San Miguel de Allende: An Artsy Expat Community

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico has become a community of American expatriates made up of retirees and women over 40.

By Laura Fraser; Photographs by Coral Von Zumwalt

So with just $15,000 in savings, she launched Mexico Luxury Homes in 2006. After paying $1,500 for a "deed," permission to start a business, she hired a full-time secretary and rented an office for $1,100 per month. She made her first sale, for $1.3 million, a month later and has since sold homes to producers and Pulitzer Prize winners.

One morning she took me on a tour of a 300-year-old colonial house with ornate archways, terraces, balconies, and a $1.2 million price tag; a home in the historic center of town averages $800,000. Her company now brings in about $7 million a year.

An Insider’s San Miguel

If you ask Camilla Sands, she’ll tell you that the secret to San Miguel is to get behind the stone walls to its gardens of cascading greenery, blooming succulents, and citrus trees. Her customized tour company for women, Simply San Miguel, was founded partly to provide access to these hidden pleasures. "I wanted to give other successful, curious, and overworked women the same experience I had of feeling renewed by this city," Sands says.

"In my 20s, I attended the Instituto Allende for a summer, so the city always existed in my mind as a kind of Camelot," she says. When she came back for a visit the year she turned 40, she bought a half acre of land on the edge of town for $17,000 and talked her husband into selling their boutique ad agency in Tacoma, Washington, and moving to Mexico within five years. Today the couple is building four rental houses on their property, and Sands seems to have business cards from everyone in town. "The women in this community love to spread the word about newcomers."

The Magic of the City

One morning I chat with a woman in a cafe whose friend shares my love of regional cooking, and she passes me her number. When I need a place to stay, Cheryl Finnegan puts me in touch with Delphine Schiavone, who runs a bed-and-breakfast. Schiavone invites me to a tango class, where I meet Roberto, who offers to show me a 200-year-old house with turquoise shutters that’s for sale. Sands and Finnegan, in turn, tell me about an architect who can transform that tiny casita into a jewel box. I’m drawing floor plans and daydreaming about the views from the terrace (before I decide to say no). More than 37 years have passed since I first visited this magical Mexican town, yet I feel right at home.

Contributing Editor Laura Fraser recently bought a small lot in San Miguel’s historic district, where she plans to build a house.

Originally published in MORE magazine, July/August 2007 as "Made in Mexico."

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