Women Who Go the Distance

Women Are Leading the Charge in San Miguel

by Kerri Allen
Ángela Ángela Nasta of Sindashi. Photo by Kerri Allen.

San Miguel de Allende may be the destination-wedding capital of North America, but this colonial town gives women plenty of reasons to visit besides getting hitched. In fact, countless creative entrepreneurs have taken to these cobblestone streets to chase their dreams (not the least of whom was Frida Kahlo, who hosted intellectual salons here). For a woman traveling solo, San Miguel is not only a safe and exhilarating spot to explore, but also one to find serious the-future-is-female vibes.

Chef Greta Castañas and an octopus dish she created. Photos by Kerri Allen.

Eat Like a Lady

Though just about the size of Dayton, Ohio, San Miguel de Allende (SMA) is bursting with more than 350 restaurants, ranging from Moroccan to Thai to Argentine. Mi Vida in Zona Centro is an "Italian restaurant with a Mexican accent," owned and operated by chef Greta Castañas.

Born and raised in Mexico City, Castañas trained as a triathlete, and that focus on fitness led to a love of nutrition. She soon traded her sneakers for a chef's hat and enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu. In 2009, she left Mexico City and opened her own restaurant in SMA, never looking back.

Among the best dishes at Mi Vida are panzanella with octopus and basil, salt-encrusted fish of the day, cacio e pepe with black truffles — and the off-menu dish featuring the green mole made using her grandmother's recipe.

When I found myself a few tequilas in and in need of comfort food, I stumbled over to the Doña Chelo street cart on the corner of Mesones and Manzana. The humble street eatery, a go-to for renowned SMA chefs, served spicy gordita and many atoles, a hot corn and masa drink made with chocolate or guava. The folding-table operation used to up nightly around 6 p.m. in front of La Michoacana ice cream shop, but is currently closed due to Covid. Here's hoping that the grand Mrs. Chelo and her team can return to the open-air tortillería soon to keep satisfying all those cravings.

Photos courtesy of Sindashi.

Shop 'Til You Drop (the Patriarchy)

While Castañas and Chelo made their mark on SMA's culinary scene, Ángela Nasta cooked up female-empowered fashion at her bold boutique Sindashi. Nasta, a larger-than-life powerhouse, may as well have stepped right out of an Almodóvar movie, especially when you catch her dressed in Sindashi originals — a black hat painted with blocks of yellow, blue, red, and grey, the brim barely hiding her thickly-painted eyebrows, and dangling gold earrings of flower bouquets.

Before the Spanish arrived in this area, the nomadic Otomí people lived in the hills. "Sindashi" means "white" in Otomí, and Nasta chose the name to represent a blank canvas. Indeed, her business is helping indigenous women start fresh or get ahead through skilled and gainful employment. Every garment in the shop is hand-sewn, painted, and beaded by women from four neighboring communities, women who would otherwise have little or no economic independence. In Nasta's telling, as these girls reach high school age, they say, "Why study? I'm just going to clean houses in San Miguel anyway." With this job and a creative outlet, Nasta asserts, "These women will never be the same."

Hotel photos courtesy of Live Aqua Urban Resort

If She Builds It, They Will Come

SMA doesn't want for adorable, 19th-century accommodations with tiny courtyards. But tucked away in the northeast corner of the kaleidoscopic city, under the watchful eye of the landmark Obraje dam, is the stunning Live Aqua Urban Resort, a 158-room feat of architecture and design.

Like so much in San Miguel, you just can't guess what's behind the entrance. In this case, a massive white-cedar door gives way to an elegant bakery on the left, the Mexican-Thai restaurant Zibu Allende on the right, and five-feet-wide polished steel sphere front and center. It's contemporary. It's classic. It's stunning.

Architect Constanze Martens is one half of the award-winning duo behind AoMa Studio in Mexico City, founded with her partner Jihei Aoki in 2012. Martens, who studied architecture at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, has quickly become a darling of the industry, with Live Aqua nabbing the 2019 UNESCO Prix Versailles Award for Best Hotel Design and Architecture - North America.

Photos don't capture the full sense of the Live Aqua design. Incorporating elements of fire, earth, air, and wind, walking through the space is truly a 360-degree experience for the senses. Edison lights are encapsulated in ten-sided fixtures; leather trunks sit next to mid-century modern black glass tables. Wooden beams on the ceiling, red brick, driftwood, straw, cotton, brass, black marble.

La Caty. Photo courtesy of Live Aqua Urban Resort.

A fun, final touch is the resort's gift store, La Caty, nicknamed for the iconic sombrero-wearing Day of the Day skeleton La Catrina. Michelle Galante curated the small shop with pieces from local artists and artisanal crafted from such natural elements as brass, wood, wool, and papier-máché.

San Miguel de Allende may be a sweet, colorful mountain town ideal for picture-perfect weddings, but its powerful artists' heart will continue to inspire women who visited or settled here to say "I do" to so much more.