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Feb 262009

Published in the Vail Daily February 22, 2009

The Ex-Pats


Yolanda enjoying the sun on the steps of an abandoned hacienda at El Charco del Ingenio reserve and  botanical garden.

 It began in the 1930’s. The Instituto Allende Art School initiated an influx of foreigners unabated to this day. The GI Bill after World War II enabled veterans to stretch their benefits while studying in San Miguel de Allende. Over the ensuing years , especially the last fifteen, the growth of the expatriate population has brought significant changes.

San Miguel has grown from a sleepy backwater to a thriving, international community. There are somewhere between 6,000 and 13,000 foreigners in San Miguel, nobody knows the exact figure. In a town of 85,000, the impact is remarkable and disproportionate to their numbers. 

Some decry the gentrification, the large, expensive homes and rising prices but on many levels, gringos make vital contributions to the social fabric

An expat docent leading a tour of San Miguel’s Centro Historico.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10 am the dedicated, knowledgeable docents of the Patronato Por Niños lead tours of the historic center. Each year, the Patronato, founded in 1970, provides medical and dental care to thousands of children living in and around San Miguel de Allende. Last year, over 7,000 children received care ranging from eye glasses to kidney surgery.

The 100 peso donation, $7, goes directly toward this care. The popular tours are a usual first stop for hundreds of tourists each week who gain first hand knowledge of the town and it’s history from the expatriate guides. 

The second thing most tourists do is the home and garden tour. This is another philanthropic venture began by the expat community. Every Sunday, up to 700 people, (no where near that amount on the day Yolanda and I attend), tour three beautiful homes. The charge is 150 pesos, around $10. The money goes to fund the Biblioteca Publica, the public library, and it’s many educational programs for the youth of San Miguel. 

An Indonesian tourist dances with the band leader in the courtyard of the Biblioteca.

The biblioteca is a cultural and social epicenter for visitors and residents alike. From morning to night plays, concerts, lectures, movies and discussions groups fill it’s busy calendar. 

The Sunday morning tours begin in the spacious courtyard of the library. Visitors from around the world join the numerous resident volunteers mingle and enjoy a band of local musicians before boarding the buses to this week’s homes. Three hundred homeowners have volunteered to open their homes for the tour. Every week is different.

When we went, each home provided a unique experience. The first, belonging to a several generation native, was elegantly understated, with clean interior lines and bright, airy rooms. 

Looking over the roofs of San Miguel.

The second, perched above the town, held a panoramic view. Each room situated to partake of the town below. It’s rich interior punctuated by a wall of exquisitely framed, original Rembrandt etchings.

The last house was just plain fun. Like so many houses in San Miguel, the exterior walls give no hint to the surprise lurking behind them. Upon entering, an 85’ long, bright red, arched roof leads the visitor into a garden that is a riot of life. Every room of the house, every brightly colored wall, nook, cranny and horizontal space is filled with fun, fantastic folk art. The sense of humor at work is infectious. 

The garden is a work of art, a labor of love filled with ponds, plants, fruit trees, sculpture and tranquility. The zen-like quality of the recently added rear cactus garden and spare, modern guest house are a quiet exclamation point juxtaposed against the tumult of the house and original garden.

And these are just three of the three hundred homes available to the tour!

I must write another article on the impact expats have on their adopted San Miguel de Allende. The “Insiders Guide” lists 22 organization where one can volunteer and there are others deserving mention. 

Lastly,  there is the Jardín Botánico and El Charco del Ingenio preserve.


The lake and a tiny part of the botanical collection of El Charco del Ingenio with San Miguel de Allende in the distance.

El Charco covers 250 acres of canyon, hillside, lake and wetlands, Well maintained trails provide access to the preserve. The crown jewel is the beautifully designed and landscaped Botanical Garden and Conservatory containing a collection of 850 species of native succulents and cacti.

The Conservatory in the Jardin Botanico.

El Charco was also honored by the Dalai Lama who proclaimed it a “Peace Zone” during his 2004 trip to Mexico.

The beginning of 6 miles of well-maintained trails at El Charco del Ingenio.

Copyright 2009 Dennis Jones www.dreamcatcherimaging.com


Feb 162009

Published in the Vail Daily 2/15/09

Settling In


Here's a very unusual cross I found, likely with shamanistic overtones.

Here’s an unusual cross I found, likely with shamanistic overtones.

One of the challenges and opportunities of travel is not knowing where you will end up. Planning inhibits spontaneity. Spontaneity allows synchronicity to reveal  unforeseen possibilities. 

We typically reserve a place online for our first few nights. Then, we look around. The Casa Crayola is lovely. We met some wonderful people there. For a month though, it is on the expensive side.

During our forays into the Centro, we stop by the office of tourism across from the Jardin. Tourist offices are always excellent sources of information. Besides the free map, we get a long list of accommodations. Yolanda asks for recommendations and, using their phone, the first place we call has a vacant casita.

It’s only a few blocks uphill from the Jardin so we make the first of what will be many trudges up the increasingly steep street to the Englebrecht apartments. Guillermina, the owner’s sister visiting from teaching in Abu Dhabi, greets us warmly at the door ushering us into the family’s spacious courtyard. 

The lovely, plant filled courtyard of Casa Englebrecht.

The lovely, plant filled courtyard of Casa Englebrecht.

She shows us an adequate, one bedroom apartment for $250 per week then takes us down several levels beneath huge trees to a manicured lawn and flower-filled garden fronting a little two-story house with a rooftop terrace, $300 a week. I envision sitting in the lounge chairs on the roof, drinking margaritas as the sun sets over San Miguel below. Yolanda walks upstairs to the spacious, all-white bedroom which clinches the deal.

The casita is light and airy. Large windows open to the garden and town beyond. Ferns, calalilies and cactus partially enclose the tile-roofed veranda whose table and chairs become our dining area. The ivy and bougainvillea-covered stone walls surrounding the garden exude tranquility. From this lovely perch, we continue our explorations of San Miguel.

Yolanda enjoying our rooftop terrace.

Yolanda enjoying our rooftop terrace.

We’ve only been in our casita one day when Theresa, our warm, lively landlady, invites us to a fiesta. The celebration is to honor sixty years of the family living in this hacienda as well as to say goodbye to Guillermina who is returning to teach at the women’s university in Abu Dhabi.

A tent is erected on the upper terrace. Beneath, tables with lovely flower arrangements are set. Caterers are preparing food, three, excellent musicians are playing and singing and of course, tequila, wine, rum and beer flow freely. The extended family and many old friends are in attendance. 

One other gringo couple is here and we become fast friends. Lou and Mary Lynn Dahmen are from Santa Fe. They’ve been coming to San Miguel for years and are long-time family friends, having hosted one of Theresa’s sons so he could attend school in the U.S.. We feel honored to have been invited.

In appreciation, I grab my camera, do my professional thing, photographing everyone there and later give Theresa a CD and set of prints.

One of the many steep, narrow, cobblestone alleys in San Miguel.

One of the many steep, narrow, cobblestone alleys in San Miguel.

One evening, our new friends from Michigan invite us to visit the home they are renting. Map in hand, we wander through the gathering dark down steep, narrow cobblestone alleys, zigzagging our way past parks and along dimly lit streets. Finding the most level route in this hilly part of San Miguel de Allende is a challenge. Security is a mild concern but several long-time residents assured us that crime against tourists is almost non-existent.

We arrive safely at the nondescript door to their house giving no hint to the architectural wonder behind it. Lou Heiser, an architect himself, leads us on a tour. Even though it was built only a few years ago, the ancient, worm-eaten beams, weathered doors, artistically distressed walls and lovely tile work create an aura of another era.

After wine and good company, we wander down to Hecho en Mexico, a popular, reasonably priced Mexican restaurant they’ve discovered. Meals range from large, fresh salads for $4, enchiladas and fish tacos for $5-6, to fish specialties for under $10.  With it’s friendly and courteous staff, Hecho becomes a favorite restaurant.

The next morning we all gather at the Jardin to meet Archie Dean and buy his “Insider’s Guide to San Miguel”. Archie leads us to a favorite nearby haunt for breakfast and a deeper introduction to the wonders of San Miguel and it’s surroundings.

Margarita Gralia and her wonderful Churros y Chocolate

Margarita Gralia and the wonderful Churros y Chocolate at her Cafe San Augustin.

Café San Agustín was started by Argentinean actress/heart-throb Margarita Gralia who’s sexy photos decorate the walls. A house specialty is churros con chocolate, so good, we visit every few days to savor the thick, rich Chocolate Espanol, or the sweet, cinnamony Chocolate Mexicana served with three of their crisp, delicious churros, the traditional, foot-long, deep-fried “donut” sprinkled with sugar. Richisimo! Delicious! And under $2.50.

The doors of San Miguel de Allende, definitely a cliche'.

The doors of San Miguel de Allende, definitely a cliche

Besides recommending many excellent restaurants, too many to try in one trip, Archie tells us about a number of things not to be missed. The many expatriates living in San Miguel de Allende, either full or part time, have involved themselves deeply in the community, creating institutions benefiting both the gringo and Mexican residents.

The example these charities, organizations and cultural institutions set is so important and enlightened, I must devote the next article to them. Suffice it to say, we are deeply impressed with the contributions the expatriate community has made to their adopted home.

Along a very narrow callejon or alley in San Miguel.

Along a very narrow callejon or alley in San Miguel.

Copyright 2009 Dennis Jones www.dreamcatcherimaging.com


Feb 092009

Published in the Vail Daily 2/8/09

Authenticity Found



La Parroquia-

It’s three am. The roof dog across the street has joined doggie facebook, adding his two bits to the nightly chat. What could they possibly be communicating and why don’t their owners, who must be dead to the world, shut them up!.

Yes, this is authentic Mexico. Real people live in San Miguel de Allende. Dogs bark, roosters crow, skyrockets explode at odd hours, church bells toll for indecipherable reasons, and it’s all so very charming.

We breakfast at the Casa Crayola, meeting a wonderful couple opening the only Thai restaurant in San Miguel. Foo and Manot Swasdee are restauranteurs from Dallas whose “adopted” son has returned to Mexico after working for them for many years. They have helped him open Bahn Thai and, loving Thai food, we vow to eat there tonight. Before then though, there is a beautifully warm, January day ahead of us and a town to explore.


The Clocktower with La Parroquia behind in the historic center of San Miguel

San Miguel de Allende was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site only last year. Like other UNESCO sites we’ve visited, Halong Bay in Vietnam, Luang Prabang in Laos, Colonia in Uruguay, and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, San Miguel is a treasure. Founded in 1542, only twenty one short years after the improbable conquest of the Aztecs by the Spanish, it has flourished in recent years partly due to it’s remarkably benign climate, it’s well preserved 18th and 19th century architecture and it’s attraction to a growing population of Norteamericano expatriates. 

I always have pesos at the ready to help those far less fortunate than I.

We make the ten minute walk along ancient cobblestone streets passing colorful shops, tranquil courtyard restaurants and numerous rustic doorways echoing centuries of habitation, to the Jardin, the main plaza and center of life in San Miguel,. Wizened widows wrapped in tattered rebozos, the traditional, multi-purpose shawl, beg quietly in doorways, hands out to the passing gringos. They bestow their blessings as I hand them a few of the pesos I always have ready for such an encounter. There is no social security or any other safety net in Mexico.


The Jardin, the center of life in San Miguel de Allende

The streets surrounding the Jardin are closed to traffic adding to the sense of calm. Large, sculptured Laurel trees shade the square. At this time of morning, few people occupy the many benches. That will change come evening when families, lovers, gringos and mariachis arrive to mingle beneath the watchful gaze of the brightly lit Parroquia, the most prominent of the many churches in San Miguel.

La Parroquia was started in 1683. The unique, pink and tan facade was added in 1880 by a self-taught Indian stone mason/builder who sketched his designs in the dirt. The large, six foot bell can be heard all over town. While sitting in the Jardin, its deep, pure tone resonates within your soul, transporting you to an earlier era as the harmonics fade into the quiet conversation around you.


The lovely pink and tan facade of La Parroquia

One of the leaders of the 1810 Mexican revolution against the Spanish, Ignacio de Allende was born in a house, now a museum, across the street from the church. The revolution started 27 miles away in Dolores Hidalgo, the “Birthplace of Independence”, when the priest, Father Hidalgo, issued his famous cry for independence proclaimed to this day by the president every September 16th.

After some enjoyable people watching, Yolanda and I set out to explore the labyrinth of hilly streets comprising the historical center of town. In 1926, San Miguel de Allende was preserved as a National Monument. Strict rules on signs and development have maintained its colonial character. Unlike so many other places in Mexico, trash is non-existent. People take pride in their town. Every morning, we find someone washing the narrow, stone sidewalks in front of their home or business. 


The exterior wall of Casa Liza, hides the beautiful, lush interior of the B&B.



Casa Liza, surprises await behind the walls.

As we aimlessly wander the narrow, colorfully, walled streets, we steal the occasional peek into interior, plant-strewn courtyards where so much family life takes place. Galleries with interesting art, shops selling colorful crafts, stores filled with whimsical and bizarrely fantastic decorator items entice us inside.


The Market Bistro, an excellent and reasonable priced French influenced restaurant shows movies in it's theater 3 times a day.

We check out menus of courtyard restaurants with tables scattered amidst thriving orange trees, restaurants in old monasteries and with rooftop terraces. It’s getting late and my stomach is growling. Thai food sounds better and better so we explore our way toward our new friend’s restaurant.

Bahn Thai’s two floors yield three rooms each brightly painted in ruby, emerald or azure. Foo andManot greet us effusively, proudly showing us around. Yolanda is carrying a book we found at theCasa Crayola, “The Insider’s Guide to San Miguel”, a bible for the newly arrived.http://insidersma.tripod.com/

Foo sees the book saying enthusiastically, “Oh, that’s Archie book. He’s downstairs eating. Would you like to meet him?”

Once again, synchronicity knocks on our door, affirming that we’re on the right path. Like every ex-pat we meet, Archie Dean is warm and gregarious. We share a delicious, reasonably priced Thai meal, regaled with stories of life in San Miguel. We set a date to meet in the Jardin for breakfast, to learn more about this charming town and of course, to purchase the latest edition of his book.

Behind La Parroquia along Calle Aldama.

Behind La Parroquia along Calle Aldama.


The cops of San Miguel's Centro Historico


Copyright 2009 Dennis Jones www.dreamcatcherimaging.com


Feb 032009

Printed in the Vail Daily February 1, 2009

Searching For The Authentic Mexico


True Mexican authenticity in Puerto Vallarta

A parade of cars advertising Home Depot in downtown Puerto Vallarta. Truly “authentic”  Mexico.

It has been 40 years since I first camped on the beach in Puerto Vallarta. Mismaloya Cove of Night of the Iguana fame, was little more than a lovely beach with exceptionally clean water, palapas and a small restaurant. The movie set with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s house lay deserted and crumbling on the point.

Now, the picturesque cove is another resort hotel like the untold numbers which have sprung up over the years. The formerly tranquil Puerto Vallarta long ago joined the ranks of all-to-popular beach destinations.

This is my third visit over the ensuing years. The growth is staggering. Yolanda and I made reservations on-line for two nights at a four star hotel north of the city in Nueva Vallarta, the most recent area of development.

At a reasonable $100 per night, the Villas del Palmar was well worth the price. Situated on a narrow beach with a lovely view north to Punta Mita, it delivers on it’s promised resort experience. Three beautifully landscaped, saltwater pools cascade one into another surrounded by palm trees and lounge chairs.

The lap of luxury at the Villas del Palmar Flamingos

Living in the lap of luxury at the Villas del Palmar Flamingos

Come to find out, this is a timeshare or whatever they call them now. Enticed into their presentation with the promise of free transportation, breakfast and a dinner, or maybe it was the free bottle of Tequila, we endure the relatively soft-sell seventy-five minutes, getting away with bank account intact. 

We take a rickety bus into Puerto Vallarta and find the city dirty and over run with tourist traps. For some reason I can never understand, Mexicans throw trash where ever they feel like it.

Dinner was at La Vitea, an outdoor restaurant. A soft, warm breeze plays across the paseo. Conversations of promenading locals and tourists are punctuated by the gentle sounds of rolling surf. For under $30 including a glass of wine and a beer, Yolanda and I share a generous salad, delicious crab cannelonis and an excellent linguini with large shrimp in a rich, flavorful saffron sauce. No need to buy the large portion, the smaller portions, costing a third less, are sufficient.

Two buses are required to get back to Nuevo Vallarta. The brakes on the first rattletrap make a long, deafening, metallic groan that vibrates through my spine every time they are applied. The second bus, much nicer, takes us on a long, winding tour through the sprawling resort of Nuevo Vallarta. 

I am blown away by the development. Guarded gates shield the residents from the populace. Marinas, golf courses, high-rise condos and mega-resorts go on for miles. Though beautiful and impressive, this is not the Mexico we came to experience.

After two nights of luxury, we board a first-class bus for the twelve hour trip to San Miguel de Allende and a hoped for taste of authentic Mexico. We share the trip with two friendly couples from Michigan. Bonded by the long, long  trip together, we become fast friends and enjoy many wonderful meals with them in San Miguel. 

The road to Guadalajara, our first stop, rises quickly through a dense, tropical landscape. Enormous, flowering trees compete with palms and lush foliage for light. Colorful birds flit amidst the canopy, startled by our passing. Even now, during the dry season, the beauty is lustrous.

An hour takes us to the vast central plateau. For the next four and a half hours we move eastward through a landscape of verdant hills, lush valleys, small, dusty towns and agave-filled fields. Mountains rise to meet the sky. It’s been forty years since first driving this road and none of it is familiar.

Guadalajara’s sprawling, unattractive suburbs meet us far from the city center. The bus deposits us at a terminal somewhere among the low bare brick and cracked stucco houses to wait the hour for our connection to San Miguel.

The last five and a half hours prove less interesting. The is landscape drier and flatter, with large expanses of huge Nopales, a beavertail-type cactus used in cooking and salads.

We pass slowly through the crowded streets of Leon, a crowded industrial city. After the sun sets, the outskirts of Guanajuato appear through the windows. In the dark we make our way on a two lane road through low mountains, held up briefly by the aftermath of a horrific head on collision.

The lovely lights of what I suspect to be San Miguel de Allende appear in the plain below. Exactly twelve long hours after we begin, we arrive. For thirty pesos, about three dollars, a taxi takes us to Casa Crayola, a small, eclectic grouping of colorful casitas and rooms surrounding a lovely garden. Already, I sense a change in atmosphere and attitude, a pride of place with deep cultural roots, a tranquility born in confidence, knowing that your town is among the best places on earth.

The eccentric Casa Crayola's lovely garden

The eccentric Casa Crayola

Cobblestone streets, cleanliness and color in San Miguel de Allende

Cobblestone streets, cleanliness and color in San Miguel de Allende

Gringos are welcome but definitely not catered to

Gringos are welcome but definitely not catered to

San Miguel de Allende, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and authentic taste of Mexico

San Miguel de Allende, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an authentic slice of Mexico

Copyright 2009 Dennis Jones www.dreamcatcherimaging.com