They say that you either love or hate San Miguel.

Right away, I did both.

San Miguel de Allende is a very livable small city, cradled in rolling hills, with much of the city built in traditional architecture. Like nearby Guanajuato and a number of other cities in Mexico, there are restrictions on modern buildings, at least in the center of town, and this creates a very pleasing look. San Miguel is clean and prosperous, with a number of small parks and beautiful old churches.

The city is an art center, due to the longtime existence of the world-famous Allende Institute, which offers classes in drawing, painting, lithography, and other arts. There are numerous galleries, along with the pretension that an arts scene often seems to include. The Allende Institute and several other places offer Spanish-language courses for people at all levels of skill, and many people come here to take those.

The main plaza in San Miguel
San Miguel’s main plaza, called the Jardin (Garden)

Everywhere you go in downtown San Miguel, you see foreigners. Americans, Canadians, Europeans – mostly older (guess Kelly and I included there!), many quite old. And in line with Juvenal’s image of the place, I mistook a huge liquor store for the grocery store I was looking for!

San Miguel has a reputation for being one of the more expensive places for a foreigner to live in Mexico, and certainly the number of upscale restaurants was far beyond what we saw elsewhere. To buy a home in San Miguel can be quite expensive, and we read ads of palatial homes for rent or sale, for huge sums. But it seemed to me that if you had the self-control, you could live about as modestly here as elsewhere. There are low priced restaurants, and in many parts of the city, the foreign presence is not dominant. We met an American couple who were renting a charming two-bedroom apartment on a quiet dead-end street in a peaceful suburb, with a rooftop with lovely views, for $175/month on a one-year lease. Utilities only added a modest amount.

Riding a city bus one day, I asked a local Mexican woman how the Mexicans felt about so many foreigners living in the city. I didn’t expect she would be anything but diplomatic, but her enthusiasm surprised me. The income is very welcome, and it seemed that she found the foreigners interesting.

The public library in San Miguel
The courtyard of the Public Library

Another San Miguel landmark is the Biblioteca Publica, or Public Library. It is not like a public library at home, in that it has no government funding. But it has a collection of thousands of books, in both English and Spanish. They can be checked out, if you a small membership fee. The library raises money in a variety of ways, through book sales, a gift shop, a cafe, and its popular weekly tours of upscale San Miguel homes.

I found the librarian at his desk on a Saturday afternoon. Like many librarians, he had books stacked everywhere in his office, and he was in the process of cataloging the pile on the middle of his desk. As I have been a library director myself, we compared notes pleasantly for a while, and when I said that we were thinking of spending more time in Mexico, he said gallantly that he hoped it would be in San Miguel – and that I would volunteer at the library. I assured him that if I did spend time here, I would be glad to help out. Many of the activities of the library are done by foreign volunteers.

One of the most impressive programs is the creation of school libraries for the many small schools in the surrounding countryside. Typically, those schools might only have a few textbooks, but the Biblioteca Publica has donated small collections of some 200 books to over 300 of these rural schools. Aside from the costs of acquiring the books, it is not an easy matter to get the books out to the schools — there were photos of a VW van on rugged dirt roads.

I left the Biblioteca Publica with my heart full. Later, I read in the weekly San Miguel English-language newspaper about squabbling on the Library Board, something I have encountered in my own career. People are people everywhere!

[Next: more around San Miguel ]