Mountain Bike: San Miguel de Allende
Words and photos Anna Maria Diaz-Balart
I grew up in central Mexico in a town called San Miguel de Allende. Long before I ever rode bikes I enjoyed coming home to this beautiful town nestled in the mountains north of Mexico City. Its a UNESCO world heritage site, truly a colonial gem, without traffic lights, billboards, or neon signs. The homes are are brightly painted, with centuries old front doors and bougainvillea spilling over the roofs. The winding streets have always been (and will always be) cobble stone. Home to artists and a thriving ex-pat community, San Miguel continues to grow every year. And while seeing my hometown featured in the New York Times comes with a lot of pride, the exposure comes at a high cost to the year round residents. When I was growing up, there were more donkeys than cars. Now there are more boutique hotels than there are donkeys.
San Miguel has always offered amazing outdoors. From hiking in the cactus preserve, to horse back riding, to just doing errands on foot on a city thats realistically on a 20 percent grade (There are plenty of streets where the sidewalks are steps) There is an abundance of sunshine, expansive countryside, and like any good desert, hot springs! Every year that I've gone back as a cyclist, I have been able to spin my legs on some form of bicycle. But it wasn’t till this year that I was truly able to get out and fully enjoy the countryside. And while I’m happy to share some pointers to help get you rolling in San Miguel, I do think would apply to places beyond. Our limited vacation time and budget meant we weren’t traveling with our bikes. We had planned for time in Mexico City, and buses for travel within Mexico. Being both budget and multi modal meant renting was the best option for us once we arrive in San Miguel.
San Miguel’s premier mountain bike resource is BiciBurro. Its oldest bike shop, it been open since the 50’s. Beto, the son of the original owner, rents 29er hard tails that are well suited for both city cross country riding. BiciBurro runs mountain bike tours every single day, that ferry you out of the city and take you along dirt roads and rail trails to some spectacular locations, always with excellent for options. I have done these in the past, they are extremely beginner friendly and a great way of meeting other bike enthusiasts when traveling solo. Because all of San Miguel’s streets are cobbled, it is difficult to find a suitable place to ride a road bike. In years back when I had commitments to a road team, a mountain bike rented from BiciBurro would serve for hill repeats in town. Im sure the locals thought I was nuts, but honestly we don’t have hills like that here in NYC!
My main challenge this year was mapping out routes that got us where we wanted to go and bak home again. Switching to T-Mobile has helped me get almost all countries in network, but reception in the middle of the desert can be a challenge. Additionally Im a bit tech challenged and I don’t use a Garmin. Fortunately before I headed out to San Miguel I had a great chat with the folks at Strava. The Global Heat Map showed me where cyclists were routinely riding, and the Route Builder (used at home on a lap top) allowed me to fine tune where I wanted to go the next day. Best of all, I could switch my phone in to airplane mode and its internal GPS would take over. Generally it was pretty easy to tell if I was staying on course, and we averted any accidental detours into the middle of the desert. I honestly have never seen a better tool to explore a new place by bicycle without actually knowing someone local to show you around. The premium account price was even better than having a local guide. If you are doing any form of traveling at all this year, I can't recommend Strava highly enough.
I still screen shotted a bunch of the route sections, and I am really glad I did. When riding in places as rural as San Miguel, I occasionally lost all the data from the map function, but had no connectivity to download further info. This happened towards the end of tone of our longer rides, and it was still pretty easy to route myself home. I know Strava is still fine-tuning some of the functions, and getting great maps in very rural areas without reception is a tall order. I look forward to doing a lot more exploring around the globe via Strava none the less.
The best part about San Miguel by mountain bike this year was exploring with my boyfriend Shawn. While bikes certainly open up a ton of new places for travel, I think as female cyclists we all have to operate with the level of caution we feel comfortable with. Its not my place to caution anyone against doing something, still its good to have a plan for mechanicals, there are cacti everywhere with razor sharp spines. Bad for riders and tires alike. In small rural hamlets, packs of stray dogs can be a big problem. Again its just good to have a plan. And lastly, mountain bikes, wether rented or brought from home, can cost what some people make in a year. This is not a reason to not ride, but it should be something to take in mind.
While I brought pedals and shoes, we ended up leaving flat pedals on because the bikes became our exclusive form of transportation. Climbing was a bit rough, but being able to use the bike for errands and short runs around the town was great. Im always accustomed to putting my shoes and pedals in any travel bag, but going forward if I take one thing with me, its got to be my saddle. the truth is I can enjoy almost any ride on flat pedals, whereas there is really only one saddle that fits me.
Things to do in San Miguel:
Ride to the hot springs. Ive been coming here to swim since I was a little kid. Its even better when you arrive via mountain bike. A short 10 mile ride up a rural dirt road, the springs are refreshing for dusty riders. Foods is awesome. Occasionally there are later and earlier openings, and would make for a great sunrise or sunset ride (only if you have great lights!)
Explore Atotonilco - This sacred site is home to a pilgrimage for a penitent sect of Catholics. It played a key role in the Mexican War of Independence, and is one of the most breath taking church complexes you’ll ever see. Often called the Sistine Chapel of the Americas, its decorated in spectacular frescoes on every inch of its interiors. For thirty three weeks a year, and then in over drive leading up to Holy Week, this tiny town is home to penitents fasting, praying and often flagellating their flesh. The open air market stalls sell crowns of thorns which are still used for their intended purpose.
Visit Mineral De Pozos - An hour outside of San Miguel is the ghost town of Mineral de Pozos. Now partially inhabited, it was abandoned for years after its mines were closed. From gold and silver and gems in the Colonial era, zinc in the 1950’s. Filled with the ruins of old mines, stunning Colonial architecture, and a nascent art scene and ex-pat community, its a must see. I would caution against too much exploration in the surrounding area without a guide, as there are still uncovered mine shafts, and a fall could be deadly.
Explore the colonial San Miguel by bike. Its certainly lovely by foot, but even better by bike. Traffic moves slowly, and bikes can dart in and out of slowdowns. Mornings are always quiet, and the steep streets with hairpin turns are a blast with a suspension fork. Cars are accustomed to cyclists, but do not yield. Politeness is a must when traveling, but you will not get a ticket for going against traffic, or getting a rad on curbs and speed bumps.