San Miguel de Allende is world renown as a fairy-tale city with amazing weather, colonial architecture, enchanting cobblestone streets, plus great restaurants and bars. While the town’s cosmopolitan ambiance is reflected in its excellent restaurants, high end galleries, and cultural activities, the local culture and language coexist and help to make it an incredibly relaxing place and a great spot for a Spanish Immersion Program!
Selected #1 by Travel and Leisure Magazine’s “World’s Top 15 Cities” in 2017, San Miguel de Allende dates back to 1542, 50 years after Columbus’ debut in the New World, founded along the “Silver Road” from the city of Zacatecas to Guanajuato and on to Mexico City. It’s also an extremely safe place for visitors and the streets are very peaceful for walking. Given its climate and natural landscape, combined with good infrastructure, it offers a wide range of activities related to leisure and entertainment.
So, if you’ve only been to Mexican beaches, treat yourself to the interior of Mexico, loaded with colonial historic cities where the elevation and summer cloud cover keep the temperatures mild all year round; plus the warm and welcoming Mexican people await you to help create life-long memories in this incredibly beautiful place. This is the optimum destination for a Spanish Language Immersion Program with Language & Luxury™!
The Spanish conquistadors first landed on the Caribbean coast on April 22, 1519 at what is now the Mexican State of Veracruz- this was less than 30 years after Columbus. In short order, the Spaniards marched up into the mountains and discovered Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire. At its height, Tenochtitlan had enormous temples and palaces plus a huge ceremonial center as well as residences of political, religious, military, and merchant citizens. The city had an estimated population of 100,000 and perhaps as high as 200,000 when the Spaniards first arrived.
Tenochtitlan had been built on a small island in Texcoco Lake in the Valley of Mexico. Early accounts from the time of the arrival of the Spanish conquerors described the existence of a great lake dotted with a multitude of canoes and the island city, full of towers and fortresses and all gleaming white. The conquering Spaniards destroyed the island city of Tenochtitlan and began the process of draining the lake that surrounded it, utilizing the surviving Aztecs as slave labor.
Over time the Spaniards expanded their conquests north from Mexico City to the territory now known as “El Bajio” following the discovery of silver. El Bajío is a cultural and geographical region within the central Mexican plateau that roughly spans from north of the Mexico City metropolitan area to the main silver mines in the northern-central part of the country.
San Miguel de Allende was built up over time along this silver route from the mining cities nearby to Mexico City, which had become the Spanish Viceroyalty and the Archbishopric of New Spain. The naming of San Miguel de Allende is interesting: As the first Spanish settlement in what is now the state of Guanajuato, it was founded in 1542 by the Franciscan monk Juan de San Miguel and was named for him. The name Allende was added in 1826 to honor a native son, Ignacio Allende, a hero of the revolution against Spain. Allende was born in a house that now faces the city’s central plaza, or Zocalo.
When the silver ran out and it was sure to become a ghost town, the Mexican government wisely decided in 1926 to declare San Miguel de Allende a National Historic Monument, as this part of Mexico was where the independence movement began and flourished, plus the town was a colonial gem. Today, an old section of the town is part of a proclaimed World Heritage Site attracting thousands of tourists and new residents from abroad every year.
Bienvenidos a San Miguel de Allende!
During my first year living in Mexico, when I was courting my fiancé and future wife, I was fortunate to visit San Miguel de Allende several times. This was 1986, my first time in the interior of Mexico and my first experience with Spanish Language Immersion! And little did I know that over the next several years and decades to come I would visit the colonial city many, many times.
The first glimpse of San Miguel is always an eye-opener for anyone- a massive, 17th century cathedral reaches toward the sky surrounded by other colonial buildings of religious and governmental usage. The buildings emerge literally out of nowhere as the city doesn’t allow for modern skyscrapers; it’s been a similar experience each and every time I’ve visited, and I’ve made that trip some 10 to 15 times over the years.
Several years after we were married in Mexico City, my in-laws moved to Queretaro, another city that was built in colonial times just 50 miles from San Miguel. Queretaro has since become a large industrial center but retains its colonial historic center. Plus, it’s the closest international airport and just a one-hour drive from San Miguel de Allende!
My in-laws’ children grew up visiting San Miguel frequently, and even as twenty-something’s attended or hosted bridal showers, weddings- or just visited, yet they never tired of San Miguel de Allende. When my own kids would spend summers with their relatives in Queretaro they would also visit San Miguel de Allende and never forgot their visits there. They still go back as adults.
Visitors are always amazed at the beauty of the Parroquia, the adjacent buildings of the Zocalo, and the colorful, winding, cobblestoned streets throughout the historic city center. And while it’s a busy tourist destination, the locals maintain their culture and it’s not rare that you see a procession led by men on horseback with chaps and cowboy hats.
Religious processions and other events are common- not for the tourists- but rather authentic events and actual examples of Mexican culture. And if you speak Spanish to the locals, they will patiently listen and respond in Spanish. Once again, It’s the perfect place for your San Miguel de Allende Spanish Immersion Program!
Fast forward a few decades since having first visited and having subsequently lived and worked in la CDMX, and visited on many, many occasions; I now found myself visiting San Miguel and planning operations on behalf of Language & Luxury™. I knew the city and the surrounding area well; however, I now needed to find the right local team to ensure that our customers’ Spanish Immersion Experience was top-notch:
- It was key to position Language & Luxury™ in such a way as to receive priority treatment from the accommodations partners, as well as vet a sample of homes to ensure luxury and above all, safety, cleanliness, and personal service!
- Also necessary was to evaluate language instructors, not only to validate their experience teaching adults, but also their professionalism and ability to provide Private, One-on-One Spanish Immersion Classes in the clients’ home or a neutral location like a café or hotel lobby!
- The ability to provide Cultural Activities was also a requirement, as part of the Immersion Program was getting out of your chair to join the Private Language Instructor in activities such as exploring an open market, visiting a niche museum off the beaten path, or sharing a meal in a restaurant where only locals dine. Thus, Cultural Activities are a tremendous aid to understanding the culture while practicing new expressions and vocabulary!
- Lastly, we needed to secure a partner to help coordinate Optional Activities and Intimate Experiences, as the Language & Luxury™ Immersion Program allows for ample free time to plan collaboratively with our clients according to their individual interests!
You may be a digital nomad, requiring free time for your work and online meetings, or you would like to see the city from a different angle, not only the more traditional cliché tours but also more intimate, personal experiences such as:
- Full-day trip to Guanajuato City! Another colonial gem!
- Wine, Tequila, or Mezcal Tastings! A charming host or hostess guides you with an exceptional choice of appetizers or multi-course meal!
- Thermal Baths and Spas! Relax in comfort with exceptional service and many options for food and drink!
- Hot Air Balloon Flights! Enjoy a sunrise tour over the beautiful colonial town of San Miguel de Allende and the surrounding countryside!
The Language & Luxury™ team that would help us to ensure a Luxury Immersion Experience for our clients was coming together! While there are always many details associated with luxury travel, and something may sometimes go wrong, the key is to having the right team members in place to ensure a successful Immersion Experience!
Pre-Hispanic and Early Colonial History – Spaniards Invade Mexico in the 1500’s
During the final stages of the Spanish invasion of the Aztec Empire, Spanish forces besieged and razed Tenochtitlan. The Spanish leader, Hernán Cortés, who understood the strategic and symbolic importance of the Aztec capital, founded the Spanish capital of Mexico City on that exact site.
He had the Spanish engineers construct the new political center literally on top of the Aztec ceremonial and political center. This became the Plaza Mayor, usually called the Zócalo in modern times. Some of the oldest structures in the historic city center date from the early conquest era.
The Spanish continued their explorations far beyond their annihilation of the Aztec Empire. The Spanish soldiers were the first Europeans to visit the Grand Canyon. In 1540 (less than 50 years after Columbus), Francisco Vázquez de Coronado and his Spanish army traveled northward from Mexico City in search of the lost Seven Cities of Cíbola.
After traveling for six months, Coronado’s army arrived at the Hopi Mesas, east of the Grand Canyon. Coronado sent Cárdenas, who was guided by the Hopi, to lead a small party of men to find a reported “great river.” Coronado hoped to find a navigable river that would serve as a waterway to the Gulf of California. The Hopi leaders advised their men to guide the unwelcome soldiers along an exaggerated path to the highest point above the river and to volunteer no information of value.
After a twenty-day journey, Cárdenas and his army arrived at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Approximately a mile down was the Colorado River below them. The Spaniards estimated that the opposite rim was eight to 10 miles away and that the Colorado River was no more than six feet across. Cárdenas ordered three infantry men to climb their way down to the river.
The men made it down to about 1,500 feet, a third of the way down, until they saw that the Colorado River was a much wider waterway than they had estimated and that there was no way to navigate ships along the intense river. It would be over 200 years until another foreign invader visited the Grand Canyon.
Back in Mexico City, many colonial-era buildings remained standing and have since been re-purposed as government buildings and museums. As the seats of the Viceroyalty of New Spain and the Archbishopric of New Spain, Mexico City was the center not only of political and religious institutions but also of Spain’s economic activity and the residence of social elites in colonial Mexico for three hundred years (1521–1821).
The Conquistadors’ short-term strategy had been to demonstrate to the other pre-Hispanic civilizations of the region their power, building their city on top of the Aztec’s ruins as was a key Spanish conquering strategy. Another long-term strategy for Mexico City was to utilize it as their base of activity for their possessions and commercial activity in the Pacific.
The Manila Galleons, or Galeón de Manila, were Spanish trading ships that for two and a half centuries linked the Spanish Crown’s Viceroyalty of New Spain, based in Mexico City, with their Asian territories, collectively known as the Spanish East Indies in the Pacific Ocean. The ships made one or two round-trip voyages per year between the ports of Acapulco and Manila.
The name of the galleon changed to reflect the city from which the ship sailed. The term Manila galleon can also refer to the trade route itself between Acapulco and Manila, which lasted from 1565 to 1815. The currency of choice in the Pacific at this time was the Mexican “Peso,” a pure silver coin that was mined in Taxco, relatively close to Acapulco, and carried throughout the Pacific in Spanish Galleons. Many still lie at the bottom of the Pacific.
The Manila galleons sailed the Pacific for 250 years, bringing to the Americas cargoes of luxury goods such as spices and porcelain in exchange for New World silver. The route also fostered cultural exchanges that shaped the identities and culture of the countries involved, particularly Mexico and The Philippines.
The Silver Route
By the mid-16th century, silver had been discovered in Guanajuato and Zacatecas, and a major road between this area and Mexico City passed through San Miguel.
Indigenous attacks on caravans continued and San Miguel became an important military and commercial site. The viceroy in Mexico City granted lands and cattle to a number of Spaniards to motivate them to settle the area. He also gave indigenous groups limited self-rule and excused them from taxation. The location of the town would make it a melting pot as Spanish, indigenous peoples, and later criollos (New World-born Spanish) exchanged cultural influences.
Eventually, major roads would connect the town with the mining communities in San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, and the rest of the state of Guanajuato. Serving travelers' needs and providing supplies to mining camps made the town rich. Textile manufacture was a major industry in the town. San Miguel locals claim that the “serape,” the brightly colored blankets in which Mexican people are so famously wrapped, was invented here.
By the mid-18th century the city was at its height, and this was when most of its large mansions, palaces, and religious buildings were constructed- most still remain. The town was also home to the area's wealthy hacienda owners. It had become one of the most important and prosperous settlements in New Spain with a population reaching 30,000. By comparison, in the mid-18th century, Boston had a population of only 16,000 and New York 25,000.
The city's crescendo came during the transition period between Baroque and Neoclassical architecture, and many of the mansions and churches show both influences. Mansions built in San Miguel are larger than normal for a settlement of its size.
The city and nearby sanctuary were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in July 2008. It was chosen both for its well-preserved Baroque colonial architecture and layout and for its historic role in the Mexican War of Independence. The area that has been inscribed includes 64 blocks of the historic center and the sanctuary of Atotonilco with the title, "Villa Protectora de San Miguel el Grande y el Santuario de Jesus Nazareno de Atotonilco".
Present Day Luxury Immersion Program
Three days in San Miguel!
What would your Spanish Immersion Program in San Miguel de Allende look like? It would be best to spend several weeks, although a trip could be planned with two weeks in San Miguel and two in Mexico City- or Oaxaca! But your Immersion Program begins when you arrive in Leon or Queretaro, the two closest airports (Mexico City is an option but it’s a 4.5 hour drive with more than half of that battling Mexico City traffic!).
You’ll meet your private chauffeur, Daniel, and perhaps see him throughout your tour. He also drives for other activities and often is able to escort you back to the airport on your last day. Daniel will take you to your ornate flat or colorful colonial home where you will meet Laura, Brenda, or Luis who are other members of the local team. Below is a sample itinerary:
Day 1: Meet Jessica, your Private Language Instructor!
- Breakfast in your flat or a local café around the corner! Early mornings are quite cool but sunny in the Winter months of November through May, while a bit cloudy with daily showers in June through October. The cloud cover keeps this Northern Hemispheric country from overheating during the summer months!
- Morning Class, 9:00 to 11:00 am at your flat or in another location of choice. Later explore the winding cobblestone streets, parks, and architectural monuments of San Miguel de Allende, followed by an enjoyable seafood lunch at the “Sirena Gorda” or Fat Mermaid!
- Afternoon Cultural Activity with Jessika, which could be a walking tour through the historic city center to admire the 18th century architecture, followed by a happy-hour aperitif at The Rosewood Hotel’s rooftop bar admiring the city before you.
Day 2: Day Trip to Guanajuato with Daniel!
- Early morning departure for your Private Tour! Visit the Juarez Theater, Diego Rivera Museum, and Plaza de la Paz. Learn about Guanajuato’s history and culture as you go.
- Exceptional Lunch in the Historic City Square!
- Back to San Miguel de Allende late afternoon; explore the clean and beautiful cobblestone streets, brightly colored homes, and mix with the friendly locals, practicing your Spanish!
- Dinner at Quince, one of the “rooftop restaurants” with an amazing view of the Parroquia at night!
Day 3: Morning coffee and Private Spanish Lesson!
- Afternoon Cultural Activity with your Instructor: Jessica will lead you on your walking tour that will encompass the “Fabrica la Aurora,” where the original art colony was founded and see working artists, maybe plan an art class while you’re here!
- Also take in the Parque Benito Juarez, a multipurpose park at the eastern edge of the historic center with ancient trees, flower-lined paths ideal for a morning jog, a basketball court, and a children's play area with swings and fun things to climb. Local artists sell paintings and prints on Saturdays, beginning at 10 am on the north side of the park!
- Dinner at Atrio Restaurant, the third excellent view spot (just never gets old!). Maybe stop for some (adult) live music on your way home!
Back to work for me for a couple days, then time to fly home, the highlight of the day being getting to see Daniel again while making our way back to the airport, gleefully discussing the many great memories- especially those of the warm and welcoming Mexican people of San Miguel de Allende!