By Timothy Scott
Eventually we climbed off the horses for a long lunch break, sitting on the giant boulders while the ranch hands built a campfire to heat tortillas and make quesadillas. We took in the view while colorful birds alighted in the trees, a lizard came out to sun on a rock, and vultures soared over the cliffs.
On the way back we needed to ascend from the bottom to the top of the canyon. We leaned forward in the saddle instead of back as the horses climbed up the mountain. At one point we emerged from the nopal cacti — higher than us — and came to a sheer rock cliff rising up above us.
The horses sped up as we got closer to the ranch, in anticipation of returning home and getting more to eat. We looked forward to getting our unaccustomed butts off the saddles and into a more normal position.
We transitioned from a country life to a city one that night, dining at the city's best gourmet restaurant, Moxi. This showpiece in Hotel Matilda claims Enrique Olvera as its executive chef, the man behind a Mexico City restaurant often cited as one of the best in the world: Pujol. We took the waiter's suggestion to experience the tasting menu, moving through small plates prepared with infinite care. The leisurely meal was accompanied by artisanal tequila from local Casa Dragones distillery first, then moved on to carefully chosen wine pairings for the various dishes.
What really makes Moxi special is that it doesn't feel like any other place you've eaten before. Nearly everything on the menu makes use of traditional Mexican ingredients, but then they are combined and reinvented in novel ways. Corn, green pumpkin seed mole, chochoyota, chilacayota squash, dried peppers play a starring role and keep things grounded. But the plates come out looking like they were prepared by a confident chef who has trained under masters in many countries.
Market and Cooking Class
Mid–morning the next day we walk to the local market with Chef Emmanuel Cervantes. At night he cooks at Andaza restaurant at Casa de Sierra Nevada Hotel. During the day he goes into teaching mode at the long–running Sazon cooking school. This is one of the best cooking class experiences in Mexico, both because of who is running it and the great facilities with TV monitors and mirrors reflecting the counter action.
In San Miguel de Allende's local market we learned about some of the items we'd be using in our dishes that day. Chef Cervantes explained the different kinds of dried chilies that are a key part of Mexican cooking: ancho, hujillo, pasilla, cascabel, and chile del arbol, the chef buying several for the Aztec soup we were to cook later. He also picked up some herbs like fennel and Mexican basil.
Back in the Sazon facility, the dozen or so of us — including three kids — alternated between helping with preparations and kicking back to watch from our seats. With help from the class attendees and several prep and cleaning helpers, we started off with some excellent fresh salsa and guacamole. Then we moved on to quesadillas made from hand–patted tortillas, local cheese, and cuitlacoche — the corn fungus often called "Mexican truffle."
This was the "healthy Mexican cooking" class, so after Chef Cervantes showed us how to clean the chilies and thicken a soup with tortillas, we prepared a Huachinango baked fish dish with lots of vegetables and herbs. Dessert made use of lots of butter, but it was a baked apple dish instead of cake and chocolate at least. Other classes get more decadent and are definitely not for those on a diet.
The classes run Tuesday through Saturday from 11 to 1:00 or 2:00 pm depending on dishes and whether you tour the market. That night we had a light dinner in a restaurant in town, still full from our day of cooking. We relaxed at our second hotel, El Meson, kicking back by the lighted pool.
San Miguel de Allende Hot Springs
After hiking around a pyramid and bouncing around on horses, we ended our trip with a bit of thermal soaking to ease the muscles. A short 10km ride outside of town, Escondido hot springs take advantage of the region's geology. The volcanoes that shaped this area and made it so fertile for growing crops are long dormant, but the water flowing up from them is mineral–rich and steaming.
The pools here are set up open and enclosed, some looking like regular swimming pools and others like grottos. An unusual cold snap had just hit when we were visiting, so after getting into our bathing suits in the changing rooms, we headed straight for the enclosed ones to warm up. Located inside man–made rock caves with colored glass skylights, these pools were just what our aches and pains needed. After moving from one pool to the other and relaxing in each, we took one last soak in an outdoor one as a stopping point between there and the lockers.
On a warmer day, this would be an ideal spot to spend the day, with lounge chairs, a restaurant, and a snack bar that serves beer located here. Well–tended landscaping includes a lake surrounded by always–blooming flowers and shady trees. It's a popular spot with both Mexican families and the aging expatriate population though, so weekdays are less crowded than weekends.
We returned to El Meson to pick up our things and head back to our home base of Guanajuato. This was our fourth overnight visit to San Miguel de Allende, but like most visitors, by staying in the city confines we had missed much of what makes this area so special. We remedied that this trip by putting our itinerary in the hands of Coyote Canyon Adventures, great guides for what lies beyond the colonial streets of the city.
If you go:
San Miguel de Allende can be reached from the Leon/Guanajuato airport or Queretaro airport via several major airlines. Alternately, it's four–to–five hour trip from Mexico City. See the official tourism website for ideas, or tell Coyote Canyon Adventures what you'd like to experience and let them work out the details, from hot springs and wineries to multi–day horseback rides and cliff rappelling. See our reviews of the best San Miguel de Allende hotels for in–depth information on Hotel Matilda and El Palomar, or follow this link for El Meson Hotel.
Story and photos by Timothy Scott except hot springs photos, which are courtesy of Escondido.