In the heart of Central Mexico, some 170 miles northwest of the nation’s capital in the state of Guanajuato, lies a quiet but vibrant town, colored by the many artisans who call it home. San Miguel de Allende is one of Mexico’s designated Pueblos Mágicos (or magic cities) — and it’s easy to see why: Replete with colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, and steep drives that cascade into an Old World city center dubbed Zona Centro, San Miguel vibrates with life, warmth, and tradition. And once a year, it explodes with the dead.
While other parts of the world look forward to spooky Halloween festivities each autumn, Mexico remembers the dead during Día de los Muertos, a multi-day celebration with November 2 dedicated to children and the following day to all others. It’s not an occasion to scare off but to invite back, tempting lost loved ones to rejoin the living by offering bits of what they once treasured here on Earth — sweets for the sweet toothed, combs for the well groomed, pens and pencils for the prolific — all arranged in ofrendas, or offerings, alongside photos of the dearly departed.
It’s when catrinas and catrins fill the streets, the faces of locals and visitors alike painted like skeletons; when entire markets dedicated to sugar skulls pop up in church-adjacent walkways; when brilliant orange marigolds are purchased by the wheelbarrow rather than the bouquet to decorate every surface, to line every doorway. It’s when we the living call on the dead to come back and play, even if for just one night, one drink, one dance.
Against the backdrop of San Miguel de Allende, the celebration is extra sweet, drenched in colonial hues and spiced with people from all over the world showing up with both heart and mind equally open, ready to soak in a new culture. It’s an experience made richer by those you meet along the way, be it the local husband-and-wife team who transform your face into a masterpiece of the dead, the ex-pats taking up residence at Fabrica de Aura, or your own compañeros de viaje.
Of course, those companions come stock when you opt to travel with a group, like Eat the Peach Travel — a boutique small-group tour company that launched in 2017 that donates $500 from every trip to Casa de Los Angeles, a charity based in San Miguel that nurtures local children in need. While tour companies vary, Eat the Peach founders Sharon Gonzalez and Tom Travers offer an itinerary with a fair amount of autonomy, given that each day there’s just one main activity.
One day might set you off on a four-wheeled exploration of San Miguel’s outskirts, with the power of an ATV roaring beneath you as you ride through the cobblestone streets and out of the city, visiting an old church hidden among a tree grove and climbing a high hill to cast your gaze down and see it all from a different perspective.
Another day you’ll be riding a tractor through the vineyards of Cuna de Tierra, a nearby winery that sells its tasty experiments (think a dark rosé made from 100% granache) exclusively on site. After a tour of the chic facilities and visit to the cool underground cellar, you’ll be treated to a light lunch, introduced by the chef, and sip hefty pours of the winery’s various vintages before heading back to town for a siesta at the hacienda.
You’ll stay all seven nights at Hacienda El Santuario, just steps from where all the action takes place in the jardín, Zona Centro’s core. The heart of the hacienda is in its stunning, plant-draped open-air courtyard, centered among a labyrinth of steps and walkways that lead to elegantly but minimally decorated rooms, of which no two are the same. The courtyard is where you’ll take your breakfast of chilequiles, pan dulce, eggs, beans, and fruit each morning as the crisp air warms around you. And it’s where you’ll get to know the staff, who offer unparalleled service and genuine warmth as they disclose the hacienda’s secrets (like the must-see rooftop garden) and teach you idiomatic español.
Spend your afternoons and evenings wandering — to explore the tiny shops tucked away down every street, yes, but also to build up an appetite so that you can eat, and eat constantly. For an afternoon snack, head to the Mercado de Artesanias, a massive, mostly indoor marketplace where hundreds of purveyors peddle their wares from stalls adjacent to a produce and food hall, where you can munch on hot elote (grilled corn on the cob) or sweet gorditas de nata (griddled clotted cream pancakes) as you browse.
For a boozy sit-down closer to the jardín, enter a restaurant called Pueblo Viejo then veer to the right and follow the staircase up to La Azotea, a rooftop bar with next-level mango margaritas and the jicama tacos topped with fried leeks.
Once the sun sets, sit for dinner at La Parada for an outstanding three-course Peruvian meal, sipping a pisco cocktail to temper the heat of the side of diced green chiles you should absolutely ask for and then slather on everything.
As the main event draws nearer, the city gets denser, both people and public ofrendas filling the streets. The day before the parade, make your way to Instituto Allende’s courtyard, where makeup artists set up shop to show their Día de los Muertos portfolios. Make your rounds and discuss pricing (most run $15-$20 USD, an absolute steal considering how they’ll artistically transform your face to look like a beautifully painted skull), then select the artist you’d like to sit with. Arrange a time to meet the following day, when you’ll arrive dressed in your Día best and mingle over margaritas at the Instituto before embarking on a rhythmic march through the streets for the annual parade, spilling out into the jardín and its wild energy.
No two Día de los Muertos celebrations are the same in San Miguel, which means there’s always more magic to discover in this Pueblo Mágico.
An award-winning journalist with an ear for music and an eye for adventure, Hannah Lott-Schwartz tells stories for National Geographic Traveler and Adventure; the in-flight magazines on United, Delta, and Hong Kong Airlines; Robb Report, and others. She’s quick to say “yes” — most recently to motorcycling Morocco with a mustachioed stranger — and is a well-versed guacamole snob. While San Diego may be basecamp these days, Hannah is a woman at home in the world.
Journalist, Hannah Lott-Schwartz, and photographer, Vincent Evangelista, were hosted by Eat the Peach for this Día de los Muertos San Miguel de Allende experience but all opinions are her own.