Elena Bowes

New York-London design & culture writer of a certain vintage looking for meaning and wholeness in life

Holiday Part II- An Outsider’s Guide to Mexico

February 1st, 2023

I love discovering new places. Invariably, I get so excited  that I buy guidebooks packed with daily itineraries. I text friends to give me suggestions on what to do. They email me pages and pages of cool things to see and do. It can be overwhelming. When am I supposed to sleep, dawdle, day dream? So, last month when Stretch and I went to San Miguel de Allende and Mexico City,  I thought, Don’t get overwhelmed by those reams of notes, channel Mary Oliver. 

In Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day, she asks,

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Some might interpret this as a call to action, to get busy ticking off that list of “1000 Things You Must See and Do in Mexico in Seven Days”.  But no, to Oliver that line of poetry meant being idle, getting to know a grasshopper, strolling through the fields, enjoying the moment, the now.

And that’s the approach I took to Mexico. I only did what I felt like. I lived in the now. I didn’t  look at those notes much. For me, enjoying the now translated into taking long daily baths and calling the hotel concierge a lot because I could. And saying olà to everyone because my voice had returned and because the people in San Miguel are very friendly. Sadly, that was as far as the conversations could go.

I thought of Oliver frequently on this trip- what would Mary, who lived in New England, do  if she were in Mexico? She’d have a margarita. She’d take a nap. She’d have a taco, maybe some ceviche. She’d lie in the sun by our pretty hotel pool. She would not spend 5 hours in Mexico City’s mammoth National Anthropology Museum, the Louvre of Mexico, if her guide was offering her the 45-minute whistle stop tour. No she would not. She would use those precious hours to wander through the neighboring Chapultepec Park. No wonder Mary won a Pulitzer.

If you’re looking for the Outsider’s Guide to Mexico, one that will leave you feeling well-rested, happy and a little more knowledgeable about Mexico than when you started this blog, read on. This guide’s for you. And for you eager beavers out there, I’ve added a not conclusive and not lengthy list of must-sees at the end.

Where to stay in San Miguel?

Included in those reams of notes that I ignored were suggestions of  cool places to stay, boutique hotels, even an airbnb in a hip neighborhood. But I learned many hotels ago that while I wish I was adoring of that minimalist one chair, one lamp look, I’m a 5-star gal. I want to know that—tsunami, kidnapping, earthquake, nuclear war, vicious seagull invasion, take your pick—our hotel can helicopter us out of that disaster in 0.8 seconds. I like a hotel to know that as smiley as I may be when I check in, I am not an easy guest. I’m not as bad as a White Lotus character, but I can often see their point.  I mean, he did request the newlywed suite.

The centrally located Belmond’s Casa de Sierra Nevada is a very pretty hotel comprised of several restored haciendas with bougainvillea filed courtyards, an inviting pool, Mexican tiles, and big copper bathtubs. Beyond looks, the hotels gets a 5* for service. Read on.

Stretch can sleep through a tornado. I get woken by a drip two rooms away. On day one in the Belmond as we were just dropping off for our daily nonnegotiable nap, a passing mariachi band convinced me that this was not the room for us. I dialed 0 on the hotel phone and was impressed with the quick pick-up. Always a good sign. I explained our dilemma and got us an even nicer room.

Once we left our new room after a refreshing nap, I discovered that San Miguel is a charming, hilly (and I come from SF)) town paved in cobblestone, 7,000 feet elevation. Unless you’re an Olympic athlete, expect to be breathless walking uphill and leave your stilettos at home.

The weather in San Miguel was perfect; warm, windless, blue skied. I was told residents  complain if the temperature climbs above 90 degrees or drops below 70. Prepare to undress and redress throughout the day. Mornings in January require a warm jacket and scarf. By lunchtime you’ll want a sombrero and sunglasses. By 5pm, you’ll be back in that jacket and warm scarf. Great rooftop restaurants like Zibu, La Dona  and Pégaso offer wonderful views, but little heat so dress accordingly.

Apparently, there are tons of expats in San Miguel who like to socialize a lot. So, the key to the social scene is knowing a few. We knew none. So, by day three, I was reading the news aloud at dinner. Instead of making friends, we hired a tour guide. It’s another person breaking up the Stretch and Elena repartee. We could talk about things like how avocado, chili, and tomato were originally Aztec words. I developed a real hatred for Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés over dinner who I hadn’t thought much about since fifth grade history.

It worked out well. I couldn’t hate my husband (who else was I going to talk to for the next week?) so Cortés was the best option available.

Stretch insisted we travel carry-on only, so I chose my outfits with care. Early on in our trip Stretch told me that it was good I had packed two particular outfits because I could leave them behind in Mexico.

They do you no favors. Wear them on the long car rides, or when we see the pyramids and it’s really dusty.”

Should we talk about Cortés again?  On our way from San Miguel to Mexico City we visited  Teotihuacan, some very impressive, very old Mayan pyramids.  I have a fear of heights but am also uber competitive. Even if I must slide down on my bottom, which I did, Stretch was not going to be the only one who scaled this ancient rock. Whoever designed these steps was not thinking of comfort. These steps would never pass muster in a NYC planning meeting. No siree.

Below I can be seen wearing one of my gifts to Mexico. “It did me no favors’…

Next, we went to Mexico City, where we stayed at the Four Seasons, which suited me just fine. The hotel has an expansive courtyard for breakfast and lunch, is very well-located to the hip hoods of Roma Norte and Condesa and the concierge answered the phone just as quickly as at Sierra de Nevada. And Stretch liked the gym.

We loved Mexico City. It’s big and bustling with lots of cool neighborhoods, people watching galore, culturally rich, and full of great restaurants. It’s only an hour time difference from Manhattan but feels a world away. The only thing we didn’t love was the altitude sickness. Stretch was light-headed and I was nauseous for about two days.

We had fully recovered in time to visit the stunning Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes (better with a guide to explain the murals)…

eat a long late lunch (Mexicans eat lunch around 2-3pm) at buzzy Contramar, visit Diego Rivera’s house and see a Ballet Folklorico in the park at sunset.

One of my favorite nights was when we decided to stay home and binge Netflix’s Treason. (The Mary Oliver equivalent of watching a grasshopper) Part of the joy of travel is rebelling, defying expectation, and eating junk food. We discovered just enough of the city to know we want to come back and see everything we missed.

Eager Beaver Guide of Must-Sees:

 San Miguel: I recommend hiring a history guide (so you too can talk  about Cortés at dinner), visiting the art and design hub Fabrica Aurora and getting yourself invited to an expat party. For the intrepid  Meson Hidalgo a two bedroom guesthouse boutique designed by Laura Kirar and set in an ancient old manor is very stylish.

Mexico City:

To stay- if you’re more adventurous than we are:

Hotel Condesa

Casa Olivia- airbnb

We missed all of the below but won’t next time. This was a rough draft trip.

Museo Anahuacelli was designed by Diego Rivera and has a collection of pre-Columbian art. Everyone raves about it.

Secretariat of Public Education- houses many well-preserved large-scale Rivera murals

Casa Luis Barragan- all Barragan sites are apparently amazing, especially the convent

Museo Frida Kahlo- it’s very crowded, but I guess it’s a must-see

A few restaurants to get you started  in Mexico City: Maximo Bistrot,  Lardo and Rosetta 

San Angel Inn– eat lunch or have a drink in the garden across the street from Rivera’s house

Shops: Unfortunately, Stretch is no fun to shop with. He hovers and looks bored.  So, I have zero tips. When we return, I will suggest that he take a half-day bus tour of this amazing city.

January, 2023

4 thoughts on "Holiday Part II- An Outsider’s Guide to Mexico"

  1. Oh Elena,
    I thought it was only me who has a guide book library for virtually anywhere I have been, copious notes from anyone I know whose been there and then delights in just spending an afternoon with a friend from there doing what people who live there do… Such as going out for dog walks and meeting other friends for tea.
    I definitely make the room move for a better room and then befriend the maid to make sure I see all the best rooms while being cleaned….Just back from the Mauna Kea. XO,Kit PS Do not mean to post this : its just for you.

    1. Dear Kit, great minds think alike. One of my favorite outings in Max City was not a museum, but going to someone’s house in and bonding over our love of pugs. They live in a pretty Barragan house, but the pug was the frosting on that cake. Xxx Elena

  2. You have inspired me to return to Mexico City and I am intrigued by San Miguel, the hotel looks fab. As always, your blog is fun to read and filled with important information!

    1. San Miguel is really pretty and if Joe has expat friends who winter they’re even better. For a long weekend. Breaks up winter. Lots of love and looking forward to seeing you in two days! Xxx Elena

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