San Miguel: A Riot of Color


With happy hour drinks in hand, and surrounded by deep magenta bougainvillea in our apartment courtyard, Terri and I had a conversation about colorful cities. We paged back through our travels, and decided that San Miguel is the most colorful city we’ve ever visited.


In the historic center of San Miguel, it’s almost impossible to look in any direction and not see wonderful, vibrant colors. The private residences along cobblestone streets are the biggest source for color.


And of course, shops wouldn’t dare be drab.



The bedrock of this overwhelmingly Catholic community is its churches; the builders, and later restorers, made sure that when the flock looked on in reverence, they saw bright, rich colors.


In San Miguel it isn’t just the buildings that are colorful. There are also some very colorful characters in town. We saw an old hippie driving this car, and somber was not the first word that came to mind.


Being constantly surrounded by spectacular colors makes it easier to take color risks. How cool is this hot pink wall with a lavender hedge?


I wonder about children that grow up in such a colorful place. Do they have better imaginations? Do they dream in color?

Do you know of a colorful city? We’d love to hear.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri



We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

73 thoughts

  1. I can see why people stay there! Guanajuato is another bright colored city near there that I just have to keep going back to.

    1. I don’t think it would be a matter of getting tired of it, so much as taking it for granted Andrew. But when visiting a gray place (like Edinburgh for instance), I would certainly miss it. ~ James

  2. With winter about to take another swat at us these colorful photos give some relief. As far as your question it would be Burano, the little island down the way from Venice for the prize of most colorful.

    1. Sue, it sounds and looks like Burano is fabulous. I can’t imagine how we possibly missed it when we were in Venice. I just love a good excuse to return – Thanks! 🙂 You’re off to somewhere warm soon, right? ~Terri

      1. Jamaica next Thursday Terri! Not that we are excited or anything. 🙂
        I did have a reprieve from the brutal frigid air with a trip to the West Coast with my Mom. There was a beach, but I had my rain jacket over my down filled coat.
        Have fun and yes an excuse to visit Venice again!

      2. Was that your storm watching trip? We used to do that when we lived on the Oregon coast in Newport. We were also official Whale Spotters – very fun, but chilly! Have a blast in Jamaica. We haven’t been yet so I’m really looking forward to your post. ~T

      3. Terri yes it was a gift to my Mom to go storm watching. Such beautiful scenery. Official whale spotters. I love that title!
        Thanks do the good wishes for Jamaica. Hope to show you some lovely scenes.

    1. You’re right about San Jose. I do remember lots of colorful buildings, but what I remember more is all the beautiful flowers, trees, and bushes. Our small hotel courtyard was like a flower jungle, and we sat in it constantly. ~ James

      1. I prefer the colours in your favourite city though!!! San Jose is more about a riot of colour!!!!! Every shade known to man has been applied to those buildings.

    1. Thanks so much for the link Alison. We haven’t been to Burano, but after seeing you lovely photos, I would definitely put it in the “most colorful cities” contest. One question I have about both places is: does city government have any restrictions on what colors can be used? Any ideas? ~ James

      1. I think in Burano it is controlled by city govt, but don’t know any details, only that the different colours are used to delineate property lines. It is also controlled in certainly in the central “World Heritage” part of San Miguel.

  3. Oh, it’s just beautiful there! The exploding color most definitely must have a positive and motivating affect on the people of the city. Thank you for sharing your bursts of color with me this morning!

    1. Thanks Liz. SMA is something else for sure. But I also remember that a number of Asheville’s nice old Art Deco buildings have some nice splashes of color. The wonderful tile work on the City Hall is very cool. Do you have a favorite there? ~ James

  4. I love all the color in San Miguel but, the hot pink wall with the lavender is great and who could miss that very colorful car.

    1. Joyce, what we didn’t show on the car photo was the entire hood was a painting of a german shepard-looking dog named “Lena”. This guy was a real character. Love to you and Dascal, and keep warm. ~ JH

  5. I agree that both San Miguel and Guanajuato are incredibly colorful and I’d love to go to both of them again (my first visits were in 2010 on a photo workshop with Van Os Photo Safaris). Cuba, which I just visited, has some buildings which are equally colorful but others where the faded nature of the color reflects the gorgeous but crumbling state of the structures.

    1. I haven’t been to Cuba Melissa, but the photos from your trip are great. Most of the buildings that we’ve seen in SMA are in a good state of repair. I’m sure that city government has a heavy hand in keeping things looking nice. ~ James

  6. Valparaíso, Chile, is incredibly colorful! Street art abounds and most of the houses scale up the hill (yes, another hilly and colorful city) creating a mosaic as you look at it from the bay. Pablo Neruda had a residence there- it’s an excellent place for creativity!

    1. Thanks For the info Gaby. We haven’t been to Chile yet, but it’s on the list. And when we do, we’ll check out Valparaiso. It’s interesting that many of these colorful places are also artsy places. ~ James

    1. Tess you are so right! I found myself just walking around smiling at all the colorful touches – of course that’s when I wasn’t watching my feet on the cobblestones to make sure I didn’t do a face-plant! 🙂 ~Terri

  7. I remember asking about all the colorful painted house fronts in Granada, Nicaragua. I was told the color of the house was the mailing address before they had enough houses to number them. For example, ‘la casa rosa en Av. Ramirez 10 m. pasada el Mercado a la esquina de Ramirez y Domingo’ would have been the directions for the postman. That might be why even today the word ‘address’ translates to ‘dirección’ in Spanish. That is my theory, anyway. – Mike

    1. I always enjoy learning new stuff Mike, and you taught me something today. The address/dirrecion connection makes total sense, and is very interesting. Have a look at Alison’s post on Burano (link in her comment) about the properties in Burano being identifed by their color. Pretty cool. ~ James

    1. Lulu, don’t feel bad, we’ve all made these kind of mistakes. On our first RTW, we decided that to simplify things and cut down on weight, we’d take disposable cameras. Of course, the photos were terrible, and we felt pretty dumb. ~ James

  8. I LOVE this title, “A Riot. . .” I’ve never heard a better description. Wonderful pictures, and I am definitely putting San Miguel on my list of “must see” places.

  9. Forty Five years ago I sent time in San Miguel. It was a quiet artist’s town and a lovely place to be in the weeks before Christmas. I have such fond memories of this place. V.

    1. SMA must have been wonderful then Virginia. I’m sure that it’s changed a good deal. It’s still an artsy place, and there are quite a few expats. But one of the endearing qualities of San Miguel is it’s timeless character. The Miguelenos go about their daily lives, and don’t really make a big deal of the tourists. ~ James

  10. Okay, James… I had Peggy looking up exchanges in San Miguel this morning. Thinking about your comments on Edinburgh, Peggy and I did find several colorful towns in southwest Scotland when we were searching for dead people. (Long lost ancestors.) One other thought relating to one of the comments. Peggy and I are heading off to the Oregon Coast for a week on Sunday. It will likely include some storm watching. 🙂 Any recommendations on places you loved, or restaurants? Will be blogging on it when I finish my Liberia series. –Curt

    1. Curt, is that exchanges as in home exchanges? We’ve talked about doing this many times, but somehow we’ve never followed through. Have you had good experiences? Re: Storm watching. We lived in Newport, which as you know, is on the coast. So most of our storm watching was done from a high bluff somewhere near home with a flask of an adult beverage. I can’t really recommend a place, but bourbon will do the job as a beverage. ~James

      1. 🙂 on the beverage. No, we own a timeshare. I have never been convinced of the wisdom from an economic perspective, but we have used the exchange many times in various places. –Curt

      2. I didn’t really know much about DOD until we arrived here. I read that some families set up and spend the day in the graveyard. That seems like overkill (pun intended) to me, but I guess we have some creepy traditions as well. ~ James

  11. You’re right. This is a colorful city. They have their own version of Rainbow Row, I guess!! Thanks for sharing this. I may never make it there, so reading blogs is even more important to me now!!!

    1. Rusha, FYI there’s a direct flight from Atlanta to Leon, which is just an hour from San Miguel. You could be in Atlanta in no time. Just a little temptation. ~ James

  12. Great pictures as usual! I love the hot pink wall and I absolutely can’t wait to get to San Miguel. One of my favorite colorful cities is Valparaiso, Chile. I loved the vibrrant street art everywhere, and of course the bright blue ocean sparkling in the background. It’s a gorgeous place!

    1. Thanks Leslie. You’re the second person to mention Valparaiso, and we’ll definitely put it on our list. I think that you and Steve will enjoy SMA. There are lots of expats there, but the city seems to have absorbed them well. Also, given the winter in Europe, you’ll love the weather – beautiful, warm days and cool nights. ~ James

  13. San Miguel was a favorite of ours but Guanajuato ranks right up there! Hope you enjoy your visit there and get ready for some hills. 🙂

    1. We’re prepped and raring to go LuAnn. Our time in Morelia has given our calves (uphill), and shins (downhill) some time to recover. At least, the altitude will be less of a problem. Any tips or restaurant recommendations? ~ James

  14. Beautiful colors. This is an area I would love to explore. Haven’t been to Mexico in years. Before the earthquake, Haiti was a riot of colors. What they lacked in everything else, they seemed to have paint for everything. I’m heading out next week
    for a month in India and surely that has to be incredibly colorful.

    1. A month in India sounds fun Lynne. We spent a couple of weeks there, and enjoyed it. It is colorful in a very intricate way. The attention to detail, and the intricate colors in Hindu temples is amazing. Where will you be going? ~ James

  15. That hot pink wall is divine and would make me extra-happy to return home every time I saw it! If only we Americans would branch out a little from our typically neutral exteriors. Do you know if there are any regulations placed by the city regarding what colors (or shades of colors) residents can paint their houses? Are neutrals frowned upon, or is it totally personal choice?

    1. Apparently, there are guidelines Miranda. I don’t know the details, but there was a major city effort in 2005 to get things spruced up, and the guidelines were put in place then. There are a few neutral-colored places about, so I don’t think that they’re against the rules. But my read is there’s a color palate, and as long as you adhere, you’re fine.

  16. Just realised I never offered an opinion as to other colourful cities. I’ll nominate Morocco’s Chefchaouen. I’ve never been there, however all I’ve ever seen of it, highlights its beautiful blues…

    We’ve finally made it to San Miguel de Allende as well… perhaps we built it up in our hearts, but a little disappointed thus far

    1. Chris, on our recent Mexico trip we visited SMA, Guanajuato, and Morelia. SMA had been on our list for years, and we really enjoyed it, and are glad we visited. But of the three, we preferred the authenticity of Guanajuato. ~James

  17. Fortunately for my heart and my soul, I LIVE in San Miguel de Allende! And yes, the color is marvelous. But I do have to say it is not quite as colorful as it used to be. When I first came here, in 1990, the buildings were painted in every shade of jewel-like color. You’d get a cobalt blue house next to a butter yellow one, then a mint green, then orange, then red. When the city “spruced up” a few years ago as part of the application process for becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the new “guidelines” called for only earth tones to be used. So now most houses in the centro are rust, mustard, terra cotta, brown, burnt orange. Apparently the city went around offering to paint every building for free. But it had to be one of the accepted colors. I believe if you did not accept the offer, you are still free to paint whatever color you want. Personally, I find the new color scheme a bit boring, not nearly as vivid and exciting as the San Miguel I knew and loved for so long, Once you are out of the historic centro, the madcap riot of color takes over again. That, I love!

    1. Thanks for the comment Donna and for dropping by the blog. We noticed the coordinated earth tone colors and wondered if there might not be some rules about the color palate. We didn’t get much outside the centro, so we didn’t see much of the vivid colors, but they sound beautiful. On this trip, we also visited Guanajuato, and some of the houses on the steep hillsides outside the centro were very vivid. For someone like you, who’s accustomed to the vivid colors, I can see how the earth tones would get to be boring. But for most gringos, who live in not-so-colorful places, SMA is a wonderfully colorful place. We loved our time there and will definitely be back. ~James

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