San Miguel de Allende

Guanajuato, Mexico

Visited March 2002 and December 2007

A Miguel by any other name

San Miguel's first town center rose near the present railroad station -- today a busy place but far from the center of life for the madding tourist and expat crowd who favor the quaint Jardin.[2]  Not really a town but a primitive mud and tree-branch "building" housing an altar, San Miguel was started near the oft dry Laja river by an itinerant Spanish Franciscan named Juan de San Miguel. Depending upon whom you ask, the year was either 1538 or 1542.[2] Although indigenous people had been in the area for at least 2000 years, they had pretty much abandoned this spot; the semi-nomadic Chichimecca tribes such as the Purepechas and Otomis had scattered to avoid the Spanish Invaders who had been "saving" them for nearly two decades.  (Mexico had its immigration problems then.)  

Founding father Juan left shortly after in search of other indigenous souls desperately seeking conversion. Very quickly the "town" moved a few miles northeast to a spring which could provide a more reliable source of water.  The place became known as Itzcuinapan, the river of the dogs. (More on that later when we discuss the Chorro area).  
Fray Juan de San Miguel This photo shows a couple of ironic icons watching over the present town center: Fray Juan and the Parroquia.  Juan de San Miguel  walked through much of central Mexico barefoot with a shell stuck in his rope belt in order to have a vessel to use in baptizing new Christians. He never stayed anywhere very long, especially in this spot that shares his name with that of native son Ignacio Allende.  La Parroquia, as symbolic of San Miguel as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris, was created by an illiterate architect thinking he was erecting a high Gothic facade in this quintessential Spanish Colonial town.  (Much more about that later as well).

Conde Nast Travel Magazine readers consider San Miguel to be the 5th best city in the Americas, but this is a fairly recent evaluation.  The Aztec Empire had never been able to subdue the natives of this arid region and the conquering Cortez specifically singled them out as "barbarians that were less reasonable than people from the other provinces."[215]   Things have improved since; we found the Miguelinos to be quite pleasant, even the expats.

Soon the town became known as San Miguel de los Chichimecas, a bit ironically as the Spaniards were forced to move more docile (and already somewhat "converted" natives) from Tlaxcala north to populate this area.[4]   Within a decade of Fra Juan's founding of Itzcuinapan, silver mines in Zacatecas started pouring out the raw materials for what would become the coin of the largest empire in the world: the Spanish pieces of eight (the original eight bits for you computer geeks). But before silver could be turned into power, it had to be transported through hostile Chichimeca territory. Therefore the Spaniards built a series of stopover towns about one-days journey apart.  

By 1555 this humble stopover had been upgraded to a village named San Miguel el Grande (the Great) by Viceroy Don Luis de Velasco.[233]  Soon modest baroque stone replaced mud and sticks and in the 17th century the town center moved to its present location about a half-mile north of the springs.[2]  The eighteenth century sees a prosperous San Miguel earning its el Grande name as its grows in wisdom, grace, buildings, commerce, and education.  It also sees the birth of Ignacio José de Allende y Unzaga who will give his life for Mexican independence.  In turn, Mexico gave his name to the town.  The name San Miguel de Allende has stuck since 1826.  

The Churches of San Miguel

This place is laden with history, some of which we'll cover later.  Now let's talk about some of San Miguel's many churches (close to 300+ say some sources)  

The ersatz Gothic Parroquia

Because of its location just off the main square and its iconic status, La Parroquia gets the most La Parroquia attention and tourist visits.  Parroquia just means it's the town's parish church; officially it's La Parroquia de San Miguel (Saint Michael).   (Not being the seat of a diocese, San Miguel does not merit a cathedral.  It does claim the birthplace of the first native-born Mexican to become a bishop and this bishop commissioned the much discussed Gothic facade.  More details on that on our Parroquia page.)

Like a lot of the great European cathedrals, La Parroquia is an example of so many architects, so much time.  Fashions change (or were invented) while the place was being built or remodeled over two centuries.  Three architects separately made quite distinct contributions to La Parroquia starting with Marco Antonio Sobrarias who laid out the place in the traditional Latin cross[219] like any good parish church in 1683.  Next the crypt was added below the main altar by a local (but quite rightfully famous) architect/sculptor/muralist named Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras.    Finally the pièce de résistance (much résisted by some architectural purists), the Gothesque pink tower, was added in the 1880s by San Miguel native Ceferino Gutierrez[219] .  (To see and read a lot more about the inside and outside of La Parroquia, click here.)

Next to La Parroquia rises another church dedicated to the archangel Rafael.  Click here to see photos.

The Churrigueresque/Neo-classical San Francisco

La Parroquia anchors the south of the town's central square called La Jardin.  A block east of La Church of San Francisco Jardin rises a much different church also modified (perhaps even rescued) by architect Tresguerras: San Francisco.    

At right notice the elaborate Spanish Rococo ornamentation called Churrigueresque.  Silver money funded ostentatious religious displays such as this as the wealthy tried to one-up their peers in neighboring towns.  

Unfortunately, in the 20 years it took to build this church, the style faded in the official admiration of Mexico city and Madrid bureaucrats and they outlawed further use before the steeple could be finished.  This led Tresguerras to add an elegant but restrained neo-classical tower to the right of this elaborate facade.

Tresguerras continued this restraint inside, making San Francisco one of the most upscale churches in town--and a frequent wedding venue.  Click here to study the Church of San Francisco both inside and out.  

The sixteen-year-old who created Las Monjas

Dome of the temple of the Immaculate ConceptionJust to the west of the town's main square rises an impressive twelve-sided dome modeled after that of the Parisian Chapel of  Les Invalides designed by one of history's best known architects.  In fact, this derivative dome is the work of Ceferino Gutierrez -- yes, the same unschooled designer of the neo-Gothic tower on La Parroquia!

The church was part of a large expanse of convent land donated by the 16 year old daughter of the town's wealthiest family.  Her parents died and she took her inheritance and built a convent to hold 72 nuns, most of them cloistered.  

She had to start her own order in 1754 as there were no convents within 100 miles of San Miguel then.  She dedicated the order and the convent to the Immaculate Conception.  Today everyone calls this church Los Monjas which means "the nuns."  A few cloistered sister remain today to tend to the church.  See their picture and learn much more by clicking here.

Oratorio and Santa Casa Loreto

Casa Loreto interiorThe town's second square features a utilitarian square filled with markets and lined at the north end by several churches.  Prime among these is the Oratorio, a house of preaching, built by extending a much simpler church built by mulattoes descended from West Indian/African slaves.  

Around the same sheltered garden is the town's most lavish religious interior: the Santa Casa Loreto, replica of the Nazareth home of first Mary and then Jesus.  Built to entomb San Miguel's wealthiest patrons, it features an octagonal camarin bristling with gold and ceramics.

Click here to visit.

La Salud and the Colegio

La Salud

Just east of the Oratorio is a smaller church: the Temple of Our Lady of Health, La Salud.  In fact, it was built as the chapel for the former college of St. Francis de Sales, the earth-toned building next door.  While this was once a large swath of church land, it has been appropriated for a cement square now called Allende Plaza or Plaza Civico.  Unlike the upscale Jardin nearby, it teems with merchant tents.  To learn more about this chapel, its college, and the two revolutionaries who gave their name to this and a nearby town, click here.

The mystical Santuario de Atotonilco  

Vestibule picture from AtotonilcoAbout 9 miles north of town, the ascetic Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro, who gave his fortune to build La Salud (pictured above), relied on the kindness of strangers (and according to one of his accounts, at least one angel) to fund what is today still a retreat center for the devout (and coincidentally a folk art jewel for tourists.)  At left above is just one of the numerous murals that line almost every nook and cranny  of the Santuario de Atotonilco. The artist was Miguel Antonio Martinez Posasangre who created a folk-art graphic novel on the walls.  Its text was done by none other than Father Alfaro.  In the picture above, devils snatch the soul of a dying man and escort him to eternal damnation.  Hoping to avoid a similar conclusion to their lives, about 75,000 pilgrims still venture here each year with whips and crowns of thorns;  they stay a week and make a week-long retreat.  Click here for a shorter and, hopefully, less painful visit.

House of the Inquisition

House of the InquisitionAnd now for one last "religious" site in this town of hundreds of churches.  At right is the 1780 Inquisitor's House with its ornate combination of French and Spanish baroque facade including the stone "curtains" and what look to be ski poles bristling from the roof line.  While this building still dominates Calle Cuadrante, it originally had land attached to it that covered half the block.  Click on the picture to see it enlarged (click again to zoom in); when you do, you'll see some funny looking grape bunches. This was because its native Mexican stone carvers had never seen grapes!  The Spanish crown forbade their cultivation here.[73] Monopoly!
Established in 1571, the Mexican Inquisition was still active when the Mexican War of Independence started near here in 1810. That war effectively ended the Inquisition in most of Mexico since the Spanish Inquisition, begun in 1478 by Ferdinand and Isabella -- also sponsors of a Florentine sailor named Columbus -- was always run under the Spanish king's authority, not that of the Pope. Obviously traces of this perilous institution survived even the war: The last auto-da-fé, the Inquisition's public sentencing ceremony typically held in the town plaza, was in Mexico as late as 1850!  

The Mexican Inquisition was a little more kindler and gentler than its parent; it went after mostly Protestants and Jews (who were forbidden to emigrate to the Americas until the fourth generation after conversion; but many of them --as early as Columbus's day -- were smuggled in and lived in toleration with their Catholic neighbors throughout the colonies.)  From the beginning, the Inquisition ignored the native peoples who were thought to be too new of converts to treat as heretics.  After 1665, the Catholic hierarchy began to fear the Protestants as a greater threat than the Jews and shifted their inquisitorial efforts accordingly.

Green Places

We have already discussed the Allende or Civic Plaza already, now let's highlight  two other public (and much greener) spaces.

The Jardin: the relaxed heart of San Miguel


It is impossible to think of San Miguel de Allende without picturing the iconic La Parroquia tower as seen through the dark green Laurel trees of the central square which everyone calls the Jardin. This picturesque rectangle is lined on three sides with the residences of San Miguel's 18th century elite including that of the rebel Ignacio Allende and his conservative resisters, the storied De la Canal family.  Visit the Jardin and its surroundings by clicking here.

Where the natives play: Juarez park

Parque Juarez Probably every tourist walks through the central Jardin, but there is a much larger park about a half-mile to the South used by the locals for recreation.  To see more of Parque Juarez, click here.

Early (and late) Urban Renewal: The Chorro Area

Shortly after Founding Father Juan de San Miguel moved on to more fertile missionary fields, his Franciscan assistant, Bernardo Cossin, moved the town center up the Hill of Moctezuma in order to find a more reliable water supply near the town spring.  (A better missionary than town planner, Juan de San Miguel had originally located the settlement at the edge of a river that often ran dry.)
El Chorro laundry area

The Laundry in the Charro Area nicknamed the San Miguel Laundromat[81]

El Chorro laundry area

See more panoramic photos from the Charro and the Mirador by clicking here.


Guanajuato is a very Catholic state in a very Catholic country (despite the long opposition of the federal government.)  But while the indigenous folk have their devotions, the expats have their newer religion: the arts.  Nearly every block in the historic Centro area sports a gallery or two, interspersed with those other temples devoted to cuisine.   Annual performing arts festivals for tourists rival Holy Week activities for the natives.

We've already seen the Casa de la Cultura in the old Waterworks building which houses Ballet Folklorico de San Miguel.  Now let's turn our attention to two institutions that helped San Miguel de Allende attain its prominent position in the art world:

The art engine that became the Instituto Allende 

Courtyard at the Instituto Allende

The 1926 designation of San Miguel de Allende as a historical (and hence unmodifiable) site preserved the architecture of the Spanish colonialists.  But it was the art school started in 1937 that provided the economic resurgence of this sleepy town.  GI Bill benefits and low, low, prices made this a popular place for turning soldiers into artists.  Some stayed and turned the town into an art colony.  See more by clicking here.

"El Nigromante" home of the Bellas Artes.

Next to the twelve-sided dome of the Church of the Immaculate Conception (Las El Nigromante Center Monjas--the Nuns) is the former cloister of the nunnery -- long since "liberated" by the federal government.  Today it is a lush garden and thriving art center named after San Miguel's most famous literary son who called himself "the Magician (El Nigromante)"  Without a psuedoname, Ignacio Ramirez would have been arrested early and often.  

During the 1860s, most Church property was confiscated except for the actual insides of the churches themselves.  This makes for some ironic juxtapositions of objects and their spaces.  Here we have a lushly landscaped religious cloister centered around a fountain with the traditional lamb-of-god statue.  Upon entrance, we are confronted by a bronze honoring one of the earliest Mexican atheists (Ignacio Ramirez).  At the back of the complex we find a room filled with murals of a well known (and twice exiled) Stalinist, David Alfaro Siqueiros.  To visit, click here.

Performing Arts

The Nigromonte Center bustles with arts activity almost every night.  Another performing arts building rises nearby, anchoring several restaurants.   It's the Teatro Angela Peralta.

Teatro teatro in street context

Built as an opera house in 1973, this building was named after the most famous Mexican opera singer of the day, Angela Peralta.  Called the "Mexican Nightingale," she debuted at Milan's La Scala at age 17 -- but died at age 36.  The building survived and got a facelift[87] with the pink 1915 facade seen in the pictures above left. The photo to the right shows the theater's gallery-filled street which stretches east towards the distant dome of the church of San Francisco.  This facade was by Antonio Sierra, another mason and self-taught architect like Ceferino Gutierrez who had built the pink facade on La Parroquia 35 years before.   The building was restored recently after being (ab)used as a movie theater.

Venture to nearby Dolores Hidalgo, another important town in the Mexican War of Independence, by clicking here.

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Map courtesy of Wikipedia
How many churches are there in San Miguel?
More than you will probably ever visit.  Some count 297 -- but that smacks of exurban myth.  That would be one for every 476 people in the San Miguel area, making it a  more churched place than even Rome with its 1000 churches -- that's only about a 10th as many per population as San Miguel.