Falling for San Miguel

In this charming Mexican city, one visit can change your life

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San Miguel can seem almost unbearably beautiful. The churches whose roof tiles curl like the wings of fallen angels, the houses whose colors are pulled from the Earth's core - lava reds, sulfurous ochers. But there's an aloofness to this beauty too. Windows are shuttered. Each brilliant house has a forbidding front door - heavy, iron hinged, and, you think, forever closed.

Then. Doors open. You are permitted to peer in shyly. What do you see? In one courtyard, a blazing purple bougainvillea; in another, a sleeping dachshund. A woman painting a watercolor.

As you explore, you get the feeling that no city on Earth contains as many hidden lives as this one does, nor so great a sense of possibilities. Even for the visitor, San Miguel is generous in sharing its secrets. Each doorway, you learn, reveals a life you might be leading too; every courtyard is a chance for you to become someone new. Because in this city it's remarkably easy to meet people - people, you realize, who have fallen hard too.

"After the war, my father came from Okinawa to San Miguel," says local landscape architect Tim Wachter. "He was an artist who came down to check out the scene. Some people say there's a lode of magnetic quartz under the town that makes people stay."

Wachter's father belonged to the first wave of Americans in San Miguel: soldiers who came to study Spanish or art or anthropology on the GI Bill and remained here to live. Now there is a new wave, generally younger, often richer, who come for a chance to reimagine their lives.

Open the weekly bilingual newspaper Atención San Miguel - essential reading for any visitor - and you feel like you're reading the course catalog for an ambitious liberal arts college. Spanish classes! Chess classes! Chamber music performances! Body work and massage therapy and dream interpretation!

Drama coach Taylor Korobow and architect Joseph Kent moved to San Miguel from the Bay Area after years of vacationing here. "In San Miguel," Kent says, "you feel all the possibilities. The package has been unwrapped."

"People change when they come here," adds Korobow. "They become the person they always wanted to be."



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