Robyn Catinella may spend most of the year running a successful fashion PR business in her home-town of Sydney but her spiritual home can be found in Mexico. Since her parents moved there, she's made a pilgrimage of sorts every year for the last eight years - making her very qualified to wax lyrical about her favourite hill-side town of San Miguel de Allende. From the best places in town for an authentic taco to the rejuvenating benefits of the nearby natural water springs, Robyn's to-do list is heavy on the kind of details you need to know when planning the ultimate Mexican getaway.
What do you love about San Miguel de Allende?
Family is my connection to Ajijic, but it’s the colourful, vibrant spirit that's the allure of San Miguel that I love. A Mexican mountain city of snaking cobblestone streets and colonial buildings in delectable fruit-bowl-meets-spice-rack colours (think mango and avocado next to paprika and turmeric). I return to Ajijic and San Miguel each year and have done for the past eight years. My parents have lived in Mexico for the past eight years, running a boutique hotel and they truly love life.
In Mexico you can cram every minute with activity or just loll about in a culture that rejuvenates the body and soul. I tend to do the later, and find myself seeking out the most tranquil water hang for the day. Named the world’s favourite city by Conde Nast Traveller, San Miguel de Allende, in central Mexico, is an enchanting artist's village. Both quaint and cosmopolitan at the same time, San Miguel de Allende is mostly known for its year-round fiestas, concerts, parades and fireworks. It is also known for its colour. Hues explode from the rooftops and courtyard gardens that are set against mango, papaya and watermelon-coloured homes.
While San Miguel has beautifully retained its 16th century roots, it nevertheless has an international sensibility. Sophisticated restaurants, shops, coffee houses and cantinas line the streets. Once an important stop on the silver route between Zacatecas and Mexico City, its historic centre is filled with well-preserved buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries. With its narrow cobblestone streets, leafy courtyards, fine architectural details and sumptuous interiors, San Miguel de Allende is arguably the prettiest town in Mexico.
What are your favourite restaurants?
There are world-class restaurants in San Miguel de Allende — from international to local cuisine, not to mention street food. Stores focus on regional designers and artists, and restaurants specialise in the locally grown — organic produce and livestock from surrounding farms that thrive year-round in the eternal spring climate. Below are my pick of the best:
La Parroquia - a favourite of ours for breakfast, but also great for lunch and dinner. Very relaxed, well-priced traditional Mexican. Best coffee and fruit platters. The owner’s daughter takes over in the evenings under the name The Brasserie.
La Palapa - the best fish tacos!! Grilled or battered, each taco is 25 pesos ($2 AUD).
Cumpanio - the most stylish bakery in town; modern European.
La Parada - fantastic Peruvian restaurant, with a good vibe and a huge selection of Pisco sours and chilcanos.
The Restaurant - gourmet Mexican, hands down my favourite spot. Best food in San Miguel.
Taco Corner - this is Mexican street food at its best. Be aware that it closes every afternoon for siesta (2-4pm).
El Pegaso - a quaint spot for traditional Mexican. Try the excellent chillies en nogenda and ceviche.
Via Organica - a small organic cafe five minutes walk out of town.
Aperi Restaurant - Aperi cemented its place at the top of the SMA dining scene as a fine dining restaurant that could hold its own anywhere in the world. This restaurant transports you from ancient colonial San Miguel to modern Mexican gastronomy in casual elegance.
What are your ultimate lifestyle shopping destinations?
Casa Armida - this is my favourite on Ancha de San Antonio, a phenomenal interior and homewares store.
La Antigua - everything is white — handmade tablecloths, napkins, guayaberas, and other textiles.
Trinitate - great ceramics store in San Miguel de Allende (the Mexican Astier de Villate).
Bazar Unicornio - an un-curated treasure trove of Mexican antiques, secondhand books, and folk art, both vintage and contemporary.
What is it about this city that inspires you?
Early morning roosters yodel, riots of bougainvillea perfume the air, mingling their fragrance with delightful aromas from neighbourhood tortilla factories. Church bells toll fifteen minutes to Mass to hurry up the faithful. I love the life values in Mexico. Elders are treated with respect, children play in the streets, no one is judged by what they own. Everything in life is a celebration, even death, as seen in Dia de los Muertos. The lack of street lights and billboards makes the region romantically and historically beautiful, and the city itself offers a traditional feeling of a small town in the heart of Mexico. It is the land of eternal spring.
What are your favourite cultural and creative hubs?
Berlin Bar and Café is a rooftop bar off the Jardín which offers a two-for-one special.
To the east is a crane-your-neck close-up of the Parroquia. However, the ideal perch at sunset is the outside patio, where you can sip your margarita while watching the light disappear over a panorama of the Guanajuato Mountains in the distance.
La Sirena Gorda which retains the hole-in-the-wall look of a cantina. Think swinging doors, dim light, faded paint on the walls but with a more refined bar where you want to nestle in for the late-evening hours. Drinking the signature ginger or tamarind margaritas for 60 pesos each.
Atencion - the weekly English language newspaper - is an essential key to unlocking experiences and pleasures in San Miguel.
The Mariachis and trios play music for all occasions. There are tunes for wallowing in the sorrow of a lost love, suffering is a fine art here, or spirited tunes, like The March of Zacatecas to set you to dancing a polka in the street. But the specialty is strumming romantic ballads designed to telegraph your love and melt her heart. Dia de los Locos. Everyone is included, from the dead to the crazy. Life is what it is. You can celebrate or mourn.
Tlaquepaque and Tonala - it's only a three hour drive to both popular shopping destinations.
What is the best time of year to travel?
April through May and September to mid-December are ideal times to visit, for pleasant weather and a series of traditional Mexican fiestas.
What are the must-visit cultural landmarks?
Parroquia - the most famous building in town is the multi-spired pink church, which stands guard over the town’s heart, the Jardín. It is a centre for meditation, worship and spiritual growth. The nearly 250-year-old Bllas Artes is the most beautiful. First a convent, then an art college, it’s now a newly renovated community centre and art gallery. Nearly every inch of wall and ceiling space is filled with detailed biblical scenes and passages, which is why the church is known as Mexico’s Sistine Chapel and was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008.
The Jardin serves as the primary meeting spot for the thousands of expats, foreign cognoscente and wannabes, as well as for knowledgeable tourists passing through. This is where you share information on how to get the most out of your visit. As the morning warms, the benches facing La Parroquia fill.
What are the best places to stay?
San Miguel offers many beautiful hotels (my favourite places are listed below). There is also a great selection of houses and apartments to rent. If you decide to go with a house ensure it’s close to the centre of town for your convenience. Anything within a 20 minute walk to El Jardín is ideal.
The Rosewood - is one of the finest hotels/spas in the Western Hemisphere. It compares favourably to our favourite hotel in the world, Le Sirenuse in Positano, Italy. While it does not overlook the Amalfi coast, the panoramic view of San Miguel from the rooftop bar is truly spectacular.
Hotel Matilda - avant-garde elegance, this 'art-boutique' hotel is the most sophisticated sleep in town and best massage I have ever had.
L'OTEL - a magical retreat in a magical city. Impeccably and uniquely furnished.
Hotel El Meson - I love this small hotel, I have been back a few times and each time I love it more. It has beautiful rooms, comfortable beds, and it is very clean. It is walking distance from the cathedral. It has a great bar and the restaurant is very tasty. The grilled watermelon is to die for.
Casa De Sierra Nevada - the hotel is a series of six historic buildings that have been converted to a first-class hotel, whilst keeping its colonial charm.
What are your favourite nightspots?
Hanks - popular ex-pat drinking hole. Full of characters.
La Azotea - casual rooftop bar in the centre of town.
Mama Mia - dark and moody with live music.
Luna Rooftop at The Rosewood - stunning views with an exceptional atmosphere.
Must-see Martini heaven?
After a stop in the Jardín to listen to the mariachis, head to Martinez for a stronger beat. Choose from more than 20 martinis with ingredients like cucumber juice and watermelon, and watch mixologists in white shirts and black bow ties wield their shakers like maracas.
List 3 interesting places that tourists wouldn’t know about.
Fabricia La Aurora - a five minute drive from town and is a beautiful art and design centre housed in a former textile factory from the turn of the century. Among old textile machines and hydraulic turbines you may find artists busy at work in their studios as well as the most attractive aspect, the studio galleries.
La Gruta Spa - being at over 6,000 feet in elevation here, the air feels thin and crisp. The benefits of these healing waters are impressive and benefits include the relieving stress, fatigue, arthritis. Wander down a dark, stone-walled tunnel of water into a dome shaped cave and relax in the warm waters, or stand under the fresh spring waterfall for a fantastic neck and shoulder massage.
Escondido Place - there are several outdoor pools, but the showpiece is the series of techados (bathing houses with bóveda ceilings) where you can refresh your body and elevate your spirit. After floating freely in the waters which are rich in lithium you'll emerge groggy but soothed.
Best spots for families?
Dia de Los Locos (AKA Day of the Dead) - one of the most colourful holidays of the year. It is the time when Mexicans welcome the dead back to earth for a visit, even while mocking death itself. The festival involves a lot of skulls.
All Soul’s Day - seen as the time of year when the veil between life and death is at its thinnest' the best time for the souls of the departed to slip back home for a visit with the family. And the family does all it can to entice them.
Posciada Carmina Hotel - surrounded by white linen parasols and blooming orange trees with the sweet smell of blossom. I can recommend the cactus salad and the green chilli enchiladas. The hotel is right next to the largest cathedral, with constant ringing church-bells.
The Tonala Street Market - created twice a week (Thursdays and Sundays) by literally thousands of vendors and artisan craftsmen from the surrounding mountains, who set up a small village of market tables to sell their wares.
The Mayan Baths - sanctuary of 101º natural thermal mineral water. You can swim through underground quartz and crystal grottos to outside pools, to where from high on a hill you gaze can at the vast Laja River Valley and the majestic Sierra Madre Mountains.
El Jardan - San Miguel de Allende's heart and soul. Vendors mill about selling balloons, dulces, or sweets, cotton candy and roasted corn on the cob. Indian women wrapped in hand-woven serapes lay out bouquets of dried flowers for sale under the eves of shops bordering the park. Abuelitas (grandmothers), gossips on the wrought-iron benches under the manicured laurel trees. Tourists snapping pix of the Parróquia church. Mariachi music fills the air.
Are there any get away nearby places to enjoy for the weekend?
Ajijic - my home away from home.
Casa Tres Leones - an elegant boutique hotel in Ajijic (Ahee-heek). The village of Ajijic is on the north shore of Lake Chapala, Mexico's largest fresh water lake and is located just 35 minutes from the international airport of Guadalajara. Enjoy the comfortable and relaxing atmosphere surrounded by the beauty of Mexico, with spectacular views of Lake Chapala and the Sierra Madre mountains.
Monte Coxala - world-class destination for healing, transformation and celebration. The heart of Monte Coxala is fuelled by thermal waters that travel from 260 meters below the surface of the earth. These waters have a high mineral content that can purify and regenerate body mind and spirit, and will leave you feeling top of the world.
Hacienda Uayamon - dates back to the 17th century and has been beautifully restored, carefully preserving traditional features whilst simultaneously incorporating modern comforts. The swimming pool is breathtaking; it’s an Instagram favourite, but find few know where in the photo is taken. When not relaxing by the pool or indulging in a relaxing spa treatment, guests can enjoy a delicious blend of Mexican and international cuisine served in the hotel's restaurant which overlooks the gardens.
What is the best way to get around San Miguel?
By foot. Walking is undoubtedly the best way to explore San Miguel. A car can be more of a hindrance.
Any little-know traveller hacks you can share...?
When entering Mexico, be sure not to lose the part of the immigration form that the immigration officer hands back to you, as you are required to present this when leaving the country. If you lose this they will not let you on the flight until paperwork has been filed for a replacement. It involves a $100 USD fee, and you'll more than likely miss your flight!
Mezcal, a type of Mexican tequila, is much appreciated by the South Koreans. They are among the many non-Mexicans who consider the worm in the bottle to be an aphrodisiac. Mexicans know better.
You can find Robyn on Instagram at @robyncatinella.
Image via: Visit Mexico