a visiting photographer can do here?
I posed that question one afternoon to Ted Davis, a photographer who opened his San Miguel gallery five years ago, after 20 years as an actor in Los Angeles. He didn’t hesitate.
“The worst,” he said, “is going up to a local indigenous person who’s selling tchotchkes and shoving a camera in their face.”
Photographing people is tricky anywhere, but doubly so in San Miguel, where it’s hard to walk four blocks without bumping into an aspiring photographer.
Many vendors and musicians, seeing me raise my camera or hearing my request for permission, said no, unless I would pay. But Los Angeles Times policy forbids paying for a photo or interview. I had to walk away.
Did I ask permission from everyone? No. But whenever I got within 20 feet, I did. Whether they’re using phones or fancy cameras, too many travelers grab pictures without pausing to ask, say please or even hello.
Every request to take somebody’s picture is a potential conversation-starter. And conversations are what turn a silent stage set into something better.
In the market, a produce seller gave me a moment, as did an antique merchant and a proud young father with his tiny son. A waiter spun a plate on his finger. A young man in mojiganga regalia paused for my benefit, a glint in his eye.
Instead of just moving in and letting loose a burst of snaps, I remembered Barras’ advice, slowed down, pondered options, tried the mojiganga head-on, from the side and from behind, in daylight and later at dusk.
At the Hotel Amparo, bartender Gabriel Avila was filling a carafe with water on a slow afternoon. He told me how he’d come from Tijuana five years before.
“It’s the best decision in my short life,” Avila said. “It’s really interesting, this city. The way they conserve all the culture of the epoch of the conquest and the independence of Mexico.”
I snapped five or six shots and we spoke a little more. When I looked over my photos later — all 1,679 of them — my favorite people picture was of Avila.
Why? Even in the beauty queen of Mexican cities, a pretty picture plus good talk beats a pretty picture every time.
If you go
The best way to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
From LAX, United, American, Aeroméxico and Delta offer connecting flights (change of planes) to Querétaro, about a 70-minute drive to San Miguel. Restricted round-trip airfare from $623, including taxes and fees. The same airlines also offer connecting flights to León, about a 90-minute drive to San Miguel. Restricted round-trip airfare from $480, including taxes and fees.
Photographic Gallery, 57 Mesones, San Miguel de Allende; (011) 52-415-154-5366, acdphoto.com. Exhibits and workshops. Jo Brenzo teaches three-day digital photo courses and leads photographer meet-ups at 11 a.m. every Saturday.
Javier Barras; (011) 52-415-149-3453, firstname.lastname@example.org, javierbarras.com/home. Barras, a commercial photographer who often works with the Photographic Gallery, also leads group and private photo classes. A three-hour private walking-and-shooting session costs about $100.
Where to stay
Hotel Boutique Hacienda El Santuario, 42 Terraplen, Centro, San Miguel Allende; (011) 52-415-152-0335, www.haciendaelsantuario.com. About 33 rooms around a calm courtyard in the oldest part of town. Doubles from $190 a night, including taxes.
Hotel Amparo, 3 Calle Mesones, Centro, San Miguel de Allende; (011) 52-415-152-0819, hotelamparo.com. Five stylish rooms in a 300-year-old mansion; restaurant adjacent. Opened in 2018. Doubles from $250 a night.
Hotel Casa Blanca 7, 7 Juarez, Centro, San Miguel Allende; (011) 52-415-688-1438, casablanca7.com. Ten rooms, Moorish accents, restaurants upstairs and down. Opened in 2018. Doubles from $323 a night.
Where to eat
Nómada Cocina de Interpretación, 88 Calle Hernandez Macias, Centro, San Miguel de Allende; (011) 52-415-121-6165, bit.ly/nomadacocina. Small, exquisite servings; mellow dining room. Opened 2016. Most dishes $5-9. Six-course chef’s menu (Wednesdays only), $33.
Casa Blanca Café, Hotel Casa Blanca, 7 Juarez, San Miguel de Allende; (011) 52-415-688-1438, casablanca7.com/cafe-casablanca7. Pleasant courtyard. Opened 2018. Three-course lunch (with incredible mushrooms), $25.