Mexico is a country of incredible diversity. Beautiful beachfront hotels are speckled along its coasts, deep valleys that compete with the beauty of the Grand Canyon can be found among the mountains, the food is unlike any other, and the culture is widespread across the North American continent. Most people are familiar with the major cities of Cabo San Lucas, Cancun, and Mexico City, but just 90 miles (145 kilometers) north of Mexico City lies one of the country’s most historic towns that many have not yet heard of: San Miguel de Allende.

Brimming with architectural charm and bohemian character, the city has drawn travelers in since the early 1950s. While the city tops lists for its budget-friendly shopping, high-end art galleries, and developing food scene, it also faces some incredible challenges unknown to most tourists. So, if you’re planning a visit, consider dedicating some time to giving back to the people that make San Miguel the beautiful city that it is.

Pointed-roofed church behind a central plaza

HISTORY

San Miguel was the first Spanish settlement in Guanajuato, making it the oldest northern city in the country with many ties to the history of Mexico’s independence. Popular among silver traders since the mid-1500s, the city has remained prominent in art and culture for centuries. After WWII, San Miguel became an artist haven when the Escuela de Bellas Artes (School of Fine Arts) was founded in 1938, attracting creatives of every persuasion. Then, in 1951, the Allende Institute began inviting artists to study there as well. Since that time, expats have flocked to the city with its beautiful Colonial-style buildings, Baroque-style churches, and vibrant skyline. And today, San Miguel is a sought-after locale for foodies, art lovers, and retirees looking for an affordable Southwestern atmosphere.

VOLUNTEER TOURISM IN SAN MIGUEL

San Miguel, like most of Mexico, has a very unequal dispersion of wealth. More than 55 million Mexicans live in poverty, and the number of people in San Miguel alone living on less than $60 a week is staggering. On top of this, nearly half of all Mexicans are under the age of 25, and motherhood often starts as early as 21 years of age. Single motherhood and teen pregnancies are extremely prevalent throughout the country, and San Miguel is no exception, with 11 percent of pregnancies attributed to teenagers.

Young children playing on a trampoline

Unfortunately, with more expats taking up residence in San Miguel and more tourists driving prices up, the divide is growing. So, instead of venturing to San Miguel on a strictly tourist holiday, plan to dedicate some of your time to supporting the local community. While the city itself has much to offer, it is the people who have made San Miguel the beautiful city it is today. With that in mind, here are a few organizations in San Miguel that are giving back to the local community by providing food, shelter, and child care to those who need it.

Centro Infantil de Los Ángeles

What began as a free daycare in the heart of San Miguel de Allende on September 18, 2000, is now a full-fledged community that gathers to nurture children in the city and better the lives of struggling parents. Serving children who range in age from two months to six years, the daycare center and preschool at Centro Infantil de Los Ángeles serves single parents who come from the outskirts of town to San Miguel for work.

Young toddlers sitting on a colored floor smilingBefore the center existed, many of these children were regularly left home alone, with little or nothing to eat and no electricity or running water. The center provides love, care, and two full meals a day for each child, and it has grown to be not just a daycare, but a place where mothers can find the support they need to make a better life for their families. In addition to assistance with their children, these families also receive medical care, clothing, scholarship opportunities, transitional housing, food bank support, and the chance to learn helpful parenting skills.

To date, the Centro Infantil has helped more than 1,500 children. With space to serve 150 children at a time, the center is always full of laughter and joy.

For more information on volunteering or to make a donation visit click here.

Kitchen staff preparing meals

THINGS TO DO IN SAN MIGUEL

Whether you choose to volunteer your time at the Centro Infantil, or plan to immerse yourself in the city of San Miguel in a different way, there’s plenty to explore in the charming city from a local’s perspective.

Go ExploringWreathes for sale under an arched canopy

With that in mind, walking around the historic area should be at the top of your list — there, you can wander into galleries, shop at the artisan market, and find a multitude of delectable treats to snack on, such as handmade ice cream and sorbet or street corn on a stick with chili, cheese, and lime.

Admire the City’s Architecture

One of the most spectacular things about San Miguel de Allende is its architecture, so be sure to take in the sun-kissed Baroque structural style from several city viewpoints and rooftops. For the best views of the city, take a taxi to El Mirador and walk down the newly cobbled (pedestrian only) path that leads through San Miguel. Or, for more of a hike, join a tour and visit the nearby volcanic fields of Los Picachos for views of wildflowers, cacti, and incredible, open scenery.

Go on a Home and Garden Tour

Ornate wooden doorway

While meandering the streets of the city, one would never guess what lies behind some of its unassuming doorways. For that reason, taking a home and garden tour of some of the most spectacular facades of San Miguel is a great way to witness both the history and beauty of the city’s buildings. Many of these doorways open into awe-inspiring courtyards, passageways, and hidden gardens. The tours are hosted weekly by the city’s public library, and the $20 U.S. fee for the excursion goes toward helping local schools.

Take a Dip in a Hot Spring

If you’re looking for a bit more of an adventure, you can lift off on a hot air balloon over San Miguel, ride horseback through the mountains, or even zip line. No trip to San Miguel, however, would be complete without a dip in the hot springs. La Gruta is a local hot spring and spa which features a temazcal (a stone-built hut combining the elements of water, air, fire, and aromatherapy), a full-service spa, and an on-site restaurant. After you’ve finished your soak, you can even immerse yourself in Mexican culture by taking a dance class, trying your hand at making mole in a cooking class, or mastering the language in a Spanish class.

Deer's head mask painted in lots of colors
Animalistic masks hanging on a wall

Visit a Museum, or a Pyramid Site

If you’re interested in learning about the indigenous populations of Mexico, head to the Mask Museum. Owned by expat Bill LeVasseur, the museum features more than 500 ceremonial masks that Bill himself has collected over the span of 25 years. Through his visits to indigenous communities, he has accumulated a wealth of knowledge about the indigenous Mexican population, too. For more information on the history of the local culture, follow up your visit with a trip to the Cañada de La Virgen Pyramids. Built by the Otomi people and occupied somewhere between 500 and 1000 A.D., these pyramidal structures are located just 15 and a half miles (25 kilometers) from San Miguel and offer beautiful views of the surrounding canyons. To visit the pyramid complex, join a guided tour and finish the day with a leisurely hike through the canyon and a ranch-style meal at a neighboring homestead.

A spread of salsas on a table
Cocktails on a rooftop table overlooking the city skyline

Enjoy the Local Eats

After all that exploring, you’ll most likely be hungry. To try the best pozole in town, head to Cenaduria la Alborada near the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel. Or, sample a delicious selection of tacos and artisan guacamole at Don Taco Tequila. If your sweet tooth is calling, however, be sure to order a sipping chocolate and a handmade truffle at Chocolates Johfrej, which has been family-owned and operated since 1920. Before heading back to the casa, catch the sunset with a perfectly made cocktail at Quince’s rooftop restaurant overlooking the roofline of the Parroquia.

Though a relatively small city, San Miguel de Allende has a lot to offer. Rich, historical sights; a plethora of immersive experiences; and a thriving food and arts scene are at the disposal of those who visit. But if you’re looking for more than just a fleeting exchange, delve into the true meaning of travel and discover how you can support the local culture in San Miguel.  

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Alice Ford
Alice Ford is an American travel writer and television host. She has starred in many movies as a stunt woman and hosted and produced several series on outdoor adventures and National Parks. An expert in adventure travel, sustainability and solo travel, she is also the owner of the eco travel platform TravGanic.