Mariachi and other mysteries

Ian Munro feels the heartbeat of old Mexico in the 16th-century colonial city of San Miguel de Allende.

On my left, an ancient man, his weathered face half-hidden under a white cowboy hat, is offering guitars for 650 pesos ($50). Made in neighbouring Michoacan, the instruments are the best you can buy but he does not press his case. These things sell themselves, his manner seems to suggest.

On my right a young woman is plucking her boyfriend's monobrow, clearing a space above his nose to her amusement and his discomfort. Such treatment would not have done for the artist Frida Khalo, whose self-portraits meticulously recorded her own heavy-browed image. But that was another generation.

We're seated on a low wall outside an artisan market that is home to tinsmiths, jewellers and artists. Lunch is a barbecued corn cob seasoned with lime juice and chilli powder, followed by fresh-cut pineapple, also liberally dressed with lime and chilli.

San Miguel de Allende, a colonial city four hours' drive north of the capital, drops you right into the heart of Mexico. There are other extraordinary places, such as Palenque, an eerie and mysterious archaeological ruin in the jungles of Chiapas, that could equally be in Guatemala as Mexico. Or the long coastal sweep of Baja California, which draws so many surfers and holidaying "norte americanos" that it is not so much like Mexico at all. But San Miguel, and the 16th-century colonial towns that surround it, are distinctively Mexican, their cobblestone streets lined with one- and two-storey pastel-coloured buildings and crowded town squares watched over by elaborate parish churches.

San Miguel's single biggest drawcard might be the Parroquia - the elaborate pink wedding cake of a church at the head of its town square - but regardless of landmarks, it is the sort of place you most appreciate simply by being here.

In almost every town in Mexico the square is called the zocalo. Here it is el jardin - the garden. Symmetrical plantings of laurel trees, their foliage pruned uniformly into broad circles three metres deep, form a dense canopy sheltering the park benches and shoe-shiners.

Around its perimeter are restaurants and street-food stalls and the balloon men with their inexhaustible supply of cheap inflatable toys. At night, rooftop bars in the surrounding streets offer a balmy respite and elaborately uniformed mariachi bands work the crowd.

There is a significant American expatriate community in San Miguel, an influx that began soon after World War II. Its echo is the incursion of a single, somewhat discreet Starbucks, and the foreign influence is felt also in the presence of Spanish-language schools and upscale bars and restaurants. Even so, the foreigners are not overly intrusive, traditional cantinas survive and on the edge of el jardin it is a simple matter to locate a restaurant patronised predominantly by Mexicans who dine on burritos, tacos and enchiladas for less than $10.

San Miguel de Allende sells itself as the heart of Mexico, though the surrounding region of 16th-century colonial cities - the Colonial Heartland - includes arguably more historically significant towns, such as Guanajuato and Queretaro. This is the region that launched the country's war of independence against Spain and its rebellion against French rule half a century later. In Queretero, the Catholic church trained the missionaries it dispatched to convert northern Mexico as far as Texas and California. The Emperor Maximilian, installed by Napoleon III, was executed in Queretaro in 1867.

Guanajuato has its own distinctive point of difference. Like other colonial towns, it thrived courtesy of the Spanish quest for enrichment, mining silver in the surrounding hills. But Guanajuato's soil surrendered an entirely different product.

The town is home to the bizarre Museum of the Mummies, a collection of about 100 mummified bodies dug up from the local cemetery, beginning in 1865. Bodies were removed when their surviving families could no longer afford to pay the annual plot fee, and in some cases disinterment revealed that in the arid climate the body had mummified.

The earliest mummy to be discovered, and one of the best preserved, was of a local doctor, who appears fully clothed at the entrance to the exhibit. Papery skin is drawn over sunken cheeks dusted with whiskers. Since he is in relatively good shape - almost certainly clothes help to make this man - he is by no means the most grotesque exhibit.

Dessicated infants who lost their lives in a cholera epidemic, women who died giving birth and a stabbing victim whose chest is ruptured by a jagged hole, contribute varying degrees of pathos and tragedy.

It might seem that taking a bus from San Miguel to this freak show, an hour or so away, is to fall for a phoney tourist trap, but that does not account for the country's fascination with death. Entry to the museum means queueing for almost an hour merely to reach the ticket box, then joining a second queue for a further 10 minutes to enter the exhibition. We are the only gringos.

Collectively the crowd is as lively and animated as the exhibits are stilled. This is clearly a quintessential Mexican experience, as authentic as a Day of the Dead ceremony.

Back in San Miguel, a kind of reality is restored with a visit to the rooftop bar of the Rosewood Hotel. The panorama extends from the Parroquia to the more conventional domes of a handful of historic churches.

It's sundown and, in el jardin, the mariachis are firing up.


Getting there

Qantas has a fare to Mexico City from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2520 low-season return including tax. Fly Qantas to Los Angeles (about 14hr), then Alaska Airlines to Mexico City (about 3hr 35min); see United Airlines flies from Mexico City to Leon (1hr), the closest airport to San Miguel de Allende (90min drive). San Miguel de Allende is four hours' drive from Mexico City. Luxury-class buses leave regularly from the city's northern bus depot (Mexico Norte) as well as Mexico City airport for San Miguel, with one stop in Queretaro.

Staying there

San Miguel has many bed-and-breakfasts and boutique hotels in old-world mansions. Among them is Casa Luna, with 12 elaborately furnished rooms — several with balconies overlooking either the interior courtyard or the town. Double rooms cost from $US165 ($154) a night; see

The Hotel de las Monjas is an economical option with clean, somewhat spartan rooms, as befits its history as a former convent. This classic colonial building with internal courtyards is one block from el jardin at 37 Calle Canal. Double rooms cost from $US50.

Eating there

On a corner of el jardin, the restaurant of the same name is a standout for economical, traditional Mexican food, for about 100 pesos ($7.50) a head.

For contemporary Mexican fusion, Cafe Rama at 7 Calle Nueva is as inventive as it comes. Tapas dishes cost $US5 each and $US30 makes for a full meal; see

For a relaxed, economical alternative, try El Pegaso, one block from el jardin at Calle Corregidora 6, where main meals cost about 150 pesos.