Bertha González Nieves is perfectly at ease in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
The co-founder and CEO of Casa Dragones, a high-end tequila that counts Oprah and Mexican super-chef Enrique Olvera as fans, is sitting in the dappled light of the courtyard of La Casa Dragones. It’s a 17th-century stone building that once housed the stables of the Dragones, the rebels of San Miguel who masterminded the move to Mexican independence here more than two centuries ago.
González Nieves and her business partner, Bob Pittman, were so inspired by the rebels’ courage and independent spirit that they not only named their company after the Dragones but also purchased the stables and turned them into a stunning tequila tasting room and four-bedroom house where visitors can enjoy private tastings.
With its elegant stone patio and open-air tasting room, there is no better place in this picturesque colonial destination to while away the afternoon learning about tequila and the history of the rebels with a glass of Casa Dragones Joven sipping tequila in your hand.
While the tequila is made in Jalisco, González Nieves calls San Miguel the spiritual home of Casa Dragones. Like everyone else who walks the city’s cobblestone streets, she was seduced by the warm ochre facades, jaw-dropping sunsets and San Miguel’s rich history and culture.
Nestled in Mexico’s central highlands, San Miguel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos, or “magic towns,” a designation given to notable destinations where history, culture and natural beauty mix. Here that means a marvelous 16th-century cathedral, a historic mural by Mexican artist Davíd Alfaro Siqueiros and the kind of light that attracts photographers and painters to San Miguel in droves.
If you ask González Nieves her absolute favorite thing about San Miguel, she’ll say it’s the people. “I’ve had the chance to meet extraordinary people that are thought leaders, creative masters, curious minds,” she says. “It’s really the people who live here that bring this town to life.”
So naturally, her personal travel guide on how to enjoy San Miguel starts with an afternoon of people watching.
Watching the world go by in El Jardín
At the center of San Miguel sits El Jardín, a neatly landscaped minipark flanked by the pink spires of La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel. You’ll find yourself passing through the square 10 times a day in route to restaurants, galleries and shops on nearby streets, but one of González Nieves’ favorite things to do is plunk down on a bench here and take in the scene.
“You can sit there for an hour with a coffee and just look at the people, or walk around and listen to the mariachis singing on the corner,” she says. “Every single weekend there’s something that’s being celebrated – a procession for this, a celebration for that – there’s not one dull moment here.”
During the Day of the Dead festival in the fall, El Jardín is covered with elaborate ofrendas, or altars, decorated with orange marigolds to honor the dead. You can get your face painted in the square or buy a flower crown to join in the festivities.
Don’t miss the market
No trip to San Miguel is complete without a trip to the mercado.
There are a handful of markets in San Miguel, including the massive Tianguis de los Martes on Tuesdays on the outskirts of town, but the Mercado San Juan de Dios is a short walk from El Jardín, and according to González Nieves, it’s the best place to meet the locals and get to know the personality of San Miguel.
“To really get the temperature and the culture of the town, you need to go one morning and buy some food, some seeds or some flowers or something,” she says, “And make sure you talk to the people behind the stand, because each one of them has a very unique experience.”
The new-wave mercardo
At the Dôce 18 Concept House, you’ll find a different type of Mexican market.
Tucked in a historic building near the bustling center of San Miguel, the marketplace features high-end fashion designers selling glamorous serapes and locally made jewelry, as well as a chocolate shop, a spice market, a florist and a photography gallery.
Situated beneath the 10-room L’Ôtel, the market also houses Jacinto 1930, where chef Matteo Salas dedicates the menu to Mexico’s most prized ingredient, maiz. Be sure to try his spectacular riff on esquites, a roasted corn stew made with plump kernels of heirloom maiz that you can’t find north of the border.
Just behind Jacinto 1930 is the Casa Dragones Tasting Room, which González Nieves likes to call the smallest tequila bar in the world.
With just six seats, you can stop by for a taste of Casa Dragones Tequila Joven, or try one of the bar’s signature cocktails made with their tequila blanco. The black tiles that adorn the intimate tasting room are made from obsidian rocks found in Casa Dragones’ agave fields.
One of the most exciting food scenes in Mexico
“It’s impossible to come here and not have extraordinary meals,” González Nieves says.
In recent years, a number of high-profile chefs have decided to make San Miguel their home. Among them is Matteo Salas, whose Áperi may be the most elegant tasting menu in town, and Donnie Masterton from The Restaurant, who is known as much for his eclectic international menu as he is for his weekly burger night.
Mexico’s most recognizable chef, Enrique Olvera, also has an outpost here called Moxi inside the upscale Hotel Matilda. There you can sample the chef’s approach to modern Mexican food at breakfast, lunch or dinner.
The best sunset views are on the roof
“A lot of painters and photographers come here because of the light and the depth of field,” González Nieves says, and the best light of the day is before sunset when the whole town is bathed in a warm glow.
La Azotea near El Jardín was the first to start the rooftop trend in San Miguel, and it’s still packed with locals and travelers every night of the week who come for the jicama tacos as much as for the epic views. The same owners have a chic new rooftop cocktail spot called El Atrio where you can lounge with a margarita as the sun dips.
Both Quince and Luna Bar at the Rosewood hotel sport 360˚ views with drinks and food that will not disappoint.
Where to rest your head
There is no shortage of luxe accommodations in San Miguel, starting with the hip Hotel Matilda, where contemporary art flanks the walls and you can take your coffee poolside at Moxi, Enrique Olvera’s restaurant inside the hotel.
At the Rosewood hotel, handsome courtyards and traditional Mexican craftsmanship exude San Miguel’s signature colonial charm, or there is L’Ôtel, the light-flooded ten-room boutique hotel above the Dôce 18 Concept House near the center of town.
Equally boutique is Dos Casas, where two 18th-century residences were transformed into 12 rooms and suites, including a rooftop suite with a private terrace, Jacuzzi and gorgeous mountain views.