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The Arts Entice Tourists to Visit Inland Mexican Town - and Stay

San Miguel's art school and 18th-century charms are hard to resist

AS Americans visiting Mexico, my mother, sister, and I were given conflicting advice: It was the best time to go; it was the worst time to go. The peso was tumbling, so the dollar would buy more. Conversely, the country was in turmoil, and the situation could be tense.

Despite the various opinions, we were going. Not to Cancun or any other alluring seaside resort. Not even to Mexico City, the world's biggest metropolis. We were going farther inland, to San Miguel de Allende, a hillside and valley four hours northwest of the capital.

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We were going because my great aunt, who has lived in San Miguel for 40 years, was celebrating her 100th birthday. Before the trip, I confess, I secretly wished she lived in Acapulco.

But now, though I would never turn down an invitation to spend a week by the Pacific, my first choice would be to return to San Miguel. The town may have some of the same problems many cities do, such as unemployment and poverty. But it also has some of the finer trappings: first-class restaurants and all the cultural offerings of a much larger city.

Despite its modernity, San Miguel retains an 18th-century, small-town feel. No one rushes. Everyone talks to everyone else. Nearly every other day there's a fiesta. It's an atmosphere that's hard to resist, one that makes many foreigners, myself included, say, ``I could live here.''

For a relatively small city, there's a lot to do. Shopping, for instance: From street vendors to upscale boutiques, visitors may buy clothing, silver jewelry, ceramics, glassware, and baskets, all for usually reasonable prices. House and garden tours give outsiders a chance to look inside some of the older homes and exotic gardens of San Miguel. There are lecture series, plays, art and photography exhibits, concerts, and even bird walks.

We hired a car and driver to get to San Miguel, passing through countryside that is both beautiful and inhospitable. With scant rainfall during the winter, the ground is dry and craggy. Trees are scarce on the surrounding mountains. A stretch of cobblestones announced our approach. From the top of a hill, we looked down on the rooftops, domes, and towers of the town.

The best advice we were given about our trip had nothing to do with the exchange rate. It had to do with wearing comfortable shoes. Part of the town's great charm is its cobblestone streets. Though it's possible to walk from one side of San Miguel to the other, we learned to walk gingerly. (Those who told us the time was right to visit because of the strong dollar were also correct.)

The land that is now San Miguel has been inhabited for at least 2,000 years. In the 18th century, the town became known for crafts and education. Today it is known for its its thriving foreign population and its artists.

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For many residents, the Instituto Allende, the most famous art school in Latin America, is the center of life here. Ever since its founding in 1938, more than 1,300 students have come to the Instituto each year from about half a dozen countries. Many never leave.

My great aunt was one. She and her husband, both painters, came to study at the Instituto and later opened a gallery in town. Though she now lives alone, Dorcas has a large circle of American, British, and Mexican friends, including painters, clothing designers, and jewelrymakers.

Our hotel abutted the Instituto. Each morning as we set out for town on foot, we would see students scattered around campus, easels set up, and paintbrushes in hand. Usually they were looking toward the Church of St. Michael the Archangel, a large gothic cathedral that dominates the main plaza, or jardin.

FROM the outside, the long walls of houses and stores that line the streets leading up to the jardin look unimpressive. Though the wooden doors and grillwork on the windows are elegant, their peeling and faded paint and the crisscrossing electrical wires overhead give the impression of a town too busy with the everyday chores of life to worry about beauty.

Not so. Inside, the houses we visited were both a painter's and a gardener's delight. Built around open courtyards overflowing with lush vegetation and flowers, their white, sunlit walls were covered with the colorful paintings of local artists.

Not every foreigner in San Miguel wields a paintbrush, however. One American couple told us they left their jobs in real estate and moved to Mexico when the bottom fell out of the California market. They had visited San Miguel on vacation and felt more at home there than in the States. They had no plans to return.

We, too, were ready to stay, but our flight back was booked. We left before dawn, just as thousands of Mexicans began a nine-day pilgrimage to a shrine in San Juan de los Lagos. As we drove past the marching pilgrims in their colorful jackets, the sky began to lighten. It seemed a fitting ending, confirmation that the fallen peso wasn't the only reason to come.

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