South of the border, visiting a magical place

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But we chose the other lens. We appreciated the amenities as conveniences and celebrated the authenticity of everything else. The jardin is a garden in the middle of town where people gather. Lovers meet, friends look for one another, musicians play and tourists peruse the local paper for walking tours and such. The centerpiece of the jardin is the parroquia, a towering, fairytale-pink stone cathedral. The semi-cloistered nuns from the nearby Church of the Immaculate Conception tend the cathedral, ring the giant bells on the hour and, at dusk, turn on the lights for the cross that shines across the hillside.

The whole place does have a somewhat Disney-esque quality, in that everything seems perfect. The streets are immaculate. The locals are unfailingly patient and generous with tourists. Taxi drivers stop for pedestrians to pass. Shop after shop offers local crafts and art. We were two women traveling alone, and it was safe to walk the streets at night, which we did every night. That’s the other thing — women traveling with friends were a significant presence.

La Biblioteca is the courtyard in the center of the town where visitors and expats gather every day for classes or tours or just to have a coffee or meet someone new. We went to find out what tours would be available, and discovered that the history walks are organized by expats who lead a 2½-hour tour, charge $15 a person and donate all the money to Patronato Pro Ninos, a group that pays for medical and dental care for local kids.

We took the tour, and the next day we took a three-hour bird-watching hike in a cactus preserve just outside of town. The leader was an American woman who lives there eight months a year. She and the other big-time birders carried big, heavy scopes up and down the hills, and not one of them was younger than 70.

Finally, it struck me that the Americans living in San Miguel look like the old people in the movie “Cocoon.” They seem so happy and so fit. They have knee replacements and canes and white hair, but they hop around the cobblestone streets like younger versions of themselves. Many of them came for a week and then a month and eventually, forever. They love the life.
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