From today's Houston Chronicle Travel Section (photo by the Gringa):
SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, MEXICO — Seated on a wrought-iron bench in El Jardín, beneath laurel trees neatly clipped into living lollipops, I found myself in the mind's eye of San Miguel de Allende. El Jardín, the garden that lies at the heart of this centuries-old, picturesque town, records the pulse and celebration of life here. At times meditative, it's often charged with children's laughter, the chatter of old men, a throaty guitar or piercing trumpet in a mariachi band and, throughout the day, the comforting bells of Parroquia de San Miguel, the soft-pink-and-orange confection of a cathedral on the garden's south side.
El Jardín offers an engaging snapshot of this well-preserved National Monument 6,400 feet above sea level in central Mexico: its warm and gracious people, 16th- and 17th-century architecture, narrow cobblestone streets flanked by high adobe walls pierced with magnificent doorways, art and crafts, sun-baked colors and near-perfect weather. A first-time visitor, I was as smitten by these irresistible charms as the thousands of ex-pats who call this city home.
But above all, I fell for the gardens of San Miguel. Public spaces for festivals and vendors quietly selling vibrant bouquets of dried flowers. Hotel and restaurant courtyards lush with palms, pomegranates and plumbago. Take-your-breath-away private gardens hidden behind stone and stucco walls. And El Charco del Ingenio, a 220-acre, wildly diverse botanical garden where I ogled cactuses and succulents.
Shop San Miguel, but save time for the natural sights. Thanks to warm days and cool nights, flowers jump with crisp color. Fuschia bougainvillea simply glows. Pink cosmos and sunflowers melt away cares, and the morning glories are a heavenly blue.
The Sunday House & Garden Tour sponsored by the Biblioteca Pública gives visitors a peek behind the private walls of a rotating roster of more than 300 homes. With this huge selection you may be inspired by a sensible vegetable garden, artfully arranged collections of aquatics and low-water plants, or a hill-hugging tropical paradise.
My tour included Casa Kutt-Reinhart, home to avid art and plant collectors. The contemporary jewel is filled with American and Mexican paintings and folk art and enveloped by one of the largest gardens in town. Tropicals flutter in breezes in the rooftop terrace. Palms rattle in the lush courtyard, where orange trumpet blossoms cascade down the blue and purple walls. Just feet away striking vignettes of cactuses and succulents are composed in the dry garden.
Next stop: high-end drama. Only a visionary could tackle the vertical property of Villa el Cerrito, an exquisite house and terraced landscape handcrafted over five years. Winding paths curve through layers of tropical vegetation punctuated with blue agapanthus, orange clivia and other unexpected blooms. Sights along the way include a massive curtain of bougainvillea cascading down a stone wall; a Venetian bridge; a serpentine rose-clad arbor that terminates in a secret garden; an acoustically correct Roman amphitheater; and sweeping views of the mountains from a treetop patio with infinity pool. The gardens are on the library's rotating tour roster, but you can have them to yourself by renting the property through www.casaselegantes.com.
Embellishment rises to cosmic levels at Casa de las Ranas (House of the Frogs). Visionary artist Anado McLauchlin and art historian Richard Schultz are surrounded by riotous color splashed on every inch of this magical place outside town. There's no missing the screaming purple wall at the entrance to this over-the-top celebration of life. Mirrors and mosaics sparkle inside and out, keeping company with folk art, cow skulls and Buddhas. Plumbago, roses and Mexican sunflowers are just a few of the bloomers framing a weed-free vegetable garden. Six dogs and four rescued burros also take refuge on these exuberant 2½ acres. The house and garden are on the library's revolving roster, but for more information, see www.madebyanado.com/casa.html.
Among the natives
A few minutes drive from the city, El Charco del Ingenio has been kindling appreciation for Mexican plant and animal species for 18 years. You'll discover three habitats on your leisurely walk along the nature trails. The dry chaparral is a scrubland dotted with mesquite, a favorite Texas barbecue wood; huisache with yellow, fuzzy pompom blooms; Peruvia pepper tree, marked by gracefully drooping compound leaves; curiously shaped cactuses and grasses. Sheer cliffs, caves and pools highlight a canyon that supports a number of creatures and plants. The wetlands shelter migratory and residential birds. The hangerlike glass Conservatory of Mexican Plants houses cactus and succulent treasures. El Charco's exceptional prickly plant collections include 75 agave species. But there's also a startling 31 native ferns. And the wildflower season offers up pink, white and gold blooms May through October.
The garden is open sunrise-sunset daily, the conservatory 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is about $3 for adults. See www.elcharco.org.mx for more.