Our attention was attracted by the description of the small colonial town of San Miguel de Allende in our trusty and well-thumbed copy of the Lonely Planet Guide to Mexico. The town is named after Ignacio Allende, one of the heroes of the Mexican War of Independence of 1810 to 1821, and has been declared a national monument by the Mexican government. We decided to stop a day or two to explore the hilly cobbled streets and myriad of churches, plazas and gardens. It has rightly earned its charming reputation, and now has a large number of expatriates and an artistic community attracted by its mild climate, clear light and invigorating highland air. Unfortunately, as with many other Mexican towns with stunning settings and a kindly environment, the streets are now clogged with cars, the sidewalks full of jostling tourists (including us!) and the original character is slowly dissipating. Despite this, it was easy to spend many hours enjoying the gardens of the Plaza Principal, and marvelling at the pink 'ice-cream cone' spires of the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel (another imposing cathedral modestly described as a parish church) - its design apparently based on a picture postcard of a Belgian church, and its plans etched in the sand by the architect.
The highlight of our visit was an afternoon spent in the botanical gardens on the outskirts of town (compensation for not being able to have morning coffee with Toller Cranston - he was apparently out of town when we visited!)
. The large Jardín Botánico El Charco is managed by a non-profit group, and is dedicated to preservation of cacti and indigenous desert plants of the semi-arid areas of Mexico. We were delighted by the extent of the conservation area and the obvious loving care that had gone into the original design and ongoing maintenance. From our experience at 'the Herb Garden' we could easily see that this has been a labour of love for a dedicated staff and supportive group of volunteers. The gardens are centred around a reservoir and include extensive naturalized areas, as well as manicured gravel beds with labelled specimens and greenhouse and shadehouse collections. Well marked paths and walkways led alongside a seemingly bottomless ravine, ending in spectacular views over the town and surrounding plains. If you ever find yourself in San Miguel make sure you reserve at least a few hours for a visit to these gardens. Our only regret was that we weren't in a position to collect some of the wide selection of stunning and unusual cacti available for purchase from the propagating sheds - we were sure they wouldn't be appreciated by the many border crossings and customs officials in the days ahead.
Our visit to the orchid gardens in town was not as rewarding. The cool spring had delayed development and there was barely a blossom in sight - maybe by April the hundred of species in the collection would present a stunning picture. Oh yes, time for another weather report! Although we've now had quite a few sunny days, the air remains cool and the nights are still darned chilly. Dinner at the Irish Pub in town in front of a roaring log fire was particularly appreciated, and our quest for the hot, balmy days in the tropics continues.
Continuing south along the altiplano our interest was piqued by roadside stands offering a strange mix of wares. Always curious, we stopped to investigate and discovered dried snake skins, jars of snake oil, coyote pelts, a specific kind of cactus, and cages of young falcons. We weren't able to ascertain whether there was some special significance to this specific combination of goods, and decided to leave purchasing supplies for lunch until we hit a regular fruit and vegetable stand! Until now the landscape had been a continuation of semi-arid scrubby desert backed by the endless mountain ranges of the Sierra Madre Oriental disappearing into the distance, but after passing through San Luis Potosí we gradually came into areas of intense agricultural and horticultural production. Amazing what some well-managed water will do - the various shades of green were a welcome change from the dry browns and greys of the desert, as were the signs for 'fresa y crema' (strawberries and cream)!