SMA 101: a basic San Miguel guide for newbies

Before leaving for San Miguel de Allende (SMA) in Guanajuato, Mexico I tried to learn as much about the nuts and bolts daily stuff as I could. The information I wanted just wasn’t out there. Here are things I would have loved to have known before arriving in this stunning Colonial city with its large expat population. Enjoy our basic San Miguel guide.

Things to know before you go

Getting there

View from a plane, photo/Jan Alysworth

View from a plane, photo/Jan Alysworth

Flying into Mexico City may yield a cheaper airfare, but, unless you want to take buses or you’re you’re renting a car and driving yourself, getting to San Miguel from there may exceed the fare difference. A private car from Benito Juarez Airport in Mexico City is over $200 each way. Group shuttles are cheaper but not regularly scheduled. The closest airport is in Leon, Guanajuato. Car service from there will run a bit over $100. You can also take a cab from the airport to the bus station and take a bus to San Miguel.

Where to stay

San Miguel has accommodations to fit all budgets from budget to luxury. You can research online. If you’re going for a longer stay, rent a small decent one-bedroom apartment for around $600 or $800 a month. Caveat emptor. We had a friend who rented a terrible place from an ad on Craig’s List. The landlord accused her of breaking the hot water heater and kept her security deposit. Try to rent places that come recommended. The Civil_SMA, a Yahoo group, is a place for expats to get information on San Miguel. Travel blogger Donna Meyer or Nomadic Women, a longtime SMA resident writes, “It is a huge, very active and very helpful list. It is THE place to find rentals.” She suggests that if you join that you opt select either the Daily Digest or Web Only option or you’ll get dozens of emails every day. Another great Yahoo group that’s a source for rentals is San Miguel de Allende Renter’s Guide. We had a lovely rental at Casa de los Chiqueados, a six unit complex walking distance to the center of town. You can also try Home Away and VRBO, two popular online vacation rental sites. Meyer suggests trying Airbnb, another Web resource as well.

Casa de los Chiqueados San Miguel de Allende

Looking for an upscale apartment? Casa de los Chiqueados may be the perfect place for you, photo/Steve Collins

Weather

San Miguel, at 1070 meters (about 6,400 feet) above sea level has a mostly temperate climate. Like Santa Fe, it’s usually sunny, though we were there for a rare week of clouds. Temperatures are moderate most of the year. May, before the rains come can be the hottest month and also the dustiest. June brings the rainy season which can last into September. Temperatures can go up into the 80s or 90s in summer, but that’s rare and the rains cool things off. June is the rainiest month of the year and November through April are the driest months. December and January can be chilly. Nighttime temperatures can dip into the 40s.

Cell phones

We got the wrong cell phone instructions from Verizon, our cell phone company. We arrived in Mexico City and our driver wasn’t at the airport. Using the instructions provided, we tried to use our phone. Nada. A kind woman at a taxi booth in the airport let me use her phone to call the car company. Check with your cell phone provider about international calls. We got a Mexico calling plan that gave us 1,000 minutes. Calling was simple once we got the correct instructions. If you use Verizon, here are a few tips: for a local cell phone call dial 044 and then the number; to call a local landline dial, just dial the seven digit local number. When calling the USA, dial +, then 1 and then the area code and number. This may be the same for any US cell phones, but to be safe, check with your company. Also find out how to contact your company from Mexico. We purchased a small Mexican data plan for our phone, one MB for $25, which we felt was way too little that amount.

Getting pesos

ATM in Mexico

Santander ATM, photo/Sandra Kennedy

If you’re arriving at night or on a weekend, make sure to have enough Mexican currency on hand to last you until the banks open. You can either purchase it in advance or at the airport. We were able to get pesos with no fee at a major bank we deal with in Santa Fe. We arrived with cash in hand; enough to last us a few days. After that, we planned to use ATMs. You can also go to a cambio (a money-changing place) and convert dollars into pesos. Although the rate may not be as good as at a bank, it works in a pinch.

Everyone touts the use of ATMs for cash while traveling. It’s not always that simple. Here’s an important discovery we made. Only use an ATM when the bank is open. You apparently have no more than 30 minutes if the transaction goes awry to fix it. At least that’s what Banco Santander in San Miguel told us after we had a problem at their ATM when the bank was closed. It took us three weeks to get the money restored to our account. You can read more about this ATM experience and other people’s ATM tales of woe and more importantly, the fixes here.

Helpful after arrival

Language

We found that many people don’t speak much English. A simple “¿Habla Inglés?” would often get a “No,” a shake of the head or a puzzled look. We’d admit to speaking “un poco Español” and would mostly do alright. If we were having trouble understanding their rapid Spanish, we’d request “mas despacio, por favor” which means “slow down, please.” They did. People genuinely want to help. They appreciated us making the effort to converse in Spanish. People at the front desk at hotels where we stayed generally spoke English and that was a big help. December and January can be chilly. Nighttime temperatures can dip into the 40s.

Traffic

A busy street in San Miguel de Allende photo Steve Collins

Hustle and bustle in El Centro in San Miguel where there are no traffic lights, photo/Steve Collins

Traffic is pretty heavy in San Miguel. Just about any kind of vehicle goes including the funky, open-air ATV-looking vehicles that are only legal off-road in the US. Motor scooters are one of the best ways to get around the city as they can efficiently weave through traffic. Streets are narrow and there’s nary a traffic light (or stop sign) in sight. It’s a complicated dance that works surprisingly well. We didn’t see any accidents and heard very little horn-hocking. On our last day, getting out of a cab at a hotel, I narrowly missed getting hit by an aggressive cabdriver after I’d looked both ways. Luckily, he hit my purse and not me.

Walking

 I was warned before going that SMA is known as “the city of fallen women” because so many fall due to the uneven surfaces on the streets and sidewalks. For women, it’s a city for flat shoes; women who wear high heels are at considerable risk. Sidewalks are narrow and uneven and the streets are often made from cobblestones. Look down when you walk. Sidewalks often drop off to accommodate driveways and there may be dog poop in your path. The safest thing to do is look down when you walk. The added benefit is you’ll be able to avoid the dog poop.

Taxis

Taxi in San Miguel photo Steve Collins

You’ll find lots of taxis in San Miguel, photo/Steve Collins

San Miguel is a great walking city. Try to stay somewhere in El Centro and you can walk just about anywhere. There are hills, but we took them slowly and were fine. When we had to get from point A to point B in a hurry or for longer distances we took a taxi. There are tons of cabs and they are inexpensive. A ride within city’s center should cost around 30 pesos (40 at night). Ask before you get in. Some drivers quoted 35 or 40 and we asked if they’d take 30. If no, we didn’t get in the cab. Usually there was another one within seconds. If you’re in a quieter neighborhood with few cabs, pay the requested fee. It will be better than standing there or walking to another street. You can also phone for a taxi, but the rate will be higher. Make sure you ask what it is when you call. Meyer, who also founded the helpful website, Experience San Miguel says, “I never ask the price before getting in. I just hand them 30p on getting out.”

Meyer says you should only pay 50 to70 pesos if you’re “really going out of town.” We took a cab out to a place that we wouldn’t have found on our own. The fare was 170 pesos (we’d been told by a local that it would be around that). Luckily, it was on a bus route and so we took the bus back to town. It was clean, fast and at 10 pesos, a great deal. It dropped us at the bus station. From there we grabbed a cab back to our hotel (30 pesos).

Restrooms

El Pegaso San Miguel de Allende photo Billie Frank

You’ll pass San Francisco de Asis on your way to the loo at El Pegaso, photo/Billie Frank

All the public bathrooms we encountered while in San Miguel (and other places in Mexico) were very clean. Many have attendants who maintain them. While we didn’t encounter any paid restrooms in San Miguel, Mexico is full of them and there may be some. You’ll definitely find them outside the city. The ones we encountered charged an admission fee of from three and five pesos. The money-takers aren’t sympathetic to the urgency of your plight. No money; no entry. The first time I encountered one of these pay to pee places I was unprepared and didn’t have change. Luckily, the person behind me paid it forward.

Carry tissues. I encountered a few unattended loos where there was no toilet paper. I encountered four different TP scenarios: none, paper in restroom stalls, one roll in the public area outside the stalls and individually rolled portions to take as you entered the restroom. Grab a few! They are a bit meager. Save the extra for next time. We also encountered a few restrooms regular toilet but no seats. Forewarned is forearmed. My hot loo tip: Restaurants and hotels are usually great resources for bathrooms. In El Centro there are lots of hotels and restaurants with clean restrooms. If you look respectable and act like you belong the chances are no one will ask any questions. I’ve been doing this for decades. Upscale hotels have some of the best bathrooms around.

Internet

Mostly, we had very poor Internet connections, but found people in the same hotel who had great ones. We had meant to bring our signal booster but forgot. Next time it will be in the computer case. We attempted to Facetime over WiFi a few times with limited success. To save on data, try to hook into WiFi at cafés and other public places.

Food

Restaurante Frida Kahlo, photo Steve Collins

For inexpensive and tasty local. food you can’t beat Restaurante Frida Kahlo, photo/Steve Collins

From street food to elegant restaurants, San Miguel has it all. We found restaurant prices to be reasonable compared to Santa Fe. A really nice breakfast ran us about $12 for two. There’s an organic farmers market on Saturdays from 9am to 3pm just south of the Instituto Allende, a magnificent complex, on Ancha de San Antonio. For groceries, there’s a Mega supermarket on the outskirts of town. In addition, there are lots of neighborhood markets and carnicerías to shop in. There are also lots of outposts of Oxxo, Mexico’s largest convenience store chain. Read about our dining experiences in San Miguel.

Most cab drivers we met spoke a little English and were mostly very friendly and helpful. We conversed in a mixture of bad Spanish and meager English. It worked.

Tipping

San Miguel dining Moxi at night photo Steve Collins

We tipped more lavishly at the upscale Moxi’ at the Hotel Matilda, photo/Steve Collins

Depending on who we asked, the answer to “What’s an appropriate tip?” was different. They ran the gamut from a diatribe about tipping causing corruption in the hospitality industry from a visiting Mexican expat currently living in Colorado to pretty lavish from American expats living in San Miguel. Here’s the range: most Mexicans tip about 10% for restaurant service, 12% is generous; expats seem to tip the most and from our research go as high as 20% or even more. Don’t worry about over tipping. Some people think too high a tip makes you a sucker. If you know what the local custom is and choose to exceed it for whatever reason, go for it. I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t appreciate a great tip. We must have tipped well at our first breakfast in San Miguel. When we ran into the server later in the week at a party he was working at he gave us big hugs. Something made us memorable. Was it our tip?

Don’t tip in taxis unless the driver does something extra such as loads a lot of luggage into the trunk for you or carries into your lodging for you. I tipped a driver who kindly stopped a lot for me to get photos. It took time away from money he could have been earning.

If you rent an apartment and shop at the local supermarket, tip the bagger five to 10 pesos depending on how many bags. Also tip the person who helps load the groceries in your car about 10 pesos.

If you’re staying in a hotel, leave the housekeeping staff about 25 to 40 pesos a night. Tip a bellman about 15 pesos a bag.

Safety

San Miguel seems to be a very safe city. We arrived at 4:15am on a Saturday morning. We’d expected to be there by midnight. There were still people out on the street and there were still street food vendors open. This city never sleeps. I was comfortable walking around on my own and taking taxis by myself. Like anywhere else, be aware of your surroundings at all times.

San Miguel can be loud

El Jardin San Miguel de Allende photo Steve Collins

Need a restroom near El Jardin on the Feast of San Francisco. The day started at 6am with loud fireworks photo/Steve Collins

People in San Miguel love to celebrate and judging from the amount of firecrackers we saw and heard; they are favorites on fiesta days. On our second morning in SMA, the Feast of San Francisco, we were awakened at about 6am by a barrage. I was convinced it was gunfire. Steve finally convinced me it was firecrackers, but that didn’t make it easier to get back to sleep. The relentless pop-pop-pop went on for hours. A disgruntled expat wrote a letter to the weekly expat newspaper the Atención stating that the fireworks needed to go. It’s part of the culture. There may also be loud music at all hours of the day and night. If you don’t want to join the party, get earplugs.

Need official help?

 US citizens can contact the Consular Agency of The United States in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. On a short trip, hopefully you won’t need to go here, but if you do, it’s at Hernandez Macias #72, Int. #6. Their local phone number is Tel: 152-2357. They’re open Monday through Thursday from 9am to 1pm, and Fridays by appointment only. They can assist with translating official documents into Spanish, notarize documents, replace passports if lost and renew them or add pages if needed.

What’s going on in San Miguel?

La Biblioteca Publica San Miguel de Allende photo Steve Collins

You’ll find American ex-pats at the Biblioteca Publica photo/Steve Collins

The Bibloteca de San Miguel (La Biblioteca), established in 1954 as a resource for educating Mexican children, is a gathering place for expats. They also publish the weekly Spanish/English-language paper, Atención San Miguel, available every Friday. It’s a great resource for Americans and Canadians living in or visiting San Miguel. You can also access the online version on their website. You can also find events online at San Miguel Events.

Hope this helps you on your San Miguel trip. If you have any San Miguel information to share, leave a comment below. If it’s a great tip- we’ll add it to the body of the post and give you credit. ¡Buen Viaje!

Have a helpful tip we missed in our San Miguel guide? Leave it in the comments below.

Read more about San Miguel de Allende

Overview posts
SMA 101: a basic San Miguel guide for newbies
San Miguel de Allende: mural at the Instituto Allende
Photo of the week: Sunburst balcony in San Miguel de Allende

Our November Santa Fe Travelers Newsletter
Posts for other sites
Falling in love with San Miguel de Allende
Explore the Historic Streets of San Miguel De Allende, Mexico

Lodging
San Miguel lodging: Hotel Matilda, contemporary chic in a colonial town
Visiting San Miguel? Pamper yourself – stay at the luxe Casa de los Chiqueados

Dining
San Miguel dining: from street food to chic food
San Miguel dining: put a little Moxi in your life

 

 

 

Tags: , , , ,

30 Responses to “SMA 101: a basic San Miguel guide for newbies”

  1. Nancy
    February 9, 2019 at 8:43 am #

    I have the post and will use it when I go to SMA, hopefully next fall.

    • Billie Frank
      February 9, 2019 at 10:42 am #

      I hope you love it as much as we did. We want to go back!

  2. Robert Glaze
    February 9, 2019 at 9:19 am #

    Have had a house in SMA before I had one in Santa Fe. Check out my website for great restaurants and what to do.
    http://globalphile.com/city/san-miguel-de-allende-mexico/

    • Billie Frank
      February 9, 2019 at 10:55 am #

      Great site Bob. I’d forgotten you had a Mexico connection.

  3. Elizabeth Rose
    February 9, 2019 at 12:02 pm #

    This is a fantastic article with very good how to tips. I think it would be so helpful if I was lucky enough to travel to San Miguel. Great Job!

    • Billie Frank
      February 9, 2019 at 3:51 pm #

      You’d love it there, Liz. It’s a Spanish-speaking Santa Fe in a lot of ways. We totally fell in love and want to go back. Maybe we can go together.

  4. Donna Janke
    February 15, 2019 at 11:07 pm #

    I’ve read a lot of positive things about San Miguel. This is a great list of things to know and prepare for should I get an opportunity to visit.

  5. noel
    February 15, 2019 at 11:51 pm #

    A very comprehensive guide. I’ve always wanted to visit San Miguel and now that I know a little bit more on the logistics and general lay of the land, it will definitely be an easier and fun visit, thanks so much for sharing.

    • Billie Frank
      February 16, 2019 at 9:32 am #

      You would love it Noel. The photo opps are so good that the prestigious Santa Fe Photographic Workshop has classes there each year.

  6. michele Peterson (A Taste for Travel)
    February 16, 2019 at 6:55 am #

    I’m glad you enjoyed your trip to San Miguel! This post is full of helpful tips for others. I’ve never heard of a signal booster but will look into getting one for my next trip. I too often seem to land in the wifi dead zone of hotels and this might help.

    • Billie Frank
      February 16, 2019 at 9:33 am #

      Signal boosters are great in dead zones- though some zones are too dead. Wroth a try.

  7. Irene S. Levine
    February 16, 2019 at 8:47 am #

    What great information and tips! I’m going to send you to do the advance work for my upcoming trips:-)

    • Billie Frank
      February 16, 2019 at 9:34 am #

      Want to go back too, Irene. It’s a great city as you know from visiting before. We have the Matilda in common.

  8. John Scherber
    February 16, 2019 at 9:09 am #

    Hi Billie and Steve, for those of your readers looking for more detail and a broader range of subjects, they might want to take a look at my new book on the expat experience, LIVING IN SAN MIGUEL: THE HEART OF THE MATTER. It offers an intimate look at issues everyone thinking about settling in this historic town must consider. Health care, cost of living, crime, housing, and many others are answered with frankness and insight. Available in print, Kindle, Kobo, Nook, and iTunes formats. There’s a sample on my website.

    http://www.sanmiguelallendebooks.com/livinginsanmiguel.html

    • Billie Frank
      February 16, 2019 at 9:34 am #

      Thanks for sharing the info on the book, John.

  9. Denis Gagnon
    February 16, 2019 at 11:49 am #

    Thanks for a great post and for all the detailed information and tips. Very helpful!

    • Billie Frank
      February 16, 2019 at 1:51 pm #

      Our pleasure, Dennis. I had a lot of fun putting it together.

  10. Susan Moore
    February 16, 2019 at 11:53 am #

    I have heard great things about San Miguel de Allende from many travelers and your post is very helpful with some of the practical aspects of traveling there, thanks!

    • Billie Frank
      February 16, 2019 at 1:52 pm #

      Then it reached it’s desired goal, Susan. Appreciate hearing that and yes San Miguel is pretty great.

  11. The GypsyNesters
    February 17, 2019 at 8:51 am #

    What a great overview, packed with information. All og your coverage has really made us want to visit San Miguel.

    • Billie Frank
      February 17, 2019 at 11:02 am #

      Thanks! I’m surprised you haven’t been yet with all your travels. SMA is a must if you love Spanish Colonial cities, food and art.

  12. Anita @ No Particular Place To Go
    February 17, 2019 at 3:42 pm #

    This is exactly the kind of info we look for whenever we travel to a new place. Usually we spend our first few days looking for ATMS, figuring out the transportation, finding stores and restaurants. This kind of information is priceless and makes me regret that we haven’t visited this area of Mexico yet!

    • Billie Frank
      February 19, 2019 at 8:01 am #

      I agree Anita about this info being really helpful which is why we did the post. It’s a great area of Mexico!

  13. Carole Terwilliger Meyers
    February 17, 2019 at 6:34 pm #

    Great information! Another option is to fly into Guadalajara. And to avoid becoming a fallen lady, opt for shoes made in town for walking around in town, http://travelswithcarole.blogspot.com/2011/02/sights-to-see-san-miguel-shoe-store-san.html

    • Billie Frank
      February 19, 2019 at 8:04 am #

      Guadalahara is almost as far as Mexico City. Best bets, while pricier are the closer airports mentioned. Our trip from Mexico City to San Miguel was a nightmare coming in. Going back, just too long.

  14. Anita
    February 19, 2019 at 12:43 pm #

    San Miguel is a wonderful destination for a few days or a much longer stay…and this post hits all the major points to help a visitor make the most of their stay. Some things I knew from my own travels to Mexico, but all will come in handy for a return visit. Filed away for future reference!

    • Billie Frank
      February 19, 2019 at 12:52 pm #

      Glad it was helpful! Some, like bathrooms and pesos work all over.

  15. Gus
    February 19, 2019 at 2:57 pm #

    Great rundown on San Miguel de Allende. I visited years ago, only for a few days, and had a great time. This would have been handy back then!

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge