San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
My wife and I visited San Miguel de Allende, a city in central Mexico that is 6,200 feet above sea-level. We found it to be a postcard-perfect city. The eBay website offers about 100 postcards of churches, hotels, street scenes, and panoramas.
This urban panorama of domed buildings, towering spires, museums, hotels, businesses, and homes is nestled between a high desert background and cactus foreground. The cityscape is filled with churches, colorful homes, cobblestone streets, cafes, natural beauty, and vegetative lushness.
San Miguel’s magnetic atmosphere of Mexican culture and aesthetics has drawn artists, writers, and tourists since the late 1930s. About ten percent of the residents are expat Americans. San Miguel became a destination for World War II veterans using GI Bill benefits, North American winter escapees, and Road Scholar Spanish students. One real charm is that there are only a handful of traffic lights and stop signs.
It may be that visitors expressed enchantment. Most postcard writers didn’t date their correspondence and many postmarks were dateless, suggesting a sense of timelessness.
The earliest postcard message I found, a black and white view of the San Miguel Market, is postmarked July 10, 1941. Marg wrote, “Hope everything is ok at home [Chicago]. It is very beautiful here – we have made several short trips around here & are now on our way to Mexico City [168 miles south]. Everything is so different.” [Germany, Italy, and Japan invaded Europe and Asia; America had a short lease on peace.]
Getting to San Miguel could be challenging. Jerome wrote in June 1966, “Hi, Finally arrived after 50 hrs on train and is it Hot! Presently sipping on a choc shake in a greasie spoon joint. Just seen 600 [sic] yr old cathedral in San Miguel all stone structure. Mexican beer terrif.” Another traveler “arrived in a state of collapse after a sleepless night at International (J.F.K.) noisy!!” but noted “this place is growing apace…having a wonderful time seeing old friends.” Idlewild airport became JFK in December 1963.
Hotels, longer term rentals, and welcoming friends provided lodging.
The management advised on the back: “The downtown Hotel with the finest food and most comfortable rooms in town. Our business is to serve you.” A brochure continued: “Resembling an old Spanish colonial monastery in the center of town, overlooking the main plaza. Simply furnished, in exquisite taste. Comfortable rooms in traditional style. Courtyards and Patio Restaurant. International cuisine. BAR, LOUNGE, ELEVATOR.” The hotel closed circa 2016.
The austere stone exterior faced the Jardin. In the patio, redolent with greenery, trees, the fineries of public and private residences, guests sat around a fountain, drank wine, chatted, or read.
Hotel Posada cards bore many messages. Herbert wrote: “Dear Jos, This is the patio of the charming Posada where we are staying. We have been here 2 and will stay 4 more days. Then continue on to Mexico City. The charm, beauty and simplicity of the country and its people is deeply moving. Regards.” Harry wrote: “We enjoyed our day in San Miguel. The courses were interesting. You would enjoy them to. There are many people at the school. Hope you are well.” A French visitor described his trip, “Souvenir d’un Hôtel,” perhaps saving it as a memento or mailing it in an envelope. Messages were peppered with Buenos Dias, Mi Amigos and Adios Amigos.
The Parroquia [parish] church looms over the city. A July 2008 message read, “We’re enjoying our cultural experiences here. The plazas are good places to observe people, especially families on Sunday. We went on a great hike in nature preserve and saw wildflowers, succulents, and birds. Spent an afternoon at hot springs grotto. Love”
Tour guides and postcard descriptions supported urban legends. A January 1979 message said, “We are enjoying it here immensely. This church was designed & built by an uneducated Mexican from European postcards. The back of it is plain as he couldn’t tell what it looked like! You’d love the flowers – poinsettias taller than we are!” The description stated, “Church built by native stone mason inspired by post-cards of a European church.” Don Zeferino Gutiérrez (1840-1918) the mason placed a new façade on the church between 1880-1890. A second source states he was “inspired by drawings, engravings and postcards of European cathedrals.” A third noted, “It is said Guitiérrez’s inspiration came from postcards and lithographs of Gothic churches in Europe; however, the interpretation is his own and more a work of imagination than a faithful reconstruction.” Reliance on 1880-90 postcards is unlikely, postcards were still in their infancy.
On three images is a tower with a 120-year-old clock, the subject of Janelle Conaway’s “The Tale of a Clock and the Family That Cares for It,” in the March 8, 2023 New York Times.
Another card related “Hi- This is the square we walk thru everyday on way to & from class. The weather is beautiful – hot & sunny days – cool-cool nites – Beautiful rich blue sky. The hotel is very clean – food good – They have their own well so safe water – The train was fine and very nice. There are lots of older people living here but very hilly and there are cobblestone streets so it must be hard for them to walk far – the school is very busy & full in every class. Many retired people live in the apartments here.”
After a guided tour Margaret wrote in April 1973 “Greetings from Mexico. Mi Amigos! This is my favorite view of this city where we were taken for camera shots this morning. Soon we’re off to a House & Garden Tour – no doubt homes of the rich Americans here who favor this garden spot. Flowers in profusion everywhere!” Burros continue to ply the streets.
Visitors treasured the opportunity to write, paint and take pictures. Helen wrote, “Dear Grandma, What friendly people we find here! Every day we say we are leaving and yet we stay – we expect to go to Mexi – tonight – I have taken many pictures & they all turned out quite well I think – Love Helen” “This is truly a Shangrila. The climate perfect & atmosphere charming.” Mary wrote: “Dear Helen, Just thinking of you am having a restful vacation with lots of time to write! It has been such a joy to have lazy days here with siestas and all.” “We were out here to paint yesterday…We have one more painting session and then a critique before leaving for Mexico City.” Messages reported universally satisfying vacation adventures. Mary wrote in July 1970: “The Mexicans are so cordial. Another couple from Houston is here. This is an artist town & lots of beards & long hair.”
Even quotidian and short messages provided a social history of communication, travel, and discovery. Gloria wrote: “I’m spending a week here in San Miguel, a quaint and picturesque mountain town. Came just in time for the end of the Fiesta and what a wild time it is. You both would really enjoy it! Much music, dancing, Indians & bullfight.” Another message in May 1988, “How are you today. Thank you for the post card it is pretty. I just send you a letter today. I miss you two.”