Have Camera, Will Travel: A Photo Workshop in San Miguel

Santa Fe Workshops, a renowned photography school based in New Mexico takes things on the road for three consecutive weeks to San Miguel, Mexico every fall. If you love travel, taking pictures and have a basic understanding of your SLR and Lightroom workflow then you’ll savor the chance to move beyond your fundamental skills. I enrolled in a five day workshop led by Jennifer Spelman, a documentary and editorial photographer, entitled “Photographing the People and Culture of San Miguel de Allende’’.  Not only did my photography improve, but I left with a greater understanding of the difference between ‘taking’ a photograph and ‘making’ a photograph. We learned, and practiced, what the great Jay Maisel said: “Get closer. Walk slower than your walking-stand and wait and something will happen.

The Schedule: Being in a workshop for five full days allows the time for mornings dedicated to class critiques and PowerPoint presentations on techniques, creativity and Adobe Lightroom skills. Afternoons are all about shooting at a different location each day. We shot around San Miguel, at an agave farm in the countryside, in the delightful town of Guanajuato and at the authentic Hacienda Las Trancas with live models. (Dinner at the Hacienda was a highlight) You truly live and breathe photography and have time to get to know your fellow classmates and their own unique styles and visions.

Why a Travel Workshop: On the first morning of class, we watched Jennifer’s  inspiring slideshow of her work. She then said something that encapsulates why you traveled all the way to San Miguel, rather than take a class at your local photo school. I paraphrase, but it went something like this: “For the next five days as much as possible leave everything from home behind and immerse yourself in your art—truly be an artist. Being away from it all in a vibrant and inviting place allows for the passionate discovery of what that means.

Why San Miguel: Well for one thing, this year, Travel + Leisure readers named it #3 on the list of the world’s best cities, right after Charleston and Chang Mai, and in 2014, Conde Nast Traveler readers voted San Miguel the #1 travel destination in the world. Plus there’s amazing light, vibrant colors, and countless fabulous restaurants and hotels.  The city is safe and friendly with year round consistently pleasant weather. For a detailed itinerary featuring the best things to do and see in San Miguel see our full guide here.

Stay: Santa Fe Workshops uses La Posada de la Aldea as their home base for the three weeks of consecutive workshops they offer. The location is perfect-- just blocks from San Miguel's historic central plaza and with three classrooms it doubles as an onsite school. The extensive grounds are the biggest plus with gardens, fountains, a small swimming pool, and secluded courtyards. The rooms themselves are basic and clean, though tired. Most disappointing was the food in the restaurant. Though lunch was included, I choose to eat my meals elsewhere.

Don’t Miss: Each Monday night during Santa Fe’s sessions, the three teachers from that week’s workshops give a PowerPoint presentation of their work, open to the public, in the beautiful Bellas Artes building in town. It was a fascinating look at three different photography styles and perspectives. As San Miguel is known as a haven for artists with a large expat community it was standing room only. Go early to get a good seat.  

Make Time: I highly suggest that you consider adding a day or two before (or after) your workshop. During the workshop you are busy from morning till night, and though there is some free time and two dinners on your own it is not enough time to fully explore San Miguel.

Up Next: For me, this workshop was just the beginning, lighting a fire to learn more and take my photography in new directions. I would do another Santa Fe Workshop in a second, and would love to try one of their programs at their school in the foothills of Santa Fe. (Home to legendary light and landscape) Other well respected programs with enticing workshops include the Maine Media Workshops and College based in Rockport, Maine and National Geographic Expeditions.

Don’t have time to get away? Check your local area for classes and intensive weekend workshops. In my hometown of NY, I can highly recommend The International Center of Photography (ICP). They offer photography education for every level, from courses and workshops to certificate and master's degree programs.


We have been dreaming of visiting San Miguel de Allende (located in Mexico’s central highlands) since the early 90’s after reading Nothing to Declare by Mary Morris, a true precursor to Eat, Pray, Love. Morris writes of her life in San Miguel, a colonial town that has long attracted artists and expats drawn to its baroque architecture, charming cobble stoned streets, brightly colored buildings and striking light. Jumping at a chance to finally visit, we enrolled in a week-long photo workshop through Santa Fe Workshops, arriving two days early to explore on our own. It was magical to finally get to know San Miguel, considered by many to be one of Mexico’s greatest cities.

Tripper Tips:

San Miguel is not easily accessible—fly through Houston to either Leon (approximately a 90 minute drive) or Queretaro (60 minutes).  Queretaro is a much smaller airport, which translates to less people and an easy check in with no lines.

It’s truly an experience to be in San Miguel on Nov 1 and 2 to celebrate Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in true style and spectacle. Though the name might sound morbid, it is actually a joyful, epic celebration, a citywide festival with Catrina parades, public altars, dances and plays open to visitors and locals alike.

It’s easy to get your Zen on-- San Miguel has many wellness, yoga and massage spots around town plus a fun organic market on Saturdays. Check the schedule of classes at Lifepath Retreats if you have some extra time.

Stay: We stayed at the luxurious Rosewood San Miguel, designed to feel like a colonial era grand hacienda. A few blocks from the town center and just steps from Juarez Park, the Rosewood is a peaceful oasis, with large spacious rooms, a beautiful pool and lovely gardens. Looking for something more intimate? San Miguel is known for its small, boutique properties. We’d gladly check into the Hotel Matilda, a modern, minimalist property with a contemporary art collection, a chic spa and a noteworthy restaurant Moxi, from famed Mexico City chef Enrique Olvera. (Matilda is around the corner from the Rosewood, also by Juarez Park.) L’Otel is tucked away on a side street right in town; it feels as if you’re staying at a friend’s stylish home featuring a lovely breakfast room, cozy lounge and a private rooftop terrace. With only 4 rooms it’s perfect for a family or a few couples traveling together.

Breakfast: For a traditional Mexican meal, everyone heads to El Pegaso (also popular at lunch) where the decor is funky and festive with "nichos" decorating the walls. Another popular spot is MuRo Café—order the huevos a la Mexicana. Cumpanio has fantastic pastries, it’s a bakery, café and restaurant; perfect for a sit down or a grab and go. A friend swears by bakery La Colmena; “we made this our regular bakery during the trip. This spot is legendary, look for the blue door.

Explore: Bring comfortable shoes--San Miguel is a walker’s paradise. Prepare to get lost in the streets (it’s half the fun) around the Historic Center, recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Thanks to strict building codes the downtown has stayed true to its colonial roots, it’s a well-preserved museum with colorful facades, hilly cobblestone streets and countless interior courtyards and rooftop terraces. Start at the Jardín, the lively central square that sits facing the neo gothic La Parroquia—possibly Mexico’s most photographed church. Continue walking to the church of San Francisco, then over one block to the Plaza Civica, the original gathering place of San Miguel, dating from the early 1500s. Across the plaza is the Templo de Nuestra Señora de la Salud with its 18th Century facade. Then stroll back to the Jardín for an ice cream at Gelato Doce, be adventurous and try the local flavors such as corn or avocado. Take a seat in the Jardin under the laurel-sculpted trees and join the mix of locals and tourists; all watching the world go by.

Lunch Spots: Cafe Rama, right down the street from the Rosewood, serves fresh, light Mexican food and hands-down the best tortilla soup in town. Every local told us to go to La Sirena Gorda for a casual meal of seafood tostadas and shrimp tacos, try the one with bacon, served in fresh tortillas.  Definitely order the green pozole at the small rooftop restaurant La Posadita.  Next-door, super stylish Quince offers sophisticated dining atop a chic rooftop terrace. Oozing atmosphere, eat healthy California inspired food at the stunning courtyard of The Restaurant. Leave time after lunch to browse the fabulous small boutique attached to the restaurant.

Shop: You can spend your entire trip shopping in San Miguel; there are so many stores around the main square and up and down the side streets. Thanks to Emily Fox of Materia, the founder of the fabulous online Mexi/Cali concept store Materia we were armed with a great shopping list. Emily is a passionate traveler with incredible taste and knowledge especially throughout Mexico. “Appearances are deceiving as there are lots of hole-in-the wall shops where you can find plenty a gem. Don't miss the tiny Casa de Vidrio, which has great glassware. For boutiques, I love bohemian chic Mixta, high end mid-century Insh'ala and romantic Camino Silvestre. Also Y SOMOS, the stunning studio/gallery of artist Patricia Larsen. And then there's Fabrica Aurora, which is a great complex of antique and upscale home stores housed in a converted turn-of-the-century textile factory. With nearly 30 art studios and galleries, in addition to interior design shops, jewelry boutiques and antique stores, allow some time here to explore. Outside of town, Gorky Gonzalez's traditional ceramics in Guanajuato are legendary (you may need an appointment). And Dolores Hidalgo is the famous pottery town nearby.”  Though she hadn’t been, Emily steered us towards chic, minimal Kingsley Market, a small gallery like space on a sleepy street near the Hotel Matilda with a well-curated collection of high-end artisan Mexican handicrafts and accessories. Though it wasn’t local, we couldn’t leave without splurging on a Japanese weaved scarf from Tamaki Niime. Each scarf is one of a kind made from vintage looms and hand dyed in a range of colors—we wanted them all!

Artisan Market: A visit to this colorful handicraft market makes for a fun afternoon wander. Navigate the large number of stands showcasing artisan wares from the region such as: blown glass, plastic woven bags, jewelry, baskets, carved items from quarry stone and mesquite wood, wooden crosses covered in silver charms and hand embodied shirts and dresses. This is a good place to stock up on gifts for family back home with everything well priced compared to the shops in town. The market spans three connecting alleyways about a five-minute walk from the center of town. (Most stands only take cash; so hit the ATM in the central Jardin Square before you head over.)

Sunset Drinks: A must, at least once during your trip, is to have a drink and watch the sunset at Luna Tapas Bar on the rooftop of the Rosewood Hotel. It has the absolute best views (360 degrees) in San Miguel. From Luna you can see everything from the spires of La Parroquia and the other major churches to the reservoir and the mountains in the distance. The food is definitely secondary to the view, but the cocktails are excellent.

Dinner: Without a doubt, La Parada was our favorite meal in San Miguel for delicious authentic Peruvian food served in a lively upscale setting. We’d return to Jacinto 1930’s for the fideo soup with avocado, chipotles and crema, but the dazzling space set in Doce-18 is worth a visit alone. (Doce-18 is a new hotel and concept space in what was the former historic Casa Cohen. It’s been dramatically restored, now part art gallery, part boutique with a gourmet food court, tequila and wine tasting spaces and a soon to open new hotel.) We agree with Emily who told us she could go to “La Mezcaleria every night for simply grilled shrimp and vegetables. A tiny bar/restaurant where each of the (very few) dishes is somehow just perfect--and so are the mezcal cocktails!” We wished we had more time to try what we hear are two excellent restaurants just out of town—the farmhouse De Temporada where local ingredients are the star and Ristorante da Andrea, a surprising Italian spot located in a house with views of the cacti fields.

Cooking Classes: San Miguel is a city of classes and perhaps most famous for its hands on cooking classes. Unfortunately we had no extra time on this trip, but we’re looking forward to trying out Emily recommendations next time: “I loved Marilau,  where we practiced traditional style cooking inside a home--it was like learning your Mexican grandmother's secrets! And years ago we did a class with Kris Rudolph,  where we made delicious hibiscus enchiladas and the best tres leche cake ever. Kris was out of town last time I went, but she recommended Paco Cardenas  and Patsy Dubois.

Nearby Activities:

  • Take a taxi to San Miguel’s botanical garden El Charco del Ingenio, a wonderful high desert nature preserve, featuring native Mexican plants, cactus gardens, hiking trails, and a view of the wild El Charco de Ingenio canyon.   

  • Explore the pre-Columbian archaeological site of Cañada de la Virgen, just a short twenty-minute drive from San Miguel. The site features pyramids, temples and monumental buildings, as well as artifacts discovered during its excavation.

  • Run by volunteer expats, The San Miguel Library offers a House and Garden tour every Sunday. Tours depart at noon from the Biblioteca to view two private residences. You can purchase your tickets in advance at the library, (20 USD) and all proceeds are used to support educational programs for the children of San Miguel.   

  • Head to La Gruta and swim in the natural hot spring pools, nature’s own spa! Emily recommends a stop at delicious “La Burger on the way back, an upscale "shack" on the side of the road surrounded by cacti. Then visit Atontonilco--this church is often referred to as the Sistine Chapel of the Americas because of its intricately painted ceilings - it's lovely a good combination with a visit to La Gruta.”

Worth the Drive: We wished we had more time to spend in Guanajuato, a beautiful university town with a European feel approximately 90 minutes from San Miguel. (Our afternoon flew by too quickly) While some say San Miguel can feel Disneyesque, Guanajuato reads more local with fewer tourists. Hire a driver to navigate the twisting road, and then soak up the colorful, cobble stoned alleyways, the shady plazas and baroque architecture—all with a different feel from San Miguel. Stop at the Cervantes Museum to get a fill of Don Quixote-inspired art and sculpture, then head to the birthplace of Diego Rivera, now home to a wonderful collection of his art. Don’t skip a ride on the Funicular Panoramico for spectacular views of the whole city and region before heading back to San Miguel.

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