Travel Black Book Singaporeans Living Abroad

Travel Black Book: San Miguel de Allende, a Mexican city with fairy-tale charm

San Miguel de Allende, which bagged Travel + Leisure's top award, is a poster town for Mexico

WHO: Singaporean writer Prashant Ashoka, 29. He has lived in Mexico for 10 months and spends his time writing and taking photographs as a freelancer for lifestyle publications. He is also designing and building a house in the arid foothills of the Bajio mountains, a 30-minute drive from San Miguel de Allende's city centre.

Where: San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

If you were to paint a romanticised picture of a quaint Mexican town, then San Miguel de Allende is exactly what you'd imagine. Cemented in history as the first municipality declared independent of Spanish rule during the Mexican War of Independence in the early 19th century, this charming cobblestone city is nestled in the Bajio mountains of central Mexico.

Its colourful facade and fairy tale-like church, Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel, made it a Unesco World Heritage Site and it most recently bagged Travel + Leisure magazine's top award for The World's Best City last year.

Part of its lore is that Beat Generation writers Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac spent many drunken nights here in the 1960s. Cassady died tragically in the outskirts of the city, while Kerouac drew inspiration for his classic novel On The Road from his time here.

It still attracts artists and writers and the small city has retained its bohemian and creative allure.

  • WHO: Singaporean writer Prashant Ashoka, 29. He has lived in Mexico for 10 months and spends his time writing and taking photographs as a freelancer for lifestyle publications. He is also designing and building a house in the arid foothills of the Bajio mountains, a 30-minute drive from San Miguel de Allende's city centre. PHOTO: COURTESY OF PRASHANT ASHOKA

  • GETTING THERE

  • The fastest way to fly into Mexico City from Singapore is via a layover in Tokyo or San Francisco. From Mexico City International Airport, travellers can book a shuttle direct to San Miguel de Allende. BajioGo (www.bajiogo.com/shuttle) is a good option and costs US$60 (S$80) one way. The journey on the shuttle is about four hours.

  • TIPS

    A four-day stay is an ideal amount of time to explore the best of San Miguel de Allende. The town is a year-round destination, but the best time to visit would be in autumn, between September and December, when it is particularly lively with festivals, including Dia de los Muertos. This gorgeous spot is probably one of the safest places in Mexico and you will be charmed by the generosity and hospitality of the locals. Travellers should take the usual precautions against petty theft, but you are more likely to be asked to dance to mariachi music in the town square by a stranger than be robbed or harassed in any way.

SEE

Exploring the city is a photographer's dream and it is best seen on foot. Start your day at El Jardin, the central plaza, where you might find yourself caught up in a mariachi concert or one of the city's many local festivals.

Walk into the famed Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel, a neo-Gothic 17th-century church known for its ornate, pink fairy tale-like spires, a quintessential image of the city, before meandering through its many enchanting small streets. You'll come across boutique shops filled with local textiles, silver jewellery and Mexican artesanias (handicraft).

Art enthusiasts will love Fabrica la Aurora (bit.ly/2EqCDJ1), a converted textile mill now home to numerous contemporary art galleries and trendy designer boutiques.

Catch the golden hues of sunset as you overlook the city from the vantage point of the spectacular Luna Rooftop Tapas Bar (bit.ly/ 2q1iDbw) at the top of the sophisticated Rosewood Hotel.

EAT

The culinary scene here is fantastic. You will stumble across Lebanese, Uzbek, Uruguayan and Argentinean restaurants, but my favourite is an old-school Mexican cantina called El Manantial (www. facebook.com/manantialsanmiguel).

A cantina is a type of bar popular in Mexico which has a laid-back and local atmosphere and serves food and drinks. The dishes at El Manantial make it unique because they are served with great attention to detail. Standouts on the menu include tacos baja (often a taco made with fish); shrimp aguachile (a very spicy version of ceviche); octopus carpaccio with paprika; tuna tosadas; and chile relleno (a stuffed and roasted fresh poblano pepper). An average meal including drinks costs approximately $20 a person.

Cafe Lavanda (lavandacafe.com) is known for its Mexican speciality coffee and is arguably the best breakfast spot in the city. Order Cazuela ($6), a delicious medley of tortilla chips, cheese, mushrooms, bacon, cherry tomatoes and eggs baked to perfection in a clay pot. Also try the latte Lavanda ($3), which is infused with a touch of lavender milk.

Honorable mentions go to Peruvian restaurant La Parada (www.la paradasma.com) for its ceviche la parada, an authentic Peruvian ceviche with whitefish, mango, corn, onion, toasted coconut and leche de tigre de mango, the Peruvian term for the citrus-based marinade that cures the seafood in a ceviche; and French bakery Panio (cumpanio.com), where I recommend getting a hot brioche in the morning. It is baked to the French standard of perfection.

PLAY

True to the city's rich artistic history, there are festivals, concerts and cultural events every month, the biggest and most impressive of which is Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, in late October. People dress up in elaborate costumes and celebrate the spirits of their ancestors in what is probably the most visually stunning festival in Mexico.

For an exceptional San Miguel de Allende experience, visit The Mayan Baths (themayanbaths.com). Soak in the geothermal mineral waters of these private hotspring baths, where you swim through underground candlelit quartz and crystal grottos to outdoor pools overlooking the majestic Sierra Madre mountains from a hilltop just outside the city.

SHOP

Shopping in San Miguel de Allende is a great experience because the city does not host any big-name fashion franchises and is instead filled with excellent boutiques that handpick items from designers across the country. For women's fashion, visit Muhna (www.muhnabysami.com) in Cuna de Allende 15, which curates mid-range to highend clothes and accessories. You'll find beautifully embroidered kaftans, bags and handmade jewellery.

On Saturdays, souvenir hunters should visit Mercado de Artesanias (The Artisan Market), a descending pedestrian walkway, which starts from Plaza Lanaton and covers several blocks, lined with stalls selling all manner of handicrafts. You can find hand-painted, traditional Mexican ceramics piled high alongside silver jewellery from Taxco, rugs from Oaxaca, talavera clay pottery from Dolores Hidalgo, as well as glass and tin lamps, all at economical prices.

STAY

For an upscale boutique experience, check into Casa No Name (casanoname.com.mx), which, in my opinion, defines everything there is to love about small luxury hotels. Designed by famed Mexican architect Roberto Burillo, it has lush vines growing on its stone walls, elegant rooms and gorgeous patios. Its rooftop bar has a fire pit, a jacuzzi with a waterfall and a great view of San Miguel's church dome, framed by antique wooden arches repurposed from a Hindu palace.

• In this series, Singaporeans living abroad share their favourite travel finds in their home away from home.

WHO: Singaporean writer Prashant Ashoka, 29. He has lived in Mexico for 10 months and spends his time writing and taking photographs as a freelancer for lifestyle publications. He is also designing and building a house in the arid foothills of the Bajio mountains, a 30-minute drive from San Miguel de Allende's city centre. PHOTO: COURTESY OF PRASHANT ASHOKA

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 18, 2018, with the headline 'City with fairy-tale charm'. Print Edition | Subscribe