How a small city in Mexico has become a vibrant haven for Canadian artists

In San Miguel de Allende, a flock of painters, sculptors, musicians and writers spend their winters.

In San Miguel de Allende, a flock of painters, sculptors, musicians and writers spend their winters

San Miguel de Allende (Talin Vartanian)

Every winter, Canadian "snowbirds" bored with sun and sand flock in growing numbers to San Miguel de Allende, a small city nestled in the Sierra Madre mountains. A three-hour drive northwest of Mexico City, San Miguel has grown into a vibrant artistic community for painters, sculptors, musicians and writers, as well as for those who love the arts.

"San Miguel has the sun, the dry air and beautiful colours, but for me the most compelling thing here is the culture," says author Merilyn Simonds, who has been escaping to SMA (as locals call it) from Kingston, Ontario since 2012, along with her husband, author Wayne Grady. Like most regulars, they first came for a couple of weeks and increased the length of their stay each time. Since 2016, they have been living and writing in San Miguel for half of the year. 

"It's a six-month writing retreat, with no obligations," she says. "We live a rarified writer's life in San Miguel: we read, write and walk around." 

Author Sandra Gulland, who was born in the U.S. then moved to Canada, also spends half her time in San Miguel with her husband. She says the historic character of the city makes it an ideal setting for her genre, historical fiction.

San Miguel de Allende. (Talin Vartanian)

"This is a place where you hear horses on cobblestones. It's a place where you walk everywhere, and life used to be like that," she says. "I've been writing French historical fiction and it helps to be immersed here in a Catholic culture where everyone shares the same values. There's also the sensual richness of it, focused on the feminine and the Virgin Mary. You don't see much of that north of the Mexican border."

Gulland helped to entice Simonds to San Miguel, who first came as a keynote speaker for the SMA Writers' Conference, one of the world's only tri-cultural literary events, attracting established and aspiring authors from Canada, the United States and Mexico. As the founding artistic director of the Kingston WritersFest and a veteran organizer of other Canadian literary events, Simonds is now the key Canadian advisor to San Miguel's conference organizers, who have welcomed authors such as Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel, Lawrence Hill, Elizabeth Hay and Jane Urquhart. The Canada Council for the Arts subsidizes their travel expenses.

It's a six-month writing retreat, with no obligations. We live a rarified writer's life in San Miguel: we read, write and walk around.- author Merilyn Simonds

The 13th annual San Miguel Writers' Conference occurred last month, an event that is estimated to inject about $2.5 million into the local economy. Almost 20 per cent of the 3,600 people attending the SMA Writers' Conference this year are Canadian.

There are many Canadian connections to San Miguel. For almost three decades, the city's most famous full-time Canadian resident was figure skater and prolific painter Toller Cranston, who died here in 2015. His elaborately decorated home, packed with Mexican folk art, was a frequent stop on tours of notable homes in the city.

The late Reva Brooks, named one of the top fifty photographers in the world by the San Francisco Museum of Art, immigrated to SMA from Toronto in 1949, with her husband, painter Leonard Brooks, and lived here until she died in 2001.

Folk singer Bram Morrison, formerly with the children's group Sharon, Lois and Bram, lives in San Miguel for part of the year, donating his talent and time to Amistad Canada, a registered charity, run and supported by Canadians, that benefits Mexicans in and around San Miguel. Their projects range from a midwifery school to literacy programs to nutritional education, and even artistic endeavours. Amistad funds a Children's Art Foundation and has partnered with Opera San Miguel, offering opportunities to up-and-coming Mexican opera singers.

San Miguel de Allende. (Talin Vartanian)

Every week, the local paper in San Miguel includes an insert called Quepasa, a weekly guide packed with activities, such as film screenings, dance and cooking lessons, art tours, public lectures, and concerts. The local library, La Biblioteca, founded in 1955 by a Canadian named Helen Wale, is a hub for many community events. It now boasts Mexico's second-largest bilingual book collection, which is remarkable for a city of about 150,000. 

SMA has preserved its colonial architecture, with low-rise, colourful, adobe buildings and cobblestone roads. There are no billboards, no traffic signs or signals, and cars and buses share the roads with burros. Remarkably, traffic accidents are rare. Although San Miguel is billed as a walkable city, the stone sidewalks are narrow, uneven, and there are frequent tripping hazards. 

However, this has not stopped the stream of Canadian and American seniors, who have been visiting the city since the 1940s. Their numbers were once small, but there has been a growth spurt over the decades, and particularly since 2008, when San Miguel was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2014, Condé Nast Traveler named it the best city in the world. 


Talin Vartanian is a producer for CBC's The Sunday Edition.